I spent a week staying with a lovely Icelandic woman in downtown Reykjavik and explored this fascinating city. In this letter I want to tell you about the things we did in the most northern capital of the world – and explain to you why it should be on your bucket list!
We had 7 days in the city and only did a couple of tours out into the country, so we got to do a lot. In fact, I would say there isn’t much left in the city that I would want to do in the future. There is, however, a lot of Iceland I need to return and explore.
Everyone has heard of this church I believe. It’s 73m tall, and the tallest in Iceland. This makes it a great marker as you can see it from most areas of the city – you can’t get lost if you head for the church. It costs 900kr (£7) to go up to the top in the lift – but our ticket was never checked so we went up another 2 times without paying. I’m sure a lot of people just don’t pay. The view from the top is breathtaking and you can see for miles across the colourful rooftops, the harbour and towards the mountains. It’s wonderful, and very worth a visit. You’ll probably pass the church about fifty times a day so you may as well go in. It also has a room right before the top observation area which has heating so it’s a good place to thaw out.
Skólavörðustígur and Laugavegur
These are the two main streets of downtown Reykjavik and together point towards the ‘centre’ – if there really is one. Skólavörðustígur heads north west from the church. As we visited just after the festive period, these streets were lined with beautiful Christmas lights and were completely stunning. There are lots of small touristy shops, winter clothes stores and cafes, restaurants and bars aplenty. This is where all the action happens.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
This is a strange one – so lets get it out of the way. This is Reykjavik’s famous penis museum, the only one in the world. My boyfriend and I took a visit because he just couldn’t come to Iceland and not go and see it. It was actually pretty fun. Totally weird, quite gross and probably shouldn’t be on your list of must-do things in Iceland, but pretty fun. It’s basically a large collection of Icelandic penises. They range from mice to whales and everything in between. There are also fun penis-themed objects like telephones and lamps. If you want to take a look at hundreds of penises for an hour or two, head to Laugavegur and pay your 1,500kr (£11.50) and have fun!
This area is really stunning and feels very Icelandic. On a cold winter’s evening after the sun has just set it feels positively Baltic. Looking over the north Atlanic Ocean towards mountains in the distance is something you just can’t experience in many places. This, amongst many things, is what makes Reykjavik so unique. There are lots of fish restaurants here as well as museums and galleries, so the area has a lot to offer. I’ll list some of these below. Just wrap up if you’re heading here in winter.
Kolaportið Flea Market
This is Reykjavik’s favourite flea market and is used by locals and tourists alike. It is situated on the harbour, near Harpa which is a garish concert hall. It’s only a few minutes walk from the main streets. From the outside it doesn’t look like much, and you would pass it if you didn’t know it was there, but inside it’s alive. There are hundreds of stalls selling everything from vintage clothing to Icelandic comics; music sheets to star wars merchandise. Then there’s a huge food market with all of the local delicacies – including fermented shark (which I didn’t go near so don’t ask). There’s even a small cafe with quick and easy meals like the classic lamb soup which is a favourite in Iceland. It’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays so make sure you pay a visit if you’re there over the weekend!!
This is a geology exhibition paired with a small cinema showing documentaries about Iceland’s volcanic activity which also has a cafe-restaurant. We only went in to look at the exhibition, which is completely free, but I would’ve quite liked to have watched one of the films. You can read about the volcanoes, touch different rocks from around the country and also feel ash from recent eruptions. It’s a really good place to visit and it’s right on the harbour in a corner building opposite the famous fish and chip restaurant.
This lake is situated in central Reykjavik, west of the church. It sits within a beautiful park which we sat and ate lunch in at -4°, dreaming about barbecues in summer time. We saw the lake as water and ice and both were beautiful. It’s surrounded by lovely colourful houses and a few sculptures. You can even watch the small planes come in to Reykjavik’s airport or the birds flying in from the south. It’s a peaceful place, and one of my favourite in the city.
The National Museum of Iceland
This museum is located near the lake, about a 15 minute walk from the church. We visited this museum the day after our Golden Circle trip (read about here: The best Golden Circle Tour) which was perfect because our guide on the trip had already introduced us to Iceland’s history. The museum is beautifully laid out and is really enjoyable to walk around. The information is easy to take in and I learnt so much about Iceland’s past. There are also a lot of interactive things to do and life size exhibits. I would highly recommend! It costs 1,500kr (£11.50) or 750kr (£6) if you’re a student.
The Botanical Garden
We’re heading away from the central downtown area now to Reykjavik’s garden. As a reference point, it is about a 40 minute walk east of the church. We visited this area sort of by accident, as we were trying to get lunch in a bistro we read about online. Turns out it was closed (we should’ve guessed this as it is winter and people don’t typically flock to botanical gardens) but we discovered a beautiful place. It’s even worth visiting in winter. The area contains a zoo, an sports complex, an athletics field, a swimming pool (which I’ll get to next) and charming gardens. These gardens were frozen when we visited, but this made them all the more stunning I believe.
Laugardalslaug Public Swimming Pool
Swimming is the most popular activity for locals to do in Reykjavik. The city has 7 public pools (I believe) and we visited this one, close to the gardens. It is truly the most bizarre thing to be swimming in a heated outdoor pool, in -5°, whilst it is snowing. It’s wonderful. This is Reykjavik’s largest pool; it has a ‘fun’ outdoor pool paired with one for doing lengths and 2 ‘hot pots’ where the water is about 40°, and also an indoor sports pool. The changing rooms are interesting for myself and other tourists who are not used to showering absolutely naked with about 20 other women, but it was a kind of liberating experience! It’s completely normal for Icelanders who have grown up this way. The whole thing was incredibly relaxing and so much fun. I would definitely recommend spending a couple of hours in one of the city’s outdoor pools. At this one it cost 950kr (£7.50) each and that includes a locker and you get as long as you want.
Lastly, I’ll mention Reykjavik’s largest mall. This was about 5 minutes from our airbnb which is why we went here, but I actually think it’s a good place to visit! It’s one of the nicest shopping centres I’ve ever visited and has lots of shops to browse. It has a bonus, which is the cheapest supermarket in Iceland – very handy to know about! It has a few tourist shops and great book shops. It has a few restaurants and fast food places too. Lastly, and my favourite part about it, it has little seating areas randomly throughout the mall which are so nice and like mini lounges in a mall! Great place to spend an couple of hours or so (and get out of the cold).
So there you go! A pretty long list of things to do in Reykjavik. I hope this is useful and if you are visiting – have an incredible time!