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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Hofdi (sorry, can’t do eths and thorns and so on) used to be the British Ambassadors official residence, but it was so badly haunted that the British government had to give it up, fearing that its reputation would make it impossible for their chap (or chapess) to do his official entertaining, as potential guests simply wouldn’t turn up. The Brits consulted Iceland’s leading authorities on haunting, but nothing could be done; all those rumblings and soakings could mean only one thing. Very sportingly the Reykjavík City Council offered to take the place, explaining that they were used to ghosts and could probably handle this one, but of course they would only be able to pay a very low price. The deal was done, and the Council soon plugged the “ghost” into the local hot water system, as it was simply one of the many hot springs that had given the city its name (Reykjavík means Smoky Bay, ie Steamy), which of course they had known all along. And the poor old Brits were left looking just a little foolish!
That’s such a great story, thanks for sharing Richard
I’ve passed through the airport but never properly visited. It is definitely on my bucket list though! Annoyingly they’ve stopped the direct flight from here in Aberdeen which is a right pain.
Oh that’s a shame the direct flight stopped. I hope you get to Reykjavik one day
We stayed right by that museum, it caused much amusement with the kids. We did all of this apart from the beach, managed to miss that one
I can just imagine the hilarity seeing the museum every day. Karra, next time you must go to the beach!
Phoebe Reykjavik is a place I’ve long wanted to visit and you just moved it up my list a bit more. It’s not often you read the words affordable and Iceland in the same article and then you throw in murals. You’ve got me! The church tower and Tjörnin look so appealing too. #FarawayFiles
I know it’s not an association often heard but it really is possible to have a brilliant time in Iceland and not spend a fortune. I wrote a blog post about 5 years ago with suggestions for a budget friendly holiday there after our 1st family holiday. We love Iceland and have never spent too much!
Reykjavik is high on my list of places to travel sooner rather than later. Thanks for the informative post #FarawyFiles
Definitely make it sooner! You won’t regret it.
Reykjavík is fascinating city we visited in 2007 and then again in 2018 and there has certainly been some changes. I love it around by the Old Harbour & the street art in Reykjavík is amazing. #farawayfiles
That’s a big gap, you must have seen plenty of changes, hopefully mainly for the better? I know I’ve seen plenty and they’re not all good unfortunately.
We’ve been to Reykjavík a couple of times and loved it but we haven’t been for a few years. We’ve swam in the Blue Lagoon but never been to the geothermal beach so will add that to our to do list.
It’s a great experience and FREE as opposed to the extortionate price of the Blue Lagoon (which I love don’t get me wrong, it’s just that it is a crazy price and can’t be considered in any way budget!!)
I always hear how expensive Reykjavik is, and most tips that I read on saving money there just say to eat convenience store hot dogs! Thanks for such a useful post on actual budget-friendly things to do around the city. Hopefully I’ll get there soon!
Ah yes, the famous hot dogs, which are delicious and a genuinely good tip for reducing costs, but yes, there’s a lot more you can do than just eating hot dogs to travel in Iceland on a budget!!
Ok, You just brought out the FOMO in me. I will have to return to Reykjavik! I somehow missed the beach swimming at Nauthólsvík last time. Well, to be fair, we didn’t spend much time in the city, we were driving for days and had a blast. Iceland is such a fantastic destination.
Ahhh there’s always something isn’t there? I always come back from a trip and discover something I missed out on and immediately want to go back! We’ll just have to keep on travelling, what a shame!
I am really hoping to get to Iceland soon. I think I’d love it. I just read that wonderful speech by the PM on focusing on Wellbeing not GDP. I wish our government would listen…#FarAwayFiles
That sounds interesting, I haven’t heard that speech but like the sound of it. There’s plenty to love about Iceland.
What a helpful list! I love that Iceland is so affordable right now – even better that a lot of stuff is free!
There are certainly ways to make it much more affordable than people think.
I just love that street painted in rainbow colours! What a clever idea for a blog post, Phoebe. I’d heard that Iceland was really expensive so it’s good to get the lowdown on the free and cheap things to do. Your photos from Iceland have been so wonderful that I’ve been really looking forward to reading the posts. Thanks so much for sharing it with us #farawayfiles
Oh thanks Clare, I have squillions more photos that should be put into more posts but knowing me I’ll never get around to it!
my friend went to Iceland on her honeymoon. she showed me beautiful photos of Reykjavik. I’d definitely want to visit it and since it’s pretty expensive it’s good to know that there are free options for sightseeing too #farawayfiles
Fun place to go on honeymoon, I’m sure you’d love it too Tanja.
What did you think of the The Icelandic Phallological Museum?! We were debating going there our last day in Reykjavik, and decided to explore more of the neighborhoods instead. Now looking back I wish we had gone, it would have been hilarious.
We went because it was so different. My boys can get cultured out with art galleries and other more serious museums so this just looked like something completely unique and we do like quirky stuff. It was definitely worth the small entrance fee.
Fantastic post and love that first photo in particular! We only spent a day in Reykjavik so didn’t get to see everything that’s on your list here. But we loved the church and my favourite sculpture was the bureaucrat too! #farawayfiles
Aha, you spotted the bureaucrat! He’s a goodun. Next time you’ll just have to spend a little longer in Reykjavik, I’m sure you’ll see plenty of changes since your last visit.
What an incredible resource, as Iceland can be very expensive! We visited a few years ago and fell in love with the country 🙂
It’s an easy place to fall in love with isn’t it.
I love Iceland and I will come back this summer. Thanks for the useful tips reminding me of my Reykjavik visit and also showing a few places I missed.
Have fun Anita! Iceland’s always a good place to return to.
Great post, what I really love is how you cover the admission and price information.
Happy you found it useful
Thanks so much for this detailed compiled listing, very informative for travelllers esp backpackers to plan travel to Reykjavik. Am saving this post for my planning. Cheers, siennylovesdrawing
I’m pleased you found it useful.
Looks like a stunning place to visit. Loads to do for free as well.
Yes there’s lots more than you’d expect.
What an amazing place to visit. Especially the church and the swimming. I love the idea of being able to swim outdoors in all weathers.
Thank you for sharing such lovely suggestions x
The swimming really is our favourite family activity
I have never been to Iceland but its great to know that you can enjoy the tours without spending too much
All these suggestions are to do independently, it’s the tours that cost so much.
Oh I so enjoyed reading this, and looking at your wonderful pictures. I really had no idea what Iceland was like but you seem to have really captured not only what to do and see, but the spirit of the place. I lived in the far north of Canada for many years so I know about the long cold winters/northern lights/midnight sun and I think somehow you’re deeply affected by living in such a place. Thanks for this glimpse into lovely Iceland. It’s a bit older and more civilized than the Yukon lol.
Thanks Alison, I think you’re right, living in such extremes definitely affects you.
I have been to Reykjavik but had no idea of all these other things that could be enjoyed. I guess as you lived there for a while you know all the insider activities. I did try to climb the church tower but both days I went it was shut, the first day for a wedding and the second day for a funeral. Guess I will just have to return.
How unlucky that the church was shut both times you tried. But great to have a reason to go back!
I’d love to visit Iceland, but have to be honest, it’s notoriety for being so expensive has put me off. Great to know that you can definitely have fun in Reykjavik on a budget!
Don’t let that put you off, you really can have fun without breaking the bank.
Enjoyed reading your blog. Iceland is in my bucket list and I have saved your blog. Tjörnin looks like a very picturesque place. Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Thanks Jan, yes Tjörnin is very picturesque
Love this! I’m going to Iceland for the first time in May & reading this had really whet my appetite (especially having heard how expensive it is!). Thanks for sharing
Hi Sue, I’m sure you’ll absolutely love Iceland – personally I can’t imagine not falling in love with it! Have fun.