Reykjavik: 10 things you absolutely have to see

One of the world’s truly great cities, packed with vibrant culture on all levels, physically beautiful and very much worth your time

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Ask any Icelander about tourism in Reykjavik and they’ll roll their eyes in exasperation. Over a relatively brief period – no longer than 15 years or so – tourism has gone from a trickle to a wave to a tsunami in Iceland’s capital city.

For some reason, variously thought to be due to the landscape, the music, the weather or maybe even the football, Iceland has become a painfully cool destination for millions of us, even though the country itself can barely handle it. 

Accommodation and entertainment prices have gone through the roof, making the country an expensive visit, with private enterprises getting rich and the Icelandic people themselves left out of pocket. 

Despite this, Reykjavik remains one of the world’s truly great cities, packed with vibrant culture on all levels, physically beautiful and very much worth your time (and income). 

Our list below details just 10 destinations you’ll enjoy while you’re there, none of which are what you’d call cheap to visit – but none of which are an outright rip-off either. See them all and you’ll understand why people continue to flock to Iceland in such huge numbers, year on year...

Harpa

Like the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben, the gobsmacking Harpa concert hall is the essential symbol of its hometown, and no visit to Reykjavik is complete without a stop there. 

Architecturally stunning but still accessible, it offers a welcome food and rest stop to the weary traveller – and because it’s essentially a giant polygon made of glass, the views it offers of the city and harbour are unbeatable. The ground-level cafe, Smurstodin, offers food that is reasonably affordable – by Icelandic standards, at least.

Flea Market

Within easy walking distance of the Harpa, Reykjavik’s flea market is a large, industrial complex and not particularly pretty, but who cares? Get there early, browse the clothes stalls and check the fish counter. 

Here you can nab some choice seafood; make a point of picking up some hardfiskur (dried cod) or – if you have the courage – the dreaded hákarl, also known as fermented or cheese shark. Warning: it tastes like parmesan but has a lethal aroma.

Icelandic Fish And Chips

Sure, the title of this seafood restaurant on Tryggvagata sounds suspiciously touristy, and its location in the city downtown would appear to back this up – but fish-loving epicures will love its menu. 

With a genuinely high-quality range of local fish on offer, plus decent service and a surprisingly non-hectic atmosphere given the location, ICAF does the piscine trick. The booze prices are merely steep rather than terrifying – you’ll pay ISK 990 (£6.50) for half a litre of local Gull beer. 

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

Tired of paying through the nose to eat out? Head to this outdoor food stand, which serves what the Guardian described as the ‘best hot dogs in Europe’ in 2006. 

Still only ISK 450 (around £3) in spring 2018, one of these dogs will set you up for a morning’s sightseeing. If you don’t believe us, trust celebrity Baejarins customers such as Bill Clinton and Metallica, who swear by it when they’re in town.

Gaukurinn

If you like loud music but don’t necessarily feel the need to immerse yourself in hip-hop or EDM, the two movements currently most popular in Iceland, try this friendly downtown rock bar. 

The entrance looks a bit seedy and the blackened hallway and stairs are fairly intimidating, but the actual club is a comfortable, chummy rock bar where live bands regularly play. It’s open in the daytime if you don’t want to wait until dark, too. 

Icelandic Punk Museum

Punk rock is alive and kicking in Iceland, as you’d expect from a country that punches so far above its weight culturally, and whether you’re into the music or not you’ll get a thrill out of this quirky venue. 

It’s a converted public toilet located underground on Bankastraeti, with each of the stalls packed with punk memorabilia. Headphones provide you with music, and you can admire the signatures of visiting legends such as Johnny Rotten; just don’t spit on the floor.

Hallgrimskirkja

We realise that recommending the city cathedral in a list of must-see locations is hardly original, but Reykjavik’s unique Hallgrimskirkja is no ordinary church. 

Its simultaneously forbidding and graceful outline looms over the town, and its no-frills construction – mostly plain old concrete – serves to remind you that Iceland, cute as it often is, is a tough place. Step inside and the simple, efficient interior is warm but stern.

Kópavogur Museum Of Art

Head to the tranquil subub of Kópavogur, where this underrated art museum will welcome you with progressive, contemporary works by Icelandic and foreign artists of the 20th century. 

Like so much Icelandic architecture, the museum is externally stern in appearance; once inside, though, artworks by Barbör Árnason, Magnús Á. Árnason and Valgerði Briem will expand your Arctic horizons. The collection includes no fewer than 1400 works by Gerður Helgadóttir (1928-1975), a prominent abstract artist.

Kaffi Laekur

If you want to get off the beaten track, head out two kilometres from the city centre, where you’ll find this unpretentious cafe and guesthouse. It’s quiet-ish, despite two daily happy hours, and has a family area where your kids can play. 

The menu is excellent, with the usual range of coffees, and there’s a pleasant sense of being away from the tourist hubbub. There’s plenty of on-street parking for your hire car, or several buses stop nearby.

Secret Lagoon

The famous Blue Lagoon, situated near Keflavik Airport, is a pleasant enough experience, but entry costs a ridiculous £60 per adult and it’s often crawling with tourists. Instead, head out to the Secret Lagoon in the town of Fludir, where adults pay £19 and under-14s get in free. 

You can take a bus there, or hire a car and drive the beautiful 90-minute journey yourself; you’ll be rewarded with the authentic Icelandic ‘hot spring in a field’ experience.