Named after the steam rising from geothermal vents, the town of Reykjavik was discovered by Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian, in AD 871. But it wasn’t until 1786 that it was founded as an official trading town, and now it has become one of the safest, cleanest, and greenest cities in the world.
I spent an afternoon and a day exploring here, but shattered after the long journey and the horse riding trek, I fell far short of my goals on what I wanted to accomplish. If I’d kept pushing, I would have been able to see all the main sights, but it would have been a sprint rather than a stroll.
I’m going to walk you through my planned itinerary, to show you just what this vibrant city has to offer, and how much lighter your wallet will be when you leave.
However, keep in mind that Iceland was still operating by winter opening times while I was there, so there was far less flexibility on when to visit each attraction. The summer months bring longer daylight hours, and therefore much more time to spend exploring, but the Northern Lights aren’t around. Weigh up the pros and cons before deciding on the date for your trip to Iceland.
I also purchased a Reykjavik CityCard for the two days, which in hindsight, I didn’t fully take advantage of as I missed out on a lot of the discounted attractions and walked everywhere instead of using the public transport included in the card.
But if you’re planning to see more than two or three attractions, the CityCard is well worth the cost at 3.700 ISK for 24 hours, 4.900 ISK for 48, and 5.900 ISK for 72. You can find the list of locations where it’s available to purchase here.
A majority of the museums in Reykjavik are free with the City Card, or at least discounted. However, most of them are also closed on Monday during the winter months. As the time I allocated was Sunday afternoon and all day Monday, I was left with only a few hours to visit them all.
- The National Gallery of Iceland showcasts work based in Iceland, work done by Icelandic artists, and work favoured by the Icelandic people.
- The National Museum of Iceland leads you through the history on the founding of Reykjavik, the rule of the Norwegian and Danish crowns, and finally the rapid development during WWII.
- The four branches of the Reykjavik City Museum cover a variety of lifestyles and industries found in this city. There’s the Árbær Open Air Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Museum of Photography, and the Settlement Exhibition, which is one of the few open on Mondays.
- The SAGA museum recreates key moments of Icelandic history. It’s very close by to the Old Harbour and the Maritime Museum, and the CityCard will get you a 10% discount on admission.
- The Icelandic Phallological Museum is certainly one of a kind with nothing else like it in the entire world. While not to everyone’s taste, if you decide to visit, the CityCard gives you a 20% discount.
- The Whales of Iceland exhibition offers an interactive exploration of whale anatomy, with audio and visual guides. The CityCard gives you 30% off here.
There’s so many tour options from Reykjavik, from horse riding to glacier climbing, that I’m not going to go into detail here.
My advice is to look at the list of tours that the CityCard offers discounts on and compare those to cheaper companies offering the same experience.
I always use GetYourGuide to find and book my tours when visiting a city. I just add the location and the date, and then open up the link to every single one that interests me. After that I sort them into similar groups, and cut them down until the best quality and best priced of each option remains. It’s a long process but it’s worked well so far.
There are three main cinemas in town, the Art House Cinema, the Cinema at the Old Harbour, and the Volcano House.
Each is discounted with the use of the CityCard, and they all offer films in English about the history and making of Iceland.
- Thermal Pools
These are a classic and popular way for Icelandic people to unwind before or after work or school or even on the weekends. Most have a regular slot that they attend, and so they get to know the other people and treat the pools as a social place to catch up on the latest gossip.
For a truly Icelandic experience, don’t miss this opportunity. The CityCard allows free entry to any Reykjavik City thermal pool and offers discounts to some of the privately owned ones.
- Other Attractions
- Reykjavik Zoo and Family Park hosts a collection of domestic Icelandic animals such as reindeers, harbor seals, and artic foxes. It’s a great place for a day trip but it’s also quite far out from the town centre, hence why I ended up skipping this attraction.
- The ferry to Videy Island, while free with the City Card, runs on very limited hours in winter. It’s only available on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from Skarfabakki pier.
On top of my solo sightseeing, I signed up for a walking tour with I Heart Reykjavik. This tour isn’t for those wanting to see the main sights – that would be the City Sightseeing bus – but it’s perfect for the chance to get a taste of Icelandic culture from the eyes of a local, helping you discover hidden gems such as artistic murals and the meaning behind names.
The walking tour lasts 2 hours and is a branch of the popular blog, I Heart Reykjavik. I used their posts extensively during my planning and research, so go and take a look.
Overall, the time I spent in Reykjavik was more than enough to make the place feel like home. You could easily spend a week within the city, not venturing outside its boundaries, with all it has to offer, but then you would miss out on the incredible scenery covered in my next blog post…