Hólmavík

Hólmavík is a very cute little town at the entrance to the Westfjords. It can be accessed via Route 60 then 61 if you’re heading north from Reykjavik, or Route 68 from the Akureyri direction (or if you miss the turn off Route 1 from Reykjavik!). Buses run, but only on certain days of the week, and the route from Hólmavík to Ísafjörður only runs in the summer months.

The are hiking trails around Hólmavík, both along the fjord and up into the hills behind the town, offering good views back down. Ask at the tourist information for a trail map of the Westfjords.

A highlight is The Museum of Sorcery & Witchcraft – Hólmavík has a history of witchcraft and this great little museum does justice to this. The most grisly item on display is the Necropants – the skin of a man from the waist down which creates magical trousers with some gruesome powers.

Considering the town only has about 500 inhabitants, it has a lovely swimming pool with 3 hot tubs, sports hall and sauna. The pool seemed to be busiest in the evenings as the locals came to relax and catch up after work, which gave the whole place a friendly feel. If you’re staying at the camp site, the pool is right next door. Beware that we found the camp site to be particularly rocky in places – thin, strong tent pegs are advised.

Ísafjörður

Ísafjörður is the main centre of the Westfjords, with a population of around 2500. It is a common stopping point for cruise ships. By car, it can be reached by route 61 from the East via several windy sections in and out of the fjords of the coastline, or from the South via a pass which is quite steep in places and to be treated with great caution in bad weather. Alternatively, there are flights from Reykjavik domestic airport.

Things to do:

Kayaking on the fjord – there are several companies who will take you out sea kayaking from Ísafjörður. Staying within the confines of the fjord walls is a wonderfully peaceful introduction to kayaking and suitable for complete beginners. On a calm day, there isn’t a ripple on the water, particularly in the calm bay towards the head of the fjord.

Boat trip to Vigur – This tour best done in summer when the birds are on the island; you will get the chance to see puffins, eider ducks, arctic terns and skuas, as well as sheep and seals. It takes around 45 minutes to get to the little island of Vigur by boat then the tours usually offer a chance to wander around and explore, as well as coffee and cake at the little cafe and a demo of the construction of eider down pillows. One family looks after the island and makes their income from the sale of eider down.

Walking up to the hanging valley – from Ísafjörður town you can look across the fjord and your eye is drawn to the shallow hanging valley directly across from you. It’s an easy and flat walk to go around the head of the fjord along the edge of Route 61, and a not-too-challenging uphill section into the valley itself. From here, you get spectacular views down to the town and out to sea, and if you hunt around you will find a little surprise left by previous walkers….

Swimming pool – an unusual (for Iceland) indoor pool, this feels rather like a school pool until you realise it still has a hot tub and drinks can be brought out to you if you fancy a cup of coffee or juice – a nice touch I’ve not come across at any other Icelandic pool.

Westfjords heritage museum – good for a rainy day, this is a collection of maritime artefacts and details of the fishing traditions in the Westfjords. Salted fish is often laid out just outside, drying in the sun.

Top place to eat: Tjöruhúsið – down at the harbourside is the best restaurant I have come across in Iceland, and I don’t say that lightly. The freshest of fresh fish, brought out to your table in the pan surrounded by the vegetables fried with it, seasoned to perfection. It’s also cute and rustic inside, with big tables so you’ll be sharing with some other people, which all adds to the authentic atmosphere. Sadly this amazing restaurant is only open from easter and through the summer months.

Places to eat in Reykjavik

Possibly the cheapest place to get lunch is Ikea! This is to the south of the centre along route 41 (heading back to the airport). They do an Icelandic twist on all the usual favourites found in UK Ikeas, plus there is a café as well as the restaurant, which does a good selection of sandwiches, panini and cakes. Be warned that once you have entered the restaurant, yours truly could find no way to exit Ikea again without doing the full tour of the showrooms and market hall… If you visit at Christmas time, look out for the festive goat in the car park.

Things to do in Reykjavik centre

Landmarks and Views

  • Hallgrimskirkja is hard to miss. It’s 74.5m tall, as well as being on a hill, so can be seen for miles around. Often mistaken for a cathedral, it’s actually a Lutheran church. The design reflects the hexagonal structures formed by cooling volcanic basalt. Pop inside to admire the vast organ, and go up the tower for spectacular views of the city and bay. Outside the church is a statue of Leifur Eriksson, the first European to reach America.
  • The Perlan can be seen from miles around. It is situated on a hill just outside the city centre, and consists of five hot water storage tanks with a dome on top. Inside the lower part of the structure is the Wonders of Iceland, which features various exhibitions. But head upstairs to the observation deck for panoramic views of the city. Sadly, while the observation deck used to be free, it now has a small charge. Right at the top of the dome is a restaurant and café.
  • Harpa is the city’s opera house, located by the harbour. Check online before you travel to see what’s on, but even if there’s nothing that takes your fancy it’s worth going inside and taking the lift to the fifth floor. From here you can appreciate the vertiginous architecture in all its glory.

Shopping

  • Laugavegur is the main shopping street in Reykjavik. Here you will find an eclectic selection of tourist shops, outdoor clothing brands, restaurants and the occasional more “normal” looking shop. It’s not pedestrianised so look out for cars, but they go very slowly.
  • Kringlan / Smaralind are the two shopping malls in Reykjavik.

Museums

  • Whales of Iceland Museum – on the opposite side of the harbour from the Harpa, this is worth a wander around if you want to marvel at scale models of 23 whale and dolphin species found off the shores of Iceland. This includes the blue whale, measuring in at 25m long.
  • Phallological museum – located at Laugavegur 116, the Icelandic Phallological museum hosts over 215 penises, ranging from a blue whale to a mouse. It’s a slightly surreal experience. If you have an old guide book to Iceland, note that this museum used to be in Húsavík but has now relocated to the capital. Confused-looking people can still be found wandering around Húsavík, clutching their pre-2010 Lonely Planet guide and wondering where all the penises are.

Swimming in Reykjavik

Forget the Blue Lagoon; with Iceland’s wealth of geothermal energy the municipal pools in Reykjavík are the places to go to relax and rejuvenate for a much more reasonable price. Don’t let cold weather put you off, it’s even nicer sinking into a hot tub when the air temperature is below zero and there is snow on the ground. However, be aware that showering naked before entering the pools is always obligatory, and in places enforced by staff who monitor the shower areas. You soon get used to it, and it makes your pool experience feel so much cleaner. Liquid soap is provided. You also generally need to leave your shoes in a shoe rack outside the changing area to ensure no dirt gets inside. Lockers usually aren’t coin operated, just use the key provided to lock and unlock. Likewise, hair dryers usually aren’t coin operated either, and swimming costume dryers are often provided.

Municipal Pools in Reykjavík:

  • Laugardalslaug – this is Iceland’s largest pool, with two 50m pools (one indoor, one outdoor), a flume and children’s pool, several hot tubs ranging from 38 to 44°C, a saltwater hot tub, sauna and stream room.
  • Sundhöllin – this used to be an indoor only pool, with hot tubs on the roof and male/female sunbathing terraces, but has recently been extended to include a full outdoor complex too.
  • Vesturbæjarlaug – a bit of a walk to the West of the city, but a lovely pool with all the usual hot tubs and steam rooms.
  • Lágafellslaug – in the suburb of Mosfellsbær north out of the city along Route 1, this is a modern pool with flumes, hot tubs, a children’s pool and a lap pool.
  • Álftaneslaug – on the Alftanes peninsula, this is the only pool with a wave machine in Iceland. There’s also the usual lap pool, with a hot tub raised above it, sauna and steam room.
  • Árbæjarlaug – a pleasant entry on a cold day as you get into the indoor pool under a glass domed roof and swim outside. The children’s pool and lap pool are joined so you don’t have to venture out into the cold air. The entry to the flume is also very close to the water. Hot tubs require a quick sprint outside though. There is also an indoor pool.
  • Kópavogslaug – a 50m swimming pool and all the usual hot tubs, plus some bonus hot tubs at the far end of the lap pool.

Bonus pools….

The Blue Lagoon – if you really want to see what all the fuss is about, be prepared for some long queues to get in, even if you’ve pre-booked. The easiest way to do the Blue Lagoon is just after arrival, or just before departure, as certain Reykjavik Excursions coaches go via the Blue Lagoon on the way between Reykjavik and the airport. There is luggage storage available. The usual Icelandic washing rules apply in the changing rooms, but it’s not enforced as strongly as in the municipal pools.

Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach – an unusual yellow sand beach amongst the black volcanic sand elsewhere, this beach has been imported from Morocco. We took a look in winter, when the place was deserted and icy, but in the summer there is a hot tub along the back of the beach and you can swim in the sea if feeling brave.

Northern Lights Tours

There are many package trips which offer flights, hotel, and a Northern Lights tour. Be aware that various factors influence your likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights (or aurora borealis). First of all, don’t visit in summer! Night doesn’t fall in Iceland in the height of summer, there is just twilight for a few hours, so the aurora is not visible. The best time to go is between October and March. Secondly, cloud cover may obviously limit visibility, but Icelandic weather is very variable so clouds may not be set for the whole night. Finally, the aurora varies in strength, so keep an eye on the aurora forecast (http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/) which gives a rating between 0 and 9 for the strength of the aurora each night. The good news is that most tours will take you out again for free if you don’t see the lights on your first night.

 

If you go on an aurora tour, be prepared for a coach trip lasting an hour or more as you are taken away from the city lights. Take warm clothes. You will likely be taken to a location near a café, so you can visit the restrooms and buy a hot drink, but this isn’t guaranteed. The coach will have a guide who will hopefully keep you entertained with tales of Iceland and the science of the Northern Lights, and you’ll likely get back to your hotel around 1-2am, depending on the aurora conditions.

Reykjavik hints and tips

Some random advice we have gathered from our time in Iceland’s capital…

  • It can get very noisy in the centre of the city on Friday and Saturday nights. If you want a peaceful night’s sleep, choose a hotel away from the main roads.
  • Reykjavik is one of the safest cities in Europe but all usual advice about keeping yourself safe still applies. The emergency services can be reached on 112.
  • Bonus is a supermarket chain and can be identified by the scary/drunken pink pig logo on a yellow background.
  • In winter many of the main streets/pavements in the city have underground heating, preventing the build up of ice. However, be aware that not all pavements have this, and for much of winter untreated areas can be icy and very slippery.
  • Tipping is not necessary in Iceland, and usually you go to the bar to pay when you’re finished rather than waiting for the cheque to be brought to your table.