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Luxury Insider Tips on the Best First Trip to Reykjavik

the inside luxury guide to the best first trip to Reykjavik Iceland

What are the best things to do, and the top places to see, stay, and dine in Reykjavik, Iceland right now? In this edition of Insider Itinerary, our correspondent Julie Chang Murphy shares her luxury insider tips on the best first trip to Reykjavik, Iceland.

dandelion chandelier’s insider itinerary

Insider Itinerary is an occasional series that shines a light on the best places to see, stay, and dine in some of the hottest travel destinations worldwide. Our far-flung correspondents are sharing their inside tips on how to best experience their chosen destinations, especially if you’re visiting for the first time. Consider it your local luxury GPS.

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We began this series with our Paris Bureau Chief sharing the ideal itinerary for a first trip to Cape Town, South Africa. Since then, we’ve shared insider itineraries for Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Ljubljana, Nantucket, and East Hampton. Next up? Julie Chang Murphy shares the ideal itinerary for a first trip to Reykjavik, Iceland.

why take a trip to reykjavik?

Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, hardly needs an introduction. It’s been one of the trendiest emerging cities to visit for some time. For such a tiny country, it certainly has reached the imaginations of people around the world.

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Of course there are the unbelievable photographs of the famed Northern Lights. And the opalescent Blue Lagoon. For lovers of the epic fantasy, Game of Thrones, Iceland’s spectacular natural wonders have been a character in itself throughout the series.

To bookworms, it’s the setting of many dark and chilling thrillers.

Excellent thrillers set in Iceland.

Music lovers, of course, know it as the home of avant grade musician, Bjork and her atmospheric music. Ditto to bands Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men. Design aficionados can relate to the graceful minimalism and modern sensibilities of its Scandinavian and Nordic aesthetic.

Icelandic musician Bjork

There are so many compelling reasons to become initially invested in this legendary place. And a first visit to Reykjavik, like the best journeys, keeps unveiling more.

insider tips on the best first trip to Reykjavik

1. why reykjavik? what made you want to go there?

My college girlfriends and I were all coming up on a certain milestone birthday and we wanted to reunite before another decade had passed. As a New York City strap-hanger, Iceland has been on my radar for at least fifteen years. Featured in effective ads promising a cheap and quick flight to otherworldly scenery, it wasn’t long before everyone seemed to know how to pronounce Reykjavik.

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland, in winter.

Still, we initially tossed around beach and spa destinations as obvious options. But those subway ads, lodged in my brain, proffered the promise of a vacation where we could enjoy some repose, outdoorsy adventure and a walkable, charming city.

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2. how long did you stay? how long is the ideal first visit?

We stayed for 3 1/2 days and another day or two would have been ideal to explore the more off-the-beaten track locales. But the time we had there felt sufficient to have experiences on opposite ends of the spectrum – from baking in a sauna to freezing on a glacier.

An Icelandic scene from Game of Thrones.

3. what hotel(s) do you recommend? or did you rent an apartment/house?

We wanted to rent our own place with a proper kitchen and living room. My friends and I all went to college together, so we were envisioning being back in the dorm common room – staying up late gossiping and reminiscing (with multiple trips to the kitchen for snacks.)

We found a two-bedroom apartment which was part of the Hotel Óðinsvé, so we ended up having the best of both worlds: our own private, Scandinavian-chic apartment (which was cleaned daily), combined with the convenience of a hotel concierge and breakfast at the trendy and upscale restaurant, SNAPS. I’d definitely stay there again.

The Northern Lights.

For travelers looking for a Ritz or Peninsula- class type of hotel, Reykjavik doesn’t seem to have those- yet. In the absence of gilded lobbies and chandeliers, upscale hotels like Hotel Borg, 101 Hotel (which famously hosted Kim Kardashian and Kanye West) and Tower Suites, fill the void with their modern design and view-oriented properties.

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4. what are the 5 most important “must see” sights – natural wonders, museums, etc?

If I had a dollar for every time someone in our group said, “It’s like we’re on another planet,” I’d almost have enough to buy a dinner entree in Reykjavik (more on food later).

Blue Lagoon

I’m fairly certain the Blue Lagoon can never disappoint. We arrived first thing in the morning, still dark at 8:00 a.m., and in freezing temperatures. We didn’t know it at the time, but these were ideal conditions.

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland

As we sprinted in our bathing suits from the indoor lobby into the water, it felt like we were the only ones in the lagoon. My friend joked, somewhat unconvincingly, “We’re sure there are no sea creatures in here right?” The darkness would shroud us in a primeval mystery. Then, within seconds – as the steam from the water blew apart – we’d feel another frisson of recognition that we were still on this planet.

How could they not be playing Bjork out of some speaker, disguised as a lava rock? In and out again, this would continue for the next hour until the sun began to rise and the famed milky, sky-blue waters revealed themselves to us.

Beyond the transcendence of this natural wonder, there are also some thoughtful modern day embellishments: huts offering mud masks, smoothies and alcoholic beverages, and in-water massages. Some are included with the admission price and extras are charged to your wristband. Mystical, modern day magic!

Golden Circle

Everyone who goes to Iceland joins a Golden Circle Tour. Who were we to disregard protocol?

A geyser in the geo-thermal area of Iceland.

The classic tour encompasses three extraordinary topographical sites: Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the Geysir geothermal area. They’re all within an afternoon’s drive from the capital.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland.

We had managed our expectations ahead of time since we were traveling in the winter and wouldn’t be able to hike around as much. But the light snow on the ground gave the sites a quiet, lovely and haunting beauty that awed us.

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Langjökull Glacier

This is the second largest glacier in Iceland, and we decided we needed to stave off any impending mid-life crises by snowmobiling on its white slopes in below freezing temperatures. As one does.

My friend declared, “This is a mistake,” as she straddled the snowmobile. And yeah, we almost flipped over, but the operative word here is: almost.

A snowmobile ride on a glacier in Iceland.

But seriously, the snowmobile operators suited us up appropriately for the weather and led us through safe paths on the glacier. The landscapes before us were unparalleled and probably, once in a lifetime. Worth almost tipping over.

Hallgrímskirkja Church

The Lutheran church is the most iconic landmark in the city. I loved its severe and majestic architecture, which recalls Iceland’s Viking roots, but also draws inspiration from the country’s topography.

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Architect Guðjón Samúelsson, who designed the church in 1937, is said to have been inspired by the shapes that formed from cooled lava. Inside, there is an impressive pipe organ, as well as an observation tower to view the city and mountains.

Geothermal Swimming Pools

Most Icelanders do not frequent the Blue Lagoon, as there are plenty of public pools, heated by the ample geothermal water, that are open year round. They cost around $10 (as opposed to $100). They are an integral part of the social life there and we wanted to check it out after our day of doing all the requisite touristy things.

A geo-thermal pool in Iceland.

With more then 7 to choose from just in the city center, we picked the one closest to our accommodations- Sundhollin. There are indoor and outdoor pools, therapeutic “hot pods,” saunas, and even an ice bath. The facilities are clean and renovated. Standard gym amenities like towels, hair dryer, lockers, and showers are provided. For a slice of local culture, this one is hard to top.

5. is there good shopping? if so, where?

Yes! The main shopping areas are clustered around the cool thoroughfare- Laugavegur. Boutiques selling eclectic home goods, wool garments and accessories (from all the cute Icelandic sheep), local jewelry, and art abound.

It’s such a palate cleanser from all the mass market shops in America! We spent hours wandering in and out of the stores and talking to shopkeepers. Icelanders all have near-perfect English and are so friendly.

Geysir store in Reykjavik, Iceland.

My favorite store was Geysir, a fashion-forward brand that carries a curated selection of indie Scandinavian designers, as well as labels like Isabel Marant and APC.

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6. which restaurants did you love?

I so wanted to come back from Iceland telling everyone I tried minke whale, horse, puffin and fermented shark. But, alas, the mood never took hold. One of the most memorable meals we had was our simple breakfast at Brauð & Co, an unassuming but special bakery that churns out divine Nordic breads and pastries.

Braud and Co., Reykjavik, Iceland.

The restaurants in the city are notoriously expensive even by New York City standards. Entrees can easily cost $50, so we wanted to make sure our dinner choices had been fully vetted in advance.

A friend recommended Matarkjallarinn (Food Cellar) which bills itself as an Icelandic brasserie. We dined on pan-fried salted cod with artichokes and pork belly, fisherman’s fish soup with smoked haddock, scallop, shrimp and leek, Yuzu glazed butternut squash with polenta, and a baked brie with fried hazelnuts. Everything was delicious.

Matarkjallarinn Food Cellar in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Skál had inventive tapas, small and large, that were well-suited to groups where someone is starving (usually me) but someone else is still stuffed from lunch.

Inside guide to the best first luxury trip to Reykjavik, Iceland: Skal restaurant.

We opted for steamed wild mussels in smoked tomato broth and kimchi; spiced pork cheeks; cod skin chiccarones; and pickled tomatoes in sweet basil vinaigrette and ricotta. This modern version on Icelandic cuisine earned the casual spot a “Bib Gourmand” award from Michelin.

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7. of everything you did on your first visit, what was the one most memorable thing?

Swimming in the darkness in the Blue Lagoon.

8. what’s on your list to see next time that you didn’t get to on your first visit?

I would travel to the Southeast coast to visit Diamond Beach (its Icelandic name isBreiðamerkursandur).

Inside guide to the best first luxury trip to Reykjavik, Iceland

Inside guide to the best first luxury trip to Reykjavik, Iceland: Diamond Beach.

It’s a black sand beach where chunks of icebergs wash up up on the shore. And I still want to see the Northern Lights in person.

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9. is this a good vacation for families with kids? teenagers? romantic partners? solo travelers? 

All of the above. But I think children will probably enjoy it more in the summer, while the winter is made for romance.

10. describe the city in three words: 

Dramatic. Haunting. Otherworldly.

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Crediting her training as a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, Julie has immersed herself in various industries in the last 15 years including fashion design, event planning, fitness and even investigating police misconduct. Julie lives in NYC where she loves trying every ramen and dumpling restaurant with her husband and three children. She finds joy in bold prints, biographies of fierce women, kickboxing and spending way too long finding the perfect polish color to express her mood.

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