A lot of places have their “one thing,” the must-do for tourists even if they’re only there for a short amount of time. In Reykjavik, Iceland, that nod usually goes to the Blue Lagoon, a hot pool that is a byproduct of a geothermal plant. People say that a ten minute dip in the Blue Lagoon can make you feel 10 years younger, and photos show that the iridescent blue water is a sight to behold. The entire business of the Blue Lagoon has been expanded to include a spa, including floating massages and hair treatments, and also houses a famous restaurant. Even better news is, as the Blue Lagoon is actually 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik, you can book a bus that drops you off at the Blue Lagoon for a bit before taking you to the nearby Keflavik Airport – what a relaxing way to spend your time right before a flight!
Here’s the thing – I have been to Iceland twice now, and not once have I gone to the Blue Lagoon.
Why? There were a number of culminating factors. I originally planned to go as part of the aforementioned bus tour, right before my late afternoon flight – it seemed like a good way to end my trip as well as not take too much time out of another full day earlier on. But, I ended up deciding to spend those last few hours of my trip with my newfound Icelandic family as well as a dear new friend, a choice I do not regret. The Blue Lagoon is also expensive, and if you’re going there as a solo traveler as I would be, I could anticipate it not being as much fun without a group. It’s also not a naturally-occurring landscape, or even emblematic of Icelandic people as a whole.
I cannot tell you if the Blue Lagoon is overrated because I’ve never been there, but I can tell you 5 things you should do in Reykjavik that AREN’T the Blue Lagoon, whether you’re a solo, budget-conscious traveller or just don’t find hot pools an interesting way to spend precious travel time.
1) Golden Circle Tour
Even if you’re just in Iceland for a couple of days, a tour of The Golden Circle is an absolute must. In just a full day, you are exposed to some of the extreme landscapes and natural sights that Iceland is known for without having to stray too far from the capital. Golden Circle tours depart from Reykjavik daily and offer pick-ups and drop-offs from most hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. You’ll see Gullfoss, an awe-inspiring waterfall, as well as Strokkur, a regularly-erupting geyser that shoots up to 30 feet high, and you’ll round out the day with a trip to Thingvelir National Park, which is where the North American and European tectonic plates meet (it’s also the site of Europe’s first parliament!).
It is a very touristy route and each site will always be filled with people; you could rent a car and drive to the sites individually rather than bus, but the sites will still be busy. That being said, all three places are amazing and well-worth seeing, especially if you want to get a real taste of Iceland in a limited time.
2) Listasafn Reykjavíkur: The Art Gallery Circuit
If you purchase admission to any one of the three Listasafn art galleries in Reykjavik, that covers your cost for all three of the museums, if visited on the same day. They’re not immediately next to each other, but the gallery staff will give you a map and explain walking or busing directions, and if you do choose to walk (Reykjavik is a very walkable city), it’s about 25 minutes between each gallery. Hafnarhús is located in an old harbour warehouse, and houses six galleries of predominantly modern art, including one dedicated to the famous modern Icelandic artist, Erró; Kjarvalsstaðir is a visual art museum that houses mostly paintings; and Ásmundarsafn Sculpture Museum is dedicated to the sculptures of its namesake, Ásmundur Sveinsson, complete with a sculpture garden open year round.
Each of the three museums offers a broad look at the unique art that Icelanders, highly creative people by nature, are presenting to the world. Plus, admission for all three museums is under $20 total, making it a fairly inexpensive way to spend a whole day walking out and about Reykjavik, a city known for being pricey.
3) Take in a bar gig or a concert at Harpa
Your best resources for cultural events happening in Reykjavik is their English language newspaper, The Reykjavik Grapevine, which offers a listing of upcoming events, as well as midi.is, which is the Icelandic version of Ticketmaster. It’s no secret that the Icelandic music scene is very strong and diverse, and it’s possible to see a live music gig just about any night of the week, many of which are free or reasonably inexpensive. There are several music festivals throughout the year, including the fantastic Iceland Airwaves which showcases international artists as well. KEX Hostel offers free Tuesday night jazz, and the record store 12 Tónar features live performances on Friday afternoons.
For larger, ticketed events, such as those at Harpa, it’s good to scroll through midi.is to see what might be happening on the days you are in town. Harpa is the recently built concert hall located on the Reykjavik harbour, and is a monument to sound engineering achievement, as well as being an architectural wonder. If you can’t see a show at Harpa, I highly recommend going on one of their guided tours, offered daily, or just exploring the gallery shops and sweeping stairwells for yourself. All of the concerts I have seen in Reykjavik, both local shows and at the Iceland Airwaves festival, were a great experience and introduced me to some stellar Icelandic music I would not have known about otherwise.
4) Drive or bike to explore Reykjanesfólkvangur Park
Just outside of Reykjavik in the nearby area of Hafnarfjörður is the Reykjanesfólkvangur Park, where you can see lakes, geysers, hot pools, and lava caves. Geothermal activity is especially prevalent in this area, but without the crowds of the Strokkur and Geysir area. You’ll see the small hot pools in the ground that are often used for what’s called “earth-baked” bread or cake – popular Icelandic food that is baked inside a milk carton using the heat of the hot pools to cook them (I was a fan of the earth-baked cake!). It’s a very scenic area to walk around, and, like most Icelandic landscapes, is largely uncrowded and free to explore.
If folklore is your thing, this is a perfect area to go searching for huldufólk (hidden elves). Only 13% of Icelanders believe that the existence of elves is impossible- they are largely superstitious regarding elves and trolls! For instance, don’t be kicking any of the lava stones you come across in this area – it might be an elf stone, and you’ll be cursed with bad luck!
5) Horseback ride through the lava fields
Icelandic horses are an extremely pure breed of horse, and even have their own gait called the tölt, which is a very smooth ride between the speeds of a trot and a canter. There are various stables around Reykjavik and Hafnarfjörður (I booked with ishestar.is and I highly recommend them), and all of them offer tours of various lengths and for varied riding abilities. The tours are especially scenic due to the beautiful landscapes of Iceland’s lava fields and mountains, and it’s a really great way to experience that landscape from a different view (on top of a horse!). At least with the company I booked with, you are well-taken care of during the tour as well – a snack as well as water are provided, and if you elect to, you may wear some of their very fashionable coveralls to keep you extra warm on the ride!
Even if you’re not an experienced rider, Icelandic horses have some of the most fun and friendly personalities I have ever seen in a horse, and they are well-taken care of, making the ride a pleasant experience for both horse and rider.
What NOT to do:
Northern Lights Tours – I am a northern Canadian and have seen the Northern Lights, so I didn’t even look into booking one of these tours. But again and again, I would meet people in hostels who had paid money to get picked up by a bus shortly after 7 pm to go looking for the Northern Lights, only to return back disappointed at not having seen them. You can only do these tours between October and April, when there are enough hours of darkness for the lights to be visible, but the general consensus if you DON’T end up seeing them is that it was a waste of money (well worth it of course if it’s a clear night and they’re visible!). But, the Northern Lights are not visible on a nightly basis – it is entirely dependent on clouds and weather conditions, so there is never any guarantee you’ll see them. I believe some companies will offer rain checks if no lights are seen, but especially if you have limited time, you could have cloudy skies your whole time in Iceland and never be able to take advantage of that rain check.
There is an Aurora Watch website that outlines where in Iceland the lights will be visible on any given night, but just like the weather forecast, this can change at any moment, so it’s best not to place your bets on a night that may be clear in the future. You’re better off to check the Aurora Watch day-of, and then rent a car and drive just outside of Reykjavik to see them at their best, OR if there is a strong chance of seeing them that night, THEN book the tour. However, you can also see them right in the city, which was a pleasant surprise when I was coming out of a bar one night. The Northern Lights are beautiful and certainly worthy of being a bucket list sight, but exercise caution paying a tour company just to drive you to a quiet field to see them when there’s never a visibility guarantee. There are many day or multi-day tours that go outside of Reykjavik to see other sites, and that tack on a northern lights hunt at the end permitting weather conditions (such as those with extremeiceland.is) so I would recommend doing one of those so at least you get something else out of the experience if no Northern Lights are seen.
Reykjavik may appear small and quiet, but it is really a culturally diverse and exciting place to visit for multiple days, and is now one of my favourite cities in the world. This article in no way means to discourage you from seeing the Blue Lagoon, but to recognize that there are many other amazing things to experience in and around this city to really get a taste of Icelandic landscapes and culture.