According to the Landnámabók (the Book of Settlements ) composed between 11th and 12th centuries and narrating the earliest Icelandic history, the Vikings established into Reykjavik after that Ingólfur Arnarson, one of the first Icelandic settlers, threw the symbol of his family power, seven high-seat pillars, into the sea to determine in which place he and his the family would set. The pillars casually landed into a territory characterises by a great number of steamy spots that Ingolfur baptised as Reykjavik, which literally means “smoky bay”. Despite judged as unreliable by historians, the story of the pillars gives the perfect mental image of what Iceland was and still is from a certain point of view.
Nothing visible is left of those legendary medieval steamy pots, but if you pay attention you can still hear the smell of sulphur all over the city, a sign that a smoky bay is still lying somewhere under hundreds of colourful houses and nice cafes.
Reykjavik is for most tourists the first stop of a much complex and longer tour of Iceland. Either if you come for a short visit or for a complete tour of the ring road you should include a visit to the northernmost, and colourful, European capital.
Me and my husband included Reykjavik in our tour of the ring road and we stayed there a total of two days and a half (on day and a half when we arrived and another one the day of departure).
Ingólfur Arnarson and his family where the first Norses who settled in Reykjavik in 874
Before introducing you the best highlight of the city is better to know some general information about the Icelandic country. Travel on a budget to Iceland can be challenging but not impossible. I strongly suggest you to book flights and accommodations as early as possible because the prices can be very expensive especially during the high season.
Shops and restaurants close relatively early compared to other European countries, we discovered that most restaurants in Reykjavik closed around 9-10 pm with an hour pause between 14-16 pm. Reykjavik, however, is known to have a fervid nightlife so you may find clubs open till late night, although we didn’t visit any of them preferring to spend most nights hunting the Northern Lights.
Be prepared for any weather. Meteorological conditions are known to change very quickly in Iceland and I confirm this is true. Shopping and eating is pricey. Expect to pay 25£ for a burger and 10/15£ for a fridge magnet. Traditional Icelandic clothing, in particular, is very very expensive although the quality is fabulous.
What to do in Reykjavik
Getting around Reykjavik is very easy as the city is quite small and you can easily visit all its main attractions simply by walking. Parking in Reykjavik can be difficult and expensive during peak times and weekends. If you want to save a bit of money, (parking costs between 275-150 ISK), I suggest you to park behind the Hallgrímskirkja church, which has a free parking for its visitors to use on a first come first served basis. Furthermore, you can start your city sighseeing from this point.
The Hallgrímskirkja church is the tallest building in Reykjavik, it has been built in 1974 and its facade resembles the basaltic columns typical of the Icelandic landscape. The entrance to the church is completely free but if you want to enjoy the view of Reykjavik at 74.5 mt of height you have to pay the ticket to the tower which costs about 1000 isk (about 7 gbp). There is an elevator bringing you to the last floor so don’t worry about the stairs! I highly recommend to do this experience as the view of the city is breathtaking and you will have also the opportunity to see the clock tower from a different perspective. In the square you can also admire the statue of the proud Leifur Erikson , the first European explorer to have discovered North America (he baptised as Vinland) around 999-1010!
From the church is then very easy to explore the rest of the city as the building stands at the top of the hill leading to the main streets of Reykjavik. From this point you will see many colourful buildings and shops enriched by the vibrant street art of the best Icelandic artists.
Both streets going towards the centre from the cathedral leads to the Reykjavik harbour home of the best architectural examples of the city. In this area we proceeded with the exploration of the Harpa Concert Hall. Harpa was part of a project aimed to the redevelopment of the Reykjavik harbour. The building, which is the only one completed of the ambitious project, has been completed in 2011 and it represents a beautiful example of modern architecture and design. The structure of Harpa is made of steel framework and coloured glass panels which filter the light differently according to the hour of the day.
The entrance to Harpa is totally free so I wouldn’t miss the occasion of wandering around this unique building, especially in a sunny day when the rainbow light filters through the glass.
Harpa Concert Hall has been completed in 2011. The design has been realised by the Danish firm Hanning Larsen Architects with the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson who designed also the work Your rainbow panorama in Aarhus.
Just a short walk on the promenade near Harpa you will find also the iconic sculpture called “the sun voyager” ( Solfar) regarded often as a symbol of the city and remembering the connection of Reykjavik with its historical past of land of sailors, explorers and Viking realm. Another famous landmark of Reykjavik is the museum Perlan, famous in particular for its peculiar observation deck from which is possible to see Reykjavik from a totally different perspective. We personally didn’t have the chance visit Perlan, but just for reason of time. We hope to visit it in the future.
If you want to take a little trip just outside the Reykjavik central city I suggest you to visit the Grotta Lighthouse which is located on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula at ten minutes from Reykjavik downtown. Grotta lighthouse is the perfect location for a short walk, for birdwatching and for catching the northern lights without going on super expensive tours or getting lost at night in unknown Icelandic routes. We personally visited both in the morning and at night to see the aurora boreal is and we really loved it.
Eating in Reykjavik
As I mentioned before, life in Iceland as a tourist can be quite expensive and if you are on a budget it is advisable to cook your own food rather than eating out at every meal of the day. For our trip we decided to use a combination of things. We ate out, brought some food to cook from home and cooked food bought at the local supermarkets when staying overnight in a guesthouse with kitchen. During our days in Reykjavik we stayed in a hotel so we hadn’t really the chance to cook. We took advantage of the situation to visit local places. The first night we actually did not have much luck as everything was closed at 9.30 except a KFC near our hotel closing at 10 and luckily saving us from starving after a long flight! The day after we wanted to taste the famous and traditional Icelandic Hot Dog so we stopped at the Hot Dog house Pylsuhdid situated on Hafnarstraeti, 101 best place where to get the famous dish. The hot dog is good and you will not lose all your finances for a lunch (about 1500 ISK).
However, I advise you that Icelandic hot dogs (like the Danish ones) are quite small so if you are particularly hungry, one won’t be enough. We decided to complete our lunch with a coffee and a dessert in a cafe nearby called Cafe Stofan. I loved so much this place that we decided to return a second time during our last day in Iceland. In fact, Stofan in Icelandic means “living room” and the purpose of this cafe is making you feel at home surrounded by vintage furniture and beautiful old maps.
If you want to taste something more International, Reykjavik has also many other restaurants. Me and my husband we have this peculiar tradition that we have to try the pizza in every place we visit and Reykjavik didn’t make the exception. Honestly, we wanted to try the pizza at Flatey Pizza as we heard from other Italians that was good but that night it was late so we ended into Eldsmiðjan of which pizza is good and prices are not excessively high. Be aware that certain places indicated as “open” in google maps and Lonely Planet are now permanently closed. An example is the iconic Laundromat Cafe.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
For our stay in Reykjavik we opted for a place allowing us to be quickly on the motorway, offering the breakfast, clean and reasonably convenient in terms of price. Our choice was the Nordurey Hotel, which included all our requests. Nordurey is situated slightly out from Reykjavik at Hafnarfjörður but the distance with the city centre is of about 10/15 minutes by car. We paid a total of Euro 166 for two nights including breakfast so it was a good compromise to us. The pros of this place are that is close both to the city centre and the motorway, it has a free parking for guests, breakfast is included and it is close enough to an area served by restaurants and shops of any type. The cons are that they gave us a room at the ground floor so we heard all the noise coming from the main road nearby (even at night), the bathroom need to be updated with a modern one and if you don’t have a car is better to have a more central hotel. Another strange thing I noticed was that they cancelled for two consecutive nights the Northern Light tour but we did go out on our own and saw the aurora perfectly at Grotta Lighthouse. I am not sure what kind of policy they have for refunding customers but if you book a tour with them read well the conditions. Overall it was a good stay, and for just two nights it was perfect.
Shopping in Reykjavik
If you are searching for Icelandic souvenirs and want something special the Thor Shop has a wide range of products, from Icelandic traditional clothing, to viking souvenirs. The prices start from about £10 to hundreds of pounds. I couldn’t resist to buy something there and even if you don’t like to buy souvenirs the shop deserve a visit just because of the amazing setting exhibited!
I do really enjoyed my Reykjavik stay! My only regret was only to not have visited more cafes! The city is full of nice places where to seat in company of a good coffe where to just relax enjoying the best Icelandic life! Reykjavik is not one of those chaotic cities where you have to run like crazy to see as much as possible in a few days without the possibility of absorbing the beauty and difference of what you are seeing, but is one of those places in which you can really appreciate a different culture, enjoy a meal without the pressure of having a timed ticket for an “attraction” in which you have to do 2.5km of queue and hide in a cafe to read a book if its too cold outside. I hope to return soon!
All the information are updated to the 21 June 2018. Opinions are my own.