Reykjavik - a panoramic view of the city and the bay, with the Esja volcanic mountain range in the background

Flights to Reykjavik

Explore Reykjavik

Mystical and yet incredibly friendly. Immediately. Nothing gradual about it. it’s clear in a second. You’ll either love this city in the north forever, or won’t. We haven’t heard of anyone who doesn’t. People don’t travel to Iceland to see Reykjavik. They go all over the island, with its unique and untameable nature and landscape. Even so, it would be a pity not to spend at least a few days in the capital. It’s only fifty kilometres from the international airport in Keflavik – around three quarters of an hour’s drive.

How to spend time in Reykjavik

Northern Lights over Reykjavik

Echoing laws, a ghost, and presidents

On the subject of Reykjavik, we have: Parliament, the Höfði villa, Perlan, the cathedral and the old harbour. But first things first. The Icelandic parliament - Althing – is a legend in itself. Along with the Faërian system, it is considered the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world. The first gathering of the people (families travelled here from all across the island) met in 930 on the Thingvelir plain. Just a few kilometres from what is now Reykjavik. In places where two tectonic plates, the North American and European, were moving apart. Apparently it was overcast and drizzling. Even so, the gathering lasted for several days. The village chiefs called out each law and court decision passed to the rock walls. They echoed and could be heard all over the plain. These days the parliament is not out in the open air. It is housed in a stone building dating from 1881 in the centre of Reykjavik. You won’t find the president’s residence here, however. He lives outside the city. Just half an hour’s walk from Parliament is the Höfði villa. This seemingly unobtrusive white building, dating back to 1909, is unique in the world in two ways. In October 1986 it was the venue for a talks on the end of the Cold War between the presidents of the USA and the former Soviet Union - Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. You can still see their signatures there today. There is also an interactive wall, which scans your facial expression and chooses the politician you mostly closely resemble.

Reykjavik - a view of a traditional wooden church on the shore of a bay, with the Hallgrimskirkja church in the background

However, this is not the main reason why the Icelandic people protect this villa. Apparently, it is haunted by the ghost of a woman who, heartbroken by unrequited love, committed suicide there. Her ghost is so noisy that all the tenants were gradually forced to move out. From prominent Icelandic artists to the British Consul. The villa was bought by the Icelandic government and one session of parliament was even devoted to the unusual goings-on in the building. The final verdict was: “We cannot confirm or refute the fact that the Höfði villa is haunted”. Perlan, on Öskjuhlíð hill, protects several hot water storage tanks. However, the walkway around the glass dome offers amazing views over the city. This unusual building houses six panoramic telescopes, a restaurant and a museum. At a height of 74.5 metres, the modern—day landmark of Reykjavik is the Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral. Construction work on it started in 1945, but it was not completed until 1986. It stands on a hill above the old city, meaning sailors can see it from many kilometres away before they sail into the harbour. A pedestrian zone leads part of the way to the cathedral. Tourists probably won’t notice it, but the locals know. The inconspicuous stone house on Reykjavik’s main street is a remand prison. There are no bars on the windows, no barbed wire. If you ring the bell, the local guard will come to open the door. There are just a few cameras there. And this is right opposite a busy café. And why not, after all? The OECD has declared Iceland the safest city in the world.

Reykjavik - the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Bath

Entertainment, whales and spas

The old harbour is now only used by fishing and tourist boats, and you can set sail here on a trip to see whales or puffins. Fancy seeing some places off the beaten track? Try the golf course near the famous Grota lighthouse. There are racks for drying cod all around the place. Or head to the local geothermal beach at Nauthólsvík, where you can swim in the Atlantic Ocean just a few kilometres below the northern Arctic Circle. Even so, the water temperature is around 19 degrees Celsius, and close to 35 by the hot springs. Still too cold for you? So on your way to the airport stop off at the Blue Lagoon. You won’t be cold there. In this world-famous geothermal spa you can relax in water at a temperature of 37 to 40 degrees Celsius. The Lagoon holds 9 million litres of water, which is completely replaced every 40 hours. There’s no swimming here, however. It’s just a place to relax. It is 1.4 metres at its deepest point.

Weather in Reykjavik

  • Spring 3 °C
  • Summer 10 °C
  • Autumn 4 °C
  • Winter 0 °C

History

The site where the capital now stands was first settled in 874. The Vikings called it Reykjavik – bay of smokes. Smoke and steam from still rises up from the underground geothermal springs to this day. At the end of the 18th century it was home to just 167 people; its population now is over 130 thousand. Even more, if you count the whole conurbation. 

Food and Drinks

Reykjavik -a view of restaurants and pubs in the old harbour

Harbour food and greenhouse bananas

Hungry after a hard day? Give the local, unobtrusive pubs in the old harbour a try. They’re not what you’d call luxurious, and people often eat off plastic trays. But it’s evidently the only place in Europe where, sadly, you can try whale or puffin meat. Another local specialty is the thick Skyr yoghurt, slices of local small, sweet potatoes, or the famous cod – dried by just the wind. That can also be purchased here, as well as yoghurt and the potato chips, in almost any supermarket. If you feel like trying something unusual, although not very typical, sample the local bananas. They’re grown in greenhouses heated by hot water. 

There is partial prohibition in Iceland, so there are long queues in front of shops selling alcohol. However, you can buy almost all the world’s bestselling brands there. Yet if you fancy sampling a local beer, give Viking or Geysir a try.