I had dreamed of visiting Iceland for as long as I can remember. After school, I would spend hours leafing through glossy magazines and travel guides in an attempt to absorb the country’s unique culture and stunning beauty through those pastel-toned pages. So when an opportunity came up in January 2020 to take a solo trip to Reykjavik, its capital, I didn’t hesitate.
Today, my once-strange obsession has quickly become commonplace, with tourists from all corners of the world rushing to this pint-sized island at the outer edge of the Arctic Circle. Famed particularly for its extreme weather conditions and its otherworldly landscapes, there is much more to Iceland than initially meets the eye: a fact that visitors quickly come to realise within minutes of their arrival. It is impossible not to be enchanted by its wonderfully-quirky culture and vivid sense of the supernatural – something Icelanders rightfully take great pride in.
From its deep-rooted creativity to its breath-taking beauty, here are 5 reasons you have to visit Reykjavik, Iceland.
5 Reasons you have to visit reykjavik, iceland
Jaw Dropping Nature
I will never forget, upon first stepping off the plane at Keflavik International Airport, the smiling woman at the bus transfer desk gleefully informing me that an active volcano just kilometres away was due to erupt at any moment. My sense of mild concern (read: panic) dwindled significantly when I looked around me and realised that this was a cause for excitement rather than fear. In fact, in Iceland, locals are well-versed to the laws of nature, and live in harmony with the powerful landscape around them.
Reykjavik itself, although a capital city, is definitely not lacking in natural beauty. Located on a small peninsula which juts out into the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, the city is framed by a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, reminding you at every turn just how much of the Icelandic culture is governed by nature. The best place in Reykjavik to totally immerse yourself in the surrounding landscape is probably the residential Seltjarnarnes neighbourhood, at the very tip of the peninsula. This is also the best place in Reykjavik to catch sight of the coveted Northern Lights. If this phenomenon is something you absolutely can’t miss – and I would highly recommend adding it to your bucket list – then your best chance at catching them is by booking a Northern Lights tour. There really is no accurate way to describe the sight of that ethereal stream of colour dancing through the infinite sky above you; never will you have seen so many stars, either.
You’ve probably heard of Iceland’s celebrated Blue Lagoon: a geothermally-heated natural pool which was once a volcanic crater. As one of the 25 New Wonders of the World, it is unsurprising that this destination is one of the most-visited in the country – but don’t let this put you off. A short bus ride from Reykjavik, timing your visit to coincide with sunrise will create an incredibly unique experience – and night owls will be pleased to note that, in winter, the sun rises at roughly 10am. Entry to the Blue Lagoon, which includes return bus fares, a silica mud mask, and a drink of your choosing from the underwater bar, will cost roughly $150 depending on the season.
Cosy Coffee Houses
Like most Nordic cities, the streets of Reykjavik are peppered with inviting, cosy coffee houses; in winter, these make the perfect solace from the harsh weather outside. Each boasting also a range of delicious Scandinavian treats, such as their famous cinnamon buns, the independent cafés in Reykjavik are enjoyed by locals and visitors alike, whether for catching up with friends or taking a moment for yourself.
Nestled at the heart of bustling Skólavörðustígur – a street most famous for its rainbow-striped pavement – lies Mokka Kaffi. Inspired by the iconic, retro diners of the seventies, entering this coffee house feels like stepping into a time warp. If crisp, Scandi interiors are more your thing, then make sure to try Reykjavik Roasters on Kárastígur, whose wide, twinkling window seats make the perfect place to watch the world go by. A short walk from Reykjavik Roasters is Emilie & The Cool Kids: a quirky, colourful café best-known for its enormous, soft cookies.
Wandering along the streets of Reykjavik, it is not difficult to tell that this is a city governed by its creatives. The postcard-perfect buildings – which already look as if they were plucked from a snow globe – are adorned with vivid, soulful street art. This deep-rooted sense of artistry and creativity can be perceived throughout Reykjavik, which takes great pride in its art – in all its forms. Perhaps one of the city’s most well-recognised monuments, the Sun Voyager is a stainless-steel sculpture which overhangs the bay, representing a modernised Viking ship. The artist, Jón Gunnar Árnason, wanted the sculpture to act as an ode to progress, freedom, and hope.
Just a few metres from the Sun Voyager lies the impressive glass-fronted Harpa Concert Hall, whose architecture itself acts as a perfect depiction of Reykjavik’s sleek, modern style which holds tradition at its core. Beyond this iconic structure is the city’s Hafnarhús contemporary art museum, which houses exhibitions from some of Iceland’s most esteemed modern artists. This gallery also has two sister museums, dotted around the city centre, each specialising in a different area of Icelandic art. No matter how modernised and cosmopolitan Iceland may become, it could never lose sight of its roots and its rich culture; the city’s art is a testament to this.
Iceland may not be a country renowned for its culinary culture, but there are a number of places in Reykjavik which offer delicious, traditional food. Anyone with a sweet tooth should make sure to stop off at Instagram-famous Brauð & Co. and grab one of their takeaway pastries to fuel you for a day of adventure. Sample typical Icelandic fish at the aptly-named Reykjavik Fish Restaurant, which allows you to choose from a menu of fresh, locally-caught seafood options; alternatively, warm your cockles at Icelandic Street Food with their iconic Kjötsúpa lamb stew, served in a bowl made of bread.
Reykjavik is also home to two food halls, each offering a variety of food and drink stands. The Grandi Mathöll is located within a repurposed fish processing factory in the city’s Old Harbour, whilst the Hlemmur Mathöll can be found closer to the city centre. Both succeeding in the perfect balance between cosy and industrial, these food halls are the perfect destination if you’re hoping to try a number of different dishes – and local beers.
Reykjavik’s imposing cathedral would not look out of place in a sci-fi movie. Almost seeming to echo the shape of a volcano, Hallgrímskirkja is one of the most striking buildings in the city – not least because it towers significantly over the characteristically low, chocolate-box houses of Reykjavik. But although the structure itself is undoubtedly impressive, its real magic lies at the top of its bell tower; from here, you are granted a view across the city and over to the surrounding mountains which will shock even the most seasoned of travellers. And if this stunning panorama doesn’t take your breath away, then the cold definitely will!