Possibly the cheapest place to get lunch is Ikea! This is to the south of the centre along route 41 (heading back to the airport). They do an Icelandic twist on all the usual favourites found in UK Ikeas, plus there is a café as well as the restaurant, which does a good selection of sandwiches, panini and cakes. Be warned that once you have entered the restaurant, yours truly could find no way to exit Ikea again without doing the full tour of the showrooms and market hall… If you visit at Christmas time, look out for the festive goat in the car park.
Landmarks and Views
- Hallgrimskirkja is hard to miss. It’s 74.5m tall, as well as being on a hill, so can be seen for miles around. Often mistaken for a cathedral, it’s actually a Lutheran church. The design reflects the hexagonal structures formed by cooling volcanic basalt. Pop inside to admire the vast organ, and go up the tower for spectacular views of the city and bay. Outside the church is a statue of Leifur Eriksson, the first European to reach America.
- The Perlan can be seen from miles around. It is situated on a hill just outside the city centre, and consists of five hot water storage tanks with a dome on top. Inside the lower part of the structure is the Wonders of Iceland, which features various exhibitions. But head upstairs to the observation deck for panoramic views of the city. Sadly, while the observation deck used to be free, it now has a small charge. Right at the top of the dome is a restaurant and café.
- Harpa is the city’s opera house, located by the harbour. Check online before you travel to see what’s on, but even if there’s nothing that takes your fancy it’s worth going inside and taking the lift to the fifth floor. From here you can appreciate the vertiginous architecture in all its glory.
- Laugavegur is the main shopping street in Reykjavik. Here you will find an eclectic selection of tourist shops, outdoor clothing brands, restaurants and the occasional more “normal” looking shop. It’s not pedestrianised so look out for cars, but they go very slowly.
- Kringlan / Smaralind are the two shopping malls in Reykjavik.
- Whales of Iceland Museum – on the opposite side of the harbour from the Harpa, this is worth a wander around if you want to marvel at scale models of 23 whale and dolphin species found off the shores of Iceland. This includes the blue whale, measuring in at 25m long.
- Phallological museum – located at Laugavegur 116, the Icelandic Phallological museum hosts over 215 penises, ranging from a blue whale to a mouse. It’s a slightly surreal experience. If you have an old guide book to Iceland, note that this museum used to be in Húsavík but has now relocated to the capital. Confused-looking people can still be found wandering around Húsavík, clutching their pre-2010 Lonely Planet guide and wondering where all the penises are.
Forget the Blue Lagoon; with Iceland’s wealth of geothermal energy the municipal pools in Reykjavík are the places to go to relax and rejuvenate for a much more reasonable price. Don’t let cold weather put you off, it’s even nicer sinking into a hot tub when the air temperature is below zero and there is snow on the ground. However, be aware that showering naked before entering the pools is always obligatory, and in places enforced by staff who monitor the shower areas. You soon get used to it, and it makes your pool experience feel so much cleaner. Liquid soap is provided. You also generally need to leave your shoes in a shoe rack outside the changing area to ensure no dirt gets inside. Lockers usually aren’t coin operated, just use the key provided to lock and unlock. Likewise, hair dryers usually aren’t coin operated either, and swimming costume dryers are often provided.
Municipal Pools in Reykjavík:
- Laugardalslaug – this is Iceland’s largest pool, with two 50m pools (one indoor, one outdoor), a flume and children’s pool, several hot tubs ranging from 38 to 44°C, a saltwater hot tub, sauna and stream room.
- Sundhöllin – this used to be an indoor only pool, with hot tubs on the roof and male/female sunbathing terraces, but has recently been extended to include a full outdoor complex too.
- Vesturbæjarlaug – a bit of a walk to the West of the city, but a lovely pool with all the usual hot tubs and steam rooms.
- Lágafellslaug – in the suburb of Mosfellsbær north out of the city along Route 1, this is a modern pool with flumes, hot tubs, a children’s pool and a lap pool.
- Álftaneslaug – on the Alftanes peninsula, this is the only pool with a wave machine in Iceland. There’s also the usual lap pool, with a hot tub raised above it, sauna and steam room.
- Árbæjarlaug – a pleasant entry on a cold day as you get into the indoor pool under a glass domed roof and swim outside. The children’s pool and lap pool are joined so you don’t have to venture out into the cold air. The entry to the flume is also very close to the water. Hot tubs require a quick sprint outside though. There is also an indoor pool.
- Kópavogslaug – a 50m swimming pool and all the usual hot tubs, plus some bonus hot tubs at the far end of the lap pool.
The Blue Lagoon – if you really want to see what all the fuss is about, be prepared for some long queues to get in, even if you’ve pre-booked. The easiest way to do the Blue Lagoon is just after arrival, or just before departure, as certain Reykjavik Excursions coaches go via the Blue Lagoon on the way between Reykjavik and the airport. There is luggage storage available. The usual Icelandic washing rules apply in the changing rooms, but it’s not enforced as strongly as in the municipal pools.
Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach – an unusual yellow sand beach amongst the black volcanic sand elsewhere, this beach has been imported from Morocco. We took a look in winter, when the place was deserted and icy, but in the summer there is a hot tub along the back of the beach and you can swim in the sea if feeling brave.
There are many package trips which offer flights, hotel, and a Northern Lights tour. Be aware that various factors influence your likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights (or aurora borealis). First of all, don’t visit in summer! Night doesn’t fall in Iceland in the height of summer, there is just twilight for a few hours, so the aurora is not visible. The best time to go is between October and March. Secondly, cloud cover may obviously limit visibility, but Icelandic weather is very variable so clouds may not be set for the whole night. Finally, the aurora varies in strength, so keep an eye on the aurora forecast (http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/) which gives a rating between 0 and 9 for the strength of the aurora each night. The good news is that most tours will take you out again for free if you don’t see the lights on your first night.
If you go on an aurora tour, be prepared for a coach trip lasting an hour or more as you are taken away from the city lights. Take warm clothes. You will likely be taken to a location near a café, so you can visit the restrooms and buy a hot drink, but this isn’t guaranteed. The coach will have a guide who will hopefully keep you entertained with tales of Iceland and the science of the Northern Lights, and you’ll likely get back to your hotel around 1-2am, depending on the aurora conditions.