In October last year we flew to Iceland for five days with a collective goal of seeing the Northern Lights and hanging out with John Grant or Björk (or both). Basing ourselves in an Airbnb in the centre of Reykjavik, we were perfectly placed for wandering round the city and driving out to the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon and geysers of Geysir. The tourist trail round here is pretty well trodden so we thought we'd share with you our three favourite places that are a bit more off the beaten track.
Just beyond the centre of Reykjavik old town you'll find The Nordic House, created by Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Opened in 1968 as a cultural centre and space to foster connections between Iceland and its Nordic neighbours, The Nordic House sits quietly within an open plain of university land and could easily be missed. But if you are a fan of Nordic Modernism we would highly recommend you seek this place out.
The building houses a shop, renowned bistro, astounding library (where you can borrow beautiful pieces of Modernist and contemporary art), performance space and meeting room all furnished and detailed by Aalto. Matt black, ceramic grid tiles flow underfoot and slatted wood panels divide and hide spaces. Aalto's signature Tea Carts are dotted around the space to hold books, water jugs and kid's toys whilst we sit on his 615 Chairs sipping wine and looking out across the pond and back towards town.
About an hour out of Reykjavik, Gamla Laugin, or The Secret Lagoon, is the most remarkable swimming experience I have ever had. This geothermal pool was refurbished in 2014 but retains all of its original unspoilt, natural charm. Steam billows up where the, bath-warm, water hits the cold air and the volcanic geysers that feed the pool bubble up on the grassy banks around you.
It is quiet here (go before other people find out!) and whilst the Blue Lagoon welcomes busloads of tourists every day, Gamla Laugin is often deserted and you may well be bobbing around all on your own.
Find out more here.
Now, back to John Grant... whilst we were able to tick the Northern Lights off our to-do list (amazing!) sadly John Grant was out of town and Björk nowhere to be seen. However, we did go for coffee and cake at Mokka, Reykjavik's oldest coffee shop, with an interior unchanged since 1958 and made slightly more famous by appearing on John Grant's 2013 Pale Green Ghosts album cover.
Large abstract canvases hang on the walls over low teak coffee tables and vinyl benches, the carpet is sticky with 60 years of spilled coffee and two old locals sit with their shoes off nursing cups of coffee and a long conversation.
We sat in one of the dark wooden booths drinking hot chocolate and trying to recreate that "hard stare" from the album cover.
This place doesn't seem to attract the tourists and you're far more likely to be sat next to a student pouring over text books or those old fellas in their woolly socks.
You can visit Mokka here.
Other places, spaces and people worth a mention...
Sundhöllin - municipal swimming pool in the heart of Reykjavik and well used by the locals for its vast tiled pool and rooftop hot tubs.
Glo - a raw-food cafe in the centre of town with really good soups, salads and tarts for those more health conscious moments.
Friðheimar - eat all the tomato soup you could ever need right in the middle of a greenhouse surrounded by tomato plants.