Reykjavík is a fabulous city: it’s charming, exciting, fun, hip, cold, colourful, quirky and without doubt expensive. But a visit doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of things you can do which won’t cost you a thing, or very little. I lived in Iceland as a teenager and have held a soft spot for it ever since, visiting with my own family in summer 2014 and more recently winter 2019-20. I feel I know the city reasonably well, though it is forever changing of course. Here is my choice of the best free or almost free things to do in Reykjavík.
Climb up Hallgrímskirkja Church Tower:
Visit the biggest church in Iceland for the splendid panoramic view from its 74.5m high tower. Hallgrímskirkja church, which stands on the top of a slight hill in the centre of the city, can be seen from nearly all over Reykjavík.
This means that from the viewing platform you can see all over the city and across the bay to Esja mountain. On a sunny day Reykjavík’s colourful rooftops spread out below like Legoland and the sea sparkles. On a rainy day of course it’s a little different, but unless there’s no visibility at all, it’s definitely worth the entry fee.
Building work started on the church in 1945 but it wasn’t finally consecrated until October 1986. One of the last things I did when I lived in Iceland was to go to my first ever wedding. It was in the still-unconsecrated church and was a double wedding of 2 sisters marrying at the same time! Quite the experience. I’ve never forgotten it. But I digress!
The design of Hallgrímskirkja was inspired by the basalt columns found in Icelandic nature such as those found at Reynisfjall near Vík on the South Coast and Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park. It has become the symbol of Reykjavík and if by chance you are there for New Year’s Eve it’s a terrific place to experience the craziness of the fireworks across the city.
Opening Hours for the tower: Winter (October – April): 9 am – 4.30 pm. Summer (May – September): 9 am – 8.30 pm (the church stays open 30 mins longer).
Price: Adults 1000 ISK, Children 7-16 years old 100 ISK (the church alone is free).
Swim in Municipal Pools:
To really get under the skin of Icelanders you have to go swimming. Yes really! Icelanders frequent their local pool like Brits go to the pub – to chat, let off steam, relax, meet friends etc. There are 18 swimming pools in the greater metropolitan area of Reykjavík so wherever you’re staying you shouldn’t be far from one.
The idea is perhaps to do a little exercise, but mainly to wallow in the hot tubs of varying temperatures. These are heated by natural geothermal heat so even the outdoor ones are open all year round. Many places have saunas and steam rooms included in the price.
Our favourite pool is Reykjavík’s biggest complex, Laugardalslaug. It has a slide, play areas, basketball hoops (in the pool), plenty of hot tubs and both an indoor and outdoor pool. For more on swimming in Iceland and changing room etiquette read my top tips here.
Opening Hours: most pools are open from 6.30 am – 10 pm on weekdays and 8/9 am – 10 pm on weekends. For exact hours of 7 geothermal pools check here.
Price: Adults 1030 ISK, Children 6-17 years old 160 ISK, Under 5 and Over 67 free. Many pools rent towels and even costumes and do a bundle price with entry.
Walk the Sculpture and Sea Walk:
One completely free thing to do in Reykjavík which you shouldn’t miss is to walk along the seafront from historic house Höfði to Harpa. Höfði House (built in 1909) is where Ronald Reagan, President of the USA, and Mikhail Gorbachev, President of USSR, met at the 1986 Reykjavík Summit. This meeting began the end of the Cold War and was revolutionary at the time. The public can’t visit the inside of the house, it’s used for official government functions, but it is an attractive historic house to look at from outside and a good point to start the walk.
The main attraction on the seafront walk is probably Sólfar, a magnificent steel sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason. Sólfar translates as Sun Voyager and although it looks like a Viking ship Árnason describes it as a dream boat and an ode to the sun. It was commissioned to celebrate Reykjavík‘s bicentenary in 1986. The views through the sculpture across the bay to Mt Esja and the city are terrific.
Further along you come to Harpa Concert Hall and Social Centre, one of Reykjavík’s most impressive buildings. The design, which is inspired by Icelandic nature, has won several architectural awards and is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera and the Reykjavík Big Band. The views both inside and out are beautiful and intriguing, the way the light plays on the glass honeycomb structure is magical. You can wander around the public foyer inside for free where it’s worth noting there are good, clean toilets.
Amble Around the Downtown Shopping Streets:
Explore the shops and cafés on Laugavegur, Bankastræti, and Skólavörðustígur, Reykjavík’s main shopping area. These 3 streets are full of Icelandic designer boutiques, souvenir shops, travel agents, galleries and outdoor/adventure clothing specialists as well as many cafés, bars and restaurants. Naturally many brands are eye-wateringly expensive, but you don’t have to buy, just admire the innovative contemporary designs, and enjoy the ambience of the area.
Duck off the main arteries into side streets to find colourful houses and murals as well as more cafés and bars. Reykjavík has some excellent street art much of which is in this general area. Keep your eyes peeled or take a look here for a map of some of the main art.
Skólavörðustígur, which runs from Hallgrímskirkja Church to Laugavegur is painted in rainbow colours, a trend that started a few years ago at Reykjavík Pride and is now permanent. Look out too for painted bicycles on Laugavegur, all screaming out to be Instagrammed.
Stroll around Tjörnin:
Tjörnin is the little lake in the centre of the city, known as “the pond”. It’s a peaceful and picturesque place to stroll, enjoying the views and reflections of pretty Reykjavík houses and Fríkirkjan church. It’s a completely free thing to do in Reykjavík.
The Reykjavík City Hall sits in one corner; it houses an information centre and has free public toilets. The pond is home to many species of waterfowl and bird watchers will enjoy the geese, swans, ducks and other birds that live or migrate through here at different times of the year.
The park around the pond has footpaths, grassy areas for picnics or games and several interesting sculptures, my favourite being the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat! After a walk around Tjörnin, treat yourself to the best hot dog in Reykjavik at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a renowned hot dog stand located at Tryggvagata 1.
Explore the Old Harbour & Grandi Area:
The old fishing harbour is very much the up and coming area of Reykjavík full of restaurants, shops and museums. It’s a foodie’s paradise but even if you’re on a budget and can’t afford to eat in all these tempting places, a wander around is still a fun thing to do. The views back to the city and out to sea are lovely.
Check out the grassy hill Þúfa (Hillock), an art installation with a fish drying hut on the top. Smell the sea air, with a hint of fish, from the fishing boats that still use the harbour.
Pop into The Marshall House for art galleries and restaurants but for the more budget-conscious a visit to Grandi Mathöll is a must. This former fish factory (where I had a summer job during the summer of 1986!) is now a hip food hall. How different from back in the day when I lived in Reykjavík and worked on the stinky fish production line!
If you’re in Reykjavík over the weekend, then have a wander around Kolaportið fleamarket (not in the harbour, but close by at Tryggvagötu 19.) This is Iceland’s only fleamarket (and only open on the weekend.) It’s a great place to buy good value traditional Icelandic jumpers “lopapeysa” (which are never cheap, but better priced here than in designer boutiques). You can also get Hákarl, rotten shark, a national dish of Iceland in small portions to try and other typical foodstuffs/souvenirs.
Go to the Beach (even in winter):
One of our favourite experiences in Reykjavík and certainly one of the more surreal ones is to go swimming at Nauthólsvík, Reykjavík’s geothermal beach. It’s completely free in the summer and almost free in the winter. This beach is man-made with imported golden sand but what makes it truly unique is that the sea water is heated!
It’s not exactly warm, but the piped-in geothermal water does make it possible to splash about in the North Atlantic only a few kilometres from the Arctic Circle. Never fear if the idea of this is just a step too far, there’s a fabulous long hot tub across the top of the beach in which to soak. This is properly warm and a great place to while away the day watching the courageous Vikings swimming in the sea.
Changing rooms, showers and toilets are on site. It is possible to rent towels and swimming costumes.
Opening Hours: 11 am – 7 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am – 4 pm Saturday, closed on Friday & Sunday
Price: Free in the summer (mid-May – mid-August), 650 ISK the rest of the year.
Visit Grótta Island Lighthouse and Nature Reserve:
Another completely free thing to do in Reykjavík is to visit the Grótta Island Lighthouse and surrounding nature reserve on the peninsula of Seltjarnarnes, the most north-westerly point of the city. The lighthouse is reachable on foot at low tide but the area on the mainland is worth visiting even at high tide.
It’s a wild and windswept nature reserve with a walking/cycle track and photogenic fish drying racks. There’s a bleak, raw beauty about it, with far-reaching views towards the lava hills on the Reykjanes Peninsula and on a clear day Snæfellsjökull 120 km across Faxa Bay.
The car park is a popular place to watch the midnight sun in summer (photo below) and (hope to) see the Northern Lights in winter. Even in summer you need to wrap up warm if you go to watch the setting sun, the wind can be biting and relentless.
(Try not to giggle at) The Icelandic Phallological Museum:
Iceland is full of quirky and often bizarre experiences. It’s a unique country, so it should come as no surprise that Reykjavík is home to a very peculiar museum: The Icelandic Phallological Museum a.k.a The Penis Museum. It claims that it is “probably the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country” (and yes that includes man!)
While there is no doubt there are squirmy moments that make you go “ewwww” and there are plenty of giggles to be had, it is a serious museum and genuinely interesting. The Penis Museum is scientific not lewd or pornographic and perfectly suitable for children. Located at Laugavegur 116.
Opening Hours: 10 am – 6 pm
Price: Over 13 years old 1700 ISK. Pensioners & disabled 1000 ISK. Children under 13 free with parents.
Explore Residential Areas:
Get lost in some of the residential areas such as Old West Side to immerse yourself in Icelandic architecture. When I visited in summer 2014 I felt the city was predominantly blue. Now I’m not so sure. It seems even more colourful than before. Enjoy the quirky features of the corrugated iron and wooden houses and keep looking for murals!
For more ideas on how to make Iceland affordable take a look at my Tips for a Family Holiday in Iceland on a Budget. If you have any extra ideas please feel free to share them in the comments.
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