Here are 8 free things to do in Reykjavik that won’t cost a penny!
Let’s put it out there: there aren’t many free things to do in Iceland.
Iceland isn’t exactly known for being the most affordable of places. As a tourist, it’s far too easy to spend a lot of money there. Boy, do I knowww. When you think about the cost of day trips, and then factor in going out for dinner each night, it all starts to get very expensive, very fast.
However, there are some great free things to do in Reykjavik.
My trip to Iceland
We went to Iceland for five days. We booked two tours during our trip and agreed to use the other days to explore Reykjavik and try to balance the expense of the day trips. However, you can easily spend a fortune just exploring the city. Boat tours, food tours, museum visits, it all adds up.
In fact, even simple activities are a lot more expensive than they would be on any other city break. Walking tours are a key example – the one we did cost us nearly £40 each. That’s crazy money considering there’s usually a free walking tour in every city you visit.
With that in mind, I’ve pulled together a list of free things to do in Reykjavik.
1. Walk up Skolavordustigur Street (Rainbow Street)
Kickstart your trip by strolling along Skolavordustigur, also known as Rainbow Street.
You’ll probably have seen pictures of this famous street already and, just in case you were in any doubt that it’s a tourist hotspot, the clusters of people taking selfies will make it crystal clear. We even saw two people lying flat down in the street to take a photo together.
So why is it rainbow-coloured? Well, it all stems from Reykjavik Pride, which was first hosted in the city in 1999. As part of the celebrations, Skolavordustigur was painted in rainbow colours. In 2019 the artwork was made permanent – a great decision I think. Too often amazing public art like this is only temporary, why not have it there 365 days a year?
The street is lined with boutique shops, cosy cafes, and art galleries, but I can’t say I went in many of them. Although I did feel like I went up and down this street about a hundred times over the five days I was here.
There is also a resident cat in one of the shops here that you can go in and see. It’s a big fluffy thing that was curled up on the table at the front. Definitely top three in terms of free things to do in Reykjavik!
2. See Hallgrimskirkja
You can’t visit Reykjavik without a visit to Hallgrimskirkja, the city’s most iconic landmark – the beautiful, enormous church!
To me, this looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. The exterior is clad in light-coloured concrete, giving it a unique, ethereal and almost elvish appearance. It doesn’t exactly look like Minas Tirith in LOTR but the pale stone that glints in the light certainly alludes to it.
The church is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrimur Petursson and its exterior is inspired by the hexagonal basalt columns found in Iceland’s volcanic landscapes. It’s beyond stunning from the outside and you’ll probably give yourself a crick in the neck from craning up at it. Or you might just walk into someone accidentally.
Once inside, you’ll be greeted by a serene and minimalist interior, that contrasts with the grandeur of the exterior. The church’s acoustics make it a popular venue for concerts and recitals, so if you’re lucky, you might catch a performance during your visit.
Like a good view? You can go up to the top of the church tower via an elevator or some stairs. However, there is an entrance fee so, of course, I won’t be covering that in my list of free things to do in Reykjavik. From what I read, the views are pretty stunning though.
3. Sun voyager sculpture
One of the best free things to do in Reykjavik is to see the Sun Voyager sculpture, which is perched facing the water near the harbour area.
Designed by Icelandic artist Jón Gunnar Árnason, the Sun Voyager was unveiled in 1990 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavik. It was intended to pay tribute to the Norse seafarers who ventured into the unknown centuries ago.
The sculpture resembles a Viking long-ship but that’s not what it represents apparently. According to the artist, the Sun Voyager is an ode to the sun and symbolizes the promise of undiscovered territories and the dream of hope, progress, and freedom. So there you go!
I don’t know if we just lucked out when we were there but it was all gleaming and silvery in the sunshine and certainly conveyed that little bit of magic. Don’t miss it!
4. Harpa concert hall
I’m not one that’s usually too taken with architecture but I’ll make an exception for Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik in all its shimmering, glinting, show-stopping glory. This building is a proper stunner.
Built in 2011, Harpa has welcomed renowned artists and performers from around the world. It’s home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera and world-famous musicians such as Björk, Sigur Rós and Cyndi Lauper have performed here. It also once held the annual world yo-yo competition! Not just all the high-brow opera stuff, then!
The building is mesmerizing. Its glass façade, comprised of numerous hexagonal panels, creates a kaleidoscope of colours that change with the light and weather conditions. It’s inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland – in other words, all the volcanic rock that makes up the landscape of the country. It also looked a bit like dragon scales to me!
Inside it’s just as impressive. With all glass above you it’s like you’re in the belly of the beast. I can’t tell you much else about what else is inside as I only nipped in to go to the bathroom, but there are shops, cafes, and restaurants where you can relax and soak in the ambience. If you head up to the upper floors there are some sweet views of the harbour.
5. Lake Tjornin
Another one to add to the list of free things to do in Reykjavik is Lake Tjornin. It’s right in the centre of everything, which is unusual. But with its tranquil waters, surrounding greenery, and views of the surroundings, it’s the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Interestingly, Lake Tjornin is that it’s not entirely natural. It was actually created as a reservoir in the early 19th century to provide a reliable source of water for the growing city. Today, it serves as a peaceful habitat for various bird species.
Speaking of birds, Lake Tjornin is renowned for its vibrant birdlife. From graceful swans and elegant geese to cute little ducks, you’ll find an array of feathered friends gracing the lake’s surface. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see locals and tourists alike strolling around the lake, armed with bags of bread to feed these friendly feathered residents.
During the winter months, Lake Tjornin often freezes over, transforming into an enchanting ice-skating paradise. Locals and visitors lace up their skates and glide across the frozen surface, which sounds lovely.
So, whether you’re looking to check out the local birdlife, or simply enjoy a peaceful moment, a visit to Lake Tjornin is a must-do in Reykjavik.
6. Explore Laugavegur
If you’re looking for a vibrant and eclectic street to explore in Reykjavik, look no further than Laugavegur. This lively and bustling street is the city’s main shopping and cultural hub, and is lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, and some rather cool street art. Our hotel was also located here.
As you walk along the street, you’ll see all the colourful and imaginative murals that adorn the buildings. From stunning portraits to abstract designs, the street art is cool AF and adds a unique charm and character to the area. Make sure you take lots of pics!
Laugavegur is also a shopper’s paradise. The street is lined with boutiques, design stores, and souvenir shops. Whether you’re in search of trendy clothing, Icelandic wool products, or unique handmade crafts, you’re sure to find something. Something expensive. I can’t say I bought anything but I did have a browse some of the souvenirs – puffins are popular!
The street is dotted with cafes, restaurants, and bakeries. We didn’t really eat out much but there were a lot of places that tempted me to bust the budget. We stood outside and admired the menu from the outside, before retreating to the hotel room with a slice of pizza from the 7-11.
Whatever your travel style, a stroll along Laugavegur is a must!
7. Go to Grotta lighthouse
This location is a little outside of Reykjavik but it’s well worth the trip.
In fact, we only ended up going after our planned trip to the punk museum in Reykjavik was abruptly cancelled when we realised it was a bank holiday and it was closed. Disaster! Not to worry, we went back to our research and decided to visit Grotta Lighthouse instead.
Also known as Grottafyr Lighthouse, it is one of the oldest lighthouses in Iceland. It was first built in 1897 and served as an important navigational aid for ships entering the Faxaflói Bay.
Situated on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, at the westernmost tip of Reykjavik, it’s near the town of Seltjarnarnes and is surrounded by a nature reserve. If you want serene and calm, this is it. The time we spent on the beach next to it was so peaceful and restorative.
One thing to note is that the lighthouse is only accessible at low tide. It’s located on a small islet that is accessible via a causeway during low tide. Visitors can walk across the sandy pathway to reach the lighthouse, however, it was closed when we were there.
A final note – you can either get a taxi, get the bus, or walk to Grotta lighthouse. We opted to catch the bus there and then walk back, so it was a bit of an adventure. However, it did mean we got to see some amazing street art on the way home – see below.
8. Admire the street art
The colourful street art in Laugavegur is pretty easy to locate.
However, there’s some other street art in Reykjavik that’s a little more off the grid. Hidden gems if you will. One of my favourite pieces of art was this enormous piece emblazoned on the side of the house. And once I learned the story behind it I loved it even more.
We stumbled on it by chance on the long walk back into town after our visit to Grotta lighthouse. It was a very long, boring walk back so seeing this gee-ed us up a little.
The painting was done by an Australian graffiti artist called Guido Van Helten. He used to be a graffiti artist and got in too much trouble for it, his words, and ended up studying visual art at university. He was commissioned to create three large-scale murals on the ‘Loftkastalinn’ building in the harbour area of Reykjavik.
The painting I saw came about when Guido knocked on the door of the house and asked if he could paint over the old graffiti at the bottom. The homeowner was taken by his work and fetched a portrait of her grandfather, which is what you see on the side of the house.
Apparently, the owner said that the portrait is “part of the building now.” This is definitely one of my favourite things to do in Reykjavik.
Here’s a pic of the cat in the shop to finish off!
How to save money in Iceland
We brought snacks in our suitcase so that we didn’t have to stop off at the shops all the time. Filling, portable snacks such as flapjacks will fill you up and won’t break the bank.
I’m not going to lie, we also raided the breakfast buffet at the hotel to cut down on costs.
Don’t buy water
I wasn’t sure if you could drink water out of the taps in the hotel room. But when I googled it, it said it was perfectly safe to drink and came from the natural springs in Iceland.
There was even an article full of outrage about the time one hotel tried to charge hotel guests for water, which the locals were largely unimpressed by. I don’t normally drink water out of the tap in hotels, but the natural resources in Iceland are awesome!
Eat street food
Expensive meals can really eat into your budget in Iceland, pun intended. However, you can eat cheaper by being a bit more creative. Instead of feeling like you have to go to a restaurant for dinner every night, why not try some street food?
We stopped by the famous hot dog stand in Iceland that Bill Clinton once famously visited, known as Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. It was one of the best meals I had on the trip!
Use public transport
I never feel 100% confident getting the bus in a new place. And I don’t even mean abroad – I’m just fairly useless at getting the bus in general as something always seems to go wrong.
However, it can make a big difference on costs. We costed up the price difference between getting the bus to the lighthouse near Reykjavik or figuring out the bus and it was night and day. Taking public transport will be more of an adventure and will save your pennies!
Pack the right stuff
When I buy clothes on holiday it’s usually because I haven’t packed the appropriate clothing in the first place. I’ve been there buying a hat when it decides to rain in Dubrovnik or peeling off my jacket and layers when the weather is hot in Krakow.
I struggled with packing for Iceland in spring. I’d keep a close eye on the weather apps and bring extra layers even if you think you might not need them, so you don’t have to make any last-minute buys!
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