By Víkingur Ólafsson
Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, 34, gives recitals around the world and has premiered six piano concertos to date. He is the artistic director of three festivals — Vinterfest in Sweden, the Icelandic Weekend at Liepaja Great Amber Hall in Latvia and Reykjavik Midsummer Music, which he also founded. He recently released a recording of Johann Sebastian Bach keyboard pieces and is performing at a BBC Radio 3 concert in London later this month.
My favourite view of Reykjavik is from a place unlike any other I know. “Þúfa” (pronounced Th-oo-fha) is a work of art created by Ólöf Nordal in 2013 in the shape of a giant hummock.
Though decidedly contemporary in conception and form, it almost feels like it was there before the city grew to reach it — it is reminiscent of the small tussocks ubiquitous in the Icelandic countryside and the turf houses Icelanders lived in for centuries.
But there is an interactive twist: you can walk along a spiralling pathway all the way to the top, where a small wooden shed awaits. Inside it, fish heads have been hung to dry — another allusion to traditional life in Iceland.
As long as you’re not too sensitive to the fishy smell, the top of the hummock is a very good place to take a break from the city. And the view across the sea to Harpa concert hall and the harbour is second to none.
Where to live — Hlíðar
I live in Hlíðar, a neighbourhood close to Öskjuhlíð, a hill covered in pine trees and greenery. Some of its winding paths lead to relics left by the British army, which used the hill as a defence post during the second world war.
At the top of the hill is Perlan, an impressive glass dome that opened in the early 1990s on top of six big water tanks, and is home to exhibitions and a planetarium. When I go to Öskjuhlíð park for a walk, I hardly meet anyone except a few wild rabbits and the occasional meandering cat.
Where to go for dinner
A five-minute walk from Þúfa is the Marshall House, a beautiful 1940s building that was originally a fish factory. It was renovated last year and has found new meaning as the home of the Kling&Bang gallery and Studio Ólafur Elíasson, a satellite of the Icelandic-Danish artist’s Berlin studio. It also houses the Living Art Museum and one of my favourite places to eat in Reykjavik, Marshall Restaurant, where chef Leifur Kolbeinsson serves memorably delicious seafood dishes.
Where to discover outdoor art
I dare say Franz Kafka would have appreciated Icelandic artist Magnús Tómasson’s “Memorial to the Unknown Bureaucrat”, located on the banks of Reykjavik’s Tjörnin (the Pond). Weighed down by a large block of basalt and carrying a briefcase in one hand, the bureaucrat faces City Hall and looks like he might be on his way to work, like any other employee.
The idea behind the 1994 sculpture stems from the artist’s fascination with memorials to unknown soldiers. Being a country of fewer than half a million people, we all seem to be connected somehow and, as well as being our best sculptor, Tomásson is my father-in-law (how typically Icelandic!)
“Iceland has no army but plenty of bureaucrats,” he told me, “and I felt that the foot soldiers of government administration — those nameless, faceless agents who nevertheless exert great influence on the destinies of regular people — deserved a monument too.”
I particularly recommend greeting the bureaucrat on a dark winter’s night when he is at his eeriest.
Where to go swimming
There are plenty of reasons to visit Iceland, but the weather is not one of them. Although after battling 35C more or less everywhere I toured this summer, I’ve come to think of Iceland’s precious 12C-14C as a utopia of sorts. The wind that slaps your face when you land at Keflavík airport is no longer my enemy, but a refreshingly honest friend.
On that note, I suggest swimming in the ocean at Nauthólsvík bay (next to Öskjuhlíð Park). I was made to do it on my stag do and I must say that, despite the cold, it felt amazing — much to the disappointment of my cruel friends.
Where to buy records
I discovered 12 Tónar record shop when I was 14. On my first visit, I had no money on me but saw plenty of CDs I longed for. Owner Lárus Jóhannesson lent me five to take home and three books on music. He didn’t even ask my name. We have been friends ever since.
12 Tónar has a wonderful collection of music from different genres, including a great classical section. You can sit on the shop’s sofas and listen to music while being served a great complimentary espresso.
Where to relax
Like Þúfa, Grótta nature reserve is a welcoming and peaceful place, still relatively close to the city centre and easily reached by bicycle.
I often go there the night before giving a concert to think about all the things that could potentially go wrong on stage — and then forget them all by turning my attention to the birds and the charming old lighthouse where I can, if I’m lucky, catch a beautiful sunset.
Vikingur Ólafsson is performing Bach at a BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at LSO St Luke’s, London, on September 21
Photographs: Hordur Sveinsson; Getty Images/iStockphoto; Alamy; Einar Geir; Dreamstime