P erhaps it has something to do with the fact the four of us making up team Total Iceland have all traveled extensively all over the world. Perhaps we are just bitterly blind about lovely things all around us. Whatever the reason, none of us are much fans of the city of Reykjavik and we simply cannot understand the fascination.
Huge fascination is precisely what all the other guides, books and web sites describe when speaking about Reykjavik city. Most likely you have heard something to this effect. Fantastic nightlife, beautiful and very friendly people, small and compact but yet sophisticated ..etc.
things of interest to visitors are indeed pretty compacted in one spot in the city
Such firework articles are not necessarily wrong. No two people have the exact same taste in things but here some perspective is needed. The perspective of thousands of travel journalists being invited over here by the government or tourism officials, wined, dined and housed by the very best hotels and restaurants absolutely free of charge. Surely as day turns into night this works and extremely few articles mention anything but glorified Reykjavik.
In any case, here we will try our utmost to be fair and square.
Reykjavik is by far the largest place in Iceland and probably too large if anything since it is doubtful having half of the whole population of the island in one spot is a very good idea. It does mean brain-drain from other places in the country. On the other hand, Reykjavik is the only place, outside of high summer, where there is life on the streets and one truly feels a part of a community.
Size-wise Reykjavik is not at all small. True, only 150 thousand or so actually live here but since a part of the Icelandic identity has always been to own one´s own house there are suburbs stretching practically everywhere. Just driving from the westernmost point at Seltjarnarnes, incidentally not officially in Reykjavik, all the way to the farthest communities in the eastern parts of Arbaer district or Grafarholt district can well take all of 30 minutes one way.
While rather large the things of interest to visitors are indeed pretty compacted in one spot in the city. Here we will call it downtown Reykjavik which roughly means the area from Raudararstigur street to Landakotskirkja church as seen on the map below.
Sjá Downtown Reykjavik area á stærra korti
Within this area one will find 90% of all restaurants in the city, 90% of all museums, 95% of all bars and clubs and pretty close to 100% of good ambiance. Also here are vast numbers of hotels and guesthouses. What this means is that visitors to the city really need not bother much going outside this area unless they want to. There is not much to miss if you don´t.
Downtown Reykjavik in detail
While we have boxed the area in question this does not mean everything here is of much interest. The streets of life and love are only four in total. Laugavegur, Bankastraeti, Austurstraeti and Skolavordustigur. For the uninitiated two of those, Laugavegur and Bankastraeti, are one and the same as the very last part of Laugavegur is Bankastraeti.
Laugavegur is the major shopping street in the country with fair selection of shops, restaurants and tourism offices. Also here are some very nice hotels and one of the more unusual museums of Iceland, the Phallological museum, is also stationed at Laugavegur. Parts of the street have recently been made into walking only and this has been a good change. As shopping streets go this is fine when the weather holds but variety is pretty lacking. There are no popular chain stores here at all for instance. Prices tend also to be rather higher than elsewhere although this is not universal. A nice looking white building is found at the base of Bankastraeti which might catch your attention. This is the building of the Prime minister of Iceland which explains how well it is maintained.
in all three areas you will find good selection of mostly nice restaurants and some very good ones
Skolavordustigur lies pretty diagonal to Laugavegur and actually ends when intersecting with Laugavegur. The other end is the location of Reykjavik´s famous landmark, the Hallgrimskirkja church. Fine views can be had from the bell tower or simply from the public square in front of the church. Services open to all on Sundays. Also here are nice small restaurants, some designer shops and an impressive prison. Yeah, oldest prison in Iceland, still in service, is Hegningarhusid, which does not need directions. You will know as soon as you see it.
Which brings us to Austurvollur square. Arguably the most famous square in the country. This is the site of the now famous kitchenware revolution in 2009 when locals demanded a change of government after the horrible economic crash of 2008. The Althingi, house of parliament, is the grey-stone building by the square. Next to Althing is the Reykjavik Cathedral, a smallish church that somehow does not belong here. This area has been mostly taken over by hotels and bars and restaurants but is still a very popular site during sunny days over summer.
Overall in all three areas you will find good selection of mostly nice restaurants and some very good ones. Bars are everywhere and hotels and guesthouses are plentiful too. Certainly nice to walk around these parts in summertime although 80 percent of folks around in wintertime are tourists like yourself.
Just steps from Austurvollur square you will find the Town hall of Reykjavik jutting out into the Reykjavik pond where birds gather frequently. Also by the pond is the nice looking Frikirkja church right next to the National Gallery of Iceland which is kind of hidden away. Also steps away from Austurvollur, underneath the hotel at Adalstraeti 16 is the Settlement Center. This is a fine exhibition of the ruins of the oldest unearthed buildings in Reykjavik. Few steps away from this place is the small Ingolfstorg square which is popular for skateboarders of all ages. It is by Ingolfstorg you will find the official tourist information site.
Although not strictly part of the „downtown“ area the old Reykjavik harbor is but five minutes walk away from Austurvollur square. In only ten years that area has become somewhat of a tourist mecca with shops, restaurants, cafes and tour offices on the same spot. It is getting too touristy but worth the walk. From here you cannot but notice the Harpa concert hall which you can visit at all times. However, the site is most beautiful from the outside when it is dark.
Outside of downtown Reykjavik
We will keep this short and sweet. Unless you are an avid fan of suburbia there is not much else worth the extra mile for inside city limits. For a fine viewing platform you should head to Perlan, the spaceship-like building in Oskjuhlid. The top floor is a nice restaurant but the viewing platform will give you very good sense of the city and nearby municipalities. From here you should take a walk to Nautholsvik beach area if the weather is nice. This is a man-made beach area with imported sand and geothermally heated hot tubs. You can change into swimwear here if you like.
A favorite place for many is the westernmost tip of Reykjavik which is, in fact, not in Reykjavik at all. Grotta lighthouse is among the most photographed site around here and is worth your while. This place actually belongs to Seltjarnarnes town which is separate from Reykjavik itself. But you will not notice this at all.
About 20 minutes by bus away from downtown you is the one major shopping mall in the city. Kringlan mall is not very big and variety is not a big problem here but should you want to buy anything else than Chinese-made souvenirs head over there.
favorite place for many is the westernmost tip of Reykjavik which is, in fact, not in Reykjavik at all
Should you continue your travel for 30 minutes away from downtown you will happen upon Arbaejarsafn folk museum. This might interest all wanting more information about life in Iceland in times past. Here you will find old buildings, some of which are quite beautiful, as well as old dresses, styles and foods this nation used when times were rather more tough than nowadays. Visible from this museum is the Ellidaa river and Ellidaa valley which are excellent to have a stroll or just lie down and smell the coffee so to speak. If you like the outdoors follow the river all the way and you will discover Ellida lake.
Team Total Iceland loves to visit Videy island across from Reykjavik. Art installations are found here and foremost is the John Lennon Peace Tower. No less beautiful is the Videy church and master building seen from afar and the latter one serves as a restaurant in summertime. Videy is also fantastic to just take it slow and enjoy nature without too much hassle. Getting here requires you to board a small boat going to and fro regularly either from Skarfabakka harbor at Lauganes or from the old Reykjavik harbor in summertime.
Lastly, you could do worse than visit Laugardalur valley. While huge chunks of this small valley is little but a sports complex in between you will find a tiny local zoo and aquarium as well as the Botanical garden. We recommend the garden if only for the lovely atmosphere in summertime. Here also is the Reykjavik campground as well as the largest public swimming pool in Iceland.
Other museums or centers of note are the National Museum of Iceland and Nordic House, both of which are within walking distance from downtown. Follow the Reykjavik pond to the end and cross the street. Asmundarsafn found right by Laugardalur valley makes for a fine visit. So does Kjarvalsstadir art museum found at Klambratun park and Einar Jonsson museum right across the street from Hallgrimskirkja church.
The rest of what matters
Driving in Reykjavik is rather easy and traffic jams few and far between. Gas stations are everywhere and many open 24 hours. That too goes for a number of supermarkets. Should you want to stock up heavily find stores marked Netto, Bonus or Kronan as these are consistently the cheapest although not cheap in any sense.
Lots of companies offer tours from Reykjavik. From the old harbor you can get tickets to whale watching at most hours. Larger tour companies are also not far. One is located straight across from the Prime ministers building and the other at the Central coach station, BSI, about 20 minute walk from downtown.
ATM´s are widely found in most places and certainly in all banks. This hardly matters though as everyone takes plastic no matter how low the amount.
Crime is low in Iceland but common sense should guide you through Reykjavik late on weekends when drunken people start to wander around downtown. Nothing to worry about though and the area is well policed.