In the last couple of years, Iceland has seen a surge in tourism as folks discover its natural beauty, taste its national cuisine, and join adventure tours. But a trip to Iceland wouldn’t be complete without touring the capital city of Reykjavík before heading out to journey around the island. While small, it is worth staying in the city for a few days with all that there is to see and do.
When to travel to Iceland
Before deciding on sightseeing destinations during your stay in Reykjavík, you will want to decide on the season in which you want to travel. If you want to take full advantage of your time and see as much as you can, traveling to Iceland during the summer months has many benefits. For example, during the summer months, daylight doesn’t end due to Iceland’s proximity to the North Pole. As a result, you have unlimited light for sightseeing. Additionally, with the milder weather, it’s comfortable enough for a light waterproof jacket. If you are willing to forego the Northern Lights or undertaking an ice-caving adventure, summer in Iceland is the perfect season.
Meanwhile, winter in Iceland offers only 4 hours of daylight per day. The island also incurs extreme weather, with lots of snow and gusting winds, making traveling conditions much more dangerous. Some roads into the Highlands may not even be open due to inclement weather.
If summertime is your choice, you can catch the summer solstice. This is when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky, creating the longest day of sunlight. In Iceland, this means the sun doesn’t set at all and is celebrated with a 3-day music festival called Secret Solstice, featuring artists from Iceland, as well as from the UK and America. It’s a great way to experience Iceland’s culture. June also holds Iceland’s National Day of Independence, so you can expect to see many Icelander’s out celebrating all across the country.
Sightseeing and Activities
Now that we have established the perfect time to visit, let’s take a look at all that Reykjavík has to offer. It’s is a small city, meaning everything is practically within walking distance once you’re in the downtown core. You can get downtown by following the harbourfront; it provides beautiful views of the sea and will also help with navigation. On your stroll, you will likely pass the Sun Voyager sculpture, which has a beautiful backdrop for photos.
The harbourfront will take you right to Harpa Concert Hall, beautiful from both the exterior and interior with its glass walls. In the summer, take a walk along the harbor in the middle of the night; it is incredibly peaceful and quiet, and Harpa is lit up at night with a little light show.
At the center of everything is Hallgrimskirkja, a church with spectacular architecture. Hallgrimskirkja is one of the tallest structures in the country and is easily identifiable by its stepped concrete exterior that was inspired by the natural landscape of Iceland.
Take a look inside the cathedral to see its towering walls and simplistic design. For a small admission price (1000 ISK), you can go to the top of the church and get unrivaled views of Reykjavík. The city looks so quaint from above.
For an outing from the city and onto the sea, take a whale-watching tour. The Classic Whale Watching tour takes you out on the sea for about three hours on one of the largest whale-watching boats in Iceland. You will have a chance to see whales and dolphins, and your guide will provide many facts about marine life as you go. They will also point out the natural features surrounding Reykjavík. To book, visit https://guidetoiceland.is/book-holiday-trips/whale-watching-1.
For a truly Icelandic souvenir, shop at The Handknitting Association of Iceland where you can buy a sheep’s wool sweater. All sweaters sold here are made by hand by members of the Handknitting Association. They have many options with different shades, patterns, and styles. While a bit of an investment, they will last many years and keep you delightfully warm.
On weekends, Kolaportið is a flea market where you can find antiques, second-hand wool sweaters, and more. There is also a farmers’ and fish market where you can try samples of Icelandic pastries, chocolates, and fish, including fermented shark. It is a cute place to peruse and pick up a couple of souvenirs.
To learn about the history and culture of Iceland (which is very interesting and unique), there are quite a few museums worth visiting in Reykjavík. Perlan Museum offers immersive exhibits that will allow you to experience Icelandic nature indoors. It takes you through an ice cave, to a planetarium displaying the Northern Lights, up to an observation deck where you will have a panoramic view of the city, and to a virtual reality telescope for bird watching.
For more history on the country and the culture, you can visit the National Museum of Iceland and the Reykjavík Maritime Museum which showcases many artifacts of early settlers and items used at sea. The Settlement Exhibition also provides the history of Iceland, its highlight being the remains of a tenth-century Viking longhouse. The Saga Museum is an immersive museum that goes over the Viking history of Iceland through life-like replicas of moments in the past.
For more contemporary exhibits, Culture House showcases artwork from Icelandic artists and provides you with their perspective of their home country, as well as historical artifacts. Reykjavík Art Gallery at Hafnarhús is dedicated to showcasing artwork by Icelandic artists, with a permanent exhibit for Iceland’s postmodern artist, Erró.
The Icelandic Punk Museum explores Iceland’s punk and music scene, and the museum is set underground in a former public washroom. Finally, the Icelandic Phallological Museum is one not miss, even just to say you were at the penis museum, where you can see the anatomy of two hundred penises from different mammals.
If you plan to tour many museums, consider purchasing a City Card, which will give you free admission or a discount to a number of museums in Reykjavík. It also gives you many other perks, such as discounts to some restaurants and free admission on the city buses. There are options for 24, 48, or 72 hours, which can be purchased at Reykjavík City Hall.
Places to Eat
As for food, there are many options around downtown. You can try Iceland’s national dish—the hot dog—at The Best Hot Dogs in Town, known as Baejarins Beztu Pylsur in Icelandic. This is a food stand by the water and has been serving hot dogs since 1937. The Icelandic hot dog is made from lamb meat, topped with ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, and remoulade, giving it a mix of delicious flavors and textures.
As an island country, Iceland catches the freshest fish and Messinn (The Messhall) serves the best fish pans. A highly recommended dish is the Arctic Char (2,300 ISK), which is like salmon, but with a different flavor being from freshwater. The char is caramelized in honey, lemon, and butter, with shaved almonds over top. The Icelandic Plokkfiskur (2,050 ISK is also a delicious dish, made of mashed fish and served with potatoes. It is traditionally eaten over soft rye bread which comes with the fish pan as well.
For the best traditional lamb meat soup, eat at Íslenski Barinn. They also experiment with the Icelandic hot dog and serve a few different variations. Read our full review of Íslenski Barinn at https://goglobehopper.com/dining-at-islenski-barinn-iceland/
If you have a craving for some good desserts, spend some time at Kaffi Loki. They serve traditional Icelandic pancakes with a few different variations, cakes, and other pastries. They are also known for their delicious and innovative rye bread ice cream. Of light meals, Café Loki serves many different Icelandic fish platters which will give you a good taste of Iceland’s homestyle cuisine. It is located directly across from Hallgrimskirkja and provides a view of it from all three stories.
Transportation to Reykjavík
Now, before you run off on your adventure to Reykjavík, you will need to figure out how to get there. The airport is in Keflavík, which is actually about an hour from the capital city. If you are renting a car, you can do so at the airport and drive to Reykjavík. However, if you don’t plan on driving, or you’ve booked a car for pick up in Reykjavík, there are a few shuttles that can take you directly to Reykjavík, and even to your hotel.
Airport Direct is a great option with their numerous pick-ups throughout the day and their bright orange buses that you can’t miss. During the day, they have varying time slots with intervals of half an hour to an hour depending on how busy the airport is. Based on when your flight is expected to arrive, you will want to book a time slot that is about an hour after you land, so you will have time to retrieve your checked luggage and leave the airport.
For Airport Direct Economy, tickets are 3,000 ISK one way, approximately $24 USD. For an extra 30 ISK you can get a flex ticket, which means if your flight is delayed and you miss your time slot, you can hop on the next shuttle with no extra charges. For drop off at your hotel, it is an additional 1,150 ISK, which is worth it when you are just arriving in a new city and are tired from your long plane ride. For more information, visit the website at https://airportdirect.is/.
With all these activities planned and recommendations for places to eat, your trip to Reykjavík will give you a mix of culture, history, art, and adventure. At the end of your stay, you will feel a part of the city and won’t want to leave.
Lead Photo via Pixabay