This blog is part one of a two-part series about 5 day trips that you can take from Reykjavik, Iceland. The first part focuses on what there is to see and do in downtown Reykjavik, as well as planning a trip to the Blue Lagoon. To read part 2, click here.
Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, is home to a little over 200,000 people and is as ‘city’ as it gets in Iceland — the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The greater Reykjavik area in the southwest of the country is home to over two-thirds of the Icelandic population. The world’s most northern capital combines colorful buildings, nordic architecture, crystal-clear air, and food. And better yet — hot springs, waterfalls, volcanos, small islands, and black sand beaches are all within driving distance.
Planning Your Trip
In general, to avoid the biggest crowds and most expensive flight and lodging prices, skip the summer months in Iceland. On the flip side, the weather in winter is extremely cold and dark most of the day. That’s why we suggest visiting during the shoulder season (April, September or October) to avoid the largest crowds and aim for the best chance at decent weather.
If your goal is to see the Northern Lights, note that this is exclusively a wintertime activity in Iceland. They will only appear under extremely dark, clear conditions, and there’s simply too much sunlight during an Icelandic summer. If you are visiting in September and October you might be lucky and have the opportunity to see the Northern Lights as well.
It’s also important to note that the weather can change at the drop of a hat in Iceland — if you wake up and it’s warm and sunny, it could easily be rainy and windy by the time you reach your destination 30 minutes later. Bring lots of layers on your trips, and we found it was best to always have a rain jacket. Even if the forecast doesn’t call for rain, there are some great opportunities to hike behind and around waterfalls in Iceland that you’ll want to be prepared for. Make sure to also bring a pair of sturdy shoes — we suggest real hiking boots over sneakers, because much of the terrain in Iceland is rough and often wet once you get outside downtown Reykjavik.
Day Trip 1: Blue Lagoon
Most travelers highly recommend you visit the Blue Lagoon either directly after you arrive in Iceland, or on your way to the airport to head home. This is the Blue Lagoon is located on the Reykjanes Peninsula, home to the no-frills town of Keflavik and Reykjavik’s International Airport. The area where the airport is located is called Reykjanes Peninsula and the scenery expands dramatically as soon as you move away from the highway between the airport and Reykjavik.
The Blue Lagoon is located in the heart of the Reykjanes UNESCO Geopark. It’s best to visit the Blue Lagoon either early in the morning (ideal if you took a red eye and arrive first thing in the morning) or late at night to avoid the worst of the crowds. If you are arriving in the early morning by plane like we did, you can take a drive around the peninsula on your way from the airport to the Blue Lagoon.
The Bridge Between Two Continents right off Route 425 is a great way to wander between the North American and European tectonic plates. Here, you can see a small footbridge that spans across a sand filled gulf between the plates.
If you continue further south on Route 425, you can eventually take a slight detour to the Gunnuhver Hot Springs, a steaming multicolored geothermal area, where wooden planks crisscross the area for better views. There is also a lighthouse in the background, Reykjanesviti Lighthouse, the oldest (1878) in Iceland that you can walk to if you feel like further exploring the area.
After stopping at the Gunnuhver Hot Springs, head northeast to the Blue Lagoon. We would suggest arriving at the Lagoon right when it opens (most of the year it opens at 8AM, during the summer at 7AM), so you can enjoy it without overwhelming crowds. We highly recommend booking your Blue Lagoon tickets online way in advance to guarantee your entrance for your chosen time. You can eat some lunch at the Lagoon and even take a nap on the loungers in the indoor sun deck. We found that arriving right when it opened allowed us enough time to fully enjoy the Lagoon, and we were able to leave in the early afternoon right when the Lagoon is at its busiest, to go check-in to our hotel in Reykjavik.
Day Trip 2: Exploring Downtown Reykjavik
Downtown Reykjavik is very walkable and the main attraction in downtown is the Lutheran church, Hallgrimskirkja. When visiting, make sure to take the elevator up the 245ft (74.5m) high tower to enjoy a 360 degree view of the city. In this section of town along the water you will also find the The Sun Voyager monument, a dreamboat, or an ode to the sun.
Stroll through the streets of Old Town with the downtown lake and check out the architecture of the concert hall, Harpa, with its ever changing facets. The downtown cobblestone streets are home to a number of small shops and interesting places to eat (see our recommendations below). Walking around downtown Reykjavik makes for a nice, easy afternoon when you’re on your way back from the Blue Lagoon, or even as a break between longer day trips outside the city.
If you are looking for relaxation within the Reykjavik city limits, we recommend you check out the very reasonably priced Laugardalslaug, one of the largest pools in Iceland with great facilities featuring an Olympic-sized indoor pool, several outdoor pools, seven hot-tubs with different temperatures, a saltwater tub, steam bath, and a curling 282ft (86m) water slide.
Food and Drink
We don’t often make food recommendations, but Reykjavik was one city in particular where we found a lot of restaurants and cafes what we enjoyed. Some of our favorite places included:
- Sandholt and Brauð & Co. — two bakeries near Hallgrimskirkja, which we can recommend for their excellent pastries, bread, and cake.
- Cafe Loki — located across the way from Hallgrimskirkja, with a number of more traditional Icelandic dishes on the menu. Try to grab a window seat, so you can people watch as they queue up to visit the church. And make sure to try the ‘rye bread ice cream’.
- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Icelandic for “The best hot dog in town”) — hot dog stand that is great for quick and cheap eats. Open since 1937, it was selected as the best hot dog stand in Europe by The Guardian in 2006 and has served former U.S. President Bill Clinton and other celebrities through the years. An additional bonus of Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is that it is open late at night making it easy to grab some hot dogs in case you are returning late at night from a day trip. When visiting make sure to order a “ein með öllu” hotdog (that’s “one with everything”, where the lamb-based hotdog is covered in ketchup, mustard, fried and raw onion and remoulade, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish).
- Seabaron (Sægreifinn) — great seafood restaurant for authentic seafood in the Old Port section of town. Be forewarned: it’s a tiny, hole in the wall place with limited seating and a somewhat long wait (depending on when you go). Groups of four or more can reserve a table in advance. Their specialty is fish skewers — you order not from a menu but based on what’s in the cooler near the register for that day — which are grilled fresh. Make sure you also try the Lobster soup.
- Valdís — delicious ice-cream.
One other general food recommendation we can also make for Iceland is Skyr, a rich and creamy yoghurt like Icelandic staple.
One final piece of advice: alcohol is extremely expensive in Iceland, so if you want to grab a few beers to have in your room, we recommend buying them at the duty free stores at Keflavik Airport before you head out. For local beer, we can recommend Einstök Brewing Company and their distinctive Icelandic Pale Ale, among other ales and porters.
In our next post, we’ll talk about three other great day trips you can take from Reykjavik. In the meantime, what was your favorite part about visiting Iceland?