Thursday 12 November 2015

CITY GUIDE: Reykjavik, Iceland

I've told you all about where I stayed, what I ate and what I did on a day to day basis so it must be time for me to put together a proper Reykjavik City Guide.

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, it has a population of just over 120 thousand which is nearly half the entire country's population. It's probably one of the smallest cities you'll ever visit as most of the action takes place on one main high street. That being said, Reykjavik is one of the most interesting cities I've had the pleasure of visiting. It's filled with terrific sights such as historic museums, contemporary art galleries, statues, street art, fantastic architecture, wonderful shops, delicious cafes, trendy bars and some of the most friendly people you will ever meet. For such a small place there is so much to do making it a perfect long weekend destination from the UK. Yes, it's a little on the expensive side but it is 100% worth it as you'll come home from your visit with a tremendous love of all things Icelandic. I've visited in the winter and summer and whilst the summer is full of long days allowing you to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, the winter is just as fun especially as cafes and shops become incredibly festive and the short days bring about a snug and cosy element.

FYI the weather is totally crazy in Iceland and can dramatically change at the drop of a coin so even if you're visiting in the summer make sure you pack for all the elements.
Where to sleep:

KEX is a great social hostel in down town Reykjavik. There are dorms and private rooms available with the option of en suite or a shared bathroom. There's a big bar area with decent enough food as well as a self service kitchen, laundry room, bicycle hire and heated terrace. KEX isn't a luxury option but it's a great choice if you're on a budget.

I stayed here when I first visited Reykjavik in December 2012. It's a very simple hotel but it does the job. The breakfast buffet is included in your room price and it's amazing with unlimited fresh waffles a plenty. Funnily enough it's next door to KEX so it's location is also spot on with rooms overlooking the fjord.

If you're travelling in the summer early bookings are essential.

The Truck from Grái Kötturinn

Where to eat:

It's probably best to read my Reykjavik food guide but I'll give a run down of my favourites here.

For brunch I love Bergsson Mathús for it's perfect Scandi cafe vibes but it's also worth stopping by Grái Kötturinn to try The Truck breakfast another day. Sandholt Bakery should be high on everyone's list as their baked goods are delicious, make sure you grab yourself some Icelandic doughnuts and then head to Reykjavík Roasters for coffee. For all day dining Cafe Babalu is my favourite but I also love the all-day cafe / bar vibe at Laundromat Cafe. You can buy delicious sandwiches from Tíu Dropar and don't you dare forget to try a lobster soup from Sægreifinn.

For afternoon and evening snacking The Deli is the place for pizza, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is the place for world-famous-thanks-to-Bill-Clinton hot dogs and Hamborgarabúllan is the number one place in town for burgers. For sushi lovers try Sushibarinn, for taco lovers try Tacobarinn and for noodle lovers you can always visit Ramen MomoCafe Loki is great for local Icelandic food as is Fiskmarkadurinn for their fish and Grillmarkaðurinn for their meat. Other dinner spots include Icelandic Fish and Chips for a healthier, Icelandic take on a British classic or one of the fancier spots in town such as DillSnaps or Friðrik VVeggies might want to check out Gló too.

Restaurant bookings are essential in the summer.

Museums and galleries:

I'm a big fan of museums and galleries and there's a whole host to discover in Reykjavik but my absolute favourite is definitely Reykjavik 871 +/- 2. It's built around one of the oldest Viking houses in the country and a staircase takes you beneath street level where you're transported back in time to discover how locals lived a thousand years ago. The exhibition is really interactive and full of details about Viking design and local flora and fauna. The National Museum of Iceland is another impressive collection of Icelandic history spanning the ages but you'll need a few hours to take everything in, it's incredibly informative with plenty of artefacts to study. I wasn't that impressed with the National Gallery of Iceland but I did love the three locations that make up Reykjavik Art Museum, especially the centre of town location Listasafn Reykjavikur Hafnarhus. The Reykjavik Museum of Photography is worth a visit, not only is it free but you get to visit the library at the same time. Fun for all the family can be found at the impressive Whales of Iceland museum which contains home made life size models of all the whales found in Iceland and if you're really into Norse Sagas you should visit Culture House and the Saga Museum. A couple last places of note is the free sculpture garden at the back of Einar Jónsson Museum and the amusing Icelandic Phallological Museum.

I didn't get to visit the Reykjavik Open Air Museum but it's on my list for next time as I love reconstructions of historical buildings.

Whilst entry is rarely free, many of the museums do student discount.

3D map of Iceland at City Hall

Things to do and see:

There's so many a great places to visit in Reykjavik you'll be kept busy throughout your visit. From the futuristic church Hallgrímskirkja, where you can catch the lift to the top (only costs a couple of quid) for stunning views over the city to wondering around the harbour looking at the old boats and whale watching in the summer. Whilst you're a the harbour why not catch the boat to Viðey island or head south and walk around the beautiful lake Tjörnin. Around the lake you'll see lots of museums and the City Hall where you'll find a magnificent 3D map of Iceland. A little further out of the town centre you can visit the incredible looking Perlan which is built from water storage tanks. Close by is the city's geothermal beach where hot water is pumped into the bay and on the subject of hot springs you must absolutely go for a swim at the city's favourite swimming pool Laugardalslaug which has a varying temperatures of hot pools and a few slides. Whilst you're walking around town be sure to look out for lots of sculptures such a Solfar. Reykjavik is a city full of colour, from the cute colourful houses to the street art on every corner. Harpa concert hall is one of the most beautiful building in Reykjavik so whilst you're walking along the harbour make sure you poke your head in for a little look around, I desperately want to see a gig there one day.
Where to shop:

There are so many wonderful home interior shops along the main street in Reykjavik that there's little point in mentioning the name as you can just walk up and down Laugavegur and easily spot them all.

I will however mention the record shops because we made a point to visit as many as possible. 12 Tónar is probably my favourite, it really big with 2 floors dedicated to vinyl and it even has an in house living room where you can help yourself to free coffee. I like the fact it has a large display for Icelandic music which caused us to buy quite a few things. Second up is Lucky Records, a little bit west of the main street this was a treasure trove of so many goodies from second hand vinyl to the latest Icelandic indie music. I was happy to find a 7" singles box here and ended up buying some Of Monsters and Men goodies. Reykjavik Record Store is a small store right in the centre of town and offers a very curated selection of vinyl with it's pristine shelves full of dance, indie and plenty in between. We managed to pick up a couple of reasonably priced second hand finds here so despite it's pretentious appearance you can definitely find a bargain. You can't miss Bad Taste Records with it's bright green store front. It's a nice little store with a local music shelf but it's mainly CDs rather than vinyl. The last on the list is Geisladiskabud Valda which is like visiting a charity shops that only sells CDs, you could spend ages rummaging through the crates of all genres of music.

Other shops to note include the open-all-year-round Christmas shop and my favourite Icelandic outdoors shop, 66° North. If you're a book worm or just fancy a browse make sure you check out Bókabúð Máls og menningar which also has a cafe and if you're in town at the weekend the flea market Kolaportið is a great spot to waste a few hours.

Craft beer tasting at Micro Bar

Where to party:

People say it's expensive to drink alcohol in the Nordic countries, I don't disagree with this statement but in my experience Iceland isn't that much more expensive than London in terms of booze. That being said there's definitely a few cheap options to be sought out. Dillon Whisky Bar sells super cheap Viking Beer plus it's a generally cool rock pub if you're into that sort of music (I am). If you're after more rock bar vibes then it's also worth checking out Celtic Cross and late spot Bar 11. On the main road you'll find Lebowski Bar, Bunk Bar, Vegamot and Prikið which are your standard all-day-open-late bar type spots, same with previously mentioned Laundromat Cafe. For craft beers lovers you absolutely must visit Micro Bar where there's tons of different options to choose from including a 5 or 10 beer tasting trays and it's also worth visiting Kaldi Bar just off the main road too. For something a little more trendy I absolutely adore Kaffibarin and not just because the entrance has a tube sign above the door. Slippbarinn is great for cocktails and for more club like atmospheres it's worth checking out Boston and b5.


Day Trips:

Iceland is a big country and many of the outstanding natural wonders aren't accessible from Reykjavik in just a day. However there's still plenty to see in the surrounding countryside and the big draw is definitely the Golden Circle. This tour includes a visit to Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park. You can do this yourself if you have a car or you can book a tour with Gray Line or Reykjavik Excursions. The attractions are free to visit so if you have your own transportation you might as well do it yourself. We were in the national park at midnight which was lovely as we had the whole place to ourselves. Because these sights are natural wonders you can visit at any time of the day. This is especially handy during the summer when it never gets dark.

You can make it to the south of Iceland on a day trip to visit the magnificent Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls and the black sand beach of Vik but this would consist of an awful lot of driving. Again, you can book a tour or do it yourself if you have a car as there's no entry prices to worry about. That's the great thing with Iceland, so many natural wonders to see for free.

Another day trip option is to visit a glacier. You can do a glacier hike on Sólheimajökull glacier or visit the ice caves. I visited the ice caves at  Langjokull glacier on a day trip from Reykjavik and let me tell you it took a hell of a lot of driving to get there but it totally worth it as the experience was incredible. I also did a glacier hike whilst we were staying in the south of Iceland, again this was a phenomenal experience.

And what would a trip to Iceland be without visiting the world famous Blue Lagoon. As the lagoon is situated down the road from the airport it makes sense to visit either when you're arriving in Iceland or on your way home. Make sure you pre book during the summer months as it's extremely popular.

Book day trips in advance or from your hotel when you arrive in town.


Iceland's international airport is in Keflavik, about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik and you can catch a Gray Line or Reykjavik Excursions bus to the centre of town from just outside arrivals (you don't need to pre book). Once you're in Reykjavik there is very little need for public transport as the city is so small. We caught the local bus just the one time and that's when we went to the local swimming pool, west of the city centre.

I'll touch on our car once I write about our road trip but a good rental company is Go Iceland who offer great service and competitive rates. You can collect your car from the airport or from their office in Reykjavik.

From London you can fly cheaply with Easy Jet if you book far enough in advance.

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  1. This is amazing - you definitely have a future in travel guidebook writing! x

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