Reykjavik has found an appealing niche as a thoroughly modern city, with a thoroughly Icelandic attitude. By Bekah McNeel
When you think of the next generation of destination cities, Portland, Austin, Asheville, you probably think of quirky, hip, individualistic vibes. Reykjavik would fit right in on that list.
The running joke is that everyone in Reykjavik is writing a book. The moody atmosphere of winter’s constant darkness, and the sleeplessness of an all-bright summer probably have something to do with that. More so, however, may be the peculiar authenticity of the people in the modest port city.
When it was settled in 870, Ingólfur Arnason mistook the steam from the geothermal streams for smoke, and named it “smoky bay.” Since then, the population has climbed no higher than 200,000, and the geothermal steam remains.
Iceland as a whole is very connected to its roots. After their economy was devastated by the crash of 2008, Icelanders seemed to do some soul searching, to find out what was worth rebuilding. They forsook the high rolling, risk taking international path, and chose to cultivate the ample resources available to them. The resources of their heritage: hot water, warm wool, fish, and natural wonders.
The streets of Reykjavik’s city center are almost entirely free of chain restaurants. Most are fish houses, offering traditional Icelandic fare. Local artists maintain galleries and design shops showcasing a local flare that is part Scandinavian, part something jollier.
Even the gear shops, full of fleece, down, wool, and rubber are Icelandic.
When I asked a few locals about this sustainable, organic, local vibe (something of a trend back home), they were classically Icelandic about it.
“We’re just doing what we have to do with what we have,” said one.
Focusing on what they have in abundance, the city heats its streets with hot water running beneath the ground, they have geothermal public pools and saunas around town, and they brag about their delicious tap water. You would too, if you tasted it.
As for all those aspiring authors? The city places a high value on creativity. Iceland sends out a steady stream of genre-bending musicians. Their current hit-makers, Of Monsters and Men, is probably their most mainstream, but Björk and Sigur Rós are well beloved at home and abroad. At home, however, they are expected to walk, drive, and dine like everyone else. Icelanders simply do not do pretension.
This authenticity and individualism is exactly the sprit that so many are chasing in the days of globalization and internet connectivity. Reykjavik has found an appealing niche as a thoroughly modern city, with a thoroughly Icelandic attitude.
Top 5 Things to do in Reykjavik:
1. Visit a public pool. It’s hard to get a better feel for true Icelandic culture than at one of the city’s naturally heated public pools and saunas.
2. Eat at Dill a tiny restaurant serving “new Nordic” cuisine. They call it new, but Dill’s menu is actually the culinary embodiment of Iceland’s commitment to keeping its traditions alive and evolving.
3. Shop along Laugavegur, the classic shopping street, where artisans, hip cafes, and outfitters are more numerous than souvenir shops.
4. See the view from the bell tower of Hallgrímskirkja, the highest point in the city. Afterward dip into Cafe Loki across the street for traditional Icelandic snacks.
5. Catch a show at the Harpa, the nation’s concert hall is as design forward and technically advanced as any hall you might see in a major world city. Its prismatic shapes are derived from the dramatic landscapes of the southeast, and walls inside are igneous black.
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