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A classic view of Reykjavik’s traditional colourful houses from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church

Both Icelandair and WOW Air started offering direct and very affordable flights from Montreal to Reykjavik this past spring. In an effort to promote their flights, Icelandair offers a free layover of up to 7 days in the Icelandic capital on your way to the 27 european destinations they fly to from 16 different North American cities. When I was shopping for a ticket for my Scandinavia trip, theirs was the best deal and I got to spend 24 hours in Reykjavik as a bonus! I am assuming a lot of people will be doing the same, so here’s a break down on how I spent those precious hours in the northernmost city I’ve ever travelled to.

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A view of Reykjavik’s waterfront

I must say, it wasn’t love at first sight like I was expecting it to be, or like I wanted it to be. My first couple of hours in Reykjavik were a tad chaotic. Iceland has been doing a huge tourism marketing effort for the past few years and it has paid off, better than they expected, I suspect. They are in the process of expanding the airport but in the meantime, you have to bare with the chaos and the employees’ impatience. Unless you want to pay a fortune to get to your hotel, I suggest you purchase your shuttle bus ticket on board the plane to avoid line ups at the airport. I didn’t expect it to take almost 3 hours to get to my hotel but that’s all fine since the sun almost never sets in the summer! I stayed at the Kex Hostel, a funky, hip hotel that doesn’t offer many services but definitely offers a great vibe. It’s a very young crowd and most rooms are dorm-style or don’t come with facilities but they do have some that are large and well-equipped. I loved my private room which had a view of the water across and was furnished with an eclectic mix of Ikea pieces and vintage furniture. I definitely recommend the Kex and would go back in a heartbeat but beware that you will have to drag your suitcases up at least 2 or 3 floors, if not more.

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A view of the stunning interior of the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik’s center

Once I settled in and freshened up, I rushed to get out! As I mentioned, it doesn’t really get dark in Iceland in the summer so one can enjoy many activities well into the night. I headed for a walk along the water, past the Sun Voyager sculpture, a dreamboat meant to be an ode to the sun. A short walk away from the Kex is the Harpa Concert Hall, a gorgeous building built using enormous geometric glass panels that reflect the changing light outside. I got lost in it for about an hour, going up ramps and down stairs, strolling from one end of it to the other and just being in awe of its futuristic architecture. Outside, the Harpa building reflects in manmade pools built all around it, which makes it seem even more sparkly. After my visit to the Harpa, I wandered around the downtown area until I reached Grillmarkaðurinn where I had dinner. Grillmarkaðurinn’s cuisine is modern yet based in tradition. They work closely with farmers and use the best seasonal products that they then transform using fire and smoke. The result is an outstanding meal in a gorgeous decor. They have whale and puffin meat on the menu but I settled on the crispy traditional dried fish and and squid for my appetizer and the excellent grilled redfish with snow crab roll, grilled orange and zucchini for my main. I would’ve liked to sample the tasting menu but couldn’t since I was by myself. The portions are generous and the prices salty, but then again, Iceland is definitely the most expensive country I’ve ever visited and my advice is to stop converting otherwise you won’t be able to enjoy yourself.

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The lobby/bar scene at Reykjavik’s Kex Hostel

It was very disconcerting to see how light it still was outside at 11pm. I was coming from Scandinavia where the sun sets very late but the light in Reykjavik is completely different and my internal clock didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t go out after dinner because I wanted to be able to wake up early and make the most of the next day. The Kex lobby would’ve been a great option to get a drink. Laugavegur street is also a good place to spend some time and have an after dinner drink.

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Great pastries at Reykjavik’s Brauð & Co.

The next morning I headed up the hill towards Reykjavik Roasters for a coffee. I stopped by Brauð & Co. first for breakfast. The tiny bakery is a bread-lover paradise. The cinnamon buns were still piping hot and the cinnamon and orange peel brioche-style bun made with croissant dough was to die for. There are only a couple of stools inside and I watched the bearded and tattooed hipster bakers rolling the dough in the open kitchen while I devoured my bun. I then headed around the corner to Reykjavik Roasters for a coffee. I love how trendy coffee shops are the same everywhere. There’s a sense of familiarity that I appreciate and I like sitting back and observing the local crowd. I sipped my coffee while seated on a mid-century designed chair and watching the steady stream of clientele (who were almost all tourists).

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Go around the back and enjoy a gorgeous view of the Hallgrimskirkja church

After my coffee, I strolled around the surrounding residential streets and contemplated the colourful traditional Icelandic houses until I reached my destination: Hallgrimskirkja church. You know that classic shot of Reykjavik with all the coloured houses?That’s taken from the top of this church. So I got in line for the elevator (which only holds 6 people) and went and got my cliché shots from the top (it’s the first photo in this article). I was lucky enough to have a gorgeous day in Reykjavik with blue skies and warm temperatures (or as warm as it gets in Iceland).

After the church I was planning on heading to the sculpture garden of the Einar Jónsson Museum right next door but it was closed because it was a Monday. I heard great things about this museum and its garden and will be back to visit if/when I go back to Iceland (let’s be honest, I will be going back to Iceland some day without a doubt).

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A taste of Iceland for lunch at Reykjavik’s Matur og Drykkur: dried double smoked lamb with buttermilk, salted cod croquettes and fish chips with whey butter & seaweed

I wound my way down through the little residential streets between the church and Odinsgata Street then turned right and continued down towards the water on Laugavegur Street and its many cafés, restaurants, bars and boutiques. I headed towards Matur og Drykkur (which simply means food and drink), a restaurant that came highly recommended by my friend Marie-Ève and where I had booked for lunch. The luminous space is casual yet eclectically designed, with rustic-looking wooden chairs and tables, a comfortable banquette, vintage lighting fixtures and an open kitchen accentuated by shelves of preserves. The cuisine is inspired by the chef’s digging into Icelandic cooking manuscripts and creating a menu that’s authentic yet not sensationalist, as you may encounter elsewhere (you won’t find any fermented shark on this menu). You’ll find an affordable (for Iceland!) lunch menu with a daily fish special (usually a good choice), a 3-course set menu as well as an Icelandic tasting menu. I decided to go for the latter which “references Icelandic food history prepared with a twist”. The 5 courses are all bite size but pack a punch! I especially enjoyed the homemade bread with Icelandic butter (I think Iceland has some of the best butter ever!), the double smoked lamb and buttermilk and the salted cod croquettes and horseradish remoulade. The arctic char smoked in sheep’s dung was interesting and tasted really smokey. The highlight of the meal was the dessert of skyr, white chocolate and Icelandic strawberries. I had never had proper skyr before and now, it’s all I want to eat! Skyr is a strained yogurt that’s rich and smooth and has a mild flavour. This one was slightly sweetened with white chocolate and honey and was the perfect complement to those delicious strawberries. I could eat that for breakfast every day!

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Skyr, white chocolate and Icelandic strawberries at Matur og Drykkur

After lunch, you may want to visit the Saga Museum next door. I, however, didn’t have that much time and started walking back to the Kex to catch the shuttle back to the airport. I took the long way around and walked through Reykjavik’s Old Harbour with its charming boutiques, ice cream parlours and old fishing boats.

It surprised me to learn that Reykjavik is only 200-years old and has 120,000 inhabitants. It feels like a small city that’s growing way too fast with the influx of so many visitors. Parts of it are charming with their traditional colourful houses and views of the water. I only dipped my feet in Icelandic waters this time around for less than 24 hours but will be back some day for a long road trip around the island, which is why I didn’t try to get out of the city while there last week. However, if you have a few hours to spare, the famous Blue Lagoon is only about 20 minutes from the airport and many shuttle companies offer service to the downtown area via the lagoon or vice versa. It would be very easy to go spend a couple of hours there on your way back or when you arrive.

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A view of Reykjavik’s harbour

More Reykjavik Tips:

  • I had quite a few restaurants on  my list but couldn’t try them all since after all, I only had 24 hours in Reykjavik. If you have a bit more time, try Dill, Gló, Kopar or Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for Icelandic pylsa (hotdog).
  • You can purchase quite a few tours/bus rides and more directly on your Icelandair flight, which is a great time saver.
  • Don’t forget to place an order with your hotel if you want to catch the shuttle bus back to the airport.
  • Bring an eye mask if you don’t want to be woken up by a very bright sun at 4am (in the summer)!
  • I found it quite easy to walk everywhere so I didn’t really look into public transport but I hear the city has an excellent bus system that’s affordable and reliable.
24-hours-reykjavik © Will Travel for Food

What to do on your 24 hour layover in Reykjavik

There are more photos of Reykjavik on my Facebook page here.

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