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7 December 2016

How To Spend a Winter City Break in Reykjavik

I spent four days in Reykjavik and for me, it was about the right amount of time to spend in the city in the winter. I was really busy at work before my trip and didn't have time to do as much research as usual, so I thought I would put together a short guide with some of my tips and recommendations for things to do and places to eat, drink and shop. I plan to go back to Iceland in the summertime to see more of the country, but I loved my short winter city break.

General tips
Airport buses. Both Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line run regular coaches into the city centre. The journey takes about 45 minutes — once the bus eventually leaves and only as far as the bus terminal. Gray Line’s bus terminal is outside the city centre so you will probably need to transfer onto a minibus that will take you to your hotel or to the city centre Gray Line sales office, which may take another 30 minutes or so. RE uses the BSI terminal, which is a little closer to the downtown area but still a 20-minute walk. Both companies charge about 4,000 ISK (£28) return to the terminals, and a little more with hotel drop-off and pick-up.

Money. The local currency is the Icelandic króna (ISK). Credit cards are taken pretty much everywhere, including at street food stalls and most public bathrooms. I had hoped to go completely cash free on this trip but unfortunately, the City Walk guides don't yet take PayPal, so I took out 3,000 ISK (about £20), which I used exclusively for tour guide tips. Yes, everything is expensive — there’s no such thing as a ‘cheap sandwich’ and even soup will cost you at least 1,400 ISK (£10). Hot dogs are as close as you can get to a cheap lunch (Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur’s are pretty good). I also stocked up on rye bread, skyr (protein-rich Icelandic ‘yoghurt’), fruit and smoked salmon at the supermarket so that I could make my own breakfast or lunch some days.

Book your accommodation as early as possible. It is expensive to stay in Reykjavik and the best hotels — and cheapest prices — fill up early. I stayed in a standard studio apartment at Room with a View on Laugavegur, the main shopping street, and booked almost six months in advance, paying just under £100 per night. My apartment (306) was great in many ways — spacious, clean and with a comfortable bed and well-appointed kitchen — but it was also incredibly noisy until 4 am at the weekend and after 1:30 am during the week, thanks to the club across the street. I’m not a light sleeper and I travel extensively, but I’ve never slept as badly as I did in that room, even wearing earplugs. Some apartments at Room with a View are soundproofed, some don't face the club and some are more convenient for the rooftop terrace and hot tub (see view below), so check with the hotel before booking.

Two other hotel options I considered were: Skuggi Hotel, which was a little more expensive but looked really nice and was slightly further from Laugavegur; and 21 Hill Hotel, which looked good but was a 25-minute walk from the city centre (not ideal in winter).

Things To Do
Settlement Exhibition or National Museum of Iceland. They both cost 1,500 ISK (£10) to get in but cover similar historical topics.
City Walk. Excellent, informative, pay-what-you-want two-hour walking tour focusing on Icelandic history and culture. Book here.
Hallgrímskirkja church tower. The best aerial view of the city. The church tower costs 900 ISK £6.40) to go up, although check out the architecture of the church itself, which is free to enter.
Harpa. If you like modern architecture, it’s worth a visit to Harpa, which is free to go inside and gape at the impressive design. Go back at night, when the glass walls are lit up with a Northern Lights-inspired design.
Vesturbæjarlaug. Bathe with the locals at the heated outdoor swimming pools west of the city centre. It’s 1/10 of the price of the Blue Lagoon.
A Reykjavik wander: Start at the ráðhús (city hall), checking out the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat. Walk along the pond (Tjörnin), up to Hólavallagarður cemetery and then amble back down through Old Reykjavik to the harbour and Harpa.

Food and Drink
Restaurants: Rok (Icelandic small plates and great cocktails). Kaffihús Vesturbæjar (cosy-chic all-day bistro). Sægreifinn (traditional seafood shack in the Old Harbour). Hamborgarabúllan (Tommi's burger joint). The Laundromat Café (recommended for brunch).
Cheap(er) eats: Brauð & Co (great bakery). Sandholt (another good bakery). Gló (good lunch spot with lots of salads and other healthier options). Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (good hot dogs). Lobster Hut (stall selling lobster salads, sandwiches and soup).
Cocktails (check out the websites for happy hour deals): Jacobsen Loftið (well-mixed cocktails in a vintage-inspired bar). Slippbarinn. Rok.
Coffee: Reykjavik Roasters (either branch). Te og Kaffi (Micro Roast has the best coffee selection). More ideas.

Books: Bókin. Mál og Menning.
Fashion: Eva. Geysir. Kiosk. Kormákur & Skjöldur.
Home/lifestyle: EpalHrim (two stores on Laugavegur; one for kitchen, one for homewares). My Concept StoreStígur (gorgeous ceramics).

Blue Lagoon. If the timings work out, you can save time and money by visiting on the way to or from the airport but check the bus schedules first. I timed my visit to sunrise (around 10:15 am) and it worked quite well, but sunrise and sunset in Iceland in winter don't come with guarantees of any sun to rise or set! I spent about two hours at the lagoon and my ticket, booked a couple of months in advance, cost €45. It's incredibly touristy but it was one of my favourite experiences of the trip.

Golden Circle. Lots of companies run variations on a theme when it comes to one-day Golden Circle tours. You'll probably get more out of a small-group tour or — better still — if you rent a car and do it yourself. Try to pick the best day, weather-wise, of course, and in any case, bring the best rain-gear you have: brollies will be useless if it rains, and if the weather is inclement, you will be miserable if you are sitting damp on the bus all day long. I booked with Gray Line, which cost about £70, and  the tour was fine, but nothing outstanding.

Northern Lights. Book for your first night there to maximise the chance of a tour running during your stay. I was there four nights in November and the aurora was only visible on two nights. I highly recommend SuperJeep tours — they still won’t guarantee Northern Lights sightings, but they will tip the odds in your favour and the price (£140) was well worth it, in my opinion.

5 December 2016

Reykjavik Coffee Guide

With a population of just 120,000, Reykjavik is one of the smallest capital cities in Europe — it's roughly the same size as Cambridge, UK, to give you some idea. But this doesn't mean that the city lacks a healthy coffee scene — coffee is very much in order on those cold, dark winter days. Coffee and cakes, like most other things in Reykjavik, are expensive, which meant that I could generally only try one type of coffee in each café. Here are some of the coffee shops I visited during my short stay.

Reykjavik Roasters will probably be the first port of call for any speciality coffee connoisseur in Reykjavik. Launched as Kaffismiðja Íslands in 2008, the company rebranded three years ago and there are now two locations in the city centre. The original, where the roaster is based, is on Kárastígur, just opposite Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic cathedral on the hill. Their roaster used to be pink but has since changed to my other favourite colour — turquoise. This café is small, rustic and cosy. 

I sat down in the comfortable window seat and enjoyed a fine cortado (550 krona or about £3.90). There were two varieties of beans on offer: one from Guatemala and one from Brazil. My cortado was made with the former and I liked it so much that I bought a bag of the beans (on the pricey side at 2200 krona, or about £15.70, for 250g). There are many tempting cakes, pastries and breakfast dishes on offer, but I'd already partaken in a rather large cinnamon bun that morning so I restrained myself.

The other branch, which opened more recently, is further east of Hallgrímskirkja on Brautarholt, in a more residential and industrial neighbourhood. This café is larger and lighter and has beautiful interiors, from the tiled black coffee bar, to the pops of cheerful turquoise and yellow, and the gorgeous coffee flavour chart on the back wall. There is plenty of seating, with a mix of large and small tables, and both wooden high-back chairs and comfy mid-century armchairs.

The same Brazilian and Guatemalan coffees were on offer, so I asked the barista for his recommendation for a filter coffee. We settled on the Brazilian coffee brewed through the Kalita Wave, which I paired with a chocolatey, nutty flapjack. This came to an eye-watering 1500 krona (£10.60), although I later discovered that this is fairly standard for the city. The coffee, with its rich, chocolatey notes was very well brewed, though, and tasted delicious. I preferred the vibe in the Brautarholt branch but they are both lovely cafés.

Reykjavik Roasters is located at Kárastígur 1 and at Brautarholt 2. Website. TwitterInstagram.

I had seen several branches of Te og Kaffi around Reykjavik but it was only when I spotted their Micro Roast coffee lab and brew bar on Aðalstræti, just down from the Settlement Exhibition, that my interest was piqued. The roaster sits proudly in the front window and they serve filter coffee brewed through the Aeropress, V60, siphon and Chemex, as well as the usual espresso-based drinks. The coffees are roasted in small batches in the shop and they test them out here before rolling out new varieties to the other branches.

There were two varieties available when I visited, one from Guatemala, one from Colombia. I opted for the latter, brewed through the V60 (595 krona, or £4.20), and one of the cheapest sweet treats: a white and dark chocolate chip cookie (545 krona, or £3.90). Despite its price tag, the cookie was really good and worked very nicely with my pourover, which was brewed very nicely. Although I'd already snapped a photo of the bag of Guatemalan beans, I appreciated that the barista also provided a card with the details of the coffee. You can also buy bags of beans and various pieces of coffee kit.

Te og Kaffi: Micro Roast is located at Aðalstræti 9. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Kaffitár is another small chain with seven cafés in and around Reykjavik. I visited the original branch on Bankastræti, in the heart of the downtown area, which has been open for almost 20 years! Bankastræti and Laugavegur (which it feeds into) are two of the busiest shopping streets in Reykjavik, and Kaffitár was very busy when I arrived early on Saturday afternoon. As I had strategically decided to wait for Reykjavik Roasters for my pourover, I ordered a cortado at Kaffitár, which was brewed with the house espresso blend. There were a lot of people placing orders and it took a little while for my coffee to arrive but I wasn't in rush. The décor is dark with red and blue accents and tasteful art on the walls. There are a dozen or so small tables; the window seats, if you can nab them, are great for people-watching.

The cortado (590 krona, or £4.20) was a little over-heated and the latte art wasn't quite there, but the coffee still tasted good. With hindsight, I probably should have tried one of the single-origin espressos or returned at a quieter time to scope out the V60 pourover. The menu also featured an espresso tonic, although I suspect that they don't get many orders during the Icelandic winter. There are also various breakfast and lunch options available; I just had a blueberry muffin (580 krona, or £4.10), which was tasty. 

Kaffitár is located at Bankastræti 8; they have six other coffee houses in the Reykjavik area. Website. Twitter.

I happened upon Kaffihús Vesturbæjar after a visit to the heated outdoor swimming pool just across the road. Despite its name, it is more than just a coffee house: it's a real all-day neighbourhood venue serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between. I arrived at lunchtime and splurged on a smoked salmon and scrambled egg tartine, which was about 2000 krona (£14). You could also choose from a variety of salads and a reindeer burger. The coffee is from Reykjavik Roasters and although there was a pourover on the menu, whether or not they can make you one depends on who is working. I had a cortado instead (I think it was about 570 krona, or about £4) and although it was a little on the long side, it still had a strong, smooth taste.

I loved the interiors of Kaffihús Vesturbæjar: it's the very embodiment of hygge and cosiness with its rustic, wooden tables and counter, fairy lights and plenty of candles. It's the perfect place to hide out and read, write or relax on a bitterly cold Reykjavik afternoon. They also hold pub quizzes and live music nights, so it's definitely an interesting place to check out if you are in town.

Kaffihús Vesturbæjar is located at Melhaga 20-22. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Mokka Kaffi has been serving espresso to the people of Reykjavik for almost 60 years and the Skólavörðustígur-based café has a homey, traditional vibe. The wooden walls and leather booths make it feel like a combination of a ski chalet and a diner, but the colourful local art on the walls give it character, and the staff were very friendly. The coffee menu is traditional here — you'll have to look elsewhere for your single origins and pourovers — so I stuck with a macchiato (469 krona, or £3.30). 

The roast was a little darker than I'm used to these but the coffee was still very well prepared, and Mokka Kaffi is a great place to come to enjoy your coffee with the locals.

Mokka Kaffi is at Skólavörðustígur 3A. Website.

Located in Reykjavik's Old Harbour, Café Haiti was established by Haitian  Elda Thorisson-Faurelien back in 2007 and almost a decade later, Elda is still importing beans from her native country. The café is small but bright and colourful; on a nice summer's day, the tables with harbour views on the front terrace would probably be a lovely place to sit, but I sought shelter from the rain inside. There are no hand-brewed filter coffees available, so I ordered a batch brew filter coffee (450 krona, or about £3.20), which had a rich, full-bodied flavour. I didn't try one of the espresso-based drinks but the cappuccinos being served at another table looked very nice. Retail bags of beans are also available.

Café Haiti is located at Geirsgata 7c. Website. Instagram.

1 December 2016

Reykjavik III: Something Old, Something Blue

Reykjavik is a destination that rewards the organised and one of the activities that you need to book in advance of your stay is a trip to the Blue Lagoon, the beautiful geothermal spa located in an outstanding area of natural beauty in the middle of a lava field. The Blue Lagoon is a) expensive, b) busy and c) very touristy and yet, it was one of the experiences I enjoyed the most on my trip. As the Blue Lagoon is fairly close to Keflavik airport, many guides suggesting visiting on the way to or from the airport. But both of my flights were after dark and stopping at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport would have meant hanging at the airport out for about four hours after catching the last bus from the lagoon.

Instead, I was picked up at my hotel in a little Reykjavik Excursions minibus at 8:30 on Monday morning and dropped off at the BSI bus terminal where I joined a larger coach for the 45-minute ride to the lagoon. It cost me about £40 for a standard entrance and another £25 for return bus journey. I had timed my visit to coincide with sunrise and although it wasn't quite as spectacular a sunrise as on Saturday, it was great to see the lagoon evolve from dark, steamy and ethereal to a brighter shade of turquoise once the sun came out. After a quick, obligatory shower sans bathing suit, I made the short but brisk dash from the changing room to the lagoon itself and spent the next two hours or so wallowing in the wonderfully warm, milky blue waters.

The site is fairly large so although there were already a lot of people there (and it only got busier as my visit progressed), there were enough separate pools and coves to have a little bit of privacy. You also get a silica mud mask included in the price — leave it on for ten minutes and you’ll look years younger, they say. I’m not sure that’s quite true but my skin felt very clean afterwards. The same can’t be said for my hair. I’d been trying valiantly to keep it out of the water but I was seduced by the fun of a hot artificial ‘waterfall’. There is free conditioner in the changing rooms but even two days and two washes later, my hair is still a wreck.  I could easily have spent all day in the hot water but was worried I might turn into the lobster soup that is so popular in town. Coaches to the city centre leave every hour and I was back in Reykjavik by lunchtime.

I stopped at my hotel, Room With a View, to drop off my swim kit and to enjoy the colourful cityscape view from its rooftop terrace for a few minutes, before heading around the corner to an organic, mostly vegetarian, mostly gluten-free restaurant called Gló. The décor is rustic-chic and the food is, while not cheap, quite good value by Reykjavik standards: I had a lovely pumpkin soup with bread and three salads for about 1,800 krona (about £13). I skipped pudding and went for coffee at Reykjavik’s oldest espresso bar, Mokka Kaffi, which dates to 1958. Although not exactly speciality coffee, my macchiato wasn't bad and it was a characterful place to stop for a shopping break on Skólavörðustíg, a street filled with galleries and boutiques.

Down in Old Reykjavik, I stopped for another coffee at Micro Roast, a brew bar operated by local chain Te & Kaffi. I had an excellent Guatemalan pourover and a cookie before paying a visit to the Settlement Exhibition, just over the road. The museum is built on the site of a Viking longhouse discovered in 871 AD (± 2 years) and has interesting insights into the early history of the city, although despite what my guidebook said, it only took me about 40 minutes to walk around (and that includes reading every single panel). Afterwards, I went back to the hotel and took advantage of the rooftop hot tub, which was very relaxing on a cold and snowy night. The Nordics have the right idea.

For dinner, I went to a restaurant called Rok just opposite Hallgrímskirkja. I’d walked past a few times and thought it looked nice and it was indeed a cool and cosy bistro with a great bar. All of the cocktails were Iceland themed — I had the fruity and bitter 64 degrees — as are the small-plate food dishes. They suggest 2-4 plates per person but it was too pricey for me to have more than two, so I had a beautifully cooked ling in lobster sauce, and a duck breast with local chocolate, raspberries and orange for my main course. As if that wasn't enough of a pudding, I also had a lovely crème brûlée with apple and cinnamon. The food was exquisite and the staff very friendly; Rok was a great find.

On my last morning in Reykjavik, I packed up my apartment and left my suitcase at reception before heading out for breakfast. I picked up the most amazing salted caramel cinnamon pastry the size of my head from Sandholt bakery (450 krona; about £3), followed by a cortado at the original branch of Reykjavik Roasters near Hallgrímskirkja. I also bought a bag of Guatemalan coffee beans to take home.

It had snowed overnight and the ground was a bit slippery as I walked my way back down the hill, past the pond and up into Vesturbær, a mostly residential neighbourhood to the west of the city centre, to visit one of the local outdoor swimming pools my City Walk guide had recommended. About one-tenth of the price of the Blue Lagoon, Vesturbæjarlaug consists of a series of man-made outdoor pools of various temperatures (all heated). You can swim lengths or relax in the 40-degree jacuzzis as I did, with barely another tourist in sight (sorry, Reykjavik locals!). Across the road from pools, I spotted a nice-looking bistro called Kaffihús Vesturbæjar where I had an excellent brunch (smoked salmon and egg tartine) with a Reykjavik Roasters cortado and a hefty side of hygge. It’s a relaxed spot popular with locals and expats and the kind of restaurant that is hard to find in the city centre.

I just had time for one last walk through Old Reykjavik and the harbour, where I stopped for a Haitian coffee at Café Haiti, and then one last look at the magnificent Harpa concert hall, before walking along the waterfront and Laugavegur, the main shopping drag, and then the airport.

Four days was about the right amount of time to spend in Reykjavik in the winter. There’s much more to do both around Reykjavik and on the rest of the island, but those adventures will have to wait for another holiday — probably in the summer. In the meantime, over the next few days, I’ll also be compiling a Reykjavik coffee guide and a quick guide to spending a wintry city break in Reykjavik.