A Guide to Reykjavik, Iceland (and beyond!)
Iceland is almost always the number one place I recommend to people. If it were up to me, I’d deem the entire country a wonder of the world, as it is, by far, the most wildly majestic, otherworldly place I have ever been. From its waterfalls, to its wildlife, to its culture and art scene, Iceland offers so much, and its capital, Reykjavik, is at the center of it all.
BEFORE YOU GO
Booking your Flight There are some hacks you should know about. Iceland Air has flights all over the US to Iceland for very (very!) reasonable prices. While the planes are smaller in size and no-frills, they are certainly budget friendly and get the job done. Also, keep in mind that if you fly via either airline to another European city, you’ll inevitably have a stopover in Iceland. With this, you’re given the option to extend your stopover up to one week at no additional charge.
Getting to Reykjavik Whichever airline you’re flying, you’ll most likely fly into Keflavik Airport - Iceland’s main hub for international transportation. The airport is about 30 miles outside of Reykjavik. If you’re not renting a car, you can take a bus from the airport into Reykjavik (or straight to the Blue Lagoon!).
Book accommodations far in advance Iceland’s tourism has been booming lately. This wasn’t totally anticipated by the country, so it’s not very well equipped to host masses of people. Because of this, hotels fill up fast (especially during the summer months).
It’s compact. Reykjavik is a small city, and completely walkable. It’s so small in fact, that there’s a pretty good chance you could find yourself eating lunch next to Bjork or or see Sigur Ros walking down the street.
Rent a Car If you’re staying for an extended period of time (or even just for a couple days), you’ll likely want to make your way out of the city and explore the magic that is Iceland. Having a car will open up a world of convenience for you.
You don’t need cash Cards are accepted everywhere. Bless.
You don’t need to learn Icelandic Everyone speaks English. But just to be clear, I’m not telling you not to learn Icelandic.
It's expensive. Reykjavik is considered the 14th most expensive city in the world, just slightly more affordable than New York City, and it’s the most expensive European country.
It’s a very doable winter trip It’s not that cold. Dress warm, you’ll be fine. Also, if you’re looking to see the Northern Lights, the winter months provide the best visibility. Finally, visiting in the off season anywhere means less tourists and lower prices. With all that said, there are extra precautions to take, just be sure to respect weather conditions.
WHERE TO EAT:
Hverfisgata 1 (AKA the Pizza Place with no Name) Go here for pizza, obviously. And beer. And for just a really good time.
Fjöruborðið This might just be my number one restaurant recommendation. This quaint little restaurant, located outside of Reykjavik overlooks the ocean and is known for their lobster. Try the lobster stew, and order the bowl of lobster tails and potatoes.
Restaurant Vikurskali If you’re headed South, or making your way around the country, you’ll pass a gas station/restaurant overlooking Vik’s coast. It’s popular among locals, serves authentic Icelandic cuisine, and the beer is on tap. People love the food, but what stood out to me what the experience of it all. It’s a quaint, unassuming place with a big spirit.
Bjor Gardurinn An impressive beer garden in downtown Reykjavik, nestled inside Fosshotel. If you meet Errol behind the bar, tell him I say hi!
WHAT TO DO:
Drive around Ring Road Once you’re on the country’s only main road, Route 1 - or Ring Road, you can drive around the entire country in about 16 hours, but with so many sights along the way, you’ll want to allow yourself more time (like, a week) to stop.
Golden Circle A smaller loop around the country that offers some pretty stellar views. This can be done in a day, and if you don’t have a car, you’ll find plenty of tours taking visitors around the sights.
Harpa is a a concert hall and conference center in downtown Reykjavik, looking over the old harbor. It’s fairly new (opened in 2011) and has quickly become one of the city’s most celebrated landmarks.
Hallgrímskirkja This church in the middle of the city has become a Reykjavik icon. For $10, you can take an elevator up for one of the best views of the city.
The Blue Lagoon/Hot Springs A wildly impressive man made spa, the Blue Lagoon attracts about 4,000 guests a day. It’s beautiful, but there are people everywhere. To beat the crowds, and get the most out of the lagoon, I strongly suggest getting on the first bus to the lagoon, before everyone else is even awake. Not only will you be able to enjoy the sunrise while in the lagoon (depending on time of year), but you won’t have to share your space with 3,999 other visitors. If the Blue Lagoon doesn’t sound like your thing, there are plenty of other, more private hot springs/swimming pools around:
Mývatn Nature Baths, Same, but different than the Blue Lagoon. The Myvatn Nature Baths are also manmade and geothermal heated pools and steam baths in the north of the country.
Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool, built in 1923, Seljavallalaug is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland, Located in the south of the country, there are no admission fees and no lifeguards on duty.
Reykjadalur Geothermal River a beautiful valley in the south of Iceland, characterized by geothermal activity and famous for its "hot river", where hikers can bathe surrounded by nature.
Laugarvatn Fontana, a lakefront spa featuring natural steam baths, outdoor mineral pools, and a sauna
The Secret Lagoon Another geothermal pool (dating back to 1891) with a spouting geyser. You’ll also find showers, a bar and an eating area available.
Go shopping There is no shortage of cute little boutiques throughout the city. Some favorites include:
Tónar, a two story record store/record label overflowing with Icelandic and international music.
Aftur, a fashion boutique that sells urban clothing made from recycled textiles.
Gjafir jarðar, translated to Gifts of the Earth, is a small new age boutique with a treatment center on the second floor. They carry an impressive inventory of incense, crystals, healing jewels, candles, tarot cards, books on spirituality, meditation music and essential oils, and provide astrological charts, Bowen therapy, chakra studies and tarot card readings.
Laugavegur isn’t a store, but a street (the coolest street) lined with trendy concept sores, bars, and restaurants.
Attractions along the Ring Road
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach - Exactly what it sounds like, but even more picturesque. If you’ve ever seen photos of the gigantic basalt columns on the beach, (perhaps in Game of Thrones? Or in Rogue One?) you know what I mean. The beach is easy to get to, and located in the small fishing village of Vik. It’s right by Restaurant Vikurskali as well as another Icelandic landmark, Vik i Myrdal Church.
Skogafoss Waterfall A gorgeous sight, this waterfall sits on the Skógá River, in the south of the country, and with an almost 200 ft drop off, and width of 82 feet. She’s one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon One of Iceland’s most popular (and beautiful) landmarks, Jokulsarlon is Iceland’s deepest lake with icebergs that are over 1,000 years old. So, they’ve seen some stuff. The lagoon is nestled in the southern part of Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland’s largest national park.
Dettifoss Waterfall On the Northside of Vatnajökull, is Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss.
Lake Myvatn and its surrounding area is made up of so many wonders that make Iceland Iceland (think: craters to mud pools, to wildlife, geothermal caves, lava fields, and lush pastures, sulphur fields, nature baths (another good alternative to the Blue Lagoon).
Vestrahorn and Stokksnes A visual DREAM. Mountains sit isolated on a black sand beach. Be prepared to: find yourself among photographers, pay a small fee before entering (it’s private), and to have your breath taken away.
Hvitserkur Basalt Stack Off the shore of the Vatnsnes Peninsula in northwest Iceland, stands Hvitserkur, an almost 50 foot eroded sea stack
Godafoss Waterfall I mean, its name literally means waterfalls of the gods, so I feel like you get it, but just in case the picture isn’t completely painted, imagine this: A gigantic (like, GIGANTIC) half moon shaped waterfall collapsing into a 7,000 year old lava crater.
Attractions along the golden circle
Thingvellir National Park A National Park just outside of Reykjavik. It’s a beautiful and historic landmark, with natural sites and The location of Iceland’s first parliament was held within the park. Park in the upper parking lot for the visitors center and restrooms.
The Geysir Geothermal Area With no shortage of bubbling mud ponds and explosive geysers, exhibits are offered throughout the area. You’ll see Strokkur, the most energetic spouting spring in the country, spouting every few minutes.
Gullfoss Waterfall Just an hour and a half outside of Reykjavik, Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls.
Laugarvatn Baths A lakefront spa (see above)
The Crater Kerid Almost neon blue in color, the water volcanic crater lake’s water is surrounded by beautiful and rare red volcanic rock in the South of Iceland.
Secret Lagoon in Fludir A geothermal pool (see above)
Langjokull Glacier Iceland’s second largest ice cap. Visitors head out in their jeep or on their snowmobile. It’s also a common destination for snowboarders and skiers.
Fridheimar Tomato and Horse Farm A family farm and (the perhaps most farm to table one there is) restaurant specializing in tomatoes. Visitors will dine among the tomato plants in the greenhouse, and pick basil from their table centerpieces. Perfect way to finish off the Golden Circle. They also breed Icelandic horses, and put on shows for tourists at their outdoor arena.
Hvita River For about $130, you can raft the Hvita River through canyons. Tours will take you through the rapids to a cliff in Bruarhlod canyon where you have the option of jumping before heading back to basecamp where you can relax in the sauna.
Solheimar Eco-Village This world famous sustainable community is home to about 100 people from all over the world who have come to work and volunteer.
Thjorsardalur Valley Situated in the southern highlands, this valley is filled with natural sites, such as Iceland’s largest river, Þjórsá, Haifoss (another gigantic waterfall - one of Iceland’s tallest!) Þjórsárdals hot springs, Hjálparfoss (yet another waterfall), Búrfells woods (a botanist’s dream), views of the volcano, Hekla, and lava fields.
Skalholt One of Iceland’s most historic and holiest destinations. In 1056 (1056!!!), the country’s very first bishopric was founded here, along with the its very first bishop.
WHERE TO STAY:
Kex Hostel By far, the coolest, hippest, trendiest hostel I could ever dream up. It features a curated library, a full bar with great food and drink, live music and events. It’s a popular spot for locals to come and hang out at, which says a lot.
Fosshótel Reykjavík Iceland’s largest hotel is centrally located, in the midst of the business district. Grab an Icelandic beer at the beer garden, some food at their restaurant, Haust, and check out its beautiful views of the city.
Hotel Borg A luxury Art Deco hotel located in the heart of Reykjavik. Iceland obviously loves its spas, so it just makes sense that the hotel features a beautiful one along with a fitness room. During the winter months, they offer 20-25% discounts off Northern Lights Tours (plus an extra retry) depending on how long you stay. This special pricing also includes complimentary access to their spa and fitness facilities. They also offer some pretty cool day tours including Golden Circle Tours, whale watching, snorkeling, Game of Thrones tour, etc.