Once a year, we like to take a step back and celebrate our little city. It’s not that Reykjavík is a city without problems, or that it’s a place that doesn’t have plenty of ways in which it could improve. This probably goes without saying. We at Grapevine spend a lot of time being critical, after all, and by and large we’re a bunch of cynics. But once a year we like to set all that aside and appreciate the things that make Reykjavík a pretty great place to live.
As ever, our BEST OF REYKJAVÍK! issue is about big-upping stuff, giving out mad props and patting people on the shoulder. Our list is, of course, not a scientific one, and it is certainly contestable. It should be used as a starting point for a conversation; something for you to read, verify, distrust, totally disagree with, argue over, send us angry rants about and enjoy.
HOW WE DID IT: We’ve polled readers on Facebook, we’ve discussed in bars, we’ve consulted our resident experts, we’ve argued, revised, and argued some more. And we think we’ve come up with a pretty great representation of the finest that Reykjavík has to offer. Now, of course, not everyone is going to agree with our choices, and that’s perfectly fine—variety in opinion and taste adds spice to life and anyway, we love a good debate. Enjoy, and remember to send your suggestions to email@example.com for consideration in our 2015 edition.
Vesturbæjarlaug, though recently refurbished, is not our fanciest pool—it doesn’t have Laugardalslaug’s amazing slide or salt water hot pot, for instance—but it is a damn fine neighbourhood pool where normal people (and, um, Björk) can go swim a few laps, have a schvitz in the sauna or steam rooms, and then settle in one of the four hot pots for a little ‘pottaspjall,’ or hot pot chat. One of said hot pots is actually a four-in-one, wheelchair-accessible mega pot, which was cleverly situated so that during daylight hours, it is never in the shade. (New Reykjavík mayor Dagur B. Eggertson made a special visit to Vesturbæjarlaug when the new hot pot opened in April, an event covered by much of the local media: VERY EXCITE.) And after your swim, you can cap the experience with an ice cream cone the size of your head at Grapevine Institution Ísbúð Vesturbæjar, just around the corner.
The National Museum
This is the best place to go to soak up knowledge of the Icelandic nation. Educate yourself on folk customs, look at old photographs and prints, see artefacts such as the first Icelandic Bible and the chess board used by Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship, hang in the library, and explore the dense collection which spans over 1000 years of Icelandic history and culture. We promise it’s not a boring place to go.
2013: National Museum
2012: National Museum
2011: National Museum
2010: National Center for Cultural Heritage
Best Art Museum
Reykjavík Art Museum
With three different locations offering a mix of works by international and homegrown artists, this is obviously the best art museum we’ve got. There’s a great sense of engagement with the local community, what with the parties and events hosted alongside the twenty plus annual exhibitions. They’ve been the best for a while, so let the test of time speak for itself.
2013: Reykjavík Art Museum
2012: Reykjavík Art Museum
2011: Einar Jónsson
2010: Reykjavík Art Museum
2009: Einar Jónsson
Kling og Bang
At a recent exhibition including both a jar of peas and a video installation of a wiggling, polka-dotted ass, one Grapeviner nodded conclusively: “This is art.” And yes, our panellists agree that Kling og Bang is the heart of Reykjavík’s grassroots art scene, “the place where you see work by artists who aren’t making money.” But there’s a lot of high profile work shown there, too. Recently, K&B hosted a five-part multimedia performance series in collaboration with New York’s ESP TV, and “The Visitors” by fellow Reykjavík gallery i8’s artist, Ragnar Kjartansson.
2013: i8 Gallery
2012: i8 Gallery
2011: i8 Gallery
2010: i8 Gallery
2009: Gallery Kling og Bang
Best Place to Spend a Rainy Day
A Hot Tub
So you came to Iceland knowing, of course, that the weather is not, let’s say, its finest feature. You knew that there would be rain and wind (so much fucking wind) and that it wouldn’t be all sunshine-on-the-mountaintops like “The Sound of Music” or an Icelandair promo video. You knew this, but you didn’t believe it, and now you’re sad because you came all this way and the weather blows. Literally. We feel you, man, but if we got down every time the weather got bad, we’d be depressed all the time and would never do anything. Well, we might still be a little bit depressed, but we do our best to combat the feeling by telling the weather to “fuck off!” when it sucks, and sitting in a hot pot to make ourselves feel better. What hot pot, you ask? Any hot pot. You’ll be warm and toasty and relaxed and the fact that it’s sleeting or hailing in your face will suddenly feel bracing or even a tiny bit amusing, instead of symbolic of humanity’s futile struggle against nature and the fragility of the human vessel.
2013: Reykjavík Art Museum
2012: Bíó Paradís
2011: Bíó Paradís
2010: A hot tub
Best Place To Spend A Sunny Day
Our sunny summer days tend to top out around 13° C, and that, let us tell you, fully constitutes beach weather. Maybe you’re not up for an ocean dip with members of the resident Sea Swimming and Sea Bathing Association (see ‘Best Cheap Thrill’), but there are plenty of other warming activities that you can take part in at Nauthólsvík, the city’s very own geothermal beach. Better yet, access to the facilities—changing rooms, a long outdoor hot tub, and a sauna—are free in the summer. The hot pot will be rather sandy (it’s a beach, after all), and you’ll probably have a dozen or so small children snorkeling over your legs as you lounge, but it’s all part of the convivial atmosphere. Make a day of it and buy some cheap (uncooked) hot dogs at the snack bar to grill up on one of the outdoor BBQs.
Best Biking Tour
Ægisíða – (Nauthólsvík) –Fossvogsdalur
If you haven’t noticed, Reykjavík is not the most bike-friendly city in Europe. For instance, we don’t have one of those great bike sharing schemes, and bike paths are few and far between. That said, the route from Ægisíða to Fossvogsdalur is pretty damn good. If you’re downtown, find your way to Landakotskirkja (the Catholic church, which is not to be confused with the better known landmark church, Hallgrímskirkja), and then take Hofsvallagata (to make use of the city’s unpopular attempt at a new bike path!) all the way to Ægisíða. Once you turn left onto the Ægisíða bike path (which is located on the ocean side of the street), it’s a car-free and relatively flat ride all the way to Fossvogsdalur (a really nice, peaceful suburb with lots of trees). Keep your eyes peeled for the Great Auk, which sits on a rock out in the ocean not far from Nauthólsvík (the beach).
2013: Nauthólsvík – Fossvogsdalur
2012: Nauthólsvík – Fossvogsdalur
For the record, we know that there are several downtown cinemas that are better for art-house film, or for what one of our panellists terms “proper movies.” We know. But sometimes, all you want out of a film-going experience is popcorn. And maybe some explosions. And if that’s the place you’re in, then there is no better cinema than Sambíó’s VIP Theater at Álfabakki. Why, you ask? Well. The VIP cinema—which exclusively screens coma-brain, Blockbuster-type movies, BTW—has only forty seats, all Lazy Boy-style recliners with excellent sightlines. More importantly, there is a serve-yourself bin of fresh popcorn and a soda machine Right. In. The. Theatre. You’ll pay 2,000 ISK for a VIP ticket—and there won’t be any intermission, so no bathroom break—but if you’re strategic, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth in snackage. And since the theatre is located next to a bus station in Breiðholt, you’ll get the added bonus of seeing a bit of the Reykjavík suburbs. 101 meet 109.
2013: Bíó Paradís
Best Romantic Walk
For the third year in a row, our panellists deemed Grótta the best romantic walk. Although we don’t know how many of them have actually taken their significant others to Grótta, it’s easy to see why it keeps taking the cake. Grótta is an island at the tip of Seltjarnarnes, which features a picturesque lighthouse. If your timing is good, the tide will be low and you can stroll over hand-in-hand, take a seat on the rocks and look out across the ocean whilst dreaming about what’s on your horizon. Do note, however, that the island is off limits during nesting season.
Best Place To Go For A Jog
The path along Ægissíða has run circles around its competition, earning the position of being the best place for a jog for the third year in a row. This coastal path caters to all types of workouts. If you’re taking it easy, the ocean view and the charming houses provide a pleasant backdrop while motivating you to keep at it. Breaks can be taken at the old fishing station, the ice cream shop, a water fountain, or at one of the many benches or picnic tables if the weather allows it. If you’re revving to go, running east along the long path will keep you off the streets and afford nice views of Bessastaðir (the President’s residence), Perlan, and the Fossvogur bay while you’re at it. You can then reward yourself with a dip at Nauthólsvík before having to head back.
Best Place to Enjoy a Zen Moment
Step out of the urban landscape and briefly return to nature in Elliðaárdalur, a valley smack dab in the middle of the city. Though not a full-sized forest, this place instils a feeling of the sublime with its natural beauty. Climb the waterfall and watch the sunlight create a menagerie of colours on the water. Walk upon the paths and you feel like you’re taking a stroll through a fairytale land. Host a picnic and keep an eye out for foxes smacking their lips for a bite of your sandwich. It will be hard to step out of the trees and back into the concrete jungle, but know that you will always be able to go back to it.
2009: Reykjavík Botanical Gardens
5 AM Laugavegur
Maybe this walk isn’t as shocking as a trip through a haunted house on Halloween with a dude dressed up like Leatherface chasing you through the halls with a chainsaw, but we’d like to think it’s better that way. You can see people stumbling home, or maybe out to the next bar, and interesting conversations are sure to abound. And hey, maybe you’ll shocked at the relatively common sight of a couple getting it on in the street, but you should be used to that now.
2013: 5:00 AM Laugavegur
Best Place To Cheer Up
Iceland routinely ranks among the top ten happiest countries in the world, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel down sometimes. When that happens, it’s best to stroll over to the town pond, Tjörnin. On a beautiful day, the lake’s surface glistens as it reflects the sky above. The ducks break the illusion of a second sky, but they are adorable little quackers, even when fighting for the bread people throw at them. (Please don’t do this! It’s really bad for them.) Even when the weather is feeling gloomy, too, the pond has a serene calm to it that soothes the nerves. Whether to watch the ducks or just walk the edge to ponder (heh) your innermost thoughts, every visit will leave you in greater spirits.
Best Place to Read a Book
The National/University Library
For those of you who want to read your book with some background noise and chatter, there are many fabulous cafes around the city for you to choose from. But if you need a distraction-free zone to finish that last chapter, we suggest you make the radical choice to read in a library. The National/University Library, in particular. Its windowed corner nooks have loungers and foot rests so you can get comfy, and none of the students will look askance at you if you kick off your shoes (pretty much everyone goes around in their socks). There’s also an extensive A/V collection with Icelandic and foreign music, sound recordings, films and documentaries that you can use on-site and a café downstairs if you get peckish.
Best Day Trip from Reykjavík
Often referred to as “miniature Iceland,” Snæfellsnes contains all of Iceland’s great natural sights, just on a somewhat smaller scale. You could easily spend days or even weeks exploring the area (and we recommend that you do!), but if you only have time for a day trip, the peninsula is just a few hours’ drive from Reykjavík and it certainly has a lot to offer. “Snæfellsnes is an awesome day trip because you can see so many things in a short period of time: fjords, the amazing glacier, fishing villages where you can buy fresh fish right off the boat, lots of lava, and hot springs. Not to mention, there are some great hikes,” one of our panellists sums it up succinctly. “All of that makes Snæfellsnes the best day trip of all!”
2012: Mosfellsbær and Esja
Best Place To Watch The Sunset
This was not an easy choice, as Reykjavík is filled with picturesque locations to watch the sun go down, such as the park benches at Ægissíða or the footbath at Grótta, but ultimately Perlan was selected as the winner. Why? Because it sits on top of a hill, has a 360° deck and big glass windows, making it suitable to see the sunset, no matter the season or weather.
Best People-Watching Spot Second Floor
Window Seats, Eymundsson on Austurstræti
Most of us like a good session of people watching occasionally, but no one likes that moment when you’re staring at strangers walking by and then they turn and catch you creeping on them. It’s totally awkward. But there’s an easy solution: do your people watching from an elevated vantage point, such as the second-floor window seats in the Eymundsson Bookstore on Austurstræti, where you can spy without fear of discovery. You can compliment your voyeurism with a hot drink from the bookstore café, but our panellists point out that you can do your spying for free, too. “You don’t have to buy anything,” said one. “And there’s WiFi and magazines.” Sounds like a nice little Saturday afternoon to us.
2013: Booths at Hressó
Best Graveyard to Hangout In
Consecrated in 1838, Hólavallagarður is all twisting pathways and moss-covered stones, rambling roots and crumbling obelisks. As well as being the final resting place of notable Icelanders, such as national hero Jón Sigurðsson and beloved expressionist painter Johannes Kjarval, memorials to Faroese and French sailors lost in Icelandic waters can also be found there. It’s beautiful no matter the season, with tulips and seasonal blossoms planted around headstones in the spring, and memorial candles placed on the graves at Christmastime.
2013: Hólavallagarður Cemetery
Best Cheap Thrill
Sea Swimming at Nauthólsvík
Going sea swimming in Iceland will make for an amazing story to tell your friends, and dedicated practitioners agree that alternating between the icy ocean and the toasty hot pot has numerous health benefits. In the wintertime, you can borrow neoprene boots and gloves from the service desk (these make a huge difference), and you can treat yourself to a cup of cocoa from the snack bar afterwards. Fact: it gets worse before it gets better.
2013: City Library
Best Place To Spend Outdoor Time With Kids
Reykjavík’s ‘zoo’ (and the attached family fun park with its zip lines, trampolines and rides) is basically where happiness was born and where it returns periodically to get jazzed up all over again. There are bunnies. There are horses. There are sheep and cows and roosters and arctic foxes and reindeer and enormous pigs and some random cats that seem to kind of live there. And, of course, there are goats (our favourite!). It’s a magical place to go in the spring when the place is just lousy with tiny, baby cute things, but there’s fun to be had year-round, such as horse rides for kids on weekend and holiday afternoons. Make sure to check the day’s schedule to find out when all the animals will be fed (watching the seals catch the whole fish that are flung at them is a total, unfettered joy), as well as the ‘running of the pigs’ from their holding pen to a nearby field. Dee-lightful. If you don’t have a kid to take with you (and can’t borrow one for the day), we won’t judge you if you go alone.
2012: Lynghagaróló Playground