One of my all-time favorite cities in the world, Reykjavik is a superb base for touring Iceland’s nearby natural wonders, glistening glaciers and shimmering waterfalls. After a 10 day camping roadtrip through Iceland, my partner and I decided to base ourselves for our final 2 days in this colorful, artistic city. From the off-beat cafes and wild bars, cutting edge art exhibits and influential Icelandic music scene, Reykjavik is a city that captured my heart and spirit. Here are 12 reasons why you need to put Reykjavik on the top of your bucket list!
Wander around the Tjörninin in Old Reykjavik
This placid lake is locally called the Pond, and bird feeding on the lake shore has led to the lake being called “the biggest bread soup in the world”. Sitting right next to City Hall, this lake is home to 40 species of birds that visit here and beautiful sculptures that outline the southern shore. In the winter, the Pond turns into an outdoor rink! Alex and I strolled around the lake, admiring the colorful rooftops, art installations and artists that sketched and painted in the afternoon light.
Stroll the artist shops at Laugavegur & Skólavörðastígur
Ah, where do I begin with the creative, locally owned shops of Iceland! Bustling Laugavegur is the main street for people-watching and shopping. This narrow, one-way lane is lined with cute cafes, shops, and bars and it’s renowned for it’s wonderful and wild party scene in the evening. I fell in love with quite a few quaint shops, my favorite being the creative My Concept Store. My favorite street in the city is the nearby artists’ street, Skólavörðustígur. Art and photography shops are accompanied by handmade trinket shops and yummy Thai and Vietnamese spots. This uphill street ends at the spectacular modernist church, Hallgrimskirkja.
My Concept Store, a great find for those who love photography, traveling, and modern clothing
People watch from the Hallgrimskirkja clock tower
That soaring white-concrete church that dominates the city skyline is called Hallgrimskirkja. The church’s size and radical design evoked controversy back in the day! Now, it’s known for its iconic over-head shot of the city, laced with tiny two-story brightly colored houses, tightly hugged by the Atlantic Sea on one side and volcanoes on the other. To get to the top, take the 500 ISK-priced elevator ride and ascend the 30 or so steps to witness sweeping views of the city and countryside beyond.
Grab a coffee at one of the local hipster spots
Reykjavik is known for its coffee and cappuccinos, but it also has a great selection of delicious waffles, paninis, cakes and pastries. The coffee shops remind me of the hipster parts of Brooklyn, Mokka Kaffi is a quaint coffee shop located on the artist alleyway on Skolavoroustig (try pronouncing that one) and has been there since the late 50s! Watch the bustling world go by in the laid-back cafe Stofan Kaffihus or devour scrumptious brunch plates at Bergsson Mathus. Reykjavik Roasters is also a great spot to lounge and get some reading done. They, of course, have a record player and vinyls for you to listen to.
Drive a lap around the nearby Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a popular sightseeing route that is just right outside of Reykjavik and will take you into the Icelandic countryside to visit three of Iceland’s most famous natural wonders. The first stop is Gullfoss, also known as, the most famous waterfall in Iceland. Alex and I ventured down the three staircases and gazed in awe at this 32-metre crevice drop, it’s colorful rainbow shooting across it. Next you’ll come across the highly active Geysir Hot Spring Area. If you’re curious to explore boiling mud pits and exploding geysers, this is a must-see experience! My first time observing an exploding geysir, and it was totally worth seeing. Keep in mind that the famous Geysir isn’t very active these days, but you’re in luck as the nearby Strokkur blows water a hundred feet into the air every few minutes! We spent a lot of time watching this beauty and trying to get a few good pictures! The final stop on the journey is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pingvellir National Park, a beautiful spot to learn more about Iceland’s history and climb the unique terrain.
Dive into the music scene
If you didn’t already know, the pop music scene in Iceland is one of the great gifts of the world (Of Monsters and Men originated from here!), and after sitting down with a few vinyls, I was amazed by the variety of interesting local bands and artists. We made it our priority to visit Lucky Records, which boasts the biggest selection of new and used vinyl records in Iceland and they have a top selection of Icelandic music on CD and vinyl. During our 10 day roadtrip we had listened to a lot of Icelandic pop and indie folk music on the local radio stations, but hearing the newest independent artists on vinyl was a surreal experience. Kaffi Vinyl is another local find. With an array of vegan dishes, a lively bar and record store all in one cafe, it’s a sweet spot to sit down with the other young Icelandic artists and freelancers, as you read, browse some vinyl titles or work on your laptop.
Take a day trip to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Just because you’re based in the city of Reykjavik doesn’t mean you can’t get out of town to explore the Iceland countryside! The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is a large glacial lake situated at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in the southern part of Iceland. Huge blocks of ice continue to break off the glacier forming the large icebergs of which you can see floating on the lagoon, and Alex and I stopped here while on our 10 day roadtrip through the country, to view the majestic burgs, walk the rim of the lagoon and play some card games while we charged up our electronics in the cafe on site. For those who don’t have access to a car, Grayline Iceland offers a South Coast and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon day trip from Reykjavik, with plenty of stops along the way.
Chase Some Waterfalls
Iceland is home to some of the most powerful and largest waterfalls in the world and for my fellow waterfall-enthusiasts out there, three of the most unique waterfalls (Gullfoss, Skogafoss, and Seljalandsfoss) are within 150km of Reykjavik and can be easily reached on a half day tour from the capital! So, go hop on a bus or rent a car and chase those waterfalls!
Indulge in some yummy sea food!
We devoured a delicious plate of mussels and frites (our first hot meal in 8 days!) at the spacious and beautifully lit Paris Cafe. We indulged on our final night in Iceland at a spot known for the best seafood in the city – Messinn Seafood Restaurant. Alex and I settled down in this upbeat and comfortable local spot and ordered the specialty: a sizzling cast-iron skillet with your choice of fish and buttery potatoes and salad. For you vegetarians like myself, they have a delicious vegetable dish that was surprisingly filling for an appetite as big as mine!
Whale and Shark Meat
Many restaurants in Iceland tout their delicacies: whale, shark, and puffin meat, but before you order their traditional delicacy, make sure to consider what may have been sustainable and know the statistics! 40% to 60% of whale meat is consumed by tourists visiting Iceland and 82% of Icelanders never eat whale meat….ever. Only 1.5% of Icelanders eat whale! Not to mention, 85% of mink whale meat is just thrown away after killing! Fin whales are classified as endangered, as are the Greenland shark being threatened. Be informed of the statistics and how your food choices are affecting these delicate ecosystems. You can easily find whale-free spots and opt not to order the meat. Visit this website for a listing of whale-free restaurants
Art Gallery Hopping in Old Harbor
Art is a major part of Rekjavik’s economy, culture and lifestyle, so it would be a shame if you didn’t explore a piece of the city that is so reflective of it’s culture! i8 is a beautiful gallery and represents some of Iceland’s top modern artists whom also show overseas. The Reykjavik Museum of Photography has a top notch exhibition of regional photographers up in the gallery room above the Reykjavik City Library. This exhibit recently began charging for entry, but if you take the elevator up and descend the stairs, you’ll find a large collection of vintage black-and-white photographs. The photography books in the gift shop also showcase the entire gallery collection. 😉 The Reykjavik Art Museum is an Iceland favorite and every local will urge you to check out the well-curated exhibits of cutting edge contemporary Icelandic art. If installations, videos, paintings and sculptures are up your alley, be sure to spend a few hours here. Also in Old Harbor, the local favorite artist run exhibitions Kling and Bang and Nýló are favorites among the cutting edge contemporary artists and musicians. Note: if you’re planning to explore the city on foot like we did, know that some of these exhibits are quite out of the way and a far distance from the center of town. But if you enjoy exploring a new city on foot, you’ll love the sights! Oh, and be sure to check out the panoramic HD recreation of Icelandic auroras at the Aurora Reykjavik! If you don’t want to spend the 1600 kr, make a beeline for the gift shop and check out the virtual reality experience and grab a free coffee or tea!
Explore the giant beehive of Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall
Close Proximity to Blue Lagoon
After we said our farewell to charming Reykjavik, we drove the 40 minutes to the nearby tourist attraction (and for good reason!), Blue Lagoon. We originally were not planning on visiting Blue Lagoon, as we felt it was a tourist trap and too costly of a geothermal pool after we had discovered more affordable, local pools. But after chatting with a few locals inland, we realized Blue Lagoon was one of those special experiences that everyone must experience while in Iceland….and we are beyond glad that we did! Upon entering the rocky, space-like entrance, we felt like we were on another planet. The hot water was a smoky blue, and we explored caves and a waterfall, all the while applying facial masks, as we waded around with our drinks. It was an experience we will always remember, and we were in total bliss, I didn’t want to ruin the memory with lugging out my dslr and capturing photos.
Tips for visiting the Blue Lagoon
- Although Alex and I drove the 40 minutes to Blue Lagoon from the city via our rental car, the alternate option / easiest way to get to the Blue Lagoon from both Keflavik Airport and Reykjavik city is via the shuttle service operated by Reykjavik Excursions. This shuttle service will pick you up from your hotel and drop you off and vice versa! And don’t worry there is Wi-Fi on board if you’re not entertained by the views outside your window.
- For the most magical experience, plan to arrive at the lagoon at least an hour before sundown to make sure that you don’t miss the colorful lights in the sky as they transform and cast a glow over the glowing waters.
- The rich mineral content of the water is super bad for your hair. Do yourself a favor and make sure to pre-lather your hair with conditioner (complimentary quality conditioner is provided in the showers before you enter the lagoon!) and tie it up in a bun, so your long hair won’t touch the water.
- Wade on over and pick up a complimentary Silica mud mask at the Silica bar. I also purchased the Algae mask – it made my skin feel and look amazing!
- Allow at least 2 hours at the lagoon. Believe me, you will never get bored with all of the options inside of the lagoon. From the swim-up bar, facial masks, steam and sauna rooms, in-water massages, waterfalls, caves to explore…the time will fly by.
Some snapshots from my adventure in Reykjavik…