Abundant with natural and manmade charm, Reykjavik in Iceland, the world’s most northerly capital city, is the perfect family playground.
You might not think that a collection of old fishermen’s cottages in the far-flung north could have much to offer, but speak to anyone who’s been to Reykjavik and watch their eyes light up. Coolhunters, geologists and seasoned travellers alike flock to this pint-sized capital city to sample the bars, shops and museums in one of the natural world’s most spectacular settings.
Proof that good things come in small packages, Reykjavik is tiny – it’s possible to walk around it in just a couple of hours, making sightseeing easy even for little legs. There’s plenty to keep all ages entertained from the comic book art of postmodernist Erró to gory Viking sagas and puffin-spotting. Whatever your tastes, this city is bound to charm you. After all, who could fail to love a place that boasts its very own Elf School?
Grab a bargain at this market, held on the harbour every weekend. Housed in a huge industrial warehouse, it isn’t well signposted, so look for a stream of people heading in the same direction and you should end up in the right place. Inside, you’ll find a treasure trove of the weird and the wonderful, from second-hand toys and neon wigs to fermented shark (known as hakarl, it’s a local delicacy that is definitely an acquired taste). If shark isn’t your thing, then there are plenty of other treats available in the food court.
The Collective of Young Designers
Teens looking for something they can show off to friends back home will love the ‘secret-shop’ feel of The Collective of Young Designers. Tucked away beneath the Hemmi og Valdi coffee shop at Laugavegur 21, it’s run, as the name suggests, by a dozen up-and-coming designers who man the tills themselves. The stock is an eclectic mishmash of handmade clothes and accessories, from jewel-coloured button necklaces to edgy asymmetric sweaters. The rough and ready décor of the store itself (where the changing rooms are in the loo) all adds to its charm. Check out its Facebook page before you go.
Handknitting Association of Iceland
If you’re still hankering after your very own Sarah Lund-style Scandi sweater then make sure you pay a visit to one of the Handknitting Association of Iceland’s outlets. They are the best places in Reykjavik to buy an authentic lopapeysa woollen jumper, which is the iconic sweater that’s worn by all Icelanders, and which can be seen everywhere in the city; teamed with skinny jeans on twentysomething clubbers or worn over overalls by grizzled harbourside trawlermen. You’ll find a wide variety of designs on offer, in sizes for all the family, so there’s no excuse not to kit yourselves out for your next Christmas card. If you’re a keen knitter yourself, then make sure you head to the Skolavordustig main store, where you can also buy patterns and supplies to make your very own.
Whatever the weather, the waters in the Blue Lagoon are around 38?C, so there’s no excuse not to pack your swimming things. The setting is like taking a dip on the moon. There’s a wide range of spa treatments on offer – including pregnancy massages – and an exclusive lounge area if you want a bit of grown-up privacy, but the Blue Lagoon is child-friendly, too (under-13s go free). Mandatory armbands are provided for children of eight and under, and there’s a special treatment menu at the spa for children of six upwards. Try the Crazy Lab land tour to find out more about the geothermal energy that keeps Reykjavik going.
Known as The Pearl in English thanks to its striking glass dome roof, Perlan is one of those buildings that has to be seen up close to be truly appreciated. Five gigantic water storage tanks have been remodelled to create a vast exhibition space and concert area, housing a wide variety of exhibitions on everything from folklore to Icelandic pop. Perched on top is the revolving restaurant, which takes around two hours to complete a full rotation – meaning a leisurely lunch should give you a complete 360-degree view of the city. Children will love the simulated geysers that ‘erupt’ every few minutes.
Tjornin (meaning ‘lake’ or ‘pond’) lies in the heart of the city, and is home to more than 40 species of birds, including Arctic terns – watch out for their notorious dive-bombing. Along the southern shores you’ll find Hljómskálagarðurinn; a well-manicured space with a pavilion and children’s playground. It also hosts open-air concerts in the summer. A walk round Tjornin takes roughly an hour. If you fancy a bit of an art tour, pick up a copy of the City Statues brochure from the tourist office, which will help you navigate your way round the park’s fascinating collection of sculptures.
Don’t be put off by the office-block exterior of this hotel; it’s a gem inside, with clean modern lines and original local artwork. Situated close to the domestic airport, it boasts access to hiking trails, beaches and prime birdwatching sights. When you’re tired of whale-spotting, pop in to town with a free bus pass.
In terms of location and price, it would be hard to beat the recently renovated Hlemmur Square; part hotel, part hostel for the budget-conscious (and those who prefer to self-cater). The interiors are bright, clean and colourful, but the art deco hotel really trades on its heritage – Icelandic horses greet guests out front in homage to the historic location as a meeting point for weary travellers. There’s a small cinema tucked away for wet weather days and you’re only a short distance from the Tjornin lake.
The Holt is something of an institution in Reykjavik, housing the country’s largest collection of privately owned art, which adorns walls in the public areas – including in the impeccable Gallery Restaurant. The hotel prides itself on its boutique feel but is perhaps not the best place to stay with younger children. Teens, however, will like being treated like grown-ups.
Where to eat
Anyone who’s anyone is said to have eaten at Bæjarins Beztu, but if you’re expecting Iceland’s answer to The Ivy, think again. The owners claim this is, in fact, the best hot dog stand in Europe (which is roughly what the name means in English). And, since it’s been going for more than 75 years, boasting customers including Bill Clinton, they might be right. Its harbour location is out in the open, so it doesn’t work as a retreat on a rainy day. But for a cheap, filling snack, you won’t find a better bargain.
Housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings, this is the place to go for a last-night treat. Famed for its modern take on traditional Icelandic dishes, the restaurant will appeal to adventurous types, who will relish the opportunity to try such delicacies as puffin salad and reindeer steak. If you’re feeling more conventional, then the lamb roasted in mountain herbs is also a winner and some claim this is the place in Reykjavik to try lobster. Unless you’re going early evening you will almost certainly have to book, but try to get a table with a view out across Bankastræti, as it is great for watching the world go by.
Fjorugardurinn Seal skins are optional for guests at this restaurant in the heart of the ‘Viking Village’, but any How To Train Your Dragon fans in your family will love the chance to rub shoulders with authentic-looking serving staff. Fjorugardurinn serves up traditional Viking feasts, complete with drinking horns to encourage a spot of lusty singing from the grown-ups. There’s plenty of entertainment on offer, from pre-arranged kidnapping to traditional Norse storytelling. Be prepared for a Valkyrie or two to appear while you tuck into the buffet, and don’t be alarmed if a sword-wielding gentleman takes a sudden interest in you – he probably just wants to crown you as an honorary Viking for the night.
Getting there: Icelandair (0844 811 1190) flies from Glasgow, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester to Keflavík, from around £195 return. Shuttle buses, which you can catch from outside the airport, make regular journeys into Reykjavik – around 45 minutes away.