Iceland is quickly being added to bucket lists worldwide. The small country of under 400,000 inhabitants is overflowing with natural wonders. From waterfalls to glaciers and lava rocks to flower fields… Iceland has something for every adventurous traveler. Reykjavik, the capital city, provides an unmistakeable energy.
Surrounded by the countries two largest airports, Reykjavik Airport and Keflavik International Airport, Reykjavik is an up-and-coming hub with a small town feel. Wander the streets of this small city and you will find pastel painted shops, underground restaurants, and local bands playing in pubs.
Reykjavik provides easy access to many of Iceland’s best attractions, while creating a center for like-minded travelers. In a city with some of the worlds most beautiful women and entertainingly hipster men, it is easy to spend hours people-watching from a café balcony.
While it may be tempting to only use Reykjavik as a base for traveling elsewhere in Iceland, it is a city that deserves attention.
Where To Stay
When choosing a place to stay in Reykjavik, you have two main options. You can stay outside of the city or downtown. As it is easy to walk anywhere once in town, I would recommend staying downtown. From a tourist’s view, there are two “vibes” in downtown Reykjavik, which is dictated by a long street called Laekjargata that leads to Harpa (the main concert hall).
When facing the ocean (and Harpa) from Laekjargata, the left side gives off an upscale feel with parks, French cafes, and great hotels. I did not stay on this side during my recent Iceland trip. However, I ate at the Apotek Hotel and the bar area is incredible. There are cushioned seating areas that give off a hipster feel with slide Arabian decorative touches. Next door, Hotel Borg is a more traditional option with an incredibly helpful front desk (that I asked for directions many times!)
On the right side of Laekjargata lies the more affordable and youthful side of town. With several hostels, bars, quaint cafes, and underground cafes… this is the place to stay if you are looking for a more energetic feel. The best location is on (or between) Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur streets, before you reach the church (Hallgrimskirkja).
When you are trying to choose between types of location, here are my recommendations:
If budget is not much of a concern and/or if you are traveling with a loved one and simply want to enjoy an easy trip with them
I love Airbnb. You will likely have to stay a little out of town, but this is perfect if you want the luxury of staying in a home for a lower cost than a hotel.
If you are on a budget or traveling solo. I stayed at the Loft Hostel, it is in an excellent location, generally clean, and has a great common room. It should be noted this is not a party hostel, but there are tons of bars in the area. The best alternative is Kex Hostel, which has a great bar and design, but is a walk from the center of town.
Apparently the CS community is huge in Iceland. If you are comfortable with this, it is worth a look. The cost of accommodation is huge in Iceland, so it would be nice to save a bit while meeting a great host.
Where to Eat
Being a food scientist + nutritionist, I am admittedly a food snob. That’s generally not so easy for me, as I will spend hours walking until I find the perfect place to eat… but it is great for you- because I have some damn good recommendations
Hands down the best breakfast place I went to in Iceland. The undoubtedly ‘tops my top 5 breakfasts of all time’ list. The food is simple and affordable, while the restaurant itself is comfortable and calming. Imagine this: a place of prosciutto, cheese, soft-boiled egg, and homemade bread… with infinite coffee. And happiness. Just pure happiness.
The best hot chocolate I had in Reykjavik.
Upscale, trendy Icelandic locals spot off the main road. Designed to easily blend in with Los Angeles or Copenhagen. Aside from the name that reminds me of Vegemite.
This underground wine, cheese, and coffee bar is easy to miss if you are not careful to look for it. It is not the cheapest place on the main street, but the food is amazing, it has a cozy vibe, and the vegetarian salad is still in my dreams.
Looks amazing and has good reviews. Slightly upscale trendy dinner and bar. I didn’t make it here, so will someone please try it for me?!
Reykjavik is really expensive, but apparently Iceland is expensive overall. This is not uncommon to hear when looking up information in Reykjavik, but it is really hard to grasp until you arrive. Do not be surprised if a glass of house wine adds up to about $15 USD. Not even kidding, I saw $30 soup on several occasions. The good news is that tours are relatively affordable (I went on a 3 hour horse ride for $75!)
Basic Do’s and Don’ts of Reykjavik
Do bring (and actually wear) waterproof clothing
Even if it looks sunny when you wake up (which is rare in itself), the weather will change. Pinky promise.
Do get involved in the local music scene
Personally, I worked backstage at Secret Solstice festival the first few days I visited Reykjavik. However, there are other ways to get involved. There are several independent record shops that will let you listen to records and drink coffee for hours. Additionally, almost every person that lives in Reykjavik plays an instrument. Get some tips.
Maybe avoid Icelandic rap, for your sanity
Do more than just the Golden Circle
Confession- I didn’t even do this tour. I went to Southern Iceland instead to see waterfalls and an abandoned airplane wreck. I don’t regret this decision for a second.
Do try Icelandic food
Skyr is basically sweeter Greek Yogurt, its awesome. But beware of the shark, its really awful. If you do taste it, swallow it as fast as you can. Otherwise, the burning chemical odor it emits will fly up in your nose and haunt you for hours (yes, I’ve been there).
Do ride an Icelandic horse
They’re basically really strong and kind ponies
Do rent a car and explore
Don’t spend half your time in such a beautiful country on a tour bus
Do bring an eye mask
There are usually blackout curtains in most accommodations. However, it is best to be prepared for the never-ending sunshine in summer… just in case.
Don’t expect typical “summer weather” in the summertime
It is cold, bring a rain jacket
Don’t go during winter and complain
If you decide to visit during the winter you should know there is extremely cold weather and zero sunlight. As a result, some things are closed and locals can get a little depressed. If you make the choice to go during this time, don’t complain that Reykjavik is a miserable place (you just went during a miserable time).
Don’t expect locals to talk to you first
Icelandic locals can be a bit shy! Say hello and they will open up. Also fair warning… Icelandic humor can be very dry. Genuinely, I still don’t understand most of the jokes.
Don’t hide in Reykjavik
Go out and explore!
Don’t eat puffin (do buy a puffin stuffed animal instead!)
Save the puffins, guys
Don’t stay inside because of the rain
Reykjavik rain will start and stop at a moment’s notice and you will have very little luck in predicting this.
Don’t try to tell what time it is by looking at (or for) the sun
Trust me, you will be confused when the sun is above your head at 7pm and you’re looking for a café to have lunch. This happened to me nearly every day.
Don’t limit yourself to the Blue Lagoon (even though I did)
Honestly, you can’t really visit Iceland without seeing the Blue Lagoon. This is for two reasons:
- Everyone will ask you about it when you get home
- It makes for incredible pictures
However, it is really much better in pictures than in real life (ah- there, I said it!) But I will let you decide for yourself (as you should). Rumor has it that Reykjavik has incredible local swimming pools that provide some pretty stiff competition.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask for hot chocolate at a bar
Other Reykjavik Must-Do’s
See Harpa’s indoor architecture
Go horseback riding on the outskirts of town
Eat local food
Pretend you’re in Game of Thrones
Watch live music
Drive to the southern waterfalls
Walk to the ocean during sunset
Overall, Reykjavik is an incredible city to visit. Take time to discover your own hidden gems and embrace the town at the beginning of its tourist rush. There is not even a McDonald’s downtown yet, so you will know you are ahead of the game (except there is a Dunkin’ Donuts, so hurry).
And remember, the phrase “winter is coming” is almost always true in Iceland. Go prepared and pack accordingly.