Welcome to Reykjavik – the city where fire and ice are ever-present. In Iceland’s heart, the colorful houses rival the Northern Lights, and the culture is as rich as the coffee brewed in the cozy downtown cafés. Reykjavik is the largest city in Iceland. It may be small (population 122,853) compared to other European towns. Still, it’s bursting with life, from the iconic Hallgrímskirkja standing watch to the aroma of fresh Icelandic bread wafting through the air. It’s the perfect base for both urban adventures and nature-filled excursions.

The outside of Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik
Organ pipes inside Hallgrímskirkja
Interior of Hallgrímskirkja

The Heart of Reykjavik: Hallgrímskirkja

When you arrive in Reykjavik, one of the first things to catch your eye will undoubtedly be the impressive Hallgrímskirkja church. It’s not just its height – though, at 74.5 meters, it’s hard to miss – it’s how its design mirrors Iceland’s natural wonders, from towering basalt columns to snow-capped peaks.

This Lutheran landmark isn’t just an architectural marvel; it’s a great point of reference if you take a wrong turn down one of the cobblestone streets. Take the elevator up to the observation tower for a small fee, and you’ll find an incredible panoramic view of the city.

Inside, it’s just as breathtaking, with its lofty nave inviting quiet reflection and an impressive pipe organ that, when played, seems to resonate with the city’s very soul. The church is named after Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of Iceland’s most beloved poets from the 17th century.

A Feast for the Senses: Reykjavik's Food Scene

Reykjavik may be compact, but its culinary landscape is as vast as the Icelandic wilderness. From sizzling lamb stew that warms on a cold day to the freshest Atlantic catch, there is something for everyone. Check out food halls like Grandi Mathöll or Hlemmur Mathöll, where the flavors range from authentic Icelandic to international flair.

There’s an abundance of restaurants catering to every taste. Craving a bit of Asian or hungry for Italian? Reykjavik’s got you covered. Of note – the hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, is an institution, and their lamb-based pylsur, a fancy Icelandic hot dog, is the stuff of legends (or so we’re told… we’re vegetarians!).

Just a heads up,  the price tag on these delicious dishes can be just as jaw-dropping as the food. Iceland, in all its beauty, comes with a cost. Dining out can be pricey; something about living on an island in the middle of the Atlantic. But hey, it’s all part of the adventure. Grab a pint of local craft beer and toast to the experience. After all, memories don’t have a price tag, but it doesn’t hurt to budget wisely.

Jim with a beer in Reykjavik
Thai food in Reykjvik
Plate of pasta at Eiriksson Brasserie

Museums and Culture

One of the first stops that’s a must is the National Museum of Iceland. It’s like taking a time machine back through the country’s evocative history—think ancient Viking artifacts and tales that make Game of Thrones feel like child’s play. There are sagas carved in old runes and necklaces that Freya herself might have worn!

If you like art, swing by the Reykjavik Art Museum or the Árbæjarsafn for history buffs. It’s an open-air museum where history doesn’t just sit behind glass—it walks around, talks, and even bakes bread in centuries-old houses restored to their former glory.

Although we heard more about them outside the city, Elves and Trolls are a big part of Iceland’s heritage. Stories have been passed down through generations and are still told today. Elves (or ‘huldufólk’ as the locals call them), trolls, and fairies are said to inhabit the rocky outcrops and hidden nooks of Iceland, living in a parallel world to humans. When we visited some of the island’s peculiar rock formations, we heard tales of trolls caught outside at sunrise and turned to stone. Not all the stories are nice, and the trolls are not depicted as the cute little creatures we have in the US. These legends are so ingrained in the culture that even today, roads are rerouted, and construction plans changed to avoid disturbing these legendary creatures of myth.

Take a Dip: The Blue Lagoon and Geothermal Pools

Slipping into a geothermal pool in Iceland is like discovering the island’s best-kept secret, and the Blue Lagoon might be at the top of that not-so-secret list. However, while the famous lagoon is every bit the wonder it’s made out to be, several geothermal pools in the area are lesser known and more economical.

After landing in Iceland, many people head straight to the Blue Lagoon, located between the airport and Reykjavik. But venture further, and you’ll find that the Icelandic spa culture is embedded in the local experience. We found several spas near Reykjavik and sprinkled around the country on our travels.

The spirit of these geothermal waters is deeply rooted in Icelandic culture. It’s not just about soaking; it’s about the legacy of the Vikings, age-old traditions, and the sense of community intrinsic to the Icelandic way of life.

waterfalls in Iceland
Behind a waterfall in iceland
Basalt towers in Reynisfjara

Day Trips from Reykjavik

If you’re basing yourself in Reykjavik and looking to explore, the Golden Circle is the perfect day trip. It’s a popular route that takes you to some stunning sights like the explosive geysers at Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall with its impressive drop, and the Þingvellir National Park, where you can literally walk between two tectonic plates.

Waterfalls? Iceland’s got plenty. Take a short drive out, and you’ll be greeted by Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss—two of the country’s most famous falls. They’re not just pretty to look at; they’ve got power and history, and yes, they’re absolutely worth the pitstop. However, these might be a bit underwhelming if you’ve been to Niagara Falls.

And then there’s the black sand beaches, like Reynisfjara, which are a must-see. The dark sands, the basalt columns, and the incredible cave add an interesting touch to the landscape. We saw a bunch of Puffins on the mountainside when we visited. Stay away from the shoreline; it’s known for rouge waves that have dragged unsuspecting visitors out to sea.

Don’t forget the glaciers! You can see these frozen giants up close with a bit more time. You can even take a tour to walk on a glacier; we just looked at them from a distance.

All of these are just a drive away from the city. If you have a rental car, you can drive to them; if not, many vendors supply day trips at reasonable prices. In addition to Viator, check out Reykjavik Excursions; we’ve taken some great trips with them. We also drove the Golden Circle in the middle of the winter; it was an adventure, but I’m not sure I would do it again.

The Best Time to Visit

Deciding when to visit Reykjavik depends on your travel style. If you’re fond of more agreeable weather and enjoy soaking in daylight that stretches well into the night, summer is your go-to. The city basks in a warmer glow and the Midnight Sun (for a few days in June).

If you don’t mind the cold, winter’s chill brings the skies alive with cosmic greens and purples of the northern lights, although it’s a bit of a celestial gamble. We weren’t lucky enough to catch them last time because the weather has a mind of its own, but that’s the nature of nature. We did see them in Norway; that’s a different story. Conversely, fewer daylight hours in winter mean more time for museums, hot chocolate, and visits to local pubs.

We preferred the summer. Reykjavik feels more accessible; there is no need for spikes on your boots, and a light jacket is all you really need in the evening. But hey, whether you’re after the sun at midnight or lights in the dark, Reykjavik is a great place to visit.

Street uphill in Reykjavik
Sculpture on the waterfront
Hiking boots by a river

Know Before You Go: Practical Tips

First off, dressing in layers is essential. The weather in Iceland can be pretty fickle; one minute, the sun is shining, and the next, a brisk wind swoops in. Plus, having a waterproof jacket on hand is always a good idea as the rain comes and goes.

Suitable footwear is another must. Whether strolling through the town’s hilly streets or hiking to get a better view of those waterfalls, a sturdy pair of walking shoes or hiking boots will be your best friends. You want something with a good grip that’s also comfortable because slipping on mossy rocks or cobblestone alleys? Not so fun.

Speaking of hilly, Reykjavik has its share of ups and downs. It adds to the charm but also to the workout. If you’re roaming the city, just be ready for a little extra leg-day action. It’s worth it, though, when every turn could reveal a cozy café or a stunning view of the sea.

During our time in Reykjavik, we decided to try the hop-on hop-off bus service, which is usually a convenient way to see the city’s top attractions. But our experience was a bit hit-or-miss. It seems that at least on the day we used it, the buses weren’t sticking to their schedule, which left us, and quite a few other travelers, stranded at stops longer than we anticipated, stretching into hours. It could’ve been a one-off—a bad day, some unexpected issue, or just plain old misfortune. But it’s a reminder to always have a Plan B, especially when you’re out exploring a new place. While the hop-on hop-off service concept is great for getting your bearings and seeing the sights without the hassle of navigating public transport or parking, it’s always good to be prepared. So check recent reviews or ask around when you arrive for the latest on how the service is running.

The airport is a good 45 minutes from the main part of town. If you don’t rent a car, many bus companies offer transfers, or you could even get a car service. Once in the central part of town, some streets are closed to traffic so pedestrians can wander freely. This does cause a bit of an issue with rental cars, so check with your hotel or lodging choice to see if they provide parking or if it is available nearby. 

If you travel to smaller towns outside of Reykjavik, having some local currency is always good. We like to eat at small, locally owned cafes and restaurants; some do not take credit cards. If you are taking a tour, the guides appreciate tips in their own currency (although they will take whatever you give them).