A first-timer’s guide to Reykjavík

You may have seen pictures of Reykjavík’s brightly colored houses tiered along the shore, the vibrant cafes and bars in Reykjavik 101 (the centre of the city) or drone footage of fireworks over the ziggurat of Hallgrímskirkja, slicing the skyline. Iceland’s capital promises all of this and more.

Reykjavík is full of life year-round. Around 60% of the country’s population lives in the capital region, making the most of their long winters with superb arts and crafts, an excellent live-music scene and world-class restaurants, paired with humble hot dog stands. And let’s not forget the toasty hot springs, perfect for soaking and taking the chill out of your bones after a long walk.

Combine your city break with a day trip, or more, to explore the volcanoes, waterfalls and glaciers that radiate out across this splendid, welcoming island. 

When should I go to Reykjavík?

The streets of Reykjavík fill right up from June to August when visitors flock to Iceland for its warm(ish) summer season, long days, and the access the season brings to the countryside. Some of the most extreme mountain roads (called F roads in Iceland) only open from mid- to late-June and close by the end of August when the ice and snow starts to accumulate again. The downside? Prices are at their highest and you need to have booked at least six months in advance for good accommodation, and the best deals on car hire and the most coveted tours.

Spring and autumn are a chance to visit when the crowds are fewer so these big open spaces seem more your own and you share the streets of the capital more with Reykjavikers. The weather is variable – but really, it can be all year round – so pack accordingly, but prices are softer and availability more kind. Also, you can still access much of the country.

Winter is the province of darkness and austere adventure. Full daylight hours are miniscule – just 3 or 4 hours – but the atmospheric sunrises and sunsets make for great viewing, and it’s the chance to see the Northern Lights, too. Many country hotels and restaurants close or reduce services (especially over the December holidays), but Reykjavík itself remains open for all comers. Prices are at their most affordable.

Reykjavík’s famously photogenic houses brighten the mood no matter the season © Martin M303 / Shutterstock

How much time should I spend in Reykjavík?

Well, I’d say forever. But if you have to limit your trip, you could soak up a lot of the Reykjavík vibe and hit its top sights in a matter of two or three days. You’d get to have leisurely coffees and kleinur (bow-shaped donuts) or ástarpungar (“love ball” donut spheres with raisins), shop design boutiques, visit art museums and galleries, plus get all the selfies – from churchside to the Sun Voyager statue and Old Harbour.

Then I’d surely suggest another two days, minimum, to get out into the countryside or go on a whale watching trip and other excursions. The activities are gobsmacking – from ice climbing, glacier walking and snowmobiling, to hiking or puffin viewing in the back of a farm tractor, or simply strolling behind the shimmering sheet of a coursing waterfall.

Winter has its Northern Lights chasing (get help at with the aurora forecast) and ice caves firm up at glacier edges (they are unstable the rest of the year). With a very short drive you’ll reach iconic places like the original parliament site in the rift valley of Þingvellir National Park, or the active fissure volcanoes around the Reykjanes Peninsula (when they’re safe to observe) and the lagoons, hot springs and pools. You could easily spend weeks in the countryside. But that’s another article, two or three.

Is it easy to get to and around Reykjavík?

Reykjavík is the primary international gateway to Iceland, so its Keflavík International Airport (KEF), about 49km southwest of Reykjavík, always seems to be expanding. There are also a few flights from Greenland and the Faroe Islands which arrive at Reykjavík Domestic Airport. Icelandic transport is generally efficient and accessible. Unless you are jumping in a hire car to tour outside of Reykjavík immediately, then Flybus and Airport Direct run regularly to the city centre (and are cheaper than taxis), or take public bus 55 for 2300kr.

The centre is enjoyably walkable, with tidy straight streets and lots to look at, all in a compact area surrounding Lake Tjörnin. The bus network (Strætó, with its handy app Klappið) works very well for the further reaches of the city. A car is really unnecessary if you are staying in the capital unless you have mobility issues.

For getting out into the countryside and road tripping, you can either hire a car or camper or join one of the many, many tours and excursions that include pickup in Reykjavík. Public bus routes beyond the capital are targeted to Icelandic villages and towns, and services in some areas are reduced or cut altogether in winter.

Hallgrimskirkja cathedral in reykjavik iceland
The stunning Hallgrimskirkja cathedral is a major landmark by which to orientate yourself © TTstudio / Shutterstock

Top things to do in Reykjavík 

Part of the real fun of Reykjavík is to walk around and explore. Since it’s got such a compact city centre, grabbing a coffee (Icelanders love their coffee) and baked goodie (try Sandholt or Brauð & Co) and window-shopping on pedestrianized Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur easily lead to a visit to Hallgrímskirkja or the several branches of the Reykjavík Art Museum and the nearby Photography Museum.

You can also stroll through the Old Reykjavik district, for a history hit, checking out the earliest buildings, including a Viking longhouse at Aðalstræti Settlement Exhibition. Then continue south along lake Tjörnin to the National Museum. 

I also love a walk around the Old Harbour with Harpa concert hall glittering in the distance – definitely stopping for a meal at one of the many great seafood spots, from high-end delish Matur og Drykkur to casual comfort food in the Grandi Mathöll (food hall) and craft beer at the Bryggjan Brugghús or Lady Brewery. In fact, the area around Grandi is also a loaded with entertainments – from whale- and puffin-spotting boat excursions to many kid-friendly places like the Saga Museum, Whales of Iceland and the Omnom chocolate factory.

Oh, and don’t miss hearing live local music while you’re in town. Reykjavikers know how to put on a good show. You can warm up at Kaffibarinn or with a visit to a few of the excellent brew pubs in the centre – like Kaldi, Micro Bar and Skúli.

Nautholsvik geothermal beach in Reykjavik in winter
From bathing in hot pools to sea swimming, Reykjavík is a great city for outdoors activities © Try_my_best / Shutterstock

My favorite thing to do in Reykjavík

No matter the time of year, I love, love, love soaking in Icelandic waters. Every town in Iceland has a pool and geothermal hot spring (or several), and in the capital I love the cool vintage pool with multiple hot pots, cold plunge, sauna and steam room at central Sundhöllin (little fact: it was designed in the 1930s by the same architect who did Hallgrímskirkja).

You can also head out to the windswept Seltjarnarnes neighbourhood for a walk around the lighthouse then a soak at its pool. To the east of the centre, the awesome Laugardalur pool complex has twisting water slides and abuts the botanic garden, more art and a sculpture museum and is near the jumping off point to remote-feeling Viðey Island.

Etiquette tip: shower before getting into a pool or hot spring

It is an absolute all over Iceland that if you are going to swim or soak you must shower using soap (without your swimsuit on) and wash your hair in the provided changing/shower room. It’s basic Icelandic hygiene and allows the pools to have minimal or no chlorine or chemicals added.

Colourful facades of the Bravó bar and Kíkí Queer Bar in Reykjavik.
The nightlife and live music scene in Reykjavík is top draw year-round © Matteo Provendola / Shutterstock

How much money do I need for Reykjavík?

Iceland ain’t cheap. And Reykjavík is among the most expensive places in the country, especially for lodging (boutique double room 36,000–51,500kr). You can help yourself out by booking well ahead to get the best deals (guesthouse double room with shared bathroom 22,000–29,000kr). Or visit outside of high season summer.

Bars (beer 1050-1700kr) and restaurants are pricey as well – with a warm soup and homemade bread (1700–2500kr) costing what a full meal might cost in southern European countries. I usually combine some eating out (whether a hot dog 300-600kr, cafe meal 2500–5500kr, or a main dish in a top restaurant 4500–7000kr) with a fair dose of self-catering (I often rent a small studio apartment). While groceries are not cheap they at least make it easier to save a few krona. Another budgeting trick? Buy alcohol in the airport arrivals hall’s duty-free shop as you come into the country for big savings.

The fact is, the cost is well worth it. Iceland is such a special country that no matter how many days you can afford, a visit will pay you back in lifetime memory dividends. Plus, quality is generally high. Your splurge of a trip should get you clean, well-run accommodations and delicious homemade food. You can also economize by staying in a hostel (dorm bed 5000–7000kr), camping (1500–2500kr) or, if you’re heading to the countryside, hiring a camper van where you can stay in the marked campgrounds most towns offer.

A rail of Traditional Icelandic wool jumpers for sale in Reykjavik Flea Market.
Bring layers, or pick up a traditional Icelandic wool jumper, for Reykjavik © Annapurna Mellor / Getty Images

Bring lots of layers, no matter the season 

What you can predict about weather in Reykjavík is that it is unpredictable. A sunny, warm (60°F/16°C) day can easily turn to storm and cloud, what with the island’s location in the middle of the Atlantic. Always pack layers and always bring them with you when you head out on a hike. Ideally, you’ll have a thick/warm wool (or synthetic that dries well) underlayer and a waterproof outerlayer.

Do I need to know Icelandic? 

Most Icelanders speak impeccable English, making travel for anyone who can make do in English rather easy. Some of the older generations do not, however, and in general learning a few expressions like takk fyrir (thank you) is simply polite and more fun.

How can I be a responsible traveller in and around Reykjavík? 

Iceland’s online resources are superb and they have a network of sites and apps to help plan for safe travel if you leave the capital at all. Some top sites to check out are Visit Iceland and Visit Reykjavík for inspiration and information. Sjalfsbjorg.is provides short-term mobility equipment rental and curated lists of accessible hotels, restaurants and transport options.

Reykjavík Grapevine is a great English-language newspaper and website with current cultural listings. Entertaining and informative Iceland podcasts to get you in the mood include All Things Iceland and Stories of Iceland.

Despite the summer festival vibe in the capital, always be respectful of its residents’ needs – though it can get busy, it’s still people’s home, and overtourism and jacked up apartment prices are a real concern.  When a few Icelanders ate whale, shark or puffin it could be sustainable, but when 1 million tourists do, not so much.

If you leave the capital stay on marked roads and protect the truly unspoilt nature (you don’t want to be the one to spoil it). Only use designated areas for camping and actual toilets for your pit stops. Check weather and road conditions before heading out. If you’re going hiking, register at Safe Travel and learn about staying safe. They’ve all got apps, too.

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