I can’t stop saying how much I love Iceland, and after explaining why coming here in winter is a wise decision, and what you can do to explore the island and stay active at the same time, it is high time to introduce you to the northernmost capital of the world, and one of my favourite cities ever: Reykjavik.

With only 120,000 people Reykjavik is certainly no urban metropolis. Instead of high rising glass towers the city centre, ‘downtown’, is laced with tiny two-story houses, many of which shine in all colours of the rainbow – from grass-green to lollipop-pink. All people here, it seems, know each other with six three degrees of separation. They all play at lest two instruments, are in a band or exhibit their art in a pop-up gallery. They make you eat stinky rubbery shark meat (Hákarl – you need to try it at least once) and drink until they drop on a Friday or Saturday night. The nightlife here is one of the craziest I have ever encountered. Probably because they have so many friends to meet each weekend.

Reykjavik is not a city of hundreds of tourist attractions. The city centre is small and walkable, and unless you are a history freak, there is really not much else to do than to walk and soak up the local atmosphere. But that’s exactly what I love about this city. It’s not about pleasing tourists with buildings or museums (although there are some amazing exceptions around), it’s about introducing visitors to the Icelandic way of life. Here is a list of 25 things to do, should you find yourself in this beautiful city.

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1) Do a city tour with I Heart Reykjavik. Guide and blogger Auður is not going to bore you with historical facts or museum after museum. She will rather take you to her own favourite places in the city centre, teach you a few words of Icelandic, lead you to colourful murals in hidden lanes and point out the best restaurants and bars to enjoy later in the day. This is a great tour to get an overview and orientation in the city. After years of offering daily city tours, I Heart Reykjavik has recently changed its format and is not offering private tours only.

PS: On her blog Auður shares many tips and tricks for traveling Iceland – definitely a great place to start your research!

2) ‘Climb’ the tower of Hallgrimskirkja. The church’s tower is possibly the most iconic landmark of Reykjavik AND the place from where the most iconic over-head shot of the city is taken. There is an elevator leading up most of the way, but to reach the platform you need to climb the last 30 steps or so.

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3) For another iconic panorama of the city, make your way up to Perlan (The Pearl) at Öskjuhlíð. From the viewing platform on the 4th floor you get a view of Hallgrimskirkja towering over the city centre with the house mountain Esja as a backdrop.

4) Pretty much every statue and sculpture in Reykjavik was crafted by Einar Jónsson. Reason enough to learn a bit more about his work and visit the Einar Jónsson sculpture garden. The main museum is right next to Hallgrimskirkja, but the sculpture garden is just at the backside of the building. It’s very quiet as not many tourists come in here, and entry is free.

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5) Explore the street art. In the past years Reykjavik has become famous for its colourful murals and graffitis – ever since the government loosened its zero-tolerance policy for street art. Many walls and lanes are now covered in art, often commissioned by the owners themselves. Most of them are done by local artists, a lot of them women (other than in other cities where male street artists prevail).

6) Check out the door porn all over the city centre. Colourful houses + quirky doors = paradise.

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7) Looking for the 3 C’s of perfect accommodation – central, cool, cheap – we stumbled upon Kex Hostel. Located in an old biscuit factory by the northern waterfront of the city centre (5-10 walking minutes from Hallgrimskirkja), fully equipped with a stylish lounge bar, vintage furniture and a multipurpose hall used for concerts, plays and parties, and with room rates that won’t rip a gigantic hole in your budget (double, shared facility from €55, dorm from €25), this place has all the C’s one could ask for. Plus many rooms have a beautiful view over Reykjavik’s house mountain Esja, and breakfast is really good.

Kex hosts events during the Iceland Airwaves Festival and thanks to their awesome burgers and selection of craft beers, their bar is a hot spot for locals as well. Much Icelandic to be learnt over a glass of Einstök Pale Ale.

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8) One of my favourite cafes when I used to live in the city was definitely Prikið, and 5 years later it’s still amazing. It looks a little bit like an American diner (in a typical wooden Icelandic house though). Their breakfast is a delight – real good American bacon (not the wobbly stuff they serve you in the UK…). If you were partying a little bit to intense the night before, go for the Hangover Killer breakfast – including a sandwich, a ‘Bruce Willis Shake’ (a milkshake with a shot of Jack Daniels) and a painkiller.

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9) Have a coffee break at Reykjavik Roasters – for many the best coffee in town. The beans are ground right in front of your nose, they have yummy oat milk for your lattes and it’s OK to bring your mobile office along.

10) Take a Toilet Selfie at Babalu – yes, I just said this. When a toilet is decorated with the original Star Wars characters and big mirrors, then a selfie is really all you can do. They also have excellent cheese cakes (to go), so you don’t have to feel too awkward about walking in only to ask for the toilet.

11) Eat lunch at Gar̡urinn (The Garden) Рa tiny vegetarian lunch joint. They only do one soup and one main dish of the day, and both are delicious!

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12) Vegetarians and veggie lovers must head to Gló, the best vegetarian restaurant in town according to the English language magazine The Reykjavik Grapevine (which is also a great mag to find out about cool events in the city). The atmosphere is nothing special – you order, pay and receive your meal at the counter, the furniture is white and sterile, but the foooood! We stuffed our faces with raw pizza, which came with a choice of three side salads. Never have I ever felt so full after a plate of veg!

13) To finally feel like the Scandinavian hipster you always wanted to be, try to locate the secret pizzeria Hverfisgata 12. Its name is its address, but there is no sign leading you in – because these people are way to cool for school. Walk up the stairs on the left side of the building and enter the black door. We followed Auður’s advice to do so pretending we knew what we where doing, and still felt like stepping in on some random Icelandic family’s dinner party. I didn’t believe we were right until we found a room with a bar and a waitress greeting us hello. Every deceased Italian grandmother is possibly spinning in her grave thinking of the unusual pizza creations on this menu, but hey – pulled pork, pear and cheese are a delicious combination!

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14) Iceland’s relationship with alcohol is a bit troublesome, seeing that Prohibition lasted well until 1989, banning all beer stronger than 2,25% illegal. After a few years of experimenting with not-so-good-beer production, Iceland is now finally back in the game of craft beer brewing which alone is worth a trip to Reykjavik. One of them is Bríó Beer and is best enjoyed at Ölstofa Kormáks og Skjaldar Bar, an unspectacular yet atmospheric pub in which the music is low enough to have a conversation over a drink.

15) One of Reykjavik coolest bars is Kaldibar, with cozy benches and lounges. Like all city centre venues it is tiny and feels more like somebody’s living room. For real good craft beer try a selection their house beers.

16) Another great place for a quiet drink and people watching alike is 10 Dropar, a small basement bar on Reykjavik’s busy main shopping street Laugavegur.

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17) Shop at Bónus supermarket. Why would I recommend a supermarket? First, it’s a low-budget option to stock up on local treats and shockers (like dried fish or sheep heads). Second, the logo is just too funny – a little pig which looks like it has been beaten too much… PS: Beer and spirits can only be purchased in special shops called Vinbuðin.

18) Go to a swimming pool and mingle with locals in a hot tub. The Blue Lagoon is a special experience, but it’s also an expensive and crowded one – €65 for a ticket including a towel, slippers and bathrobe… I prefer the real deal and went to a local public swimming pool. They have thermal pools, hot tops (anything from 36-42°C) and steam saunas (remember that they’re smelly!) – and are of course a lot cheaper than the touristy Blue Lagoon. My favourite ones are Laugardalslaug in the east and Vesturbaejarlaug in the west of the city centre.

19) Beachtime at the geothermal beach of Nauthólsvík. There is a small lagoon where geothermal water meets the cold sea, resulting in higher temperatures. The water here is still considerably colder than you’d wish, but it helps ticking ‘swim in the Atlantic ocean’ off your bucket list without freezing. If you are really brave (or crazy) you can of course go all in and jump into the cold water next to the lagoon.

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20) Unless you want to head for a mall, most shops in the city centre are on Laugavegur and Skolavorðustigur. Both streets are easier to find than to pronounce correctly, and burst with local design and second-hand shops.

21) Shop for a traditional woollen jumper (Lopapeysa) at the shop of Handknitting Association of Iceland. Here you can be sure that your jumper is hand-knitted locally (not produced on a cheap in Asia). The shop is a collective and parts of the sales revenue goes directly to the knitters themselves. Be aware that Icelandic wool is quite bulky and scratchy at first, but my own Lopapeysa is definitely the warmest piece of clothing I own – ideal for travelling to colder climates or outdoor work!

22) As I s aid before, everyone in Iceland plays at least two instruments in at least one band. This might be a little of an overstatement, but there is a truth to it. Creative output in Iceland per capita is incredibly high. There are tons of great Icelandic bands, one of my favourite Spotify playlists is actually this one. Most famous are probably artists like Björk, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Man – but have you also heard about Múm, Retro Stefson or GusGus?

A great place to check out local music is 12 Tónar at Skolavorðustigur. It’s a shop bursting with CD’s and LP’s, but also a music label and the owner is always happy to chat about their current projects or give recommendations for concerts happening at the moment. There are couches and CD players throughout the shop, so you can spend hours listening to cool artists and find new favourites.

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23) For even more Icelandic, but also international live music acts visit Reykjavik in November for Iceland Airwaves Festival. You can either get a wristband for all shows or check out the free concerts at off-venues like Kex Hostel or 12 Tónar.

24) Hang out at Harpa, the modern concert hall down by the water. Initially quite controversial, the building quickly became a favourite for all locals who come for classical music, live concerts and performances. During the day the light in the building is particularly beautiful and several people recommended the 1 hour show ‘How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes’ which is a humorous performance in English. Unfortunately we missed it – next time!

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25) And finally there is one thing that you have to do, and will do, whether you want it or not: amuse the locals by trying to pronounce the street names. Good luck!

Iceland is not only about Geysir, Blue Lagoon and glacier lakes – it is also about an incredibly vibrant and progressive city, which has a lot of surprises waiting for you. Reykjavik is worth a trip of its own, and I’m definitely not done exploring!

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25 cool things to do in Reykjavik

All photos by Kathi Kamleitner. Except images of Kex Hostel, 10 Dropar & Nautholsvik.
Kathi’s trip to Reykjavik was supported by Kex Hostel and I Heart Reykjavik.  Thank you!

This is a post by Kathi Kamleitner.

Kathi Kamleitner was a regular contributor at Travelettes from 2013 to 2019. Originally from Vienna, Austria, she packed her backpack to travel the world and lived in Denmark, Iceland and Berlin, before settling in Glasgow, Scotland. Kathi is always preparing her next trip – documenting her every step with her camera, pen and phone.

In 2016, Kathi founded Scotland travel blog WatchMeSee.com to share her love for her new home, hiking in the Scottish Highlands, island hopping and vegan food. Follow her adventures on Instagram @watchmesee!