A Practical Guide To Visiting Reykjavík
Reykjavík is the northernmost capital city in the world. I recently spent a week in and around that wonderful Icelandic place and have compiled this list of things to help you plan your visit, because that's something you really should do:
Getting there and around
From the New York area, an overnight flight is really the only option. This will likely leave between 6 and 9pm and take about 5.5 hours. If you can sleep on planes, congratulations. If not, like me, it'll be somewhat rough. I've tried many overnight flight strategies yet can never get more than a small amount of sleep, so use your best discretion or try one of these ideas.
Iceland has two main airlines which fly internationally- IcelandAir and Wow! I've taken IA a few times and it's quite nice, yet has gotten more expensive recently and had a long layover in Boston when I wanted to go last month. So I took budget airline Wow for the first time and it was great. Yes, you have to pay for everything on board (including water) but just fill a bottle in the airport and bring some snacks. Other than that, it was really fine. If the word 'budget' scares you or makes you think of Spirit Airlines, choose Wow with confidence as the quality is as good as any company out there.
Once at Keflavík Airport, there are several companies which offer shuttles to Reykjavík. The one time I did this, it took over 90 minutes (after a 40-minute ride) to get near my lodging. Instead, I'd recommend having breakfast at Joe & The Juice then renting a car and driving straight to the famous Blue Lagoon man-made hot spring, which is 20 minutes away. It's rather touristy and expensive but a great first experience and good timekiller since most places won't let you check in until at least 2pm and your flight will probably land somewhere in the mid-morning hours.
Reykjavík itself is very walkable whether you stay at a hostel, hotel, or somewhere in between like an AirBNB. Good maps of the city are available and if nothing else, remember that the water is north and use Hallgrímskirkja (see below) as an easy-to-find landmark. Also, there are no ride-share services (like Uber) available but a taxi is simple enough to find or call to your location.
Iceland is expensive
There's no way to avoid spending a lot of money in Iceland. A decent meal will cost around $40 and a pint of beer could easily run you $10 or more, depending on your taste. One way to cut down these costs is to buy alcohol at the airport's duty-free shop and pick up snacks and such at a grocery store such as Bónus. It's difficult to visit Iceland on a budget so be prepared to spend or save until you can to make the trip worth it. But keep in mind that waterfalls, black sand beaches, hot pots, the Aurora, and other natural wonders are all free.
My only real complaint about Iceland would be the lack of water fountains. The country prides itself on having the world's best water yet they don't make it accessible. Some of the tap water has that eggy sulfur taste but if you can get past that, bring a waterbottle and fill it whenever possible.
Safety and language
Iceland is consistently ranked among the world's safest countries. You're much more likely to get injured while hiking than be victim of a crime. And if you do get injured, they do this very un-American thing where doctors will treat you for a small fee. You should always travel smart and alert but Iceland will gladly let you bring your guard down. Beware of other tourists more than natives.
Growing up, Icelanders learn to speak Icelandic, English, and Danish. You might have a tough time remembering street names (such as Skólavörðustígur) but anyone you're likely to encounter in Reykjavík will speak excellent English with a wonderful local accent.
The weather is insane
There's a saying in Iceland that if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes. A cute little adage but it certainly rings true. During my week, it rained every day except (thankfully) the day I left the city for a hike. However, it never poured. There seemed to be a constant mist along with rain which never lasted for more than a few minutes at a time, though there were many times throughout the days.
And it's not as cold as you'd think. I went in February and New York was colder each day of the trip. Iceland receives warmer air from the Gulf Stream, which makes the country cool year-round but not crazy cold overall. But a big factor is the wind, which can gust intensely and make mild temperatures seem very chilly. My suggestion is to leave your Winter coat at home and bring layers which could be topped with a rain-proof jacket. And don't even bother with a baseball cap. It'll get blown off.
Also, the Aurora borealis (northern lights) is impossible to predict. Seeing the display is one of the main things that draws people to Iceland between August and April but it's never guaranteed. You can check the aurora forecast all you'd like, but your best bet would be driving away from city lights under a clear sky and taking something that brings you luck.
I hope that helped you prepare for your trip. Now here are some good spots to check out during your time in the city:
Tales From Iceland- Two floors consisting of 14 televisions, each with a different story about Iceland. The videos are professionally made and vary with topics, including history, sports, music, and stories by travelers.
Perlan- "The Pearl" is a museum housed among and on top of six huge water tanks. Highlights include a man-made ice cave, planetarium shows, a replica cliff face, and an outdoor observation deck. It's outside of the main city but the walk is very nice. Or you could take the shuttle from Harpa, which is close to city center.
National Museum- The history of Iceland through the ages. Admission here includes access to the Culture House, which is a more-artsy museum in the city proper. Like Perlan, The National Museum is a little bit of a walk outside of the city. Also, if you have trouble finding it online, search for Þjóðminjasafn Íslands instead.
The Settlement Exhibition- This building was built around the ruins of one of the first houses in Iceland. Much of the exhibition focuses on that and the rest tells of how Iceland was settled. There was also a small temporary display about animals.
Whales Of Iceland- Life-sized models of whales hang from the ceiling as an audio guide tells you about their real-life counterparts. Interesting and a bit intimidating.
Volcano House- Two videos highlighting volcanoes in Iceland, with focus on how the country dealt with 1973's eruption on the Westmann Islands, and 2010's Eyjafjallajökull, which grounded flights and left millions of people stranded worldwide. Both videos are around 25 minutes long.
Phallological Museum- Penis Museum. There are over 250 specimens displayed from over 90 species of animals. (Note: I've not yet visited this museum but I've heard that it's exactly as advertised and a good way to kill an hour.)
Hallgrímskirkja- Probably the most iconic building in Reykjavík, the exterior of this church (Lutheran, by the way) is very striking and unique. Inside is bland by comparison but for a small fee you can take an elevator to the top of the tower for good views of the city. Standing in front of the building is a statue of Leif Erikson, the Icelandic explorer who found what would become North America hundreds of years before Columbus. For some trivia, the statue was given to Iceland by the United States.
Harpa- Probably the second-most iconic building in Reykjavík, Epal Harpa is a concert hall and conference center with a very interesting multi-colored design. You could see a symphony performance here, dine, or simply walk around and admire the place. If you're looking to buy tickets online, use a debit card, as credit cards do not work properly.
Sun Voyager- This sculpture of a Viking ship sits along the water and is easily recognizable. Take pictures here but please don't take a long time or climb on it, as I've seen people do several times.
Food & Drink
For good Icelandic beer, I'd recommend BrewDog, Mikkeller & Friends, MicroBar, Session Craft Bar, RVK Brewery.
For food, Frederiksen Ale House and Hlemmur Square (inside a hostel) offer tasty snacks and meals. Hlemmur Mathöll has an assortment of booths for all kinds of food. Also, Iceland is known for their hot dogs. Seriously. They are delicious and can be found at The Hot Dog Stand or Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. The dogs taste very similar but I prefer the first place because they toast the buns.
For coffee and light snacks, check out Joe & The Juice and Kaffi Vínyl.
For fun places to hang out, grab a white Russian at Lebowski Bar, enjoy the novelty of Chuck Norris Grill, and embrace the comforting weirdness of Gaukurinn for vegan food, bizarre movie screenings, and drag queen karaoke.
That's about it
Of course this isn't everything that's good to do in Reykjavík so you'll have to find some goodness for yourselves. You'd have to try really hard to not enjoy a trip to Iceland. Be prepared for what's ahead and start exploring! If you're interested, check out my general article about Iceland.