Reykjavik is a city like no other and is distinctly unique. It has that Icelandic feel that’s hard to explain but ever present throughout the country. Our first afternoon in Reykjavik was the coldest, rainest day in Iceland. Fortunately, we were treated to beautiful, sunny, 65 degree weather on our last day and a half which made up for it. Two days in Reykjavik is not a lot of time, and half of one of those days was dedicated to horseback riding 45 minutes outside of the city. However, it was enough time for us to learn what was worth it, what wasn’t, and where our planning should have been a bit more refined.
Our first stop was Hallgrímskirkja to catch a view of the city, which was the best possible way we could have chosen to get our first glimpse of Reykjavik. The one benefit to being there on a cold, rainy day is that the streets were pretty quiet so we were able to get some great shots of the church and city below without having to navigate around a bunch of tourists. When we were in this area again on our last day in Iceland, there were tons of people in the area and I had to hide in the bushes to get a shot of this gorgeous tower with blue skies in the background. In most cases, I like to stay away from the frequently visited sites, but Hallgrímskirkja really is a must see during any (and arguably every) trip to Reykjavik.
There is cool art work and architecture in the church, and great photo opportunities of Reykjavik at the top. Hallgrimskirkja offered my favorite views of the city – you are close enough to the buildings below to capture all of the colors and beauty that this city has to offer. Other locations, such as Perlan (more below), were further away and didn’t allow us to see all of the different colors.
On a nice day, walking along the Rekyavik harbor would be wonderful. There are sculptures, sea breeze, and beautiful mountains in the distance. The weather didn’t work in our favor and we ended up doing this on the one cold and rainy day during our visit. In retrospect, we should have saved this for later in the trip when we knew it would be sunny. However, it was still beautiful in what felt like a distinctly Icelandic way. We loved this iconic viking ship sculpture.
When walking along the water, you’ll be able to see and get to Harpa. It’s a concert hall and conference center that is just as beautiful inside as it is outside. The structure is made up of thousands of panes of glass that reflect the light at different angles. Set at the edge of the water, Harpa gets great views of the mountain ranges in the distance along with the city sitting on the hill above. We ended up saving this for our last day in Iceland when the sun was shining bright. Little did we know, this would make all the difference when viewing Harpa from the inside.
Visitors can enter the building to see the view from the inside. There are a few souvenir shops, a restaurant, ice cream cart, and four levels of stairs that you can climb a catch the light in different ways. The ceiling is made of different dimensions of mirrors set in a way that further encourages the reflection of the light coming through the window.
By now, it’s no secret that our time in Reykjavik was spent seeing the city from all the vantage points we could in 48 hours. So of course we had to make it up to Perlan for 360 degree views of the city PLUS hiking trails. We spent about half a day exploring this site and we could have spent even more time there.
This view had us realizing how little of the city we actually ended up seeing. However, it gave us the opportunity to see some parts of the city in a different light. You can go to the top of Perlan for free and you can actually eat at a restaurant at the top of the dome that rotates for a truly 360 degree dining experience. We went in the morning and missed out on this experience, instead opting to take to the trails around Perlan instead. Around you’ll find blooming flowers, mini rock scrambles, and these fun dancing men:
This was possibly the only area in Reykjavik where we felt we were fitting in with the locals. The trails around Perlan are popular running and biking trails and we were only in the company of Icelanders. Perlan, while a tourist attraction, tends to be visited by a lot of tour buses with limited time at the site. Therefore, any distance beyond the observatory gets you some nice seclusion.
There were about a dozen of these makeshift ladders throughout the park that brought you onto rock scrambles, many with a view of the park and a glimpse of the city over the trees.
We saw so many pretty flora in this park. It’s amazing to me that a country known for fire and ice can be home to fields of the most beautiful flowers. By the end of our trip, I was still snapping hundreds of shots of the lupine.
Finally, a trip to Reykjavik isn’t complete without shopping on Laugavegur Street, one of the oldest shopping areas in Iceland. Leave enough time to explore the different shops and street art that the city has to offer. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a beautiful city. There was literally art on at least one building on every street. I starting taking pictures of every painted building we came across, and quickly found that I wouldn’t have enough room on my camera to capture all of the art work. Below are just a few of my favorites but there are so many more.
You can take free walking tours in Reykjavik. Some of them are specific to the street art. But with a little bit of an adventurous side, you can see a good deal of the art yourself on foot. Of course, you miss out on talking to a native and asking some of the questions you’ve been dying to ask someone on the trip.
The above painted building houses one the of the BEST bakeries I’ve ever been to – Brauð & Co. We picked up coffees and hot from the oven cinnamon rolls and ate them at a nearby park. I could have eaten those pastries every day and would definitely do a stopover in Iceland just to grab a few more of those sweet, doughy treats.
Even the construction barriers were painted with fun designs. We could see how the brightness of the artwork would help get you through rainy, cold, and dark (in winter) days if you lived here year round.
There were a few things we didn’t get the chance to see in Reykjavik but so badly wanted to. The first was Kolaportið, a flea market that is only open on the weekends (so plan accordingly!). We were in the city on two separate occasions, but both were on Fridays so we missed out on this special place. Rumor has it you can find authentic Lopapeysa sweaters for half the price of the shops on Laugavegur Street. Needless to say, I left Iceland without one of these wool sweaters, as I was not willing to shell out the $300+ the designer shops were selling them for.
Finally, one other thing we didn’t do in Reykjavik was make it to a museum. When planning our trip ahead of time, we were 100% focused on nature and not much else. However, driving around the country and coming across all the interesting towns and landmarks has us yearning to learn more. The country has a really interesting history that you can get snippets of at each tourist attraction, but it wasn’t enough (and admittedly we were so excited to hit the trails that we skipped the signs a lot of the time). So be sure to leave time in your schedule to catch one of the several museums in the city. Ones that we hope to see on another trip to Iceland include:
- Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – National Museum of Iceland includes art, religious artifacts, and archeological remains.
- Þjóðmenningarhúsið – The National Center for Culture Heritage has manuscripts and literature that tell of Iceland’s heritage.
- Landnámssýningin – The Settlment Exhibition houses artifacts from around 870.