The Ultimate Guide to Reykjavik

The Ultimate Guide to Reykjavik

James Taylor James Taylor
4. May 2023 ∼ 10 min. read

Everything You Need to Know About Reykjavik, Iceland’s Buzzing Capital. 

Booked your campervan already for your Icelandic adventure? Most travelers will leave at least a day or two before or after their trip to explore Reykjavik, the capital city of the country. 

With a small population, you might think that there’s not a lot to see or do in this city. But despite its size, Reykjavik is a vibrant city filled with interesting sights, architecture, experiences, and great food. Whether you're exploring the city's rich history and culture, savoring traditional Icelandic cuisine, or simply seeing where the city takes you, you’ll no doubt fall in love with Iceland’s quirky capital. 

In this article, we'll take a closer look at some of the best things to see and do in Reykjavik, including exploring the city, trying local food and drink, and experiencing the city's unique culture and nightlife. Let’s dive in!

Reykjavik: The Nuts and Bolts of Iceland’s Capital

  • Population: ~137,000

    • Location in Iceland: Reykjavik is in the southwest of Iceland, nestled on the coast. 
    • Airports: The international airport that services Reykjavik is Keflavik International Airport (KEF), which is located on the Reykjanes Peninsula approximately 45 minutes from the city. The domestic airport (RVK) is within Reykjavik, with links around Iceland, and occasional flights to Greenland or the Faroe Islands. 

  • Electricity: 230V and 50Hz
  • Time Zone: GMT

    • Currency: Icelandic Krona (ISK). 

  • Topography: Reykjavik is located on a peninsula surrounded by mountains, with a mix of rocky hills and flat land in the city center.
  • International Dialing Code: +354

Exploring Reykjavik

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One of the best ways to explore Reykjavik is on foot. The downtown area is entirely walkable, making it easy to see all of Reykjavik’s most famous landmarks and attractions. Whether you jump on a walking tour or decide to wander around yourself, you’ll quickly get the lay of the land and get a feel for the local culture of Reykjavik. 

Of course, one of the most iconic landmarks in the city is Hallgrímskirkja, a towering church that dominates the city skyline. It’s one of the central areas of the city, sitting up the top of the interesting street Skólavörðustígur. The architecture was inspired by the basalt columns found around Iceland; we recommend taking the elevator to the top of the tower for great views over the city and surrounding landscape.  

Hallgrímskirkja church, the towering church that dominates Reykjavik skyline

Another must-see attraction in Reykjavik is the Harpa Concert Hall, which is known for its stunning architecture and as a home to the best live classical music shows, theatre, comedy, and more. Perched on the edge of the water next to the harbor, from here you can enjoy the immensely rewarding views across the bay toward Mt Esja, itself considered a big part of Reykjavik’s skyline. It’s free to wander around inside the building, but to get a glimpse of the actual concert halls inside, you’ll either need to join a tour or buy a ticket to a show.

The concert hall glass building in Reykjavik, an iconic landmark.

For a more relaxed experience, take a stroll around Tjörnin lake, which is in the heart of the city. This picturesque lake is home to a variety of birds and is surrounded by beautiful parks and gardens.

As you explore Reykjavik, be sure to keep an eye out for the city's many street art and murals. These colorful works of art can be found throughout the city, adding a bit of an alternative edge.

Food and Drink in Reykjavik

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No trip to Reykjavik is complete without trying some of the local cuisine. Iceland has a unique culinary tradition, and the capital city is home to a variety of restaurants and cafes where you can sample some of the country's most famous dishes.

Traditional Icelandic food is strange – most of it was fermented, pickled, or dried in order to conserve it over the long winters. It’s not so popular with Icelanders today, but you can still try a lot of it. Many travelers will be tempted to sample hákarl, or fermented shark meat. While it may not be to everyone's taste, hákarl is a unique and memorable culinary experience that is sure to leave a lasting impression. You can sample some at Íslenski Barinn in downtown Reykjavik. 

Modern-day Icelandic foods are much more palatable; we recommend trying Skyr, a type of yoghurt that’s high in protein and low in fat. It also makes for a perfect snack on your Iceland campervan road trip. Then there’s the delicious lamb, which might sometimes be smoked, and of course, plenty of fresh seafood as well. A big part of modern-day Icelandic cuisine are the country’s soups (langoustine, fish, or meat) perfect for those blustery Icelandic days. 

Icelandic Lamb, a typical food dish at a fine dining restaurant in Reykjavik

Coffee is also a big part of Icelandic culture, and there are many local coffee shops and bakeries where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry in Reykjavik. Try visiting the famous Mokka-Kaffi, a coffee house that has been a Reykjavik institution since 1958, or head to Brauð & Co, a popular bakery that serves fresh bread and pastries (the cinnamon scrolls here are second-to-none!). 

Finally, Reykjavik is catching up fast to the rest of the world when it comes to craft beer. Made using the unique local ingredients on offer, such as birch or arctic thyme, many bars and restaurants across the capital will have a great selection of local beers. For the best though, head to Micro Bar or Skúli Craft Bar, both craft beer specialists. 

Culture and Nightlife

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Reykjavik is a city that is rich in culture, and you’ll surely be tempted by the city’s museums and galleries. The National Museum, for example, provides a detailed overview of Iceland’s history, culture, and development into the nation you see today. Meanwhile, the Reykjavik Art Museum features a collection of modern and contemporary works from both Icelandic and international artists. 

Then, there are the museums dedicated to Iceland’s spectacular natural environment. The Wonders of Iceland exhibit at the Perlan is a world-class look into the volcanoes, glaciers, and geological makeup of Iceland. Whales of Iceland is also a top choice, where you can discover everything you wanted to know about the gentle giants of the sea. 

The photo collection of volcanic eruption inside Perlan, the planetarium and exhibition center

In addition to its cultural offerings, Reykjavik is also known for its buzzing nightlife. The city is home to a variety of bars, clubs, and music venues, and there's always something going on after dark. We love the Kex Hostel, a popular hangout for locals and travelers alike that features live music, DJ sets, a laid-back atmosphere, and fantastic food. 

For a more upscale experience, head to the Slippbarinn at the trendy Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. This chic bar offers a great selection of cocktails, as well as stunning views of the harbor and surrounding landscape.

Reykjavik FAQ

Below are some of the most common questions we get about Reykjavik. 

Is Reykjavik Safe?

Reykjavik is one of the safest cities in the world, with very low rates of crime and violence. You can walk around the city without worrying about being harassed or robbed. After all, this is the place where parents leave their babies asleep in strollers outside cafés!

However, like anywhere else, you should still take sensible precautions. Keep an eye on your belongings, and avoid fights that may break out on the streets on weekends. Reykjavik is also a very healthy city, with clean tap water and high-quality restaurant food. 

The Best Time to Visit Reykjavik

Like the rest of Iceland, the weather in Reykjavik is on its best behavior during the summer, from June to August. However, this is also peak tourist season, so you’ll have to contend with a lot of crowds strolling around downtown and high prices for hotels if you’re staying somewhere before or after your camper trip. 

If you want to avoid the largest crowds but still have a high chance of some good weather for exploring, then the shoulder season is for you. From April to May and September to October is when you should book your trip. You will also have a chance to see the northern lights on clear nights. 

If you want to experience the winter wonderland of Iceland, with snow-covered landscapes, skiing, ice caves, and the aurora borealis, you can visit Reykjavik from October to April. However, be prepared for cold and wet weather, short days of daylight (only 4 or 5 hours in December), and road closures due to bad conditions. Head on over to our camping in winter section for more info. 

Can I See the Northern Lights in Reykjavik?

Aurora in the sky above a camper van from GoCamper

Yes, you can see the northern lights in Reykjavik – but not always. The northern lights are a natural phenomenon that depends on several factors, such as solar activity, weather conditions, moon phases, and light pollution. 

The best time to see the northern lights in Reykjavik is from September to April, when the nights are long and dark enough for the lights to be visible. However, you will need clear skies and high aurora activity for a good chance of seeing them. Sometimes, the lights might be out, but the light pollution from Reykjavik might be too much. 

Read more: The Best Spots in Iceland to See the Northern Lights

Where Can I Exchange Money in Reykjavik?

You can exchange money at the airport, banks, post offices, or currency exchange offices in Reykjavik. However, you may not need to carry much cash, as most places accept credit or debit cards. You can also withdraw Icelandic krona from ATMs around the city, but beware of additional fees imposed by your banks when you do so.

Why is Reykjavik so Expensive?

Reykjavik is expensive because Iceland is an island nation that imports most of its goods and services. The high cost of living is offset somewhat by the high wages. Taxes also support the country's robust social welfare system. 

However, you can still enjoy Reykjavik on a budget by taking advantage of free or low-cost attractions, such as museums, parks, and swimming pools. For more, check out our article about Visiting Reykjavik on a Budget. 

Can You Walk Around Reykjavik?

Yes, downtown Reykjavik is easily walkable, and contains 99% of the attractions you’ll want to see in the city.

Who Founded Reykjavik?

Reykjavik was founded by Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian chieftain who settled in the area around 874 AD. He named the place Reykjavik, which means "Smokey Bay", because of the steam rising from the geothermal springs. Reykjavik is considered the oldest permanent settlement in Iceland.

Conclusion

Reykjavik is a unique and fascinating city that offers visitors a wealth of experiences and attractions. From its stunning natural landscapes and vibrant culture to its culinary scene and bustling nightlife, there is something for everyone to enjoy in this vibrant capital city.

Ready to book? Browse our range of campervans and you’ll be enjoying Reykjavik in no time.

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