A city break in Reykjavik

Craig of That Dapper Chap shares his experience of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city and offers his top tips for a successful stay.

If you want to see the Northern lights, sip hot chocolate in a quaint cafe while you watch the snow tumble silently from the sky, and dip your toes on the hot springs of the Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik might just be the place for you.

Some friends and I recently spent five days in this beautiful city, we sampled the local delicacies, shopped in the pretty boutiques and marvelled at the chocolate box architecture. Here, I not only share what I wore on my most recent city break, but I’ll also give you all the hints and tips that you’ll need when you travel to Iceland’s capital city.

Pretty buildings line the streets of Iceland’s capital city

About Reykjavik

With a population of only 203,000, Reykjavik is one of the worlds smallest capital cities, and is a great choice for a bustle free break. No crowds, no jostling in the street, just a relaxed and friendly atmosphere greets you, and you can be there in around three hours from London.

I have to admit I expected thick snow and sleigh rides through the forests. In my head Reykjavik was like Narnia, a fantasy land of ice and magical skies. It isn’t. For starters we only had snow on one day and while it was a little on the chilly side it wasn’t as cold as we expected.

Reykjavik is a capital city, there are plenty of shops but it is expensive. Very expensive! While our accommodation was reasonably priced and the flights inexpensive, we found eating out somewhat pricey. The pound has taken a battering since Brexit and we now get even less bang for our buck.

The view down to a snow capped Mount Esja

Buildings are clad in corrugated metal and painted in pretty colours

We found the locals to be very friendly and helpful, so don’t be afraid of asking for directions if you get a little lost. The residents are so polite in fact that when we were waiting to cross roads, cars would stop and wave us across. We didn’t hear a single angry drivers horn or a speeding car. People seemed very respectful and that always makes a city break just that little bit more enjoyable.

Reykjavik is very pretty. The houses are very quaint and are clad in corrugated metal which you may think detracts from the ability to be pleasing to the eye, however when the buildings are painted in pretty colours is makes for some stunning scenery.

There’s also quite a lot of street art in Reykjavik and it was exciting to see. Entire buildings are decorated and it was a real feast for the eyes.

Stunning street art can be found in Reykjavik
More street art on the streets of Reykjavik  

Icelandic Currency

The Icelandic currency is the Icelandic Króna or ISK. 5,000 ISK is approximately £35 or $44. The Euro isn’t generally accepted and there’s no need at all to change your money before you travel. Cards are widely accepted and we found it very easy to use cash machines to withdraw money and they are easy to find.

Where to stay in Reykjavik

Like any capital city Reykjavik has a wealth or accommodation ranging from low budget hostels and B&B’s to luxury Hotels. We booked the Fosshotel Rauðará, a mid range hotel just a short distance from the city centre. We booked via Booking.Com as we’ve found this to be one of the better websites to compare accommodation and prices.

The Fosshotel Rauóará, clean, comfortable and central

Landing at 6 pm it was a 45 minute taxi ride from Keflavik Airport. While essential, the taxi ride set us back £130 straight off the bat. We booked the taxi online prior to our visit and it was a nice journey. We made good use of the onboard WiFi and the driver filled us in on some of Iceland’s history as he drove. By the time we arrived at our Hotel we had made our minds up that we must try fermented shark and Black Death before we left!

The dining room at the Fosshotel where we filled up on the buffet style breakfast

Our room cost us around £500 for 4 nights. The room was clean, spacious and comfortable. Breakfast was buffet style and included everything that you’d expect, with eggs, sausages, beans, pastries, meats and cheeses as well as a variety of breads.

While the hotel doesn’t offer evening meals, breakfast was included in the price, so we made sure that we had our fill before we set off on our adventures each day.

The Hotel is ideally situated and within easy walking distance of the city centre along a quiet street.

Our room at the Fotthotel, clean, spacious and comfortable with all necessary amenities.

The water in Iceland

One thing I do want to make you aware of at this point is the water. First off you don’t need to buy bottled water, the drinking water is perfectly safe to drink. 

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, all of the hot water in Reykjavik comes directly from geothermal springs, it contains sulphur and as such smells not too subtly of rotten eggs. Now while it may seem very odd to shower in water that smells of egg, it is perfectly clean and healthy and you soon get used to it!

What to do in Reykjavik

As with any city break, what you do is what you like! If you like culture visit the National Museum, just one of many museums on offer. We spent an afternoon browsing the artefacts and I can recommend a visit.

There are parks and gardens to while away the hours, bike tours, cave exploring, snow bikes, horse riding and whale watching. Don’t think that you’ll be bored. You won’t, you might need a few bucks handy as some of the excursions aren’t easy on the wallet, with horse riding at around £80 per person for 4 hours, but there is plenty to do!

One thing you must see is the stepped Church or Hallgrímskirkja, it is stunning! see it during the day but make sure you go back after dark to see it beautifully lit. It’s free to view and free to enter, but you may have to pay a fee to enter additional areas. It’s may also be prudent to mention that it does close to visitors during certain events.

The stepped church in Reykjavik’s city centre

Inside Hallgrimskirkja, feel free to light a candle and soak up the atmosphere

Make sure you visit one of the many bars while you’re there. You can expect to pay upwards of £10 for a pint of beer in Reykjavik but it’s worth it to get out of the cold. We spent some time in Bravo, a quaint and cosy bar. Expect great coffee, great hospitality and a warm and welcoming atmosphere here.

Enjoying a coffee break in the Bravo bar in Reykjavik

If you have cash to splash there are plenty of shops and boutique stores offering clothing and jewellery. There are also plenty of gift shops where you can buy hand knitted traditional Icelandic sweaters, mugs, pens and all of the other little gifts you’d expect.

A bakery adorned in funky street art

If you’re on a budget and struggling to find something to eat, visit the Bonus Supermarket where you can buy snacks and drinks. There’s also Devito’s pizza on Laugavegi, not the most classy of eateries, you can get a hot pizza for very little money compared to other places.

There are a lot of oriental restaurants and noodle bars in the centre so if you enjoy Thai or Chinese food, you’ll have a good choice.  

You wont find alcohol here however as its distribution is tightly controlled by the Government. There’s one distribution centre which supplies bars and restaurants and they are the only places that you’ll be able to buy alcohol so unless you buy some on the way over from the airport duty free don’t expect to be able to have a cheeky drink in your room.

The Reykjavik concert hall by the Harbour

The Northern Lights

As with the snow, don’t go expecting to see the sky alight with a phantasmagorical display of light. The Northern Lights are fickle to say the least. Some months are better than others and cloud cover will spoil your view even at the very best of times. Generally November to February are the best times to see them.

My expectation of the Northern lights. Image courtesy of Discover The World. No infringement intended

Book a trip anyway! we booked online for around £45 per person prior to setting off as some trips at certain times get fully booked. The good thing is that if you don’t see them the first night they’ll take you out again the following night, so be sure to plan this in to your itinerary.

One thing to do before you go is learn how to take images of the lights. If you have a digital SLR, check it out online before you go. I didn’t and found myself standing in the pitch black trying to adjust the settings on my camera. I didn’t manage to do it and didn’t get any decent pictures.

If you have an iPhone 6/7 download the Norther Lights app from the app store. This automatically changes the settings to allow you to take better images. I only learned this on the coach trip back to the Hotel so the only images I managed to get include the one below, but we were lucky to see something at least as other people who we spoke too saw nothing two nights in a row.

My picture of the Norther lights taken on an iPhone 7 

The Blue Lagoon

If you only do one excursion do the Blue Lagoon. It is incredible! Again we booked prior to going to help everyone budget via Viator, and it cost us around £70 per person. It was worth every penny and we spent hours in the hot water, slathering ourselves with mineral clay.

Hire towels, slippers and a bathrobe or simply bring one from your hotel

Your experience can be as luxurious as you wish and while you can bring your own towel from the hotel to save a couple of quid, you can rent towels, slippers and bathrobes there.

There are also bars so you can swim along with a glass of chilled Chardonnay. While you’re at the bar grab an empty pint glass to keep your phone in so you can take a few pictures without the risk of getting your phone wet. They do sell protective phone cases at the Blue Lagoon, but a plastic cup is just as good and is free.

Yours truly at the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik

Bathers relaxing in the geothermal springs

If you want to extend your Blue Lagoon experience you can take advantage of a massage, sauna or steam room or use the exclusive lounge. You can even enjoy a slap up meal at the Lava Restaurant or just grab a sandwich and a coffee from the cafe when you leave as we did. The choice is yours, depending upon your budget.

And if you love it that much and want to make a weekend of it, just book a room at the Silica Hotel which is only a kilometre away from the lagoon. It might cost you around £1000 for 3 nights but it’s all the luxury you can muster.

Fun in the Blue Lagoon

Take a tour of Reykjavik

A great way to see Reykjavik, save your feet and keep warm while learning some history is to take the red hop-on-hop-off bus. For £25 per person the bus takes you around all of the sights and as the name suggests you can hop on and hop off at will. You can book online before you go or pay the driver cash as you board.

The tour is one hour long and it operates between 10am and 5:30pm every day. Once bought, your ticket can be used for a full 24 hours.

image courtesy of City Sightseeing. No infringement intended

The tour covers 15 stops:

  1. Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Centre at the harbour
  2. Lækjartorg square in down town Reykjavik
  3. City Hall where you’ll find exhibitions 
  4. The Old Harbour with its boats and stunning views across the water to Mount Esja
  5. Viking Maritime Museum
  6. Whales of Iceland
  7. National Museum
  8. The Pearl, a stunning building with restaurants and winter garden
  9. BSI Bus Terminal
  10. Hallgrim’s stepped Church
  11. Kringlan Shopping Centre
  12. Hilton Reykjavik Nordica
  13. Laugardalur Valley where you can bathe in the thermal pool
  14. Höfdi House the location for the 1986 meeting of presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbatsjov,
  15. Skarfabakki Harbour
The Pearl with it’s rotating restaurant

A map of the hop on hop off bus

The sun setting over Reykjavik as seen from the hop on hop off bus

I’d recommend getting off the bus at the Kringlan shopping centre. Grab a coffee at one of the cafe’s and spend some time shopping in the 150 shops.

Use the red hop on hop off bust to visit the Kringlan Mall. Other forms of transport are available!

What to wear in Reykjavik

While it is Iceland, it may not be as icy cold as you may expect. When we arrived, the UK was the same temperature. While it did drop during our stay I didn’t ever find it too cold.

If you’re going out on a boat for any reason expect it to be significantly colder than on land. We also found it much colder by the Harbour, particularly when the wind got up.

Yours truly wearing a base layer of inexpensive thermal underwear

The trick, particularly if you feel the cold, is to wear thin layers. Make one of these a thermal layer. Thermal long johns and T-shirts are readily available on eBay at very low cost. Wear these, a couple of t-Shirts and a sweater under a coat and you’ll be fine.

Take a roll neck sweater or two and a big coat. I took this green parka from Next and at £75 it did a grand job of keeping me snug. 

Wearing my green fur trimmed parka from Next

A good pair of boots is also a must, particularly if it’s snowy or wet. I took the tan leather apron hiker boots from Next. Wear them over some wool socks and you’re good to go.

My cable knit navy roll neck sweater is also from Next, as are the straight leg jeans and bobble hat. I took straight leg jeans rather than skinny jeans so that I could comfortably wear my long johns under them. A tight, single layer on your legs will let you feel the cold much more!

I also took this patterned wool cardigan by White Stuff with me as I knew it would keep me warm. If you like the look of it for yourself, grab a bargain as it is now on sale for £47. The blue suede gloves are also from White Stuff and fitted like an…erm…glove.

Keeping out the cold with my patterned knitted cardigan and blue suede gloves from White Stuff

A good pair of boots are a must in Reykjavik

A view of the stepped church as the sun starts to set in Reykjavik

Mt tan leather apron front hiker boots from Next

A Christmassy street scene, complete with snow.

Wearing my green parka, straight leg jeans and leather boots from Next

I found the houses in Reykjavik fascinating

A closer look at my navy cable knit roll neck sweater from Next

Well, I hope that my experience helps you to plan your trip and has given you an insight of what to expect when you visit Reykjavik. We had an amazing time and this city really has a lot to offer and some unique experiences.

I said right at the start of this article that we decided to try fermented shark and take a shot of Black Death during our visit. We did. And while it is something you just have to do, I can’t say that I recommend either!

Have a great trip, from myself and the gang.

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