When Iceland announced in late spring of 2021 that it would welcome vaccinated Americans, we jumped on the opportunity. Like most others, we hadn't traveled in well over a year and we were excited to start exploring again. Our daughter Katie had been to Iceland briefly as we had, but our daughter Nan and her husband David hadn't, so the five of us embarked on a five-day visit to this incredible island. We chose late June to experience the almost continuous daylight.
In five days you barely scratch the surface. We landed very early in the morning and after quarantining for a few hours in our hotel to await the results of our Covid test at the airport, we were eventually able to wander around the city. (Iceland discontinued the Covid test requirement upon arrival a few days after our visit). We took two day trips, the Golden Circle tour and the South Coast tour and Katie, Nan and David spent a morning at the Blue Lagoon. The rest of our time was spent discovering this wonderful city.
Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world. With a population of about 130,000, it accounts for about a third of the country's population. It covers about 105 sq. miles, but the downtown area is small and very walkable.
Icelanders love art and are very creative, evidenced by the designs on their streets and buildings; click through the photos below.
The main shopping street is Laugavegur. It's a charming, mostly pedestrian street, but watch out for electric scooters which are gaining popularity! It's full of shops, restaurants and warm and inviting kaffi (coffee) houses. Reykjavik is small enough that you won't be far from Laugavegur wherever you stay in the center of the city. We stayed one block away which was a perfect location.
One of the many "kaffi" houses.
Paul and David having fun at one of the gift shops on Laugavegur. There are actually no polar bears in Iceland!
Children enjoyed this hopscotch section of the street.
Reykjavik sits in the North Atlantic ocean and when the clouds part, you can see the small islands off the coast. Walk down to the water and enjoy the Sun Voyager, a sculpture by Icelandic artist Jón Gunnar Árnason. It represents a Viking ship and conveys the hope of traveling to undiscovered places.
So beautiful, especially on a clear day...
Just a short walk from the sculpture is Harpa, Reykjavik's concert hall and conference center. It was completed in 2011 and boasts this lovely glass facade.
As seen from the water...
This building hosted a summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in October, 1986.
This is the building that houses the Icelandic government, similar to the US White House. It's on a busy street corner and anyone can walk up to the door!
If you've ever googled photos of Reykjavik, chances are that you've seen the iconic photos of its famous church which can be seen from almost anywhere in Reykjavik. Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran parish church which was completed in 1986 after 41 years of construction.
The inside is minimalist and modern.
The door to the church.
The statue in front of the church is Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer who is thought to be the first European to have reached North America.
Buy a ticket to take the elevator to the top to get a bird's eye view of the brightly-colored houses and roofs of Reykjavik. These are some of my favorite views of Reykjavik.
Ah, the puffins. I'm in love! It's so easy to visit them. We took a one-hour cruise from the harbor in Reykjavik in a small boat to two nearby islands and were able to observe them from just offshore.
Our boat accommodated about 20 people and our naturalist guide was fantastic.
Puffins are small and incredibly cute. They live between 25 - 30 years and mate for life. They burrow into the hills to lay their egg (one each season). The burrows have two "rooms", one is the nursery and the other is the bathroom. They spend the summer laying their egg and tending to the chick which is called - no kidding - a puffling. They all leave their burrows in the late fall and spend the winter on the ocean. They return to the same burrow each spring.
They're pretty amazing little creatures. If, for example, the male partner arrives at the burrow before the female and another female moves in, the male will boot her out when his partner finally arrives. They have short wings that are efficient for swimming but they're pretty inefficient flyers and have to flap 400 times a minute to stay airborne. It was easy to tell them apart from the gracefulness of the seagulls and other birds with longer wings as they flew above us. They can dive up to 200 feet and hold their breath for up to 90 seconds while catching up to 60 fish per dive!
This is a photo of a postcard I bought which shows how efficient they are at catching fish!
This is part of the colorful harbor in downtown Reykjavik.
The Icelandic language is fascinating and their alphabet contains 10 more letters than the English alphabet. Don't even try to pronounce anything because no matter how accurate you think you are, you won't even be close!
Arriving in and Leaving Iceland
Iceland's international airport is Keflavik International Airport (KEF) located about 30 miles southwest of Reykjavik. It's modern, clean and downright lovely.
Below is a photo I took from the plane as we were landing.
There are a few ways to get into the city and back. The first and generally the most economical if you don't rent a car, is to take the Flybus. It's a modern, comfortable bus that as of this writing, costs just under $30 per person each way. It takes about 45 - 50 minutes to travel between Reykjavik and KEF and reservations can be made online.
It drops off and picks up from BSI, the central bus station in town. You then need to arrange transportation to or from your lodging. When we left to come home, the taxi driver from our hotel to BSI said he charges ISK 21,500 from central Reykjavik to the airport which as of this writing is about $175. Divided by five people (as we were), and taking into consideration the additional cost of a taxi between central Reykjavik and BSI, a taxi might be just as economical. There are also private vans, so do your homework. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the Flybus, but a taxi would take you directly, eliminating the bus station.
Many visitors rent a car. The driving is easy, even in Reykjavik, and gives you the flexibility to go where you want when you want. Since we chose not to rent one, I don't know the cost, but it would be a good way to see the country along the Ring Road which encircles it.
Not surprisingly, there are a myriad of possibilities for lodging in Reykjavik. Because we were five adults, we chose the Reykjavik Residence Hotel which, in addition to other types of rooms. offered a two-bedroom, two bathroom suite (really an apartment with a front desk). It was absolutely perfect for us. We loved its location just a block away from Laugavegur and only a couple of blocks from the ocean.
This is the entrance to the building where our suite was.
We're not foodies, but we enjoy a good meal and a good bottle of wine. We thoroughly enjoyed several restaurants in Reykjavik. A friend who lives in Reykjavik made a reservation for us on our first night at Eiriksson which is on Laugavegur. We enjoyed it so much that we went back on our last evening.
We also had a dinner at Sumac. It's also on Laugavegur and specializes in small plates. It was lively and lots of fun.
Once we received our negative Covid results the day we arrived, we wandered out and found lunch at this little gem, Bastard Feed & Brew. Just off Laugavegur , it's cozy and the food was delicious - a great spot with good food and service!
We did takeout one night from Brewdog, just down the street from our hotel. It's a casual burger and beer-type place and our burgers were delicious.
There is something about Iceland that grabs you and doesn't let you go. Certainly the stunning scenery, probably the artistry and bright colors, the never-ending daylight in the summer, the friendliness of the people, the fact that English is spoken everywhere (sometimes better than we speak it), the ease of getting around Reykjavik, the fact that there is virtually no violent crime (there are 128 jail cells in the entire country and the police don't carry guns)... I could go on. Paul and I have now visited in February and June and while both were very different experiences, we loved each visit and we're already talking about returning. Here are a few more photos from this lovely city.
'Til the next time, Reykjavik!
➜ Top Tips
No matter what season you visit Iceland, pack layers. The weather changes by the hour and the wind is ever-present. The temperature hovered in the low to mid-50's F when we were there in late June. Reykjavik's climate is controlled by the warmer Gulf Stream so when we were there in February many years ago, it wasn't as cold as I thought it would be, but the interior was very cold.
Be prepared; Iceland is very expensive. Nan bought some donuts which cost $5.00 a piece! As of summer 2021, gas is $8.00 a gallon.
Don't think you'll see the entire country in a few days. The Ring Road goes around the country, but there's so much to see, two weeks wouldn't be too long. We barely scratched the surface in five days.
Iceland is an easy flight from the east coasts of the US and Canada (less than 6 hours). It's served by several airlines and Icelandair often offers good promotional fares.
Be prepared to be blown away - figuratively and literally!