Set against an otherworldly backdrop of crisp mountains and pastel seas, Reykjavik has, in recent years, found itself firmly at the top of bucket lists around the world — and one visit to this quirky city is all it takes to leave you enchanted. The capital city of Iceland, Reykjavik, is celebrated mainly for its rich culture, breathtaking nature, and eclectic art scene. This sense of creativity can be felt throughout the organized cluster of houses and streets, the city’s walls adorned with colorful murals and its skyline interrupted by bold architectural styles.
But the city’s true heart does not lie within the brickwork of the eerie Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral or upon the stainless steel edges of the iconic Sun Voyager sculpture. To discover the real Reykjavik, in all its whimsical glory, you must cast aside your guidebooks and delve beneath the icy surface, swapping crowded museums and guided tours for traditional coffee houses and hidden footpaths. Here are some of the best local spots in Reykjavik.
Particularly magical during the chilly winter months, there is no better way to spend a crisp January morning than with a visit to the geothermal Sundhöllin public baths. It would be easy to unknowingly wander past this unassuming white building, lurking in the shadow of the imposing Hallgrimskirkja church, but to do so would be a great shame. The oldest public baths in Iceland, Sundhöllin dates back to the 1930s, when the Art Deco building designed by influential architect Guðjón Samúelsson first opened its doors.
Although there is an indoor pool, Sundhöllin is rendered unique mainly by its numerous outdoor baths, which are spattered across the building’s rooftop; from this deck, you can see across the houses of Reykjavik and catch a glimpse of the iconic cathedral. If you visit in winter, try to head to the baths at around 8:30 AM — that way, you’re guaranteed to catch the sunrise from the comfort of the bubbling water. Because most tourists head to the larger Laugardalslaug baths, Sundhöllin is often populated by locals catching up with friends or taking a moment to relax. Entry to the baths for one adult costs only 1060 krona (roughly $8).
Norðurströnd walking path
Starting in the Old Harbour and winding its way along the coast, Norðurströnd walking path is a beautiful, largely undiscovered walkway that connects Reykjavik’s center to the residential Seltjarnarnes peninsula. A perfect way to immerse yourself in nature without venturing too far from Reykjavik itself, this walking path overlooks the vast Kollafjörður fjord, with the Esjan mountains rising in the background.
As you approach the westernmost tip of the peninsula, you may stumble across the little-known Kvika Hot Spring Footbath: a small stone-clad pool of geothermally heated water. Known to locals as a great date spot — as well as one of the best places within the city to catch the Northern Lights — the water can reach temperatures of 102 F, allowing visitors to enjoy this unique experience during the winter months, too.
Kaolin Keramik Galleri
Art and creativity play a crucial role in Reykjavik’s culture; this is why no visit to the Icelandic capital is complete without a stop at Kaolin Galleri. Located almost timidly into the loud brightness of Skólavörðustígur (also known as “the artists’ street”), this compact boutique is run and owned by some of Iceland’s most promising female ceramicists. Offering collections by eight different artists, each with their distinct style and voice, this gallery showcases beautiful pieces such as vases, mugs, bowls and decorative ornaments.
It’s worth stopping in to chat with the artists — who each take turns running the gallery — because you will quickly understand the importance of art as self-expression in Iceland. Because of this, Kaolin has worked to promote the art community of Reykjavik since the cooperative’s conception in 2010. It has hosted many events and exhibitions within its downtown store.
Grótta Island Lighthouse
Proudly marking the end of the Norðurströnd walking path, Grótta Island Lighthouse is settled within a small nature reserve at the very tip of the Seltjarnes peninsula. Budding photographers should make sure to bring their camera to this spot; from here, you are promised some of the most incredible nature the city has to offer.
With its abundant wildlife (primarily birds) and isolated location, Grótta is — unsurprisingly — another optimal place to attempt to spot the elusive Northern Lights. By day the area is stunning in its true sense of wilderness, causing you to quickly forget your proximity to the capital city. But by night, Grótta takes on an ethereal beauty, as if you’re standing at the edge of the world.
If you’re having trouble hunting down the Northern Lights, there are a number of apps you can download to help you track their movements, brightness, and the best spots from which to watch them.
Back in the city center, Lake Tjörnin is one of Reykjavik’s most picturesque and unusual sights; this is especially evident in winter, when the lake completely freezes over, transforming into a quiet, mesmerizing skating rink. Lake Tjörnin separates the heart of Reykjavik from its more residential western neighborhoods, making it a popular hangout spot for locals. A tapestry of footpaths thread around its banks, most leading south towards the lush greenery of Hljómskálagarður: a tranquil, well-manicured park sheltered from the bustle of the city center.
At the northern end of the lake sits Reykjavik’s City Hall. A vision of sleek glass and contemporary shapes, City Hall, is best seen by night, when its soft lighting reflects across the ripples of the lake surface.
Also situated in Old Harbour is the independent restaurant and brewery Bryggjan Brugghús. Beloved particularly by locals for its variety of craft beers and imaginative menu, this brewery marries top-quality cuisine with laid-back Scandi culture. This quirky haunt was the first microbrewery in Iceland and pays homage to its roots in its nautical yet fashionably industrial décor.
Befitting from its harbourfront location, Bryggjan Brugghús’s bistro centers its offerings around locally caught fish and seafood. As well as its home-brewed beer and delicious food, this microbrewery is celebrated for its cocktails.
With rows of traditional fishing boats and picturesque seafront walks, Old Harbour is one of Reykjavik’s most unique and vibrant areas. Located within this youthful, newly-rejuvenated neighborhood is the Grandi Mathöll: a renovated fish factory that is now a lively street food hall. Home to several different food stands, visitors can find both traditional Icelandic dishes and international cuisines.
The food hall is a true testament to the characteristic Nordic openness that we know and love. A celebration of Iceland — with ties to other countries and cultures — Grandi Mathöll is the perfect place to visit for those yearning for a taste of contemporary Iceland.
Dating back to the 1950s, this modest café hardly seems like it’s changed — a factor which only renders it more charming. Just a few doors down from the above-mentioned Kaolin Galleri, Mokka Kaffi is a favorite local hangout in Reykjavik’s city center, taking the concept of ‘retro’ to a whole new level. It is, after all, one of Reykjavik’s oldest coffee houses and the first to use an espresso machine.
With dark wooden furnishings reminiscent of a diner, lush red-brown interiors, and low lighting overhanging intimate booths, this coffee house makes the perfect place to take shelter from the harsh Icelandic weather. Mokka Kaffi’s focus is upon good conversation and even better coffee: that’s why it offers no Wi-Fi connection. This is not a place for students and freelancers to base themselves as they work. It is a place for friends and family to catch up over a delicious brew and mouth-watering pastry. Mokka Kaffi is also beloved city-wide for its selection of waffles.
Once a somewhat run-down bus station, Hlemmur Square has, in recent years, been given a makeover, now finding itself at the forefront of Reykjavik’s local nightlife. At its center sits a modern, glass-clad food and drink hall, where a cluster of bars and restaurants surround communal benches. During the day, students can be found enjoying a coffee as they study at one of these tables; nearby, there is a second-hand clothing store and a record shop. This neighborhood, which sits on the eastern edge of the city just a short walk from its center, has been revitalized by its youthful population.
Among the pint-sized restaurants and bars on offer in the Hlemmur Mathöll is SKÁL!: an eatery as bold and experimental as its name, which prides itself on contemporary cuisine crafted with local Icelandic produce. Also within this repurposed bus station is Fjárhúsið, which specializes in top-quality Icelandic lamb dishes, and Brauð & co, which produces soft sourdough loaves and flaky Nordic pastries. These haunts — as well as the eclectic building which houses them — are perhaps the most accurate representation of modern Iceland: innovative, cosmopolitan, with a firm hold on their roots and traditions.
Perhaps due to its well-concealed location within a small, residential shopping center, many people bypass this cozy pub-slash-sports bar. Rauða Ljónið (or ‘Red Lion’) is one of the most authentic, down-to-earth experiences Reykjavik has to offer, with friendly staff always ready to welcome a new face. Typically (almost exclusively) populated by Reykjavik residents, this sports bar offers a range of Icelandic beers and ales on tap, as well as homely, hearty meals such as burgers, pizzas, and typical bar snacks. If you’re a traveler who loves to chat with the locals, then Rauða Ljónið is the place to do this; as one of the few eateries on the Seltjarnes peninsula, it is not often that this tavern sees an out-of-town visitor, although you are always welcomed as an old friend.