It’s no secret by now that Iceland’s laid-back, diminutive capital punches way above its weight on pretty much every level. It’s ostensibly a cosmopolitan and highly progressive fishing village, home to more than half of the country’s 300,000 citizens, as well as a slew of expats and a constant stream of visitors all year round.
Its tiny downtown area can be walked in less than a day and yet a surprisingly diverse array of cultural treats — first-class museums featuring mediaeval sagas and thrilling Viking history, edgy art galleries and particularly peppy music and nightlife scenes — mean you can easily spend weeks here without getting bored. The gastronomic scene offers a truly global range of cuisines, people are friendly and worldly, and there are geothermal pools to bathe in. An increasingly well-developed harbour area with an eye-catching concert hall, plus a range of day-trip options to lunar lava fields, majestic waterfalls and spouting geysers add to Reykjavik’s undeniable charm.
Start the morning with a stroll around the city’s pretty lake, Tjörnin, admiring the bird life and surrounding views. On the lake’s eastern side is the City Hall, which hosts the tourist office, an engrossing 3D map of the country, and occasional exhibitions by local artists. On the other side of the lake is the National Museum of Iceland, whose permanent exhibition tells the story of Iceland from settlement to the present day via exhibits such as replica Viking ships and drinking horns. Close by, you’ll also find the National Gallery of Iceland, which showcases mostly 19th- and 20th-century Icelandic art, but also international heavyweights such as Munch, Serra and Picasso. There’s a pleasant café should you need a caffeine injection.
Stroll back through Austurvöllur Square, the site of the ‘Kitchenware Revolution’ (when protestors showed their frustrations by banging pots and pans) during the 2009 financial crash, to admire the modest stone Parliament building and the historic Hotel Holt, which houses the largest privately owned art collection in Iceland.
Take a 15-minute stroll down to the harbour area and grab a late lunch at laid-back Saegreifinn, whose shack-like interior offers nautical décor, simple wooden tables and a menu of delicious lobster soup and seafood skewers.
Afterwards, walk around the charming and revitalised harbour, perhaps dropping by the Reykjavik Maritime Museum to see the permanent exhibition ‘Fish and Folk’, which explores 150 years of fisheries in Reykjavik. Finish your nautical afternoon by hopping on an Extreme Iceland boat tour and try to see whales and puffins in their natural habitat.
Back on dry land, head up to Laugavegur, which is lined with restaurants, bars, cafés and boutiques. Spúútnik is one of the most popular (and oldest) second-hand and vintage clothing stores in Reykjavik. Check out the side streets too; along Vesturgata (No. 4) you’ll find the charming Kirsuberjatréð, a local design shop run by a crew of artists who make cute-as-a-button bags, cushions, necklaces, lamps and more.
Music aficionados, meanwhile, won’t want to miss the legendary 12 Tónar along Skólavörðustígur (No. 15), a one-stop shop for Icelandic (and international) music of all kinds, from metal to classical.
Reward your efforts with some Icelandic craft beer at the convivial Micro Bar, followed by dinner at Fiskmarkaðurinn, which serves a wide range of seafood dishes – from lobster soup and Robata grilled salmon, to sushi and rock shrimp tempura. See our guides for more restaurant and nightlife inspiration.
Start today with a visit to Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s distinctive, rocket-shaped church. It was designed by famed national architect Guðjón Samúelsson, inspired by the country’s basalt rock formations. Admire the statue of national hero Leifur Eiríksson outside, then the handsome interior – with its immense organ that has more than 5,000 pipes – before ascending to the tower for vistas across the surrounding multi-coloured houses and out to the sea.
Then head to lunch at Snaps Bistro, a five-minute walk away; book in advance if you can. This French-style bistro has a broad-appeal menu of moules marinières, steaks and freshly prepared catch of the day.
After a leisurely lunch take a walk over to the Vesturbæjarlaug, a swimming complex in the lovely neighbourhood of Vesturbær offering relaxing hot tubs, a large outdoor pool and a steam room; a great place to meet the locals. Stroll back along the seafront towards the harbour for some historical and cultural explorations.
The Hafnarhús part of the Reykjavík Art Museum, has six galleries with a mix of contemporary art (local and international) and a permanent collection of works from Iceland’s most famous pop artist, Erró. The adjacent Reykjavik Museum of Photography, has a similar commitment to old and new, local and international work.
Decamp to Kaffibarrin for pre-dinner drinks and a solid soundtrack, sometimes provided by live bands or a local DJ.
Just down the road is Grillmarkaðurinn, where locally sourced fish and meat dishes, such as salted cod with lobster salad and grilled pork ribs, are expertly cooked and presented in innovative ways. Round off the evening with a concert at Harpa, home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera.
Reykjavik’s Vesturbær neighbourhood, located to the west of the main 101 downtown area, has long been known as an upscale residential area. Home to the University of Iceland and its campus, it’s popular with teachers and students as well as professional creatives. The area hosts several highlights to explore, from the Aalto-designed Nordic House, with its concert hall, libraries and lakeside bistro, to popular swimming pool Vesturbæjarlaug, and a fabulous walking path. Local hotels include the Radisson Blu Saga and Oddsson.
If you’re interested in music and architecture, take one of the daily guided tours of Harpa, to get into the acoustics of the building and visit parts of the interior normally inaccessible to the public.
Alcohol is one of the more expensive products in Iceland, but most bars offer daily happy hours, sometimes stretching into the evening. Kaffibarrinn has a pleasingly long one from 3pm-8pm.
The city’s cool Kex Hostel happens to have a great restaurant and bar, and hosts regular events (especially music concerts) in its spacious lobby and in the backyard.
Did you know?
Reykjavik is something of a street art hub. Look out for impressive work from local and international artists all over the centre, including lasting collaborations with the Airwaves Music Festival.
Where to stay
Built back in 1930, the historic Hotel Borg was Iceland’s first luxury hotel. Today it merges high-end Art Deco elegance with modern flair and has a range of amenities that include a dedicated spa and a good restaurant and bar. Its location on the scenic Austurvöllur Square is hard to beat.
The stylish Hotel 101 was one of Reykjavik’s early boutique hotels and it is still one of the best. It offers unapologetically chic interiors, a futuristic restaurant and bar and also its own collection of contemporary art.
Hótel Reykjavík Centrum is situated on one of Reykjavik’s oldest streets, set across three interconnected buildings, the oldest section of which was built in 1764 in the remains of a Viking longhouse. Its cutesy-historic interiors gives it a nostalgic guesthouse look that’s aesthetically in tune with the other historically reconstructed buildings on the street.
What to bring home
The lópapeysa, the distinctive patterned Icelandic sweater, is made from unique local wool that means the outer layer is tough and water-resistant but feels soft and warm on the inside. The best place to buy one is from The Handknitting Association of Iceland which is charmingly haphazard — its hats, sweaters, gloves, cardigans and other items are piled up on every available surface.
When to go
The right time to visit Reykjavik depends really on what you want to do. Fancy roaming around in a T-shirt (well, a thin jumper is more likely) and exploring the dramatic landscapes of the interior highlands? June to August get the best temperatures plus most of the roads and trekking routes are generally open, though there are of course also more people and higher prices.
For the Northern Lights you’ll need to book for winter, which has the bonus of a string of high-profile cultural events such as the Reykjavik Film Festival and Iceland Airwaves, while blossoming spring and colourful autumn draw slightly fewer tourists but the weather is more fickle. Being a land of extremes, rest assured that whenever you go, you’ll find plenty of memorable experiences.
Know before you go
British Embassy: Laufásvegur 31, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland (britishembassy.is; 00 354 550 5100). Open Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 12:00pm
Emergency services: Dial 112
Tourist office: Reykjavík Official Tourist Information Centre
Tjarnargata 11, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland (visitreykjavik.is; 00 354 411 6040).
Telephone code: 00 354
Time difference: The same as the UK (though daylight saving time is not used).
Flight time: (from London) Around three hours
Central Reykjavik’s diminutive size means it’s easy to get around by foot. If you’re not a walker, buses are the next best way to explore the centre and suburbs, being prolific and reasonably cheap. Taxis are also easily available but are notoriously expensive and tend to be used only when absolutely necessary; take special care not to take one from the airport unless you want a bill of around a hundred euros. Regular buses (Flybus) shuttle passengers to and from the airport and city centre; you can book and pay at the airport. To explore beyond the capital, public and tour buses can be useful, but for ultimate flexibility it’s best to hire a car from one of the many outlets in the city or airport.
When it comes to dining and service, Icelanders tend to treat their customers (politely) as equals rather than being overly subservient, which can occasionally lead to impressions of brusqueness or even rudeness; the best rule of thumb is to not take it personally if staff don’t jump when you want them to.
The stories you’ve heard about the city being expensive are also true, certainly when it comes to dining and drinking. The good news is that service charges are always included in the bill, and tipping – whether for restaurants, taxis or tour guides – is not required or expected. That said, leaving something extra as a thank you for especially good service won’t be unappreciated.
It’s also worth noting that the city is largely cashless – you can pay for pretty much everything with your card regardless of the amount, though if you are going to get some cash for tipping or other reasons, do it in Iceland where the rates tend to be better.
If you’re travelling as a family, you’re in luck: Iceland on the whole is a very family-friendly place, and is safe, clean, and has lots of child-friendly activities.
Paul has been an Icelandophile since writing his 2003 music-themed travelogue, ‘waking up in Iceland’. He has travelled all over the country during his numerous visits since, and loves nothing more than a dip in a local hot pool and a waffle at the timeless Mokka cafe.