For the non-adventure traveller...
Reputation: expensive destination for thrill-seekers.
Why you should go: Viking history. Lots of great shops, cafes and museums. Easy day-trips which take in amazing scenery. The northern lights (if you time it right). But yes, it’s expensive.
A quick note about accessibility in Reykjavik: it has a lot of uneven footpaths and streets and a few sneaky hills. It’s not easy to get around if you’ve got a pushchair or use a mobility device so we recommending planning your routes carefully.
Everything’s free unless stated.
Some of our links go through to websites in Icelandic. You may not be able to read them, but the pictures speak for themselves.
Explore the world’s northern-most capital
Reykjavik is compact and can be explored easily on foot in a day. You may want to start by exploring the cobbled streets of Laugavegur, Bankastraeti and Austurstraeti, the main walking route through town (these three streets all run together). This is where you'll find most of the cafes, shops and bars, and most accommodation is located on or near these streets. Something you'll notice quickly is all the street art. It's everywhere and it's really good.
We like Reykjavik's waterfront, especially the modern architecture of the Harpa concert venue designed by Henning Larsen Architects. You can enter the large foyer and have a good look around without paying an entry fee. The metal and glass cladding is pretty impressive when viewed both inside and outside.
If you continue walking to your right you'll find the Sun Craft sculpture and views of the harbour, mountains and even a glacier on a clear day. To the left of Harpa is the old harbour, which is home to shops, museums and restaurants, as well as still being a working port.
Make sure you head up the hill to Hellgrimskirkja Church. It's a striking church that doesn't look like any church we've ever seen (check out the photo on our photos page) and it's a handy landmark. There’s a great view of Reykjavik from the top of the church tower. You'll be pleased to know that this isn't a medieval European church so there's no need to hike up hundreds of steps - there's a lift (elevator). We like lifts. An entry fee applies to the tower.
On a sunny day, take a stroll around Tjornin, the lake on the edge of town. Kids will enjoy feeding the birds and exploring the statues of local writers and poets. If you hang around until dusk, the bridges light up with coloured LED lights.
During summer, join the Free Walking Tour company for a 90-minute exploration of the town centre. The guides are funny and knowledgeable, and you’ll learn heaps about Reykjavik and its history. Just turn up at the clock tower in the Laekjartorg square at midday and 2pm and look for the guy holding the green sign.
Get your Viking on
Speaking of history, Icelanders are rightly proud of theirs. We really like the National Museum of Iceland which has some amazing artefacts dating right back to its early settlement in the 9th century, through to the introduction of Christianity, the rule of Norway and Denmark, independence and the Cod Wars with the UK in the 1970s. Find out how a country with no navy (or any military) defeated the UK at sea. There’s also a special section for kids to dress up like Vikings and early settlers. Keep an eye on the floor when you enter the main part of the museum for an outline of a boat. Ponder taking a vessel that small from Europe to Iceland. With your livestock. Hmmm, they were braver than us. An entry fee applies.
We also like Reykjavik 871: The Settlement Exhibition, which is built around the remains of a 9th century Viking longhouse. An entry fee applies.
As you explore town, keep an eye out for the many statues of Reykjavik’s founding fathers and other notable people. Reykjavik has more public statues than anywhere we've been. Our favourites are Ingolfur Arnarson (the first permanent settler in Iceland in 874-ish) on the grassy bank opposite Harpa and Leifur Eiriksson (the first European to discover North America) outside the Hellgrimskirkja church.
If you do a day trip from Reykjavik, your guide will fill you in on some of the great local legends and sagas.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised by Reykjavik’s shopping, not because it has loads of cheap stuff or designer labels but because so many things here are unique and beautifully made. Kronkron, just off Laugavegur, sells amazing locally-designed clothes and shoes, and the owner has personal style to die for. We also like the local designs sold at Beautiful Stories and 38 Prep, and the dead-stylish imported clothes at Eva.
If you fancy a traditional, hand-knitted Icelandic jumper, they're available just about everywhere. Keep in mind that they aren't as traditional as you might think - they've only been around for about 60 years. But they are a genuine item of clothing that all the locals wear (unlike 'traditional' clothing in some countries. We're looking at you, Thai fisherman pants).
We also love the locally-made jewellery. It’s beautiful and reasonably priced. We did a bit of damage to the credit card at Aurum on Bankastraeti. Our suggestion is to do a bit of window-shopping along Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur, which is the diagonal street off Laugavegur, to see what you like. We guarantee you'll find something fab.
If you find yourself at the old harbour, there are some excellent boutiques tucked inside old warehouses along Grandagardur.
Reykjavik’s also a good place to buy warm clothes, either for stomping around in the great outdoors or to keep warm around town when you get home. These guys really know about cold weather and make some very cool clothing that will keep you toasty in winter. The shops selling these clothes are pretty obvious. Our fav is Geysir.
You can’t walk for 30 seconds without coming across a souvenir shop and they all sell pretty much the same t-shirts, fridge magnets and stuffed puffins. If you want something that’s not likely to end up at the back of a cupboard, visit somewhere like 60 Laugavegur for really nice, locally-made things, which are often sold in top design stores in places like New York.
And make sure you pop into Eymundsson bookshop. There are three branches on the main street alone but we like the branch near the post office. It’s got a great café on the top floor with a balcony and sells good books in various language about the Icelandic sagas.
Hit the museums
Reykjavik has some great museums in addition to the ones mentioned above. The Reykjavik Art Museum has changing exhibits by local artists. An entry fee applies. And the free Reykjavik Museum of Photography on the top floor of the library next door is also worth a visit to see photos of Iceland past and present.
There are other museums people rave about that we didn’t get a chance to visit, including the Maritime Museum and the Phallological Museum. Yeap, you read that right. Apparently it’s very tastefully done.
Get out of Reykjavik
Reykjavik’s great but you’ll start rattling around after a couple of days. So book a day trip or two. Don’t worry, there are plenty of options for the non-thrill-seeker.
The Golden Circle takes in a geyser, huge waterfall and the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and is on many ‘must do’ lists. It’s a very easy day trip from Reykjavik, doesn’t involve a lot of walking and is a piece of cake to organise through one of the many travel agents in town. The three sites on offer are definitely worth seeing, especially Thingvellir National Park, where the tectonic plates meet. The resulting 'rift' valley is beautiful. We booked our tour through Gateway to Iceland and it included a stop at a natural thermal pool. Icelanders visit thermal pools on a regular basis and you'll quickly understand why - they're a great way to relax, socialise and ease anything that aches. So if your budget or itinerary doesn't stretch to a visit to the Blue Lagoon (ours certainly didn't) this is a good way to visit a thermal pool.
The other day trip we recommend is to Snaefellsnes Peninsular. This is a longer day trip, taking about 12 hours, but it’s well worth it. You’ll see more volcanoes, glaciers, lava fields, fjords and mountains than you can shake a stick at. We loved it. Again, this isn’t a very demanding day trip in terms of walking, it’s just a long day. We also organised this trip through Gateway to Iceland and recommend them (and no, we're not getting a commission).
Yes, eating in Reykjavik is expensive but you also tend to get a lot of food for your money. You can probably get away with just brunch and dinner most days.
Wherever you go, the food is good. We like Laundromat on Austurstraeti for brunch (try the pancakes with caramelised banana. Sooo good) and Hlollabatar’s sandwiches in Ingolfstorg square. Or try a hot dog, practically the national dish, at Pylsuhusid’s in Ingolfstorg square or Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur around the corner outside the Radisson Blu hotel. We splashed out on dinner at Ostabudin on Skolavordustigur, which was totally worth it. The fish dishes are outstanding. And Glo, just off Laugavegur, is vegetarian but also serves meat (!) so everyone wins.
We also recommend Braud and Co, a bakery on Skolavordustigur, just down from the Hellgrimskirkja church. This place is good. We had something from Braud nearly every day. Don’t worry about the queues, they move quickly. Try the apple danish (if there are any left).
If you opt to self-cater, we recommend the Bonus supermarkets, which have a little pink pig as a logo. They're all over the place and are cheaper than other supermarkets. You’ll need to buy your alcohol, including beer, at the Vinbudin bottle store on Austurstraeti. The beer sold in supermarkets is no or low alcohol. Vinbudin is located just across from Laundromat and ISN’T OPEN LATE so plan ahead.
Coffee is a bit of a passion in Reykjavik and there are loads of places to get a good coffee. We like Reykjavik Roasters on Skolavordustigur (just up from Braud) and Kaffi Brennslan on Laugavegur. You may have to queue but the queues move quickly.
If you do just one thrill-seeking thing…
Our CFO (chief fishing officer, of course) recommends Iceland for trout and salmon fishing. Admittedly this isn’t something most people will be able to do, but if you enjoy fly fishing, this is the place for you. We recommend using a guide, who will pick you up, organise permits, take you to the good fishing spots and even sort out lunch. We used Go-Fishing and would definitely use them again. Book well in advance as the season can book out quickly.
Where we stayed
We can’t recommend accommodation in Reykjavik as, unfortunately, ours turned out to be very disappointing. It’s the first and only time Trip Advisor reviews have let us down. We won’t name names because we want to focus on good experiences, but if you’re planning a trip to Iceland and want to know where not to stay, flick us an email.
To make this page load quicker we've popped the photos on a separate page.
Contributors: Ann-Marie Nansett, Michael Nansett
Updated: 25 September 2016