Our first three days in Iceland were spent in Reykjavik, “the smallest capital city in the world” and the most northerly. We arrived at 6 am Friday morning, in broad daylight. This was the perfect time to arrive because it gave us time to set up camp at the Reykjavik Campsite, get our bearings, have a nap and it was still only 11 am. We were to pick up our rental car at noon on Monday so that gave us three full days to see the city.
If you travel to Iceland and wish to stay in Reykjavik for your whole trip, you can book as many different activities as you can afford based out of Reykjavik – the Golden Circle, whale watching, puffin tours, sailing on a viking ship, a tour of inside a volcano, a glacier hike, and the list goes on. You can fill as many days as you have based solely out of Reykjavik.
Because we had rented a car and had planned to drive to some of these places ourselves, we decided three days in Reykjavik would be a decent amount of time to see what the city itself has to offer. Especially because we were in the city for the weekend and we had read many stories on a variety of blogs and online articles about Reykjavik’s fabled “runtur” (the all-night pub crawl drinkfest).
We had only two things actually booked before-hand for our time in Reykjavik and the first was a walking tour of the city at 1 pm the afternoon we arrived. I highly recommend doing some sort of tour your first day. We got so much valuable information from our tour guide Ásta, from the I Heart Reykjavik team. She confirmed what we thought about the City Card being a good deal if you want to do touristy things, was able to help me install my new Icelandic SIM card, could recommend great restaurants where I would most likely be able to have gluten-free options. Ásta also showed us places that we might like to visit later (like which museums were worth the price) and places that were hidden gems (like the sculpture garden near Hallgrimskirkja), as well as giving us snippets of Icelandic history and insights into the culture. The tour was 2 hours and it cost 5500 ISK online (plus 2000 ISK for the SIM card).
After that, we were starving. We hadn’t really eaten a breakfast or lunch because we had been at the airport, then in transit and then setting up the tent before we went downtown for the tour. Ásta had recommended a restaurant in the city centre called Sæta Svínið. It had a very interesting menu that looked to have some gluten-free options. I had the “Freshest Fish of the Day” (in almost every restaurant I ordered Catch of the Day) which was catfish and Bob had the lamb sandwich. When I asked whether the dish was gluten-free, she immediately said that it was, she would simply tell the chef not to bread it. (If you don’t have a food allergy, you have no idea how exciting it is to hear these words, and spoken in such a confident manner. It lowers my eating stress levels 95%. The remaining 5% is just residual anxiety from years of dealing with people who don’t understand.) It was delicious. Bob’s lamb sandwich came with a sauce on it that very visibly contained egg, which he is allergic to. He ate around it and said that the rest of it was delicious. I’m not a food critic so I can’t go into detail but it was the perfect first meal to have in Iceland. It was also happy hour so we had half-price drinks. If we weren’t tired already from jetlag, we were definitely ready to head back after a filling and delicious late lunch and a drink.
Food and drink is very expensive in Iceland so lunch specials and happy hours are a good way of cutting costs. Expect to spend a minimum of 1600 ISK (about $16 CAD) on the smallest of appetizers; an average entrée is about 3900 ISK (about $39). Our tour guide told us about an app called Reykjavik Appy Hour to help you locate happy hours near you to save money.
We made our way slowly back to the bus stop that we had gotten off at earlier for the walking tour, stopping into shops, buying postcards, pricing out woolly sweaters and other souvenirs. Reykjavik is not a large city and has a small downtown area that one can get to anywhere else in about 15 minutes. After popping into some shops and a small grocery store for some make-at-the-campsite food, we were starting to get a feel for where things were located.
Except for the bus stop. That took us a while to find again but we had a lovely walk through the more residential streets on our way and enjoyed looking at the characteristically square, concrete and tin houses in a variety of colours. Reykjavik is one of the most colourful places I’ve ever seen. There is no code for the colour you can paint your house so houses are in every colour imaginable – even lime green and salmon pink. (Our city bus stop ended up being near the BSI Bus terminal where the Flybus stops from the airport. If you are coming into the city and stop there, just know that it’s really only a 15 minute walk to the centre.)
When we got back to our campsite, we just rested, ate some of the food we bought and headed to bed fairly early (around 10 pm). Even though we were absolutely exhausted (the flight to Iceland is less than 5 hours from Montreal so we hardly slept at all on the plane), our minds had a hard time calming down because it just wasn’t getting any darker than it was at 7 pm. I woke up several times during the night because my body kept reminding me that it was light out and must be morning. And I just marvelled at this phenomenon. At 3 am, there were people just arriving and setting up camp, people in the washrooms just getting ready for bed and people still in the kitchen area, having a few drinks and chatting quietly. It was pretty surreal actually.
We woke up fairly early (around 7 am) and the campground was just starting to stir. We got ready for a day of sightseeing because the other pre-booked event (a gig) wasn’t until 8:30 pm.
Because we were up so early and then ready early, some of the things we were hoping to see weren’t even open yet. We discovered that many shops and museums opened later than we expected, around 11 am or so. Some at 10 but very few earlier than that. Which is fine. Because I have absolutely no qualms about spending a relaxing hour or so drinking coffee.
Our first stop was the Reykjavik 871 +/-2 (also known by the friendlier name of the Settlement Exhibition). The neighbouring hotel had been doing renovations when they discovered in its depths the remains of a longhouse. Of course, it is now a museum and excavated. The City Card gave us free entry (1400 ISK) into the main exhibit and it was very interesting. It was certainly not a big museum but it showed how Reykjavik looked when it was founded (just a few houses and farms, really) and gave lots of interesting information on what life was like in 871, including daily life, burial, tending crops, and the government of the day. The +/- 2 is because they aren’t exactly sure when the longhouse dates from but they’re pretty sure it’s 871, give or take two years. (Icelanders are very straight talkers. There’s no sugary-sweet, customer-is-always-right, we’re-best-friends bullshit. They tell it like it is and it is so refreshing.)
After that, we headed towards a flea market down by the harbour called Kolaportið. It is a typical flea market with tables chock full of items like sunglasses and military paraphernalia, vinyl and stuffed Japanese anime characters. But I was really interested in looking for an Icelandic woolly sweater cheaper than the ones we’d already seen in shops and Bob was looking for a hand-made knife in the viking style, something that was very Icelandic. I immediately found my sweater. I fell in love with the colours but also the design. Being a redhead, I love fall tones. But I also loved the horses on it because I was really excited about seeing Icelandic horses. (I’m a country girl.) It was on sale for 14 900 ISK (about $149) down from 18 900 ISK. The sweaters I had seen in the shops were always around 25 000 ISK so I was able to save quite a bit of money. The artist actually owns the sheep, shears them, spins and dyes the wool and then knits the sweaters. I don’t think I could find a more Icelandic souvenir than that. Here’s the link to the artist’s Facebook page.
We did find some beautiful artisanal crafts and handiwork that Bob was interested in but unfortunately, this particular artist used bone and other parts of animals which we didn’t want to import. They were absolutely beautiful pieces though – he had even carved fine crocheting hooks out of bone, with designs carved into them. Really stunning work. This flea market is only open on weekends but it’s worth a visit to check out the food stalls, the artisans and anything else you might be looking for.
Of course, we were ready to eat again at this point and Bob had to have a hot dog from the oldest hot dog stand in Reykjavik, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, near the flea market. It has been running since 1937 and many celebrities have had hot dogs from this stand. The day before, we had seen a massive line-up so we figured Bob had to try it. Not to mention, hot dogs are a very inexpensive food option. (Hot dogs are generally a no-go for gluten allergies.) He did what everyone had told him to do and ordered one “with everything”. He took one bite, looked down at the dog and said, “This is real mayo with egg in it.” Uh oh. Allergen alert!! AGAIN!! Luckily, he didn’t get sick but every hot dog after this was “hold the mayo”. He was learning what it’s like to live my life, with an allergy to an ingredient found in almost everything.
After this, we just walked. We found ourselves back at Hallgrimskirkja Church. This is one of the most striking buildings in Reykjavik. It sits atop the highest point of the city and from its bell tower, it is quite a view. The exterior is unusual; it was inspired by the basalt columns that are characteristic of Iceland. We considered taking the elevator up the bell tower to admire the view but the line-up was quite long. It’s only 900 ISK but I’m actually a pretty impatient person and waiting in line is not something I do well. Instead, we admired the interior and sat for a few moments to listen to the phenomenal pipe organ being played. There are concerts every day at around 12:30 (sorry, I can’t exactly remember, maybe it’s 1:30 pm?) and according to Ásta, our guide the day before, organists frequently play and practice for anyone who is there. The organ is massive and it has been upgraded to play from digitally programmed music. Which means, the music the pipe organ can emit can be far more complex than what two human hands can produce. The church also has some interesting benches. When mass is on, the backs of the benches are to the doors of the church. But if the church is being used as a concert hall, the backs of the benches flip to the altar side and concert-goers sit with their front to the doors and the organ. The church is also a gallery. It’s simple and beautiful in its austerity.
We decided to fit in another museum so we opted for the Arbæjahrsafn Open Air Museum. We had to take the #12 bus so we found a stop near the embankment and I was able to take some photos of the spectacular sculpture Sun Voyager by Jón Gunnar Árnason.
The City Card gave us free transit (700 ISK a ride) and we got a bus map from the campsite so we were able to navigate the public bus system to get to all the sites we wanted to see. I love public transit, especially buses, because you get to see so much of the city that may be off the beaten path.
Abræjahrsafn Open Air Museum is 4 km out of the city centre and the 1500 ISK admission is also covered by the City Card . I love learning about the history of a place but I can only handle typical reading-heavy gallery-like museums in short doses. This museum is a museum of old buildings that instead of being destroyed were literally picked up and transported to this old farmstead that was once outside of Reykjavik and a popular stop for water and refreshments as people travelled to the city. Now it has buildings from Reykjavik’s past and the employees are dressed in period attire to show how life was back in the day. You are encouraged to walk through all the buildings and to pick up and try out the authentic antiques. There are guided tours every day at 1 pm but we just wandered and read the short information plaques. There were horses and sheep wandering the fields and there is a café there as well if you need a break. You’ll want at least an hour to wander the grounds. There are different exhibitions throughout the year as well as special events like craft days and vintage car days. Having a tiny off-grid cabin, we really enjoyed seeing the old technologies for living.
By the time we had finished, we had been on our feet and touristing for eight hours. We were DONE! And because we had tickets for an evening event, we headed back to the campground to rest before heading out again.
At 8:30 pm, we had tickets to a concert given by Icelandic musician Mugison. We had heard about Mugison and bought tickets from the I Heart Reykjavik website (seriously, if you haven’t already, just go to that site for tonnes of information!) We showed up at around 8:15 at a very small theatre “very much downtown”(as it said on our map). We really didn’t know what the process was but soon discovered that it was like everything else in Iceland – very laidback. We just showed them our receipt and we were handed our tickets. Bob went for a smoke and I got us drinks. I waited in the lounge area for him and when he came back in, he said he’d had a nice conversation with an Icelandic guy outside about our future plans to drive the Ring Road. The Icelandic guy had said that he’d been Toronto but not Ottawa and that he really enjoyed Canada. Bob soon discovered, as we sat down in the theatre and Mugison walked out onto the floor, that he had been speaking with the headliner himself. Mugison offers shows throughout the summer from Thursday to Sunday evenings at this theatre for 4000 ISK a ticket, which, we were learning, was considered very reasonable. Just to give you a comparison, 3900 ISK is what you spend on an entrée and 5500 ISK is what we spent on the walking tour, so for an intimate concert with no more than 60 people in the audience, that’s a damn good deal. His work goes from folky acoustic to dynamic dance to Tom Waits-esque howling. He addressed the audience in English for the entire show and was quite funny. More than half of his songs were in English. It was an hour long and it was a really great experience to be at a concert of an Icelandic artist. You can check him out on Spotify or Youtube.
It was 9:30 pm and we were already downtown. We headed back into the centre and wandered through the shops that were open until 10 pm and then got some inexpensive (for Iceland) food at a couple of food trucks. We wandered in the evening light for another hour. We had grand intentions of partaking for a least a little while in the all-night partying but the real excitement doesn’t even really start until midnight and by 11:30 pm, we were ready to call it a night. Even at that time, the streets were alive with all sorts of people – locals and tourists, young and old.
We were a little later getting up this morning. But that’s okay because we had a quiet day ahead of us. The only thing we had decided to do today was to go to the small island of Viðey on the ferry. The past two days we had crammed a lot of activities in so we were looking forward to a more relaxing day (and a less expensive one).
We took the #14 again and this time, we got off near Harpa, the cubic concert hall made of glass honeycombs. We were killing time before catching the ferry but it is worth going to see. Like any major concert hall, it is free to walk in and take a look around. We noticed that there were several shows on that were in English, which we did not expect. If we’d had another day in Reykjavik, I would’ve like to see the show that condenses all 42 sagas into an hour and a half. The hexagonal glass is quite interesting to see if you are interested in architecture and on a sunny day, the lighting inside the hall would be really beautiful since some pieces of glass are coloured. We sat at the café and enjoyed another morning coffee before continuing to the Old Harbour. (The Old Harbour is for tourist activities – restaurants, shops and tours. The New Harbour is their working harbour for cruise ships and shipping.)
The ferry to Viðey (1200 ISK fare is included in the City Card) was a small boat that made a couple of stops before arriving on the small island. We didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived there. But it’s really just a couple of buildings (one that has a very expensive restaurant) and lots of trails around the island. The ferry arrived at every hour so we had at least one hour to spend on the island. If you enjoy walking in a quiet space, this is a great way to spend some time.
We wandered the trails for just over an hour but to be honest, we lost interest before we explored the whole island. It was lovely but it’s a small island and there aren’t many places to just sit. Also remember that Bob is still in a cast with a wobbly ankle so walking over uneven terrain isn’t the easiest or most enjoyable activity for him to do. And then it started to rain. And there’s only the building with the restaurant to escape the elements. So we hid in the basement on the couches near the bathrooms for about 20 minutes. Then it stopped for a bit and we wandered for another 15 minutes until we saw the ferry and everyone on the island, probably feeling the same way we did about the rain, piled on and we went back to the city.
We had no real plans for the rest of the day so we grabbed a bite to eat in a lacklustre Italian-themed restaurant. I was almost faint with hunger so we stopped at the first restaurant that advertised decent happy hour prices for food and sadly, they only had one thing I could eat. Mussels. They were very tasty but not nearly enough to fill me up so we left in search of a grocery store.
We walked down the main shopping street, Laugavegur, and looked through the shops that were open and just enjoyed the sunshine. We found a small café called Nat. Kitchen that served vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free food. I was really hungry so I sucked it up and bought a sandwich for 1290 ISK (yes, about $13!). Thankfully, it was really good. This place also serves freshly made juices and smoothies.
The last thing we wanted to do in Reykjavik was go to the pool. Right beside the campground is the largest geothermal swimming pool in Reykjavik, called Laugardalslaug. Admission was also included in our City Card so we saved another 900 ISK. While the outside of the building looks quite run down, going around to the main entrance on the side, you’ll see it looks just like an ordinary swimming pool with windows, chairs, the counter, and the line-up of kids and families. There are very strict instructions on what to do in these public pools. Icelanders don’t put chlorine into their pools because it already has seven natural minerals in it. So you have to be clean before you go into the water. They even have posters in many languages showing you specifically where you need to wash really well – hair, feet, pits and bits. And you have to do it naked. This seems to be an issue for most North Americans but you can’t get around it unless they happen to have some private stalls. There is an attendant watching everyone to make sure they get clean. Don’t be that dirty tourist and give us all a bad name.
You wear your swimsuit into the pool though. This facility had an Olympic size indoor pool with lanes, an Olympic size outdoor pool with lanes, a large kids area, a giant slide, a steam bath, a sauna and a cold bath and seven hot pots. The hot pots are like hot tubs with water at varying temperatures from 28°C to 44°C, including one that was saltwater pumped right from the ocean, . It was absolutely glorious. We stayed a couple of hours lounging in the beautiful hot water.
We left around 9 pm and headed back to the campsite for some wine and some make-at-the-campsite dinner. We each had our own downtime and I caught up on some journaling. At around midnight, we were ready to go to bed but we couldn’t quite make ourselves settle down because we were excited about getting the car the next day and exploring the rest of the country. So we went for a walk.
Little did we know, the campground is actually right beside the botanical gardens. The botanical gardens holds over 5000 species of subarctic plants. Of course, the greenhouse was closed but we did see an old wash house. This area was the main supply of the geothermal water (which is why the pool is in this area) so it was where the women used to bring their laundry. It was quite an ordeal apparently because it was usually from several kilometres away that they had to carry their laundry. Not only that, the water was so hot that sometimes women would fall in and be scalded to death by the hot water. The water still steams today. It has a metal barrier over it to keep people from falling in.
We finally said goodnight to Reykjavik and settled into our tiny 18 sq. foot tent to sleep our last night in the city. We would pick up the car the next day and drive to the Golden Circle – to Gullfoss, Geysir and Strokur and Thingvellir National Park and snorkelling between two tectonic plates.
Next stop: The Golden Circle