After about three years planning (more dreaming) of a trip to Iceland my husband Alessio and me finally made it to the Land of Ice and Fire (please consider the GoT intro as background of our epic arrival into the Keflavik Airport).
When I hopped off the plane, I had my mind filled with all the most amazing expectations. However, despite it looks more romantic to tell you we picked up the car and drove to the Icelandic sunset, the reality is that this trip started with a woman at the rental car counter freaking us out because of the “dangers” of the Icelandic sand and ash over the car engine.
She was threatening us of up to £15,000 fee for this type of damage and trying to convince us to pay for an additional comprehensive insurance of about £60 per day for a total of about £500, practically a half of the price paid for our holiday. To note we already paid an additional car insurance through the rental car website and she was insisting that our insurance was not “Iceland tailored”. However, after half an hour of debate, which forced us to use all ours Italian savoir-faire in terms of trades we managed to pay just £ 12, 50 per day to finally get our, excessively paid, car. Not bad uh?
When we arrived at our hotel that night, we barely realised we were in Reykjavik because it was late, we immediately went hunting for the Northern Lights and most importantly, we were starving! Therefore, I can say that our real Reykjavik experience started the day after our arrival. We had about 48h to spend in the city and around before moving forward on the Ring Road, so we packed them with activities!
What to do in Reykjavik
Reykjavik is quite small as a city and you can easily visit all its main attractions simply by walking around. Parking can be difficult and expensive during peak times and weekends. We parked behind the Hallgrímskirkja Church, which has a free parking for its visitors to use on a first come first served basis. This allowed us to save a bit of money (parking costs between 275-150 ISK per hour) and we started our city visit from this point, which was very convenient.
The Hallgrímskirkja church
The Hallgrímskirkja church is the tallest building in Reykjavik, it was built in 1974 and its facade resembles the basaltic columns typical of the Icelandic landscape. You can practically see it from everywhere in the city!
The entrance to the Church is completely free but if you want to enjoy a view of Reykjavik at 74.5 mt of height, you have to pay the ticket to the tower, which costs about 1000 ISK (about £7) (there is an elevator bringing you to the last floor so don’t worry about the stairs!).
This experience was amazing, the landscape is breathtaking and we had the opportunity to see the clock tower from a different perspective. In the square, I finally met one of my historical heroes, the proud Leifur Erikson, the first European explorer to have discovered North America (he baptised as Vinland) around 999-1010!
Discover the streets of Reykjavik
From the church is then very easy to explore the rest of the city as the building stands at the top of the hill leading to the main streets of Reykjavik. From this point, you will see many colourful buildings and shops enriched by the vibrant street art of the best Icelandic artists.
Both streets going towards the centre from the Cathedral leads to the Reykjavik harbour, home of the best architectural examples of the city.
Harpa Concert Hal
In this area, we proceeded with the exploration of the Harpa Concert Hall. Harpa was part of a project aimed to the redevelopment of the Reykjavik harbour. The building, which is the only one completed of the ambitious project, was completed in 2011 and it represents a beautiful example of modern architecture and design.
The structure of Harpa is made of steel framework and coloured glass panels, which filter the light differently according to the hour of the day.
The entrance to Harpa is free so I would not miss the occasion of wandering around this unique building, especially in a sunny day when the rainbow light filters through the glass.
Just a short walk on the promenade near Harpa you will find also the iconic sculpture called “the sun voyager” (Solfar) considered often as a symbol of the city and remembering the connection of Reykjavik with its historical past as of land of sailors, explorers and Viking realm.
The Grotta Lighthouse
On our second day in Reykjavik, we did a little detour and visited the Grotta Lighthouse, which is located on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula at ten minutes from Reykjavik downtown. Grotta Lighthouse is the perfect location for a short walk, for birdwatching and for catching the northern lights without going on super expensive tours or getting lost at night in unknown Icelandic routes.
We personally visited both in the morning and at night to see the aurora borealis and we really loved it. However, pay attention to tide. In fact, Grotta Lighthouse is situated on a small island connected to the mainland through a small path, which during the high tide disappears. This may happen very fast and you may risk remaining stuck in the island until the next low tide (or you can always swim in the freezing Icelandic waters!).
Eating in Reykjavik
Iceland as a tourist can be quite expensive and if you are on a budget, it is advisable to cook your own food rather than eating out at every meal of the day. For this reason we planned to eat out in Reykjavik but cook our food during the rest of the trip. One of the dishes you can’t absolutely miss is the famous and traditional Icelandic Hot Dog.
You can have this at the Hot Dog house Pylsuhdid situated on Hafnarstraeti, 101 known as the best place where to get the famous dish. The hot dog is good and you will not lose all your finances for a lunch (about 1500 ISK). However, I advise you that Icelandic hot dogs are quite small so if you are particularly hungry, one will not be enough.
We decided to complete our lunch with a coffee and a dessert in a cafe nearby called Cafe Stofan. I loved so much this café that we decided to return for a second time during our last day in Iceland.
In fact, Stofan in Icelandic means “living room” and the purpose of this café, with its vintage furniture and beautiful old maps, is making you feel at home.
If you want to taste something more International, Reykjavik has also many other restaurants. My husband and me we have a peculiar tradition that we have to try the pizza in every place we visit and Reykjavik did not make the exception. Honestly, we wanted to try the pizza at Flatey Pizza as we heard from other Italians that was good, but we finished our tour late so we ended into Eldsmiðjan of which pizza is good and prices are not excessively high. Be aware that certain places indicated as “open” in google maps and Lonely Planet are now permanently closed. An example is the iconic Laundromat Cafe. Furthermore, most restaurants close early (between 9 and 10 pm).
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
For our stay in Reykjavik, we opted for a place allowing us to be quickly on the motorway, offering the breakfast, clean and reasonably convenient in terms of price.
Our choice was the Nordurey Hotel, which included all our requests. Nordurey is slightly out from Reykjavik at the small town of Hafnarfjörður, but the distance with the city centre of Reykjavik is of about 10/15 minutes by car.
We paid a total of Euro 166 for two nights including breakfast, so it was a good compromise to us. The pros of this place are that is close both to the city centre and the motorway, it has a free parking for guests, breakfast is included and it is close enough to an area served by restaurants and shops of any type.
The cons are that they gave us a room at the ground floor so we heard all the noise coming from the main road nearby (even at night), the bathroom need to be updated with a modern one and if you don’t have a car is better to have a more central hotel.
Another strange thing I noticed was that they cancelled for two consecutive nights the Northern Light Tour but we did go out on our own and saw the aurora perfectly at Grotta Lighthouse. I am not sure what kind of policy they have for refunding customers but if you book a tour with them read well the conditions. Overall, it was a good stay, and for just two nights, it was perfect.
If you are searching for Icelandic souvenirs and want something special, the Thor Shop has a wide range of products, from Icelandic traditional clothing, to Viking souvenirs. The prices start from about £10 to hundreds of pounds. I could not resist buying something there and even if you do not like to buy souvenirs the shop, deserving a visit just because of the amazing setting exhibited!
I do really enjoyed my Reykjavik stay! My only regret was only to not have visited more cafes! The city is full of nice places where to seat in company of a good coffee and where to just relax enjoying the best Icelandic life! Reykjavik is not one of those chaotic cities where you have to run like crazy to see as much as possible in a few days without the possibility of absorbing the beauty and difference of what you are seeing. It is one of those places in which you can really appreciate a different culture, enjoy a meal without the pressure of having a timed ticket for an “attraction” in which you have to do 2.5km of queue and hide in a café to read a book if it’s too cold outside. I hope to return soon!