Reykjavik: City Guide

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When deciding to visit Iceland, it was the promise of scenery that convinced me to book the trip. Barren landscapes, black sand beaches, thundering waterfalls and majestic glaciers. It seemed like a perfect mix of dreamy and adventurous.

Planning to visit in December, we knew the weather may be unpredictable so we decided to stay in Reykjavik as our “home base” and take day trips to the Golden Circle and South Shore. With the weather being more severe than we could have ever imagined, we ended up spending more time in Reykjavik than we’d planned, which turned out to be quite lovely.

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As Iceland’s capitol, Reykjavik is one of the safest and happiest cities in the world. The city itself is colorful, full of quaint homes, cozy cafes, eclectic bars, shops packed with local design, and stunning street art. It’s artsy, but also traditional. 

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Interesting Attractions

  • Hallgrimskirkja church is a beautiful example of modern architecture and can be seen from just about anywhere in the city
    • Would recommend coming here early in your trip because the view from the top of the church (think it’s 5 EUR to take the elevator to the top) gives you a chance to get your bearings of downtown Reykjavik, plus it’s a perspective of the city that’s not to be missed 
    • If you time your visit right, you may be able to hear the organs being played, which is a truly spectacular experience

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  • Check out the harbor and Harpa, the city’s striking concert hall, home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra
    • You don’t have to be an architecture buff to find this honeycombed glass and metal building beautiful. It’s breathtaking when the late afternoon light illuminates the inside panels

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  • From Harpa, it’s an easy ~10 minute walk along the waterfront to Jon Gunnar Arnason’s stainless steel sculpture Sun Voyager’ (Sólfar)
    • Opposed to common belief, the Sun Voyager doesn’t represent a Viking ship. It’s a dreamboat, an ode to the sun that’s meant to symbolize discovery

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  • If you want another view of the city and its surrounding area, the glass dome at Perlan offers a 360 view of Reykjavik

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  • Street art and graffiti are openly embraced in Reykjavik, and it’s fun to walk around the downtown area trying to find some of the best murals. This map of the best street art spots in Reykjavik is super helpful 
  • Shopping in Reykjavik is concentrated to two main streets: Laugarvegur and Skólavördustígur, where you’ll find numerous boutiques and charming shops. A few of my favorites:
    • Kirsuberjatréð – íslensk hönnun: This place rules. It’s a gallery with arts, crafts and ceramics created by and run by local female artists
    • Gallery Kogga: Ceramics here are beautiful, but pricer than other options in town
    • Kraum: A beautiful design shop, loved the Scandinavian art here as well
    • Fakó Verzlun: Like an Icelandic version of West Elm. May not be as authentic as some other shops, but there are so many cute and affordable house goods here
    • The Saturday flea market near the harbor is a good option for souvenir shopping
    • If you’re interested in taking home an Icelandic wool sweater or blanket, the Red Cross outpost on Laugarvegur is said to have affordable options

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Where to Eat & Drink

Restaurants

  • Icelandic Fish & Chips: Despite the fish being fried, it tasted so fresh. This place also makes their own sauces, which are really tasty
  • Sægreifinn: The best lobster soup I’ve ever had at a good value for Iceland. Equivalent of $10 USD for a big bowl of soup and half loaf of bread- the lobster is so tender, it melts in your mouth
  • Sakebarinn: Great, fresh sushi
  • Gamla smiðjan: We had pizza here twice, it was that good. Specifically recommend the blue cheese and parmesan garlic bread after a night out on the town
  • Tapas Barinn: This place came highly recommend, but we didn’t think quality quite compared to other places we dined. Though, the nice thing about coming here are the tapas sized portions. We sampled a number of Icelandic dishes, including minke whale, mini lobster tails, candied beets, ling and white chocolate skyr mousse
  • Eldur & Ís: Rumored to be the best ice cream in Reykjavik

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Cafes

  • Dunkin’ Donuts: I know, I know- but my obsession with their iced coffee knows no bounds. We were pleasantly surprised to find Dunkin’ Donuts in Iceland means immaculately decorated doughnuts and an adorable cafe-esque setting
  • Stofan Café: Cozy cafe with mismatched antique furniture, we stayed here for a bit to use the wifi and enjoy a chai latte
  • The Laundromat Café: A cafe with a laundromat downstairs? Win! I’ve heard breakfast here is pretty good, but we just had a Baileys latte to warm up from the cold and relax for a bit
  • Reykjavík Roasters: Eclectic coffee shop near Hallgrímskirkja, great option for strong brews
  • Café Babalú: The cutest cafe we discovered, it feels like you’re snuggling up in someone’s living room while having coffee

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Bars

  • Skúli Craft Bar: Stop here to sample seasonal micro-brews, great variety on tap and a low-key vibe during the week
  • Lebowski Bar: Loved this theme bar, 21 different types of White Russians on the menu and a fun Friday night vibe
  • Prikið: We weren’t at this bar long, but liked its rustic interior. Apparently, there are great drink specials for happy hour here
  • Íslenski barinn: Everyone says the food here is great, but we came to hang out at the bar and people watch. Over the course of a few hours, we sampled more Icelandic micro-brews, tried the “black death” (which I really enjoyed), and fell in love with schnapps produced by the Reykjavik Distillery (try the Rabarbara!)
  • Mikkeller & friends: A three-story bar, this place was my favorite of all the bars we visited in Reykjavik. The back bar on the bottom floor is so cozy, the bartenders were friendly and we really enjoyed the seasonal eggnog cocktails

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Know Before You Go Info

  • Money exchange: Exchange before you visit, the rate at your local bank will almost certainly be cheaper than anything you’ll find in the airport or if you withdraw from an ATM in Iceland
    • From a conversion standpoint, yes- Iceland is expensive. For me, it was comparable to New York so I wasn’t as jilted. Like any destination, there are ways to keep cost down if you’re traveling on a budget (eat breakfast in your hotel or hostel, limit yourself to 1-2 drinks a night, etc.)
    • ATMs are sparse in Reykjavik, bring what you think you’ll need cash-wise and use a credit card that doesn’t charge international fees for transactions
  • Wireless access: All of the cafes we visited and most of the restaurants and bars we ate/drank at had strong wifi
  • Getting to/from the airport by bus: There isn’t a public bus from the airport to Reykjavik, but there are two bus services you can take. When we flew to Iceland, we visited the Blue Lagoon first and then continued onward to Reykjavik via Reykjavik Excursions. The other two bus services you can use are Flybus and Airport Express. They offer similar service at a similar price – the difference is that the Flybus offers a service connected with every flight, while the Airport Express only guarantees transfer if you book in advance. However, Airport Express offers complimentary pick up and drop off service for all the major hotels, while the Flybus charges 500 ISK extra if you don’t want to be dropped off at one of the city center locations. You can also take a taxi from the airport to Reykjavik, but with a 45-50 minute trip, it’ll likely end up being a pretty expensive ride. For context, most of the taxis we took to our hotel were a 5-8 minute ride and usually ~$12.

For more Iceland travel tips, check out my 5 Days in Iceland guide.

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