Reykjavik is upping its game with fire, ice, craft beer and cocktails

Reykjavik is upping its game with fire, ice, craft beer and cocktails

We can’t get enough of Iceland, with more tourists than ever heading to the Land of Fire and Ice this year. Tourism is such big business, it has even surpassed fishing as the country’s main earner.

And it shows no sign of letting up. Hotels are springing up like daisies in the capital, Reykjavik, with construction under way on the city’s first five-star address. Restaurants, too, are taking advantage of the buoyant economy, with longer opening hours and more experimental cooking. At last, Icelandic cuisine, which has long stood on the fringes of the New Nordic movement (dominated by Norway and Denmark), is catching up, with chefs re-inventing classic dishes with new flavours while retaining traditional ingredients.

And winter is the time to go. Yes, it’s cold but there are far fewer tourists, and with unpredictable weather throughout the year it’s more fun exploring in the snow than the rain. Plus there’s every chance of catching the northern lights too — even in Reykjavik.Reykjavik is upping its game with fire, ice, craft beer and cocktails

A new Hilton is the latest to open its doors and — whisper this — is arguably the city’s coolest address. But this is not just some business hotel without personality: it’s the first in the group’s new Canopy boutique-style brand (00 354 528 7000; canopy.hilton.com/reykjavik). Spread across six converted townhouses, the hotel has the feel of an ultra-cool home, with vibrant colours, clean lines and stylish design. And the cocktail bar, with local mixologists, feels more hip hangout than hotel. Doubles from ISK 25,220 (£180), including breakfast.

Where to eat and drink

Eating out in Reykjavik can leave a serious dent in your wallet, and therefore for lunch it’s best to opt for a café rather than a full-blown restaurant. Café Loki (00 354 466 2828) — opposite the impressive Hallgrímskirkja church — is a locals’ haunt, serving traditional Icelandic cuisine without pomp or ceremony. The Icelandic Plates, of which there are three to choose from, are a good pick for newcomers, with delicacies such as sheep’s head jelly, smoked lamb and fermented shark. Groups should choose a couple to share, while adventurous types should opt for the Icelandic Braveheart (ISK 1,900/£14), which has a little of everything.

For many years, Iceland lagged in the kitchen, with restaurants serving the same old dishes. These days, while the staples (fish and lamb) remain ever present, the city’s best chefs have ripped up the rule book to produce an eclectic mix of exciting new Icelandic fare. Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, head chef at Matur og Drykkur (00 354 571 8877; maturogdrykkur.is), is one of the pioneers, and has created a modern menu inspired by a famous cookbook that features 1,400 old family recipes from around the island. The eight-course tasting menu, including the scary-sounding but tasty cod’s head, and a sheep’s blood meringue, costs ISK 9,990 (£70).Reykjavik is upping its game with fire, ice, craft beer and cocktails

For fresh seafood and craft cocktails made using homemade syrups and infusers, try Kol (00 354 517 7474; kolrestaurant.is). Inside, the interior is trendy yet chic with an open kitchen and impressive bar. The charred salmon melts in the mouth and is served with a subtle dill hollandaise and homemade granola (ISK 4,590/£32). The restaurant is also a good choice for vegetarians in a city that otherwise barely caters — the vegan nut steak comes highly recommended (ISK 4,390/£30).

The Icelandic microbrewing scene has exploded of late, with craft-beer-makers fermenting hops at a rate of knots, in a country where beer was outlawed until 1989. Bryggjan Brugghús (00 354 456 4040; bryggjanbrugghus.is) is both a bistro and a microbrewery — and a great place for a bite before a bar crawl. The langoustine feast platter (ISK6,600/£47) should set you up well, or the mussels in beer (ISK 3,100/£22), washed down with a glass of this year’s Christmas brew (a glass of their Session IPA).Reykjavik is upping its game with fire, ice, craft beer and cocktails

On a Saturday night, head for Laugavegur, the city’s main street, and join the runtur (the “round-tour”). Start at the MicroBar (00 354 865 8389), a popular haunt for the arty crowd, for more craft beer or head a little further up the road to Lebowski Bar (00 354 552 2300; lebowski.is), another locals’ hangout famed for its White Russian made with Icelandic vodka.Reykjavik is upping its game with fire, ice, craft beer and cocktails

The final call for any late-night Reykjavik reveller is inevitably Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (00 354 511 1566; bbp.is) — “the best hotdog in town”, to translate the name — which has queues 50-strong at kicking-out time. Order “one with everything” for the lamb hotdog covered in ketchup, mustard, raw and fried onion and remoulade (ISK 420/£3).

Where to shop

Take a stroll along Skólavörðustígur — a small street dwarfed by the mighty Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church — stopping to explore the boutiques. For a traditional Icelandic sweater, with its coarse but seriously toasty sheep’s wool, make a beeline for the Handknitting Association (00 354 552 1890; handknit.is). Inside, the shop is packed with jumpers of all size, shape and style, knitted by country folk from all over Iceland — you won’t find them cheaper anywhere.

What to do and seeReykjavik is upping its game with fire, ice, craft beer and cocktails

It’s hard to miss Hallgrimskirkja, which is visible from all over the city. Its arresting steeple, with columns resembling the shapes lava forms when it cools into basalt rock, seems to sum up Nordic design and the Icelandic sagas in one building.

If you’re keen to learn about Iceland’s historical Sagas — written in the 13th and 14th centuries — start at the Saga Museum (00 354 511 1517; sagamuseum.is).

Now for something completely different… The Icelandic Phallological Museum (00 354 561 6663; phallus.is) is, as you’ve probably guessed, an exhibition celebrating penises of all shapes and sizes. Sixty-two varieties of them, from those of the humble dormouse to polar bears. The centrepiece, however, is that of the sperm whale (ISK 1,500, £10).Reykjavik is upping its game with fire, ice, craft beer and cocktails

A trip to Iceland wouldn’t be complete without exploring its natural wonders, and a Golden Circle tour is a great introduction, taking in Þingvellir National Park (where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet), Gullfoss waterfall and the Strokkur geyser. For geology buffs, a full-day tour with a guide is best, while those after Instagram bragging rights will be fine on the Grey Line afternoon “express” tour (00 354 540 1313; grayline.is).

Details: Reykjavik

Icelandair (020 7874 1000; icelandair.co.uk) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Reykjavik from £153 return.

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