In a city that is home to two thirds of the Icelandic population and plays host to over six million visitors a year, getting off the beaten track in Reykjavik is an absolute must.
While the literal translation of Þingvellir offhandedly refers to this beautiful national park as ‘Thing Fields’, the Þingvellir National Park is of both historical as well as geological importance to the island and well worth a visit. Here the first Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, was formed in 930AD and continued to meet in the open-air assembly until 1798. You can still see remnants of the 50 parliament booths among the fissured landscape of the park. The sporty among us can scuba dive in the national park’s lakes, or for the less athletically gifted, check out the incredible landscape that the meeting of two tectonic plates in the park has created.
It may not be a thing of natural beauty but if you are visiting Reykjavik, you must pay a trip to the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog stand on the city’s waterfront. This kiosk has been serving tourists and locals alike since it first opened in 1937 and has fed everyone from Bill Clinton to the lead singer of Metallica. With that heritage, it is downright rude not to tuck in!
Locals suggested that one of the best ways to see the land of fire and ice is on the back of one of the island’s lesser known inhabitants: the Icelandic horse. I did wonder whether a 4x4 might be easier, but I was assured that horseback is the only way to go. These sturdy equines have a unique gait, totally adapted to trekking around the Icelandic terrain. Having first arrived on the island in the 9th century, they are also an integral part of Icelandic heritage. Pay a visit to Íshester Riding Stable to meet these friendly little creatures. They offer brilliant riding tours and are based just outside of Reykjavik for the best access to the Golden Circle of tourism that includes Þingvellir, Gullfoss and the geysers.
I was always told that money doesn’t grow on trees but at Gullfoss it looks like it flows in rivers. The waterfall is part of the River Hvítá that stems from the Lángjökull Glacier about 40km north of Gullfoss. The mineral composition of this glacial water means that when the sun shines on the three-step waterfall, the crevice gleams like gold. One thing is for sure, it’s a pretty magical place and a must see for all visitors.
With its 4,970 kilometres of coastline it comes as no surprise that Iceland is just as famous for its seafood as its hotdogs. So moving from one foodie extreme to another, I headed to Slippbarinn to sample some hearty Icelandic cuisine. Knowing full well that islanders list putrefied shark fin (oh yes) as one of the nation’s delicacies, I prepared myself for the worse. Luckily, I escaped this dish. Slipp Bar is the one of the best places in the city to experience Reykjavik like a local. Here you can enjoy Icelandic music, art and even some alternative stand-up comedy without any sign (or smell!) of rotting fish. Instead the head chef, Bjarni Siguróli Jakobsson, recommended the most amazing Icelandic dish of salt cod, one of the more palatable delicacies of the island and a treat for all foodie travellers.
After many a debate on the flight to Iceland about how to say the word (turns out it is pronounced like ‘gai-sir’ in Iceland) I was pretty excited to visit this natural phenomenon and it didn’t disappoint! The intense volcanic activity in Iceland means that the geysers are among the most impressive in the world with each jet spurting every five to eight minutes to a height of around 30 metres. If you have a penchant for wearing crazy umbrella hats and making pretty sharp exits you’ll love it here.
Something that not many people know about Iceland is that beer was banned on the island until 1989, the last drink to be permitted as the island’s 1915 prohibition was lifted. So now the islanders are playing catch-up. The Biscuit Bar in Kex Hostel is a fantastic place to do so, serving frosty beer and spirits in very hip but cosy surroundings. True to the name, the bar was built in an old biscuit factory that was originally destined to be skyrise flats before Iceland’s economic crisis in 2008; a lucky escape for both the locals and tourists who flock to this stylish hangout in abundance.
In his role as Amex Travel Insider, Alex Zane is taking a sneak peek behind the scenes of some of Europe’s most popular cities, getting the inside track, uncovering hidden gems and bringing to life the enriched experiences American Express Cardmembers have access to. To follow his journey visit youtube.com/AmericanExpressUK
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