The guide to traditional Reykjavik

The guide to traditional Reykjavik

As much as I loved the hipster side of Reykjavik, the city isn’t all beanies and beards (although it’s certainly all Instagram-able). While it’s merely a town by international standards with a population of 120,000 (the same size as the suburb I grew up in), the Icelandic capital is delightfully quaint and surprisingly cosmopolitan.

View of Reykjavik, Iceland from concrete church

Dotted with cafes and sprinkled with color, the streets are lined with flowers, bicycles and picnic tables. The homes veer from squat and functional to glass-edged modernity. While it’s not exactly a town that’s overrunning with things to do–I hold strong to my statement that the most stunning scenes in Iceland can only be seen on a cross-country road trip–there’s enough to keep you charmed for a weekend or an extra-long layover.

The Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, Iceland

Blue Lagoon

This is a must before you even make it into the city (or, at the least, before you leave). Take the bus directly from the Keflavik Airport straight to the geothermal spas, and then continue on to Reykjavik after spending the day soaking in the warm waters rich with minerals. Set amidst a lava field, the Blue Lagoon isn’t cheap but it’s such a once-in-a-lifetime experience that it shouldn’t be missed.

Blue house in Reykjavik, Iceland

The colorful neighborhoods

Perhaps as a spirited resistance to the deep dark that falls over Iceland every winter, many of the homes in downtown Reykjavik are painted in bright primary hues or nearly neon shades. In June, gardens take hold with tulips and lupine thriving in the mild sunshine. The compact city center makes for a lovely walk through the well-manicured homes.

Modern church Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland

The concrete church

Hallgrimskirkja dominates the Reykjavik skyline: at 75 meters high, the tower is visible from 20 kilometers away. You can take an elevator to the top for the view (seen in this post’s first photo) that graces many a postcard.

Perlan viewing deck in Reykjavik, Iceland

The mirrored dome

The Perlan hot water tanks and the Saga Museum sit atop a hill just beyond the city center. While the museum is reported to be excellent, I can attest to nothing other than the hexagonal viewing deck with 360-degree views of Reykjavik and its surrounding suburbs. Not a bad stop on your way back into town if you’ve rented a vehicle, although I’m not sure it would be truly worth the effort to walk, bike or figure out the bus.

Map of Iceland in Reykjavik city hall

Reykjavik City Hall

There are rotating art exhibits, but the perennial favorite is the intricately detailed topographic map of Iceland. Worth a quick stop to see the unique geography of the country–particularly if you’re planning on taking a road trip.

Lake and church in Reykjavik, Iceland


A walk around the lake

Tjornin Lake is filled with seagulls and ducks; surrounded by a serene walking path and grassy knolls ideal for a reading sesh in the sunshine. A wonderfully relaxing place to start the day.

Forsalea ApartmentHouse B&B in Reykjavik, Iceland

Stay with the locals

As fun as hostels can be and as luxe as hotels are, it’s often nice to stay somewhere that feels like your own bed. We opted to spend our last night in Reykjavik in a bed-and-breakfast right in the heart of the city, and it was a wonderful way to end our trip: plenty of Icelandic hospitality and home-spun comfort. Hlin, the owner of Forsalea Apartment House (you can choose to rent a room, a cottage or a flat), was the ideal hostess: helpful and friendly, but also happy to let you do your own thing. And the location was spectacular: just two blocks away from the city’s best coffee shop!

Note: Forsaela Apartment House kindly offered us a complimentary stay, but all opinions are my own. 

  • Heather

    Iceland has been near the top of my travel list for ages! Love that you went straight to the Blue Lagoon from the airport 🙂

  • Casey

    It’s interesting, when we visited in November, the town was pretty dark and dreary… interesting to see it in the Summer.

  • Been wanting to visit Iceland for a long time! It’s so pretty.

  • camorose

    Of course–they make it TOO easy 🙂

  • camorose

    I’d love to go back for the Northern Lights, but I kind of can’t imagine going when it would be colder or darker–summer in Iceland is magical!

  • camorose


  • Casey

    Truthfully, it kind of gave it a weird magical quality too though in the dark and the snow. Iceland I think is a truly intriguing experience any time of the year because every season is so different there!

  • camorose

    Can definitely see that. Northern Lights ARE on my list–might just have to go back to Iceland for them!

  • thomas C

    thanks, been thinking about Iceland as a stopover to Europe since Icelandic Air started offering some screaming deals non-stop from Anchorage (my POB). This is inspiring, had no clue about all the swimming holes.

  • camorose

    Yes! It’s so cool!

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