This is a list of some of the best cheap or free things you can enjoy in and around the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik.
The finest drink in Iceland is free of charge; the flawless taste of a mountain brook can be streamed straight from the tap. Icelandic tap water is indeed among the cleanest in the world.
You can ask for a glass of water anywhere you go in Reykjavik, and should never have to pay for it in Iceland.
Go swimming in geothermal pools
Iceland has the highest ratio of swimming pools per human in the world, and for the past century swimming has become a public activity fundamental to Icelandic culture.
Thanks to the country's abundance of geothermal energy, you can, for a modest price, swim outdoors all year round in any of Reykjavik’s swimming pools.
For more, see our list of the best swimming pools in Reykjavik.
(Photo by Yiwei Li, her Instagram: @stocktoon)
Hike Mount Esja
The majestic Esja mountain overlooks the capital and rises to 914 meters. It is in actual fact a volcanic mountain range made of both basalt and tuff-stone and lends a distinctive feature to the whole Reykjavik area and beyond. It has been claimed that it's impossible to circle the mountain, that it never really ends, and comedian and previous Reykjavik mayor Jon 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 Thverfellshorn and Kerholakambur offer particularly great views of the Greater Reykjavik area.
Hit the beach
Nautholsvik beach is one of the most popular resorts in Reykjavik and located southwest of Oskjuhlid hill. It is one of the few beaches in Iceland where sea temperatures allow for swimming without protective gear. Mixed with warm water, the temperature usually reaches between 18° - 20°C.
The beach offers great opportunities for sunbathing, swimming, volley ball and sea sports. It is open from May 15th till August 31st and opening hours are from 10:00-20:00 on regular days. On weekends it's open until 18:00 and 20:00 on sunny days. There is no admission fee.
Party in Reykjavik
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 schizophrenic pull, to the quiet streets of central Reykjavik, suffering from an unslakable thirst, 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. For more on the nightlife, read about nightlife and mating in Iceland.
Go sightseeing close by Reykjavik
While Modrudalur and the Myvatn area in North Iceland were some of the sites the astronauts of Appolo 11 used to train for the moon landing, one can easily imagine the Raudholar (Red Hills) as the perfect scenery to reflect a future landing on Mars.
Readily accessible by bus, car or bicycle from central Reykjavik, these 5200-year-old remnants of a cluster of pseudo-craters are part of Reykjavik's nature reserve Heidmork 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.
Go on a free walking tour
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 Austurvollur public square, which is one of the most popular gathering places in Reykjavik. Around it are cafés, clubs, shops and hotels, as well as the house of parliament and the small and charming Domkirkja church. At the center 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. A schedule can be found on the City Walk website.
The tour finishes at 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. Close by it are the City Council, the Reykjavik Art Museum and Frikirkjan (The Free Church).
If you're not too tired after the tour, then you can continue strolling to the south end of the pond where Hljomskalagardur garden 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 Jonas Hallgrimsson.
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 Vatnsmyrin 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 Reykjavik is the Ægissida shore, and we also recommend visiting the old Reykjavik Harbour and the Grotta 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.
Visit a free museum
The sculpture garden of The Einar Jonsson Art Museum, right beside Hallgrimskirkja 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.
For more on Reykjavik's museums, see our list, The Top 6 Museums in Reykjavik.
Enjoy Culture Night in Reykjavik
In late August, usually the first Saturday after the 18th, Reykjavik celebrates Menningarnótt (Culture Night), a yearly event which has now become the largest festival in Iceland. Join the tens of thousands who come together in Central Reykjavik, to celebrate life through an unforgettable orgy of music, dance and art, climaxing in a dazzling firework show, followed by a long night of drink and delight.
See a Panorama of Reykjavik
Rising at 75 meters from the top of Skolavorduhaed hill, Hallgrimskirkja 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 Reykjavik Area.
Another of the best viewpoints of Reykjavik and one of its most distinctive landmarks is Perlan, up on Oskjuhlid hill. This building is a rotating glass dome built on four tanks that store the city's water supply. Inside is an excellent restaurant (though certainly not cheap) and a Saga museum that can be entered for a moderate price. Entrance to the building itself is free, however, as well as going up to the balcony for a nice panoramic view.
Oskjuhlid hill is further 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. This lends the whole area some atmosphere, but nowadays it is a peaceful one.