by Adrienne So
For a while now, Iceland has presented itself as a convenient layover destination for people traveling between Europe and North America—and not just because of its location in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s a magical place to visit for anybody who’s inspired by or interested in design, architecture or an outdoor adventure (even nightlife and cocktail enthusiasts can find something unique here). But for many of us with limited vacation days and a limited budget, long visits aren’t always possible. Some cities can only be visited for a day, on a layover—but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of it. On our recent 24-hour stay in Reykjavik, en route to London, we found a few must-visit places in and around the capital, for when your plane’s waiting the next morning.
As befits an island nation, fishing and fish processing are some of Iceland’s biggest industries. The fish here are some of the finest and freshest that can be sampled anywhere in the world, and one of the best places to do so is at this small, intimate gem of a restaurant, located right on the water in Reykjavik’s bustling harbor district. Kopar looks like a little fishing cottage, but much warmer and more well-lit; they feature local meat and produce, with an emphasis on traditional Icelandic cuisine. Ask for an upstairs table to enjoy glorious views and order the “adventure” (aka tasting) menu. The rock-crab is one of their specialties, but the horse tenderloin and cod “tongues” are also delicious—if you’re game.
The Secret Lagoon
Iceland is located directly over a rift in the tectonic plates. The air carries the vague whiff of sulfur, and the horizon is dotted with plumes of steam from the many geothermal plants. Many visitors enjoy Iceland’s hot springs at the Blue Lagoon, a pool that owes its striking, milky blue appearance to an algae, reputedly very good for the skin, that is a byproduct of the nearby geothermal plant. But for a quieter, more secluded experience, drive a little farther from Reykjavik to the Secret Lagoon, also the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. If you arrive after dusk, bring your Icelandic flotation caps to soak in the steaming geothermal heat while gazing up at the Northern Lights.
To arrive in Iceland in winter is to see nothing but a windswept, frozen tundra. But unbeknownst to many, Iceland grows much of its own produce—including warm-weather fruits and vegetables, like cucumbers and bananas—in greenhouses, using the country’s abundant geothermal energy. One of the best places to learn this firsthand is at Friðheimar, where husband-and-wife farmers Knútur Rafn Ármann and Helena Hermundardóttir host a café inside their tomato greenhouse. Their utterly unique menu consists of items like the freshest tomato soup with fresh-baked bread, cheesecake with green tomato jam, and a Bloody Mary made from green tomato, lime, honey and ginger.
Within the stark gray exterior of 101 Hotel, conveniently located in between Reykjavik’s bustling downtown and the harbor, is a fantastic example of minimalist Scandinavian luxury. The small, intimate lounge boasts a fireplace, striking ’60s-style furniture, and compelling examples of contemporary Icelandic art. The rooms are decorated in black and white, with large picture windows that either overlook the historic quarter, or, on clear days, the glaciers visible just across Reykjavik’s bay. Take a short schvitz in the basement sauna and pool, or wrap yourself in an Icelandic wool throw and admire the fishing boats bobbing in the harbor.
At once practical, adorable and utilizing native materials, Icelandic design is perhaps best epitomized by the iconic Fuzzy Stool, made from genuine Icelandic wool and designed to look like a sheep. One of the best places to find it, and other Icelandic designers, is at Epal Design (a furniture, gifts and homewares store) which was founded in order to promote interest in contemporary and exciting Icelandic design. As a bonus, one of their locations is inside Reykjavik’s new, all-glass opera house. Toast your new purchases in the cocktail bar on the top floor.
Icelandair’s long-running stopover program allows the airline’s guests to sign up for up to seven extra days, at no extra charge, to explore the exotic landscapes of the airline’s home country. They have just introduced their Stopover Buddy program, which means visitors can solicit the company of one of Icelandair’s employees (free of charge) to help them figure out how to best use their limited time. For this trip we were recommended places to visit by our Stopover Buddy, Hjordis Elma. The program will run through 30 April 2016. Customers flying on Icelandair can sign up for the program online.
Header and Friðheimar images by Adrienne So; all others courtesy of respective locations