Reykjavik has gained popularity as a ‘bucket list’ destination for many international tourists. With charming streets in the downtown core, majestic glaciers, and picturesque hot springs a quick trip away, the city has pretty much everything you could ever want- in one stunning location. Not to mention the Icelandic delicacies that are a must-try, even just to say you did it (fermented shark, anyone?). Planning a trip to Reykjavik can be a little overwhelming. There’s so much to do, see, eat and experience, how do you narrow it down for a tight itinerary? To help you maximize your fun and time in the city, we have the absolute 10 things to do in Reykjavik.
These are the essential activities to include for your Reykjavik vacation:
Soak away at the Blue Lagoon Spa
If you know anyone who has been to Reykjavik, chances are you spotted their Instagram pic at this stunning hot spring spa. The geothermal spa features soothing, warm waters and is surrounded by mountains and a black lava field. Unwind with a mineral-rich mud mask while you admire the sweeping views. Then, make a pit stop for sauna or steam room soak. Take a dip in the skin-enriching waters (and up your own Insta game while you’re at it!). Check out this easy shuttle transfer from Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon.
Chase the northern lights
October – March is the best time to see the northern lights in Reykjavik, Iceland. If you’re in the city at the right time, one of the best things to do in Reykjavik is to take advantage of clear skies and board a tour to see the aurora borealis. Leave the city behind to venture out into nature and look up at the night sky to try your luck at glimpsing this phenomenon. Reykjavik is one of the best places to see the northern lights because of its latitude and proximity to the North Pole.
Brave the icy cold and hike a glacier
One of the more adventurous things to do in Reykjavik is to strap on some spiked shoes, grab an ice pick and climb a glacier. One of the most accessible glaciers, close to Reykjavik is Sólheimajökull, part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, on the South Coast of Iceland. Fortunately, this activity is suitable for beginners and pros alike. Ready to get your adrenaline pumping? Travelers will have to make their way across the ice ridges and pass over deep crevasses. But the rewards are worth it- check out the snow-covered landscape and views of rocky peaks in the vast distance.
Tour the Golden Circle (and see Game of Thrones filming locations IRL)
The Golden Circle area in southern Iceland consists of three major tourist attractions: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss Waterfall. One of the essential Reykjavik experiences is a day tour of all three locations.
Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and national park. It plays a significant part in Iceland’s history- it was the site of Iceland’s parliament from 930 to 1798. The park is located in the rift valley between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, meaning that hikers are straddling the line between continents when trekking the area! Thingvellir National Park also doubled as the Bloody Gate in the Game of Thrones TV series. Once the series wraps up this year, if you find yourself jonesing for a GoT fix, head out on a tour of the area.
Geysir is a large hot spring, located in the Haukadalur Valley. Geysir is inactive nowadays; however, within the Haukadalur Valley you can find numerous other hot springs and geysers. Strokkur, an impressive hot spring in Haukadalur is currently active and spouts boiling water up to 30 meters, every five to eight minutes.
Then head over to Gullfoss Waterfall, a striking waterfall in the canyon of the Hvítá river in southwest Iceland. The massive falls feature cascading waters that plunge into a jagged canyon. If you’re lucky, you may catch sight of a double rainbow spreading across the tiers of water.
Try local Icelandic fare
While in Reykjavik, you have to make your way to a local joint to sample Icelandic fare. Some of it might require a stronger stomach, but all are worth a trip!
Icelandic hot dogs
You may consider hot dogs to be a more traditionally ‘American’ food, but the Icelanders have put an interesting twist on this classic. Icelandic hot dogs can be made with lamb, beef, or pork. The condiments, and how locals dress their dogs are what really make this dish unique. Like the saying goes ‘When in Rome’, so when trying an Icelandic dog, opt for raw white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, pylsusinnep (sweet brown mustard), remoulade (a mayo or aioli-based sauce), capers, mustard, and other herbs.
Hákarl (fermented shark)
If you’re feeling particularly brave, prep your taste buds for hákarl, or fermented shark. It’s the national dish of Iceland and consists of shark that has been cured and hung to dry for several months. The dish smells and tastes strongly of ammonia, so it’s not exactly the most pleasant aroma but it’s completely unique and a quintessential thing to do in Reykjavik.
Harðfiskur (dried fish)
Because of Iceland’s location, fresh saltwater fish is abundant! Try cod, shark, catfish, halibut, or mackerel- just to name a few. However, when feeling peckish in Icelandic, we suggest ordering up harðfiskur, or dried fish. It’s usually made with cod or haddock, dried and cured by bacteria, then eaten with salted butter as a tasty snack!
Kjötsúpa (lamb stew)
On a chilly, winter day nothing is more comforting than a big bowl of kjötsúpa, or lamb stew. With hearty chunks of lamb, carrots, potatoes, rosemary, and thyme, along with rice or oats, it’s warm, robust and delicious.
Skyr is a heavy Icelandic yogurt with a mild flavor and a rich and creamy texture. Amazingly, it’s been part of the Icelandic diet for centuries! It’s very high in protein and contains less sugar than regular yogurt.
Lamb meat is very popular in Iceland, and whether roasted, stewed, or otherwise- it’s mouthwatering. Slow-roasted lamb is a traditional meal in the homes of many Icelanders. Travelers in Iceland should take advantage of the locally-sourced meats. For those daring enough, attempt to taste a smoked sheep’s head!
Go inside a volcano
Ever wondered what the inside of a volcano looks like? Well, now’s your chance to see! Make your way to Thrihnukagigur, a dormant volcano near Reykjavik, Iceland. It hasn’t erupted in the last 4,000 years which means tourists are able to climb inside (with the help of a cable). After hiking a trail to the volcano, descend 120 meters to the bottom of the crater. On the way over, you’ll witness rocky peaks and sweeping views of the Icelandic wilderness. From the inside of the volcano, look up to see streams of sunlight breaking through the rugged ceiling.
Check out a quirky museum
After the adrenaline of a volcano climb, spend a lowkey day wandering around Reykjavik’s various museums. But instead of the boring ‘ol history museums you visit on grade school field trips, opt instead to pay a visit to one of Reykjavik’s quirkier museums.
Interested in Iceland’s deep-seated belief in folklore? Stop by the Alfaskolinn Elf School. Not technically a museum, but this school is dedicated to Iceland’s elven culture. The school studies elves and other supernatural creatures such as fairies, trolls, and dwarves. Book a lesson at The Elf School and gain insight into this curious facet of Icelandic culture. For pricing and schedules, head to their official site.
The Icelandic Punk Museum is a mini-exhibit located in a former public washroom- very punk. Just head down the stairs and explore the collection of photos, posters, handbills, instruments, stage equipment, and streaming videos of classic club shows. The museum is open from Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. and admission costs 1000kr. For directions and more info, visit their official site.
Now, this last Reykjavik museum may not be for the squeamish, it’s the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yup, an entire museum dedicated to the, um, nether regions of mammals. As they put it, “probably the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country.” Ever wanted to see ‘specimens’ from 17 different types of whales? Now’s your chance! Be sure to take some photos for friends back home- talk about a dick pic. The museum is open Monday – Saturday from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and admission costs 1700kr. For directions and more details, visit the official site.
Shop ‘til you drop
If you’re looking to pick up souvenirs or gifts for friends and family back home, get yourself to Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík. On Laugavegur find charming boutiques, restaurants, and bars. The shopping stretch of the street starts at the city’s bus center, Hlemmur, and continues to Bankastræti.
During the summer, driving down the shopping street is banned so shoppers can freely walk up and without the hassle of traffic. Laugavegur is home to many local designers and high-end boutiques, in addition to tourist shops hawking the usual magnets and stuffed animals. However, if you’re hunting for something a little more unique, you can spot vintage shops along the road as well.
Be sure to make a pit stop at one (or more) of the bars along the way. Look out for Dillon– a whiskey bar known for live music, or grab a cocktail at Lebowski Bar, a ‘Big Lebowsi’ themed bar with trivia nights and tasty bites.
Splurge on a fine dining experience
Iceland is home to some excellent fine dining restaurants, and you can find many in Reykjavik. Savor Nordic cuisine with local ingredients like fresh fish, meat and game. It might not come cheap- but your stomach (and we) think it’s worth it.
DILL is a Michelin-starred restaurant in Reykjavik. It serves up New Nordic fare with seasonal ingredients, meaning the menu changes often. The current chef is Ragnar Eiríksson, though initially it was led by Gunnar Karl Gislason. If you’re hoping to get a table for your trip to Reykjavik, call now and keep your fingers crossed, this place is busy!
Matur & Drykkur
Matur & Drykkur fuses together modern techniques with traditional recipes. Using ingredients from their backyard, they produce playful and creative dishes based off of traditional, Icelandic home-cooked meals. Reserve a table for lunch or dinner and taste the inventive menu.
On the slightly lower end of the price range is Sjávargrillið, a grilled seafood resto featuring lobster salad, steamed mussels, and grilled tuna. Grab a table here to delight in the fresh seafood prepared skillfully and flavorfully.
Search for treasures at the Reykjavik flea market
Adventure to Kolaportið and hunt for inexpensive goodies like secondhand clothes, books and more. Walk through the busy stalls and browse the offerings before hitting up the produce section for Icelandic treats. It’s a big area so get there early and take your time exploring the indoor market. It’s the city’s only market, so it’s a popular destination for tourists and Reykjavik-natives alike. Be sure to bring cash to make your purchases! The market is only open on weekends, from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Check their official site for more details.
Treat yourself to a trip to Reykjavik and an itinerary full of adventure, decadent meals, and interesting sights. Explore the rugged landscape before hunting for treasure at a flea market. Dive into a volcano then splurge on a high-end meal. Reykjavik is a hot spot for culture, nature and thrilling city life. Use our list of essential things to do in Reykjavik to plan out your trip to Iceland and cross off those bucket list travel activities.