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Rick Steves Snapshot Reykjav¿k
By Rick Steves
With Cameron Hewitt
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 9, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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- Rick’s firsthand, up-to-date advice on Reykjavík’s best sights, restaurants, hotels, and more, plus tips for how to beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps
- Top sights and local experiences: Sample deliciously fresh seafood, visit the Icelandic Symphony, and pick up a cozy Nordic sweater as a souvenir. Journey through Viking history at the Saga Museum, soak in the famous Blue Lagoon Hot Springs, and admire Iceland’s unique architecture
- Helpful maps and self-guided walking tours to keep you on track
- Day trips to nearby spots like the Golden Circle and the Reykjanes Peninsula
This Snapshot guide, excerpted from my guidebook Rick Steves Iceland, introduces you to Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík. Its colorful, pedestrian-friendly downtown has fine museums, a stroll-worthy harbor, and a dozen thermal swimming pools, perfect for a rejuvenating soak among Icelanders. The capital’s restaurants are surprisingly good, and its nightlife scene is legendary.
Iceland’s natural splendors are what attract most visitors, but Icelanders are also worth getting to know. They have a gentle spirit and a can-do frontier attitude. They’re also whip-smart (Icelandic scholars were the first to write down the legends and histories of the early Scandinavian people--collectively called “the sagas”). Enjoy meeting the easygoing Icelanders; in this little country, everyone’s on a first-name basis.
Reykjavík is also the natural jumping-off point for exploring Iceland’s dramatic countryside. It’s an easy hop from Reykjavík inland to the Golden Circle route, studded with natural and historical attractions (from geysers to thundering waterfalls), or south to the legendary Blue Lagoon thermal baths (on the Reykjanes Peninsula, near the international airport at Keflavík). Excursions can take you beyond Reykjavík to a host of Icelandic experiences.
Iceland’s countryside is famously spectacular. While it’s hard to have a bad time here, it’s easy to underestimate the notoriously changeable weather, blow through too much money, or waste time by not making a sensible plan. But if you equip yourself with good information (this book) and expect to travel smart, you will.
To help you have the best trip possible, I’ve included the following topics in this book:
• Planning Your Time, with advice on how to make the most of your limited time
• Orientation, including tourist information (abbreviated as TI), tips on public transportation, local tour options, and helpful hints
Sights with ratings:
▲▲—Try hard to see
▲—Worthwhile if you can make it
No rating—Worth knowing about
• Sleeping and Eating, with good-value recommendations in every price range
• Connections, with tips on buses and driving
Practicalities, near the end of this book, has information on money, staying connected, hotel reservations, transportation, and other helpful hints.
It’s my hope that this guide will make your trip more meaningful and rewarding. Traveling like a temporary local, you’ll get the absolute most out of every mile, minute, and dollar.
Góða ferð! Happy travels!
Reykjavík, the tiny capital of a remote island-nation, is unexpectedly cosmopolitan, with an artistic, bohemian flair. It lacks world-class sights, yet manages to surprise and delight even those who use the city mostly as a home base for exploring Iceland’s natural wonders.
The city’s downtown streets are lined with creative restaurants, quirky art galleries, rollicking bars serving everything from craft beer to designer cocktails, and shops selling stuffed puffins, local knitwear, and Gore-Tex parkas.
Reykjavík is a colorful enclave in a stark landscape: It seems every wall serves as a canvas for a vibrant street-art mural, and each corner is occupied by a cozy, art-strewn, stay-awhile café. In the old town center, colorful timber-frame houses clad in corrugated metal sheets huddle together amid a sprinkling of landmarks—such as the striking Hallgrímskirkja church, which crowns the town’s highest point.
Like the rest of the country, Reykjavík has old roots. Viking Age farmers settled here in the ninth century. Until the 1750s, this area remained nothing more than a sprawling farm. As towns started to form in Iceland, Reykjavík emerged as the country’s capital. Today, the capital region is a small city, home to two out of every three Icelanders—a population similar to that of Berkeley, California, or Fargo, North Dakota. The northernmost capital city on earth—which straddles the European and American hemispheres—feels more New World than Old.
With the recent tourism boom, these days Icelanders tend to work, live, and shop in the suburbs, and make fun of Reykjavík’s downtown core with all its “puffin shops” selling souvenirs. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid downtown: Visitors find just about everything they need in this small, walkable zone. You can take in the vibe of this pithy city in a leisurely two-hour stroll, and it’s an enjoyable place to simply hang out. While museums aren’t a priority here, those seeking sights can easily fill a day or two.
Step into Hallgrímskirkja’s serene church interior. Learn about this little nation’s proud history at the National Museum and the Maritime Museum, and about the city’s humble Viking Age roots at the Settlement Exhibition—built around the surviving walls of a 10th-century longhouse. Art lovers can visit a half-dozen galleries highlighting Icelandic artists (early-20th-century sculptor Einar Jónsson is tops). Naturalists can go on a whale-watching cruise, or ride a ferry to an island. Modern architecture fans can ogle the award-winning Harpa concert hall, then walk along the shoreline to the iconic Sun Voyager sculpture.
Or head out to the suburbs to see the Pearl, the domed building designed to check off many Icelandic targets in one go—with exhibits on whales, puffins, glaciers, volcanoes, and the northern lights, plus panoramic city views.
Plenty of family-friendly activities—open-air museum, zoo, botanic garden—are just beyond the city center. To recharge, the capital area has plenty of relaxing—and very local—thermal swimming pools.
But don’t focus too much on Reykjavík. Instead, use the city as a springboard for Iceland’s glorious countryside sights, taking advantage of its accommodations, great restaurants, and lively nightlife. Even on a longer visit, drivers may prefer sleeping at a distance, dropping into town only for occasional sightseeing, strolling, and dining. To save money and have a more local experience, consider sleeping in suburban Reykjavík—which has fewer hotels, but ample Airbnb options.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
On a short visit, savor Reykjavík’s strolling ambience in the morning and evening, maybe drop into one or two sights early or late, and use your precious daytime hours to tour sights in the countryside (see the Beyond Reykjavík chapter for an overview of your options). My self-guided Reykjavík Walk offers a helpful town orientation (and crash course on Iceland) that can be done at any time of day or night.
On a longer trip—or in winter (when countryside options are limited)—Reykjavík warrants more time. The following schedule is designed to fill two full days in Reykjavík itself. With less time, mix and match from these options. My plan ignores weather—in practice, let the weather dictate your itinerary. If it’s blowing hard and drizzling, prioritize indoor sights. When the weather’s good, get outside.
Day 1: Start with my self-guided walk around downtown, and (if the line’s not too long) ride up the tower of Hallgrímskirkja church. Find a nice lunch in the Laugavegur/Skólavörðustígur area. Walk down to the Sun Voyager sculpture for a photo op, then follow the shoreline to the Harpa concert hall (peek in the lobby, and stop by the box office to survey entertainment options). Follow the moored boats around to the Old Harbor, where you can comparison-shop whale watching and other boat tours for tomorrow. Then continue along the harbor to the Grandi area, where you can drop into your choice of exhibits: Whales of Iceland, Saga Museum, Maritime Museum, Aurora Reykjavík, or FlyOver Iceland. Return to the downtown area for dinner and after-hours strolling. Before or after dinner, unwind with the Icelanders in one of Reykjavík’s thermal swimming pools.
Day 2: Begin your day at the Settlement Exhibition. If that compact exhibit whets your appetite for Icelandic history, take a walk along the Pond (the city’s little lake) to the National Museum. After lunch, take your pick of activities: boat trip (either whale or puffin watching, or simply a ride out to Viðey Island); suburban sights, including the Pearl (with its many high-tech exhibits, and a grand city view), the sights in Laugardalur (botanic garden, zoo), and/or Árbær Open-Air Museum; or explore the city’s many art museums. Consider another dip in a thermal pool before enjoying a food tour or dinner in the center.
If you’re in town on a weekend, squeeze in a visit to the Kolaportið flea market, downtown.
Orientation to Reykjavík
Reykjavík’s population is about 125,000, but the entire capital region stretches to about 216,000. The compact core of Reykjavík radiates out from the main walking street, which changes names from Austurstræti to Bankastræti to Laugavegur as it cuts through the city. You can walk from one end of downtown Reykjavík (Ingólfstorg square) to the other (the bus junction Hlemmur) in about 20 minutes. Just northwest of downtown is the mostly postindustrial Old Harbor zone, with excursion boats, salty restaurants, and a few sights.
Greater Reykjavík is made up of six towns. Hafnarfjörður (“harbor fjord”), to the south, has its own history, harbor, and downtown core. Kópavogur and Garðabær, between Reykjavík and Hafnarfjörður, are 20th-century suburbs. Mosfellsbær, once a rural farming district along the road running north from Reykjavík, has turned into a sizable town of its own. And Seltjarnarnes is a posh enclave at the end of the Reykjavík peninsula. While I haven’t recommended specific hotels or restaurants in these neighborhoods (except in Hafnarfjörður), finding an affordable Airbnb in one of these areas can provide a local home base.
Reykjavík has four tourist information offices (TIs), called What’s On, sprinkled along the main east-west tourist axis, from Laugavegur to the Old Harbor (see the “Reykjavík Walk” map). Each offers mostly the same services (including baggage storage, excursions, and tour bookings) and has similar hours (generally daily 9:00-20:00, shorter hours Sun and in winter, tel. 551-3600, www.whatson.is). You’ll find offices at Laugavegur 54, Laugavegur 5, Bankastræti 2 (set back from the street, closed Sun), and in the Volcano House at Tryggvagata 11. Bus passes are only available at the Bankastræti location; this location also has a Safe Travel counter, which offers advice about driving, weather, and other concerns while on the road or out in the backcountry (www.safetravel.is). There’s also a lounge with tables where you can sit and enjoy free coffee while you ponder your options.
The TI’s free and helpful monthly entertainment guide, What’s On, is distributed at their offices and at hotels.
Alternatively, Visit Reykjavík, the city-run TI, offers info online at www.visitreykjavik.is.
The Reykjavík Grapevine, a free informative English-language paper and website, provides a roundup of sightseeing hours, music listings, helpful restaurant reviews, and fun insights into local life (www.grapevine.is). The local blog IHeartReykjavik.net also has helpful insights about both the capital region and all of Iceland.
Sightseeing Pass: The Reykjavík City Card may make sense for busy museum sightseers on a longer stay, but is not worth it for a short visit. It covers bus transport, city-run museums, Reykjavík swimming pools, and some other attractions (24 hours-3,900 ISK, 48 hours-5,500 ISK, 72 hours-6,700 ISK; sold at participating museums, TIs, hotels and hostels, and at City Hall; www.citycard.is).
ARRIVAL IN REYKJAVÍK
International flights use Keflavík Airport, a 45-minute drive from downtown Reykjavík (the Reykjavík City Airport is for domestic flights). For information on getting between Keflavík and downtown Reykjavík, and for getting to other destinations around Iceland, see “Reykjavík Connections” at the end of this chapter.
Money: Remember, you’ll use credit cards more than cash in Iceland. If you do need cash, several big banks downtown have ATMs. The downtown branch of Landsbankinn at Austurstræti 11 is convenient and along my self-guided walk.
Useful Bus App: If you’ll be using public buses, use the Strætó app to avoid having to carry exact bus fare. Download the app, then change the default language to English under “Settings.” At the prompt to enter your mobile number, include “+1” for the US country code. You’ll receive a PIN number on your mobile phone—once you enter the PIN, you can enter your credit card details to buy bus tickets. The app also has a real-time route planner, which lets you track your bus to be confident of your stop.
Pharmacy: Downtown pharmacies are at Austurstræti 19 (Mon-Fri 9:00-18:00, Sat 11:00-16:00, closed Sun, tel. 552-4045, www.lyfja.is) and Laugavegur 46 (Mon-Fri 9:00-19:00, Sat 10:00-16:00, closed Sun, tel. 414-4646, http://islandsapotek.business.site). For a pharmacy with longer hours, try Lyfja Granda in Grandi at Fiskislóð 3 (tel. 512-3770) or, farther out, the Lyfja at Smáratorg 1, under the Læknavakt after-hours medical service near the Smáralind shopping mall (tel. 564-5600).
Laundry: A handy full-service laundry, Úðafoss, is located just off Laugavegur at Vitastígur 13. They promise same-day wash/dry/fold service if you drop off before 11:00, otherwise it’s next-day service (Mon-Fri 8:00-18:00, closed Sat-Sun, tel. 551-2301). The downtown Laundromat Café has four self-serve washers and dryers in its basement (long hours daily, Austurstræti 9, tel. 587-7555). It’s also a popular comfort-food restaurant (described later in this chapter)—turning your chore into a fun night out.
Baggage Storage: All What’s On TIs offer baggage storage for 1,000 ISK/bag per day—just be sure to note the closing time.
Bike Rental: For quality bikes, Reykjavík Bike Tours rents from its location on the pier in the Old Harbor (3,500 ISK/4 hours, 4,900 ISK/24 hours; in summer daily 9:00-17:00, in winter by appointment; Ægisgarður 7, mobile 694-8956, www.icelandbike.com). They also run tours (see “Tours in Reykjavík,” later).
Taxis: The two long-established companies are Hreyfill (tel. 588-5522, www.hreyfill.is) and BSR (tel. 561-0000, www.taxireykjavik.is). Both offer flat rates to Keflavík Airport. For early-morning rides, call the evening before to reserve. Icelanders usually order taxis by phone, but there are a few taxi stands downtown and at major transportation hubs. In general, though, taxis are expensive—even a short ride in Reykjavík will cost 2,000 ISK—so use them only when there’s no better option (cabbies expect payment by credit card but not a tip). Ride services such as Uber and Lyft don’t operate in Reykjavík.
Online Translation Tips: A few of the websites I list in this chapter are in Icelandic only. To view them in English, use Google’s Chrome browser (for automatic translation) or paste the URL into the translation window at Translate.google.com. When searching for Icelandic words on a website, omit all the accent marks and use th, d, and ae instead of þ, ð, and æ.
North Americans will feel at home in Reykjavík, as it’s largely a car city. If you’ll be renting a car to explore the countryside, you may want to keep it for part of your time in Reykjavík. Several important sights are outside of downtown (where parking is generally free and easy).
That said, you don’t need a car to enjoy your visit. And if you’re staying in the center (inside the street called Hringbraut) and visiting only downtown sights, a car can be a headache. If you plan to have your own wheels in town, consider looking for accommodations with free parking a little outside the center.
Parking: Downtown, on-street parking is metered (Mon-Fri 9:00-18:00, Sat 10:00-16:00; free outside these times). Pay with credit cards or coins at machines (look for the white and blue “P” sign), and display your ticket on the windshield. Parking in the P1 zone is the most expensive (370 ISK/hour); parking in P2 through P4 costs about 190 ISK/hour. You can prepay for an entire day, so even if overnighting in the center, you don’t have to worry about returning to feed the meter. Check along Garðastræti and its side streets, just a couple of blocks above Ingólfstorg. A few coin-only parking meters may still survive.
There are several small public parking garages downtown (check up-to-the-minute availability at www.bilastaedasjodur.is/#bilahusin). The following all charge 240 ISK for the first hour, then 120 ISK/hour after that, and are open daily 7:00-24:00. The Traðarkot garage at Hverfisgata 20 is the best option and close to the end point of my Reykjavík Walk. Progressively closer in, but typically full on weekdays, are the Kolaport garage, near the Harpa concert hall at Kalkofnsvegur 1; the Ráðhúsið garage, underneath City Hall at Tjarnargata 11; and—closest to my Reykjavík Walk’s starting point—the Vesturgata garage at Vesturgata 7 (on the corner with Mjóstræti). Another very central choice is the private garage at the Hafnartorg building (enter on Steinbryggja, from the main harborfront road Geirsgata).
You can also park just outside downtown in a neighborhood with free on-street parking, such as behind Hallgrímskirkja church or near the BSÍ bus terminal. A free parking lot is along Eiríksgata at the top of the hill by Hallgrímskirkja church, but it’s often full. There’s also plenty of free parking in the Grandi box-store zone to the far side of the Old Harbor.
By Public Transportation
Greater Reykjavík has a decent bus (strætó) system. In this late-rising city, buses run from about 6:30 on weekdays, 8:00 on Saturdays, and 10:00 on Sundays, with last departures between 23:00 and 24:00. Service is sparse on evenings and weekends, when most buses only run every half-hour.
Bus routes intersect at several key points, notably Hlemmur, at the eastern end of Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s downtown shopping street; Lækjartorg, at the western end of Laugavegur; Mjódd, in the eastern Reykjavík suburbs; and Fjörður, in the town of Hafnarfjörður. The English journey planner at Straeto.is makes using the system easy, and recognizes addresses without Icelandic characters (you can omit all the accent marks and use th, d, and ae instead of þ, ð, and æ). To get help from a real person, call 540-2700.
You can pay for the bus in cash (470 ISK), but few do this, and drivers don’t give change. Instead, buy a pass, a shareable perforated strip of paper tickets, or use the Strætó app (described in “Helpful Hints,” earlier; one-day pass-1,800 ISK; three-day pass-4,200 ISK; 20 tickets-9,100 ISK and more than most visitors will need). Buses are also covered by the Reykjavík City Card (described earlier).
Tickets and passes are sold at 10-11 convenience stores, the TI at Bankastræti 2, most swimming pools, information desks at the Kringlan and Smáralind shopping malls, and at the Mjódd bus junction (but not from bus drivers). Without a pass, ask the driver for a free transfer slip if you need to change buses.
Tours in Reykjavík
While you’ll see bus tours advertised in Reykjavík, I wouldn’t take one. The city is easy and enjoyable by foot and lends itself to walking tours.
CityWalk is a group of young, fun-loving locals who give chatty two-hour walks of the town center at least three times a day (in season). The cost: whatever you think it’s worth. Tours start in front of the parliament building. While my self-guided town walk covers more standard information on essentially the same route, these walks fill the time with fun local insights (mobile 787-7779, www.citywalk.is, email@example.com). Their website explains other options, like a Walk the Crash tour with journalist/historian Magnús Sveinn Helgason, who gives the inside story of the 2008 financial crash (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Funky Iceland runs a variety of tours with an irreverent spirit, including a Reykjavík Highlights Walk (7,000 ISK, 2.5 hours, daily at 14:00); a Funky History Walk that includes lunch (6,000 ISK, 2.5 hours, daily at 10:30); and a Funky Food and Beer Walk (14,000 ISK, includes 5 craft beers and stops at 5 restaurants, 3 hours, nightly at 17:00). Get details, learn about their other tours, and book ahead on their website (www.funkyiceland.is).
To learn more about Icelandic cuisine and cooking—from traditional dishes to modern interpretations—you can take a three- to four-hour guided walk with stops at a half-dozen local eateries. Show up with an appetite, as it amounts to a big mobile feast.
Wake Up Reykjavík Food Tour (www.wakeupreykjavik.com) and Your Friend in Reykjavík each offer good food tours for around 14,000 ISK. Your Friend in Reykjavík’s tour mixes local history, fun, and classic traditional dishes (smoked puffin, lamb soup, hot dog, shark, whale, skyr;
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- Rick Steves