What To Do In & Around Reykjavik, Iceland
Why Choose Iceland?
When choosing a holiday destination Iceland may not be the first place that comes to mind as tourists often seek the warmth of the sun's rays and a comfortable beach to enjoy them on. However, that means that the awe-inspiring landscape and unique charm of somewhere like Iceland is all too often ignored. Formed as a result of volcanic activity, its rough terrain is home to some of nature's best phenomenons including an abundance of geothermal activity.
In terms of the climate, the summer months see temperatures rise to a mild average of 13-14°C, a stark contrast to the chilling winter months which reach only -3°C, offering very few daylight hours. Yet regardless of the weather, the rugged Icelandic landscape looks magnificent all year round, which means if you're willing to wrap up warm and brave the cold you can see Iceland at its icy best.
Beyond this, Iceland has consistently been voted as one of the friendliest countries that a tourist could visit, and has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, with violent crime being particularly low. So despite its colder climate, you are guaranteed a warm welcome.
This hub will explore some of the activities available in and around the country's capital, Reykjavik, including the famous Blue Lagoon.
Despite being Iceland's capital and the country's largest city, Reykjavik itself is home to approximately 120,000 people. Although this is around a third of the total population, such a small size makes Reykjavik one of the smallest capital cities in Europe. This turns out to be an advantage for tourists as it means that the city is a manageable size, with its main sites and attractions either within walking distance, or a short bus ride away.
One must-see attraction is the church, Hallgrimskirkja. Dominating Reykjavik's otherwise low-lying skyline, the church is an architectural beauty offering unbeatable views of the city. Your eye will quickly be drawn to it from wherever you may be so it's difficult to ignore the intrigue it provokes. You can look around the church itself for free yet you can also pay 700ISK (Iceland krona) to take the lift to the top of the building where you will witness the stunning panoramic views of Reykjavik and the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
You can also explore Icelandic history and learn about its rich heritage with a visit to the National Museum of Iceland. The admission fee is 1500ISK for an adult, which allows you to learn all about the country's Viking roots, taking you from the very first settlers, through the World Wars, to the present day. If history fascinates you this is definitely the place to go as you can see replicas of Viking boats, the typical living quarters of the first settlers, and learn about Icelandic mythology (yes, this includes information on Thor and Odin, beyond the realms of the Marvel universe!).
If history bores you then fear not as you can always take a trip to the Phallological Museum and learn about the different penises of the animal kingdom. The entry price is 1250ISK and once inside you can marvel at the impressive collection of 215 penises.
Equally, if phallic discovery isn't your thing then it's well worth having a stroll through the docks where a variety of boat trips are on offer. You can set sail on the freezing waters in search of whales, puffins, and even the Northern Lights, whilst seeing the Icelandic landscape from a completely different viewpoint.
Another must-see on the seafront is the Sun Voyager statue, or Sólfar. Although it appears to be a Viking boat, it's actually a dreamboat, or a sun ship, designed to represent hope. The stunning views surrounding the statue make it even more impressive to behold, especially if visited at sunset.
The city centre itself may not feel like a typical city centre. Throughout the colder months the streets are often empty yet you're guaranteed to find the buzz of people inside each café and restaurant.
Traditional Icelandic food is well worth a try should your taste buds be brave enough. Many of the traditional restaurants may offer delicacies such as puffin, minke whale, and blue ling. In particular, any kind of fish dish is highly recommended as the fish there must be among the freshest in the world. Because they have such a vast array of seafood at their fingertips, lobster is typically cheaper than in many other countries and the taste is even fresher and more delicious.
Food Tip!: Be sure to try skyr, the delicious traditional Icelandic dessert.
Locations of Reykjavik Attractions
The Northern Lights
One of the main allures of visiting Iceland is to try to see the elusive wonder that is the Aurora Borealis. Despite their magnificence, this particular attraction is also notoriously unpredictable. Although the best time of year to see them is September through to April, as these are the months with fully dark nights, a sighting is still not guaranteed. The winter months have the darkest nights yet also the stormiest weather. This can often be a hindrance as a clear sky offers ideal conditions to see the lights. With this in mind, you should expect to have more than one attempt at seeing them.
Grayline Excursions are an ideal company for this very purpose. If you don't see the lights on your outing with Grayline, then you are allowed to come back at any point over the next 2 years for free until you see them (this includes every night throughout your visit should you wish!). This company drives you to a location in Thingvellir National Park with a small café in case you want to shelter from the cold, but more importantly it is surrounded by mountains which offer a dramatic backdrop for when the lights appear. Most often, the lights are a dazzling green, but for those lucky enough to see them at their brightest, you may see hints of pink, white, or yellow. Going on a guided tour also provides you with explanations as to what exactly causes the lights, as well as the knowledge of the best locations to see them.
Travel Tip!: If you can, remember to take a good quality camera with you. To snap a good picture of the Northern Lights you'll need a camera that allows you to adjust the exposure time to approximately 4 seconds or more, so the lens absorbs as much of the lights as possible.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is perhaps one of Iceland's most famous attractions as its warm, milky blue waters have attracted the likes of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, as well as featuring on the BBC's Apprentice. The shape of the lagoon itself is man-made but is heated using geothermal energy harnessed in a nearby power plant. The lagoon is famous for its skin healing abilities as the water is rich in minerals such as silica and sulphur which are provided by the ground beneath it, and have been found to greatly improve skin conditions such as psoriasis. In true spa-style, the Blue Lagoon company offers a range of skin care products made from the same minerals because of this positive effect.
The entry fee for the lagoon is between €35-45 depending on the season. However you can pay more to upgrade and include various spa treatments or food. In the lagoon itself you're welcomed into warm, shallow waters with plenty of places to sit around the edges. You can use a steam room, sauna or dip beneath a hot waterfall, and the lagoon is large enough that it won't feel crowded despite its popularity.
There are several stations around the edge of the lagoon which hold white mud that you can use as a free face mask, leaving you feeling softer and younger. There is also a swim-up bar where you can buy drinks and add it to the tab that is built in to the wrist band you are given on entry. Towels, robes and shoes are all left on hooks surrounding the lagoon, which you will make a quick dash for as you leave the warmth of the water and feel the cold air!
Before going to the lagoon you may hear that showering without a swimsuit beforehand is compulsory for hygiene reasons and, due to cultural differences, the showers are not in cubicles. If this bothers you then don't fret as several of the showers do have doors and there is no one there to enforce the no swimsuit rule!
Hair Tip!: For those with long hair, definitely tie your hair up and avoid getting it wet. Although the water does wonders for the skin, it can cause damage to the hair by making it dry and brittle. A few splashes won't hurt but it's best to keep it up and out of the way!
The Golden Circle
The final main attraction based around Reykjavik is the Golden Circle tour, which takes you to see Iceland's most famous natural attractions: Thingvellir National Park, the active geyser Strokkur, and Gullfoss waterfall. The tour takes a full day and leaves Reykjavik before taking you toward central Iceland and looping back again.
Thingvellir National Park has stunning views and shows off the Icelandic landscape at its best. The tour takes you to the ideal viewing point, giving a panoramic view of the park, before you are allowed to wander through the park past a small waterfall, whilst fully taking in the beauty of the surrounding mountains. Not only this, but Thingvellir National Park offers the unique experience of standing between two tectonic plates in 'no man's land'. You can clearly see the cracks in the ground where the North American and Eurasian plates are drifting apart as the park sits on the mid-Atlantic Ridge. The park also holds cultural importance as it is home to the site where the first Icelandic parliament, Althingi, was established in 930AD. As a World Heritage Site, this breathtaking park starts off your tour in an incredible way.
As you wind your way across the country you can continue to absorb both the country's natural beauty as well as information about the history of your surroundings, given to you by your well-informed guide. The next stop is the dramatic Gullfoss waterfall, where you can witness the jaw-dropping power of Iceland's glacial waters. You can view the waterfall from 2 points: above the falls so you can see them as a whole, or you can walk down right next to the falls to see the full effect of its power, feel the mist on your face, and hear the deafening roar of the water thundering through the canyon. It truly does leave you speechless as you round the corner and see Gullfoss for the first time.
Next on the tour is a stop in an area full of geothermal activity, Haukadalur. This valley is home to Geysir, the first hot spring to be recognised and recorded in modern European history. In fact, the English term geyser, used to describe a hot spring of this type, derives from Geysir. Although Geysir has now been inactive for a number of years, there is another geyser named Strokkur next door which erupts approximately every 4-8 minutes, meaning you are guaranteed to see and capture several eruptions during your visit. The geyser launches boiling hot water from beneath the surface 20 metres into the air as a means of releasing pressure, and is guaranteed to make you jump and gasp every time.
Safety Tip!: Don't stand down wind of Strokkur as you do not want to be on the receiving end of its hot steam.
As well as the 3 natural wonders along the Golden Circle, you can see other waterfalls, Icelandic horses, and Skalholt cathedral, which is yet another important cultural and political site. Impressively, all of this is packed in before the day comes to a close as you arrive back in Reykjavik in time for dinner.
Iceland really is a destination that will be well worth the visit as beaches too often overshadow a more rugged terrain. Iceland offers something different to a typical holiday, meaning it will always stand out in your holiday memories. But more than just the landscape, you feel safe from the moment you touchdown on Icelandic soil and the service there is second to none. With a rich history and unique mythology, it is a fascinating visit from beginning to end. Have a look below at some suitcase necessities, just in case you feel the urge to book a trip.
What To Pack
Thermal underwear! And a flask for a hot drink is always a good idea.
Good quality camera.
A light travel towel will save money and space.
Waterproof clothing will protect you against the icy mist of Gullfoss.
Earmuffs may be handy as you spend a lot of time outside and winds can be biting.