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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland

So you want to go to Iceland? 

Or maybe you just have a long layover in Reykjavik before continuing on somewhere else in Europe.  Either way, here is my list of a few things you should (or shouldn't) do while visiting the most northern capital in the world.  Reykjavik, Iceland's city, has a latitude just under the Arctic Circle at 64°08'N.  It is a bustling little city, with great art, food, shops, and sites to see.  I spent almost 3 days in this windy city and have some tips, spots for good food (good cheap food) and general sites for you to see.  This list is a little different than the general iconic spots you see on the blogs or guides.  I've included some extra activities featured around eating (you know it), unique spots like the phallological museum, and tell you where you go for happy hour specials and booze over 2.25%.  Before you go, make sure you pack your raincoat, ten layers, and accept that the wind and sideways rain will (likely) be your constant struggle.  I hope you enjoy this city as much as I did. 

Standing outside famous "Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur" with a famous Icelandic hot dog

For some strange reason, Iceland is known for their hot dogs and you can get them just about anywhere.  If you are in Reykjavik (which you probably are if you are reading this post) there is one hot dog place that gets high marks and rave reviews from travelers all over-- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.  Don't ask me how to pronounce it but in Icelandic a hot dog is called Pylsa or Pulsa.  This tiny hot dog stand, whose name translates to “best hot dogs in town” has been open since 1937 and has served celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, Bill Clinton and Metallica alike. 

Icelandic hot dogs are unique in the fact that they are mostly Icelandic lamb, with some pork and beef. If you've driven across Iceland's landscape, you'll see that these are free-range happy go lucky cows and sheep roaming the countrysides which should make for a super tasty hot dog, right?  Additionally, the hot dogs are made with natural casings creating that important ‘pop’ when you bite into a hot dog.  Where are my hot dog enthusiasts at?

Icelandic Hot Dog 

I loved the simplicity of this tiny shack (the entire shack is featured in the photo above- big enough for two men inside), in the downtown area with one thing and one thing only on the menus: HOT DOGS.  Your options? With the toppings or without (go with everything...please get them all). Now when you order your hot dog and wonder whats on it- here it is:  warm, steamed bun with raw and crispy fried onions (UNDER the dog- genius), sweet brown mustard called "pylsusinnep", and remoulade (made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs). 

Overall, I thought the hot dog itself was good- not amazing but better than your average hot dog. However, I did love the saucy toppings and found the idea of putting the crispy onion straws UNDER the dog to be brilliant.  There is no indoor seating and this little booth behind me is it. You will find hot dogs and stands all over this country but this stand is the most popular one and at $4 worth the stop once.  In a land of very expensive food, it's nice to grab a quick 4$ hot dog on a freezing Iceland day.  The toppings and charm make this is KW stop on your tour in Reyk.

Inside Harpa Hall

This is where the list gets a little more generic as I tell you to visit the popular touristy sites.  Harpa Hall is certainly on everyones list (but for a reason) and will serve a few purposes.  For the architect lovers out there, this building is beautiful and the (award-winning) architecture is outstanding.  Icelandic nature, volcanoes and the Arctic light inspired the unique design of this building.  My favorite aspect was this glass wall looking out over the water.  There are guided tours, at a cost and according to a schedule, you can see it all here

Inside Harpa Hall

There is a shop downstairs, a restaurant and if nothing else, a place to warm up and use the bathroom.  Of course, you can come here to see a show as Harpa is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, The Icelandic Opera, The Reykjavik Big Band, and Maximus Musicus.  We visited Harpa Hall for the architecture, free bathrooms (shameless) and a place to get out of the rain.   

The hall is open every day from 0800 to 2400.  Free admission to walk around.

Solfar Sculpture on a miserable cold wet day. 

Okay---- I'm a little torn on telling you to go see this.  For starters, it's an iconic sculpture on just about everyone's to-do list (this blog is trying to get you AWAY from what every other blog says to do).  In all fairness, it is a beautiful famous sculpture overlooking the water and you can appreciate it in context of Iceland's history.  That being said, I would not go out of your way to grab the same photo everyone else has.  However, if it's a nice clear day and you are visiting Harpa (see point 3 above), this is just a short walk from the hall and worth a stop.  

The sculpture is described as a dreamboat, or an ode to the sun. The artist behind the sculpture intended it to convey the promise of "undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress, and freedom".  In 1986, the outdoor sculpture contest was created, with the winning sculpture placed in 1990 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavík.

My favorite room at the Culture Museum- food art #pieart

Museums are on my list and I am going to tell you which ones I went to, which ones I would consider skipping, and a few that looked awesome that I did not have time to see myself.  Museums are a great way to learn about the culture and history of where you are visiting.  On our first day in Reykjavik (remember, cold wet wind rain) we were looking for "indoor friendly" activities and to learn a little more about this country we were spending 10 days in.  First stop for that was the Culture House.  We soon discovered that a $20 ticket got you into this museum AND the National Museum of Iceland (there are cheaper prices for students, seniors and children).  I thought this was a little pricey at first but we started with the Culture House before heading to the National Museum.  

My thoughts:  Culture House is slightly interesting but mostly underwhelming and just plain weird (maybe that's the culture, I can't tell you).  On its own would be very pricey and very very skippable.  The National Museum, however, was really interesting with all the history and exhibits I was looking for.  I would say start at the National Museum, soak it all up and then if you have time stop by the Culture House for a quick walk through as it is included in the ticket price.  We did it the other way and were a little "museum-ed out" by the time we got to the National Museum.  Start at the National and if you don't make it to the Culture House, I wouldn't be too upset.  The National Museum also has a great gift shop and cafe if you need a souvenir and a snack.

Landscapes on the top floor of the Culture House
These two Museums are Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 17:00. 
Adults:  20 ISK,  Seniors /Students: 10 ISK (for both museums)
Culture House Hverfisgata 15 101 Reykjavík
National Museum of Iceland Suðurgata 41, 101 Reykjavík

The National Museum entrance

There are of course other museums in the city, some funny, some so serious.  Skip the Culture House and check out a few of these below.   We didn't have time but 
here's a list of some I wish we had time to stop at:

  • Saga Museum (Sögusafnið), where history comes alive.
  • Vikin Maritime Museum- portrays Icelandic maritime history throughout the ages
  •  The Icelandic Punk Museum- opened by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in November 2016 and is located in an abandoned public toilet.
  • Árbær Open Air Museum is a display of ancient Icelandic houses.
  • Whales of Iceland exhibition, the largest exhibit of its kind in Europe, and possibly the world
  • Icelandic Phallological Museum- There you will find a collection of over two hundred penises and penile parts from almost all of the land and sea mammals in Iceland. If you don't have time for the museum, the gift shop itself is worth a visit.

The gift shop of the Phallological Museum

Mimicing the street art

During my first day in Reykjavik (cue sideways rain, insane wind, and frigid temperatures), I didn't really understand the city.  The rain was coming at me in every painful angle possible, the wind was ripping my hood off, and the temperatures had me layering my winter coat under my rain jacket until I looked like the touristy version of the Michelin Man.  After a few stops my first day in the city, I sort of wrote Reyjavik off as an "eh, its okay" and continued my journey around the country.  

Fun souveneirs at the shops 

Cool items for sale in the city shops
However, when my last two days in Iceland landed me in the capital when the sun was shining and people could walk around without being blown away, I finally understood this cities charm (hint: I definitely hadn't been in the right area either).  The "real" Reykjavik is really funky street art, the coolest shops, awesome restaurants, coffee shops, great bars, and so much more.  Spend the day walking in and out of these various establishments and soak in the splendor that is this awesome little city. After a sunny day in Reykjavik I would come back in a heartbeat (with a lot more money because #IcelandIsn'tCheap). 

Enjoying a donut from one of the city's many cafes

I know I told you to try a hot dog, but I feel like "eating your way around the city" also needs its own category -- with that being said, I will also be writing a general post on Icelandic food because if you know this blog you know food and alcohol are an important part of the culture of a place.  The city is famous for its awesome restaurants, local and international, from its small hot dog stands to fine dining experiences.  We tried to find some cheaper options and opted with Noodle Station for a fast and cheap delicious bowl of noodles (<$10 for the vegetarian bowl), and Ali Baba for some lamb shawarma (dinner plate at around $15).  

If you want to try some traditional Icelandic food you won't find at home, there are lots of options offering the staples of horse, whale, and puffin.  Here is a list of recommended spots to eat in ReyjavikIf you want to try some traditional Icelandic food you won't find at home, there are lots of options offering the staples of horse, whale, and puffin.  Here is a list of recommended spots to eat in Reyjavik.  Make sure you try the fish of the day, the Charr, a hot dog, the lamb somewhere, and wash it down with a shot of Brennivin, the country's famous aquavit.  As you make your way around the country (or if you are just in Reykjavik) hunt down some fish soup and meat soup.

Famous Fish Soup and a local beer, Einstok

This is another one of those spots on everyone's list.  Hallgrímskirkja, the famous church in Reykjavik,  is one of the city's best-known landmarks.  It is one of the tallest structures in Iceland at 244 ft.  The church is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson.  The church is free to visit and is open to the public.  For a fee, you can take the elevator to the top of the tower for a famous view of the city.  

Hallgrímskirkja Church and Leifur Eriksson statue- and weird guy in the corner 
Outside the church, you can see the famous statue of Leifur Eiríksson (known as Leif Eriksson), one of the best known "heroes" of Iceland's Viking Age.  While Christopher Columbus used to get all the credit, it was actual Leifur who was the first European to arrive in America in the year 1000, about half a millennia before CC.  This famous and well-photographed statue was a gift from the United States to Iceland to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of Alþingi.  Iceland's history in the park of Þingvellir will get its own post but for now, know that it was the parliament of Iceland, first convened at Þingvellir in the year 930 AD.  What came first, the statue or the church?  Leifur has been standing in his current location for 13 years before the construction of the church began.  

Winter (October – April): 09:00 – 17:00. Tower closes 16:30.
Summer (May – September): 09:00 – 21:00. Tower closes 20:30.
Tower closes a half hour before the church (church is free, tower has a fee)
Tower Admission:  Adults: ISK 900, Children: ISK 100 (ages 7-14)

Famous fermented shark- Photo from Huffington Post

After leaving the hotdog stand we were excited to find some "shelter" and get away from the nasty wind and rain.  We snuck into this fun indoor flea market called the "Kolaportid Flea Market" where they sold everything from sweaters to pornographic looking towels and horse meat.  Apparently, this flea market is "authentically Iceland" and where the locals go to shop.  You could buy some handmade goods, some items definitely shipped from China, or walk around the food coolers to try an assortment of fish.  I tried some Atlantic Char, something called "Cod Balls" (think of a fritter), and the famous fermented shark known as "hákarl" before I realized it was indeed rotten shark.  

If you know me, you know I will eat just about anything that comes out of the ocean.  I now know I have boundaries, i.e. nothing rotten please.  This shark was sour and acrid, and a taste that lingered with me the rest of the day.  While in Reyjavik, definitely stop into this market, try the various fish and try the famous fermented shark.  Just be warned, you probably won't enjoy it.  Anthony Bourdain even stated it was the worst thing he's ever put in his mouth. 

Located next to Bæjarins Beztu hot dog stand and Art Museum
Address: Tryggvagötu 19, Old Harbour, Grófin, Reykjavík, Iceland
Open during the weekend between 11:00 and 17:00 and occasionally on public holidays.

The local spirit, Brennivin

If Reykjavik is known for anything, it has to be its nightlife.  There are so many bars from the more American attractions like the Lebowski Bar and Hard Rock Cafe to some trendier microbreweries, local gay bars, loud clubs, and even a bar where you can do your laundry.  I can see why the bar scene is so big in this city.  Let's be honest, you need to find a way to pass the time when the winters and cold and its dark most of the time.  Here is a list of some of the popular spots in Reykjavik.  

We visited the Lewboski Bar (open, loud, lots of TVs and White Russians for days), Micro-Bar (expensive but awesome selection of local and fantastic beer), Gaukurinn (LGBT friendly bar, very cool space, play Mario-Kart, stop in for happy hour, live music and comedy), and the Laundromat Cafe (trendy and popular, yet quite expensive with no happy hour specials, BUT you can do your laundry downstairs).  If you want to enjoy the nightlife, be warned, booze in Iceland is NOT cheap.  Mixed drinks will easily run you from $20-30 EACH.  Beer generally starts at around $10 where the average is more like $12-15.  I highly recommend taking advantage of happy hour where you can get some beer and wine for as low as $6.  Various bars have varying happy hour specials and times so be sure to look online or get the "appy hour" app.

Of course, you can (and should) hit up the liquor store to do some drinking in your hotel/rental before heading out.  The state-owned liquor store, Vinbudin, is where you need to go as grocery stores and gas stations only sell alcohol up to 2.25% (near beer only, folks).  You can get the normal/high test beer, liquor and wine at a Vinbudin which are located everywhere around the country and there are 13 in the capital area alone.    We ended up buying a bottle of Iceland's famous Brennivin to take around the country with us (more on that in my food post).  Different Vinbudins have different hours but generally, they are closed on Sundays and tend to close early on the other days, around 6 o clock. 

Sign at the entrance of Gaukurinn, popular LGBT bar

If you don't want to see the city on foot (and if the weather allows), renting a bike is the best way to get around.  If you've been to any major cities, you've likely seen the various bike stations around the city that are generally funded by some large company (in Santa Monica they were green HULU bikes).  In Reykjavik, you can rent a WOW city bike sponsored by WOW airlines.  When you rent a bike, you use a passcode (obtained at station kiosk), membership pass, or the Transit App to rent a WOWcitybike from any station for up to 30 minutes- each additional 30 minutes is 500 ISK.  You can park it at various stations all over the city (time stops when the bike is locked at a station).  As long as you have the app or a map, this is an easy way to get around the city at a reasonable price.  

Locations/More Info  
Rates:  30 MINS: 350 ISK  30 DAYS: 3.900ISK  90 DAYS: 9.900 ISK  ONE YEAR: 16.900 ISK

There are so many things to do in this city, and this is just a short list.  Whether you spend a few hours, a day or a week in the city, there is truly something for everyone.  Be warned, the prices may be a little higher than expected but all worth it for the quirkiness, culture, and amazing food and booze found throughout this city.  

Where we stayed:  Airbnb Get $40 off your first stay by using this link


  1. Awesome guide! Love the map too so I can see where everything is. One day I'll visit Iceland!
    Alicia @

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! The map is such a helpful tool!


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