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Everything you need to know about a trip to Reykjavik

Iceland essentials: What you need to know for a trip to Reykjavik

This post was originally published on A Globe Well Travelled in 2016. The content has been revised and updated with fresh information.

It was only a few short years ago that most people would not have been able to point out Iceland on a map.

But recently this secluded Atlantic country has become hugely popular with travellers. Everyone who gets the chance to visit this country raves about just how amazing it is. Iceland’s reputation of having untouched otherworldly landscapes and unique natural experiences has spread far and wide across globe.

I decided to see what all the fuss was about by booking my own 5 day trip to Iceland, basing my stay in the capital of Reykjavik. If you’re also keen to jump on the Iceland bandwagon, here’s what you need to know for a trip to Reykjavik!

Midnight Sun in Iceland
Our flight in to Reykjavik with Iceland Air

How to get to Reykjavik:

There are a numerous airlines that fly into Keflavik International Airport (the major airport for Reykjavik). Iceland Air is the country’s national airline, which operates flights between North America and Europe via Reykjavik. I flew Iceland Air from New York City, and I have to say, the flying experience was great.

Reykjavik, Iceland
Midnight views from our Airbnb in Reykjavik

When to go to Reykjavik:

Iceland is known for having a cool climate. Reykjavik sits at 64ºN in latitude (to give you some context, the arctic circle starts at around 66ºN). This doesn’t necessarily mean that Iceland is always freezing, though – the country actually lies in the path of the north atlantic current, which means that it’s not as cold as you might think.

Peak season: Is between mid-June and late August, which is when the climate is best. Summer temperatures in Reykjavik sit between 8ºC and 13ºC (47-56ºF). This is when Iceland is busiest, so expect that accommodation will book up early, and that you might pay a premium for everything from hotels to sightseeing activities.

A benefit of travelling in peak season is that you can see the midnight sun! Around the summer solstice (21 June), the sun sets after midnight and rises again at about 3AM. If you’re travelling in summer, here are my tips on what to pack.

Off season: If you want to see the northern lights, visit Iceland between September and April to catch the aurora. This time of year is colder and often snowier – winter temperatures sit between -3ºC and 2ºC (26-35ºF) but it’s also much less busy and you’ll end up paying less for most things.

Driving around Iceland
Hiring a car is the easiest way to get around

How to get around:

From the airport: You can take an airport bus into the city, and if you pay a little extra they’ll take you directly to your hotel or accommodation.

The trip to the city takes around 45 minutes, and buses will meet every flight that arrives at the airport. We took a Grayline bus, but you could also choose to go with Reykjavik Excursions or Airport Direct.

We had to get a taxi on our way back to the airport as we missed the bus (which was totally not our fault, Grayline gave us incorrect instructions and therefore paid for our taxi). The cost was way higher than you would pay for a taxi elsewhere, so expect that this will be an expensive option.

Around the city: In Reykjavik, it’s best to stay close to downtown so that it’s easy to get around. Anywhere within a 15 minute walk of Austurvöllur Square would be a good choice.

Within the city, you can easily walk to most attractions in under 20 minutes (here’s a self-guided walking tour for Reykjavik). If you really prefer not to walk, there are limited bus services around the city. I didn’t use them on my trip, but you can find the routes and timetables here.

Around the island: Car hire is by far the easiest way to get around while you’re in Iceland, so I’d highly recommend it for a trip out of the city. You can hire a car from the airport, or do what we did and collect a car from the city for a few days of exploring.

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland
Downtown Reykjavik

Travel budget for Reykjavik:

Many things can seem overpriced in Iceland, but the costs actually weren’t as bad as we thought they would be. One thing to note is that you won’t need to use cash at all – everywhere accepts credit/debit cards, and there’s no minimum spend (a legal requirement in Iceland). Here’s what you’ll need to budget for in Reykjavik:

Accommodation: We rented a gorgeous Airbnb apartment just 5 minutes walk from downtown Reykjavik.

Car Hire: We rented a little Chevrolet Spark which wasn’t too expensive, though if you are planning on taking any of the highland roads or travelling during winter, you’ll probably need a four-wheel drive.

Food: An average meal out was not cheap. To be honest, we didn’t think much of the Icelandic food – most of it was fairly bland, and the grocery stores near downtown didn’t have a great selection of choices for home cooking.

Drinks: We never go anywhere without trying some of the local brew! The price of beer in Iceland was about the same as in NYC (though that’s still slightly more expensive than everywhere else). Wine and spirits are much more expensive.

Sightseeing: We only did a few paid sightseeing activities, including some thermal pools and a puffin-watching boat tour. If you’re planning on the pricier activities such as the Blue Lagoon, a glacier hike, or a zodiac boat tour though Glacier Lagoon, then you can expect to pay a lot more.

Reykjavik, Iceland
Views from the Hallgrimskirkja Church tower

Things to do in Reykjavik:

Hallgrimskirkja Church: This unpronounceable church is the most iconic building in Reykjavik. There is a small fee to go up the tower which is totally worth it – the views you get of the city are spectacular!

Sun Voyager: This artistic sculpture was placed in Reykjavik in 1990 and currently sits on the waterfront. It’s shaped somewhat like a boat, and is supposed to be an ode to the sun.

Harpa Concert Hall: This was by far my favourite building in the city! I love seeing some unique and interesting architecture, and Harpa is full of it. It’s also completely free to go in and walk around.

Tjörnin: This is a large and pretty pond near the city center. It has geese. And bridges. Go check it out.

Laugavegur: The main shopping street has a bunch of really cute boutique stores and cafes. The western end of Laugavegur is where you’ll find all the shops.

Puffin-watching: There are two small islands near Reykjavik that host puffin colonies, and you can only access them by boat. If you head to Reykjavik harbour, you’ll find a number of companies that offer puffin-watching cruises out to the islands.

Gullfoss, Iceland
Gullfoss on the Golden Circle

Day trip around the Golden Circle: If you have a car, you can easily drive the Golden Circle in a day. Some of the best spots to stop are Kerið (crater lake), Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park.

Day trip along the south coastThis was my favourite day trip out of Reykjavik – the south coast where you’ll see some of Iceland’s best natural scenery. Some things to see on the south coast are Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Skógafoss waterfall, the town of Vik, Reynisfjara (black sand beach), and the Solheimasandur plane wreck.

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