The design-led Ion City Hotel is an urban retreat on a buzzing street in downtown Reykjavik, with panoramic mountain views, in-room saunas and easy access to Iceland’s great outdoors. Recycled wood panelling, lava-studded walls and bird’s-nest lighting acknowledge the natural wonders of this untamed island, while mid-century furniture and muted charcoal tones lend an air of Scandi sophistication. The house restaurant serves creative North African cuisine – it’s always buzzing with a hip local crowd, not least because Iceland’s Chef of the Year is in the kitchen.
Get this when you book through us:
One bottle of sparkling wine delivered to your room, whenever you request it
11am, check-in, 3pm – but both are flexible, subject to availability.
Double rooms from £181.89 (ISK31,620), including tax at 11 per cent.
Rates are room only. There's no breakfast at the hotel but plenty of great spots to be discovered nearby.
Ion City Hotel is on a vibrant street in the heart of downtown Reykjavik, near on-trend bars, restaurants and clubs; guests looking for nightlife won't need to go far, but light sleepers will want to partake of the earplugs thoughtfully left out by the hotel.
At the hotel
Gym, free WiFi. In rooms: TV, free minibar, Nespresso coffee machine, kettle, Bang & Olufsen Bluetooth speaker, bath products by L:A Bruket and Sóley Organics.
Our favourite rooms
If you’re into balcony-set private saunas with views of the sea and mountains, the Junior Suite is for you. That’s everyone, then. In any case, go for a room facing the city – you might be in earshot of occasional Reykjavik revellers, but the views are well worth it.
Enough woollies to keep you warm, but leave space in your case for one more – the snuggly sweaters in the hotel boutique are handmade by the owner’s mum.
The restaurant and bar are accessible for guests with mobility issues, and there are two Deluxe rooms designed for wheelchair users.
Take a perch at the bar counter, for a front-row view of the kitchen.
It’s tempting to stay snug in your Scandi woollens, but take it up a notch for dinner at Sumac – Reykjavik’s cool kids are watching.
There’s a buzz about Sumac, and it’s easy to see why: seasonal local ingredients are infused with Moroccan and Lebanese flavours, under the expert eye of Iceland’s Chef of the Year 2017, Hafsteinn Ólafsson. The space is inspired by the faded glory of Beirut, with rough-hewn timber walls, exposed plaster, and articulated-lamp lighting. The grilled octopus is basted in harissa aioli and served with chermoula and spinach, while the lamb ribs are butchered on-island and come with lentils, grapes and almonds.
Take a seat on a cast-iron stool at the Sumac, and order a local Reyka vodka cocktail served in a copper tankard, or choose a tipple from the wine list; the Chateau Ksara Reserve du Couvent is imported straight from Lebanon, and will be well matched to your meze.
Breakfast is served from 7am to 10am, lunch is from noon until 2pm, and dinner is from 5pm until 11pm. The bar’s open from noon until midnight, every day.
Order from the Sumac kitchen anytime between noon and 11pm; options include harissa chicken wings and chunks of deep-fried cod.
Ion City Hotel is exactly where you want to be on a trip to Reykjavik: dead center in downtown, with the city’s best bars and restaurants on its doorstep.
Keflavik International Airport is your only option for flying into Iceland, but it’s well-served by routes from Europe and North America – British Airways fly direct from London, while Wow Air and Icelandair cover most of Europe and the East Coast of the USA. The airport is 50km from the capital, and the journey takes 50 minutes by taxi (the hotel can arrange transfers for ISK16,000 each way). Call the Smith24 team for assistance with booking all your travel.
Hiring a car gives you the freedom to drive Iceland’s famous Ring Road at your own pace, and explore sights off the tourist-track. There are car rental offices at the airport, and a garage five minutes’ walk from Ion City at Hverfisgata 15.
Worth getting out of bed for
The must-do is the Golden Circle, an easy day trip on Gray Line buses encompassing the humbling Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Strokkur geyser (which explodes into action every 10-15 minutes). The Blue Lagoon is the other bucket-list destination to tick off your list; yes, it’s busy, but there’s still no beating a soak in its milky 40°C geothermal waters. On a longer Iceland itinerary, take a hire car to far-flung glaciers and rumbling volcanoes on the island’s 1,300km Ring Road (it’s nothing like the North Circular, we promise). In Reykjavik itself, climb to the top of Hallgrimskirkja Church for 360° views of the city, shop for Nordic design pieces in the many boutiques, or head to the city pond for birdwatching and winter skating. Along the shorefront, stop into the Harpa Concert Hall to gaze up at its kaleidoscopic windows, then stop and reflect by the Sun Voyager sculpture. Less cultured, but intriguing nonetheless, is the Iceland Phallological Museum – for those of a stiff constitution.
Plump for the five- or seven-course menu at seafood specialist Dill(Hverfisgata 12) – just-caught Arctic char is grilled with fennel, followed by succulent tusk with black garlic. Kol (Skólavörðustígur 40) is a local favourite, so book ahead look forward to your share of sautéed Icelandic scallops with almond praline and langoustine bisque. To keep it casual, go for Messinn (Lækjargata 6), where the catch of the day is pan-fried and served simply – and deliciously – with roast potatoes. At Rokyou'll find a buzzy atmosphere and eclectic sharing dishes with an Icelandic accent – ask for a table downstairs, but away from the door as it can get chilly.Nordic-Japanese burger bar Yuzu (Hverfisgata 44)is a stylish hangout with concrete walls, plants aplenty and splashes of Yves Klein blue. Achingly hip and fun-loving Sushi Social fuses Japanese and South American influences (we know – sounds like it wouldn't work, but it really, really does).
You can only buy alcohol at the airport in Reykjavik, so – unless you've stocked up – you may as well make the most of the capital's varied drinking establishments. Kex Hostel's bar Sæmundur has local beers on tap, a sociable terrace and a library lounge (don't let the 'h' word put you off, this is a sophisticated spot). Dillon Whiskey Bar has a long list (over 170) of grain-based tipples (including one from Iceland); they also run whiskey schools with tastings and some insider info. Beer enthusiasts should hit Skúli Craft bar (Aðalstræti 9) for a cold one or two.
You wouldn’t know it from the gentle pace of life on the streets, but downtown Reykjavik is in crisis. The population is dropping owing to an influx of properties being listed on Airbnb, driving up rental prices and reorienting the small city towards the needs of tourists rather than its tight-knit community. Tourism in general has almost tripled since 2012, and Reykjavik can now command the highest prices of any city in Europe.
It’s sobering stuff to consider as a tourist drawn to the city by romantic notions of it as a kind of lunar metropolis when the realities are much starker. Choosing to stay in a hotel that employs local staff and chefs feels like a more ethical way to experience Reykjavik, though it would be pious to claim that’s our only motivation for visiting the Ion City Hotel: a dark, glossy edifice occupying an unassuming spot high up on Laugavegur, the main street.
Outside, the bells of the mighty concrete church Hallgrimskirkja sound imposingly. Inside, Ricardo offers us a welcome glass of sparkling wine – tempting, but not as tempting as the swing seat hanging in the corner: a loop of leather dressed with a fluffy pelt made from local materials that will become very familiar over the next few days. He shows us upstairs to our deluxe room, and the ambience changes again. Our movements make the dark corridors illuminate in sci-fi style, and having room numbers projected onto doors is a stylish touch.
The room itself combines clean, minimalist design with comforting dark wood and clever storage – an unusual but excellent combination of executive chic and genuine cosiness. When we walk in, we wonder for a moment where the bathroom is – only for Ricardo to slide back a large wooden panel for the big reveal: huge bath, walk-in shower, room-wide vanity surround. A childish thought occurs: the sliding door will make going to the loo feel incredibly dramatic. To be honest, it’s not the only childish impulse: surely the best bit of checking into any hotel room is opening all the cupboard doors, eating the (delicious, Icelandic) chocolates off the pillows and smelling the fancy teas (loose leaf angelica, which I earmark for later).
I’m gagging to get outside to participate in what I am grandiosely characterising as another act of ethical tourism: eating my way through the city’s best independent food establishments. Just around the corner from Ion, up a hill brightened by graffiti, lies a branch of Braud & Co, a hugely acclaimed small bakery chain. Golden buns shine cheekily through windows that offer a tantalising peepshow of the wares within.
I am paralysed by indecision but promise myself that I’ll be back and opt for a classic: a cinnamon bun so tender and fragranced that eating it feels like snogging Christmas itself full on the mouth. Mr Smith, usually wary of too many sweet goods, accepts a vanilla and nougat pastry dotted with salty bits and filled with Nutella as an edible medal for making our intrepid foray from London. (I will return to Braud every day of our break and forge a soul-possessing holiday romance with their blueberry and liquorice Danish.)
Putting in the research before arriving in Reykjavik doesn’t just make you feel like you’re being a considerate tourist, it’ll severely enhance your stay and steer you away from the city’s many visible tourist traps. One thing it won’t do, however, is save you money: everything costs a fortune and there’s literally no way around it unless you opt to eat bread and Skyr (thick Icelandic yoghurt) for every meal. The divine Noodle Station at the top of town is often touted as the best cheap meal in Reykjavik, but it still costs more than a trip to Wagamama. (Though its star anise-perfumed beef broth crushes all competition.)
Our days, then, are filled with any excuse to stuff our faces: a modest breakfast of yoghurt and toast at neighbouring café Sandholt, and an eye-poppingly expensive one of egg, bacon and potatoes at the smart Café Paris. Reykjavik is full of dark, seductive old coffee houses that feel like secret societies and offer much-needed respite from climbing the city’s many hills: diner Prikid offers free filter coffee refills; the musician John Grant’s favourite, Mokka, serves a signature marzipan cake
I was aware of Reykjavik’s hip English-language newspaper The Grapevine, but we’re extra lucky to arrive just as it publishes its annual awards for the best the city has to offer. Wanting to do as locals do, we have the most innovative pizza I’ve ever eaten one night at Hverfisgata 12 – marinated lamb, shaved rutabaga and spinach – and see the brighter side of Reykjavik’s regeneration at Kex Hostel, a converted biscuit factory turned fiercely trendy residence complete with ace gastropub.
Talking of tourist traps, it is well worth visiting Ion’s neighbour, Svarta Kaffid, to experience the novelty of rich meat soup served inside a hollowed-out cob roll – a kind of reverse crouton situation – alongside a dark ale. Similarly, the Saegreifinn (sea baron) shack down by the harbour is famous for a reason but still caters for locals. We inhale their lobster soup – the kind of simple food in humble surroundings that you just couldn’t get anywhere else – while sharing a trestle table with workmen eating whale steak on their lunch breaks.
Reykjavik is small enough that we repeatedly return to Ion throughout the days to enjoy surroundings that feel appropriately decadent considering our gluttony, while offering a calm place to digest. The only sound comes from Hallgrimskirkja. The angelica tea aids digestion – or would if it wasn’t chased with more dark ale from the minibar. Using the shampoo and conditioner scented with Icelandic herbs made me understand how it probably feels to be Björk – and does a sterling job washing the Blue Lagoon’s opalescent water out of my hair.
On that note, the Blue Lagoon is evidently a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But Iceland’s tourist influx means that the natural springs often feel more like human soup – when we go, it’s a Where’s Wally scene of people taking selfies and (I’m not kidding) Canadian businessmen having a meeting about how ‘There’s always capital in the data, dude.’ It’s easy to forget that Reykjavik has an embarrassment of municipal pools that put Britain’s grotty leisure centres to shame.
One day I take the number 12 bus to Laugardaslaug, a vast outdoor swimming complex; the next, I walk from Ion (via a date with my blueberry paramour) to Sundhöllin, a smaller outdoor setup with a proper pool and seated underwater areas where one can happily boil themselves into a state of bliss.
The tourist magnets are evident all over Reykjavik – every other shop sells puffin and Viking-related tat – but when the local establishments are so rich, you’d be a fool to succumb. The grown-up, sensitively appointed Ion fits right in. We leave smug in the knowledge that our expanded waistlines are really just an act of altruism.