Iceland is one of our favorite places to visit. Between us, we have traveled to Reykjavik four times: once in early 2014, again for New Year’s Eve in 2015, as part of a quick stopover in 2017 on the way to Copenhagen, and yet again in September 2022. We’ve felt almost at home there since the first time we set foot on the island nation, weary after a short flight and a sleepless night deposited us in front of the immigration agent who stamped us into what would become one of our favorite countries. We’ve loved it equally in the dead of winter and in weather warm enough that jackets weren’t required. We love its beautiful capital city and its stark natural geography. We love the people, the food, and the spirit of adventure it embodies. More than anything, to be honest, we love its hot dogs—but more about those later.
Traveling to Iceland typically means traveling through Reykjavik, and even if your intended destination is far beyond the capital’s reach it’s worth spending a few days in the country’s biggest city. 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 to Smoky Bay. A brisk walk along the city’s shoreline might clue you into what Arnarson first noticed about Reykjavik—and there is far more to discover.
WHAT TO SEE IN AND AROUND REYKJAVIK
Planning a trip of your own? Here’s what we recommend for a short trip to Reykjavik!
► THE GOLDEN CIRCLEAn easy day trip from Reykjavik, a 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 left us more awestruck 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. 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. Located in the nearby town of Grindavík, the Blue Lagoon 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 (but not shampoo); many people wash their hair and skip rinsing the conditioner out 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
► THE SOUTH COAST OF ICELANDIceland’s south coast offers another fantastic day trip option, and it’s especially interesting if you’re hoping to see unique landscapes and some incredible scenery. We took a small group tour that stopped at four waterfalls, a black sand beach, and a glacier—there was no shortage of interesting things to see! Among the waterfalls was Skogafoss, which was featured in Game of Thrones and is stunning in terms of both its size and magnificence. We spent time at the Solheimajokull Glacier, one of the biggest glaciers in the country. We also walked along the black sand Reynisfjara Beach, home to a collection of remarkable basalt columns (similar to Giant’s Causeway) as well as some truly dangerous waves—it’s not the kind of place where swimming is a good idea. Although the Golden Circle is a must-see experience, the south coast is a wonderful alternative to skip some of the crowds and see a very different part of Iceland.
One of our favorite spots in Reykjavik is a nice public 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 statues and sculptures around the lake as well; our favorite is the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, which honors the civil servants that keep Iceland running well.
► SÓLFARSólfar, the Sun Voyager, is one of the most popular photo spots along the harbor, but don’t let the tourist crowds keep you away. Sólfar may look like a Viking ship, but the design is meant to be a dreamboat and an ode to the sun. It’s a quick walk from most of the hotels and well worth seeking out; we have found that the difference between huge crowds and finding ourselves completely along at the statue was sometimes just a matter of minutes. On a nice day, sitting on the benches next to the statue is wonderfully relaxing and great for resting tired feet.
One of the most iconic buildings in Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran church that towers over the city. On our most recent trip, moments after arriving in Reykjavik, we walked to the church while waiting for our hotel room to be available and marveled at the stunning peacefulness the spot offers. Our early morning arrival deposited us in an empty courtyard, with only a statue of Leif Erikson to keep us company while we took in the views. If your visit takes place during a more popular time of day, there is 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. That said, Reykjavik is a small enough city that you might be able to prioritize a few visits to the church; getting there early in the day to beat the crowds provides a worthwhile perspective on the attraction.
Take time to visit this 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, and it has a nice gift shop with some unique souvenirs. Many concerts and shows are hosted at Harpa, so check the event schedule when planning your trip to Reykjavik to see if there is a performance that might add to your experience.
More Information: Harpa.is
WHERE (AND WHAT) TO EAT AND DRINK IN REYKJAVIK
Be sure to add these places to your list when you visit! Here are a few of our favorites.
► BÆJARINS BEZTU PYLSUR
It’s hard to believe two people would fly across the Atlantic Ocean just for a hot dog, but we are those people. This 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; workers efficiently prepare hot dog after tasty hot dog for locals and tourists in the know. Iceland hog dogs are made with lamb and pork and are best consumed “with everything,” which means ketchup, fried onions, sweet brown mustard, and their signature remoulade made with mayo and sweet relish. The shop is open from mid-morning until long after midnight, so you can enjoy a quick snack or meal at just about any time of day (we’ve had them for breakfast before, and they do not disappoint!). These are some of the best hot dogs we have ever had- and since the line is often long, make sure to treat yourself to two!
More Information: BBP.is
Delicious cocktails, fresh seafood, and tasty lamb: aside from the hot dogs, it doesn’t get much more Icelandic than that! 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 or special occasion dinner featuring 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
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 at the Laundromat Cafe so much we stopped back for another one before heading home during our first trip. Several years later, when we were back in Reykjavik yet again, the menu had expanded and was every bit as good as the first visit. Try the dirty brunch, which is likely to be more than you can eat and comes with a great bread basket and chocolate butter. Elvis pancakes are also a fun choice—especially if you like bacon. 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, and our visit to Reykjavik couldn’t have been complete without stopping into the bar that bears The Dude’s legal name. It’s classic bar food, including burgers and fries, but you’ll want to stay for the extensive white Russian menu that pays homage to The Dude’s favorite drink. We’ve had several on the menu, and even if white Russians are not your usual drink of choice they are worth experiencing in part for the novelty and in part for the quality. Some are almost milkshake-like in taste and consistency. Look for lots of fun details only movie fans will notice and appreciate, including a rug adorning a wall—and a sign reminding you not to pee on it. It really ties the room together.
More Information: LebowskiBar.is
► GULL BEER
If you’re looking for a local, easy-to-drink beer while in Reykjavik, just about every bar and restaurant has Gull on tap. Brewed by the Ölgerðin Egils Skallagrímsson company, it’s a simple, clean Euro pale lager that pairs really well with fish and chips (and, unquestionably, hot dogs).
► REYKJAVIK FISH
Fish and chips are popular throughout the city, and we really liked them at Reykjavik Fish. Flavorful and served piping hot, they are a must-try meal when in town. If fish and chips is already a staple in your diet or you’re looking for something that feels more local, Plokkari is another great option: called an Icelandic fish stew, it’s far from the soups you might think of when considering a stew. Plokkari is more of a mashed potato dish with chunks of fresh fish and served with fresh rye bread, which is more dense and sweet than what you might be used to from delis. As the weather starts to get colder, it’s the perfect meal choice to warm your body and soul.
WHERE TO STAY IN REYKJAVIK
We’ve stayed a few different hotels over the course of our visits to Iceland. Consider any of these if you’re planning a trip!
► HOTEL VON
We absolutely loved our stay at Hotel Von, which is conveniently located off the main street and very close to great shopping and restaurants. We arrived much too early to check in, but the phenomenal team quickly sprang into action to prepare a room for us so we could shower and relax after an international overnight flight. The rooms are well-sized, the bed was comfortable, and the bathroom was modern—and the water didn’t have the same sulfur smell so many hotels have. We truly enjoyed our stay.
More Information: Booking.com/Von
► 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: Booking.com/City-Center
► REYKJAVIK MARINA – BERJAYA ICELAND HOTELS
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: Booking.com/Icelandair-Reykjavik-Marina
► RADISSON BLU
Honestly? We’ve never stayed here. If you, like us, are on a quest for hot dogs, though, it’s right across the street from our favorite Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur location. If we were to stay there, we would ask for a room with a view of the hot dogs.
More Information: Booking.com/Radisson-Blu
Ready to book a room for your own vacation to Reykjavik, Iceland? Here are a few more hotel deals to consider:
PLAN YOUR VISIT TO REYKJAVIK!
From food to sightseeing, if Reykjavik and Iceland haven’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!
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* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we visited multiple locations in Iceland, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.