This charming European city is a hotbed of visitor hotspots
There’s so much to love about Iceland’s capital and largest city, Reykjavík, not the least of which its collection of charming contradictions: energetic without frenzy, cosmopolitan yet traditional, sophisticated but simple.
Like the “cool girl” whose appeal is being oblivious to her status, Reykjavík is humble, enchanting and seemingly unaware of her hipness (or, at least, unphased by it). From food to architecture, geologic spectacles and friendly inhabitants, it’s easy to see why the world’s northernmost national capital ranks high among top European cities to visit.
Indeed, while the entire country boasts roughly 330,000 residents—some 800,000 sheep roam the country, outnumbering humans more than two to one—over 2 million visitors toured Iceland in 2017, an increase of about 25 percent from the year before. That’s roughly six times more tourists than Icelanders flooding this country annually.
In other words, Iceland’s treasures are secret no more. If you’re among the millions of visitors lucky enough to spend time in this charming country, here are some of its capital’s highlights.
1. The City
Home to approximately one-third of the entire country’s population, Reykjavík thrums with energy, particularly along its main shopping thoroughfare, Laugavegur, set in the heart of the city. Translated as “wash road,” the path once leading to the hot springs where residents preferred to wash clothes, it’s lined with an array of bars, boutiques, cafes, restaurants and bakeries.
Ahh, the dreamy bakeries. Filled with Nordic bread and Danish pastries, passing up these goodies is akin to teetotalling in wine country. I can almost guarantee you’ll walk into any of these establishments wafting its fresh-baked delights and leave with bag full of yumminess.
At the end of Laugavegur, standing sentry as one of the country’s tallest buildings (244 feet), is the iconic Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran church, the largest church in Iceland. Commissioned in 1937 to resemble the country’s basalt lava flows and taking more than 40 years to complete, the tower is worth the price of entry for some of the city’s most stunning views.
And I would be remiss in not mentioning one of the world’s most unusual museums, the Icelandic Phallological Museum, located on Laugavegur. Translation? Yes, it’s a penis museum, and of course we had to visit. Don’t worry, parents: Aside from an adults-only, curtained area, the museum’s focus is mostly scientific, featuring a collection of more than 200 penises and penile parts belonging to nearly all of Iceland’s land and sea mammals.
And no trip to Reykjavík is complete without strolling along the city’s lively waterfront, the Old Harbour, to snap a photo of the city’s most recognizable sculpture, the Sun Voyager; see Viking ships plying the harbor; take a whale-watching adventure; and step inside one of the country’s most distinctive landmarks, the Harpa Concert and Conference Center. Our kids loved walking along this stretch Reykjavik, especially unexpectedly stumbling upon a geocache.
If you get a chance, also be sure to stop at The Settlement Exhibition, featuring the city's first Viking settlement (inhabited around 930 AD) and Sagas manuscripts, some of the nation’s most renowned documents (written in the 12th century relating events that go back as far as 874 AD). Includes fun, interactive activities for kids.
For more information, check out Visit Reykjavik.
2. The Golden Circle
A popular tourist route in southern Iceland that includes three main stops within 100 km (62 miles) of Reykjavík—Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall—this is the quintessential excursion for viewing see some of the most famous geologic highlights in the “land of fire and ice.”
We opted for a six-hour (in reality: seven-hour) Grand Golden Circle bus tour via BusTravel Iceland, a fantastic choice for kids because we hopped in and out to explore many times throughout the day. Stops included the Kerid Crater, containing a stunning volcanic lake where famous Icelandic musician Björk once performed a concert; Geysir (GAY-zeer, meaning “gusher”), one of the country’s most famous sites—it’s been active for some 800 years—and the literal namesake of all other geysers in the world; and Gullfoss waterfall, the two-tiered waterfall known for its rainbows, probably the country’s most famous “foss” or falls.
Our tour ended in Thingvellir National Park, the country’s most important historic site, where the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament in 930 A.D. Known for its striking beauty, the Park is also home of the famous Þingvellir plain, the tectonic plate boundary where North America and Europe are pulling apart from each other. It’s most popular among tourists, though, for its renowned snorkeling spot, the Silfra fissure. A rift valley with crystalline waters where you can brag about actually swimming between two continents, it requires visitors to don a wet suit (available for ages 12 and above). I do wish we had more time to spend here, however, because I would have loved to hike more and snorkel with the boys, which we plan to do as soon as they’re both above age 12.
3. The Blue Lagoon
There’s no getting around this: The Blue Lagoon is touristy. But it’s touristy for the same reason that other spots like the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum earn that designation: because they’re really cool. In other words, you’ll never hear me say not to visit something because “it’s too touristy.” But you have also been warned.
Not only is world-famous lagoon crowded and expensive, but it was also my least favorite spot in all of Iceland. Yes, I loved taking a dip in the very waters I’ve seen so many others snap cool, iconic shots of themselves—with the requisite face mask—but we also felt shuffled around and hurried like cattle. It’s also roughly a 40-minute drive from the city. Bottom line? I visited once and don’t think I need to again. No offense, Blue Lagoon, but your country is so full of beautiful sites that aren’t nearly as crowded (or costly!).
Did you know?
- Iceland was the last European country to be settled and remains one of the least-populous countries in the world. Located in the middle of the North Atlantic within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle—Northern Iceland’s Grímsey Island actually intersects it—the first Viking settlers arrived in the late 9th Century (emigrants from Scandinavia and British Isles). The country’s world-renowned Sagas date back to the 10th and 11th centuries.
- There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Iceland is ex-PEN-sive. According to the Cost of Living Index by Numbeo, the world’s largest database of user-contributed data of countries and cities, Iceland is the third-most expensive country in the world. Hotels are roughly 10-32 percent more expensive in Reykjavík than other Nordic counterparts; restaurant and lodging expenses exceed the EU average by 44 percent; and the cost of alcoholic beverages outstrips comparisons by 123 percent. (If you want to buy your own alcoholic beverages, you have to do so at one of the country’s government-owned stores, which are open for only limited hours and not in every city.) Ouch. (Find the sourced Guide to Iceland article here.)
- The city suffers from a shortage of lodging, although we saw numerous hotels being built during our summer 2016 visit. So we opted for a couple of Airbnb apartments in lieu of a hotel room.
Next up? Cruising around Iceland via Iceland ProCruises.