Iceland: What to see and do in Reykjavik

I’ve had some amazing holidays and seen a lot of wonderful countries in my time as a traveller, but not many have captured me as Iceland did. From Reykjavik’s quaint cool to the weird and wonderful landscapes, and awesome locals, Iceland has a special place in my heart.

It all began when I was travelling with a friend, way back in 2010. We were flying from London to New York, with a stopover in Reykjavik. On the plane from London to Reykjavik, I read the tourism brochures for Iceland, which at the time was quite foreign to me, a 22-year-old Australian on my first trip overseas. I was immediately enamoured with the images of Iceland in the brochures: Aurora borealis, bright green mountains, cute shaggy horses, volcanoes, glaciers, all in one country! Though we didn’t get to explore Iceland at the time – we only had a one-hour stopover and didn’t know that it would have been worth staying for a bit – I had vowed to go back.

In 2016, my husband Pete and I made the trip a reality. We set off from Adelaide, via Kuala Lumpur and Amsterdam to Reykjavik. This was a 50-hour trip, including two 8-hour layovers in KL and Amsterdam, which I do not recommend anyone do – just pay the extra money and get a quicker transit time!

We booked an AirBnB apartment in central Reykjavik, on Bergstaðastræti, which was a fantastic location for walking to all the great bars and restaurants on Laugevegur, nearby gift shops and galleries, and landmarks like Hallgrimsirkja and the National Museum. The great thing about Reykjavik being so small is that pretty much everything we wanted to visit was within walking distance.

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Finding out how windy Reykjavik can be.

Altogether, we spent over a week in Reykjavik, and these were our favourite spots:

FOOD and DRINK

I could list more than what I have below. I was super impressed with Reykjavik’s food and drink scene, including a huge range of vegetarian options (which I was concerned about before we got there). However, the serving sizes are always massive, and I often couldn’t finish my meals (which is unusual for me)!

Svarta Kaffiđ – they serve soup in cob loaf, we visited three times we loved it so much. Do yourself a favour and visit.

Kaffibarin – coffee by day, bar by night, what more could you want?

Lebowski Bar – a whole bar dedicated to The Big Lebowski. Obviously their white Russians are top notch!

Bar Ananas – great name, great vibe. Pete and I were the least fashionably dressed punters here (its hard to bring your A-game outfits when travelling…).

Kaldi Bar/Café – we spent an afternoon here drinking local brews and chatting with the bartender.

Kryddlegin Hjortu – all you can eat soup and salad buffet. It sounds daggy but was delicious and had a great range of dishes.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – Reykjavik’s famous hot dog stand, I mention this as Pete said it was the best hot dog he’d ever eaten (sadly, they didn’t have vegetarian options). This is the famous hot dog stand that Bill Clinton loved when he visited, so much so they named a hog dog after him.

Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar – super cute and quirky burger bar with artwork and drawings all over the walls.

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Pete at Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar

Café Loki – we had our final lunch here. Pete tried Icelandic dried meats and fish, including the dreaded hákarl, washed down with Brennivín. Excellent Icelandic food and view of Hallgrimskirkja.

Mar – we only stopped in for a drink, but loved the selection of beers.

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Pete enjoying a beer at Mar.

CULTURE

We honestly didn’t get enough time to visit all the places I wanted to. We ticked off the main attractions, but I would have loved to have delved deeper and travelled further to see what else Reykjavik had to offer. However, the ones we did see were pretty great.

Þjóðminjasafn Íslands / National Museum of Iceland – fantastic collection and timeline of Icelandic history over multiple levels. At the time we visited, there was a really great exhibition on the contribution and work of women in Iceland.

The Culture House Museum – fantastic little gallery, with a really great staff member who we chatted to for a while and who explained all the artwork and facets of Icelandic life. I’ve forgotten her name, but she was so wonderful!

Harpa music hall – stunning architecture! Take some time to go in and look around (if nothing else to take a break from the weather).

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Harpa music hall
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Inside Harpa

Hallgrimskirkja – you’ll likely have to wait in line for a bit to take the elevator to the top, but its worth it for the fantastic 360º views of Reykjavik.

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Hallgrimskirkja
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View from the top

Sun Voyager – Reykjavik’s famous and beautiful sculpture on the harbour.

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The sun voyager

TIPS

Aurora spotting – I’ll write a separate post dedicated to our Iceland aurora hunting, but, in short, keep your eyes to the skies. We were very lucky in that we saw the Northern lights almost every night of our 2.5 weeks in Iceland. Our first night in Reykajvik we went to the harbour with our camera (and many layers of clothing) and were treated to our first aurora display. To say we were chuffed is an understatement. Under the right conditions, the aurora can be seen from the city – we had times when it was a faint sliver, to times when it was unmissable – so always look up!

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Aurora as seen from Bergstaðastræti

Bring layers (and something to keep you dry) – we visited in March/April and the weather was fairly mild, but we always found that we needed layers to keep warm/cool down, and keep the rain off, as it often drizzled at least once each day.

Walk everywhere – Reykjavik is a great city to navigate by foot, as it is small and flat, and most areas that you would want to visit are grouped close together. It’s also a great way to find places you didn’t know about or hadn’t thought of.

Chat to the locals – it seems obvious, but from our experience Icelanders are up for a chat, and very friendly and helpful. We spent an hour in a sunglasses shop chatting with the owner while he made Pete a custom pair of sunglasses on the spot, and gave us tips for driving the Ring Road. The staff members in The Culture House Museum and Kaldi Bar were fantastic to talk to about life in Iceland, culture and politics. Our AirBnB host was very forthcoming in suggesting places to eat and drink, and how to set ourselves up for a week in Reykjavik. The staff member we spoke to at the Culture Museum took time to explain some of the quirky names Icelandic parents give their kids, the history of the volcanoes (Katla is overdue for an eruption…), and her cool tattoos inspired by Ötzi the Ice Man.

Share meals – if travelling with a friend or partner, consider sharing meals, or ordering a main and an entrée to split. The meals we were served all throughout Iceland were seriously huge.

Drink Icelandic beer – it’s great and there is a wide variety to choose from. My favourite was Einstöck white with a wedge of orange!

Shop at Bónus – this supermarket is excellent and great to save a bit of coin when staying in one place for a while. We stocked up on skyr and other breakfast items, and snacks, to keep costs down (as meals in Iceland are more expensive than in Australia, e.g. most mains were $30 or more).

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Outside Hallgrimskirkja
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Statue of Viking Ingólfur Arnarson, first settler in Iceland

Reykjavik has a great vibe and I recommend giving yourself at least a week to explore it. Though it’s a small city, it has a lot of personality and is very welcoming. In our time there, it felt homely and almost as if we had lived there for months, which was a really nice feeling.

– Lauren.

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