Destination of the week: Reykjavik, Iceland
Pedestrian-friendly capital is ideal for travelers who want to leave a light carbon footprint — and still enjoy a geothermal spring.
Mon, Jan 31 2011 at 6:01 AM
AHHHH: The Blue Lagoon is one of several geothermally heated springs in Reykjavik. (Photo: almassengale/Flickr)
Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city and home to a vast majority of its population. Tourists headed to the island spend most, if not all, of their time in the Reykjavik metro area. Once one of Europe’s most prosperous countries, Iceland’s recent financial problems have brought political changes and unrest (of the nonviolent variety). However, the resulting favorable exchange rates have helped attract tourists.
In many ways, Reykjavik is an ideal destination for environmentalists and eco-travelers. It is a clean city that is powered mostly by sustainable energy (Iceland uses hydroelectricity and geothermal energy). It has stations that dispense fuel for hydrogen-powered vehicles. Unusual natural attractions like volcanoes, glaciers and geothermal lakes make things exciting for eco-tourists, while the country’s generally green conscience will bring comfort to environmentally conscious travelers.
Reykjavik’s renewable energy and fleet of hydrogen buses makes it one of the greenest cities in the world. It is widely recognized for this (including a 2008 nod as one of the world’s greenest city from Grist Magazine). Temps rarely rise above 60 degrees in the summer, but winters are comparatively mild, with average highs in Reykjavik above freezing for the entire year (that’s cool, but not nearly as “icy” as its name suggests).
Reykjavik is one of the easiest cities in which to live green. While many locals prefer to drive, there are good alternatives for tourists. A bus system runs regularly to all the major sites. Buses run on time, and daily and weekly passes are available. The tourist authority offers Welcome Cards that include unlimited bus service plus admission to museums, ferry rides and entrance fees to one of the local thermal spring swimming spots (see below).
Despite the fact that most locals opt for four-wheel transportation, plenty of bike paths throughout the city make it possible to commute from one attraction to another. Several companies offer bike tours and provide rental service for standard or electric bicycles.
Despite the comparably cool weather, Reykjavik is a pedestrian-friendly city with well-kept sidewalks and paths and great urban scenery and architecture that can be best appreciated on foot.
Reykjavik’s two Hostelling International locations have been awarded the Swan label by the Nordic Eco-labeling organization. This nod is given to businesses in Scandinavian countries that commit to ecologically friendly practices. The Swan is for businesses that have eco-friendly waste plans, use sustainably sourced materials and have low carbon emissions. With almost complete reliance on geothermal energy or hydroelectricity, any hotel in Reykjavik offers guests the chance to leave a very light carbon footprint during their stay.
Reykjavik might not be a destination for beachgoers who want sun and sand, but it certainly stands out because of its uniquely warm water. Geothermal heated springs provide ideal swimming (or soaking) conditions regardless of the time of year. A geothermal beach has been created in Nautholsvik Bay. Naturally heated water flows into the bay, creating water temperatures of about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Those who don’t mind a commute can get their warm water experience at the Blue Lagoon, a naturally heated lagoon about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik. A hotel and a spa feature in-water spa treatments that take advantage of the mineral rich and comfortably warm salt water.
More-traditional thermally heated swimming pools are scattered throughout the metro area. Though the two mentioned above are arguably the most attractive for visitors, the more than half-dozen others offer mineral-rich waters and other features such as hot tubs, Jacuzzis, steam rooms and water slides.
Reykjavik is a hip, cosmopolitan city, so even though meat and dairy products are dietary staples, there are some decent vegetarian options as well. Á Næstu Grösum offers seasonal vegetarian dishes made with organic ingredients. There are organically made wines and beers on the menu as well. Icelandic Fish and Chips features natural ingredients and fresh, locally caught fish. There are gluten-free offerings as well. It is difficult to avoid seafood in Reykjavik, and Fish and Chips is one of the better organic options.
There are several vegetarian options in town, including Grænn Kostur, a small café serving vegetarian fare with organic items available.
For horse lovers and people looking for a way to see the inland parts of Iceland in a unique way, horseback tours are a good, widely available option. The Hotel Eldhestar, about 30 minutes outside Reykjavik, has a hotel and a wide selection of horseback tours, ranging from a few hours to a few days in length. This is an eco-friendly way to see the countryside without relying on four wheelers or snowmobiles. The Ishestar Riding Center, a few minutes outside of Reykjavik, is a convenient option for riders who opt for day tours. Rides include trips to some of the most popular sites and attractions in and around Reykjavik, including the Blue Lagoon and whale watching tours. Ishestar has several popular options for less than 100 euros (about $134).
Whale watching is a popular activity for tourists. The cold waters off of Iceland’s coast are teeming with dolphins and humpbacked whales, as well as other marine mammals. Tour company Elding has regular whale watching tours that leave from Reykjavik’s old port. Sea birds like cormorants and puffins are also part of the allure of these tours. Elding also offers puffin breeding-season tours to two islands near Reykjavik where they nest. It is sometimes possible to see the birds, known for their distinctly colored and shaped beaks, in or near Reykjavik as well.
Hikers and climbers can find a great venue for their sports at Esjan, a collection of volcanoes just outside of Reykjavik. There are trails of varying difficulty leading to the highest points of Esjan. The best feature of Esjan, for urban travelers, is that it can be reached easily by Reykjavik’s public transportation system.
Heidmörk Nature Reserve features forests, wildflowers and other plant life. There is a lake and a river popular with salmon fishermen inside the confines of the park. Trekkers (and mountain bikers) will enjoy about 25 miles of trails that wind through the park. Some tour operators offer guided mountain bike tours (complete with bike rental) for day-tripping tourists. The entire Heidmörk area stretches for more than 2,800 acres. There are thousands of trees inside the reserve and many species of flora have thrived since the area was fenced off.
Reykjavik is, unarguably, a green city. Its geothermal power and generally green consciousness make it a great place for an eco-friendly urban getaway. The surrounding nature can be accessed in a number of convenient ways and is as much a part of a trip to Reykjavik as the urban architecture, museums and nightlife.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
Thumbnail photo: cassiano rabelo/Flickr
MNN homepage photo: gudmunda/Flickr
MNN homepage photo: gudmunda/Flickr
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