07 December 2016

How To Spend a Winter City Break in Reykjavik

I spent four days in Reykjavik and for me, it was about the right amount of time to spend in the city in the winter. I was really busy at work before my trip and didn't have time to do as much research as usual, so I thought I would put together a short guide with some of my tips and recommendations for things to do and places to eat, drink and shop. I plan to go back to Iceland in the summertime to see more of the country, but I loved my short winter city break.

General tips
Airport buses. Both Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line run regular coaches into the city centre. The journey takes about 45 minutes — once the bus eventually leaves and only as far as the bus terminal. Gray Line’s bus terminal is outside the city centre so you will probably need to transfer onto a minibus that will take you to your hotel or to the city centre Gray Line sales office, which may take another 30 minutes or so. RE uses the BSI terminal, which is a little closer to the downtown area but still a 20-minute walk. Both companies charge about 4,000 ISK (£28) return to the terminals, and a little more with hotel drop-off and pick-up.

Money. The local currency is the Icelandic króna (ISK). Credit cards are taken pretty much everywhere, including at street food stalls and most public bathrooms. I had hoped to go completely cash free on this trip but unfortunately, the City Walk guides don't yet take PayPal, so I took out 3,000 ISK (about £20), which I used exclusively for tour guide tips. Yes, everything is expensive — there’s no such thing as a ‘cheap sandwich’ and even soup will cost you at least 1,400 ISK (£10). Hot dogs are as close as you can get to a cheap lunch (Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur’s are pretty good). I also stocked up on rye bread, skyr (protein-rich Icelandic ‘yoghurt’), fruit and smoked salmon at the supermarket so that I could make my own breakfast or lunch some days.

Book your accommodation as early as possible. It is expensive to stay in Reykjavik and the best hotels — and cheapest prices — fill up early. I stayed in a standard studio apartment at Room with a View on Laugavegur, the main shopping street, and booked almost six months in advance, paying just under £100 per night. My apartment (306) was great in many ways — spacious, clean and with a comfortable bed and well-appointed kitchen — but it was also incredibly noisy until 4 am at the weekend and after 1:30 am during the week, thanks to the club across the street. I’m not a light sleeper and I travel extensively, but I’ve never slept as badly as I did in that room, even wearing earplugs. Some apartments at Room with a View are soundproofed, some don't face the club and some are more convenient for the rooftop terrace and hot tub (see view below), so check with the hotel before booking.

Two other hotel options I considered were: Skuggi Hotel, which was a little more expensive but looked really nice and was slightly further from Laugavegur; and 21 Hill Hotel, which looked good but was a 25-minute walk from the city centre (not ideal in winter).

Things To Do
Settlement Exhibition or National Museum of Iceland. They both cost 1,500 ISK (£10) to get in but cover similar historical topics.
City Walk. Excellent, informative, pay-what-you-want two-hour walking tour focusing on Icelandic history and culture. Book here.
Hallgrímskirkja church tower. The best aerial view of the city. The church tower costs 900 ISK £6.40) to go up, although check out the architecture of the church itself, which is free to enter.
Harpa. If you like modern architecture, it’s worth a visit to Harpa, which is free to go inside and gape at the impressive design. Go back at night, when the glass walls are lit up with a Northern Lights-inspired design.
Vesturbæjarlaug. Bathe with the locals at the heated outdoor swimming pools west of the city centre. It’s 1/10 of the price of the Blue Lagoon.
A Reykjavik wander: Start at the ráðhús (city hall), checking out the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat. Walk along the pond (Tjörnin), up to Hólavallagarður cemetery and then amble back down through Old Reykjavik to the harbour and Harpa.

Food and Drink
Restaurants: Rok (Icelandic small plates and great cocktails). Kaffihús Vesturbæjar (cosy-chic all-day bistro). Sægreifinn (traditional seafood shack in the Old Harbour). Hamborgarabúllan (Tommi's burger joint). The Laundromat Café (recommended for brunch).
Cheap(er) eats: Brauð & Co (great bakery). Sandholt (another good bakery). Gló (good lunch spot with lots of salads and other healthier options). Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (good hot dogs). Lobster Hut (stall selling lobster salads, sandwiches and soup).
Cocktails (check out the websites for happy hour deals): Jacobsen Loftið (well-mixed cocktails in a vintage-inspired bar). Slippbarinn. Rok.
Coffee: Reykjavik Roasters (either branch). Te og Kaffi (Micro Roast has the best coffee selection). More ideas.

Books: Bókin. Mál og Menning.
Fashion: Eva. Geysir. Kiosk. Kormákur & Skjöldur.
Home/lifestyle: EpalHrim (two stores on Laugavegur; one for kitchen, one for homewares). My Concept StoreStígur (gorgeous ceramics).

Blue Lagoon. If the timings work out, you can save time and money by visiting on the way to or from the airport but check the bus schedules first. I timed my visit to sunrise (around 10:15 am) and it worked quite well, but sunrise and sunset in Iceland in winter don't come with guarantees of any sun to rise or set! I spent about two hours at the lagoon and my ticket, booked a couple of months in advance, cost €45. It's incredibly touristy but it was one of my favourite experiences of the trip.

Golden Circle. Lots of companies run variations on a theme when it comes to one-day Golden Circle tours. You'll probably get more out of a small-group tour or — better still — if you rent a car and do it yourself. Try to pick the best day, weather-wise, of course, and in any case, bring the best rain-gear you have: brollies will be useless if it rains, and if the weather is inclement, you will be miserable if you are sitting damp on the bus all day long. I booked with Gray Line, which cost about £70, and  the tour was fine, but nothing outstanding.

Northern Lights. Book for your first night there to maximise the chance of a tour running during your stay. I was there four nights in November and the aurora was only visible on two nights. I highly recommend SuperJeep tours — they still won’t guarantee Northern Lights sightings, but they will tip the odds in your favour and the price (£140) was well worth it, in my opinion.

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