Iceland’s capital is a great city to explore for a day or two, as well as a good hub to plan excursions further afield. When you land at Keflavik airport, you can get a bus to downtown Reykjavik for appx $34 per person each way. If you’re going to rent a car, might as well get it upon arrival at the airport–but don’t forget to make sure your hotel has parking available!
Blue Lagoon: I’ve heard lots of people say the Blue Lagoon is overpriced and touristy– but in my opinion it’s still a lot of fun–at least to do once! Since it’s close to the airport, it’s a great way to decompress after your flight, or to relax before going to the airport. The water does have a pretty, unnatural-looking milky blue color, and you soak all day and enjoy (super overpriced) drinks in the lagoon. Be sure to rub the mud on your face and enjoy the exfoliating properties : )
Natural color of the Blue Lagoon
Hanging out on a windy day… I think some mud got on my lens…
Downtown Reykjavik: I stayed at Hlemmur Square — about a 5 minute walk from the main drag. It’s an odd combination of luxury hotel rooms and upscale hostel dorms. Mrs. Yakpacker and I stayed in one of the fancy rooms and it probably had the most comfortable bed I’ve ever stayed in at a hotel.
When dining in Reykjavik, go for the lobster! They’re the small langostine variety, but delicious and ubiquitous. Saegreifinn, on the harbor, is a no-frills seafood restaurant that makes an awesome lobster bisque! You can also find lobster pizza, and I used to get a phenomenal lobster quesadilla, but couldn’t find it when I most recently went in 2019. Lamb is another great local staple — definitely get some lamb stew! Several places around town have other local items such as whale and puffin, as well.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the Hákarl, rotten shark meat. Basically, this variety of Greenland shark cannot be eaten fresh, but it is edible once you let it rot for a while. (I’m not sure who went first on that one). It has a strong ammonia taste and isn’t for the faint of heart! I got a sampler cup (which is more than enough) at a stand in the back of the flea market right on the harbor. You can wash it down with the national caraway seed liquor, Brennivin (which in my opinion wasn’t much better than the shark). Get in there!
When not eating rotten shark, walk along the harbor and the main pedestrian area and you’ll find plenty of souvenir shops, wool sweaters, and other local products. There’s also a great bar scene with live music around town. At the tourist info center, you can book excursions, tours, and rental cars. The Hallgrimskirkja cathedral (right, from 2014) is an impressive landmark worth visiting.
Whale-watching: there are lots of whale-watching tours that leave from the harbor. I would just caution that if you really want to see whales, make sure you’re doing it in peak season, or at least when there have been many recent sightings. I didn’t see any on my trip– and I talked with numerous other people who had the same experience. If you’re based out of the United States, I’d recommend going whale watching out of Maine (or even Boston) — you’ll have better luck!
(Insert photo of majestic green-swirling northern lights here)
You can also sign up for northern lights-viewing tours, weather permitting. “Weather permitting” is a huge caveat, I’ve been to Iceland twice, for one week each trip, and had overcast cloud cover the entire time for each trip– so the northern lights are really a gamble! If you’ve rented a car, you can check the forecast schedules and go out of town and look for the lights on our own!
Icelandic hot dog
Finally, be sure to check out Bæjarins Beztu hot dog stand on the harbor… it’s a local favorite, and has great dogs!