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, though the latter might change in summer with the influx of tourists. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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. 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 (one human sample) and art that comprises of the erect penises of the Icelandic National Handball team sculpted in silver, then head here.
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.
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 Feb 2016, given how tourism is booming, things change quickly so please check current information and TripAdvisor reviews):
I actually stayed here 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.
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. I tried the following places in Reykjavík- cafés, restaurants and bars that I liked, all of which were great to eat at even on a budget.
Good place for breakfast or a seriously filling and healthy lunch (I couldn’t finish my order of grilled fish and vegetables on the side) at a very reasonable price (they had a discount deal when I visited). Popular with locals.
This bistro, café, bar, and restaurant in the city center is a locals’ favorite hangout with good food (from Tex-Mex to pasta) and an even better vibe. Great any time of the day (brunch, lunch, dinner, and drinks).
I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to tell me that this café serves the best coffee in Iceland. It definitely was the best I tasted in all of my days there and I drank a lot of coffee everywhere I went, thanks to my severely caffeine-addicted friend. I found this cute café in the Old Harbour while looking for a place to rest and wait for the light to change around sunset so I could better photograph the harbor. The décor is lovely, warm, and inviting, as is the friendly owner who sources the coffee beans from Haiti. While you’re there, order a chocolate cake, might make you stay longer than intended.
Quirky, cute, and cozy, Café Babalu, located on my favorite street in Reykjavík, is a lovely place with bright and unusual décor and a warm vibe that will uplift even the dampest of spirits on the most miserable of cold days. Spread over two levels, the house has nice details like a narrow winding staircase and furniture you’d find in someone’s home. It’s the perfect place to spend your afternoon or evening with a notebook or novel. Wide range of teas available.
Located on the top floor of the Mál og Menning bookstore, this café serves good coffee, light sandwiches and meals, and is an ideal place to read or get some work done. I spent an afternoon working here and I’ve never written quite as quickly!
Sæmundur í Sparifötunum, KEX Hostel
This gastro-pub located in the famous KEX Hostel is one of the more popular-with-locals pubs in Reykjavík. The place has a cool hipster vibe, nice view of the sea, and live music. The building itself used to be a biscuit factory.
When my friend told me we were going out for a drink, the last thing I expected was a Tiki bar because that’s hardly the type of thing you imagine on a snowy winter evening in Reykjavík but Bar Ananas, exactly that, was a surprise. Tropical inspired interiors, great Tiki cocktails including Mai Tai and a happy hour, and a delicious Tapas platter, it was all I needed to forget that the temperature outside was 2 degrees Celsius!
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 a little 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.
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.