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 capital 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?
you pretty much hit the nail on the head of why i love this place…and i was not there for more than a day! but i could go back there at any moment and know id fall in love all over again.
and im laughing that you know iceland is technically nordic and not scandinavian. living in norway has taught me ALL about that and norwegians get so offended when i call finland or iceland scandinavian. whoops 🙂
i had no idea about icelanders affinity for diet coke. i should totally become part of that population. i doubt norway would miss me.
great post again!
Hey Megan, were you there on a cruise or as part of a layover? A day is not enough 🙂 But actually… neither was a week! Let’s go back!
i was on a layover as part of my move from the US to norway 🙂 hoping to get back there and to the faroe islands next summer if plans work out well
Great post! I loved Reykjavik too for many of the same reasons. Have you been to the Faroe Islands? It’s great in many of the same ways, though even smaller and more unbelievable. Northern Europe is brilliant, in any case! Good luck getting your green card… 😉
Miranda I haven’t been! To be completely honest I didn’t really register their existence until reading up on Icelandic history, and then another blogger Adventurous Kate recently went there. Her photos intrigued me…. I’d love to go someday!
Wow! I haven’t been there since 1971,…lots of changes, and apparently all of them GREAT!!! Super photos, BTW…
Thanks Chris! What were you doing there in ’71? How was it different? I’m always interested in how places change as they become more touristy…
Ahhh now I really desperately want to go there!
Yay! I’m glad to hear I’m inspiring Icelandic wanderlust in some readers 🙂
So, Alex, did you like Iceland?
Hard to tell by this post
I like to keep my readers on their toes!
Naturally I don’t expect to ever get there, but I enjoyed your visit. Gram E
Thanks Gram! There are many more Iceland posts to come…
It really looks like Reykjavik stole your heart well and truly good! We are hoping to end our RTW trip there, so while we won’t be making it there anytime soon, I do hope we will get there eventually! I am hoping we love it too, though I doubt anyone could love it quite as much as you do! 🙂
I really think it will be the perfect place to end your RTW! Although make sure you don’t run down your budget before you get there… its pricey!
Actually, Scandinavian refers to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, not Finland. Finland, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands and the Scandinavian countries are the Nordic countries. But hey, go ahead and call Iceland Scandinavian if you like, it’s close enough and the people there were originally Scandinavian anyway 🙂
Whoops! I’m glad you caught my mistake there… because I just fixed it! 🙂
I have always wanted to go to Iceland, reading this makes me want to go even more!
Ps: I don’t know how/when I came across your blog, but I am so glad I did! I love reading your posts! 🙂
Thank you Erica, that’s so sweet! I hope you’ll stick around 🙂
I’m not surprised you fell in love with Reykjavik, that’s one of the cutest capital cities I’ve ever been to! you pointed every reason why I loved it too! 🙂
Cute is actually the perfect word to describe it, but I had a travel writing professor who traumatized me away from ever using the word cute in a post, ha!
oh that’s interesting! and why is that? actually there’re few capital cities, such as Bern or Reykjavik, that can be described only by “cute” 🙂
You know, I can’t really remember the reasoning anymore… I think perhaps it was his personal pet peeve 🙂
I really enjoyed reading this smashing guide to Reykjavik. I went last year, and it really is a one-off. I would sum it up with one of the words you have used, surreal. Like you, I couldn’t get over how empty the place was, and I went in June at the height of the tourist season.
Like you, I enjoy travelling but my efforts are more modest than yours for sure. The two trips that made an impression on me more than any others were when I went to Argentina in 2006. I think Buenos Aires is just an incredible city. And also Israel last year. I will never get over visiting and staying in Jerusalem, a simply incredible city.
Happy travelling and thanks for the lovely writing.
Thank you Nicholas, I’m glad to have you reading! I’ve always wanted to go to Buenos Aires… I’m sure I’ll get there someday!
Very nice presentation of reykjavik and iceland but don’t forget that you have been presented the PR part.
When you start living here, you will start to realise that it is not wonderland. I will diplomatically skip the ongoing racism/xenophobia part and just put forward the fact that yes, it is a magical place but you will have to lots of tears in order to be part of the icelandic society.
Thank you Sam, I appreciate it coming from a local! While I of course couldn’t dream of claiming that perspective, I did get the angle of an independent traveler! I wasn’t sponsored by the tourism board or any other PR agency. This was just a family trip with a lot of exploring involved!
Don’t get me wrong, i did mean to say your were part of a PR operation. it has more to be understood as a way to say that when travelling, one never grasp the true place. If I’d go to new york, I’d probably have a great trip, but will not understand the life of a new-yorker.
After four years, i have become a bit bitter i must say and Iceland, behind a very nice and very magical screen, is harsh and difficult. But i will still stay here because it is magic.
Yes, i am weird… 😀
Yes of course…. the only way to really understand the life of a New Yorker is to move to New York… or watch a lot of Seinfeld. Just kidding, I agree with you 🙂
I really enjoyed reading your guide, i’ve never been there but reading your guide make me want to go there even more!
I hope one day you can come to South America, specially Argentina, is a really nice place and have very beautifull landscapes!
Thanks for reading Alejandro! I’m very much looking forward to seeing South America someday.
Wow, beautiful photos! Iceland was definitely on the list, and now even more so!
Yay! I’m glad to hear from so many future-Iceland travelers 🙂
Hi, I’m married to an Icelandic guy and I don’t have enough word to describe how amazing he is besides I could be in Iceland every year!!!
We are going to Iceland this September and I hope to have a good weather – despite what the weather channel says – so we can enjoy traveling around. Can’t wait!!!
Susana, I’m totally jealous! Does he have a brother 🙂 Just kidding — enjoy your trip in September!
Hi Alex, great blog and so very true.I went there last October and it felt like home, I had to get back there. So this summer we did a round trip of the Island. And what a wonderful, beautiful, exciting country this is. We’ve seen so many beautiful and unique landscapes. This is a place I will have to come back to, to inhale that unique atmosphere.
Thanks for bringing back those memories 🙂
Thank you, Woutor, for sharing! I would love to return someday and do the entire Ring Road! It would be a far less glam trip than this one but I look forward to it all the same…
I will try and post my travel story of the Ring Road. You must try and make the effort, it’s worth every minute, every penny.
Meanwhile please check out my travel blog on Reykjavik from last October, you might need google to translate 🙂
Thanks for sharing! I’ll check it out…. hopefully Google Translate will do it justice 🙂
In order to do the ring road in decent conditions, i will strongly advice to take your time.
While it is possible to tour the island in 7 days. ( i did it in 27hours) Two weeks is the minimum if you dont want to drive 8hours a day from point A to point B with three or four stops.
Absolutely Sam, I did it in 16 days and still feel I haven’t seen it all 🙂
We took our time, walked an hour here and an hour there, drove a bit and saw all we wanted to see this time.
It looks so colourful, pretty and clean. The art scene and cafes reminds me of that in Berlin a little bit. I am sure this will be an up and coming place for the arts in future.
Oh, Berlin is one of the few places in Europe that is so on my list! I really want to get there someday soon….
Great post Alex
So many cool posts lately, but most of all i wanted to say, thanks for Soley! Right up my street, that.
Hey! You’re so welcome… I’ve listened to that album probably 100 times. We just walked into a cool looking store that had tons of CDs displayed and told the owner we were going on a road trip and needed Icelandic music. She sold us three albums and Soley was definitely our favorite, so perfect for the Iceland landscape.
This city seriously looks like so much fun to explore! I’d always imagined Iceland as being just the trips outside Reykjavik, but it looks like I’d definitely want to plan a few days to just hang out in the city itself.
Emily I talk to a lot of people who feel the same way! Maybe we are just city people but my family and I agreed we could have done with much more time exploring the city, even despite its tiny size!
My wife and I absolutely LOVED Iceland, and you’re right Reykjavik is an awesome little town. Much better than most capital cities I’ve been to. Excellent post… The pictures brought back lots of great memories.
Thanks Dan! I’m glad you both enjoyed it as much as we did!
It’s official – you’ve convinced me that I absolutely MUST head to Iceland. This sounds like the perfect city to spend a few days exploring – it seems pretty funky and full of culture! What are their “summer” months?
Yay! Another Iceland convert 🙂 I think the peak months are June-August for the best weather.
June is the “real” summer here. July is packed with tourists and not as “warm” as june. August is already autumn.
I Tried looking for your blog, but seems to have disappeared. Yes Iceland might be cute and quirky, although that is slowly disappearing, greed, too many tourist and locals have no where to go anymore.
Interesting to hear. When you say locals have no where to go anymore, do you mean as in a beach or a hiking spot for fun or as in a place to live?
Hi Alex thank you for saying such lovely things about my home country, i live in the Usa have been here for 30 years i go home as often as i can since i have family there, i was very happy to read your post!!!:)))).
Thank you Didda! That’s a big compliment coming from a local!
Iceland has changed A LOT in 30 years, even in 3 years.
Impossibility to find a home due to locals greed.
When I go to the nature I love to go on my own and not be surrounded by a crowd. At least for the most touristic spots that is now impossible and guess something we just have to accept, still they are for free, I guess at a certain point the golden circle will be like Machu Picchu – charged and guarded.
I have seen so many times people going around fences, walking on moss, which makes me angry.
As for cute and quirky – a lot of those places are forced out of town as the rent is raised up. One of the cafes that has been there for years and years Tíu Dropar couldn’t´t afford the rent. So yes the downtown is slowly becoming less quirky and more mainstream.
But I guess this is just modern life.
That is unfortunate to hear. Hopefully someone can step in and find a way to sustainably regulate tourism in a positive way. Wishing you luck!
This is totally amazing Alex – great photos! I actually went to Reykjavik about 5 years ago and didnt actually do much in the city or take many photos as we were out and about doing the waterfalls, geysirs etc. I really need to go back there now and see the city. One of the safest countries in the world! Jonny (https://dontstopliving.net)
I think a lot of people pass by Reykjavik in search of more natural wonders, but I think the city itself is a gem! I hope you get the chance to head back soon!
Just reading your blog archives and this has reminded me of two amazing holidays I had in Iceland. One in winter with snow everywhere and a water massage at the blue lagoon at night while it snowed and a spring trip with whale watching and glaciers. Other highlights were the phallogical (spelling may be out) museum for comedy reasons and the laundromat for amazing food. I would def go again.
New visitor to your blog and its making my work lunchtimes more fun and inspiring 🙂
Aw, thanks Abi — you made my morning! I truly love Iceland, and need to get back there one of these days. I’d love to do a short trip in the winter and see the northern lights.