Things to Do in Reykjavík, Iceland

If you ever go to Iceland and you tell people you’re going to Iceland, prepare for this reply:

“You know it’s going to be cold, right?”

This is the response I got from almost everyone when I told them I’d be visiting Iceland this year. “It’s going to be cold, Kristin,” my mom said. “Kristin, it’s going to be cold,” said all of my friends. I had no idea how to respond to this. The name of the country kind of gives it away, doesn’t it? Ice Land. That’s a pretty big clue that, yes, it might be a little nippy.  But they were right. To everyone’s credit, it was really freaking cold. If you’re going to travel to Iceland in January, bring underthings, my friends.

Last month, my best friend Jessica and I headed to Reykjavík for a quick adventure that, due to a flight problem, ended up being an even quicker adventure. We had about three days in the city, but thankfully, that was still plenty of time to eat, explore, and get an idea of what the city is all about.

In recent years, tourism has surged in Reykjavík, chiefly due to WOW Air introducing new routes from the U.S. and other countries. If you’re planning your own trip, here are some fun things to do in Reykjavík, along with a few travel tips to keep in mind.

Note: There’s a lot of information here. Some sections have a summary of quick tips at the end if you just want the basics.

The Northern Lights Aren’t Always Out

Northern Lights, just outside of Reykjavík

If you’re going to Iceland, you probably have plans to see the Northern Lights. Here’s my top tip for viewing them: plan your entire trip around seeing the Northern Lights. Depending on when you visit and what the weather conditions are like, the Northern Lights don’t just put on a dazzling dance display whenever you’re ready for them. Some nights, they don’t come out at all, and if that’s the case, the tours won’t even operate because they don’t want to waste your money. 

We visited the tourist information center on Laugavegur Street every day. They would write YES, NO, or MAYBE on a dry erase board, depending on whether the Lights would be visible. The first day we went, another tourist told us he’d been there for seven days, checked every day, and every day was NO. That night was his last, and alas, the board read NO. Poor guy.

We got lucky. Kind of. Our last night there, we went to the office, looked through the window and saw a big, fat YES. So we booked a tour. Tours range in price from about 56,000-90,000 Krona (about $50-$80 USD). The cheapest tour was a simple bus tour, but it came with an audio guide and tripods for your camera equipment. The more expensive tours came with food or drink. We brought our own booze and snacks and booked the cheaper option. The tour picks you up from your hotel, shuttles you to a bus station, and then you get on a bigger bus that drives you to more rural areas around Reykjavík so you have a clearer view.

From my photo above, you probably think I had an amazing view of the Aurora. Not quite. I saw a tiny green glimpse, which was kind of cool, but my camera caught these images because its shutter was open for a really long time. My naked eyes weren’t so lucky.

My tips for seeing the Northern Lights in Reykjavík:

  1. Visit at the right time. Most travel experts recommend September to March.
  2. Plan your trip around them. The Northern Lights are unpredictable. Don’t make plans Monday and Tuesday and expect them to be out Wednesday. Keep your nights open!
  3. Bring a decent camera. This is kind of a given, but bring a camera with adjustable exposure settings. Your iPhone won’t capture anything if they’re not out, but a decent camera might.

Obviously, you should dress extra warm, too. I almost froze my fingers trying to get decent photos.

Upgrading Your Blue Lagoon Package Is Worth It

If you’re going to Iceland, you have to go to the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s still worth it.

The Blue Lagoon is a giant pool of geothermal water that’s connected to a nearby power plant. People tend to freak out a bit when you say “power plant,” so it’s not exactly advertised as such. The water from the Blue Lagoon is still naturally occurring, but it’s been through quite a journey to provide power to nearby communities. It’s still safe to bathe in, though, and at 98–104 °F, it’s such a luxurious experience, especially when it’s freezing outside.

When you go, you’ll book your tickets online, and you can choose from one of four packages:

  • Standard ($48 USD): Includes entrance and a silica mud mask
  • Comfort ($66 USD): Includes entrance, silica mud mask, algae mask, use of a towel, and a free drink at the bar (which is in the water!)
  • Premium ($85 USD): Includes entrance, both masks, towel, free drink at the bar, use of a bathrobe and slippers, a reservation at Lava restaurant, and a free drink at Lava if you choose to dine there.
  • Luxury ($237 USD):  Includes entrance, both masks, towel, free drink, bathrobe, slippers, Lava reservation and free drink at Lava, PLUS a spa product set and, most importantly, entrance to the Exclusive Lounge, a more private area.

We paid for the comfort package and it was great. However, I do wish we would’ve brought our own slippers, because the showers of the Blue Lagoon are….well, let’s just say I wish we would’ve brought our own slippers. You can also buy them there and pay a little extra. Otherwise, you can upgrade to the Premium package and get a bathrobe and slippers. If I could do it over again, I would upgrade to either Premium or Luxury. Yes, it’s $20-$170 more than we paid, but it’s a vacation and it’s Iceland. Maybe it wasn’t the best time to be cheap.

You have lockers for storing your personal items, but you leave your towel, slippers, and robe in a public area with everyone else’s stuff, then you pick them up after you get out of the water. For the most part, it’s pretty safe, but one visitor did lose her GoPro while we were there. You probably don’t want to just leave expensive camera equipment in this public area. Your towel is fine, though.

You can stay for hours, too. I don’t think there’s a time limit. We stayed for two hours, but some people stay 3-4 hours. So if you have an early flight with hours before you can check-in to your hotel or Airbnb, the Blue Lagoon is a good place to kill time. When you book your tickets online, you can also book transportation from the airport and to your hotel. You can do this at the airport, too, though.

My tips for visiting the Blue Lagoon:

  1. Wear slippers or buy them there.
  2. Leave anything remotely valuable in your locker.
  3. Visit during the day. We went at night and missed out on the beautiful scenery. Plus it was like a frat party.

Transportation Is Easy

Reykjavík Map Neighborhoods

The shuttle and bus service in Reykjavík are easy to navigate. There are two main services: Flybus and the Gray Line. Both travel to and from the airport, to tourist spots, and to individual hotels in Reykjavík. We booked all of our transportation online, but you can also buy tickets at the airport or BSI, Reykjavík’s central bus station.

When you book your transportation, you simply tell them what hotel you’re staying at, and they send a shuttle to come pick you up at a certain time (they might be a little late, because they pick up other tourists, too). That shuttle then takes you to BSI, where you get on a bigger bus to take you to your destination, whether it’s the airport, your tour, or the Blue Lagoon. You may have to go into the BSI office to get a physical ticket first.

If you’re staying at an Airbnb, it obviously won’t be listed on the shuttle’s list of hotels. We simply picked the closest hotel and just walked there when it was time for our shuttle to arrive. Same story with getting into Reykjavík from the airport. We had them drop us off at a nearby hostel, which was right across the street from our Airbnb.

For the most part, the city is pretty walkable. We stayed in the Hlíðar neighborhood, right next to the city center, within the red circle above. Everything in that area is pretty walkable. You can walk to Hallgrímskirkja, Harpa Concert Hall on the waterfront, and Laugavegur street. Taxis are available, too, but they’re pretty expensive. We missed our shuttle and took one from Hlemmur Square to the bus station (no more than a 5-minute drive) and it was about $15.

Next time, I’ll probably rent a car, though. Every Iceland visitor I’ve talked to says it’s easy to drive in the city, and that way, you can venture outside of Reykjavík and go see things like the Bruarfoss Waterfall or crystal ice caves. Expert Vagabond has an awesome day-by-day itinerary of his road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road.

My tips for getting around Reykjavík:

  1. Take shuttles and buses via the Gray Line or flybus and book online. Taxis are available but expensive.
  2. Stay close to the city center and you can walk to most places.
  3. It’s easy to rent a car and drive, though, and they drive on the right side of the road.

Visit Laugavegur Street for Shopping, Food, & a Penis Museum

 Laugavegur Street

Yes, you read that right. You’ve heard a lot about the Northern Lights, but Iceland’s penis museum is another radiant spectacle worth checking out. The Iceland Phallological Museum is the first penis museum I’ve ever seen and it’s worth going just because it’s so strange (and for bragging rights). The entry fee is about $8, and for those eight dollars, you get a complete guide of all things penis, mostly preserved animal penises, which are actually pretty fascinating. 

The museum is on Reykjavík’s famous Laugavegur street, which is its main shopping avenue for tourist shops, clothing stores, fun bars, and food. A few places we visited on Laugavegur street:

  • Laekjarbrekka: It’s a quaint but somewhat fancy restaurant located on the harbor, and the fish is so tasty. It’s a converted fisherman’s hut, so that makes sense.
  • Lebowski BarSure, it’s touristy, but I was intrigued. Most people, I think, would turn their nose up at an American-themed tourist destination in Reykjavík, but forget those people and go anyway. It’s fun and as you can probably guess, the White Russians are amazing. Best of all, they have a variety of different types of White Russians, from coffee to banana to strawberry, and they’re all delicious.
  • Spúútnik FatamarkaðurA very cool thrift store with, yes, a lot of sweaters. But they have a wide variety of other stuff, too, and it’s reasonably priced. I could’ve spent a lot more time here.

My tips for walking Laugavegur Street:

  1. Visit all the bars. Look for the side street bars off of Klapparstígur.
  2. Bring a camera, because there’s fun wall art everywhere and Instagram loves it.
  3. Penis museum.

Other Places to Eat and Drink

I’d heard good things about Reykjavík Roasters before I visited and I’m glad I ventured out to find them. They’re located downtown, really close to the Hallgrímskirkja church. They roast their own beans in house, right in front of you. The building is small, but there’s plenty of seating and you have a great view of the city. Oh, and the coffee is, of course, delicious.

Brauð & Co is another spot worth visiting, and it’s fairly close to Reykjavík Roasters, too. It’s a small bakery with amazing cinnamon rolls (just the right amount of gooey). I ordered a few other things that looked good, but honestly, I have no idea what they were–I just asked for their recommendations. One pastry was filled with a light chocolate and cream that oozed out the top. My mouth is watering right now just remembering it.

If you want more authentic Icelandic food, head to Cafe Loki, right across fromHallgrímskirkja. Jessica’s Norwegian friend recommended this place, and it’s definitely worth visiting. The cafe is downstairs, but the restaurant is upstairs, and you’ll find a nice view of the church and the city. Have some herring and Brennivín. And fermented shark, if you feel like getting adventurous. I passed on the shark. Jessica had a lamb soup she said was savory and delicious.

Wi-Fi Is Everywhere

Exploring Reykjavík

One thing you don’t have to worry about when you visit Reykjavík? Staying connected. Wi-Fi is pretty much everywhere, from bars and restaurants to public areas. These days, most of the major cellphone providers have some kind of roaming deal.

Verizon, for example, has a $10 travel access pass that lets you use your existing minutes, data, and texts overseas. Yes, it’s $10 a day, which is pricey, but at least you’re not racking up a bunch of overseas phone charges. The point is, though, you probably won’t even need to buy any special plan while you’re in Reykjavík. As long as you can make calls and send texts over Wi-Fi, you’re good to go. Obviously, you want to make sure this is an amenity that comes with your hotel or Airbnb beforehand, but once you leave your lodging, it’s a lot easier to stay connected in Reykjavík than it is other countries I’ve visited.

My Experience Flying With WOW Air

Sigh. I’m extremely torn on WOW air. On one hand, I had the worst customer service experience ever. On the other, they were fine, especially for a $350ish round-trip flight from LAX.

Jessica and I missed our connection in Boston, which was partly our fault. We got to the airport 3-4 hours early, checked our gate when it was time, then wandered the airport to kill time. I looked at our ticket, which said gates would close 15 minutes before departure, so I figured we could head to the gate 25-30 minutes early and make it on time. Long story short, we got there about 25 minutes early, but the gates had just shut. Bummer, but I blame myself. It was an international flight, after all, and despite their ticket instructions, I should’ve known better.

The problem, though, was that the gate agents yelled and reprimanded us before we even had a chance to ask what happened. It was bad. I felt like a five-year-old who just got caught eating Oreos before dinner.  “Oh, come now, Kristin. Surely they didn’t yell,” you might be thinking. Nah, this wasn’t just a bad attitude, they caused a scene to the point that everyone nearby started staring. We laughed about it later, but we were legitimately scared. Finally, I told them I was a paying customer, so they probably shouldn’t be yelling at me, and asked what I should do.  WOW’s response?

“Figure it out online.”

And then they left!  Long story short, we had to pay for another flight, plus lodging, plus reschedule all of our stuff in Iceland. We were lucky that we could afford to do that, though.  A lot of folks would just have to cancel the whole trip and go home. Our fault or theirs, I’ve never experienced worse customer service with any company, much less any airline, and for that reason, I won’t fly with them again.

However, the customer service on the flight itself was fine. They weren’t friendly, but they weren’t rude, either. The experience is what you would imagine for such a cheap flight: bare bones. If you’re going to fly WOW, bring your own water and snacks, too, because those cost money on the flight. Prepare to pay extra if you’re bringing a checked bag ($70-$100) or a carry-on larger than 22in x 18in x 10in ($50-$100). And, of course, bring entertainment: download some Netflix or a podcast and bring a book or two. Just make sure it fits in that small carry-on.

Even with the awful flight experience, we still had a killer time in Reykjavík. There’s a lot more to do, though. Next time, I’ll drive and try to hit some spots along Ring Road, catch a better view of the Northern Lights (hopefully), and maybe even try fermented shark (I make no promises).

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Learn more about her here.