I’ve long wanted to go to Iceland and we finally got the chance to visit, spending a whirlwind three days on a ‘Greatest Hits’ tour of the country taking in Reykjavik, the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. It was a fantastic introduction to Iceland and has already got me thinking about where we want to visit when we go back. Even better, we went with our great friends from Pint Size Pilot. Our first day was spent wandering the streets of the capital and we quickly discovered that Reykjavik is a very walkable city with lots to do for kids, particularly given that it really isn’t very big. If you’re visiting Iceland and wondering what there is to do in Reykjavik then here are the best sights, museums, activities and ice cream shops for everyone to enjoy.
Things to do in Reykjavik
See the city from the Hallgrímskirkja
Standing tall at 74.5 meters (244ft) is the Hallgrímskirkja church. It’s the largest church in Iceland and the second highest building in Iceland (and the sixth highest structure in the country) and dominates the city skyline. The church took 41 years to build and opened in 1986; it’s now one of Reykjavik’s top attractions. It’s unlike any other church you might see in Europe (the architecture was apparently inspired by the Icelandic landscape ) and apparently the building regularly makes an appearance on lists of the strangest buildings in the world. Even if the style is not your cup of tea, however, you should still visit because this is where you’ll get the best views of Reykjavik. An elevator takes you to a viewing platform at the top where you can look out over the city and snap that quintessential view of Reykjavik’s colourful buildings. We visited in winter and so the colours weren’t quite as bright but it’s still a fabulous view.
Go to a Chocolate Factory
I only learned about this after we had left Reykjavik but I’m bookmarking it under ‘stuff to do in Reykjavik when we go back’. Icelandic chocolate company Omnom is a small batch, artisan chocolate maker based in the capital that produce really good chocolate some using local ingredients (such as the Black n’ Burnt Barley). Even better than just eating the chocolate, however, you can actually visit their factory. English tours are held daily (and should be booked in advance) and introduce you to the chocolate making process, from cocoa bean to chocolate bar. But you don’t just learn about how Omnom makes their chocolate, you get to taste it all, too! If you miss out on this then don’t worry, we stocked up on Omnom chocolate at the airport before flying home.
Wander Reykjavik’s streets
We spent a lot of time just wandering the city streets. As I said, it’s a very walkable city and even young kids (Sam was three-and-a-half when we visited) will find it an easy place to navigate (if you’re travelling with a stroller, then Reykjavik is pretty pushchair-friendly, too). Laugavegur is one of the main streets, lined with some of Reykjavik’s best shops, cafes and restaurants, as well as lots of colourful street art. Meaning ‘wash road’, this used to be the route to the hot springs where many Icelanders would take their clothes to wash. Hverfisgata runs parallel to Laugavegur and is also worth exploring, having recently been given a makeover. Skólavörðustígur is the road that runs from the Hallgrímskirkja church into town. But really, you can’t go wrong when walking in Reykjavik, all the streets are full of character and fun to explore at your own pace.
Visit Reykjavik’s Settlement Museum
The Settlement Museum is definitely one of the things to see in Reykjavik. Located below ground in the centre of the city, the museum is built around the ruins of a Viking longhouse that was inhabited from about 930 to 1000AD. It was only excavated in 2001 and is a fascinating look at early life in Iceland. Measuring 20m long and 8m across, you can also see where the hearth once stood. Other remnants of the past are on display, including glass beads, old gaming pieces, fragments of wood and soapstone, iron nails and more. There are some fun multimedia exhibitions that my kids enjoyed and there’s a lovely children’s activity area where they can dress up as Vikings themselves. There’s also a room where kids can learn about animals in Iceland with a pretend archaeological dig, which sadly we only found as we had to leave!
Chow down on a Hot Dog
If there’s one dish you should try in Iceland it’s a hot dog. Although not officially the national dish, they can be found everywhere and are well loved by pretty much everyone including visiting celebrities – Bill Clinton was snapped eating one when he visited Reykjavik in 2004 . Made from Icelandic lamb with a bit of pork and beef, they apparently taste different to American hot dogs (although I couldn’t really tell the difference!) and the accompaniments are unique too; order “one with everything” and it’ll come topped with raw white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and remoulade, a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs. The most famous hot dog shop in Reykjavik is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (literally meaning ‘best hot dogs in town’) but we tried some from the Hot Dog House and they were very good!
Stroll through Iceland’s history at the Saga Museum
We went to the Saga Museum but we didn’t go into the actual museum; it’s quite pricey and the kids were starting to flag after a day wandering around so I didn’t know how long they would last in the exhibition. However, we did spend some time in the entrance (and the gift shop, obviously!) and they had a fun area where kids could dress up and pose next to an extremely realistic-looking Viking. This small set-up gives you a feel for the museum, which, by all accounts, is really very good. Billed as Madame Tussauds meets the Vikings, the Saga Museum recreates key moments in Iceland’s history starting with the time of the earliest settlers. If you’ve got the time I would definitely take a look; we’ll be going when we get back to Reykjavik.
Become a fisherman at the Maritime Museum
According to my kids, the Maritime Museum is one of the best things to do in Reykjavik (if you happen to have the most recent copy of the Rough Guide to Reykjavik, ignore what they say about it!). The museum charts the relationship between Iceland and the sea and how the survival of the nation depended on generations of fishermen heading out into the unknown. What we really loved, however, is the museum’s new permanent exhibition, Fish & Folk that explores the history of the Icelandic fisheries. Before you stifle a yawn, let me tell you that the exhibition is highly interactive and starts from a time when fishermen would head out to sea in a wooden rowing boat to modern times. Told from the perspective of Iceland’s biggest fishing port, Reykjavik, kids can dress up in traditional Sou’westers, try and manoeuvre a fork-lift truck and more. Outside is Óðinn, a 900-ton coastguard ship that you can also visit. Guided tours are held three times a day; check their website for timings.
Pick up some Doughnuts
I had no idea that Iceland was so keen on pastries before visiting but it turns out that this country really likes its cakes! We found some excellent bakeries during our quick trip and tasted a lot of buns, rolls, doughnuts and more. One of our favourites is the Sandholt Bakery, which fortunately for us opened early. If you go, make sure you try an Icelandic doughnut as well as their cinnamon roll with caramel on top – decadent but delicious!
Walk along the sea wall
I love a city near the water and the views from Reykjavik’s sea front are hard to beat. Although it was winter when we visited, which meant short days (and dark afternoons!), our walk along the sea wall was one of our favourite things to do in Reykjavik. Start at the city’s concert hall, Harpa, a beautiful building made from shimmering squares of glass. Visit at dusk and watch the coloured lights dance across the surface. From here, walk along towards the Solfrar, otherwise known as the Sun Voyager. This iconic sculpture looks like a Viking longboat but was actually designed as dream boat or an ode to the sun.
Explore the Whale Museum
Another museum we didn’t get the chance to visit is the Whale Museum. The Whales of Iceland exhibit consists of 23 man-made life size models of the various whale species found in the Icelandic waters. Spot the 25m long blue whale, a full-size sperm wale, the endangered North Atlantic right whale and more. The museum is full of interactive exhibits, videos and plenty of whale noises. It sounds like a great thing to do in Reykjavik for kids and one we’ve bookmarked for when we go back.
Eat Ice Cream
Can you eat ice cream in winter? If you ask my kids then it makes absolute sense to eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner, no matter the weather. Reykjavik has some fantastic ice cream stores including our favourite, Valdís. There are lots of flavours to choose from including some great local options including the lakkrís, aka liquorice, rye bread, or rhubarb and skyr. Needless to stay, we visited often during our brief winter trip! Other popular ice cream stores are Ísleifur Heppni and Skúbb.
Swim in the Blue Lagoon
Ok, so the Blue Lagoon is not technically in Reykjavik but it’s an easy stop on your way to or from Keflavík International Airport (we went on our way to the airport before we left Iceland). I’m going to write a longer post on visiting the Blue Lagoon with kids but for now, I will say that I liked it but I didn’t love it. It’s such a popular place to visit that you have to book your time slot well in advance and then join the masses as you shuffle along in your flip flops and robe (included in the deluxe Blue Lagoon packages only) to the lagoon area and then into the milky-blue opaque waters. Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful and the experience of swimming (or, rather, wading) through the waters is completely unique, it’s just busy. Plus, it’s policed by staff in high-vis jackets, which somewhat detracts from the relaxed vibe! For more information on visiting the Blue Lagoon, take a look at their website.
Reykjavik City Card
For more ideas on things to do in Reykjavik take a look at the Visit Reykjavik website where you’ll also find the Reykjavik City Card. This is worth getting if you plan on maximising your sightseeing as the card gives you free entry to a number of museums and galleries as well as the Reykjavik Zoo and Family Park, Reykjavik’s thermals pools, hot pots and saunas and free use of public bus transport in the Reykjavik capital area. For good deals on tours, it’s worth looking here; tours include whale watching, Golden Circle and glacier tours.
When to visit Iceland
We visited Reykjavik at the beginning of November and enjoyed an unseasonably mild few days (average temperatures during November are usually 4° / -1°). However, Iceland is one of those destinations that you can enjoy year-round; visit during the summer and make the most of long summer days and the chance to see the Midnight Sun or plan your trip for winter and you may get the chance to see the incredible northern lights. Either season (Iceland doesn’t have a spring or a fall), however, is incredibly beautiful. Remember that the summer months are peak tourist season.
Where to stay in Reykjavik
As you’ve probably heard, Iceland is expensive and accommodation, can be eye watering. In order to secure the best deals, you should really book your hotel as soon as your travel dates are fixed. As for where to stay in Reykjavik, the city is small so as long as you are somewhere near the centre you will be able to get around easily.
When we visited we spent three nights in Reykjavik at a lovely apartment in the centre of town that came recommended to me by my good friend Tara from Pint Size Pilot (she was staying in another apartment in the same building). The owner, Dyrlief, has a number of beautiful apartments in town that are comfortable, stylish and perfect for families. Personally, as a family of five, I’m a big fan of renting apartments through sites like VRBO – Vacation Rentals By Owner and Airbnb. If you have never rented through AirBnB before, I can offer you a £27 Airbnb referral credit (this means you get £27 off your first booking).
Where to eat in Reykjavik
We ate in a couple of really good restaurants when we were in Reykjavik. The first was Hverfisgata 12, a homely restaurant that does fantastic pizza with Icelandic flavours; we tried the beetroot pizza and one with grilled mushrooms when we visited and the kids had pepperoni and margarita pizzas. You can also order a couple of dishes from the next door Dill Restaurant, which was the first restaurant in Iceland to be awarded a Michelin star. We had barley risotto and some dried wolfish; the first was amazing the latter, if I’m honest, tasted a little like chewing on a piece of leather! We also ate at Grillmarkadurinn, that serves seasonal food cooked on the grill. We opted for fish and steak in our party but you’ll find puffin and whale on the menu as well.
Hiring a car in Iceland
Reykjavik is about a 45 minute drive from Keflavík International Airport so it’s definitely worth hiring a car if you’re travelling with kids (there are regular buses that run the route as well). Plus, I definitely recommend self-driving the Golden Circle rather than taking a tour. We rented a car through Auto Europe although there are lots to choose from. Just make sure that you get all the insurance offered including ash, gravel, sand etc.. Most credit card car insurance doesn’t cover Iceland.
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