It’s no secret that Iceland’s diminutive capital, Reykjavík, punches way above its weight on pretty much every level. A whimsical wonderland and a place I had dreamed about visiting for many years. It's laid-back yet pulsing with energy.
The city offers up plenty of cultural treats to delight, ranging from first-class museums to small alternative art galleries, traditional attractions like the relaxed harbor and colorful wooden houses, striking landmarks such as the rocket-shaped Hallgrimskirkja, and a famously raucous nightlife. Of course, there is the main attraction that draws everyone here -- Iceland's jaw-dropping landscapes that are easily accessible.
When I was venturing to Reykjavik just a couple of months ago, my excitement was uncontainable; I had an itinerary that was already jam-packed with the Google-able must-sees but needed an infusion of local charm.
One thing that I will add that many travel guides failed to mention is how expensive AF Iceland is. You've been warned, but don't let this deter you from booking an Iceland adventure. I'm sharing with you my Insider's Guide to Reykjavik... Enjoy!
When To Go
Between May and September is generally considered the best time to visit Iceland, due to better temperatures and longer days. But, with that said, Summers can be crowded, especially in Reykjavik. Visiting in winter, between November and February, is the best time to catch the Aurora Borealis aka the Northern Lights.
When To Stay
There are plenty of hotels. I opted for Airbnb, which I highly recommend.
Eat + Drink
Bergsson Mathus for healthy and delicious soul food, all day long. If it's seafood you're after, then you won't be disappointed with Sjávargrillið. The food at Snaps Bistro is brilliant and the atmosphere is great. It’s open during the day like a café, but in the evening becomes more like a bar/restaurant. Make sure you go to Seabaron. It’s right on the old harbor and is essentially a shabby fisherman’s shack (you sit on barrels). You choose your own freshly caught fish! They are famous for their lobster soup, and they also normally have whale kebabs if you’re into that. Upstairs at Sakebarinn is my favorite sushi. The restaurant is located on the corner of Laugevegur and Skolavordustigur. Reeeeally good. For brunchy-type things and more low key meals, there is Joe and The Juice, Prikid on Laugevegur, Cuckoos Nest in Grandi or Laundromat Cafe on Ausurstraeti.
Mixed drinks, wine, and all booze are expensive in Iceland but if you must, Lebowski Bar is a must visit. Yes, it's a Big Lebowski-themed bar, and it's one the most fun places to drink in the city. The decor recalls vintage American diners and bowling alleys, with a rug hanging from the bar that really ties the room together. If you’re looking for a night out on the town, note that nothing really gets going properly until after midnight. The best places at the moment are plenty. With good DJs both upstairs and downstairs, this place gets going a bit later there is Dolly. If by some chance it’s not happening there, then you can just nip across the road to Harlem and check it out there. Harlem is a spot that has a more trendy, fun, and younger crowd. There is also Boston is located upstairs on Laugevegur, it can get really messy here! It boasts an artsy-type crowd that becomes more mixed on weekends. Kaffibarinn is a classic place in Reykjavik nightlife. It’s in a really small house just off Laugevegur and is always fun with lots of younger people there. It gets very crowded on weekends! Also, all these places are about 5 minutes away from each other, so you can normally go to all of them in one night.
The Golden Circle is do-able in a day and really beautiful. It includes Gulfoss a huge waterfall that plunges into a crack in the earth; Geysir a continual eruption of boiling water 30ft into the air; and Thingvellir, the old capital of Vikings and also where the North American and European tectonic plates meet, which means epic gorges, waterfalls, and sometimes earthquakes.
Geothermal Swimming Pools are a must. Every neighborhood has its own geothermal swimming pool, which is probably the most Icelandic thing you can do. People go every day and talk in the hot tub. They’re super basic but just amazingly clean with natural hot water and steam baths. The main big pool Laugardalslaug is also really nice and is open 6am-10pm every day. It has lots of hot pots, water slides, saunas, and steam rooms – and a new seawater hotpot.
Then, of course, there is everyone's bucket list items, the Blue Lagoon. You should do Blue Lagoon on your way to or from the airport. It’s 15 minutes away from Keflavík International, so you save on a wasted bus ride if you do it then. It’s totally worth it. It’s a bright blue silica thermal pool in the middle of a lava field!
Kolaportid is a great indoor flea market in Reykjavik which is always open on weekends and is located right next to the harbor.
Go for a hike. Hveragerdi is an amazing place to go not to far from Reykjavik. It’s a very volcanically active valley and you can walk up into the hills and swim in a hot river. It’s about a 30 minute bus/car ride from Reykjavik, but really beautiful and cool to swim in, as it’s a natural river. Grótta is a gorgeous lighthouse in Reykjavik is just 5 minutes from town. When the tide is down you can walk out onto the island and take in beautiful views across the Fjord to the glacier. This is the best place in town to go see the sunset – totally magical on a calm day. One totally magical place is a little island called Flatey. It has about 10 inhabitants and one bar. You can get a ferry there from Stikkysholmur just up from Snaefellsnes, about 2 hours from Reykjavik. Thorsmörk is probably one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to, as well. It’s tucked in between 3 glaciers and only accessible in summer via a big jeep (you have to drive through about 20 rivers) – insane landscape and hiking.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, driving further into the country is amazing. There’s Vik to the south, on the way there’s Dyrholaey that famous black sand beach with an arch in the ocean. Also past the volcano and the glacier and there’s Jökulsárlón, too, which is an amazing glacial lagoon. You can do that in a day from Reykjavik, but it’s quite far.
Valerie is a San Francisco native who loves overall health and wellness. She content creator and recipe developer, helping brands in the Fitness, Health & Wellness space tell their stories through gluten-free, mostly plant-based food, life + travel.