If you are heading to Iceland for business or pleasure, keep these odd facts in mind: Most of the people in Iceland believe in elves. That said, it is one of the oldest democracies on the planet; police do not carry guns and the country does not have mosquitoes.
Indeed, landing in Iceland, an island nation the size of Ohio (with 1/40th the population), is more akin to landing on a cold moon with its landscape of looming glaciers, plumes of steaming hot springs and rocky, unforested moraines. The Game of Thrones series on HBO uses these haunting northlands as a backdrop for everything that is “Beyond the Wall.” But for all its stark beauty and quirky character it is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets for meetings and doing business.
“Our competitive advantage is Iceland’s strategic location midway between North America and Europe. Iceland is only five hours from the east coast of North America and two to three hours from Europe – ideal to ‘Meet in the Middle,’” says Brynja Laxdal, director of marketing at Meet in Reykjavík. “Secondly, the rugged and unique nature in close vicinity to Reykjavik makes Iceland very attractive. The fact is, Iceland is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. And let’s not forget that everybody in Iceland speaks English,” Laxdal adds.
Visitor numbers to Iceland from the US have been steadily climbing at 20 to 30 percent year over year to some 242,805 visitors last year. While the great majority of these visits (some 86 percent) are for vacation, 10.4 percent are for conference and meetings, according to the latest Promote Iceland statistics. In 2015, 88,000 MICE guests visited Iceland, representing an increase of 11 percent from the previous year. Average annual increases over the last five years have hovered around 13.6 percent, and those meetings are split fairly evenly between winter and summer.
The Chilling Effect
That is probably because Iceland is not the land of ice, despite the threat of its name.
“That is the chilliest thing about Iceland,” says Ashildur Bragadottir, director at Visit Reykjavik. “Despite its northerly location, Iceland is really more solar than polar, thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream which provides a temperate climate year round. Icelandic weather is unusually volatile, however. The Gulf Stream brings mild Atlantic air in contact with colder Arctic air, resulting in frequent and abrupt weather shifts where you may experience four seasons in one day.”
What you won’t get in winter is light. At this location next to the Arctic Circle, the darkness prevails throughout the days of winter, but makes its seasonal reversal in summer for 24 hours of daylight. Temperatures in winter, however, sound worse than they are. The southerly lowlands around the capital of Reykjavik maintain a balmy 32 degrees most days, while the highlands in the north can dip into the minus numbers. Summers see sunny days rise into the 50s and 60s.
“Icelanders welcome challenges and have a ‘can-do’ mentality,” adds Laxdal. “The only thing one can never predict in Iceland is the weather. But the saying is ‘there is never such a thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.’”
Not surprisingly, the majority of visitors to Iceland plan their time there for the weeks between May and October, booking up most of the hotels to be had in the temperate months far in advance. Most of those rooms are in Reykjavik which currently has around 4,500 hotel rooms with an additional 2,000 expected to come online in the next two years.
Most visitors arrive through Keflavík International Airport, located about 40 minutes from Reykjavik, a civilized city of some 100,000 souls, and the seat of government for Iceland. It’s a friendly city, with a very handsome and casual prime minister (move over Justin Trudeau) and a rockin’ bar scene.
As the world’s northernmost capital, culture is not forsaken, but there are also hot springs to be tried, glaciers to be explored, waterfalls to be found, hiking and biking trails to be walked and biked, the northern lights to be chased and some adventurous dining to be done.
“People love to cultivate their curiosity and bring home stories about their experience and Iceland certainly has a lot of places that can take your breath away. An added influential factor that is becoming more prominent is the fact that Iceland is a safe and secure destination,” says Laxdal.
For those visitors coming in for business or meetings, Reykjavik can be a particularly pleasant city to settle into for a few nights. Corporate-standard hotels include the Reykjavik Marina Residence that opened last year (just a few suites inside two connecting historic, refurbished houses on Reykjavik’s charming harbor); Canopy by Hilton that opens with 112 rooms in June; two Radissson Blu properties, and a number of boutique-style hotels that dot the city with varying tiers in upscale appeal and amenities.
These include the 101 Hotel in Downtown Reykjavik, a young and contemporary upscale boutique property with 38 rooms and a full array of amenities. Also, the Alda Hotel, simple, smart, sophisticated with 65 rooms in efficient minimalist design; Hotel Holt with 41 warm and casual rooms, 1960s sensibilities and a restaurant that serves home-baked bread and local jams; and the Grand Hotel Reykjavik that is easily the largest hotel in Iceland with 314 rooms, a gym, meeting rooms, room service and a restaurant known for its gourmet Nordic cuisine.
Roaming in Reykjavik
While Reykjavik is not a big city by American urban standards it is spread out. Roughly the size of San Francisco, it divides into 10 districts, and for those who want to keep things simple and on foot, the best places to lodge are in the 101 mailing code. This is the historic city center with small and eclectic dwellings and a concentration of bars, shops and restaurants to keep the streets bustling.
A clean and efficient bus system traverses the streets of the Icelandic capital. A “Reykjavik City Card” is recommended if planning a multi-day stay with visits to the city’s museums and cultural attractions. Bus rides are free with the card.
As Iceland was once under the Danish crown, it is not surprising that bikes are popular here, and, as in Copenhagen, cyclists and pedestrians share the paths.
Walking around Reykjavik’s Old Town, visitors see lots of old wooden houses with corrugated metal siding painted in wild color schemes. City planning was a feat that happened here in fits and starts, starting with rules early on that houses should be built in alignment to sunlight exposure. This rule continued to influence how streets in Reykjavík were laid out through the mid-20th century.
But the haphazard nature of Reykjavik is part of its charm. Ultra-modernist minimalist cubes may intersperse with reclaimed fish processing warehouses, followed by buildings designed in Bauhaus era neoclassical concrete.
Museums bring out the very deep and storied histories of this land as well as showcase the unusual creative movements of Icelandic painters and artists. Top stops for Reykjavik’s museums include The Culture House, which reopened last year as a contemporary venue that sheds a light on Iceland’s heritage and offers a beautiful view of the harbor and Harpa, Iceland’s new gleaming concert and conference hall. There are bookable meeting rooms, and concerts are sometimes held in the entrance hall. Guided tours of the Medieval Manuscripts are available.
The Reykjavik Art Museum is the country’s largest art museum, spread into three locations around the city. It focuses on paintings and sculptures by both Icelandic and foreign artists but most notably, the works of Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885-1972).
There are plenty of galleries for Icelandic artists current and past: The Living Art Musuem; the Einar Jonsson Museum, the Gerdasafn Museum; and Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum among them.
And there is an odd assortment of museums dedicated to the local spectacles of nature (the Volcano House and the Aurora Reykjavik: Northern Lights Center), Viking history (the Saga Museum), and distracting preoccupations (Phallological Museum, yes … that).
Sipping and Soaking
Shoppers will find plenty of reindeer sweaters and cute Christmas ornaments but Iceland is not the best place to take a shopping list. Its industries center around fishing and processing, farming, sheep and geothermal energy. Import levels are high here and shopping deals are not the focus. Better to spend that time touring the island and soaking up some of the warmth in those blue water mineral baths.
In fact, even the shyest tourist can expect to conform to the top rule in an Iceland visit. That is: taking a hot springs soak. It may involve wearing few, if any, clothes. It will involve a good, clean scrubbing before getting into the steamy water and it will likely be enhanced with alcohol, the sipping kind.
The Blue Lagoon is the most famous of these soaking palaces. Most bathhouses are casual affairs with locker rooms and showers and a rough-hewn pool that takes all stress away. But the Blue Lagoon is a full service hotel, spa and treatment center with restaurants, bars and a massive natural hot springs lake that glows sky blue from the glacial silt that runs into it.
Most people come for the day: the spa is located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, only 30 minutes away from the city and close to the International airport. They purchase pricey day packages that include all the soaking you can handle and a drink or two from the swim up bar.
Problem is, the Lagoon has been discovered and soaking up the scene in nature with hundreds of others around you partying and floating, drinks in hand, may not be the best course for stress busting. The good news is that Reykjavik, and indeed all of Iceland, is loaded with quaint wayside bathhouses for soaking and snoozing no matter what the weather or season. There are at least 18 of these places in Reykjavik alone.
Other to-dos? According to Bragadottir of Visit Reykjavik, the Golden Circle tour is likely the most popular daytrip from Reykjavik and well worth doing if you have little time and want to experience the extreme nature of the country. It allows you to visit some of Iceland’s most stunning sights, starting with the geyser geothermal area where the Strokkur geyser shoots a column of water up to 98 feet into the air every 4-8 minutes in a thrilling display of nature’s forces.
The visit continues with Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall on the river Hvítá, which tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 105 feet deep. The Golden Circle tour also goes through Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimeters per year.
“Into the Glacier is one of the new attractions and is becoming more and more popular,” says Bragadottir. “It‘s a man-made ice cave in west part of Iceland, two hours drive from Reykjavik. The tunnel and the caves are located in the second largest glacier of Europe, Langjökull. Activities like glacier tours, mountain climbing, snorkeling and diving, river rafting and snow mobiling are also becoming popular and there are variety of day tours available for these activities.”
Dining in Reykjavik is also bound to be adventurous. Seafood is pure in these waters and cod, haddock, herring, lobster and salmon are all on the menu, as is minke whale, served seared and fired up on kebabs.
Lamb and mutton, so famed for their tender quality, is a top export of the country. Don’t leave without trying the Icelandic hotdog, called pylsa, made with lamb and smothered in ketchup, sweet brown mustard, onions, and a remoulade sauce. Best had at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a rolling pylsur stand made famous when Bill Clinton popped in for one in 2004.
Don’t necessarily try the hákarl, a stinky dish made from buried, cured, aired and fermented shark meat. Other menu items you might want to skip include horsemeat, ram’s testicles and boiled sheep’s head – with or without a side of potatoes and mashed turnips.
And while you will not find a McDonald’s anywhere in Iceland, you can have a great burger at Kex Hostel, and a slice of pizza washed down with one of the 20 or so brews on tap at Mikkeller & Friends, Hverfisgata 12.
In fact, beer is something Iceland does very well. The spirit became legal in Iceland only in 1989 and since that time dozens of craft beers have popped up, enhanced by the pure Icelandic waters and, at times, exceptional regional tastes.
For instance, Iceland’s Brugghús Steðja makes Hvalur 2, a seasonal ale that uses fin whale testicles in the brewing process. The fresh parts are smoked according to old Icelandic traditions with dry sheep dung before adding to the brew.
You’ll find more than 56 bars and pubs in Downtown Reykjavik. Iceland is LGBT friendly and has a boisterous youth scene. Door fees are rare to non-existent and bars are so close to each other it takes just seconds to “crawl” between them. The party usually pours into the streets. Bars close at 1:00 AM weekdays but weekends are another story. Last call might be at 5 in the morning.
Air to Iceland
Getting to Iceland from the US is easy. In addition to a new no-frills airline called WOW launched earlier this decade, Icelandair has been flying as a full service airline since 1937. Icelandair offers 16 routes from North American gateways and from more than 20 gateways in Europe, including the launch of year-round service from Chicago O’Hare in April and seasonal flights from Montreal in May.
A hidden benefit of taking Icelandair from the US to a destination beyond Iceland is the free stopover, which lets passengers see Iceland and visit Reykjavik without purchasing a special ticket.
“The Stopover has been gaining popularity every year and is a great opportunity for travelers who want to see the country before heading off to their final destination,” says Michael Raucheisen, marketing and communications representative for Icelandair. “If you are only in Iceland for a short time there is a lot you can do to experience it, if only enjoying a day at the Blue Lagoon or doing the Golden Circle tour.
The airline has come a long way from its days as “the Hippie Airline” in the 1960s when it offered cheap seats to college kids heading to Europe. Today, business travelers enjoy SAGA class and the SAGA lounge at Keflavík International Airport, as well as using various Icelandair partner lounges in other airports the carrier serves.
“The financial collapse in 2008 brought a lot of attention to Iceland and made it more affordable for visitors. Then in 2010 the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull made the headlines and showcased the beauty and raw power Iceland has to offer,” Raucheisen explains. “With the influx of commercials, movies and television shows being filmed around the country, people have been inundated with amazing visuals and want to see this magnificent place for themselves.”
By Lark Gould