Explorations in Iceland: Reykjavik City Guide
What to do, where to go, and what to eat.
Reykjavik is very interesting as a destination. It’s not the main attraction of Iceland, but it’s the city you have to go to first before you start your journey through Icelandic nature. The city itself is pretty small with about 400,000 residents, most are foreigners. It’s worth exploring for a couple days, but more than that you start to feel the strain on your purse strings.
To be honest, our impressions of Reykjavik were very up and down. We first visited Reykjavik for a couple days exploring the city centre’s main attractions like Halgrimska Church and Harpa Music Hall while trying local eats and trying to catch the Northern Lights. It was fun to explore a new place and see what it’s made of. However, after we came back from our 5 day scenic tour, Reykjavik lost some of its charm. The expensiveness takes away from the thrills of discovery. There’s a lot to see in Iceland, but there is also exploring in Reykjavik if you try hard enough.
Most of Reykjavik’s main activities are in the walkable city centre or a short bus ride away. While it might be small, there are still plenty of things to do fill up a few short days.
I highly recommend using grapevine.is to find more local food and activities.
WHERE TO STAY
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is finding unique AIRBNBs to stay at, whether it’s for a day or two. In Reykjavik we booked two BNBs; one on the main street and one near Old Harbor. The Laugavegur BNB was our favorite, being the right price and in walking distance to main attractions and food. It’s a shared apartment with four private rooms, but the location is hart not to pass up. If you want the best of convenience and cleanliness, this is it.
hat you see above is our second AIRBNB, closer to the sea with a gorgeous view of the mountains. The Old Harbor BNB was on the opposite end right along a row colorful houses. The room is the upstairs area of a shared apartment with a beautiful wood slanted ceiling. However, the beauty of the room hides the inconvenience of a spiral staircase and having to share with the owner.
what to eat
Iceland is an expensive country. When you’re in Reykjavik I recommend stocking up on perishables and eating out sparingly. A simple burgeR and fries meal can be a whopping $30, so spend your food money wisely.
Just around the corner from our BNB is Rekyjavik Chips. I love french fries and the fact that a whole restaurant dedicated to them was in walking distance had me drooling from the start. Fries are in the thicker cut but crispy, but the highlight is number of condiments you can choose from. One large fry and a few sauce pairings added up to $10, probably our cheapest meal in Rekyjavik.
OTHERS QUICK FOODS TO TRY
CAFES & BAKERIES
My favorite foods in Reykjavik consisted of baked goods. The first meal was at Braud & Co, a magical bakery where they bake sourdough bread in front of you while you enjoy one of their fluffy croissants or cruffins. I was in pure bliss even with snow pelts hitting my face.
Since I was on a budget, I limited myself to a few different coffee shops. The first coffeeshop we visited was Bismut. A small place with a few seating, but resembles a small art gallery with space to view the art pieces currently on display.
Stofan happened to be on the way to the other side of town in Old Harbor. Stofan is a cozy little coffee house that serves of homely foods and amazing crepes. Stofan translates to living room and I immediately felt why. I stopped in for coffee and stayed for a bit lounging on their fun couches. Stofan also turns into a lively bar at night with music.
I just want to give a big shoutout to Sandholt for being right around the corner, and having pretty tasty baked goods, good coffee, and decent to-go sandwiches. We visited Sandholt a lot more than the convenience store that was across the street. The temptations of amazing breads and sweet stuff was too hard to resist.
Sandholt doubles as a sitdown restaurant and to go place. I love the duality. Lines would back up for one of their limited number of tables, but also to snag some decadent sweet breads that go fast.
I also had one of the best sandwiches ever (aside from the Japan one), made with their fresh sourdough bread and wrapped to go.
Contrary to popular belief, Reykjavik has a number of vegetarian options, including the top rated Glo. My travel buddy is vegetarian and this was on her list to try. While we wren’t the biggest fan of the dishes we got, we can understand why many love coming by thanks to a variety of choices. Enjoy some veggie and non-veggie dishes include pasta bowls and fake chicken dishes.
My favorite spot to eat in Reykjavik for dinner, was Hfervisgata 12, a hidden bar and pizza place only designated by a door with the street address. This unmarked spot gets pretty busy to try one of their famous and unique pizzas. We opted for a spicy feta with arugula on top plus some cauliflower appetizer. Upstairs you’ll find Mikellar & Friends, a great place to wait and try an Icelandic craft beer.
Hlemmur Matholl, Iceland’s first food hall had just recently opened when we visited, but was already drawing the crowds. The space is actually a renovated bus station, so not only can you grab food but you can also wait to catch a bus. There’s plenty of options to try; from Italian, soup of the days, to banh mis. It’s kinda upscale for a food hall, but there’s plenty of different options to try.
My travel buddy and I kinda got hangry at some point and fell for one of those outdoor menus that have their expensive food listed. We saw Geyser Bistro’s and was sold on sweet potato fries and truffle mayo. It doesn’t take much for us when it comes to french fries. Was it pricey? Yes. Was it delicious? Yes, we even got a second order.
Our pockets were not pleased. We kinda lost track of our budget at some point and ended up eating out more than we should. I do recommend some restaurants but unless you also don’t care for your budgets, then most are probably not worth it.
OTHER FANCY FEASTS TO TRY:
My travel buddy and I made some friends while we stayed in town and ended up venturing out to a couple bars. The nightlife in Reykjavik is supposed to be legendary. We kept it casual with our first stop to Kex Hostel. While it is technically a place to stay, it is also known as one of the better bars, attracting a lot of the cooler tourist crowd. We also ended up at some slot machines. I did later end up at a drag bar and witnessed some of the craziness that goes on until 5am.
Other bars to visit:
things to do
By far the highlight of our time in Reykjavik was Perlan Dome. Perched on top of a hill is this glacier museum with a glass dome that overlooks a forest that surrounding the city centre. A restaurant and bar sits a top so you can enjoy a break from the cold with some light snacks.
Before you head to the dome, I recommend taking the glacier tour. There is a lot of history behind the glacier formations in Iceland, and the interactive parts of the exhibit make it very immerse and eye-opening to how global warming affects glaciers. At the end you go through an exhibit that mimics an ice cave. Very cold, very cool.
We made our way to the top and was blown away by the view inside and outside. The roof has a very peaceful and fanciful atmosphere and it was nice to sit down and take in where we were.
How to get to Perlan: It’s a 30 min uphill walk but it can be pretty icy. There’s a bus from Harpa that takes you right up to Perlan. Comes every 30 minutes.
Iceland has a plethora of museums, many that are somewhat unique. You have some very trendy art museums and your more wacky museums like the Penis Museum, Viking Museum, Whale Museum, etc. I visited a few museums while in Reykjavik. It helps that the children are considered 0 to 18, since most people thought I was younger I got in for free. Thanks for not asking about my age!!
PUNK ROCK MUSEUM
I didn’t take the time to visit an Icelandic record store, but did go to the uber edgy punk rock museum. This museum is underground and uses old bathroom stalls to tell the rich history of Icelandic punk museum. Think Bjork as an iconic figure. Music is a big part of the Icelandic culture. In fact, there are a few big music festivals that draw a diverse crowd.
With that said, I do recommend checking out some record stores in Iceland. Maybe you found a new favorite punk band
Penis Museum (lol) // Whale Museum // Viking Museum // The Nonsense Museum
I visited two more museums while in the city: The Culture House and Listafn. The Culture House is more historic, housing the National Archives and National Library, but the upstairs features history incapsulated in modern pieces. The exterior is grand and interior matches it.
The art museum scene in Reykjavik is more contemporary but diverse af. The second museum I visited was a part of the Reykjavik Art Museum, which is divided into three parts. Hafnarhus is located in the old harbor and houses both local and international contemporary artists. The bottom floor is comprised of Erro’s pop art collection incased in concrete. If you don’t feel like walking far and happen to be near Old Harbor, this is a perfect museum to explore and kill some time. Plus they have free coffee .
I was kind bummed that I didn’t get to check out some of the other art museums. Not only are well curated, but the architecture is magnificent. The museums are carefully designed and carefully curated, so all provide very different feelings. Here are some other museums to visit!
HARPA MUSIC HALL
Harpa Music Hall will be architecture lover’s heaven thanks to it’s spectacular colored glass structure. It’s situated right by the sea so you get a picturesque view of the mountains and the city. The inside is tall, dark, and gorgeous with a rock-like ceiling and four halls to explore. It’s a nice way to take in Reykjavik while taking a break from the windy walks.
I also suggest visiting the other landmark of Reykjavik: Halgrimskirkja Church. It’s a beauty from the outside but you get a highest view of the colorful houses from the top.
THE FAMOUS STREETS OF REYKJAVIK
There are three main streets to check out for shopping, nightlife, and food, Laugavegur, Bankastræti, and Skólavörðustígur. Laugavegur is the most popular with too many souvenir shops to count and a lot of restaurants including Chuck Norris’ restaurant (weird right). Since we went in early March, we didn’t feel the bitter cold as much as other people, but usually wool sweaters are what keeps everyone warm. Wool sweaters in Iceland are usually hand knit on local farms and sold for hundreds of dollars. You can even find wool blankets that are so warm and surprisingly soft. It’s a very unique Icelandic item to have or to give. However, if you can’t afford to shill out $$$, second-hand stores carry wool sweaters for cheap.
Where to shop:
Catch a Show
As a music fiend I love finding out about the local music scene and where to catch a show. While whether or not I make it out really depends on how tired I am by the end of the day, I still like to keep up with who's playing nearby. Reykjavik is known for it’s local music scene with venues of all sizes that cater to an eclectic taste in music. You’ll find your grungiest basement venues to your fun hip-hop bars.
If you don’t have a car and only have a few days, there are a few different places to you can for a quick day trip. Golden Circle is the most popular day tour with a waterfall stop, mountain stop, and valley stop. You basically see the abridged version in this tour in a day. I also recommend taking a day trip out to some hot springs, which were my favorite part of Iceland. The natural water is very soothing and is refreshing against the crisp cold air. I also recommend horse riding!!! The Icelandic horses are small and so cute, I recommend highly for a light, fun day out of the city.
I do want to quickly address Blue Lagoon, because it’s between Reykjavik and Keflavik Airport. I recommend doing this at the beginning or at the end of your journey. You can by a Flybus ticket that takes you from the bus stop to Blue Lagoon then to the airport to catch your flight.
Thanks for following along! If you need me to add anything else to this exploration guide, comment down below. Here are some pictures that I took around Reyjavik. Enjoy!