When I was in Junior High School, Hard Rock Cafe T-Shirts were all the rage. People tried to get the most obscure location shirt they could find, to impress friends I suppose. I didn’t participate in this particular fad, but a shirt I saw a friend wear one day left a lasting impression with me. The crisp white shirt featured the traditional Hard Rock logo and underneath was printed ‘Reykjavik.’ I was entranced. I had heard of this place before, but had no idea where it was and knew nothing about it. All I knew about Reykjavik was that it was tiny and far away and that I would probably never see it in person.
While the Reykjavik Hard Rock Cafe closed a few years ago, I finally found myself in the Icelandic capital after decades of pining. I think most people have some sort of preconceived notion of what the city must be like, but no one has a really clear idea until they visit. It’s not like Paris, the star of countless movies and books and featured prominently in popular culture. Reykjavik is a quiet destination. It’s popular, but not ostentatious, making it a travel mystery unless actually visited. With that in mind, I want to share with you all my impressions of Reykjavik, Iceland.
We first arrived into town a little after eight in the morning, yet it still looked and felt as if it were the middle of the night. Light is a fleeting friend of Iceland in the winter, and daybreak doesn’t usually happen until almost ten in the morning. Since the international airport at Keflavik is forty minutes from Reykjavik, most visitors take the Fly Bus into town, which means almost everyone spends time at the Central Bus Terminal. The terminal is a central meeting point for tourists as they take advantage of the many tours offered to whisk them around to various Icelandic locales. It’s a strange commonality, but in a mirror of Icelandic society it places everyone on an equal level, no matter their background.
From the bus station, another van took us to our hotel, although the graffiti on the wall next door surprised me when the driver announced that we had arrived. The hotel was close to the city center and had an unassuming appearance from the outside. Like many businesses in Iceland though, the drab exterior cleverly hid a veritable gallery of Nordic design inside. That’s a nuance of Reykjavik I enjoyed, subtle design attributes added to buildings and sites around town purely for aesthetic reasons. Nothing gaudy or over the top, just gentle gestures that make life a little more enjoyable.
Walking around town, the first thing I noticed was that many buildings had corrugated iron siding painted in a rainbow of colors. The lack of trees in Iceland has long complicated the building process, so concrete and iron have been a necessary tool. Instead of creating an oppressive, utilitarian feel, the architecture still manages to be soft and vibrant, with clear traces of Scandinavian influence throughout.
Iceland has an interesting history, a fact most Icelanders will offer to share at a moment’s notice. Denmark was the last country to assert authority over the island nation and after some experiments with home rule and near sovereignty; Iceland finally became a totally independent republic in 1944. People in Reykjavik are proud of their long history, with constant allusions to Viking ancestors, to whom surely everyone must be related. That’s because not many people live in Iceland, just 320,000 with two-thirds of them in Reykjavik. This makes the whole country feel like a giant small town where everyone knows your name.
In the middle of the historic core in Reykjavik, there are no skyscrapers or massive towers. Instead modest sized buildings line the streets and seagulls fly overhead. Iceland is a water nation, and Reykjavik a water town. It’s everywhere, from the smells and salty breezes to the breathtaking views across the bay. The sea is a part of the identity of Iceland and it’s impossible to miss as you wander around town.
If this post seems a bit rambly, that’s because it is, that’s also how I explored Reykjavik. I didn’t have a map or a goal; I just bundled up and started walking. I walked past the mammoth church, the Hallgrímskirkja, through a sculpture garden, around quiet neighborhoods, circumnavigated the city pond and sat staring at a flock of cranky geese bullying some ducks. I looked around and didn’t see any security, very few cops, nothing that pointed towards fear or violence. I looked at the people who, while not necessarily exuding warmth, were always willing to answer a question or help us out. As I sat there a dad with his young son approached, bundled up almost to the point of absurdity. They pulled out a bag of bread and started pelting the ducks and geese with nuggets of stale rolls. Whenever the little boy hit one in the head he’d laugh and look around. He caught my eye and waved, I waved back and smiled. It was a simple moment but it will be forever how I think of Reykjavik.
So what’s Reykjavik like? It’s a walkable city with character, the tough northern kind that doesn’t take any crap. It’s a real city, the downtown is used just as much as the suburbs. Things don’t close at 5pm and instead there’s real life downtown. It’s a city of pride, both of its history and the future with the dogmatic belief that things can’t get any worse, so why not hope for the best. But to really learn what Reykjavik is like, you’ll just have to visit for yourself.
Have you been to Reykjavik? What did you think?
44 thoughts on “So What’s Reykjavik Really Like?”
Looks like a really interesting city, I’m dying to go.
How long did you spend in Iceland? Was it difficult to make the most of your trip, given that it was dark for so much of the day?
It really wasn’t that dark. Probably about 8-9 hours of daylight, not bad. We were there for 4 days and since it was a surprise, I didn’t have a chance to plan, but my partner did a great job. We did a lot and had a blast. I felt like I really saw and did a lot. Plus only 5 hours from Boston.
Great post, Matt. Loved the pictures and can’t wait to visit Reykjavik. Any suggested activities?
You could check out my blog for stuff to do in Reykjavík – maybe it will give you some idea. Mind you though, my photos don’t look as good as Matt’s but I try my best with limited means :)
Thanks! Well it’s hard to go wrong and it depends on how much time you have. Some must do activities (in my opinion) are to properly explore Reykjavik, go whale watching, visit the Golden Circle and most people love the Blue Lagoon. But there’s a lot more to do of course.
My favourite place! I don’t know anyone who has been and didn’t just love it. And I agree, winter visits are great, far less tourists.
I absolutely love the pictures on your blog Matt…they are like magic, and so are your stories…
This makes me even MORE excited for Iceland! Less than 2 weeks to go now!
Your photos in this post are great, Matt! I’m glad to see that Reykjavik appears to be just as colorful as people say it is.
I will get to Reykjavik one day and I will take with me the great info you’ve shared here. Incredible photos, too!
Thanks so much, be sure to catch tomorrow’s post then!
Matt great post. I have been wanting to go to Iceland for the past 10 years and this just confirms my desire. Are the people here American-friendly? Also, I’ve heard the nightlife does not start until late.
Oh yes, very US friendly. The US had a large military installation there for decades, so they’re familiar with us. Not sure about the nightlife, we didn’t participate, but I don’t think it starts too late – sleepy town at times.
Iceland is one of the most interesting, enjoyable, exciting countries I have had the pleasure of visiting. The people are welcoming and justly proud. They are streets ahead of most western countries with thermal energy & heated footpaths and car parks etc . I drove the countryside & was awed by what I saw. The food & coffee was outstanding wherever we went. We were there in April so the weather was milder & no driving problems.
I will be returning and staying for 2 to 3 weeks to drive the full coast line.
Heading to Reykjavik in January – these photos were inspiring! Thank you.
Absolutely fantastic city and good article Matt. Connor, the nightlife is something else at the weekend. One big bar crawl (the runtur) which starts late and goes on until the very early hours. Great experience.
A great article, I don’t know a lot about Iceland and it’s great to find out more about such places. Also the photos are wonderful. Good Work!
What amazing pictures and great post! I was just talking about Iceland with a friend – she mentioned it was expensive. Did you find that to be true?
Getting there and hotels were fine, but the day to day stuff was expensive, yes. As long as you budget for it you should be fine.
Loved this, Matt. I’m heading there for Thanksgiving weekend to see the Northern Lights. Having read your piece on ‘local eats’ I’ll steer clear of the minke whale thankyouverymuch :)
You’ll have a great time, it’s an amazing place
After reading your post and always having had a mild curiosity about the country, I have decided to actually go ahead and book a trip for my girlfriend and I in March. Just wanted you to know what a great little piece you have written.
Oh wow, that’s great Steve! Thanks for letting me know and I hope you have fun!
you remind the memories of my trip to Reykjavik. its bird life, museums,hiking paths,evenings,church of Hallgrimur,Peerlan’s architecture,shopping all are classic and full of life. i also visited the Blue Lagoon although not in Reykjavik city.your pictorial presentation is nice .
You are a very articulate person Matt! I enjoyed reading your article which I came across on ‘Stumble-Upon’!
Iceland has always been on my bucket list. I love travel but my pale skin doesn’t tolerate sunny climates too well…so your description of the Icelandic weather has definately made me want to go even more now!
Keep up the good work…it’s great to read an honest, open and well-written piece of travel advice.
Thank you Niamh I really appreciate that. I always try to ‘tell it like it is’ and let you all draw your own conclusions :)
Thanks for this excellent posting!! I am going to Iceland this summer and now have a better idea of what to expect!!
Thank you for this interesting and informative post. I am off to Iceland next week and am looking forward to seeing the ‘big city’, well it’s big compared to where I live in Gibraltar (population 30,000). The pictures are great as well.
I went to Iceland a few years ago and loved it! Great post and very nice pictures!
Beautiful post and pics about one of my all time favorite cities in the world!
Wow, that’s awesome! Very well written.
I have always been fascinated with Reykjavik and am hoping to move there someday. I know it’s expensive though. How is the cost of living compared to a U.S. city like, say, New York, or San Francisco?
Claire, it really is a beautiful city. I’m not sure what the day-to-day costs for a resident are, but it was ok for a traveler. Hotels weren’t as high as NYC, but the food costs were on the high side. To maximize budget, we booked a deal through IcelandAir that included hotel and activities along with flight. It was very reasonably priced and so while we were there all we had to pay for was food.
Love the photographs!
I’m glad to see trees on the pictures. I thought that there are almost no trees in Iceland.
Which model camera and lenses did you shoot this trip with?
In Iceland I had my Nikon D5100 with just the standard lens.
Inspired posting on Iceland ! I’ve been intrigued by Iceland for years too… I’d say that when I first heard the Sugarcubes (Bjork’s early days) was when I first became intrigued by the art and culture of Iceland.
Did you have a hard time leaving Iceland after getting a taste of the place, art, culture and people ? It seems like it could take a month to get into the culture… and get to experience the outerlying landscapes and towns.
Did you get to many mineral hot springs?
Thank you for your posting (:
Well we were there for 4 days, but fell in love quickly. And yes, we did get to the hot springs.
Lovely! I’ll be going for my second time over christmas, All the way from Australia. Worth it though.. I took my first trip there with school in 2010 and been pining to go back ever since!
The anecdote about the little boy and the birds was great. It’s nice to experience several moments like that when visiting a strange place. This blog posting has me wanting to visit, too…it IS possible to visit Iceland, then leap frog onto the mainland continent, to continue your travels, isn’t it?
Yup it sure is. Icelandair has one of the best stopover programs of any airline.
I just returned from Reykjavik and miss being there already. The top of the Hallgrimskirka offers views of the city that are impressive and the “Golden Circle” excursion is well worth the money. Another unique experience in Iceland is The Blue Lagoon. The restaurants are very good and the bars are too. If you are a museum type and want to learn some Icelandic history you should check out the Reykjavik Settlement Museum. Can you tell I want to go back? :)
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