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Iceland Guide: Reykjavik, Local Cuisine & National Parks

This is a guest post by Jen Grimble, a freelance travel writer.
Few places compare to the awe-inspiring majesty of Iceland. With less than half a million residents, it remains the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Located below the Arctic Circle, Iceland boasts a striking contrast between barren land and lush national parks, making the island a hotspot for adventure-seekers and wildlife enthusiasts.
Known as the “Land of Fire and Ice,” Iceland has a reputation for harsh, snow-riddled scenery, but in reality the country is awash with vegetation and wildlife. The Arctic fox and stunning wild Icelandic horses are just some of the species native to the island. Iceland is also home to some of the world’s most unique spectacles of nature, such as the stunning northern fjords and the giant glaciers that blanket the country’s many volcanic mountains.
If you’re planning a trip to this exciting country, here are the main activities to put on your Iceland itinerary – plus the best local dishes to keep an eye out for.
Exploring Reykjavik
Reykjavík is the world’s northernmost capital city, situated on the west coast of Iceland. The city is clean, tranquil and stylish, offering a combination of adventure, relaxation and culture.
A relatively subtle architectural scene gives Reykjavík its unique appearance. The Harpa Concert Hall and the Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest church, remain the city’s two major landmarks. The modern buildings are prominent against the backdrop of charming Scandinavian-style houses with their colourful, wooden construction.
A relatively subtle architectural scene gives Reykjavík its unique appearance. The Harpa Concert Hall and the Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest church, remain the city’s two major landmarks. The modern buildings are prominent against the backdrop of charming Scandinavian-style houses with their colourful, wooden construction.
Reykjavík is a hub of creativity and style, with downtown side streets housing quirky designer items and hidden basement boutiques. Thrift stores and locally-made woollen items offer both the budget and the luxury end of Icelandic retail therapy.
From bustling warehouse bazaars to day trips with ocean mammals, Reykjavík is a culture-capital unlike any other. Spending several nights here will be enough to see the main sights, but the simplistic cityscape and the dramatic, overlooking mountains may just be enough to encourage you to prolong your visit.
RECOMMENDED TOUR
Reykjavik’s highlights
Reykjavík is surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes, lava fields, and a marina of rich blue waters. The Atlantic Ocean beyond the harbour attracts exotic sea creatures below and majestic birds of prey above. Taking a scenic boat trip is a must for any wildlife fans.
Numerous tour companies offer whale-watching, puffin-spotting and Northern Lights experiences. Internationally renowned company Viator offer such tours for reasonable prices and with experienced, on-board crews. Trips start from as little as £18 and you can even visit famous set locations, including Nupsstadur, which has starred in Game of Thrones.
Numerous tour companies offer whale-watching, puffin-spotting and Northern Lights experiences. Internationally renowned company Viator offer such tours for reasonable prices and with experienced, on-board crews. Trips start from as little as £18 and you can even visit famous set locations, including Nupsstadur, which has starred in Game of Thrones.
Numerous tour companies offer whale-watching, puffin-spotting and Northern Lights experiences. Internationally renowned company Viator offer such tours for reasonable prices and with experienced, on-board crews. Trips start from as little as £18 and you can even visit famous set locations, including Nupsstadur, which has starred in Game of Thrones.
Numerous tour companies offer whale-watching, puffin-spotting and Northern Lights experiences. Internationally renowned company Viator offer such tours for reasonable prices and with experienced, on-board crews. Trips start from as little as £18 and you can even visit famous set locations, including Nupsstadur, which has starred in Game of Thrones.
Numerous tour companies offer whale-watching, puffin-spotting and Northern Lights experiences. Internationally renowned company Viator offer such tours for reasonable prices and with experienced, on-board crews. Trips start from as little as £18 and you can even visit famous set locations, including Nupsstadur, which has starred in Game of Thrones.
For art fans, Reykjavík offers an array of interesting options. The Icelandic Phallological Museum is one of the city’s more unusual attractions, akin to the likes normally found in Amsterdam. Others might prefer visiting more traditional attractions, like the Reykjavik Art Museum or the National Gallery of Iceland, both exhibiting fine and contemporary collections.
For art fans, Reykjavík offers an array of interesting options. The Icelandic Phallological Museum is one of the city’s more unusual attractions, akin to the likes normally found in Amsterdam. Others might prefer visiting more traditional attractions, like the Reykjavik Art Museum or the National Gallery of Iceland, both exhibiting fine and contemporary collections.
For art fans, Reykjavík offers an array of interesting options. The Icelandic Phallological Museum is one of the city’s more unusual attractions, akin to the likes normally found in Amsterdam. Others might prefer visiting more traditional attractions, like the Reykjavik Art Museum or the National Gallery of Iceland, both exhibiting fine and contemporary collections.
For art fans, Reykjavík offers an array of interesting options. The Icelandic Phallological Museum is one of the city’s more unusual attractions, akin to the likes normally found in Amsterdam. Others might prefer visiting more traditional attractions, like the Reykjavik Art Museum or the National Gallery of Iceland, both exhibiting fine and contemporary collections.
Reykjavik’s Nightlife
Reykjavík claims a strong reputation as one of the “party capitals” of Europe. With music venues, lively bars, and clubs on each corner, it is easy to see why.
Nightly music performances can be found on most downtown side streets; acoustic folk meets electronica as different cultures come together in dynamic bars like Café Rosenberg.
Reykjavík’s many clubs draw thousands of party fans each year. Austur, for example, opens its doors until the small hours of the morning. Drinks can be pricey, so expect to pay around £4 for a pint of beer, and more for wines and spirits.
RECOMMENDED NIGHTLIFE TOURS IN REYKJAVIK
Key annual events in Reykjavik
Despite being one of the least visited cities in Europe, Reykjavík hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year. Highlights include the Reykjavík Arts Festival, a celebration of local and international creativity, with a focus on multi-platform performance. The event takes place between mid-May and early June each year, with the Harpa Concert Hall utilised for exhibits.
August’s six-day Gay Pride Festival is also a yearly high point. The event celebrates the LGBT community, as well as bringing different cultures together with fun parades and vibrant music events.
Indulging in the local cuisine
Icelandic food is some of the healthiest in the world, comprising of fresh fish, locally-grown vegetables and organically-reared meats. Locals are known for living off the land and they pride themselves on the quality of their produce. It is almost impossible to have a bad meal in this country.
Reykjavík is brimming with fantastic restaurants offering international cuisine, like that served in Tapas Barinn. Divine regional dishes can be tried at the hilltop revolving restaurant, Út í bláinn.
Reykjavík is brimming with fantastic restaurants offering international cuisine, like that served in Tapas Barinn. Divine regional dishes can be tried at the hilltop revolving restaurant, Út í bláinn.
For a casual snack, nothing compares to “The Best Hot Dogs in Town,” also known as Bæjarins beztu pylsur. This street food van, located close to the harbour, attracts long daily queues. As the name suggests, their irresistible hot dogs, drowned in creamy sauce and crispy onions, are simply the best you will ever taste.
For an authentic experience, try local delicacies such as puffin and fermented shark (not for the faint-hearted). Icelandic char and traditional lamb dishes provide more conventional options for those with weaker dispositions. As a pre or post-dinner aperitif, locals enjoy Brennivín. With a similar taste to Vodka, this powerful spirit has a distinctive smell and one mammoth kick.
RECOMMENDED REYKJAVIK FOOD TOURS
Visiting Iceland’s impressive natural attractions
Anyone travelling to Iceland must experience the Golden Circle Tour. Just as South Africa prides itself in its Garden Route, Iceland is renowned for its impressive 300km trail, which takes in some of the most impressive sites in the country.
Three main points make this tour whole. The first is Thingvellir National Park, a beautiful and historical landscape set on the summit of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Breath-taking waterfalls overlook the site of Iceland’s first Parliament, making the area a natural hub of cool blue waters, lush greenery, and archaeological beauty.
The second stop is one of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls, Gullfoss. The falls drop 32 metres over two stages and stand as a powerful natural marvel comparable to the likes of Niagara Falls. Standing next to this commanding cascade, spectators become one with nature.
The final attraction on the Golden Circle Tour is the valley of Haukadalur, a geothermal park sporting erupting geysers and maps of boiling hot streams. Don’t let the smell of sulphur discourage you, because these spectacular naturally-heated springs are entirely unique to Iceland.
Should you have time to venture away from the local attractions of the capital, Vík í Mýrdal, 200 km from Reykjavík, is worth an excursion. As the southernmost village in Iceland, Vik boasts a rugged yet beautiful landscape. Nearby cliffs eject themselves out along the coastline and a hillside church overlooks the famous black beach. Numerous free-standing rock formations stand dominant on the horizon of the sea, adding to the village’s aura of mystery.
Myrdalsjokull Glacier is another must when in the Vik area. The glacier is one of the biggest and most impressive in the world, sitting below Iceland’s most active volcano, Katla. The site has been used for numerous film and television locations, including Batman and Game of Thrones. The air here is extraordinary and daring visitors can even take guided treks across the ice.
The final and perhaps most striking site outside of Reykjavík is the Vatnajökull National Park, which features numerous waterfalls, and the spectacular Jökulsárlón; a large glacial lake. This marvel offers cool blue waters interrupted by giant icebergs piercing the surface. The lagoon hosts seals and other wildlife, so again, hop on a boat and explore this beautiful natural lake.
A few tips for visiting Iceland
Getting there: Keflavík International Airport is situated about 50 km from Reykjavík. It is a small but efficient airport with easy access to and from the city. Flights to Iceland are often pricey, so hunt down the best prices and consider visiting outside of the peak summer season. This is generally a busier time due to long days, clearer skies and warmer temperatures (around 12°C). During June and July, Iceland experiences 24 hours of sunshine, an oddity that attracts many tourists.
Best time to visit: November until January is Icelandic winter, where minimal daily sunlight makes for short days, better deals, and more chances to see the wonder of the Northern Lights.
Getting around: Local guided tours can rack up an expensive bill and some make a leisurely excursion feel rushed. Gray Line Iceland offers scenic tours of all the worth-while attractions, from as little as £50. However, the best way to get around Iceland is to hire your own car; the main roads are generally quiet, smooth and straightforward. Be aware that some roads are off limits to inexperienced tourists, so plan ahead and read road signs properly.
Where to stay: As for accommodation, try the quirky Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Marina, or the CenterHotel Thingholt. The first is a quaint building by the harbour, the latter a boutique accommodation with a cool, contemporary interior. Those with more traditional tastes may prefer the Best Western Hotel Reykjavík, a comfortable, family-orientated hotel on a residential street.
Where to stay: As for accommodation, try the quirky Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Marina, or the CenterHotel Thingholt. The first is a quaint building by the harbour, the latter a boutique accommodation with a cool, contemporary interior. Those with more traditional tastes may prefer the Best Western Hotel Reykjavík, a comfortable, family-orientated hotel on a residential street.
Where to stay: As for accommodation, try the quirky Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Marina, or the CenterHotel Thingholt. The first is a quaint building by the harbour, the latter a boutique accommodation with a cool, contemporary interior. Those with more traditional tastes may prefer the Best Western Hotel Reykjavík, a comfortable, family-orientated hotel on a residential street.
This post contains affiliate links. This means that I may receive a commission on any purchases made through the links in the post at no extra cost to you.
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Daniela Frendo

Daniela Frendo

Hi! I'm a Maltese blogger based in Scotland. I created Grumpy Camel to help travellers connect with places through culture, history and cuisine.

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