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Reykjavik City Breaks

Iceland’s cosmopolitan capital

As you traverse the lunar-like lava fields that characterise the landscape around Keflavik, Iceland’s main international airport, you may feel like you’ve arrived on another planet. A soak in the steaming, milky blue waters of the Blue Lagoon may further solidify that impression. Once you arrive in Reykjavik, though, you’ll discover a city with a cool, cosmopolitan vibe, a flourishing food and drink scene, and a kaleidoscope of brightly painted houses that offer endless satisfying photo opportunities.

Founded by Vikings in 874 AD, it wasn’t until the 20th century that Reykjavik transformed from a small fishing town into the bustling cultural and economic hub it is today. As you stroll the streets of the world’s northernmost capital, you’ll notice an array of colourful murals, fascinating museums, lively bars and artisan bakeries serving irresistibly delicious pastries.

A rich variety of architectural styles

While Reykjavik is a fairly tiny city by European standards, it certainly packs a powerful punch when it comes to architectural splendour. The rocket-shaped Hallgrímskirkja church, and Harpa concert hall, with its futuristic glass honeycomb facade, are unmissable architectural highlights, while the array of traditional corrugated iron houses that come in all manner of shapes, sizes and colours give Reykjavik a totally unique aesthetic.

Venture down to the waterfront to marvel at the gleaming, stainless steel Sun Voyager monument – a modern representation of a Viking long-ship – or take a trip to Perlan, a glass-domed structure on Öskjuhlíð Hill, housing a revolving restaurant, a cocktail bar, a planetarium and an interactive exhibition which provides a fascinating insight into all aspects of Icelandic nature.

A gateway to spectacular Icelandic nature

A city break in Reykjavik is a fantastic way to experience Iceland’s stunning nature, especially if you don’t have the time or the budget for a longer road trip around the island. The Golden Circle is an ideal option for a day trip, taking you between three awe-inspiring landmarks (Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall) all linked by a 300km (186-mile) route.

Alternatively, you could embark on a whale watching voyage from the Old Harbour, go for a scenic hike in the Elliðaárdalur valley or Heiðmörk Nature Reserve, or, depending on the time of year, join a Northern Lights expedition, which will take you out of the city into a dark sky area to maximise your chances of witnessing the hauntingly beautiful phenomenon swirl through the night sky.

Three tips for a top trip

Your Reykjavik questions, answered

Not as cold as you might expect for somewhere so close to the Arctic Circle. Summer temperatures tend to hover in the region of 10-15°C, and can even exceed 20°C. In winter, temperatures don’t usually get significantly colder or warmer than freezing. Compared to other places at a similar latitude, Iceland’s winters are relatively mild, especially in coastal areas, due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift.
It takes around three hours to fly directly from London Luton to Keflavik International Airport. You can also fly directly from Manchester, which takes two hours and 50 minutes, or from Edinburgh, which takes just two-and-a-half hours. 
Keflavik Airport is around 50km outside of Reykjavik itself. It’s a straightforward 45-minute drive if you’re hiring a car; alternatively, you can book a private transfer or hop on one of the regular shuttle buses. 
It depends what kind of holiday you’re after. Between late May and early August, it doesn’t properly get dark in Reykjavik and the weather is at its most pleasant for eating, drinking and exploring outside. In the depths of winter, by contrast, there are only a few hours of sunlight per day – but the cold, dark days come with a certain cosiness that gives the city a very different feel, and the streets look especially beautiful when blanketed in snow. Spring and autumn, meanwhile, tend to be less extreme. Ultimately, there’s no bad time of year to visit Reykjavik. 
Several factors need to come together for you to see the Northern Lights. Most importantly, you need dark, clear skies – and then it depends on the intensity of the geomagnetic activity. It’s possible to see them from late August through to early May, but October to March is the prime window of opportunity due to the longer nights. Generally, avoiding light pollution makes it much easier to see the aurora, but during a strong display, you may be fortunate enough to see them in central Reykjavik. Consider booking a specialist tour which will take you out of town to an observation spot where you’ll have the best possible chance. 
Very much so – Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world. Reykjavik’s city centre is also very compact, so you can easily explore it all on foot. If you’re visiting with children, the Reykjavik Family Park and Zoo is a great place to go, home to Arctic foxes, reindeer, seals and more. Lake Tjörnin is another lovely spot for a stroll, with lots of ducks and other birdlife. 
Icelandic is the official language, but you’ll find that English is spoken fluently in the vast majority of places. Still, it’s always handy to know a local phrase or two before you go. 
If you’re a fast walker, you could cover most of the city centre in a day – it really isn’t very big. However, Reykjavik is best enjoyed at a relaxed pace, so ideally you’d want a couple of full days to get a proper feel for it. Also, you might want to go on an excursion one day, such as the Golden Circle, so be sure to factor that into your plan. 
Traditional Icelandic cuisine features lots of fish, lamb and skyr (a thick, creamy dairy product, similar to yoghurt), but in Reykjavik, you’ll be able to find almost anything. Pizza, tacos, noodles, curries, burgers, New Nordic cuisine – you name it, Reykjavik has it. There’s such a varied choice that your main issue will be narrowing down the options for where to eat. 
Absolutely. There’s so much to see and do in Iceland, so if you’re thinking of a longer trip, it’s a great idea to spend some time in Reykjavik at the start or end.

Best attractions to visit in Reykjavik

Laugavegur

No trip to Reykjavik is complete without strolling up and down Laugavegur at least a few times – in fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid it. Here, on the liveliest street in Iceland, you’ll find everything from cosy craft beer bars and bookstores hosting live music performances to trendy fashion boutiques and fine-dining restaurants – including the only Michelin Star restaurant in Iceland. It’s also the place to go for all your souvenir shopping needs. 
 

Hallgrímskirkja

In a city of low-rise buildings, the jagged, 74m-tall Hallgrímskirkja church dominates the Reykjavik skyline, and is arguably Iceland’s most iconic architectural landmark. Its stark, grey exterior was inspired by the volcanic basalt columns found throughout the country, concealing a minimalist, neo-Gothic interior. It’s well worth taking the lift up to the top for magnificent panoramas overlooking the city and looking out towards the mountains in the distance. 
 

Sky Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon may be Iceland’s most popular attraction – and with good reason – but as of 2021, another geothermal spa has been luring locals and visitors alike to soak in its steaming, mineral rich waters and enjoy a range of rejuvenating, therapeutic rituals. Nestled on a cliff edge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Sky Lagoon is just a 15-minute drive from downtown Reykjavik, offering a beautifully serene spot in which to relax within easy reach of the city. 

Highlights of Reykjavik