It doesn’t matter if you’re a new traveler to Iceland or a seasoned veteran in this incredible country. The world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavík, is the perfect place to start or end your adventure in the North Atlantic. Although it’s easy to spend a pretty penny shopping, dining, and sightseeing in this charming destination, there are surprisingly a lot of free things to do in Reykjavík. And that includes some of the main highlights of the city!
As long as you have an open mind and enjoy a lovely day walking around, this extensive- but not exclusive- list will keep you busy and on budget. So park your Happy Camper in a (legal) parking space or lot around downtown and let’s get going! Here is my list of 10 free things to do and see in Reykjavik (and a bonus tip!).
Sitting atop a hill, Hallgrímskirkja is a national landmark and possibly one of the most photographed destinations in Reykjavík (it’s the grey tower in the back). The church’s architect, Guðjón Samuel, was inspired by the natural wonders of lava cooling to basalt rock while a large statue of Leifur Eiriksson sits out front. Although, entering the church is free, you’ll need to pay 900isk (at time of writing) if you’d like to check out the best panoramic view of downtown Reykjavík and its surroundings (in my opinion). Highly recommended!
Home to arts and culture, Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is an outstanding piece of architecture in the heart of the city loved by all. And it’s something you can’t miss along the harbour. Not only are the walls interesting to look at (I’d describe them as walls of honeycombs), but there are also dances of colourful lights, which mimic the wonderful world of Northern Lights. You’ll find a restaurant and bar inside as well spaces home to Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, plays, and music festivals.
With an observation platform located in a glass, dome-shaped building, Perlan, or “The Pearl”, offers one of the best panoramic views of Reykjavík and beyond. On the clearest days, you’ll also be lucky enough to see all the way to Snæfellsjökull close to where I recently explored Vatnshellir Cave. And if you aren’t able to visit Geysir in the southwest of Iceland, there is a man-made version named Strokkur just on the side of Perlan, so you can still experience this explosive phenomenon.
Of course you can’t visit Reykjavík without walking along the main drags, Laugavegur or Skólavörðustígur, where you’ll find plenty of opportunities to window shop at art galleries and puffin stores. The Icelandic fashion is hip and trendy, something you’ll quickly realize while walking into the local boutiques and home design shops. If shopping isn’t your thing, feel free to find a bench or sit on a café patio to enjoy the day.
If you’re in the city on a weekend you have to make a visit to Kolaportið, the flea market open from 10-17 every Saturday and Sunday. It’s the perfect indoor space to wander and people watch. And while you’re there, you can shop for those unique and traditional souvenirs like wool sweaters or second-hand knick-knacks you never knew you wanted. At the back of the building, the food stalls offer fresh fish, sweets, and small samples of the elusive rotten shark for those who desire a bite!
The path along the water is spectacular with Mt. Esja as the backdrop and popular outdoor space amongst cyclers, joggers, and nature lovers. It’s particularly pretty during dawn and dusk when the sunlight hits the horizon, but the main centrepiece of the area is Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Solfar Sun Voyager sculpture. Snap a photo with this silver Viking ship and then take in the views.
The funky street art around Reykjavík really brightens up the city even on a cloudy day. It’s fun to get lost in the small streets away from the main roads, because you never know what kind of colourful graffiti you’ll run into next. I think the contrast of the interesting graffiti and historical, corrugated-steel houses make a stroll through downtown a great photo opportunity!
The Northern Lights is an experience like no other. If you happen to be here when the forecast is strong, you have an obligation to look up into the bright, clear skies, because damn, you’re lucky! The best place to set camp for the aurora borealis are away from the downtown city light pollution. So drive to Seltjarnarnes in your Happy Camper van, the western tip of Reykjavík by the lighthouse. Or better yet, camp out at Þingvellir National Park for the ultimate light show!
Whether winter or summer, Tjörninn, the pond, is a hot destination for locals and travellers alike. If the pond freezes over, you can bet there’ll be a handful of Icelanders skating around, and throughout the year, swans and ducks like to hang out close by City Hall, another place to explore. It houses an info centre, Internet, art gallery, and an impressive relief map of Reykjavík.
Taking a free tour like CityWalk Reykjavík is a great way to orient oneself with this small, but mighty city. It’s one thing to wander and explore downtown on your own. However, the knowledge of a local guide will have a greater impact when it comes to learning the history and culture of Iceland as well as offer some expert secrets. Although the tour is complimentary, tipping your guide for their service is recommended. The amount is based on what you think the tour was worth!
Drink ice-cold Icelandic water! It’s completely free, accessible from any tap or flowing stream, and eco-friendly. Icelanders sometimes joke about how it’s the “best water in the world” and they’re not wrong. Just make sure to run the tap on the coldest setting, otherwise you might get a little taste of sulfur (that rotten egg smell!).
There are so many more places and things to discover around town that are free of charge, but hey, I’ll let you figure it out, because sometimes the fun of travelling is getting lost and having an adventure!
In the meantime, happy walking and camping!
To read more about Lea’s Happy Camper Adventures in Iceland check out these articles:Snorkeling in Silfra with Scuba IcelandJourney to Vatnshellir Cave on SnæfellsnesThe Real VikingSushi Adventure