Reykjavik has a distinct vibe going on. It has a small-town feel; traditionally built wooden houses, shops packed with local design, café culture, restaurants serving amazing food, all built around a working harbour. But there’s a definite edge. Reykjavik is an intriguing capital full of creatives, culture, off-the-wall architecture, art and, of course, nature’s stunning backdrop over Faxaflói Bay to Mount Esja. So, what to see and do in Iceland’s capital city? Here are my tips for visiting Reykjavík, Iceland’s oh so cool capital.
A Reykjavik Walk
Downtown Reykjavík is compact so it’s easy to walk round and you won’t get cold feet because there’s under-road heating to keep the roads clear of snow, although a brisk wind whips across the bay giving the city an air of freshness and energy and the weather seems to change every fifteen minutes. Wear lots of warm layers and pack a waterproof – hats and gloves are essential in winter. You can read more on my post What to Pack for your trip to Iceland.
Church of Hallgrímur (Hallgrímskirkja)
Hallgrimskirkja Church is seen from pretty much everywhere in Reykjavík as it’s the city’s most imposing building with its basalt spire rising 244 feet. Needless to say, there are fabulous views over the city rooftops, to Faxaflói Bay and Mount Esja and you can take a lift to the observation deck for around 700 ISK (approx €4.50). Go here early on in your trip because as well as enjoying great views it gives you a chance to get your bearings of downtown Reykjavík which, incidentally, is the northernmost capital city in the world.
If you ever wondered what Icelandic people do during those months of dark days and long winter nights then just drop by any craft shop. The famous lopapeysa (Icelandic jumper) is displayed in many of the shops along with hand-knitted hats and gloves with lovely Icelandic designs worked into them. I spent ages browsing in the crafts shops which are all around Reykjavik – Kraum was my favourite representing over 200 Icelandic artists and said to be the oldest wooden building remaining in the city. You can get good discounts with the Voyager Card. I loved the plaited cushions and the gorgeous smelling Soley organic bath and beauty products – all infused with Icelandic herbs.
Reykjavik means Smoky or Steamy Bay and the name probably relates to the steam coming from hot springs in the area. Around 870 AD, Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson, in Viking tradition, cast his high seat pillars into the sea when he landed in Iceland and built his settlement where they came to shore. Two columns in Faxaflói Square trickle hot water which wafts steam into the air symbolising the founding of the city. Geothermal water is used to heat around 90% of Iceland’s homes; the hot water from the springs is cooled and pumped from boreholes straight into the taps of nearby homes.
Harpa Concert Hall
Head for the harbour and Harpa the city’s striking concert hall and home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. If you’ve got your camera you won’t put it down because the building has so many fabulous lines and shapes that you’ll find a photo opportunity around every corner. The honeycombed glass catches the wonderful clear northern light – it’s a stunning building with equally stunning views across Reykjavik’s harbour (hafn) and Mount Esja to the north. If you head up to the higher levels there’s an outdoor terrace overlooking the city – chilly but worth it. The café, Scandinavian Pain Bar and restaurant serve excellent food and there’s a music, book and design store – even if you don’t have time for a concert there’s so much to see at Harpa that you could easily spend a few hours here.
The Sun Voyager
From Harpa, a ten-minute scenic walk eastwards along the waterfront path brings you to Jon Gunnar Arnason’s striking sculpture ‘Sun Voyager’ (Sólfar). The backdrop of the bay adds emphasis to the stark steel outline. Sadly it was too dark for photos when I was in Reykjavik – the sun doesn’t rise until 9.30 -10.00 am in the winter and sets early and I was out exploring further afield at those times. But here’s a shot that sums up Reykjavik – Vikings, its relationship with the sea, design, culture and beauty…
These are just a few of Reykjavik’s cool and quirky gems. Once you’ve checked them out head further afield to the geysers and waterfalls and the natural wonder of Iceland’s Golden Triangle, take a dip in the steaming Blue Lagoon or go in search of those dancing Northern Lights – and that’s just the beginning…
Hotels in Reykjavik
Icelandair Reykjavik Marina Hotel
This fabulous Reykjavik design hotel is located next to the dry-dock and slipway in Reykjavik Harbour. It’s bright, colourful and vibrant, in fact I heard it used to be an old paint factory. There are cool, quirky elements and nautical oddities reclaimed from the harbour area. It also has a fun bar area, restaurant and serves up a great breakfast. I’ve stayed in Icelandair Reykjavik Marina Hotel on two occasions and can personally recommend it. The rooms are light, airy and many of the design elements are locally sourced. As it’s only a ten-minute walk from the town centre and a few minutes from Harpa it’s perfectly located for exploring the city. Check latest prices.
Getting from Keflavík Airport to Reykjavik
From Keflavik By Bus
From Keflavik By Taxi
Taxis running between Reykjavík and Keflavík charge by the meter although they sometimes offer a fixed price which comes to about the same amount as the meter. There is a taxi queue outside the arrivals hall but you could also book one in advance. The average price for 1-4 people is around 15.000 ISK. The journey to Reykjavik takes around 50 minutes.