Everyone has that one dream trip. Ever since I saw a very convincing American Express commercial back in 2015, Reykjavik has been mine. It just seemed so beautiful, like the type of place that hasn’t been completely destroyed by man yet. It had a bit of magic about it, especially since the locals deeply believe in the existence of elves (and you know what? I think they’re on to something). Iceland just had something different about it.
That difference was what encouraged me to back my bags and make my dream a reality. I was almost 6 months into my experience abroad, and I’d been a lot of great places: Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, London, amongst others. I’d hit the major European cities, and as beautiful as they were, they were all fundamentally similar. After 6 months of being abroad and settling into a life in Europe, I’d become pretty comfortable with things and found my routine and life became pretty normal. But I had a lot of home friends who all go to different universities that were studying abroad for the spring term in different cities, yet somehow every weekend they all seemed to be visiting the same handful of places as one another. This obviously had nothing to do with me, but for some reason it made me want to do something different, do something that no one else I knew was doing (I guess moving abroad for an entire year wasn’t enough). My mind immediately went to Iceland, my dream trip. Who did I know that’s been there? No one, but I was determined to let it be me.
Iceland is definitely different. It’s started to gain more traction as a tourist destination over the past few years, but is still much more lowkey than the other European capitals. There’s unbelievably beautiful scenery, friendly people, great food, and a strong culture. It’s the type of place where you kinda have to stop and pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. And it was better than I ever could have imagined it would be. I don’t think any place has ever made me happier. I love Iceland. When I go back home and people inevitably ask me what my favorite place I visited was, I won’t even hesitate. Reykjavik. Every time. Heck, I’ll probably answer before you even finish asking the question. I’ll probably be talking about this trip until the day I die. That’s how special it was for me.
So, if you’re like me and want to go someplace a little different but you’re looking for some advice, read on for my little guide to Iceland’s capital.
When I Went
My trip was from 28 February-3 March. I chose these dates because I had a reading week for uni and I wanted to have the best chance at seeing the Northern Lights. After doing some research, I found that this is when my chances would be decent. However, when to go to Iceland really depends on what you want to do there. I can obviously only vouch for the winter, but Iceland is a beautiful country with tons to offer during every season. Check out this post by The Blonde Abroad for a more detailed guide by season.
Where I Stayed
I stayed at the spectacular Alda Hotel located on Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping street. Therefore, it was really centrally located to restaurants, shops, and sites. I was able to walk everywhere I wanted to go. But because of its prime location, it’s a bit on the pricier side and therefore it may not fit everyone’s budget. Through my credit card’s rewards system, I was able to not only get my room at a discounted rate but also pay for it using my points. I would definitely look into your card’s rewards scheme if it has one! I highly recommend this hotel and would stay again in a heartbeat on my next trip to Reykjavik (because there will be another trip).
There are lots of great places to stay in Reykjavik. Guest houses are really popular options. They’re affordable accommodations that offer the necessities. Most are single or double rooms sometimes with en suite but more often with shared bathroom facilities. These are great options for someone looking to have a cozier experience, or looking to save in an already very expensive country.
How I Got Around
By foot, mostly. Like I said, my hotel was right in the middle of everything so I didn’t have to venture far for much. Reykjavik is a relatively small city, especially compared to some of the others I’ve ventured to. It’s very easy to get around and see the city’s sites on foot.
As for transport to tours or the airport, the two big players are Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line. Both offer airport transportation from Keflavik (KEF) to BSI bus terminal with the added option of hotel transfers for a long list of hotels and guesthouses. Both also run a variety of tours that leave from BSI, and their hotel transfer service is also available for those. I booked my hotel transfers, Northern Lights tour, and Blue Lagoon trip through Reykjavik Excursions and had no complaints. My hotel was one of the many approved for the hotel transfer service, so I was able to be picked up and dropped off right in front of where I stayed for all my tours and airport journeys. Both offer pretty much the same services, so you can’t really go wrong with either company.
What I Did
Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran church and national monument located right in the heart of the city. It’s hard to miss with its impressive concrete facade and due to the fact it stands tall in a city without many tall buildings. Admission into the church itself is free, but for 900 ISK (about $9 USD, €8 Euro, or £7 GBP) you can check out the tower. I highly recommend doing this for the panoramic views of the city, the water, and the mountains.
- This is one of the top tourist sites in the city, so it’s a swarming place for individuals and big tour groups. It can get a bit crowded. When I was there, there was only one elevator to access the tower and it’s capacity was about 8 people at a time. That meant the line got a little long. If you don’t mind the wait, you’ll be rewarded with a little extra time to admire the inside of the church itself. But if you’re pressed for time and/or want to avoid the crowds, I’d recommend heading over right when it opens or in the late afternoon/early evening.
- Spend the 900 ISK on the tower. There’s really no better view of the city.
- Remember, this is still a working church so there may be services, weddings, baptisms, or funerals going on during your visit. Just be mindful and respectful!
For more information on Hallgrímskirkja, check out their website here.
Swimming pools are a huge part of the culture in Iceland, and Reykjavik has seven to choose from. On my first full day in the city, I opted to check out Laugardalslaug, which is the most popular in Reykjavik and one of the largest in Iceland. It was definitely an interesting experience for sure. It’s not every day you swim outdoors when its 27ºF (-3ºC) and there’s snow on the ground. But all of Laugardalslaug’s pools are kept at warm, comfortable, swimmable temperatures. They also have several different hot tubs to choose from, including a geothermal one that’s filled with saltwater from a drill hole in the sea nearby. This was one of the more interesting experiences of my trip, and also my most private as cell phones and cameras are strictly prohibited.
- As a rule, you will be required to shower without your swimsuit before you enter the pools. The showers are open, locker room style. The idea of being naked in front of a bunch of strangers may seem weird and uncomfortable at first, but I can assure you literally no one in that room cares what you look like in the nude. Nakedness is a perfectly normal and natural thing to the Icelandic, and it should be to you, too!
- Snag a towel from your hotel or guesthouse to bring with you. You can rent towels at the front desk for a small fee (a few hundred ISK), and you should do this when you purchase your entrance.
- Ladies (and maybe even you too gentlemen), maybe bring a toiletry bag with you. Since you’ll be swimming and showering twice, you’ll have to put yourself back together afterwards. Bring any makeup or supplies you may need. The saltwater is very drying, so I definitely recommend bringing some lotion or moisturizer. They provide hairdryers, so don’t worry about having to go back out into the cold with wet hair!
- Be respectful of the no cell phone policy, especially in the locker rooms. It’s just common courtesy to those around you.
- They have swimsuit dryers in the shower area, but you may want to bring a plastic bag for your damp suit just in case. I used the dry cleaning bag from my hotel room.
For information on Reykjavik’s swimming pools, refer to the many useful links on this site here.
Northern Lights tour:
Since the Lights are a big draw for visitors to Iceland, there’s tons of different tours available to see them. You can do it by bus, boat, snowmobile, etc., and can choose a standard tour or one with added extras (such as dinner) or a specialized focus (like photography). The tour that you choose will largely be based on the experience you want to have. I chose a standard bus tour. Basically, a large group of us took a coach bus to a spot in the mountains about an hour outside of Reykjavik where the skies were darker and there was a higher chance of seeing the lights. The group was led by an experienced guide who filled the time on the bus ride with facts about the lights and offered tips for seeing them. Once we arrived at the viewing location, the guide helped with spotting, but we were primarily allowed to hike freely to find the Lights.
I was lucky enough to be in Iceland at a time where the aurora activity was at a 5, which is pretty high on the 0-9 scale used to measure. I was able to see the Lights, although they weren’t super strong. It’s hard to explain the phenomena; it really is something you have to see in person.
- If you aren’t lucky enough to see the Lights on your tour, most companies will let you try again by joining a tour on the next night free of charge. Book your tour early on in your trip just in case this happens to you.
- If you’re looking to photograph the lights, bring a camera that has the ability to keep its shutter open for a long time. If you’re like me and you’re wanting to use your handy dandy iPhone, there’s apps that will allow you to shoot a longer shutter. I went ahead and bought one for $0.99 that allowed me to capture some shots of the Lights (although they’re not the best quality photos).
The Blue Lagoon
Ah, my favorite part of my trip. Is it a bit of a tourist trap? Yes. Are there other lagoons/natural geothermal lagoons you could visit instead that are more *authentic*? Probably, yeah. But this is the Blue Lagoon, and it is an institution damnit! Pretty much everyone has heard of it. It’s one of the 25 wonders of the world! You can’t go to Iceland and not do it. You just can’t. And to me, since this was quintessential Iceland, I dedicated a whole day to it. Boy was it glorious. Tell me, where else can you float in cozy warm water while slathering white mud all over your skin and enjoying the view of the mountains? I have never had more fun in an oversized bathtub in my life my dudes. I swear, my skin looked better afterwards, too, so temporarily looking like a swamp creature had its perks.
- You must book your entrance to the Lagoon in advance. This can be done on their website or through a tour company, and will be done according to time slots.
- If you book a Blue Lagoon trip through a tour company, that will usually get you your transportation to and from, and you can also opt to have your admission included in this package. This is the “Standard” admission, and only includes your entrance to the Lagoon and usage of the silica mud mask. If this is all you’re looking for, then by all means book this. If not, you can book other admission packages through the Blue Lagoon directly. Or you can do what I did. When you arrive at the Lagoon, you are given the option to upgrade your admission package for a price. For 2000 ISK ($20 USD, €19 Euro, £18 GBP), I chose to upgrade from the Standard to the “Comfort”, which includes: entrance to the Lagoon, silica mud mask, a towel rental, algae mask, and one free drink (anything from soda to wine to beer to smoothies). Definitely worth the money. You can also upgrade to Premium or Luxury packages for a higher cost, but with more included.
- If you opt for just the Standard package, remember to bring a towel.
- You’ll need to shower again, but this time there’s more private stalls.
- The lockers are kinda weird. Ask for help if you’re confused. I was.
- See my Laugardalslaug tips, minus the no cell phone policy. I highly recommend bringing your phone/camera/GoPro along in a waterproof case (I will not be held responsible for for the destruction of your devices).
- Definitely utilize their fancy bath products in the shower. You’ll be happy you did when you go into the gift shop and see how much they actually charge for the stuff.
For more information on the different packages or to book your admission directly, visit the Blue Lagoon’s website here.
Shopping on Laugavegur
As I mentioned before, Laugavegur is the main shopping street in Reykjavik. It’s lined with lots of cool restaurants and shops that are well worth checking out. Unlike as in most cities, you won’t find a lot of international chain retailers or high street shops. Most of the stores are Icelandic, and you can find everything from clothing, to volcanic rock jewelry, to unique home goods, to wool items. Iceland is renowned for its wool, so if you’re looking to splurge on a worthwhile souvenir, wool is the way to go. I bought a blanket myself!
What I Didn’t Do This Time That I Would Want to Do Next Time:
- A Golden Circle tour. This is kinda another quintessential Iceland activity that I just didn’t have time for this time around.
- Harpa. I walked past it a bunch but never went in. It’s a really cool all-glass concert hall.
- Whale watching/Puffin watching tour. I mostly want to do the puffin one so I can scream the “Not now arctic puffin!” quote from Elf.
- A walking tour of Reykjvik. I think I did a pretty good job of walking around and seeing stuff myself, but it’d be nice to get some facts from an expert.
- A Northern Lights boat/photography/snowmobile tour. I think it would be cool to experience the Lights in a different way next time.
- Nautholsvik geothermal beach. Um hello? A geothermal beach!
- Kolaportið. It’s a huge flea market near the harbor where you can buy just about everything from food to wools to records to trinkets. I would have loved to go during this trip, but it only takes place on Saturdays and Sundays, which my trip didn’t fall on.
What Food Should You Try?
Oh my gosh. Skyr. I ate so much of it. It’s been claimed to be the “national dish” of Iceland, and I completely understand why. Think Greek yogurt but thicker and actually somewhat healthier. I ate this stuff for breakfast, as a dessert dish, and even in a sauce for one of my meals. I became so addicted to it. Luckily, they sell the stuff at Waitrose stores here in the U.K., but I’m so screwed when I go home to the States.
Usually, my tastes for licorice only extends as far as Twizzlers (Always the original strawberry. Never the cherry pull-and-peel, but sometimes the cherry nibs). I’m not a fan of the authentic, black licorice. But when I was looking up Icelandic foods to try online, licorice kept coming up. So I figured “why not?” and bought two bags at the airport on my way out. BIG MISTAKE. I SHOULD HAVE BOUGHT MORE. SO. MUCH. MORE. Icelandic licorice is the best licorice I have ever tasted in my life. It was salty yet sweet, chewy yet melty. It made my beloved Twizzlers taste a bit like melted crayons.
Fish and Chips
Coming from near the coast of England, I have to say I went into this meal as a bit of a snob and the bar was set high. But, I was hungry and needed a meal after a long day of exploring and the place looked cute so I went for it. Glad I did, because that was some of the best cod I’ve ever had.
Fish in general, really
All you seafood lovers out there, Iceland hears you and they welcome you. Fish is understandably popular here, and a lot of traditional Icelandic dishes. If that’s right up your alley, then definitely try some classic meals, especially…
Think of it as mashed potatoes with either mashed haddock or cod mixed in. It’s sometimes served with a cheese, hollandaise, or bearnaise sauce.
It was served with a lot of the meals I ate here, and it had a denser texture and sweeter taste than the rye bread I’m used to from the states.
Do Not Personally Recommend: Whale
Tried it by accident at a seafood buffet and it definitely wasn’t for me. However, I’ve heard good things about “rotten shark”…
Would I Recommend Reykjavik as a Solo Female Traveller?
Absolutely. 100%. I cannot stress that enough. If you’re a solo female traveller who’s a bit nervous about going off on your own or are looking for a good first trip, Reykjavik is an ideal place to start. I have never felt safer walking around any city anywhere. There’s not a lot of crime in Iceland as it is, and you can kinda sense that while you’re out and about. Even when I made the decision to take the hour walk from the heart of Reykjavik to Grotta Lighthouse at 10:30 p.m. in an attempt to see the Lights, I was never once uneasy. I was not catcalled or approached once in my entire 4 days there, which I cannot say about any other city I’ve been to. I found the locals to be incredibly friendly and welcoming, and helpful when needed.
There is plenty to do here as well, so you’ll never be bored. The guided tours make it so easy to see everything without the stress of having to sort it all out yourself. The tours are also very solo traveller friendly, as you can easily book a single spot in a big group. There’s a little something for every interest here, so you’re bound to find something you like. Plus, English is spoken pretty much everywhere, so there’s no real language barrier to overcome. I travelled solo here for 4 days and never once felt the slightest bit out of place.
Go. Trust me. Just go.
Other Words of Advice:
- Iceland is an expensive country, but don’t let that stop you from going. If you budget yourself and spend money on experiences, then it’s definitely doable and definitely worth it.
- Pack weather appropriately. I’ll probably do a separate post with more packing specifics for winter in Iceland, but in general you’ll want:
- Layers. Lots of layers.
- A good coat/jacket. Waterproof if possible.
- A swimsuit and flip flops
- Hats, gloves, and scarves
- Shoes with good traction that are also maybe waterproof
- Tipping, like in most of Europe, is not required but is of course appreciated. It’s not considered offensive or rude.
- Be aware that if you’re going in the winter, you’ll sometimes find that sidewalks aren’t fully shoveled, streets aren’t really plowed, and corners of streets have dense snow piles to tread through to cross. Waterproof shoes with good traction will help with this, but just be mindful/careful.
- Just try to enjoy every single second and take in as much of this exquisite country as you can.