Reykjavik: less like a tourist, more like a local

Solo traveling in Iceland done right.

Approaching Reykjavik's Perlan Museum at night.
  • Approaching Reykjavik's Perlan Museum at night.

Though it was not my first time in Iceland, it was my first time single and, for most of the time, without any travel companion. It turned out to be a fine thing. You can change your plans at the last second, get the rest you want, the peace of mind you need. You can linger longer at spots that intrigue you.

But you do have to be on your game: if you’re alone, there’s nobody to point out that you’re about to leave your lens cap or glove somewhere. You need to be resourceful getting around. But it’s cool to see things through just your own eyes.

Downtown Reykjavik mural.

Downtown Reykjavik mural.

Accommodations

This time around, I stayed at the Hotel Natura, as part of an Icelandair package. It was the Hotel Loftleider the last time I was there, but it’s been rebranded to highlight sustainable, local, natural pleasures. I thought some of the same things I did years ago: if you’re focusing on downtown destinations, it’s a little too out of the way. I did the hike down the hill one time without a walking map, keeping my eye on the tall landmark church, Hallgrimskirkja. But I had to sprint across some highway ramp as the short daylight was ending.

Taxis cost a fortune in Reykjavik, and there seems to be some premium – like double – rate at night. The buses didn’t seem to have a direct route to the downtown places I wanted to go.

But if you’re exploring nature, it’s a great place. There’s a walking path way up a high hill that overlooks the city, right outside the hotel parking lot. Hotel Natura also is a short distance from the ocean. The tour buses that go to the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle – with geysers, waterfalls and possible Northern lights sighting – all stop at the hotel.

I was there during unusually cold, rainy weather. Some of the tours, including one I signed up for, were cancelled – though there’s some sort of "oath" posted at the airport that you agree to go places in all weather.

This is when the hotel’s wonderful Natura Spa became my new best friend. First, it’s a great place to go when you arrive in the morning, before you can officially check in. That’s a favorite travel secret of mine. You can sprawl out, relax and clean up. The lights in the hot tub and heated therapy pool area are blue with a little pink: meant to mimic dawn. They have floaty noodles and some sort of Styrofoam helmets to float your head, but I didn’t want to put something on my head that strangers from around the world had. Still, it was plenty relaxing with a sauna, steam room, roaring fireplace and interesting books in English. You can order snacks. The spa does have a fee, even for hotel guests.

What to eat

I didn’t go as challenging with food as I had last time – no fermented shark, thanks! – but I still ate very interesting, delicious meals. The cuisine in Iceland is very high quality with their top-notch dairy, lamb and seafood, but very expensive.

I finally got to go to a restaurant on my bucket list: Humarhusid (House of Lobster). It surpassed even my dreams. The restaurant was a house built in 1838 by the then head of state. In the 1970’s, there was a movement to knock down the old, put up the new. In their words, a bunch of “hippies, activists and architects” struggled for a decade to preserve the house.

Langoustine soup at Humarhusid, Reykjavik

The lobsters of which the Icelanders speak are actually langoustines, pulled straight from the icy North Atlantic and the North Sea. Soft guitar music plays in the background of this calming place. Even the smallest touches are considered: the bread course is served with a very rich, lactic butter topped with “Viking salt” — locally harvested sea salt blended with seaweed. The cream of langoustine soup is beautifully presented: a juicy langoustine is plated with savory whipped cream and dill oil, then the rich, hot soup is poured over. It’s meaty with rye bread notes, intensely flavored — not fatty. The soup is malty brown in color, with big hunks of seasoned, marinated langoustine. The dill oil adds grassy notes.

On a night when I couldn’t face the cold, soaking rain, I was happy to discover Satt – Hotel Natura’s restaurant; they had just started a special buffet on weekends for the Christmas season. It was an opportunity to sample Icelandic favorites, without being totally committed to one thing or another. Everyone started with a smoked goose soup served in a Ball canning jar and garnished with a dollop of rich creme fraiche and fresh herbs. Stunning. It had mushroom and poultry flavors in a bisque consistency. There was also reindeer, duck, salmon and even a famous nut loaf for vegans.

Sjávargrillið (Seafood Grill) specializes in fresh seafood straight from the North Sea. The cozy restaurant is in an older corner building jutting out on a minor street in what’s the historic section of downtown Reykjavik. The catch of the day was too tempting to pass up: locally caught Ling fish. It’s in the Atlantic cod family, but with a very different look: it was meaty, like a cauliflower steak, seared with a crisp outside. The chicken velouté it was drizzled with was a genius concept — the mild, buttery/poultry flavors were a perfect compliment.

On top of the Perlan museum is a fun, chic destination popular with the young chic locals: Út í Bláinn. During the holidays, this revolving restaurant has a buffet with all kinds of interesting wild game: ptarmigan soup, reindeer steak, red deer vent-au-vol. The place is owned by a premier coffee roaster, so I tried that, too.

What to do

The Reykjavik City Card gets you on city buses, a ferry that goes to a historic island and into several museums. You can buy it at City Hall. I saw a stately building with the Icelandic flag, figuring it had to be City Hall. I walked up the hill to the door, to be greeted right away by a police officer.

“Do you speak English? Am I in the right place?” I asked.

“Probably not. This is the Prime Minister’s office.”

Steps from Humarhusid, down in what was the men’s public toilet, is the Icelandic Punk Museum. Svarti Álfur Mánason, a famous musician in Iceland’s punk scene, is the main curator. He got Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols to come to the opening! There are photographs, listening stations right in the urinals, and history of how the punk scene came to the country. The museum also has a whole band’s worth of instruments that you can play; Mánason is super patient with the little kids who want to come and bang around.

Since I had been to Reykjavik a couple of times before, I wanted to do something meaningful for me and non-touristy. There is a new Chabad Jewish Center in Iceland, and they welcome visitors. The young Rabbi Avi Feldman and his wife Mushky host marvelous Shabbat services at their condo on the outskirts of the city, right on the ocean. Though they are Orthodox, it’s fine if you aren’t. It’s so interesting to meet with Icelanders and people from around the world in fellowship. Mushky served a beautiful Shabbat luncheon, with local salmon, a dazzling array of salads and even her own freshly baked challah with za’atar seasoning.

I took a walking path from my hotel up the hill to The Perlan, the planetary and nature museum with the unmistakable dome that looks like a pearl. You’ll want to go prepared: it’s probably one of the greatest places for selfies in the world! Also, make sure to dress warmly (though they have coats you can borrow) for the man-made ice cave. They've brought in real snow and ice from the Blue Mountains so you can experience what it’s like to be deep down inside a glacier. The museum also has a rooftop observation deck where you can get a 360-degree view of the whole metro area. The Perlan is a unique place.

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