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Four days in Reykjavik (and around it)

Four days in and around Reykjavik | Pack The Suitcases

We spent four days in Reykjavik, the third destination on our honeymoon. We arrived with the sun shining. For somewhere that was grey for 99% of the time we were there, this was quite a good start.

Tjörnin (‘the pond’)

As ever, we started out to get our bearings. We were staying in an apartment on the banks of Tjörnin (‘the pond’), a lake that is home to a lot of wild birds. It’s quite picturesque on a bright evening, but be warned. The Icelandic midges give Scottish ones a run for their money here! There’s also an amusing statue of someone with a massive rock on his head. The other side of the lake is the National Museum of Iceland, well worth a visit. It was May when we were there and they had a fantastic exhibition on about the role of women and feminism – right up our street!

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Graffiti and street art

Reykjavik is known for its graffiti/street art, and there really is a lot of it.

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Hallgrímskirkja

Probably the highlight of the city is the view from Hallgrímskirkja, the church that looks like it’s been made of Lego or something. Inside is quite spectacular, but the view even more so. I’ll leave that to speak for itself.

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The impact of tourism

We spent two days in Reykjavik being surrounded by tourists (and yes, the irony of us also being tourists is not lost). Out of everywhere we went on honeymoon, our hearts were most set on Reykjavik. It was somewhere we’d both dreamt of going to for years. Perhaps we overhyped it. But the sheer ratio of British, Kiwi, Aussie and American tourists compared to locals was quite a shock. Having come from Sweden and being surrounded by locals chatting in Swedish, it felt funny hearing everyone talking about their travels in English around us rather than hearing locals chatting in Icelandic!

We are used to being a bit off the beaten track, but as Reykjavik is fairly small as cities go, it was almost impossible to escape the hordes. The tourism industry seemed to have taken over the city centre.

The ‘Golden Circle’ tour

With this in mind, it was a welcome relief when the day came to do our tour to see more of the island. We did the ‘Golden Circle’ tour with GeoIceland. Deffo recommend that. We started at a very impressive waterfall, before moving onto the main HUGE double waterfall (it zig-zags and has to be seen to be believed), then seeing the Geyser hot spring area (genuinely worth seeing some water shooting into the air!) and ending at Thingvellir rift valley, where you can see the results of the tectonic plates of the earth having a good old rumble.

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Icelandic horses and Árbæjarsafn open-air museum

Oh and most importantly, we met some Icelandic horses (ponies at under 14.2hh but aren’t known as that!) during the tour. We met some more during our next afternoon at Árbæjarsafn open-air museum. For any horsey readers, they had the same cheeky attitude as a Welsh pony!

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Icelandic food

Iceland has a US influence for historical reasons, and the national snack is a hotdog. But we weren’t quite prepared for how Americanised a lot of the food was. A lot of restaurants in Reykjavik were very ‘trendy’ – and a little bit fake for tourists. A standout, though, was Matur og Drykkur. It was admittedly also very trendy, but had an extremely memorable tasting menu. Considering eating out in Reykjavik is not cheap, the price of the tasting menu was similar to other tasting menus we’ve had, especially in Sweden and Denmark. And it was delicious and very interesting – sheep dung smoked trout featured!

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All in all, we liked Iceland and it was definitely worth going to. The scenery was mind-boggling and like nowhere else on earth. We’ll never forget it. But it’s probably not somewhere we’ll go back to soon. Reykjavik just felt a bit false and too touristy. I don’t feel we got much sense of the real Icelandic people or culture because everything was aimed at visitors. There was chatter in the press and between the local people (when we found some!) about the impact on the city of this sudden tourist boom: perhaps it’s just too trendy a destination at the moment.

Four days in Reykjavik: useful information

How to get there

We arrived from Stockholm, which is probably quite a niche journey to detail on here so it’s probably easier to tell you that it would have been about two and a half hours from Manchester airport. From Reykjavik airport, there are buses to the centre. It’s about 50 kilometres away and took about an hour when we were there.

Where to stay

We stayed near Tjörnin or ‘the pond’ – a lake full of wild birds. It was very central so handy to walk into the main drag. We wouldn’t write home about the apartment we hired, though.

How to get around

Everything is walkable within the centre, and there are buses if you want to venture out, such as to the open-air museum. However, if you want to get off the proverbial beaten track, apparently you have to drive. Obviously there are no trains and trams. People we know who have hired cars to drive there have enjoyed it but have had to be very careful on the roads. We don’t really drive at home, never mind abroad, so didn’t attempt this!

When to go

May was a good time to go – we had a couple of sunny days with good light for photos. But it was very busy so it depends on what you’re after. There’d be fewer crowds out of season.

30 thoughts on “Four days in Reykjavik (and around it)”

  1. A lot of tourist forget the Pearl of the North Akureyri. We hear it a lot we are much nicer town then Reykjavik. There are more places than the city.

    1. Do you know why there are so many tourists on the streets of Akureyri? The restaurants are all full!

      Maybe not all days but that was the feeling we got trying to go out to eat on Saturday in August of this year. 😉

  2. Hiya! Just thought you may want to know your review has been picked up by the local media 🙂 You can check on visir.is. Also, I’m an Irishman living here for around a year now, I can only say that there is one experience of Iceland (staying in 101 center of reykjavik, going on the golden circle), and quite a different one (visiting out of the way hot pools, small and wild mountain huts, visiting the highlands and deserts of the interior, seeing more of the countryside. It sounds like you wanted the second one, but had the first one. Its possible to do in 4 days, but I would maybe make contact with anyone who knows Reykjavik, there are beautiful things to do in the city outside of the touristy trap bit! Good luck 🙂

    1. Hello! Ah yes, we’d had an email from them asking if they could use a photo. I hope it didn’t come across unbalanced in their article – we did have a mixed experience with Reykjavik but the small bits of the rest of Iceland that we saw, we really liked. We don’t ever tend to stay central (this was the only place on our honeymoon that we stayed in the city centre of!) but we thought it would be easier in Reykjavik so that we could walk everywhere. We’re not ‘outdoorsy’ adventure types by any stretch, but we definitely would have liked to do more trips out of the city to experience more of the country as a whole. We got the impression that it’s outside of the centre where the ‘real’ Iceland is. Next time 🙂

  3. I don’t think Iceland is Americanized at all. The hot dog is very VERY different from the American hotdog. Different meat.
    Besides you can get very typical Danish hotdogs in Denmark. So is it American or Danish influence?

    Doing two days in the city, and two days in the country side, I’d say is too short.
    When I recommend to people where to go, I mention different places.
    Reynisfjara is spectacular. And on the way to there, you could have stopped in Hveragerði and walked in to the valley and gone bathing in the warm river. You could have gone inland to see glaciers, and even gone to explore caves and other things.
    You could have gone to Landmannalaugar and explored that area.
    You could have gone up north, and explored Akureyri, Húsavík, Dimmuborgir, Ásbyrgi and other locations up north.
    Even Reykjanesskagi has amazing little gems like krísuvík and blue lagoon.
    Snæfellsnesi and that area is gorgeous and you could have visited Flatey.
    There are several very low key restaurants in town, one down at Grandi, passed the harbour and Harpa.
    And you could have with a city pass, gone out to Viðey and had lunch or dinner there.

    I think you followed the tourists too much, even in the city, you only need one day, but walking around the area of Hallgrímskirkja, Þingholt, Gamli Kirkjugarðurinn you would have gotten a different impression of the city.

    The locals are there, and is say if you visit again, rent a car and just ask around.

    1. Hi! Thanks for the comment.
      It was sadly just a few days as part of our honeymoon, so we thought Reykjavik would be the easiest base to start at. If we’d had more time/days, we would have explored further afield. We don’t really drive, so renting a car was not an option. Next time we will look into staying somewhere else in Iceland, because what we saw of the rest of the island, we very much liked!

    2. Heldurðu að þú sért ekki í fullmikilli vörn Sirrý? Þetta er nú frekar saklaus gagnrýni af þeirra hálfu. Og að mæla með Hallgrímskirkju & bláa lóninu þegar þau vilja forðast ferðamannaflóðið þykir mér ansi skondið.

      1. Þú greinilega lest ekki.
        Engin vörn, heldur tillaga.
        Þú dæmir, og þeir sem dæma eru i raun að dæma sjálfa sig.
        Ég lagði aldrei til að fara ofan i Bláa lónið eða upp i hallgrímskirkju.

        Ég legg til að labba i kring um Skólavörðuholtið…. i stað þess að fara alltaf td Laugaveginn.
        Og ég legg til að ferðast um Reykjanesskaga.

        Mér leiðist fólk sem er alltaf að þræta og fylla inn í eyðurnar.

  4. Next time you visit – come to West Iceland Borgarnes, Dalir, Husafell, Reykholt and Snaefellsnes peninsula. You will love it.

  5. Interesting take on Reykjavik. We leave next week for Iceland — staying a couple days in Reykjavik but also renting a car and taking the Ring Road. Somewhat ironic, however, that with your complaint about too many tourists that all your photos are nearly devoid of people.

    1. Hi Daniel, thanks for your comment! I think a car might allow you to more easily discover the rest of the island – we don’t really drive so didn’t do this. Hope you enjoy your holiday! Of course, we always take photos with no people in them. Even in quiet cities, it can be a case of waiting for that perfect empty shot! 😁

  6. Dear Caroline,

    You have got really good point there about Reykjavik. But, Reykjavik is nowhere the highlight of Iceland. It is just the only city in the country, with some hidden gems, pros & cons. That’s all.
    Even though the city is not famous for being a sunny escape, the sun shines little more than 1400 hours a year (about 28 % of the time) ;).

    With regards,

    Jóhann

    1. Yes, in hindsight, we think our mistake was going to Reykjavik as a base, thinking we could treat it more as a short city break. We normally do 4 or 5 day breaks in cities and that’s enough. If we’d gone for longer we could have had the option to travel to different towns, but looking back, we couldn’t have afforded to spend much longer there even if we’d tried as we had no money left!

      Unfortunately as we don’t drive, we couldn’t get off the beaten track as much during our time there, so one day we’ll go back to see the rest of Iceland 🙂

  7. I would def recommend visiting again and exploring further out. i also recommend a walking tour by ‘i heart Reykjavik’ for a taste of local culture, she also offers dining experiences with her family. Her blog is very interesting and might give you some ideas for a return visit as the country as so much more to offer and I’m sure the locals would love to tempt you back. I am visiting for the 6th time next month, but I do notice how much busier it has become since my first visit in 2006.

    i do however find it odd for tourists to be sad by the presence of other tourists, they were probably thinking the same thing about your presence 😉

  8. oops, forgot to acknowledge your acknowledgement of the irony of being a tourist not liking tourists but got carried away talking about ‘ I heart Reykjavik’ blog! it really is a great blog 🙂

    1. Hi, thanks for your comments. Yes, we do appreciate the irony of us visiting as tourists and being a bit disappointed to find so many other tourists. But it was more the ratio of tourists to locals, rather than overall volume of tourists, that was noticeable to us. Say compared to the centre of Lisbon – lots of tourists, but you can still wander into a cafe and be surrounded by locals.

      Of course, anyone would expect tourists on the Golden Circle and we did not mind that! It was just more noticeable within Reykjavik, even though we had looked at so many local websites/blogs/tips to find things – guess every other tourist must have too!

      We think our mistake was going to Reykjavik as a base, thinking we could treat it more as a short city break – we normally do 4 or 5 day breaks in cities and that’s enough. If we’d gone for longer we could have had the option to travel to different towns, but looking back, we couldn’t have afforded to spend much longer there even if we’d tried as we had no money left!

      We did so much research (amid wedding planning!) and unfortunately as we don’t drive, we couldn’t get off the beaten track as much during our time there, so one day we’ll go back to see the rest of Iceland 🙂

  9. As an Icelander I hate that when I’m downtown I’m the only native in a sea of tourists. One of the reasons I rarely go there anymore. I don’t really understand what you mean about our food being american – it’s just regular food. Same food that I eat when I go to the UK, Spain, Denmark and other places I frequently visit. Traditional Icelandic food isn’t exactly something a normal person would want to eat very often since it’s kinda gross – restaurants def wouldn’t be able to make any money of off only selling that. As for the restaurants being trendy I guess that’s right but don’t see how that’s bad – except for that they cost an arm and a leg to eat at. If you would have come here about 5 years ago you would have had a better experience I think – that was before Iceland was “in fashion” to visit and tourists weren’t everywhere. I do think its funny you thought Reykjavík was to touristy but then chose to do the most touristy thing you could possibly do in the country side – the golden circle. But I understand that you had limited time – you shouldn’t really come here unless you have real time to spend. So if you ever decide to venture back, give yourselves more time and def do something other then the city center, golden circle or the blue lagoon. Hope the rest of you honeymoon is good!

    P.S. You are right, there is lot of talk and tension about the growing tourist problem (yes it has become a problem) both in the media and among people.

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment. Yes, we do appreciate the irony of us visiting as tourists and being a bit disappointed to find so many other tourists. But it was more the ratio of tourists to locals, rather than overall volume of tourists, that was noticeable to us. Of course, anyone would expect tourists on the Golden Circle and we did not mind that! It was just more noticeable within Reykjavik, even though we had looked at so many local websites/blogs/tips to find things – guess every other tourist must have too.

      We think our mistake was going to Reykjavik as a base, thinking we could treat it more as a short city break – we normally do 4 or 5 day breaks in cities and that’s enough. If we’d gone for longer we could have had the option to travel to different towns, but looking back, we couldn’t have afforded to spend much longer there even if we’d tried as we had no money left!

      We did so much research (amid wedding planning!) and unfortunately as we don’t drive, we couldn’t get off the beaten track as much during our time there, so one day we’ll go back to see the rest of Iceland:-)

  10. I absolutely love Reykjavík and I’ve been 5 times in the last few years. I still haven’t seen a great deal outside of the city though. Something I plan to rectify at some point, when I have time (and cash) to take a few weeks and hire a car. I’ve definitely been aware of other tourists but not to the extent you did. Maybe because I live in Edinburgh and am used to hundreds of tourists everywhere? In comparison I find Reykjavík to be so quiet! Or maybe I get lost in my own world and am oblivious? It possibly comes down to where I, and you choosed to go. Or maybe the time of year? I’ve been there over New Years Eve, June, September and two Novembers. Certainly in the cafes and restaurants I like I’ve seemed to be in the minority of non-Icelandic people. I really love quietly sitting with my coffee with the sounds of Icelandic chatter around me. Most of the random conversations I’ve struck up have, by chance, been with locals as opposed to other tourists. I find Reykjavík to be utterly charming and full of art, culture and music. I particularly love exploring the quiet residential streets with the colourful houses, the old harbour and the walk out to the lighthouse. It’s definitely possible to explore Reykjavík by foot and find an ‘authentic’ experience, even if you only have a couple of days. Of course it’s perfectly ok if it’s not for you. Not every city is going to appeal to everyone. I hope the rest of your honeymoon was better. 🙂

    1. Hiya, thanks for the comment! It’s good to hear someone else who went there for a city break. Some of the comments we’ve received have made us feel like the only ones who have done that! It seems to be more about hiring a car and driving round the whole island for 2 weeks. Unfortunately not something we could have done. Interesting that you live in Edinburgh, one of our favourite UK cities funnily enough! We’re also from touristy cities ourselves and have enjoyed trips to other tourist-filled cities abroad (Rome being the number one example!) so it’s not that we mind tourism around us. It was more that SO much was aimed at tourists, crammed into a small space, it didn’t seem like there was as much for locals at all, and most noticeably, the ratio of tourists to locals was really high. We were often in cafes/restaurants and everyone would be a tourist – and these weren’t in the main drag – so it didn’t feel like we were abroad if we closed our eyes and listened to the conversations around us. So that seemed a shame. And perhaps May was a bad time to visit! It looks like there’s lots in the Icelandic press about the effects of tourism – locals say they’re upset by lots of huge new hotels going up. Interesting stuff. Anyway, we still enjoyed it, hopefully that comes across in the post! 🙂

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