I don’t know if was more about the city itself, or the prospect of a rare days of child-free time (thanks to the grandparents!), but even as I stepped onto the plane for a long weekend in Reykjavik with my husband, I was already feeling quite giddy with excitement!
The city has just always been on my ‘hit list’ of top places I’d love to visit, because it seems so other-worldly and unique. And thankfully, Iceland did not disappoint…
(Pic: icicles on the buildings in downtown Reykjavik, overshadowed by Hallgrimskirkja)
Reykjavik is truly a beautiful city which packs quite a punch for its size. Despite being a relatively young city, it has so much character with its colourful Scandi art deco architecture, and so many weird little quirks… plus it’s surrounded by breath-taking landscapes, and some pretty crazy weather patterns as well.
Whilst we were there at the end of January, the city was still only getting about 6 hours of light per day. The sun only rose to the horizon around 10.30am and set sometime soon after 4pm. And for the most part it was pretty icy and snow-capped, but for me that just added to the charm of the city – as long as you pack clothes for wintery weather conditions!
(Pic: Snow-capped streets of downtown Reykjavík)
Before I went, I’d heard some mixed views on whether there was much to see and do in Reykjavik itself – and since it’s a relatively small city, I’d say that you could probably cover most of the main landmarks in just a day or two on foot. But that said, there’s still plenty of culture to take in…
We stayed at the Hotel Odinsve, a modern, mid-priced smaller boutique type hotel, which was conveniently located right in central downtown Reykjavik, close to the stunning Hallgrimskirkja cathedral which dominates the landscape and offers the best views of the city from the top of its tower.
(Pic: view over Reykjavik from top of Hallsgrimskirkja)
Other highlights, just a short walk away, were the city’s Old Town alongside Lake Tjornin, and the Old Harbour area, which are both popular tourist spots too.
Since we’re two city-life lovers, we both enjoyed hanging out in Reykjavik’s endless cafes, bars, and restaurants – especially in the evenings after our various day tours and expeditions were done. A lot like our hometown of Liverpool, Reykjavík is a friendly city, well geared up for foodies and drink lovers. Incredibly, the country only lifted its prohibition ban on beer in 1989, but it now boasts a thriving craft beer scene with a number of local microbreweries.
One of our personal favourites when it came to downtown hangouts, quickly became Kaffi Barinn, famed for being partially owned by Damon Albarn, but it was it’s relaxed atmosphere, it’s longer than average happy hour, it’s super-cool music policy, and it’s proximity to our hotel, all helped to make it our most visited spot.
But really, the whole downtown area is just buzzing with great bars, cafes and clubs of every style and persuasion… so you won’t be short of choice.
There’s also no shortage of museums and art galleries either, if you want to geek up on some of the country’s cultural and historic backdrop. And if you take a short walk along the city’s waterfront, the Sun Voyager sculpture is also definitely worthy of a visit for a photo snap, if only because of the breathtaking glacier views that sit behind it.
(Pic: Sun Voyager sculpture, waterfront)
Of course, we were warned lots before we went that Iceland is a pretty expensive place to visit, and it’s absolutely true – you’re looking at around £5+ for a diet coke and about £8+ for a beer or a small glass of wine. I’d say that you’d need to budget around £200–250 per person for 4 days of food if you want to eat and drink out well. But one saving grace is the city’s many happy hours – which run between 4pm- 7pm daily across many cafes, bars & restaurants. And it’s well worth downloading the ‘Appy Hour‘ app for updates of where to hunt down cheap drinks if you’re on a bit of a budget.
(Pic: Street art on walls of bars & shops in downtown Reykjavík)
It probably goes without saying that one of the biggest draws about visiting Iceland over the winter is the rare opportunity it presents to see the Northern Lights, and the city certainly acts as a great base point for hunting the Aurora Borealis from. There are tons of different tour operators that will take you out at night to help maximise your chances of a sighting, far away from the light pollution of the city. And many of them also promise a second trip for free, if you don’t the catch them on the first night, so choose your tour provider wisely…
Our own experience was booked via Get Your Guide Iceland who were fantastically well organised. Our tour guide was hugely knowledgeable, and whilst there is always some degree of luck with regards to the weather, I don’t think we would have successfully caught a glimpse of the northern lights at all, without his keen eye.
We went out on the tour on the day that we first arrived in case we needed to re-book, but there had been a small aurora storm earlier in the afternoon so everything was boding well. But unfortunately some snow fall earlier in the day had also brought in a lot of low cloud, which tends to obscure any sightings of activity. Our guide drove us out from the city towards the western fjords, and found a good, dark spot to sit and wait, whilst we sipped hot chocolate and listened to his tales of vikings and other Icelandic legends gone by.
But the stubborn clouds refused to pass by and open up the skies for a clear view. Then finally, at about 1am, just as our guide began to drive us home, he spotted something on the horizon. And as he pulled our minibus over on the roadside to check … sure enough there was a small strip of light in the distant horizon and we all trundled back out to get a better look…
Within five minutes it turned into large bands of greeny white light stretching right across the sky. It danced around for about 15 minutes right in front of us before disappearing behind the clouds again, making for a magical evening.
(Pic: Northern Lights captured during our trip)
Another tour we booked via the same operator, which also came highly recommended, was the Golden Circle tour – a trip around the several of the region’s most incredible natural sights, including Iceland’s because volcanic crater at Kerrig, Gulfoss waterfalls, Geysir hot springs area, and Pingvellir national park, which is a lakeside area where two of the earth’s tectonic plates have separated, and where parts of Game of Thrones was also filmed.
(Pic: Gulfoss waterfalls)
It was a long day travelling on a coach, but well organised and well worth the effort to get a good flavour of Iceland’s incredible and varied landscape – without the hassle of hiring a car and navigating the icy, winding roads on your own. I thought the trip was a really great showcase of some of Iceland’s most stunning scenes, and it felt like a good bang for our buck as well.
(Pic: hot spring shooting from the ground at Geysir)
Again, we were really lucky with the weather in getting a clear, sunny, blue skies kind of a winter day, which made for the perfect backdrop. And even though the temperatures were fairly biting at points, the views were worth every moment spent braving the elements.
(Pic: the Blue Lagoon)
But for me, perhaps the biggest highlight of our trip was actually the Blue Lagoon, a huge natural thermal pool area, which was both surreal and serene in equal measure. I’ve never been anywhere quite like this before and it was truly magical and other worldly, with endless opportunities for relaxation and infinite romantic and Instagram-able moments.
The packages aren’t the cheapest, but entry includes a free drink at a swim up bar, towels, and face packs too. And you can dip in and out for as long as you like …
(Pic: Blue Lagoon Spa)
But if you don’t get chance to go to the Blue Lagoon, which is about an hour’s drive from the city’s centre, you could also consider trying out one of the city’s many smaller hot springs or thermal pools as a way to wind down in the evenings too.
All in all, I’d definitely recommend Reykjavik as an incredible city to experience – especially if you’re looking for a trip that’s a bit different from the typical European city break. It’s clean, safe and all of the locals we met were extremely friendly and helpful. The only negative for me was the slightly expensive cost.
4.5 out of 5