I fell completely, utterly, unabashedly in love with Reykjavik. I may or may not have spent each day we were there hunting for an Icelandic husband with whom I could pull a green card marriage — thus ensuring all my future summers were spent in my new favorite city. The search was unsuccessful (not for lack of tall, attractive Scandinavian men running around) but my passion for this tiny capital city did not waver.
What’s the source of my borderline-creepy obsession with this place? Reykjavik is not so much about the sights but about the attitude and the atmosphere. There’s something ethereal and magical and wonderful about this island nation whose population clings to their Viking history and their elfin legends, all while embracing a stylish and modern way of life.
So while my love for Reykjavik might be filled with intangibles, there are also many undeniably charming and listable quirks to this city — ten, in fact.
1. The Tiny Population is Awesome
Iceland has a population of just 320,000. Try to wrap your head around that! I remember when I visited Scotland last year my mind was blown by the concept of a country of just 5 million people. Iceland kind of shows them up in the tiny population contest though, right? And with nearly 40% of the country’s population in Reykjavik, I got a pretty good sampling of the national psyche.
The whole sparsely populated thing puts the country at an advantage to rank highly in all kinds of per capita contests. Iceland has more artists and writers proportionately than any country on Earth. Nobel prize winners by population? Iceland ranks fourth. Icelanders are wildly creative, fiercely independent, and pretty much all around brilliant.
2. They Are Bouncing Back With Grace
The economic crisis that rocked Europe in 2008 hit Iceland arguably the first and the worst. Reading about the history of the crash, you might expect to find a city of broken widows, boarded up doors and general signs of decay. While you might spot that tucked away in some outskirts, walking through Reykjavik you would be hard pressed for signs that four years ago there was a financial crisis so devastation that Great Britain used anti-terrorism laws to freeze Iceland’s assets!
Iceland seems to have learned from its mistakes and is working towards not repeating history. In the meantime, the decreased value of the krona has made Reykjavik a more affordable option for lucky visitors.
3. It’s Small and Walkable
Just like it’s number of residents, Reykjavik is downright tiny for a country’s capital. But don’t dare mistake small for boring! (Says the girl who’s just over 5 feet tall). Every block of the city is neatly lined with museums, galleries, restaurants and residences.
For the traveler, this is a huge advantage. In the five days we spent in Iceland’s capital, we only took one round trip cab ride. Otherwise, we navigated on foot — arguably the most leisurely, eco-friendly and healthy way to explore a city.
4. The Streets Are a Work of Art
This trip brought me to an entirely new-to-me region of the world — Scandinavia. I heard myself exclaiming at least once a day, “It’s all so Scandinavian!” Well, technically Scandinavian refers only to Sweden, Denmark and Norway and to include Iceland I should be using the broader term Nordic. But we’re not getting technical here, are we?
Whatever the term, I swooned over the rows of colorful corrugated sheet metal that made up the residences and commercial buildings of Reykjavik. Accenting the looks were colorful flowers, hand painted signs, and intricate doorknobs. Just going for a destination-less meander is a worthwhile endeavor in a city this beautiful.
And I loved that it wasn’t just the city center that was kept so sweet looking. Even far-flung government buildings and apartment blocks in the less central areas of town were made beautiful with classic lines and bright colors.
5. It’s a Nation of Kindred Diet Coke Loving Spirits
Icelanders consume more Coca-Cola products per capita than any other nation on earth. As a lifelong Diet Coke addict (fear not, I’ve seen the cancer warnings), I read this fact and felt a deep connection to the Iceland people. There’s nothing like an irrational brand loyalty to a producer of caffeine and Aspartame to make a girl feel at home in a foreign land.
Interestingly, despite the love of this specific American brand, there are many others that are notably absent. The country contains not one McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks.
6. Design Is Life
Well thought out design is everywhere in Reykjavik — literally seeping from the corners. From the trendily-dressed mommy pushing a pram to the beautiful concert poster on the uniquely graffitied wall behind her, it looks as if someone came in and art-directed the entire city.
One of the best examples of this was the colorful street art lurking around most blocks. Some was clean and elegant, some was playful and fun — but it all added to the charm of this creative community.
I snapped about twenty photos of different posters on the trip — I couldn’t read most of them, but they definitely would have earned me professor’s-pet-status back at Pratt had I turned in anything so chic. I especially love the one below right, which expresses both Reykjavik’s eye for design and also its noteworthy and hilarious passion for hot dogs (seriously) in just a few brushstrokes.
And lastly, I love this vent. To me, this vent sums up the spirit of the street art in Reykjavik — someone walked by this vent and either couldn’t bare to leave a surface undecorated or couldn’t wait another moment to express themselves. Creativity, bursting from even the vents.
7. The Nightlife is Insane
The nightlife in Reykjavik is so out of this world that they had to come up for their own word for it — runter. The runter goes on Friday and Saturday night and basically consists of a city-wide passionate pub crawl that might start at a local cafe, warm up at a nearby bar, get wild at a live music venue and then reach fever-pitch at a trendy dance club. Icelanders party hard and party long — most nights start to wind down around 6am.
In the summer, the twenty-four hour sun means that you’re stumbling into bright skies and massive crowds of beautiful people while walking down the main drag at 3am — a surreal experience in a surreal country. The drinks might be pricey, but this was some of the most energetic nightlife I’ve experienced anywhere on Earth.
8. The Shops and Restaurants Aren’t Bad Either
I’m normally not much of a shopper, but I couldn’t help but be tickled by the eccentric and stylish boutiques that my Mom and sister kept popping into. High in quality and design, the lovingly crafted goods on offer were extremely tempting even to a tightwad like me.
Equally impressive were the cafes, restaurants and bistros we dined in while in Reykjavik. I have a post coming up highlighting my favorites, but I’m hard pressed to think of a bad dish or an unimpressive atmosphere we encountered. Once again, we experienced the perks of being in a society obsessed with originality, quality and style.
9. It’s Eco-Tastic
“Green” is definitely a travel buzzword these days, and travelers to Iceland will be feeling smug about their use of it. Iceland harness its fantastic natural resources to create hydro and geothermal energy which powers more than 80% of the country. Recycling is a big deal, and residents are conscious of their consumption of non-renewable resources. The only thorn in this point’s side is the whaling issue, but I’ll get into that in another post.
10. It’s a Great Base For Exploring the Country
Not only is Reykjavik an amazing city in its own right, it’s also a fantastic base for exploring other corners of Iceland. While staying in the capital we were able to scuba dive in a national park, horseback ride in open fields, whale watch in the bay, and bike ride around the peninsula. Luckily we had enough time to take a mini-road trip out of the city as well, but for those pressed for time, its possible to see a good chunk of Iceland while changing hotel rooms!
It’s easy to describe a wonderful bike tour, yet hard to articulate a love for the city it took place in. I hope I was able to convey a little bit of the surreal magic that’s going on in this corner of the world. I know that it’s a special place, one that will stay with me a long time to come.
Have you been to Reykjavik? Did you love it If you haven’t been yet, do you think you would go gaga for it like I did?