Iceland is all about the wild outdoors. It’s one of the most naturally beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, and it’s chock full of extreme features like volcanoes, glaciers, expansive geo thermal areas, waterfalls and geysers. In this post I’m going to focus a bit on Reykjavik, but also cover the must see, top ticket natural attractions that are easily accessible from the capital city.
Things to See and Do
Within Reykjavik itself, there’s not a whole lot of things to spend your time visiting, to be honest. The Hallgrímskirkja (cathedral) atop the hill overlooking the city is worth a quick look, but otherwise get yourself out of the city and into the wide open spaces of this wild country.
The big ticket items close to Reykjavik of Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss that most tour companies will take you to make up the Golden Circle. We decided that rather than pile onto a bus full of randoms, we’d hire our own car and explore not only these places but other parts of Iceland around the capital.
Our little VW Polo wasn’t quite as capable as what this jacked up 4WD next to us was of!
Þingvellir (Thingvellir – Thing Fields) is the site of the first Icelandic parliament, founded in 930 and it remained there until 1798. It’s an expansive site with significant cultural and historic value for the Icelandic. It’s also where the two tectonic plates of Europe and America meet, making it quite the geological site to check out as your first stop out of Reykjavik. Of course I did the “now I’m in Europe, now I’m in America” thing.
The massive cliffs of rock on either side of the site signify where the two tectonic plates separate.
It does get packed out with tourists, but don’t be discouraged. We only stopped in for 30-45 minutes, so we did a quick lap of the place, soaked up the natural beauty and then got on our way to the next interesting sight.
Geysir (Haukadalur Geothermal Area)
Iceland is an absolute hotbed of geothermal activity (see what I did there? :)), and the closest site to Reykjavik to see this kind of action is the Haukadalur geothermal area, about an hour or two out of town. The entire site is a steaming landscape of hot streams and puddles, showing just how volatile the earth of this country is.
Some of the pools of hot water actually look like warm, inviting jacuzzis which were tempting, especially if you visit during the colder months. But with water temperatures nearing 100 degrees celcius, you’d do yourself in if you tried to have a dip.
The famous Geysir here lays mostly dormant these days, only erupting every few years. But the more active Strokkur (about 50 metres closer to the road) will erupt every 4-8 minutes.
Erupting almost 50 metres into the air each time, seeing this was one of the big reasons I wanted to come to Iceland.
Situated a few kilometres up the road from the Haukadalur Geothermal Area, Gullfoss (the Golden Falls) is an absolutely epic 2 tiered waterfall that flows down from a glacier and cascades down into an enormous crevice.
You park on the plain above the waterfall and then descend down into the valley where the action is. As you walk down the stairs, the mist from the waterfall rises up and you hear the roar of the sheer volume of water passing over these falls. Truly an epic waterfall, and only the first in a chain of great ones to check out across southern Iceland.
Venturing further east about an hour away from Reykjavik, you’ll find the majestic Seljalandsfoss.
As your approach it from the highway, you see it spilling out over the cliff from the glacier, hundreds of metres above in the mountains. On a sunny day, the mist creates a mesmerising rainbow underneath the waterfall.
A path leads across a small bridge and up a wet set of wooden stairs alongside the waterfall. From here, it gets pretty wet and misty, but for the brave you can venture behind the vertical flow of water and get a completely different vantage point of this beautiful waterfall.
Further east along the main highway that circles Iceland, you’ll find the small town of Skógar on the south side of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull glacier. The volcano that lives inside this glacier was responsible for bring European airspace to a grinding halt in 2010 due to the extensive ash cloud.
This thunderous waterfall makes this small town famous, and is tucked away at the back of the hamlet near a camping ground and the start of a hike up the mountain.
There’s an Eyjafjallajökull visitor centre further down the road from Skogar also, which makes for an interesting insight into the event.
And now, one of the most talked about and frequented attractions in Iceland – the Blue Lagoon. The outdoor baths are great in any weather, super warm and an indulgent way to end your trip to Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon isn’t a natural phenomena as such. It’s actually the result of excess water from the nearby geothermal power plant that runs into the lagoon and creates pools to swim and bathe in. Don’t be put off though, as it’s totally good for you and an amazing experience.
Hanging out in the water and enjoying the volcanic atmosphere is what it’s all about here.
The smartest way to visit the Blue Lagoon is to do it on your last day on your way to the airport. It’s 10-15 minutes before you reach the airport, so it’s easy to drop in at lunch, have a swim and then catch an afternoon/evening flight out.
Food and Drink
Reykjavik has a great selection of places for coffee, lunch, dinner and everything in between. The downtown area is full of cosy cafes, fine restaurants and brunch joints. And the Icelandic absolutely love their coffee, so you’ll never be uncaffeienated.
If you’re after puffin, whale or just some good quality beef, chicken or lamb, make sure you get down to the Grill Market.
They do puffin and whale burgers as well as a great mixed grill, a wide selection of local beers and a really friendly atmosphere.
Aldin is a quaint little cafe on Austurstræti serving great coffee, salads and pastries. Straight up as you enter, you’re given a warm welcome that we came to see often in Iceland.
Aldin is a great option for lunch between exploring Reykjavik to refuel, recaffienate and get a free wifi fix.
The upstairs loft is a cosy place to hang out, get warm and relax with a book or magazine or plan where you’re going next.
Laundromat is THE place to have brunch when you’re in Reykjavik. Anything and everything you could want before lunch is on offer here, from eggs and bacon to pancakes, waffles and muesli.
The renovated interior feels like a diner cum library, with funky lighting and walls that are adorned with old maps of Europe.
The epic brunch feast – pancakes, fruit, muesli, sausages, eggs, bacon and potatoes. Phwoar.
Laundromat also has its own working laundromat in the basement, so you’re sure to see local families coming in and out doing their washing during the weekend.
How to get there
Reykjvavik is well connected to the rest of Europe and North America, with its location at the top of the Atlantic making it easily accessible from both continents. For low cost flights, check out Wow Air, Iceland Express and easyJet; and for full service, check out Iceland’s flag carrier, Icelandair.
A bit of orientation
Here’s a handy map laying out all the sights mentioned above to give you an idea of where things are in Reykjavik. Click on the markers to see the sight listed and zoom and pan around to see more of the map. View 48 hours in Reykjavik in a larger map
Get around in Reykjavik
Reykjavik is all easily walkable in the downtown area, but to make the most of Iceland, hire yourself a car like I mentioned earlier. It’ll provide you with the most freedom to see the amazing natural attractions around Reykjavik.
Where to stay
The Centerhotels chain of hotels have 5 hotels dotted around Reykjavik, providing a lot of choice for a place to stay. If you’re keen on experiencing one of the highest reviewed hostels on the planet, check out Kex Hostel. Housed in a converted warehouse, this hostel is more a boutique hotel than a dingy hostel.
Let’s not beat around the bush. After Iceland’s economy recovered from the bank collapses, their currency too has returned to its former value. This puts Iceland Expensive++
Reykjavik and Iceland is such a standout, unique country to check out over 2 days. It’s a bit further afield from everywhere else but that’s what makes it special. Nowhere else has such a dramatic assortment of natural attractions to explore, exciting activities to have a crack at, and did I EVEN mention the Northern Lights?! Get yourself up to Iceland as soon as you can.