Surrounded by magnificent landscapes and composed of vibrant streets of booming culture, the world's northernmost capital is home to a host of affordable travel options that promise to delight. Whether you are a first-time visitor or a seasoned Reykjavík enthusiast, you'd be well advised to make use of our list of some of the best cheap and free things to enjoy in and around Reykjavík.
Swimming is a public activity fundamental to Icelandic culture. In fact, Iceland has the highest ratio of swimming pools, per capita, in the world. Thanks to the country's abundance of geothermal energy, you can, for a modest price, swim outdoors all year round in any of Reykjavík’s swimming pools.
Outdoor public bathing is a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of Iceland's Viking settlement. And today, public bathing is much more than a recreational activity; the pools are civic centres to which Icelanders of all creeds, ages and professions flock to meet friends or total strangers, recover after a hard day, or to rejuvenate after a hard day's night.
The majestic Mount Esja, peaking at 914 metres above sea level, is a volcanic mountain range, made of both basalt and tuff-stone, and lends a distinctive feature to the greater Reykjavík area and beyond.
It has been claimed that it's impossible to circle the mountain, that it never really ends, and comedian and former Reykjavík mayor, Jón Gnarr, once joked that when he tried doing this, he ended up in Akureyri.
At any rate, this mountain is excellent for a hike and easily accessed by bus or bicycle. The summits Þverfellshorn and Kerhólakambur offer particularly great views of the Greater Reykjavík area.
Nautholsvík beach is one of the most popular resorts in Reykjavík and located centrally, southwest of Öskjuhlíð hill. It is one of the few beaches in Iceland where sea temperatures allow for swimming without protective gear. Mixed with warm water, the sea temperature usually reaches between 18° - 20°C.
The beach is serviced and offers great opportunities for sunbathing, swimming, volley ball and sea sports. There is no admission fee, but its opening hours vary seasonally.
Summer months (May 15th - August 15)
- Open daily from 10:00 - 19:00
Winter months (August 16 to May 14)
- Mondays 11:00 - 14:00 and 17:00 - 20:00
- Wednesdays 11:00 - 14:00 and 17:00 - 20:00
- Fridays 11:00 - 14:00
- Saturdays 11:00 - 16:00
Partaking in Reykjavik’s nightlife is definitely neither cheap nor free, but standing idly by on a Saturday night, to witness men and women of all ages flock by the thousands, in a manic pull to the quiet streets of central Reykjavik, will unquestionably provide one with an experience that is both memorable and free of charge.
You might also introduce yourself to Icelanders and ask about after-parties, as the most party hungry Icelanders are likely to have both before- and after-parties, though chances of getting into the latter are stronger, as people may at this hour be more open to people they are meeting for the first time.
The lunar landscapes of Möðrudalur and the lake Mývatn area in north Iceland were used to train the astronauts of the Appolo 11 mission for the first moon landing. But not many know that Reykjavík has its very own otherworldly landscapes which could easily be used as training grounds for a future Mars landing.
The Rauðhólar (Red Hills) are readily accessible by bus, car or bicycle from central Reykjavik. These 5200-year-old scarlet remnants of a cluster of pseudo-craters are part of Reykjavik's nature reserve Heiðmork and a popular refuge for locals seeking temporary peace and stillness, just the right distance away from the crowds and bustle of the city streets.
Photo by Roman Z. Wikimedia, Creative Commons.
City Walk Reykjavik is one of those free walking tours (with optional tips at the end) that you can find all over the world.
What makes this tour stand out from others are the raving reviews on Tripadvisor towards the guide and the runner of the tour, Marteinn Briem, a 25-year-old local history graduate.
The tour not only includes the classic stops and stories but also the hidden treasures of the city and some funny cultural facts of Iceland.
The tour starts at the Austurvöllur public square, which is one of the most popular gathering places in Reykjavík. Around it are cafés, clubs, shops and hotels, as well as the house of parliament and the small and charming Dómkirkja church. At the centre of the square is a statue of national hero Jon Sigurdsson.
This same square was also central during the protests of 2009 in response to the economic crash. Marteinn will be waiting for you at that square with a sign, so he's easily found.
The tour finishes by the city pond, Tjörnin, where you‘ll have a nice view of the old houses of the west part of town and can greet the many birds that frequent the pond. In winter it is popular to go ice skating on the pond.
If you're not too tired after the tour, then you can continue strolling to the south end of the pond where the Hljómskálagarður garden is. This is an ideal place to relax. Along with its vegetation, this beautiful garden has a play area for children and a small music house where there are sometimes concerts. The two statues you will see in the park are of sculptor Bertel Thorvaldssen and poet Jónas Hallgrímsson.
Getting lost in the streets of Reykjavik can also be fun (it's possible, even though it's small!). East and west of the pond are some of the oldest houses in Reykjavik. Walking the main streets of Laugavegur, Austurstræti and Skolavordustigur is also recommended, particularly in summer, as interesting street performances are often held there.
The Vatnsmýrin wetland, by the university campus, is also very pleasant, but be mindful not to disturb the wildlife there and keep to the pathways. In the far west part of Reykjavík is the Ægissíða shore, and we also recommend visiting the old Reykjavík Harbour and the Grótta island at Seltjarnarnes, with its rich birdlife and charming old lighthouse. This site also happens to be one of the best inside the Reykjavik area to catch the Northern Lights.
The sculpture garden of The Einar Jónsson Art Museum, right beside Hallgrímskirkja church, is a perfect place to enjoy a picnic. Whether you are alone or with friends, you are in good company, as the sculptures are amongst the most fabulous examples of Icelandic art history.
The architecture of the house is interesting in its own right, rising from a heavy pedestal as if it were itself a sculpture, and may be said to look a bit like a fortress, though an exact style is difficult to pinpoint as the house is indeed a meeting point of many different styles and ideas.
There is no admission fee and the garden is open all hours, every day of the year.
Every night in Reykjavík has the potential for a beautiful (and free) display in the sky, whether it’s the vivid colours that come about due to the midnight sun or the ethereal aurora borealis dancing above.
The midnight sun, by which I mean the phenomenon in which the sun never sets, only actually occurs the week before and after the summer equinox on June 21st. However, from the start of May until the middle of August, the sun will not get far enough below the horizon for the night to properly become dark.
This means that you have a long, beautiful ‘golden hour’ of photography all around the country, and vivid, dusky colours in the sky that last until morning. There will also be no limits on your sightseeing; why not check out the sites of Reykjavík in the middle of the night, without all the crowds?
The Northern Lights, meanwhile, can be seen from throughout the rest of the year, from September to April, whenever the sky is clear and dark enough. If hunting for the auroras within the capital, it is important to locate places where the light pollution from the city won’t limit your viewing, such as at Grótta lighthouse on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, or from Laugardalur Park.
When hunting for the Northern Light, be sure to wrap up warm, as Icelandic nights are cold even on the cusps of summer, and you don’t want a spectacular display to be shortened out of fear of frostbite.
Rising at 75 meters from the top of Skólavörðuhæð hill, Hallgrímskirkja is the sixth tallest architectural structure in Iceland and one of the Reykjavik’s best known landmarks.
Politiken, one of Scandinavia’s most respected newspapers, put it in second place in their list of the most interesting churches in the world. The church is open to visitors all year round, and from its tower one can enjoy an impressive view of the entire Greater Reykjavík Area.
A view of Reykjavík from Hallgrímskirkja Church.
Another of the best viewpoints of Reykjavik and one of its most distinctive landmarks is Perlan on Öskjuhlið hill. This building is a rotating glass dome built on four tanks that used to store the city's water supply.
Öskjuhlíð hill is a popular resort. Over 176.000 trees have been planted there, and there are many good pathways for biking or walking. The area was used by the US military during WWII, and remnants of an old bunker can still be found there. This lends the whole area some atmosphere, but nowadays it is a peaceful one.