Reykjavik Cruise Port
Port of Reykjavik: An Overview
Europe's northernmost and westernmost capital is a delightful destination, part old Norse, part modern city, with a quirky personality of its own. The puffin, troll and elf souvenirs found in gift stores are apt mascots for a city with a decidedly playful streak.
More than half of Iceland's population lives in Reykjavik (or nearby), in one of the world's smallest capital cities -- some 190,000 people. Cruise ships are increasingly paying calls on Reykjavik from late May to early October, especially during the summer months, when the daylight literally lasts 'round the clock. Visitors and residents alike seem to stay awake, golfing, strolling the compact town's picturesque streets, drinking Gull beer at sidewalk cafes and cycling along the seafront promenade.
Many believe that Reykjavik's character is more defined in winter, when daunting weather and 20-hour nights are defied by rollicking pubs and a sense of humor. But, locals laugh at the climate, whether calm or tempestuous. They keep warm in the iconic handsome sweaters for which Iceland is well known; the long hours indoors and out inspire artisans, evidenced by many shops that display lovely local art and clothing.
This is a city that has learned to make the best of things. The Iceland landscape is bare and covered with volcanic rock. With no trees for building houses, 18th-century settlers used driftwood that floated in from the sea, covering the wood in sheets of corrugated tin and painting walls and roofs in vivid colors to brighten the scene. The rock that abounds was turned into material for a fine stone Parliament building, erected in 1881. Citizens have planted and nurtured welcome oases of green. The geothermal springs that bubble underground have been put to work to provide hot water for residents.
Reykjavik has experienced much advancement in the past few years. Progress is plain to see in the sleek, contemporary buildings that are changing the cityscape. Several worthwhile museums salute local history and art, and whimsical street murals dot the city center. With fishing still a dominant occupation, restaurants serve up delectable seafood, and gourmet dining of all kinds is plentiful and popular.
But, if you ask natives for their favorite eating place, the answer most often will be a simple hot dog stand near the harbor.
Reykjavik is a safe city, compact and easy to navigate on foot. As charming as it is, no visit to Iceland is complete without getting out into the vast interior, which lies at the city's doorstep. Seriously, how can you not love a place where sheep have the right of way?
Cruise lines often assign ships to overnight in Reykjavik, offering passengers more than the typical eight-hour port experience, but my greatest regret is that visitors don't have even more time to explore this charming land, where the balance of urban sophistication and nature at its most rugged is unique.
If you regard cruise travel as a chance to sample places you might want to return to later for longer stays, I can't think of a better recommendation than Reykjavik.
Passengers on those ships small enough to dock in the Old Harbour can walk to most sights. If walking is a challenge, and you don't want to take a tour, double-decker "hop-on, hop-off" buses are also available.
The cruise terminal outside the city center offers little to see or do, but cruise lines typically offer a free shuttle service to and from town (a 10-minute ride). Also, the new Cruise Liner Visitor Centre, which is small but very useful, offers currency exchange, VAT tax-free refunds, computers and internet access for a fee, local and long-distance phone service, car rentals, a tour-booking service and a nice array of duty-free souvenir gifts.
The Old Town: A couple of hours on foot in the old part of the city allows you to experience its unique spirit, the busy harbor, colorful houses, whimsical murals and sculptures, and interesting architecture, old and new. Start at the main tourist office on Reykjavik's oldest street at Adalstraeti 2, where you can pick up free printed walking guides. The points of interest are easy to find, roughly between the Old Harbour and the town pond (Tjornin on the map).
Along Tryggvagata, the street beside the harbor, at Posthusstraeti, an enormous mosaic depicts the city's maritime life. Keep strolling to see plaques with photos of old sailing ships, one of the old steam locomotives used to build a harbor railroad and the ultramodern concert hall rising above the harbor. Head south toward the pond on almost any street, and you'll be in the oldest part of town, passing brightly colored buildings with tin roofs. You never know where you'll encounter an intriguing small gallery, a humorous sculpture or mural. Around the pond are the modernistic City Hall on stilts and the 1881 classic stone Parliament.
If your schedule allows, you can take advantage of the guided, 90-minute walking tours sponsored by Goecco Outdoor Adventures, with guaranteed departures from May 15 to September 15 at 1 p.m. daily, departing from the Elding Whale Watching stand, located on the Old Harbour. Another free walking tour option departs twice a day from Laekjartorg Square at noon and 2 p.m. Led by university students, the one-hour tour visits the Althing Parliament, Hallgrimskirkja Church, Harpa concert hall and more. In both cases, all it will cost you is a tip for the guide.
Hallgrimskirkja Church: Not everyone admires the odd stair-step architecture, but there's no missing this unusual church, named after Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson. Iceland's largest church, seating more than 1,000, sits at the top of a hill at the end of the shopping street Skolavordustigur. Take the elevator to the tower, which literally towers over the town, for great city views. The concrete form was designed by former state architect Gudjon Samuelsson and was supposedly inspired by volcanic basalt rock formations. On the grounds is a statue of Norwegian-born Leif Ericson, the Viking said to have discovered America 500 years before Columbus. It was a gift from the United States in 1930 on the 1,000th anniversary of the world's oldest Parliament, Iceland's Althing. On some days during the summer months, you may be able to catch a concert at Hallgrimskirkja (usually at noon). (Hallgrimstorg 1; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through May and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. June to September. Sunday service takes place at 11 a.m.)
Reykjavik Art Museum: If art is your pleasure, head to the Reykjavik Art Museum, but there's a catch: The museum is divided into three different locations. The most convenient is Hafnarhus (Tryggvagata 17; +354-411-6400; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.), the contemporary art museum, housed in a former warehouse across the street from the Old Harbour. A special gallery there is devoted to the large, comic book-style paintings donated by the Iceland-born artist Erro. (Hafnarhus is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.) The other two sites are short cab rides from the cruise dock or town center. Kjarvalsstadir (in Miklatun Park) is the oldest and largest, housing paintings and sculpture by well-established artists. (Flokagata 24; +354-411-6420; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.) The Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum and Park resides in a striking, contemporary, domed building and is named for the sculptor who designed the edifice and whose work is featured inside. (Sigtun; +354-411-6430; May 1 to September 30, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There's a fee, but you can walk around the sculpture garden for free.)
Harpa Concert Hall: Located on the waterfront, this striking building, made of colored glass, opened in 2011 and is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera. It is designed to look like a glacier and at night it is lit up like the Northern Lights. It hosts a variety of concerts, international conferences, trade shows and more. Two restaurants are onsite, as are two shops, one of which features a selection of Icelandic music. There are guided 45-minute tours four times a day for a fee. (Austurbakki 2; +354-528-5000; open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight.)
Reykjavik 871+/-2 Settlement Museum: This underground museum was inspired by the discovery in 2001 of the remains of a Viking-age longhouse. The museum uses stunning interactive displays, models and artifacts to bring the story of the city's earliest settlers to life. Tours can be scheduled with English-language guides. (Adalstraeti 16; +354-411-6370; open daily at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., depending on the season, and closes at 5 p.m.)
Shopping: Laugavegur and intersecting Skolavordustigur, the main shopping streets, are well worth strolling even if you don't plan on buying anything. The shops display not only the traditional Nordic sweaters but also the modern design that is an increasing influence in Reykjavik. As you browse, don't forget to look toward the water at cross streets for striking views and murals in unexpected places.
Iceland's Golden Circle: These tours offer a chance to explore the island's raw and rugged interior. The trio of sites includes the Strokkur geyser, where jets spout anywhere from 60 to 100 feet; the mystically beautiful Gullfoss (or Golden) falls, Europe's largest waterfall, tumbling into a glacial river with a 105-foot double cascade; and Thingvellir, a scenic national park that marks where Europe's first Parliament, the Althing, was formed in 930 AD. Your best bet is to book a tour, whether through your cruise line or via an independent company like Tours By Locals. One of the best ways to tour the interior is in an off-road vehicle that crosses unbridged rivers to get to the more remote locations.
The Blue Lagoon: Located about 40 minutes from downtown, the Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's most popular destinations. Steaming, mineral-rich hot water from far beneath the earth forms this spectacular man-made lagoon, amid a rugged lava landscape. A health spa also offers mudpacks and massages. The lagoon's geothermal water is believed to be beneficial for everything from skin problems to arthritis. Keep in mind that, while the Blue Lagoon is well worth a visit, you probably won't have time to enjoy the hot waters and explore the city of Reykjavik. (Grindavik 240; +354-420-8800; open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. June, July and August and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. September through May.)
Thermal Pools: Reykjavik is famous for its steamy geothermal swimming pools, fed by underground springs. The biggest and best-known is the Laugardalslaug with both indoor and outdoor pools, plus "hot pots" and a thermal steam bath for those who really like it hot. Take a cab or the #14 bus. The pool is part of Laugardalur, the city's largest park, where you can easily spend a rewarding day. The park includes botanic gardens -- showing off local plant life and great displays of seasonal flowers -- as well as the city zoo. Editor's Note: In order to keep the pools clean, all visitors to any of Reykjavik's thermal pools must wash thoroughly with soap (and without a swimsuit) before getting in. (Sundlaugavegur 30a; +354-411-5100; Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Arbaer Open-Air Museum: Operated by Reykjavik City Museum, Arbaer Open-Air Folk Museum is a period farm turned into an open-air museum with more than 20 buildings forming a town square, a village and a farm. Most of the buildings have been relocated from central Reykjavik. Craftspeople demonstrate traditional farm-life crafts and chores. Although it's located in a suburb of Reykjavik, the museum is easily accessible. Take bus #19 from Hlemmer, the main bus station on Laugavegur, and ask to get off at Strengur, a quick walk from the museum. (Kistuhylur, 110 Reykjavik; +354-411 6300; Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June, July and August. September through May, the museum opens at 1 p.m. for guided tours only.)
Puffin Tours: Boat tours take visitors past Puffin Island, where thousands of these adorable birds are found in mating season. Puffin Express has tours to the islands of Akurey and Lundey, from May 1 to August 20, using small boats that bring you close to shore. Check kisoks at the Old Harbour for details.
On Foot: Most of Reykjavik's major attractions are within a 15-minute walk of the town center.
By Taxi: Cabs are readily available at the dock and in town at the square in front of the main tourist office. Most cabs also accept credit cards.
By Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus: The red double-decker buses originate at the Harpa concert hall. There's a narrated one-hour tour with 15 stops where passengers can hop on or off at their leisure. Tickets are good for 24 hours. (Stop No. 14 is the Cruise Liner Visitor Centre so it's an easy and efficient way to see the major sights).
By Bus: Public buses require exact fare; drivers don't offer change. A one-day pass can be purchased at 10-11 convenience stores.
Food and Drink
Reykjavik is known as a foodie destination -- and rightly so. From gourmet food to simple meals, the city has something for every taste and budget. Seafood and smoked lamb are the stars of Icelandic menus. Fish is off-the-boat fresh. Cod is the most popular choice, though haddock, Arctic char, halibut, salmon and monkfish are also common. Locally raised lamb has been allowed to range freely and feed on grasses, herbs and bushes that have never known chemicals, giving the meat a distinctive flavor, which slightly resembles that of wild game. Don't be surprised to see whale, puffin and even horse on the menu. Other Icelandic traditions include skyr, which tastes like sweetened yogurt, and a delicious rye bread called rugbraud or hverabraud. Note: Even though your bill may include a space for tipping, it is not customary in Iceland to do so as service is already included.
Matur og Drykkur: This kitschy restaurant in the Saga Museum in the Old Harbour district has reimagined traditional Icelandic cuisine with a modern twist that features the freshest fish, the leanest lamb and aromatic herbs. There's a terrific Icelandic sampler that includes dried double smoked lamb; fish chips with sweet whey butter and seaweed; salted cod croquettes; and sheep's dung smoked arctic char. Other favorites are the halibut soup with mussels, apples and dried fruit and the hot dog "with everything" and lovage potato salad. Lunch reservations are recommended. (Grandagarour 2; +354-571-8877; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 to 10:30 p.m., daily.)
Vegamot: One of the city's hottest nighttime venues is a perfect stop for an affordable lunch. Vegamot, conveniently set on a little street between Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur (the two main shopping streets), is a buzzing bar and club at night. But, it's also a great stop by day, when you'll find salads, sandwiches and gourmet pizzas, as well as fresh fish and tapas. On sunny days, the outside garden is packed. (Vegamotastig 4; +354-511-3040; open weekdays and Saturdays at 11 a.m. and at noon on Sundays and keeps kicking through the wee hours.)
Hot dogs: Icelanders are crazy about hot dogs, and the place to find out why is a simple stand near the harbor called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (literally means "best hot dog in town," and we have to say: it's mighty fine), a standby since 1939. Look for it on Tryggvagata, just east of Posthusstraeti. (Head toward the Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel in the old town, and look for a line of people.) To sample a hot dog the way the natives like it, order it with everything -- sweet mustard, fried onion and a remoulade sauce.
Coocoo's Nest: Green eggs and ham? A mimosa made with beet, orange or apple juice? Vegan menu options? Talk about menu choices to please just about anyone. This handsome family-owned restaurant is located in what was once a fisherman's storage shed, just across the street from the Reykjavik Maritime Museum. A deli-style menu with salads, soups and sandwiches is available Tuesday through Thursday with a robust brunch on offer Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There is limited outdoor seating. (Grandagarour 23; +354-552 5454; Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Mondays.)
Where You're Docked
Smaller vessels dock in the heart of town in the Old Harbour, but most ships use the Skarfabakki cruise terminal, which is roughly 2 miles from the town center.
Good to Know
Tours to Iceland's stunning interior generally include stops at waterfalls and geysers, which are well worth leaving Reykjavik to explore. However, to get close-up, you will need a raincoat or poncho.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Iceland's currency is the krona (plural kronur). ATMs offer the best rates and are available at bank locations around town. The Cruise Liner Visitor Centre and the central tourist office also offer currency exchange. Credit cards are widely accepted at shops and restaurants. Some shops, like the fantastic gift shops at the Harpa concert hall, will accept euros, dollars and pounds. For current krona conversion rates, check www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Icelandic is not an easy language to master; the tricky spelling and pronunciation is said to have changed little since the original Norse settlers spoke it. Luckily for visitors, many signs are in English, and almost everyone speaks English.
Hand-knitted Icelandic wool sweaters are lovely to look at and are guaranteed to keep you warm. One of the best sources is the Handknitting Association of Iceland, with a location on both main shopping streets -- Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur. A third, smaller shop is located inside the Radisson Blu Hotel Saga. Also watch for the whimsical knitted hats that are a local trademark.
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