Continuing with my blog series on Iceland, this one focuses on Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and only city. All roads in Iceland lead to Reykjavik and this is the first place that almost everyone will go to once they land in Iceland. So it is best to know what Reykjavik has to offer for the visitor.
Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world. Although a city, Reykjavik doesn’t look like most cities with it’s colourful houses and lack of skyscrapers. Iceland only has a population of 330,000 people and around 80% of them live in Reykjavik and it’s surrounding region, often referred to as the Capital Region. The center of Reykjavik is the oldest part of the city and also where most of the attractions are located. Reykjavik is really small, but you won’t feel crowded in because of the small population. In fact, tourists probably out-number the residents during peak season.
Most visitors use Reykjavik as their base to start tours, since most of the essential services are located here like banks, car rentals, tour companies and supermarkets. Of course there are the hotels and restaurants too which we can’t go without. But first things first, getting to Reykjavik.
The international Airport is at Keflavik which is around 50km south west of Reykjavik. All international flights will land here and visitors have to get to Reykjavik by bus or taxi. Most people will take the Grayline or Flybus express bus services from the airport and they run door-to-door drop offs to most of the hotels, apartments and hostels. The express bus service runs every 45 minutes to 1 hour. There is also a taxi stand where you can take a taxi to Reykjavik instead. Taxis run by meter in Iceland and are expensive. Car rentals are in Reykjavik, but they can arrange for you to pick up your rental car at the airport for a fee.
We also found out that the shops and money changer on the transit area on the second floor of the airport only serves departing passengers. Once they knew that we were arriving passengers, they didn’t allow us to buy anything or change money. I find it strange but this has something to do with the country still under capital controls since the 2008 financial crisis. The shops in the transit area are duty free so no VAT is charged, only departing passengers get to enjoy this benefit, while the money changer in the transit area is for departing visitors to change all their leftover ISK (Icelandic Kroner) to any of the major currencies.
The money changer for arriving visitors is at the ground floor of the airport after exiting the luggage claim and near the Airport Express counters. But there is usually a long queue as almost every arriving passenger will go there to change their money to ISK. There is also a convenience store around the corner and it sells SIM cards for voice and data for your smartphone. If you don’t have time, you can actually change your money and buy the SIM card in Reykjavik.
The bus journey from Keflavik to Reykjavik takes around an hour. I do not know about Flybus, but for Grayline which we took, they have free Wifi onboard. What a godsend for smartphone junkies like us. For the door-to-door service, we had to transfer to smaller buses which are able to pass through the narrow streets in Reykjavik. It’s faster and makes sense, otherwise it will take too long just for 1 bus to go round to the hotels of each traveler.
Where to Stay
There are many options for visitors to stay in Reykjavik ranging from 5 star hotels to hostels and AirBnB. All of them are not cheap in my opinion. The cost of living here is the same as any Nordic country, and by Asian standards that is very expensive. For ourselves, we booked a service apartment with attached kitchen so that we could save some money by buying food from the supermarket and eating in. Eating out in Reykjavik or anywhere in Iceland is pretty expensive. As a guide, a standard hotel room will cost you around SGD150 onwards. Hostels with shared kitchen and bathrooms are around SGD50 a night. I met some Singaporeans who booked an AirBnB apartment for around SGD250 a night for 4 persons in a nice condo. If you are travelling in a group then AirBnB or service apartments are a more economical choice.
One of the things that visitors notice is that Iceland prides itself as a green country. This is quite evident in the generous use of geothermal power everywhere. One of the most unique thing is the use of geothermally heated water for heating and bathing. I must say that the water here is the cleanest and freshest I’ve have used and you can drink it straight out of the tap. The hot water is also used to run the heaters in the apartment and also serves to heat the floor in the bathroom and towel rack. It really makes it more comfortable than standing on a freezing floor when you step out of the shower. Because of geothermal power, there is very little or no burning of fossil fuels, except for the cars. Electrical power is generated through geothermal and hydropower. Hence, electricity and heating are extremely cheap here.
Most of the important services like banks, shops, restaurants, car rentals, tourist information can be found in Reykjavik’s town center. We did not managed to change our currency to ISK at the airport as our bus was leaving. We had wasted time inside the airport at the duty free shop and money changer in the transit area before finding out that we were not allowed to buy or change money as an arriving visitor.
I don’t have a photo of the laundry but it’s very unmistakable, it’s called the Laundromat Café. Yes, I thought it was a restaurant at first and it’s always crowded. Because the people in there are all sitting and eating while waiting for their laundry to be done. There is also a 24hr convenience store nearby but the prices there are more expensive than if you buy from Iceland’s equivalent of our NTUC Fairprice, which is called Bonus. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Bonus supermarket in the city center, but there is one a short walk towards Hallgrimskirkja, the big church that you can’t miss. The convenience store does sell SIM cards for voice/data and we bought ours here.
What to See
Being small in area, you can virtually walk or cycle within Reykjavik. There is really no need for a car unless you are planning to drive out of the city. Most of the attractions are located near the town center or the Old Harbour.
Reykjavik also seems to present itself as a city of art, and you can find works of art like sculptures and graffiti on walls as you walk along it’s streets. Some of these statues are quite quirky and you can find some of them all over the city.
From the city center, you can walk towards the hill with the Arnarholl statue. From here the main shopping street of Laugavegur starts. To call Laugavegur a shopping street is really an overstatement. It can’t really compare to other shopping streets in big cities like Champs Elysees, Fifth Avenue or Orchard Road. The high VAT also makes shopping not a big hit here especially for those that like to shop. We did buy their Merino woolen winter wear which really keeps you warm compared to the substandard winter wear that we buy at outrageous prices in Singapore. If you are looking out for good quality winter clothes for your future trips, then this is the place to buy them. After all, who does winter clothes better than the people who live in Iceland. If you really need to shop, you can save your money until you leave Iceland and buy at the duty free shops in the airport. They have almost everything that you can find in Reykjavik and at tax free prices.
A short walk up Laugavegur, the road splits and you can see Hallgrimskirkja.
Visitors can take an elevator up to the top of the tower for a small fee of ISK700 (around SGD7). There’s only 1 elevator (which moves very slowly) and the queue can be quite long. I did see people join the queue without paying and nobody checked if we had tickets before going up. Once at the top of the tower, we still had to climb a few flights of stairs to the viewing deck. But the sight is well worth the wait and effort.
As we moved from exploring the city center, we invariably found ourselves walking to the Old Harbour. The Old Harbour is historical as Reykjavik started as a fishing port and fishery is still one of the biggest industries here. This is also the place where most of the activities take place like the whale and puffin watching tours. There are also many restaurants, museums and hotels along the harbour walk. Since it was winter, the puffin watching tours were not running. The whale watching tours were still on but the chances of seeing whales are lower than in summer.
There are 2 major whale watching tour companies; Special Tours and Elding. I think that both of them are the same and you can just pick anyone which pleases you better. We tried both of them anyway.
So what could you do if you don’t get to see whales on a cruise. The next best thing is to visit the Whale Museum which is further down from the Old Harbour. We actually visited this place on our second day in Reykjavik before taking any whale watching tour.
Just off Reykjavik is Viðey Island. It’s pronounced as Videy Island and let’s stick to that. This is a small island that is open to visitors in summer with regular ferry schedules. In winter it’s closed and we could only get there when we took a Northern Lights cruise, and they stopped over for us to take photos of the Northern Lights.
During the weekends there is a small flea market that takes place near the Old Harbour. However, I find that this is really a disappointment and it doesn’t compare to major flea markets like Chatuchak in Bangkok. However, feel free to browse through and you might find something interesting there.
What to Eat
There are many restaurants in Reykjavik and you would be really spoiled for choice depending on what you fancy. However, eating out is expensive here. A standard main dish will cost anywhere from SGD25-SGD50 at a normal priced restaurant. For higher end restaurants expect to pay around SGD80 for a main dish and SGD150 onwards for a 3 course meal. That’s why it probably makes sense to cook your own meals in an apartment. For Asian visitors who cannot do without their Chinese food and rice, you mostly out of luck here. We didn’t see any Asian restaurants in the city center. However, we did see a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant located in the new downtown area which is east of Reykjavik city center. I’m sure there is a Chinese restaurant somewhere, but we just didn’t see it.
The Icelanders have their own food specialties like the salted herring that you can buy in the supermarket. Fish are the main source of protein and red meat is mostly from sheep which they rear, and there is the occasional horse meat, and not to mention whale and puffin meat which gets served in restaurants. Water is served free in every restaurant that we went to, and they will set a big bottle of water on your table which is refillable, after all it comes from the tap.
The Blue Lagoon
No, this is not that movie of Brooke Shields swimming naked in some tropical island lagoon, and which some of us watched secretly on VHS when we were kids. This is actually a famous hot spring spa located actually nearer to Keflavik Airport than to Reykjavik. In fact, you can stopover for a soak at the Blue Lagoon when coming from the airport to Reykjavik or vice versa, and this an option when you book with the bus companies. It’s nice to soak and relax in a hot spring especially if you have just spent the last few hours stuck in a plane. This can be an good choice especially if you arrive in the morning and have to wait until afternoon to check into your hotel. While the Blue Lagoon is technically not in Reykjavik, it’s easily accessible with many buses running regular trips.
The entry fee to the Blue Lagoon is not cheap either. Prices start from €40 for the standard package which just includes admission and a facial mask. As it was winter we decided to take the premium package which includes a bathrobe and slippers. The bathrobe was to keep ourselves warm as we walked from the changing room to the hot springs in freezing temperature. In summer I don’t think that the premium package is necessary unless you want the other benefits that it includes like a free drink at the lagoon bar and a reserved table at their premium restaurant. You can say that the Blue Lagoon is touristy and expensive, but it’s well worth a visit as there is no other place like it on Earth. The only other place that could come close to this are the large communal onsens in Japan.
The Blue Lagoon is not natural, by the way. The water for the hot spring actually comes from the geothermal power plant nearby, where seawater after being heated by molten lava underground is pumped through the turbines and discharged to cool down. Someone discovered that the water has curative properties due to the minerals dissolved in it, and is good for curing skin ailments. Soon people got to know about it and the Blue Lagoon was born. But if you think that paying a premium to soak in the waste water discharge from a power plant sounds ridiculous, then you can actually soak in one of the public hot springs in Reykjavik itself. They are either free or charge a small fee. Of course there are no spa facilities there.
It’s a lesson in being Green and how Icelanders could turn waste water from a power plant into a tourist attraction. Besides the hot spring, they also sell their Blue Lagoon brand skincare and cosmetics which I find pricey. For meals, there is the upscale Lava Restaurant which requires a table reservation and serves fine dining. Then there is the economy option which is a café/bar that serves light food like sandwiches. When we were there they were building a new hotel, so in future visitors could just stay there overnight. If you want to visit the Blue Lagoon it’s advised to book your tickets a few days in advance as they allow only a limited number of guests per day and it gets full very fast. You can book it online together with the bus transportation from Reykjavik if you don’t have your own car. The price of the ticket allows you to stay the whole day so you can come in the morning and stay till the evening when it closes. There are tour options where you can soak in the Blue Lagoon while watching the Northern Lights above. Wow!