‘Reykjavík for First-Timers: The Complete Guide’ is constantly updated each time I visit Reykjavík and discover new things to do, places to visit, restaurants and cafes etc.
When I first arrived in Reykjavík on a February afternoon, after not less than three flights, to gloomy grey skies, a howling wind that slapped raindrops onto my face, and slippery sidewalks, I wondered if I’d made a mistake coming to Iceland in winter.
“Is this how winter is in Iceland?” I asked my friend Ingo who’d kindly come to pick me up from Keflavík airport with his lovely girlfriend Sif. Sensing my waning enthusiasm, a result of the dull weather and my own exhaustion from the long journey, they reassured me that it was unusual to have weather like that and winter was a perfectly good time to be in Iceland. I’m happy to admit that they were right and Iceland in winter, even with its myriad colors hidden under a shiny layer of snow, is as much of a dream-like landscape as it is in summer.
I only had to wait until that evening to have my spirits lifted. Rested and showered, I stepped out of my guesthouse to be greeted by my first snowfall. Through the snowflakes softly landing on my face, I looked up and stared, spellbound by the magnificent Hallgrímskirkja, an ethereal structure rising over Reykjavík against the night sky, its form almost like a bird spreading out its wings. This effect did not wear off for the five days I was in the city and every time the church came into view as I walked out of or back to my guesthouse, I just had to stop and look up for a few minutes.
Over the next few days I explored Reykjavík, a city that inexplicably felt like home, something that I hadn’t expected, coming from one that couldn’t be more different. But I’ve always been more of a small town kind of girl (what am I doing in Dubai?!) and it’s hardly surprising because that’s how Reykjavík feels.
Yellow, pink, blue and green houses that reminded me of illustrations in storybooks I’d sneak under the covers to read by torchlight as a six-year-old, quiet, narrow streets lined with quaint cafés and bookstores, cars that were courteous to patiently wait for me to cross over, the peaceful Old Harbor that I had all to myself for an entire afternoon, the striking image of a snow-clad Mt. Esja in the distance, and a rare tranquility in the dead of the night as I sat on a bench across from Hallgrímskirkja staring up in admiration. Even the street art didn’t seem as angry as it can in other cities.
To me, Reykjavík felt incredibly safe and peaceful, even on the evening I was caught up in a fierce snowstorm that made it impossible to walk another step and I cowered behind Hallgrímskirkja seeking refuge in a corner. After months of complaining that I simply couldn’t write, I felt inspired again and rejuvenated with a new vigor, and it wasn’t me, it was Reykjavík. I wrote the beginning of what could be my first book and of course, it’s set in what has now become my favorite city in the world. Unsurprisingly, I returned to Reykjavík that summer to work, write and dip my pen in the creative spirit of the city.
If you’re visiting Iceland, I urge you to spend a few days exploring Reykjavík instead of just your first and last day. This might be surprising coming from someone who has a track record of arriving into a new city only to head out on the next day to set up base in the countryside, a fishing village, or a medieval town. But something about Reykjavík is different from other cities and deserves your attention more than you’d expect. Here are some of my favorite things to do in Reykjavík. Here’s a post about tips on where to eat in Reykjavik on a budget.
What To Do in Reykjavík
The Icelandic population is highly creative, artistic and intellectual, so it’s no surprise that Reykjavík, where a majority of Icelanders live, is packed with more art galleries, exhibitions and museums than you’d expect in a city of its size. I like to spend most of my time outdoors rather than in museums, so I didn’t visit all of them (not even half really), even after five days in the city. There are way more museums and galleries in the city other than the list below and if you fancy more museum or gallery-hopping, the Lonely Planet is an excellent place to start.
The Best Things to do in Reykjavik for First-timers
Sights in Reykjavík
I could wax lyrical about Hallgrímskirkja for the rest of this post but nothing compares to seeing the church for yourself. Most dramatic in the exterior are the columns on either side of the tower, inspired by the forms of lava cooling into basalt rock. Out in the front stands a statue of Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to discover America, a gift from the U.S. in 1930. Reykjavík’s most famous landmark is visible from everywhere in the city. It’s a shame that its architect Guðjón Samúelsson did not get to see its completion.
In contrast, the interior is simple as is characteristic of Lutheran churches. It’s worth buying the ticket and riding the elevator to the top of the tower for remarkable views over the city that looks like a toy town with rows of yellow, blue and red-roofed houses.
This lake in the city center is sometimes simply referred to as ‘The Pond’. It’s home to different bird species that visit through the year such as swans, geese and Arctic terns. In winter, the pond is frozen and turns into an ice rink.
Ráðhús Reykjavíkur or Reykjavík City Hall, located on the northern shore of Tjörnin, houses important officials of Reykjavík and a café on the ground floor that’s open to visitors. The huge space has a café, temporary exhibitions and a beautiful relief map of Iceland. Spend some time studying the impressive 3D map, especially if you’re about to explore other parts of Iceland, to get an idea of the different terrains and landscapes.
The Settlement Exhibition
Visit for an insight into Viking era Reykjavík- this museum exhibition is based around the oldest finds of habitation in the city, excavated in 2001, and includes a Viking hall from the 10th-century. The exhibition makes clever use of the ruins and finds and multimedia displays to give visitors a more interactive experience.
The Parliament House in the city center was built in 1881, though it wasn’t the first seat of the Icelandic Parliament; that was established in 930AD at Thingvellir. Notice the crown and symbol on the building, these are of the Danish King Christian IX. Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944. Note that this building does not house all the offices and meeting rooms, most of these are located in other buildings in the area.
The garden behind the building is a beautiful space that’s open to the public and group tours of the Parliament House can also be arranged. Austurvöllur Square, in front of the Parliament House, has played an important role in Icelandic politics; this is where Icelanders gather to protest and raise their voices in disagreement with the political affairs of the country as they recently did after the Panama Papers leak and the Pots and Pans Revolution after the 2008 crisis.
The simple Dómkirkjan is the central Lutheran church in Iceland. Next to the Parliament House, it’s a quaint and beautiful structure with a modest interior.
On a winter afternoon, I found the Old Harbour all to myself, with the exception of the odd jogger and passer-by. The old harbour is peaceful and quiet and if you like photography, I recommend going here a little before sunset.
The neighborhood is popular with tourists during summer due to the many museums, cool cafés and restaurants in the area, and as a starting point for whale-watching tours. There’s also a tiny cinema in the area where you can watch documentary type films.
Harpa Concert Hall
With its aesthetically pleasing design of glass panels and unbeatable harbor views, the Harpa Concert Hall and Cultural Center is a beautiful sight both on the outside and even more in the interior when you’re looking up and around in wonder. Designed by a Danish-Icelandic artist and opened in 2011, Harpa houses a few stores and a restaurant, and is a venue for shows and performances. Check listings for any shows in English and if you don’t have the time to watch one, tour the building on your own (free to enter). Guided tours are available for a charge.
How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes
As of summer 2016, this one-man stand-up show had been running for 4 years and I was glad I was able to catch it one night at the Harpa Concert Hall. Written and performed by Bjarni Haukur Þórsson, the show takes a look into the Icelandic way of life, society and culture through the lens of comedy and sarcasm. If you’ve spent any amount of time with Icelanders or in Iceland, you will relate to a lot of points (though not everything- come on, did you really expect zero exaggeration?) he brings to your attention such as the way Icelanders give directions, always, “just over there” and their attitude of not stressing over minor things. Like my friend advised, get a beer at Harpa before the show so you like it even better. The show is a perfect entertainment choice for a chilly evening in Reykjavik.
If you’re short on time and want to visit just one museum, then the National Museum is a good choice. Next to the University of Iceland, spread over three floors, the museum houses a collection of artifacts, objects, tools, furniture, remains and exhibitions from the Settlement to modern times that help visitors understand how the country’s history, religion and politics have shaped over time. Take your time in the museum; it’s full of fascinating historical accounts and information.
My favorite part of the museum was the exhibition about the role of women in Icelandic society and politics, totally worth checking out if you’re a feminist like me!
Kolaportið Flea market
I don’t know about you but I love flea markets and can happily spend hours browsing through their strange and quirky knickknacks. Just by the Reykjavik Old Harbor, the Kolaportið flea market, the largest flea market in Iceland, opens for business every weekend (Saturdays and Sundays) from 11.00am-5.00pm.
Expect all kinds of curiosities and some really interesting buys for a bargain, especially if you’re patient. From used vintage clothing, leather jackets, mittens and warm clothes, boots, plastic toys, tribal jewelry, hand-knitted Lopapeysurs, rock n roll outfits that would be right at home at an ABBA dress rehearsal, cassette tapes, DVDs, books, aromatic oils, candles, sunglasses, frames, decorative items, and household items to furniture and cosmetics, there are shops selling a whole bunch of unique things at prices that are a steal, especially considering how expensive Iceland is.
Other than the second hand stores and Icelanders who’re here to sell off the books, clothes, shoes and bags they don’t need anymore, there are also many stalls selling brand new merchandise. There’s also a food section selling Icelandic specialties such as dried fish (or fermented shark, anyone?) and candy. If you get hungry, stop by at the café serving small meals, cakes and sandwiches. The market is an excellent place to people watch- you’ll also see many immigrants selling merchandise from their countries- Chinese toys, Thai oils, sauces and spices, and artwork from Nigeria.
While I didn’t visit this little islet in Seltjarnarnes, located west of Reykjavik, on my first trip in winter, I’m really glad I got to see it on my following trip that summer. The red and white Grotta Lighthouse stands, along with two other buildings, on the westernmost tip of the islet and is a famous spot to watch and photograph the Northern Lights when you don’t want to drive too far away from Reykjavik. In fact, it’s a nice hour-long walk along the harbor (or take the local bus) if you have some free time in Reykjavik and are done seeing all the sights within the city.
There are usually not many people here and it makes for a beautiful photography spot. Just keep an eye on the tide as you don’t want to be stuck there during high tide when you can’t cross back over the sandy strip to the mainland. There’s also a small hot pool here overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean where locals love to dip their legs and enjoy the views with a beer.
The Eeriest House in Reykjavik
When my friends Ingo and Sif brought me to this seaside spot at Laugarnestangi 65, a strange and bizarre collection of dark, quirky, ugly, and eclectic sculptures and objects seemingly strewn about around large rocks, driftwood and uncut grass and weeds, without any apparent care to design or purpose, I found it hard to believe that this space that looked like a junkyard, worse than a writer’s mind on a sleepless night, was in fact someone’s residence. The installations are made of things like ship parts and metal balls and chains, metal wires, glass, bicycle wheels, wood, rusted iron and what have you standing among spaces decorated with tribal masks and among other odd objects, a mermaid installation.
As it turns out, the residence belongs to Icelandic film director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson and the unusual design reflects his relationship to nature, family, history and whatever else he fancies and makes use of recyclable materials. Gunnlaugsson has earned quite the reputation as a controversial director in Iceland because of the macabre nature of his movies- think rape, sex, and violence.
The land itself has no lack of strange history; it has been a hospital, cemetery, the barracks of the British Army during World War II and the burial site of an Icelandic feminist icon. The structure of the house is just as chaotic; globes and geometric shapes on the exterior supposedly meant to resemble elements of the solar system, large glass windows and a terrace patio chock-full of curiosities accessible by wooden and metal ladders.
Most likely, you won’t see another tourist here (unless this article gets really viral) or even another person- the place definitely has a strange and eerie vibe.
Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach
A small sandy beach at the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean, just a few hundred kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, with golden (imported) sand and geothermally heated seawater, Nauthólsvík Beach is where you go if you want to enjoy summer in Reykjavik in one of the ways you’d do it on another island, lie on the beach and swim in the sea. During summer, the temperature of the water in the lagoon, marked by the poles on the beach is maintained at 6°C to 16°C. If that’s way too chilly for you, there’s a hot pool at a more comfortable 38 degrees Celsius, a café and changing rooms. Entrance is free.
Öskjuhlíð Hill makes for a great short hike from downtown Reykjavik (2kms.) with quiet hiking and biking trails through grassy hillsides peppered with birch, spruce, and pine trees and ruins and bunkers from the Second World War. You’ll see local families, children, and people looking for a quick escape in the middle of the day.
The reflective dome of Perlan that covers geothermal water tanks and shines brightly on top of Öskjuhlíð hill draws a fair number of visitors who want the obligatory photo of this Reykjavik landmark and to enjoy panoramic views of the city and surrounds from the observation deck. The building itself houses art exhibitions and cultural events and there’s a café as well as a formal (and expensive) restaurant on the top level.
January 2017 Update: It appears at the moment Perlan is closed indefinitely to visitors due to remodeling.
If you’re interested in the Icelandic Sagas (and you will be the longer you stay in Iceland) or are traveling with children, it’s worth checking out the Saga Museum. Expect to be creeped out by the models and the screeching sound-effects and play dress-up Viking style.
Icelandic Phallological Museum
Reykjavík’s Penis Museum gets mixed reviews and honestly, in spite of its quirkiness, didn’t sound very appealing to me so I skipped it on my first trip but I did visit during my summer trip. If you like the idea (I promise there is no sarcasm here) of a collection of 280 penises from over 90 animals including polar bears and art that comprises of the erect penises of the Icelandic National Handball team sculpted in silver, then head here. Well even if you don’t, there’s nothing you’d be missing except maybe the goal of visiting the weirdest museums in the world- so unless you have that kind of a bucket list, you can skip it. After all, many locals have never set foot in the place.
Sólfar, the skeletal sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason that stands on Saebraut represents a Viking ship and is a photographers’ favorite, understandably, as it makes for a beautiful image in the right light (or under the Northern Lights) with the snow-capped Mt. Esja in the distance.
Street Art in Reykjavík
As always, I loved photographing the street art in Reykjavík in Downtown and along Laugavegur. Most artists now get permission from building owners to paint on walls and the style is more artistic than graffiti like. A lot of pieces around the city now are part of the Wall Poetry 2015 collaboration.
Here are some photos:
Stroll in Laugavegur and Downtown Reykjavik
My favorite way of experiencing new places is walking around for hours, observing streets, people, shop windows and stopping for coffee when my feet need a rest. Luckily for me, Reykjavík is an ideal place to do that and there was never a dull moment, even in winter. If you’re like me, you’ll love doing the same. Laugavegur is a great street to window-shop or buy gifts and souvenirs, though shopping in Iceland is expensive.
I did indulge in buying way too many winter hats and warm gloves. In my defense, the ones I had packed didn’t stand up to the Icelandic wind chill and my hat was the only thing that I could change about my appearance (for photos), seeing that I always had my warm North Face Suzanne Jacket on every day without exception.
Relax in Thermal Baths
Make time to relax and unwind the Icelandic way after a long day of exploration with a thermal bath session in one of Reykjavík’s many hot pools. This is where the locals come to relax, socialize or for some downtime and it’s an amazing experience, whether or not you plan to visit the Blue Lagoon or other hot springs around the country. Some thermal baths you can visit in Reykjavík are Laugardalslaug, Sundhöllin, and Vesturbaejarlaug.
Shopping Malls in Reykjavik
If there’s something you can’t find in downtown Reykjavik (Toys R Us or a SIM Card company) you might end up having to make your way to one of the city’s two malls- Kringlan and Smáralind in the suburb of Kopavogur. About 4kms from the city center Kringlan, spread over 50,000 sq.m., is home to 150 stores, a cinema, restaurants, and a food court. Smáralind, in addition to stores, also houses a salon, cinema, indoor entertainment, and a spa and health club.
Getting to both malls by public transportation is easy with free shuttle buses from the Tourist Office at Aðalstræti 2 with about two departures each day to and from the malls from Monday to Saturday in summer. It’s best to check the times in advance at the Tourist Office.
Where To Sleep in Reykjavík
My favorite part of the city is the city center, known as Downtown Reykjavík or 101 Reykjavík (like the 1996 novel that was later made into a film). As you’ve probably already understood, I was quite taken with the sight of Hallgrímskirkja and so my favorite streets are those around the church such as Skólavörðustígur, Freyjugata, Njardargata, and Frakkastígur (you’ll begin to remember the names if you spend more than two days in the city, I promise). Any of the streets including Laugavegur are great to stay in as distances within the city center including those to major sights, nice restaurants, bars and cafés, as well as the Harpa Concert Hall and the harbor are an easy walk. You literally do not need any public transportation within this area.
Accommodation in hotels can be expensive, so for cheaper options try AirBnB, hostels and guesthouses. Here are some recommendations (as of Dec 2016, given how tourism is booming, things change quickly so please check current information and TripAdvisor reviews):
I actually stayed at Guesthouse Aurora for most of my days in Reykjavík and thought the price of 50 Euros a night for a private room with shared bathroom and breakfast was agreeable. Then again, winter is low season, I can’t imagine that would be the case in summer. The bathrooms and guesthouse was clean, reasonable breakfast and top-notch location.
There are plenty of guesthouses in the area and standards are similar, so shop around for the best price.
A new design hotel with budget friendly accommodation very close to the city center, Oddsson Hotel is another great alternative in the city.
This place enjoys the reputation of being a great choice for solo travelers and the best social hostel in Reykjavík. Other than the usual facilities (lockers, breakfast buffet, WiFi, and laundry), it has a gym, vintage salon(!) and a great book collection. There’s also a trendy gastro-pub where you can hang out after a day of exploring Reykjavík, attend social events and enjoy drinks over live music.
Where To Eat and Drink in Reykjavík
If you’re on a strict budget and looking to eat on the cheap, then consider the favorite street food of Icelanders- the hotdog. You’ll find it at hotdog stands, gas stations and some supermarkets and even after eating one pretty much every day, I can say I wasn’t bored of it. The deli sections of supermarkets also sell delicious gourmet sandwiches (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian) that make for a satisfying meal at less than half the cost of a sit-down restaurant meal.
That said, if you do like the idea of eating out, there are many places in Downtown to sit down and enjoy a nice meal. Here’s a full list of places to eat out in Reykjavik on a budget and it covers restaurants, cafes, bars, and everything in between.
Some of my favorites include Bergsson Mathús, Vegamót, Café Haiti, Café Babalu, and Bar Ananas.
What To Wear in Reykjavík
Believe it or not, that’s one of the things I spent a lot of time googling before my trip because one, I wanted to ensure I was dressed properly for winter, this being my first time in snow and all, and two, I didn’t want my outdoorsy clothes and boots to scream, ‘Idiot tourist’ while the rest of the very good-looking Icelanders strutted about Reykjavík in their smart clothes.
Googling didn’t give me any real results but for the city, I packed neutral colors (black, navy, cream and gray)- a few tops, two nice sweaters that could be dressed up when paired with warm leggings (I took two pairs), and one pair of black skinny denims (jeggings) suitable for the city. To keep warm, I carried two warm buffs (one of which was kindly lent by a friend), my North Face Suzanne Jacket (so good for the price) that I had on every single day, layered underneath with a woolen jumper, sweater, or fleece over a warm Merino Wool Base Layer Shirt (super warm and doesn’t make you sweat, so odor-free). I always wore a winter knit hat and gloves, and my Columbia Winter Boots, a steal for the price, served me well everywhere, whether hiking in the snow or out and about in Reykjavík.
The locals are used to the weather and it wasn’t uncommon to see them in jeans and a top with just one jacket, sometimes unzipped. If you have the space, carry a pair of city appropriate ankle boots or shoes that you can wear to a bar and comfy walking shoes (weather appropriate depending on when you’re visiting). Locals are fashionable; to fit in carry smart casuals, denims and one or two outfits for nice dinners and bars (shirts and shoes for men, dresses or nice tops, skirts for women).
Here’s a full post about how to pack for Iceland including all of my photography gear for the trip.
Tips for Reykjavík
- The best and cheapest way to get to Reykjavík from the airport is by FlyBus if you’re not renting a car.
- Reykjavík is really safe, at all times of the day or night. So if you are arriving into or departing from the city late at night, there is nothing to worry about.
- Shopping is expensive and there is no haggling. Everyone including locals pay fixed price. You’re better off buying winter coats and boots before you arrive.
- Tipping isn’t expected.
- Pre-drinking is the norm for partygoers in Reykjavík because drinking in bars can be expensive.
Other Resources for Reykjavík
There are plenty of resources to help you plan your trip in Reykjavík but here’s the absolute best one that cuts through the noise and tells you the stuff you wont find online or in a guidebook. I Heart Reykjavík is an excellent blog by local Auður (who also runs walking tours in the city) that has answers to every question you can possibly have about the city. Additionally, I also wrote this post about where to eat in Reykjavik on a budget.
As you can probably tell I spent a lot of time in putting together this guide and if you like it, I’d love for you to please share it to Pinterest.
Big Thanks to my friend Ingo (who also runs the guiding company Trollaferdir.is ) for showing me around his lovely city, sharing insider secrets about cool places and tips about Icelandic culture.
Some links in this post are affiliate links- if you make any purchases through them, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.
For more information to help plan your trip to Iceland, please visit my Iceland Travel Blog, my Iceland packing list, or other posts about a day trip to Landmannalaugar, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, South Coast or why visiting Iceland in winter is a great idea.