Reykjavik is the capital and largest city of Iceland. Located in the southwestern region of Iceland at 64° Northern Latitude, it is the world’s northernmost capital. It is the country’s political and economical center. Reykjavik is situated in the Faxaflói Bay; its coastline area is characterized by peninsulas, straits, coves and islands. The nearby mountain Esja is 914 m high. The Elliðaá River which runs through Reykjavik is not only used for transport but is one of the best salmon fishing rivers in the country. The city is located on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, stretching far to the south and east. It is characterized by low-density urban planning.
Due to its special geological composition, Iceland is rich in geothermal energy. Most houses in Reykjavik use geothermal heating system and, because the energy is very inexpensive, even some sidewalks in Reykjavik and Akureyri are heated in winter. The temperatures are never too low – winter temperatures can be compared to those in Toronto and New York; but Reykjavik does, however, experience quite a lot of rainy days.
The city center is quite small and easily explored on foot. Its picturesque white wooden buildings and colorful houses, with a lot of open space between them, create a fresh, open feeling. Reykjavik is becoming increasingly popular with visitors from around the world and has a thriving nightlife.
Iceland has a temperate ocean climate with cool summers and relatively mild winters . Despite its northern position, Reykjavik does not experience such extreme weather conditions as may be expected. Winter temperatures are similar to those in Toronto, Canada or the U.S. East Coast. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream moderate the coastal weather, nevertheless the cold North Atlantic wind is never far away, especially during the winter. Winter and autumn are the wettest seasons. Reykjavik, in general, is a very rainy city with approximately 213 rainy days per year. Spring usually gets the most sunny days. July is the average warmest month when temperatures can reach up to 14°C, the coldest month is January with average temperatures just below zero, and the wettest is October.
January average temperature -3 deg Celsius, 89 mm rainfall February average temperature -2 deg Celsius, 64 mm rainfall March average temperature -2 deg Celsius, 62 mm rainfall April average temperature 0.5 deg Celsius, 56 mm rainfall May average temperature 4 deg Celsius, 42 mm rainfall June average temperature 7 deg Celsius, 42 mm rainfall July average temperature 8 deg Celsius, 50 mm rainfall August average temperature 8 deg Celsius, 56 mm rainfall September average temperature 5 deg Celsius, 67 mm rainfall October average temperature 2 deg Celsius, 94 mm rainfall November average temperature -0.5 deg Celsius, 78 mm rainfall December average temperature -2 deg Celsius, 79 mm rainfall
The Keflavík Airport , located 50 km south of Reykjavík handles a majority of the internationl flights.
The most common way of reaching the city is by the FlyBus coach, which takes you to the city’s major hotels and other stops.
Domestic flights go through Reykjavik airport located south of the city center. Domestic air travel is well developed but quite expensive.
There is the Smyril Line ferry connecting mainland Europe and the Faroe Islands with Iceland. The service takes quite a long time and is expensive but very convenient if you want to bring a car.
There is an extensive network of buses covering most of Iceland. The main bus terminal is on the northern edge of the Reykjavik airport. An affordable way of exploring the countryside extensively is by buying the Omnibus Passport. The pass allows you to travel on the Ring Road from mid-July to mid-September on all scheduled bus routes with unlimited stopovers. Note, however, that you have to travel in the same direction all the time. Detours into the interior are paid separately.
Bus is the best way to travel in Reykjavik; the system is efficient and covers the city center and several suburbs. The service run from 7:00 am to midnight daily, on Sundays from 10:00 am onwards.
Walking in Reykjavik is a good way of seeing the city center. Many attractions are within easy walking distance from most of the hotels.
Bicycles are very popular. There are several bike lanes throughout the city and biking is a good option for reaching attractions outside the city center.
Inside the city center car hire is not recommended but if you intend to explore the countryside extensively it is a good idea to hire a car. There are numerous car rentals available but none are cheap and petrol is expensive.
Make sure you get a brochure on how to drive in Iceland. The one-lane bridges and ‘blind hills’ require some extra caution. The roads in the interior of Iceland can be tricky; many can be traversed only by four-wheel drive vehicles.
Gullfoss Falls are one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world and are one of Iceland’s main attractions. The falls are really majestic. The water falls 32 meters down the double cascade into the deep canyon of the glacial river Hvita. The huge torrents of falling water produce a loud roar and spray a beautiful mist as it thunders down the gorge. It is a spectacular display of nature’s power.
The falls are approximately one hour drive from Reykjavik.
The Haukadalur valley, situated in the southern part of Iceland, is home to geysers. The biggest in Haukadalur are the Great Geysir and Strokkur. The surrounding area features numerous smaller hot springs. The geysir is one of the biggest natural attractions of Iceland. It has been dormant since 1916 but the nearby Strokkur geyser is still very much alive and glorious. It errupts every 10 minutes and spouts a column of boiling water 20 to 30 meters high.
It is believed the Geysir came into existenceat the end of the 13th century after a series of strong earthquakes together with a devastating erruption of Mt. Hekla volcano.
The Geysir Center complex offers accommodation, food, swimming, camping and of course, natural wonders.
The Blue Lagoon is a breathtakingly beautiful luxurious spa and popular skin-treatment clinic only 50km southwest of Reykjavik. The spa is set up in a lava field filled with mineral water of an unusual phosphorescent color. The place is immensely popular with visitors as well as Icelanders themselves.
Thingvellir National Park is an important historic and geological site. From a historical point of view the area is of special importance. The world’s first parliament, the Althing, was established here in 930 and continued to meet until 1798. There are remains of the open-air assembly still visible today.
The area is of particular importance also in terms of geology. This is the only place in the world where the Eurasian and the American tectonic plates are visible and it is here that they meet.
The Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis
Iceland is the perfect place to view nature’s most stunning lightshow, the northern lights or aurora borealis. The phenomenon is one of nature’s most spectacular and beautiful. The meaning of aurora borealis comes from Latin; Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn, and "boreal" is a Latin word, meaning north.
The phenomenon can be viewed during the darkest months of November to March in all arctic and sub-arctic regions; when conditions are right.
Whale, dolphin and puffin - watching trips are available around Reykjavik. A trip takes around 3 hours and can be booked directly at companies in the Reykjavik Harbor or through a tourist agency. The latter may be cheaper. The season runs from April to October.
Other activities available in the area include horse riding, kayak trips, white-water rafting, biking and hiking tours.
Address: Skólavörðuholt Phone: 0354 510 1000 Open: summer: 9:00 am – 6:00 pm; winter: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
With its 75 meters this church is the tallest building in Iceland and can be seen from up to 16 km away. Its construction took almost 40 years and the church was finally opened in 1986. Named after the 17 th century Icelandic clergyman, poet and composer Hallrimur Petursson, the church is of unusual design with concrete volcanic basalt columns on its tower. Inside is an impressive pipe organ. The tower offers a magnificent view and on a clear day you can see for miles around.
The statue of Leif Eriksson, standing in front of the church, was donated in 1930 by the USA on the 1000 th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament, the world’s oldest parliament.
Address: Suðurgata 41 Web: www.natmus.is Phone: 0354 530 2200 & 0354 530 2201 Open: mid-September - end April: daily (Monday closed) 11:00 am – 5:00 pm; May – mid-September: daily: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm Access: Bus (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 12, 14) Admission: free on Wednesdays
The museum provides an excellent glimpse into the culture, history and folklore of Iceland. It features over 3000 artifacts ranging from the Viking relics to early settlers’ tools, religious artifacts and a variety of nautical and agricultural equipment.
THE OLD CITY
The old city center has beautiful houses with brightly colored roofs. Just wander around the streets for a while and soak up the atmosphere.
Perlan is Reykjavik’s landmark building, situated on the Öskjuhlíð hill. It used to serve as hot water storage but was upgraded with a spherical structure on top in 1991. The rotating restaurant on top of the water towers has a viewing platform which offers a fantastic panorama.
One of its tanks has recently been turned into a Saga Museum which shows the history of Icelandic sagas, as well as providing a glimpse into the past life of Iceland. Perlan also features several gift shops, a dining area and a cafeteria.
The lake is situated in central Reykjavik, next to the Reykjavik City Hall and several museums. There are ducks, geese, swans and other birds living on its shores. Nearby is a park containing sculptures, flower gardens and a network of cycling paths.
The zoo features indigenous Icelandic animals such as reindeer, seals, birds, foxes, mink, and farm animals. The family park features a carousel, miniature train, rowing pond, trampolines and a climbing board.
Icelandic cuisine offers fresh and delicious fish and excellent lamb. Reykjavik has also loads of other eateries serving Asian, Indian, French and Italian food.
Eating out in Iceland is very expensive. To save some money you can buy food at one of the 1011 stores where sandwiches and ready-made meals are available. Thai restaurants, found throughout the city, offer generous portions at budget prices. For a quick and cheap snack, try the tasty local variety of the hot dog with spicy mustard. The hot dog parlors are found everywhere and are not expensive.
Alcohol is extremely expensive in restaurants. It is cheaper in liquor stores but even there it is still pricey.
This summer festival has become an essential part of the Icelandic cultural life. There are numerous exhibitions, music concerts and live performances. In addition, many bars, restaurants, galleries and shops are open later than usual. The streets fill up with people and the sun does not set at all. In the morning, the Reykjavik Marathon is held.
New Year celebration in Reykjavik is a spectacular celebration, marked by an immense fireworks display and numerous bonfire parties. The party that follows is probably one of the liveliest you ever saw. Pubs, clubs and other venues are open until the early morning hours.
Date: 17 June
On June 17 th 1944 Iceland declared independence from Denmark. Today, this day is celebrated with much gusto. Colorful parades are held, street theatre and music abound as the whole city is having fun.
REYKJAVIK JAZZ FESTIVAL
Date: end September – beginning October Web: http://www.jazz.is/festival_eng.htm
The annual jazz festival is an important jazz event on the international scale. Over the period of 5 days Reykjavik hosts world’s leading artists as well as local musicians and the concerts range from gospel, Latin beat to avant-garde.
FESTIVAL OF THE SEA
Date: first weekend in June
The festival celebrates the sea and is held to remind Icelanders of the importance of the sea and sailors to its history, society and economy. On this day each and every ship in Iceland is in harbor and all the sailors have a day off. Competitions are held between the crews. Sailors compete in rowing, strongman competitions, and other activities. The day is great fun for the entire family.
THE REYKJAVÍK ARTS FESTIVAL
Date: late spring
This annual event hosts numerous world renowned artists. Past festivals featured names such as Luciano Pavarotti and David Bowie.
Reykjavik enjoys a reputation of the ‘nightlife capital of the north’. The city is particularly lively on the weekend. People tend to go out very late; bars and clubs fill up around midnight.
Alcohol in Iceland has the highest tax in Europe and is extremely expensive. People usually have a few drinks at home before going out. In a bar, a beer can cost up to 10 USD. Alcohol in liquor stores is somewhat cheaper but still expensive.
Reykjavik has over 100 bars and clubs, most of which can be found on Laugavegur and the surrounding area. They usually close around 3–7:00 am on weekends and 1-3:00 am on weeknights.
Otherwise, the cultural agenda is filled throughout the year with various concerts and performances. Iceland is particularly strong in the visual arts scene. There is a growing number of festivals, ranging from rock to jazz keeping everyone entertained year round. The classical scene includes the Symphony Orchestra, the National Theatre, Ballet and Opera. There is also an impressive number of art galleries and museums.
Iceland was first discovered by chance by Naddoddr, a Scandinavian sailor. But the first settlement was established by a Norwegian Viking Ingólfur Arnarson around AD 870. To decide on site for a settlement he used the traditional Viking method: he threw a set of high-seat pillars in the water and settled where they were washed ashore. The place was named Reykjavik, meaning ‘Bay of Smoke’, because of the stream gushing out of the hot springs. Soon after, other settlers arrived. Most of them are believed to have come from Norway, other parts of Scandinavia, and Ireland. Iceland was the setting of the world’s first parliament Alþingi (Althing) – meaning ‘general assembly’ - established at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) in AD 930. Today, Thingvellir is a national park.
In the year 1000 Iceland declared itself a Christian nation due to pressure from the Norwegian king. In the 11 th and 12 th centuries the Sagas were written, considered to be the greatest literary works of the Middle Ages; and the only literature from this part of the world at the time. In the Early 13 th century, also known as the Sturlung Age, a number of wars were fought between private armies. In 1226 a powerful monastery was set up nearby Reykjavik, on Viðey Island. In 1262 Iceland was conquered by Norway. In the 14 th century the south of Iceland was hit by three disastrous eruptions of the volcano Hekla. In 1397 Iceland passed from Norwegian to Danish rule. The country remained under Danish rule until 1918.
Due to natural disasters, wars, and commercial exploitation, only 40,000 people were left on Iceland by the end of the 18 th century. During the mid 1700s wool, rope, weaving and tanning factories were established. The first street in Reykjavik appeared in 1752, and in 1786 the Danes abolished monopoly trading, granting six towns a trading charter, Reykjavik being one of them. 1786 is considered the founding date of the city. Still, the Danish traders continued to dominate the trade in Iceland.
During the 19 th century Iceland grew increasingly nationalistic and ideas of Icelandic independence were widespread. In 1848 the Alþingi was re-established, and this time, located in Reykjavik. This effectively established Reykjavik as the capital of Iceland. In 1874 Iceland was given a constitution.
MODERN (20 TH CENTURY)
In 1904 executive power was moved to Iceland by the Home Rule. The office of minister was established in Reykjavik. On December 1, 1918 Iceland became a sovereign country under the Crown of Denmark – the Kingdom of Iceland. In 1940 Denmark fell into German hands and Iceland was occupied by the British troops to prevent Nazi attacks. In 1944 the Republic of Iceland was founded. The King was replaced by a president, elected on popular elections. After the war Reykjavik grew rapidly mostly due to the rural exodus and became a modernized city. During the 1990s the city’s economy boomed due to the computer revolution, the establishment of the stock exchange in Reykjavik, and the increase in tourism.
The city’s progress can be seen in its culture. The music scene is vibrant and the city has fostered several world famous talents recently: the singer Björk and the band Sigur Rós. Largely, geothermal energy is used for heating, so there is virtually no pollution and tourism is experiencing a renaissance.
Social and business etiquette is similar to that of other western European countries. A firm handshake, enforced with eye contact, is the traditional way of greeting.
Tipping is not expected in Iceland.
Understanding Icelandic names: This is useful both in social and business situations. Most people have patronymic names, formed from their father’s first name by adding ‘–son’ for a man and ‘–dottir’ for a woman. When married, the woman does not take her husband’s name. Icelanders are generally known by their first names and it won’t be regarded as rude if you call them by their first names.
If you are ever lost for words, start talking about the weather. Icelanders, like the Brits and Scandinavians just love this topic. They also have a saying about it: ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes and it will change’ – and it really does happen so quickly.
Iceland is a very safe destination. The level of petty crime is very low. The rapidly changing weather conditions, however, do necessitate taking some caution, especially when driving or being outdoors.
The most popular months for visiting Iceland are June, July and August, which are also the warmest. In June and July the sun almost never sets. Springtime promises most sunny days but is often windy. Autumn weather is the most unpredictable; it can range from sunny and warm to windy and cold.
Wintertime is never too cold, the temperatures range from + 10°C to -10°C. December sees only three hour of light daily, and even that is mere twilight. Winter visits are becoming increasingly popular for the numerous outdoor activities possible; for example snowmobiling and snow-trekking vehicle tours, as well as the magnificent northern lights (Aurora Borealis), visible on cold clear nights from September to March. On the one hand, prices are lower during the winter but on the other, many venues and tourist attractions are closed or operate within limited hours. The winter weather is not too cold in the coastal area - due to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, but the weather is often drizzly, grey and windy.