European City Guides: Reykjavik, Iceland
While it might not be the best time of year to see some Northern Lights, Iceland still has plenty to offer during the summer. Today marks Icelandic National Day, so we thought we’d offer up our top tips to seeing Reykjavik and some of the best excursions close to the Icelandic capital!
Flights and Transport in Iceland
Last year saw an influx of 2.4 million tourists enter Iceland, with the vast majority staying in Reykjavik. That’s around double the amount that travelled in 2016 and pretty incredible given that the whole country has a population of 323,000, with only around 200,000 living in the capital.
The country has seen an increase of 25% of tourists consecutively for the past 6 years which means there are plenty of options when it comes to flights. Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester and Luton all fly to Keflavik International Airport all year round and you can get flights for as little as £100-£150 return depending on when you go.
Reykjavik itself is actually a 45min bus transfer from Keflavik but there are buses running every half hour and are always set to go as soon as you land. We took the Flybus which costs around £10 per person for a return.
Getting around Reykjavik itself is simple enough as everything is within walking distance and excursion companies will pick you up from all of your hotels and drop you off too. Just be warned, if you need to go further afield, public transport barely runs outside of May-September, so car rental is pretty much your only option.
Thanks to the tourism boom, there’s no lack of accommodation options here. We’ve always had a love affair with Airbnb, so our tip would be to get on to their Website and check out the offers. You can get a perfectly located Downtown private apartment from around £50 a night if you play your cards right.
If you want something a little more upmarket, the Kvosin Downtown Hotel comes highly recommended. Set in an early 1900s building, this hip boutique hotel is located slap bang in the middle of Reykjavik and right at the start of the main strip of shops, bars and restaurants in the capital. There’s a brilliant in-house restaurant and bar and the service is generally just superb. A room at Kvosin starts at £150 a night depending on when you go.
Sights to See in Reykjavik
The main sight in the Icelandic capital is definitely Hallgrímskirkja. The Lutheran parish church took 41 years to build between 1945 and 1986. There’s no real point in us giving location details because you can literally see it from everywhere in the city. Almost every day you can head up to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja for certainly the best view of the city’s unique multi-coloured roofs.
As this is the country’s capital, Reykjavik also homes plenty in the way of museums for a leisurely afternoon out. Most of them are located by the quiet and scenic Old Harbour, which has great views across the bay at the Akrafjall and Esja mountain ranges. You should probably also check out the Icelandic Phallological Museum… yes, it is what you think.
Other highlights include the unmissable Harpa Concert Hall, a contemporary piece of architecture which is clad with different coloured geometric shaped glass panels; and if you want a quiet walk across the seafront, Seltjarnarnes homes the beautiful Grotta lighthouse and provides possibly the best chance of seeing Northern Lights in the city.
Food in Reykjavik
First thing you should know about food in Reykjavik is it’s not all fish and crustaceans, and it’s certainly not all whale and puffin meat, despite what you might have heard. In fact, very few locals eat whale with an estimated 80% of it eaten by tourists. Puffin meat has also now been banned due to a decrease in population.
Lamb is their national meat and they’re damn proud of it, so try a local meat soup (they just mean lamb soup). In general though, you can find essentially anything in Reykjavik with burgers and pizza as popular as they are over here!
For breakfast, we recommend a stop at The Laundromat Café located on the main strip, Laugavegur. In what is basically an American diner, the Laundromat serves hearty favourites of bacon, eggs and pancakes with lashings of maple syrup, as well as more wholesome muesli and Skyr (the native yoghurt). There’s even a fully functioning launderette downstairs if you need it!
You should also know that Icelanders weirdly love their hot dogs, and what has regularly been voted as the best hot dog in Europe is one of Reykjavik’s must tries. The Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand is an institution with even Bill Clinton visiting it while at a UNICEF conference during his presidency. It’s the best hot dog we’ve ever had but be warned, queues can literally go around the corner!
For something more substantial and refined, Fiskmarkaðurinn has one of the best reputations in the country. It’s a seafood haven and we’d recommend going all out with the tasting menu that head chef Hrefna Rósa Sætran and her team has created from the best Fish Market has to offer.
But for us, the best kept culinary secret in the capital is The Noodle Station. Serving the same deep Asian broth and noodles with either tender Chicken, melt-in-your-mouth Beef or crunchy Vegetables, Joes get the option of peanuts, vinegar, sugar and chilli at the end to make it perfect for your pallet. Portions are huge, at only £7 a pop it’s half the price of anything else in Reykjavik and it’s without doubt the best noodles we’ve ever tried.
Basically all of the nightlife in Reykjavik is handily located on Laugavegur. A few things you should know: Firstly, locals like to party. That means dress code isn’t walking boots and bobble hats. Secondly, they don’t get going until late by our standards with most pre-drinking thanks to high prices on booze. Midnight and after is when parties really start and at the weekends they can go on until 6am no problem. Thirdly, they don’t really do clubs. Most places double up as a café/bar with dancefloors manufactured rather than provided.
While drinks are very expensive (£6-8 a beer), thankfully virtually all Reykjavik bars have a Happy Hour, or rather Happy Hours. Usually between 4-8pm, you can grab a beer for half the usual price which works out cheaper than London. Our advice: utilise them and get the Appy Hour app on your phone for all the bars times.
Bravo is great for some boutique afternoon drinks, Lebowski Bar (based on the Coen Brothers film) is perfect for a light bite to eat and maybe some football if your Jane will allow you, and we loved the Kaldi Bar as it felt a bit more authentic than others due to the high volume of locals inside.
For a night out, Kaffibarinn is the hipsters weapon of choice. Good music as well as it being part owned by Damon Albarn means it gets heaving, especially in the weekend evenings. Húrra is similarly great with live music put on almost every night.
Excursions from Reykjavik
Reykjavik offers tons of excursions around Iceland, and given the country is so small, you can get most places in a few hours at most. A must if you don’t have a car is one of the many Northern Lights tours, which usually start around 9pm and can finish around 2am. Guides take you around various sites outside of the capital (to avoid light pollution) in search of dancing skies. There’s no guarantees so if you don’t see any lights, most tour companies will give you free trips until you do. Just bear in mind, September – April is prime viewing season.
A Golden Circle tour to Gullfoss, Geysir, and Þingvellir National Park is one of the most popular from Reykjavik, and while we’d thoroughly recommend it, a trip along the South Shore is one of the best ways to see the country. As well as seeing the country’s awesome black beaches, you’ll also see a few glistening glaciers and stop at a couple of Iceland’s best waterfalls – one of which you can walk behind in the summer.
The Blue Lagoon geothermal pool is probably the most famous attraction in Iceland and it’s perfect as a final stop on your trip. It’s only 20 minutes from Keflavik Airport, with buses heading to the airport every hour.
Prices in Iceland
The first thing people who have been to Iceland will tell you is how expensive the place is. A lot of the time warnings like this can be embellished but unfortunately not in this instance. Reykjavik especially isn’t cheap. You can find deals easily enough but when you’re in Holiday Mode, it’s very easy to drop a couple of hundred quid in a day here.
But is it worth it? 100%. A beautiful city in a quite extraordinary country.