To celebrate my husband’s milestone birthday, I wanted to plan a short getaway to a fun destination. My list of criteria included great food, a vibrant nightlife, a bit of culture and history, unique experiences and a destination no more than 6 hours away by flight. I’ll admit, it was a tall order to satisfy. Pondering the usual destinations in the US, Caribbean and Western Europe, my brilliant husband threw out the idea of Reykjavik, Iceland.
With four of our friends, we caught a red-eye on Icelandair on a Wednesday evening from Toronto to Reykjavik. 5 hours later, and with only a couple of hours of sleep, we arrived at Keflavik airport. We were jet lagged and groggy but our jet lag was quickly cured by the warm geothermal waters of Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon. Only 15 minutes away by bus from the airport, the Blue Lagoon was the perfect pit stop after a near sleepless flight. Over the course of our 72 hour trip, we explored the city and its surrounds, ate very well, learned about its history and culture and partied until the wee hours of the morning.
I can’t say enough about Reykjavik. It’s a amazing travel destination. No wonder it’s so popular. Our extra long weekend trip to Iceland was a blast. If you’re contemplating a visit to Reykjavik, here’s a quick summary of my top 15 tips from our 72 hours in Iceland.
- The Blue Lagoon is a must visit – Sure, it’s touristy. But it’s well worth the visit. Entrance to the lagoon is scheduled by the hour so you need to book your entry tickets well in advance; especially during high season – which is June to August. The Blue Lagoon is 15 minutes away from Keflavik airport so you can save time by visiting the geothermal spa when transferring from the airport to Reykjavik or, on your last day in Reykjavik, when transferring from the city to the airport. The Blue Lagoon has a facility at the entrance to store luggage, so it’s no problem travelling to the lagoon with luggage. In fact, many of the visitors to Blue Lagoon are in transit between the airport and the city.
- Book a Flybus transfer in advance – The taxi ride from Keflavik airport is expensive (approximately $125 US or $160 Cdn). It’s roughly a 45 min journey to Reykjavik. A cost effective way to transfer is by taking a Flybus Airport Shuttle. If you’re travelling on Icelandair, you can book your Flybus transfer while on the plane. However, if you’re planning to visit the Blue Lagoon on your way into the city, you can arrange your transfer through the Blue Lagoon website. The transfer includes a drop off and pick up at the Blue Lagoon on your way to Reykjavik. Flybus transfers are significantly cheaper than taking a taxi.
- Arrange a free walking tour through Citywalk – This highly rated tour company provides a variety of walking tours, including a historic walking tour and a pub crawl tour. The 2 hour historic walk is a great introduction to the city. The glowing Tripadvisor ratings speak for themselves. Everyone in our group gave the Citywalk tour high reviews. Our tour guide, Marteinn (Martin), was knowledgeable, humourous and was able to provide interesting historical, economic and cultural details about Iceland. While the tour is free, tips are strongly encouraged and should reflect the value of the tour experience to you. Because of the popularity of the tours, expect a large group on your tour. CityWalk only permits registration up to 5 days in advance so it’s important to register online as soon as the registration opens up.
- Try a hot dog (or two) from the “world’s most famous hot dog vendor” – Bæjarins Beztu is referred to, in Forbes, as the “world’s most famous hot dog vendor” and derived its fame, in part, from former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit in 2004. You’ll find long queues at this hot dog truck and want to try all of the toppings for an authentic experience. I particularly enjoyed the crispy onions and sweet mustard. However, I suggest asking for “light” mustard if don’t like too much sauce on your hot dogs. The hot dog truck is located near the old harbour. Location: Tryggvatagata 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland.
- The Icelandic take their coffee seriously – If you’re a coffee connoisseur, you’ve come to the right place. The coffee is amazing in Reykjavik. The brand, Te & Kaffi, offers a variety of teas and coffees. I particularly enjoyed my latte from its store front at 27 Laugavegur (the main shopping street in town). Even my latte from the local fast food chain, Aktu-Taktu, was impressive. However, if want a real coffee experience, you’ll want to visit one of Reykjavik’s top coffee houses, Reykjavik Roasters (Kárastígur 1, Reykjavík, Iceland). This coffee house is known for offering the highest quality specialty coffee in town and, for each cup that is made, the hipster baristas measure the coffee grinds on a scale. The coffee beans are roasted onsite but be prepared to wait for your artisan cup of coffee to be created. The loving touch that goes into each cup results in long queues throughout the day.
- Don’t waste money on buying bottled water – The water in Iceland tastes exceptionally clean and pure. It’s likely the freshest tasting water I’ve ever tried. The Icelandic are very proud of their water. I’ve been told that it’s some of the cleanest water in the world. While I can’t verify it, it certainly tastes that way.
- Plan for a later dinner – If you’re visiting during high season, the sun never really sets. In fact, the darkest it ever got, when we were there, was twilight between midnight and 3:00 a.m. Combined with the fact that the nightlife kicks off just after midnight, you’re better off shifting your routine later in the day so that you can experience the bar and music scene well into the early hours of the morning. We scheduled two of our dinners from 9:00 p.m. onwards and it worked well with our post-dinner enjoyment of the lively bar scene. Planning later dinners also allows you to take a quick cat nap in the afternoon to fuel up so that you can stay up as the locals do!
- Take advantage of the nightlife – The night life in Reykjavik is vibrant and lively. The bar scene is the predominant evening entertainment and, as many of the bars are within walking distance of each other, you’ll likely find yourself bar hopping between small bars and pubs. Some of the bars are actually cafes or coffee houses during the day. A number of the popular places to visit include B5, Kaffibarinn and the Lebowski Bar. We particularly enjoyed the talented cover band that played at B5 on Thursday evening and the hip hop and RnB music at Vegamot on Friday and Saturday evening. Many of the bars in Reykjavik are very casual but Vegamot was comparatively upscale and stylish. Tips for Vegamot include going before midnight if you want to grab a table or booth. It gets insanely packed on a Saturday evening. Apparently the Icelandic also love the Toronto artist, Drake, as his songs seemed to comprise over half of the tunes on the DJ’s list that evening!
- Some of the best seafood in the world – Iceland features some of the best seafood in the world. If you’re looking for the freshest option, always ask for the “catch of the day”.We dined at a number of top restaurants and, consistently, the fish was outstanding. Lagoustine’s were also abundant on the menus and I would recommend trying them if you get the chance. One of the best dishes of my trip was the Lagoustine, Sea truffles and Dill appetzer from Matur og Drykker. Stay tuned for my detailed post about some of our best meals in Reykjavik.
- Whale or puffin, anyone? – If you’re adventurous in your eating, you may wish to try whale or puffin. Whale tastes, somewhat, like a cross between beef tartar and tuna sashimi. Be sure to request the leaner pieces of whale as fattier pieces tend to possess a strong fishy taste. We learned this the hard way. Additionally, if you’re curious about puffin, some of the restaurants in Reykjavik offer puffin on their menus. One such restaurant is Fish Market. We tried the tasting menu at Fish Market and it was superb. Although we can’t say that we loved the puffin dish. The puffin texture and taste reminded me of liver.
- Visit the Golden Circle on a day trip – It’s nice to get outside of the city to see a bit of the traditional Icelandic landscape. The Golden Circle features a number of popular sites including the Geysir geothermal site where you can view a number of active geysers. The largest of the geysers is the Strokkur geyser, which shoots a large column of water up to 30 metres (98 ft.) into the air every 5 to 10 minutes and Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall. You can sign up for an organized day tour of the Golden Circle or just as easily rent a car to do a self-drive of the Golden Circle. It’s a fairly easy drive as roads are well maintained and there’s little traffic on the roads in Iceland. Road signage is also easy to discern. You’ll have to compare the cost of a guided tour with the cost of a rental car but when we visited in early July, the car rental option was less expensive. Even at the height of the summer, the conditions in the Golden Circle were similar to the fall season on the North American east coast. Temperatures can dip to the single digits and the lack of trees in rural Iceland makes it exceptionally windy outside of the city. Be sure to dress in layers and wear an outer waterproof shell to block the wind. It’s also advisable to wear hiking or rain boots as the terrain can be muddy; especially around the geysers. Finally, bring a hat, scarf and gloves to ensure that you are comfortably warm when exploring the landscape.
- Looking for souvenirs? – Price points are steep but if you’re looking for gifts or souvenirs, local products to consider include anything made of wool (e.g. beautifully knit Icelandic wool sweaters, scarves and hats), special salts (e.g. black lava salt) or Icelandic outdoor gear (e.g. 66°NORTH premium Icelandic outdoor wear). For children, stuffed puffins and seals are abundant and the Danish store, Tiger on the main shopping street (Laugavegur 13) carries a large assortment of budget friendly Scandanavian styled toys and household items.
- Save on your snacks and drinks – It’s one of the most expensive countries we’ve ever visited. Buy your drinks and snacks from Bonus (local budget grocery chain) at 1 Hallveigarstigur. Prices are almost half of the price of non-alcoholic drinks at the local 10-11 marts.
- Keep your eyes out for some great graffiti art – One thing you’ll notice while walking around the Laugavegur (the main shopping street) area is that there is graffiti art in various locations on the side or neighbouring streets. Some of the graffiti is really impressive! My husband posed for a shot with one of my favourite pieces in the city.
- Keflavik airport can be chaotic. If you are travelling during high season, arrive early for your departure. At least 2 and a half hours early. With the boon in tourism over the past 5 years, Reykjavik’s Keflavik Airport is not well equipped to deal with the large volume of travelers. In fact, it was a zoo around the departure gates and we were required to line up for an extended period before boarding. At one point, our plane was delayed (and several other planes were delayed), but instead of indicating a change to our boarding and departure times on the airport screens, our flight was removed entirely; thus confusing travelers. If you check out the experience of other travelers online, you’ll find that the chaotic Keflavik airport experience is not uncommon.