Reykjavik is the charming and welcoming capital of Iceland located on the southwestern coast of Iceland. It’s the largest city on the island with nearly 200,000 people living there and new tourists arriving everyday.
Given its history as a Viking settlement and maritime city, there is plenty to discover in terms of culture and history. It’s also a great jumping point from which to explore the great outdoors since many of Iceland’s most beautiful landscapes are only a few hours drive from the city.
Do and See
CityWalk Tour of Old City of Reykjavik
Make reservations for a two-hour walking tour of the Old City of Reykjavik where Iceland’s first settlers arrived in 871 AD. You’ll learn about the island while getting to know some of the key points of the town including the main square, parliament, and oldest-known home. It’s a great way to get your bearings and the tour is technically free although a small donation of $10 per person is encouraged.
Reykjavik 871+-: The Settlement Exhibition
Get a feel for how the vikings lived in this small yet modern museum located in the heart of the Old City. Go downstairs to explore the open excavation of a family home, which was likely inhabited from 930 to 1000 AD. The digital exhibits are unique and interactive, plus there is a small children’s play area that will keep the little ones entertained.
Inspired by the lava rock formations of Iceland, Guðjón Samúelsson designed this unique Lutheran church in 1937 and the construction was finally completed in 1986. It’s free to walk in and ogle the massive pipe organ set just inside the church. You may also choose to pay a fee and go up into the church tower for a beautiful view of the city.
No trip to Iceland is complete without a few hours in the milky blue waters of the Blue Lagoon. You’ll come out calm, refreshed, and with all the best photos to share with your friends. It’s a bit costly but the basic package grants you entrance, a silica mud mask, and a free drink of your choice. Avoid the crowds by booking a time in the evening.
Hop in your rental tour for a circular tour of some of Iceland’s most beautiful landscapes and geologic wonders.
First, spend a couple hours walking around the Þingvellir (pronounced as Thingvellir) National Park where the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates meet. Then, head off to see the Geysir Geothermal Fields where you can see the Strokkur geyser erupt every 5-10 minutes.
Next, drive to the massive, powerful Gullfoss Waterfalls and fuel up with a bowl of traditional lamp soup made from local, organic ingredients at the onsite café. Afterwards, drive to see the secret lagoons of Fludir and the historic town of Skalholt. This route took us the entire day and lasted about 8-9 hours. You can do a shorter 3-hour tour if you only hit the three most popular landmarks (i.e. Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss).
Southern Coast of Iceland
Head a couple hours out of the city to the southern coast of Iceland for a scenic drive including cascading waterfalls, Icelandic farms, and coastal beauty.
First, drive to Skogafoss where you can climb the steps to the top of the nearly 200-foot tall waterfall. It’s worth it to hike a bit past the top of the waterfall to see the river flowing through the green pastural hills.
Next up, drive to Reynisfjara to admire the black sand beach and hexagonal basalt rock formations. If you are lucky, you may spot a puffin among the cliffs. On your way back, stop by the Seljalandsfoss waterfall where you can walk the circular pathway into the cavern behind the waterfall. This driving tour took us about 7-8 hours.
Another popular day trip from Reykjavik is to drive a couple hours west to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula where you can take in the stunning vistas of the glacier/volcano at the Snaefellsjokull National Park, basalt columns in Gerðuberg, and its many beaches full of wildlife. Although highly recommended, we didn’t get a chance to make this day trip so go check it out and let me know how it goes.
Eat and Drink
Traditional Lamb Stew
Warm yourself up with this satisfying yet simple stew of lamb, potatoes, carrots, and onions in a clear broth. We shared a bowl at the Gullfoss Kaffi during our tour of the Golden Circle.
Icelandic Hot Dog
Who knew the humble hot dog would be a national treasure in Iceland? It’s the perfect affordable meal when your wallet needs a break. Heavily recommend getting the hot dog with everything which includes mustard, ketchup, chopped onions, and crispy fried onions.
Not surprisingly, the island is best know for seafood including lobster, cod, and salmon. Adventurous souls will seek out Hákarl, a fermented shark that is cured by burying it underground and then hanging it to dry. Personally, I decided to avoid this delicacy based on Anthony Bourdain‘s description of it being “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible-tasting thing.”
Oui oui, I’m the Francophile who can’t say no to a French-themed restaurant. Eat at this cafe and you’ll be transported to Paris, especially when you order the Icelandic pancakes that are strikingly similar to French crepes.
Bonus Grocery Store
Stop by Iceland’s most affordable chain of grocery stores to stock up on essentials for your trip. Don’t forget a container of Skyr yogurt, a creamy Icelandic yogurt that is made in a similar style to Greek yogurt.
We had a wonderful stay in the Blue Mountain Apartments, a boutique hotel that is a 10-15 minute drive from the city center of Reykjavik.
It was clean and modern with a comfy bed, small kitchenette, free WiFi, laundry room, and access to a full gym. The owner is a friendly woman named Johanna who is the hostess with the mostess and has great travel tips.
Tips and Tricks
The weather in Iceland can change at the drop of a pin, so you’ll want to plan for rain and cold weather no matter what time of year you are going. Be sure to bring rain gear such as waterproof jacket, waterproof hiking pants, and waterproof boots. Layering with thermal undergarments is also a good idea (Uniqlo’s HEATTECH line is affordable and highly recommended).
Iceland is a hot spot for travel right now so it’s fairly busy throughout the year. Peak season is from April through the end of August. The aurora borealis can light up the Icelandic skies during the months of September through April. However, keep in mind that the Northern Lights are totally unpredictable so hopefully the weather and solar activity cooperate with the timing of your trip.
Renting a car is a great way to get around the island and check things out. Most companies are honest but it doesn’t hurt to take photos and videos of the rental before heading out and when returning. Also, be sure to check out their drop off policy especially if your flight home leaves when the office may be closed.
Lastly, rumor has it that the nightlife in Reykjavik is pretty freakin’ awesome but this grandma knows nothing about that. Head on over here if you want tips on where to go out.