Have you seen those beautiful pictures of incredible Icelandic black sand beaches, waterfalls and glaciers? Instagram and Facebook are littered with them!
Does the Northern culture fascinate you and you can’t wait to know more about it, visiting a place where the traditional Icelandic way is still quite observed?
Has Iceland been on your bucket list for some time now and you’d want to visit it as soon as we are allowed to travel again?
Whether it’s for its mind-blowing natural landscapes or its incredible history, traditions and customs, I’ve never known of someone who has been there and doesn’t dream to go back. Visiting Iceland, in fact, is one of those experiences (calling it “a trip” would be too reductive) that marks a before and an after in your life, even in the life of a wanderluster like me.
In 2018, we decided to visit Iceland as the second of a tour that, first, led us to Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo, and then to disclose the astonishing beauty of the remote Icelandic island. We spent a day visiting the charming Reykjavik and then took off on a road trip to the discovery of the southwestern part of Iceland.
Reykjavik came as a total surprise to me as it was nothing like any capital I had ever visited. It is adorable and extremely well-kept but doesn’t look like a city. It looked more like a marvellous and picturesque fishing village to me. And I love it precisely for this, for being so incredibly beautiful and different!
We had a wonderful time wandering around its brightly coloured little streets and squares, browsing its quirky shops searching for the perfect volcanic lava souvenir and admiring its mind-blowing natural landscape. Such amusing and indelible memories we have of this city!
That unexpected wonder I felt while visiting Reykjavik is precisely what drives me to write this article about this surprising city.
As you might imagine, this first article will be about the city of Reykjavik, the most frequently asked questions about it, its highlights and must-seen places. In a not-so-distant future, though, I will also write about our extraordinary road trip as well. I promise! I am looking forward to it, to be honest. It will be a real pleasure remembering such a wonderful experience and writing about it!
But first things first, buckle up and let’s fly to Reykjavik (even if it’s only with our mind, at least for now)!
What is Reykjavik known for?
Reykjavik is famous for:
- Being the northernmost capital in the world, just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 64 degrees and 8 minutes north;
- Its Midnight Sun, meaning 21 hours of daylight in summer, and its gorgeous Northern lights, both due to its proximity to the North Pole (on that note, they say the best place to see them within the city limits is by the seaside at Seltjarnarnes but we spent at least 2 or 3 hours there looking at the sky in a September night where they were supposed to show up, and we didn’t see a single green point!);
- Being the only capital city in the world that is home to a major puffin breeding colony.
What is the best time to visit Reykjavik?
The best time to visit Reykjavik is from mid-May to August, as not only can you enjoy low 20s warmth (a very pleasant temperature for Iceland), but you’ll also experience 21 hours of sunlight. This is considered high season, though. Therefore hotels, tours, and flights are costly and you should book them months in advance. April and September are reasonable alternatives with decent weather, shorter days, smaller crowds, and cheaper prices.
If your primary objective is seeing the Northern Lights, taking into consideration that there are several conditions required for them to be visible, including complete darkness, cold and clear nights, and solar wind, the best time would be from late September to November.
We visited it in mid-September.
Why is Reykjavik so expensive?
Undoubtedly Reykjavik is one of the most expensive cities in Europe and the world. But why it’s so expensive?
These are some of the main reasons:
- Due to its harsh climate, Iceland is not able to produce everything needed in terms of food and beverage, thus it needs to import it, usually from the UK, Germany, the U.S., and Norway, and in most of the cases the cost of the importation gets passed on to the consumer;
- Being an island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean reachable only by flights, shipping costs skyrocket;
- The strength of the national currency (the Icelandic Króna) makes US dollars and euros purchase power drop;
- The country’s high standard of living and the national monthly minimum wages are higher than both North American and European standards.
How can I spend a day in Reykjavik?
A day is more than enough to get the most of the beautiful Reykjavik and enjoy its vibrant atmosphere, its natural beauty and its main landmarks.
But, let’s dive in now and understand not only what you can’t miss in a day in Reykjavik but also how to turn those 24 hours into a memorable and indelible experience.
Reykjavik in 24 memorable hours
As usual, we arrived in Reykjavik the night before our day of sightseeing, so that we could wake up early in the morning and get the most of the tourism day.
We stayed at a guesthouse just outside the city centre, in Vesturbær district. From there our first stop was Reykjavík’s city pond (“Reykjavíkurtjörn” or for short “Tjörnin”).
Next to the City Hall, Reykjavíkurtjörn is a popular area among bird enthusiasts, as there are over 40 species of water birds who stop by the pond regularly, including various species of goose, ducks, seagulls, and swans, and among tourists, in general, who come to enjoy a pleasant stroll with a delightful view over the colourful Scandinavian-style houses on the eastern banks.
On warm days, it is a popular spot for sports and picnics, while wintertime sees the pond freezing over and becoming an outdoor ice-skating rink.
Besides, on its south-eastern part, you can find the beautiful Hljómskálagarður Park, a lively park with playgrounds for kids and footpaths along the pond.
From there, head to Hallgrimskirkja Church, a 15-minute walk away from the pond.
2. Hallgrimskirkja Church
Hallgrimskirkja is a 240-foot (74.5-meter) tall Evangelical Lutheran church, visible from almost every angle of the city, thus very easy to find. It is the largest church in Iceland and a monument to the famous Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson that opens in 1986.
Its innovative architecture design, consisting of beautiful basalt columns, has been inspired by the columnar basalt formations of Svartifoss waterfall, on the South Coast of the island.
It houses the largest concert organ in Iceland weighing 25-ton, made of 5275 pipes and 15m (49ft) tall, installed in 1992.
At the top of the tower, there is a viewing platform boasting 360° views over the entire city. Along with the view from Perlan on Öskjuhlíð hill, this is probably the best view you can get of the city from the land.
Tower admission fee: 1000 ISK (6.5€/7.9$).
Besides, in the forecourt of the church, you can see a statue of Leif Eriksson, who discovered North America in the year 1000, more than 500 years before Columbus.
It was a gift from the United States in honour of the 1930 Althing Millennial Festival, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the convening of Iceland’s parliament at Þingvellir in 930 AD.
From there, if you happen to be visiting Reykjavik in summer (from May to September), take a bus (30-minute ride) or a taxi (10-minute ride) and reach Viðey Ferry Terminal right next to Skarfabakki Pier. From there, take a ferry to Viðey Island, our next stop.
Otherwise, I’d recommend skipping directly to the Perlan point.
Ferry price: 1650 ISK (10.8€/13$).
3. Viðey Island
The magical combination of stunning views over the mainland, historical ruins, and contemporary art pieces make Viðey island something special.
It is home to over 30 species of birds, including Iceland’s famous Puffins and a perfect place to go hiking or riding. Besides, it hosts the historic Viðey House, one of the country’s oldest homes, Richard Serra’s Milestones (on the west side of the island), and the Imagine Peace Tower, a dramatic light memorial that Yoko Ono built for her late husband, John Lennon, and their shared vision of a world free of war and united in love.
On the white column which forms the basis of the tower, “Image Peace” is written in 24 different languages. The tower is lit each year on the day of John Lennon’s birthday (October 9th) until the day he was killed (December 8th) and on some other days such as Yoko’s birthday (February 8th) or New Year’s Eve. When lit, it emits a beautiful blue light far into the sky, visible from the city.
The island covers only 1.7 km2 (0.65 m2) so it is easy to explore on foot within a few hours.
Back to Skarfabakki Pier, take a 10-minute taxi drive to Perlan, our next stop.
Perched atop the Öskjuhlíð hill, Perlan (“the Pearl”) is primarily a cool glass dome sitting atop six water tanks serving as a water storage facility, but also a public attraction due to the dramatic vistas of Reykjavik visible from its observation deck in its glass dome.
Besides, It is home to a museum that hosts three interesting exhibitions, such as the Glacier Exhibition of Iceland, Áróra and Water in Icelandic Nature.
The Glacier Exhibition of Iceland is the only one in the world containing a 100-metre long indoor ice tunnel that offers an inside view of how it was like to live inside a glacial cave and a glance into the origins and the development of Iceland’s glaciers. Additionally, through videos, interactive panels and even scale recreations of Icelandic scenery, you can learn why the island has such great volcanic activity, how hot springs came to be formed and why puffins live on the cliffs of Látrabjarg.
Áróra, on the other hand, is the world’s first interactive planetarium film, designed to educate the visitors about the Northern Lights in Iceland in an 8k fully immersive way.
Lastly, Water in Icelandic Nature discusses everything about how water defines this country, from its weather patterns to its natural features, its wildlife to its chemistry.
Observation deck only: 890 ISK (5.8€/7$)
Wonders of Iceland + observation deck + indoor ice tunnel + Water in Icelandic Nature exhibit: 3900 ISK (25€/31$)
Áróra Planetarium Show + observation deck: 1900 ISK (12€/15$)
Wonders of Iceland + Áróra Planetarium Show + indoor ice tunnel + Water in Icelandic Nature exhibit: 5800 ISK (38€/46$)
From there, take an 8-minute taxi drive to the Sun Voyager Sculpture, our next stop.
5. Sun Voyager Sculpture
Although resembling a Viking ship (especially because of its waterfront location), Solfar Sun Voyager (“Sólfarið”) is a dreamboat or an ode to the sun, symbolizing the promise of new, undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.
It is made of high-quality, polished stainless steel and stands on a circular basis of granite slabs.
Due to the beautiful setting and its spectacular nature, the Sun Voyager has become one of the most popular attractions in Reykjavik as it offers superb photo and selfie opportunities, especially when the sun is setting.
Taking a short stroll alongside the waterfront and towards the city centre, you will find the Harpa Concert Hall, our next stop.
6. Harpa Concert Hall
Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre, completely made of steel and glass panels of different colours, is an impressive and distinguished architectural landmark with stunning views of the North Atlantic Ocean and surrounding mountains.
It is the waterfront official residence of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and hosts the city’s many music festivals, classical concerts, and conferences year-round.
Harpa has received numerous awards and prizes. It was chosen one of the best concert halls of the new millennium by the prestigious music magazine Gramophone magazine and as the best performance venue in 2011 by Travel & Leisure magazine. In 2012 it received the prestigious award as the Best MICE Centre in Northern Europe and 2013 the European Union’s Mies van der Rohe award for contemporary architecture.
Fun facts: It was the setting of an episode of the Netflix series “Sense8” and it appeared in the Netflix series “Black Mirror” on the episode “Crocodile“.
Moving toward the city centre, you will find a park on your left. On the south-east side of which (just in front of the Supreme Court of Iceland) you will find Ingólfur Arnarson Statue, our next stop.
7. Ingólfur Arnarson Statue
Ingólfr Arnarson was a Norwegian chieftain who is commonly recognized as the first permanent Norse settler of Iceland, and who, according to the Icelandic Book of Settlements (“Landnámabók”), along with his wife and his brother, founded the city Reykjavík in 874 (even though it is said he called it Reykjarvík (with an extra “r”) meaning “Smoke Cove” or “Smokey Bay”).
This tribute to Ingólfr Arnarson, erected in 1924, shows the Norse man standing firm by the mast of his ship, holding a shield and a spear, looking protectively over the city he settled.
From there, if you happen to be visiting Reykjavik over a weekend, come back to the harbour main road called “Geirsgata”, and go left. In a couple of minutes of walking, you will find Kolaportið Flea Market, our next stop, on your left.
Otherwise, skip directly to the Saga Museum. You will find it on your right continuing along Geirsgata and its extension, Mýrargata.
8. Kolaportið Flea Market
Kolaportið is the country’s biggest flea market opening on weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This is an eclectic marketplace where you can find from vintage records to shark meat, from antique furniture to vintage clothes, from children’s toys to traditional food, from second-hand DVDs to pieces of fine art.
If you want to buy a classic Icelandic wool sweater, this is the place to find a deal!
Continuing along the harbour main street (Geirsgata/ Mýrargata), you will find our next stop, the Saga Museum, on your right.
9. Saga Museum
The Saga Museum, through 17 exhibits tracing Icelandic history from the Norwegian exodus to the Black Death, recreates key moments in Icelandic history using life-like wax figures (based on descriptions found in the Viking sagas and chronicles) and give a compelling view into how Icelanders have lived for more than a millennium.
It’s an incredibly entertaining way to learn more about Icelandic people and their history, and, in the end, you can even dress up in some Viking clothing for photos!
Admission fee: 2.500 ISK (16€/20$).
From the Saga Museum, continue onto Mýrargata and turn right on the roundabout. You will find the next stop, the FlyOver Iceland, on your left, after a-couple-of-minute walking
Opened in 2019, FlyOver Iceland combines storytelling, technology, and cinema to create an exhilarating and immersive experience in which you get the chance to take a flight over Iceland without needing to hop on a plane.
At your arrival, before taking the flight, you will see two pre-shows. The first, called the “Longhouse”, is a settlement exhibition where you will see a reminiscent of the early settler’s dwellings in Iceland. The second, on the other hand, is a multi-projection experience that transports you from the formation of this island right through to the modern-day.
Then it’s time to take flight by sitting right in front of a 20-meter spherical screen. The high definition film visuals, mixed with the movements of your seat and special effects, including wind, mist and scents, will give you the sensation of soaring above sea, fire and ice.
The whole experience lasts around 35 minutes from the moment you arrive.
Admission fee: 4.490 ISK (29€/36$).
N.B. We visited Reykjavik in 2018, thus before the opening of the FlyOver, and I decided to include it based upon many and many positive reviews.
As already said, Reykjavik came as a real surprise to me and it was its peculiar not-capital-alike look that made me fall in love with it. Not to mention the unbelievable natural beauty all around it and the incredible nordic charm of Hallgrimskirkja church and of the colourful houses on the side of Reykjavíkurtjörn.
All this makes Reykjavik the perfect first taste of this mind-blowing northern island, holding an exciting surprise in each little corner of it.
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