First, let's get a few things out on the table. Yes, Reykjavik is in Iceland, which is, in fact, an icy island about half the year. And, yes, Iceland was the culprit in 2010's volcanic eruption fiasco. But, what you might not know is that in the cold, long winter, Icelanders warm up in this capital's geothermal spas; and away from the city lights, they can drink in the beauty of the aurora borealis. In the summer, the weather is divine and the days are long – some days see 20 hours of sunlight. And volcanoes, like the notorious Eyjafjallajökull, are just one part of Iceland's dramatic and ethereal landscape. There are also gushing waterfalls, awe-inspiring geysers, expansive glaciers and wide-open spaces filled with Icelandic horses and sheep. Plus, Reykjavik boasts a raging nightlife scene and a surprisingly good handful of museums and local shops.
The best time to visit Reykjavik is from June to August. Not only can you enjoy the balmy temps (for Iceland, at least), but you'll also experience long days (think: up to 21 hours of sunlight ... a phenomenon dubbed "midnight sun"). If you're looking to save some Icelandic króna, you'll be able to do so in the winter; but those who wrestle with seasonal affective disorder might reconsider: the sun only peeks out for four or five hours between December and February.
Data sourced from the National Climatic Data Center
Although Iceland is relatively young (it has only been a country since 1944, when it gained independence from Denmark), the country boasts one of the world's most celebrated cultures. Settled by Scandinavian immigrants (known as Vikings) and British slaves between the ninth and 10th centuries, Iceland continues to celebrate its Viking customs and traditions through the retelling of folktales about elves and trolls.
Because of its isolated location, Icelandic – Iceland's official language – has hardly changed since the country was settled. But when American troops were stationed in Iceland during the latter part of World War II, many Icelanders taught themselves English by watching the military base's TV channel. As a result, most Icelanders today speak Icelandic and English. Icelandic, therefore, is not necessary to use when visiting, but if you'd like to try speaking the language, here are a few key words and phrases to remember: "halló" (hello), "skál" (cheers), "takk" (thank you) and "bless á medan" (goodbye).
Popular pastimes in Iceland include reading books and listening to music. Icelandic authors publish more books (per capita) than authors from any other country in the world, and Iceland has a vibrant music scene. It is hardly surprising, then, that the country that's home to international sensations like Björk, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men also hosts a variety of music festivals every year. Additionally, Iceland's nightlife scene is highly regarded. For the most action, plan on going out around 1 a.m. on Saturday or Sunday.
When eating at one of Reykjavik's restaurants, you'll notice some dining customs are a bit different. Waitstaff in Iceland, like other parts of Europe, are generally paid more than servers in the U.S., so tipping is not required. What's more, it is customary to get up and pay for your meal at a register (rather than asking for the check). And keep in mind that the Icelandic króna, which equals about one American penny, is the official currency here. Since the króna to U.S. dollar exchange rate fluctuates, be sure to check what the current exchange rate is before you go.
As questionable as Icelandic delicacies like putrefied shark, pickled ram's testicles, sheep's head, minke whale and puffin sound, you can always trust that New Nordic cuisine will be prepared with fresh and rich ingredients. Local seafood, in particular, is a mainstay in Icelandic fare – fitting of a city surrounded by arctic waters. The city is also known for skyr (a yogurt-like dairy product offered in a variety of flavors), hangikjöt (smoked lamb) and pylsur (hot dogs that are deepened in flavor by lamb meat). And no visit to Reykjavik would be complete without trying Íslensk kjötsúpa (a traditional lamb soup that varies by restaurant, much like a mole sauce in Mexican cuisine or a marinara sauce in Italy). Icelanders will no doubt try to convince you that their lamb meat is the best out there and with good reason. The rumored secret behind the savory meat is the freedom the sheep are given to roam as they please.
For upscale dining, pay a visit to Food Cellar or Fiskfelagid Fish Company, where fresh seafood and lamb are served with a modern twist. If you'd rather grab a quick bite while saving some coin, sample a pylsur with the works (raw and fried onions, slightly spicy mustard, apple-filled ketchup and a relish-like sauce made with mayo and capers) at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Be prepared to wait in line, though, since this hot dog stand is popular with locals and tourists alike. It has even welcomed American icons like former President Bill Clinton and Kim Kardashian West.
When you've eaten your way through all of Reykjavik's top restaurants, don't forget to stop by a cafe, where selling quality coffee made by trained baristas is the norm. Reykjavik Roasters is especially popular with locals. Icelandic beers made by companies like Einstök Beer Company and Ölgerdin Egill Skallagrímsson are also highly regarded. Some of Reykjavik's most popular watering holes include The Icelandic Bar and Micro Bar.
The best ways to get around Reykjavik are by foot, car and tour bus. Although rates are often higher for organized tours, traveling by tour bus comes without the headaches of driving on unfamiliar and sometimes icy roads. If you'd rather keep your travel expenses low and roam freely without sticking to a set schedule, car hires are likely your best option. Neither, however, is suggested for exploring central Reykjavik, which is small and walkable. Taxis and public transportation are available as well but are generally more expensive. To travel between the city center and Keflavik International Airport (KEF), consider using a local tour bus operator like Gray Line Iceland and Reykjavik Excursions.See details for Getting Around
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Americans who wish to enter Iceland must have a U.S. passport that's valid for at least three months past their last day in the country. Proof of sufficient funds and a return airline ticket are also required, but travelers won't need a visa when staying less than 90 days. Additional information about Iceland's entry and exit requirements is available on the U.S. State Department's website .
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