Iceland has been on my wish list since I can remember and it was my dream to see the Northern Lights. However, I could not find anyone keen to go for a trip with me as the destination was considered 'too cold' by many. Approximately a year ago, over coffee I chatted with my friend Di and we both said we would love to see the Northern Lights. Little did we both know at the time, that we will eventually go on the trip together. Fast forward to June 2019 I received an email with a deal for Reykjavik and Northern Light city escape, after a quick phone call to Di we booked the tickets, and landed in Iceland on 2nd November same year!
The deal was for a 4 night / 3 day stay which we assumed would be a great introduction to Iceland and its capital city Reykjavik. We landed in early hours on Saturday and returned on Tuesday. The following itinerary ideas are there to help you decide what to see and how to plan your trip, that is what we did and enjoyed our stay thoroughly. The post is long, but the best bits are at the end!
Photo: Panoramic city view as seen from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church with signature colourful houses.
Reykjavik - everything you need to know
As the capital of the island, the city has a lot to offer even though it is fairly small in size by comparison to other capitals. It is vibrant, with plenty of adventure tours, museums, fabulous restaurants, shops, cafes, bars and clubs to explore during your stay.
Iceland's capital is a amazing base to explore some of the island's breathtaking natural wonders such as famous Blue Lagoon spa, The Golden Circle, The Norther Lights, or South Coast of Iceland; where you will witness geysers, waterfalls, rift valleys, and black beaches. However you choose to spend your time in Reykjavík, this most probably will be truly unique experience.
I already wrote on my instagram two post about some interesting and fun facts about Reykjavik, and if you have not seen them, let me share them with you:
it is the northernmost capital in the world.
It is among the cleanest, greenest, and safest cities in the world.
64% of all Icelanders live in the capital area.
it is the only Western European capital without a Starbucks or a McDonald’s.
it is the only capital city in the world that is home to a puffin colony.
Dogs were banned in Reykjavík from 1924 to 1984; and as a result cats rule the city.
There is a penis museum in Reykjavík called the Icelandic Phallological Museum.
Reykjavík’s town center is relatively small, therefore it easy to explore on foot in 3-4 hours. Two main streets: Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur are the city’s main shopping areas, with the latter being trendy and increasingly popular. This area is decorated with very cool and alternative street art and leads up to Hallgrimskirkja Church. Laugavegur is home to many interesting shops, coffee shops and as you walk along at the end of the street you will see magnificent and contemporary structure Harpa Concert Hall. This glass and steel work cost $164 million to build over 4 years and it is a controversial building for Icelanders as it reminds them the times of kreepa - economic crisis. The structure looks as if made of fish scale and whilst you are inside you will be able to admire spectacle of sun rays that reflect inside via the glass walls and ceiling. You can book a tour of Harpa in the Harpa Centre which will grant you access to the areas that are not generally open to the public. You can also just walk in and admire the main lobby area - it's a public building.
Photo: Harpa Concert Hall - contemporary architecture with local references - fish scale.
From this point you can walk for about 10 minutes to arrive in the Old Harbour area which offers a wide selection of fish and steak restaurants, cafés, and an atmosphere which reminds about the city’s close relationship with the sea. All of the whale watching, fishing, puffin watching, and Northern Lights boat tours depart from here.
If you walk back towards Harpa you will be able to see The Cabinet House which was originally built to accommodate vagabonds in the 18th century but then served as a prison until 1816. In 1904, when Iceland was granted home rule, this announcement was read publicly on the steps of the Cabinet House and then the official flag of the country was hoisted for the first time in front of this building. Consequently, the house was occupied by the ministers of the Icelandic government and got its present role.
Photo: Landmark of the city - Hallgrimskirkja church which is visible from almost every corner of the city.
Walking down the promenade from Harpa along seashore you will come across Sun Voyager, a sculpture that commemorates 200 years of city of Reykjavik. It is a metal statue resembling a Viking longboat and is a piece of artwork by Jón Gunnar Árnaso is one of the most visited sights in Reykjavík and makes a great photo location with its view of Mount Esja on the other side of the bay.
If you feel like a longer walk further down the promenade you will spot on the right hand side on a small hill Hofdi House which was a location for Reykjavik Summit for President Reagan and President Gorbachev in 1986 in a step to end Cold War.
While you walk around Reykjavik, my recommended stop and place of interest would be a visit to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja church its 73m tower provides a panoramic view of the city. It is designed to resemble mountains and lava rocks of Iceland. It is also the tallest structure.
The city is home to as many as 19 museums, so if you are planning on visiting any of them choose which ones you want to focus on, unless you have enough time to see them all. National Museum of Iceland displays objects that provide insight into Icelandic cultural history. It is also the oldest museum in the country. If you travel with kids, museum also has interactive games and dress ups. If you decide to visit it is worth remembering it's closed on Mondays.
Photo: Hofdi House for history enthusiasts a location of Reykjavik Summit, now housing inside American and Russian flags
Before-mentioned unique (and fun) museum is The Icelandic Phallological Musem which is one of the most informative, humorous, and unusual museums in the world. The world famous "Penis Museum" is the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimen of each mammal found in a single country.
Other museums of interest may be Aurora Museum, Volcano House, Reykjavik City Museum, Pharmacy and Herbal Gardens, as well as many Art Galleries so every visitor is spoilt for choice!
A bit further away from city centre you will find Perlan, a distinctive glass dome resting on five water tanks on the top of a hill, now serves as a museum, café, and restaurant. It offers great views over Reykjavík and is surrounded by a beautiful, small, forested park.
FlyOver Iceland is a recent (summer 2019) addition to Reykjavik attractions which is a simulator flight over stunning and varied Icelandic landscapes experiencing different seasons. I was a bit sceptical at first, but I am happy I did that. I could admire bird view panoramic sights of volcanoes, fields, winter scenery and summer bliss in a short fly over Iceland.
The city is scattered with urban graffiti and sophisticated wall poems which appear on almost every other building in the central area, but there are probably hundreds of pieces scattered all over the city.
The very common sight on the streets of Reykjavik are seemingly abandoned buggies - don't panic! It is a very common practise to leave babies outside napping while mums do shopping or enjoy coffee with friends inside.
Photo: Sun Voyager
What else to plan nearby Reykjavik
Reykjavik is a terrific base to sightsee more of Iceland, and all the below trips are within easy reach from the city, moreover you need a maximum of 1 day per trip:
I will write a separate post detailing all the above tours and what I think of them as well as any tips I can share. Initially I did not intend to write such a long post about Reykjavik ☺️
When is the best time to go?
The short and sweet (and best) answer would be: anytime!
I am sure every season has its own benefits. The best time to visit only depends on your own personal interests. As an example, my aim was to see the Northern Lights, so I chose to visit in November as it is said that the best time to see the Aurora come between November and February when the nights are the darkest and longest.
If you would like to hike and camp, take long road trips, or enjoy the the midnight sun, and see Reykjavík at its busiest, summer is said to be the best option. Spring and autumn are the low peak seasons and may be the best for budget travelers and for those who want to get a little bit of every kind of weather and experience.
geothermal swimming pools
Reykjavík is located on the top of several geothermal springs. This is where its name comes from: Reykjavík translates to “smoky bay”. Locals have made their lives more comfortable by soaking in the hot springs and when the city was modernized, they built geothermal swimming pools using the naturally hot water that comes from the ground for free. It is a cheaper alternative to Blue Lagoon if you don't want to spend the hefty amount on the signature spa (from E70 and above - more on prices in my next post) or have no time to travel to Blue Lagoon.
There are 14 swimming pools in Greater Reykjavík. Here are the five that are said to be the best ones:
Photo: a good meal can cost thousands! Iceland ain't cheap
NO DRIVING IN WINTER, if you have never driven before on a slippery roads, or in winter conditions. Additionally, you need to be aware of the wind and its direction as it may just wipe your car off the road - there are special websites devoted to the wind strength and direction.
Eating out in restaurants is quite pricy. It all depends on your budget but if you want to try the fine Icelandic restaurants then expect to pay a lot. However the fish quality is outstanding and once you try the seafood I don't think you will regret your choice.
To illustrate the pricing I paid approximately £20 for fish and chips and a beer which was 3,200 ISK.
Coffee costs approx 560 ISK, beer in a restaurant about 1,200 ISK and set tasting menu in a fancy restaurant 5,600 ISK. For main dish of fish in upmarket restaurant you will pay around 1,600 ISK. I have also eaten in casual places, unfortunately having no record of the bill to share pricing but even when we paid less, the food was still amazing! Reykjavik can easily become foodie capital - watch this space and mind my words!
I also bought two books and paid 2,500 and 2,995 ISK which is outrageous for a book for me and I paid double of what I would have paid back in UK - it was a spur of the moment purchase! Moral of my spontaneous shopping is: do not buy imported goods, buy only Icelandic products (which are still pricey but great quality).
What would I do differently?
I would have planned a visit to National Museum on other day than Monday,
I would have started Hop on and off Bus Tour earlier than last ride,
finally, I would have tried cod head and famous hot dog