Iceland is one of our favorite places to visit. We’ve traveled to Reykjavik twice, once in early 2014 and again for New Year’s Eve in 2015. Over the course of the two trips we have seen a lot of the major tourist attractions, but we know there is still so much more to see.
Iceland is becoming quite the tourist destination. Its proximity to the USA’s east coast, Icelandair’s relatively inexpensive flights, and the incredible landscapes romanticized by a growing number of popular movies make it difficult to ignore.
Reykjavik is the biggest city in Iceland and home to plenty of fun things to do, but it’s also the gateway to a country immersed in gorgeous scenery and natural wonders. The city has an interesting history as well. In 871 AD, a Norwegian fugitive named Ingólfur Arnarson (who is also credited as being the first official Icelander) arrived in what is now Reykjavik. He saw the large amounts of steam rising from geothermal hot springs in the area and named the spot “Reykjavík” which translates into English as Smoky Bay.
Here’s what we recommend for a short trip to Reykjavik!
WHAT TO SEE
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE. An easy day trip from Reykjavik, the Golden Circle tour will take you to a few of the can’t miss natural wonders on the island. You’ll see the Great Geysir and Strokkur geyser, which erupts every 5-10 minutes. The Great Geysir was the first geyser described in a printed source and gave name to the phenomena- albeit with a slightly different spelling. Your trip will also take you to see the incredible Gullfoss waterfall (which we thought was better than the famed Niagara Falls on the US/Canada border). The tour wraps up at Þingvellir National Park, where you can see the continental drift between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates. The Icelandic Parliament was established at Þingvellir in 930 AD and remained until 1798, making it the oldest parliament in the world. Guided bus tours are plentiful from several travel companies, and it’s a popular route for travelers who decide to rent a car and strike out on their own.
- THE BLUE LAGOON. A trip to Reykjavik would be incomplete without a visit to the wonderful Blue Lagoon. Touristy and expensive, the geothermal spa is definitely worth a few hours of your trip. It is a great place to relax for an afternoon, and it’s a popular stop for people leaving Reykjavik on their way to the airport. It is a different experience than most people would expect, though, especially for Americans. Be prepared to shower before and after you go to the lagoon- and be prepared to be yelled at if you try to shower with your bathing suit on. The showers have free shower gel and hair conditioner; Stephanie recommends leaving some conditioner in your hair before going into the lagoon to prevent the salt in the water from drying it out. We recommend renting one of the robes for your stay (especially if you’re there in the winter months) to make it easier going from the water to the locker room. Another word of caution: as you explore around the lagoon, take note that some areas of the water are much warmer than others.
More Information: BlueLagoon.com
- HALLGRÍMSKIRKJA. One of the most iconic buildings in Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran church that towers over the city with it’s gorgeous design. There is also an elevator that takes you to the viewing deck at the top of the church. It costs 800KR, but it provides a wonderful 360° view of the city- don’t miss it. Be sure to get there early in the day to beat the crowds; sometimes the queue can build up and it doesn’t move very quickly.
- SÓLFAR. This statue is one of the popular tourist photo spots along the harbor, but it’s absolutely worth seeing. Sólfar (The Sun Voyager) may look like a Viking ship, but the design is meant to be a dreamboat, an ode to the sun. It’s a quick walk from most of the hotels and definitely worth going to see.
- HLJÓMSKÁLAGARÐUR is a nice park just north of the downtown area where you can spend a quiet morning walking around the lake Reykjavíkurtjörn. It’s a great spot for bird watching as well; dozens of species of birds flock to the area in hopes of getting a piece of bread from a passerby. Don’t forget to check out all the sculptures around the lake.
- HARPA. A beautiful concert hall and conference center complex situated right along the harbor. Harpa has an impressive architectural design both inside and out. It is open to the public even when there is not an event taking place, so be sure to stop by. We would love to come back and see an event here someday.
More Information: Harpa.is
WHERE (AND WHAT) TO EAT AND DRINK
- BÆJARINS BEZTU PYLSUR. The small hot dog stand is one of the most popular food stops in Reykjavik. The queue might look intimidating at first, but it moves quickly. The hog dogs are made with lamb and pork and we recommend ordering one “with everything,” which means ketchup, fried onions, sweet brown mustard, and their signature remoulade made with mayo and sweet relish. These are some of the best hot dogs we have ever had- make sure to get two!
More Information: BBP.is
- ICELANDIC FISH AND CHIPS. If you like fish and chips, then this is the place to go. We had the cod with garlic-rosemary potatoes and it was excellent. Choose some of their signature skyronnaise dipping sauces, pair it with a Gull beer (see below), and you’re all set for a quality meal!
More Information: FishAndChips.is
- GRILLMARKAÐURINN. Delicious cocktails, fresh seafood, and tasty lamb. One of our favorite items was the fresh bread, butter, and black lava salt. The menu is a bit on the expensive side, but if you’re looking for a fantastic meal and a wonderful dining experience, this should be at the top of your list. Grillmarkadurinn (Grillmarket) is popular- reservations are accepted on their website and are recommended, especially for weekend nights!
More Information: Grillmarkadurinn.is
- BRENNIVÍN. Known to some as The Black Death, Brennivín is Iceland’s signature distilled beverage. The name translates into English as Burning Wine but it’s actually an unsweetened schnapps that is made from fermented grain, barley, or potato mash and flavored with caraway. It’s great mixed into a cocktail… although we liked it quite a bit on its own as well.
- THE LAUNDROMAT CAFE. Fun, quirky, and kind of a hipster’s paradise, we loved our first breakfast so much we stopped back for another one before heading home. Try the dirty brunch, which is likely to be more than you can eat and comes with a great bread basket and chocolate butter. The coffee was excellent, as was the chai latte.
More Information: TheLaundromatCafe.com
- LEBOWSKI BAR. We’re huge fans of the movie The Big Lebowski, so we definitely wanted to make sure we stopped by Lebowski Bar. We were not disappointed! They have great burgers and food options, but the main event is their enormous selection of White Russians named after characters and themes from the movie. The place is also decorated in classic Big Lebowski fanfare. The rugs looked especially nice; in fact you might even say they really tied the room together.
More Information: LebowskiBar.is
- GULL BEER. We fell in love with the local beer brewed by the Ölgerðin Egils Skallagrímsson company. It’s on tap pretty much anywhere you go, and if you like simple, clean Euro pale lagers than you should definitely give this a try.
WHERE TO STAY
- City Center Hotel. Welcoming staff, well priced, and the location could not be any better. The room was comfortable, the bathroom was nice and clean, and the noise from the street wasn’t noticeable, which made for a quiet night’s rest. It’s walking distance to restaurants, bars, the tour office, and shopping. If you’re looking for a convenient spot in the city, the City Center Hotel is the way to go.
More Information: CityCenterHotel.is
- Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. We stayed here on our first trip to Iceland. The hotel has nice rooms, a wonderful staff, and it’s also well priced. It’s location on the marina gives you a beautiful view of the harbor, and it’s walking distance to Harpa and just a little farther to the downtown area.
More Information: IcelandairHotels.com/en/hotels/marina
ONE MORE THING…
- If you’ve seen pictures of Iceland, you know it looks pristine and untouched. It just doesn’t smell that way all the time. Because of the geothermal hot water and volcanic activity on the island, you may notice a sulfur smell reminiscent of rotten eggs. You’ll probably notice this when you turn on the hot water in your hotel room- and you will definitely notice this in places like the Blue Lagoon. Most Iceland travel blogs and guidebooks fail to share this somewhat surprising detail, but it’s absolutely worth a mention! Truthfully, you do get used to it pretty quickly- and your skin won’t retain the scent. In a way it’s kind of like a practical joke: Mother Nature gives us incredible beauty to behold through one of our senses while completely assaulting another one.
From food to sightseeing, if Iceland hasn’t made it onto your travel list yet don’t wait another minute before adding it! We’re sure you’ll love it so much you’ll be planning your second trip even before you finish your first trip!
Destination Guides are our recommendations for things to do and see in each featured location. They are by no means definitive, they’re just based on our own experiences. If you have additional recommendations please let us know in the comments!