Famed for its Viking history and high-energy nightlife,
Iceland’s capital is also the perfect pitstop for a range of activities: be it
bobbing in a geothermal pool, spotting puffins or taking in one of the world’s
best dive sites.
Geothermal pools and
Set in a black lava field, the Blue Lagoon
spa is fed by water (at a perfect 38C) from the futuristic Svartsengi
geothermal plant. Its silver towers, roiling clouds of steam and people daubed
in blue-white silica mud provide an off-the-planet scene. There are two steam
rooms, a spa, café and restaurant; it’s a 45-minute drive from the city centre
(240 Grindavík; from £28).
Geothermal Pool is the largest in Iceland, and a place where children play,
teenagers flirt, business deals are made and everyone catches up with the
gossip. It also has the best facilities: an Olympic-size indoor pool (28C), an
outdoor pool, four hot pots (38°C–44°C), steam bath, whirlpool, and curling 86m
water slide. Get there via bus 14 (Sundlaugavegur 30a; 6.30am–10pm weekdays,
from 8am weekends; from £3).
The dinky Blue Flag
Nauthólsvík geothermal beach, on the edge of the Atlantic, is packed with
happy bathers in summer, thanks to golden sand imported from Morocco and an
artificial hot spring that keeps the water at a pleasant 18C–20C. There are
sociable hot pots, a snack bar, changing rooms, and canoes and rowing boats. Get
there on bus 19 (Ylströnd; free admission 15 May–15 Aug, £2.80 rest of the
Iceland is a fantastic place for whale
watching – its waters hold more than 20 species of cetacean. In Faxaflói
bay you’ll come across white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises and minkes;
migratory humpbacks are also spotted. Between April and October, Elding Whale
Watching runs three-hour trips from Reykjavík’s old harbour (Old Harbour; from
Known for crash landings and frantic fluttering on land, the
puffin is surprisingly graceful in water and spends most of its year at sea.
Between May and August it comes to land to breed, and around 50,000 of these
clumsy and endearingly comic birds nest on Lundey and Akurey, two islands just
offshore from Reykjavík. Visit them on the one-hour Puffin Express boat trips, which
sail from the harbour several times a day (Old Harbour; from £20).
Head less than a mile west from the city centre and you
reach a red and white lighthouse, a lava-strewn beach and a windswept golf
course. Seltjarnarnes – where
the air has a salty tang and fish-drying racks sit by the shore – is a haven
for birdwatching. Some 106 species have been spotted and the offshore island of
Grótta is a natural reserve (accessible on foot at low tide but closed in
nesting season, May–July). Expect to see Arctic terns, eider ducks and fulmars.
Horses are an integral part of Icelandic life and the sturdy, short local horse
is a gentle breed, ideal for inexperienced riders. Horse farms around Reykjavík
offer some truly unforgettable tours:
from trotting through lava fields under the midnight sun to riding to the
beautiful Gullfoss waterfall and the hot springs at Geysir (from £35 for a
one-hour countryside tour).
The tiny, uninhabited island of Viđey, just a few minutes offshore, is criss-crossed
with paths and makes an ideal day trip for walking. Strange modern artworks
(including Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower), an abandoned village and shipwrecks
give a melancholy feel and the walks are eminently peaceful. Pick up a trail
map at the harbour (return ferry from Old Harbour or Skarfabakki pier; £11).
Iceland’s waters offer 100m visibility, lava ravines, wrecks
and thermal chimneys, making it a special dive
destination. One of the best sites in the world is Silfra at Þingvellir – a
freshwater rift that runs between the Euroasian and American continental
plates. Dive Iceland runs a half-day tour from the city, half an hour away
(£193, including pick-up, two dives, equipment and refreshments).
Icelandair flies to Reykjavík from London Gatwick, Heathrow, Glasgow and
Manchester, while Wow Air flies from
Gatwick, easyJet from Edinburgh, Luton and Manchester, Iceland Express from
London Gatwick and Jet2 from Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Newcastle (from £170
from Gatwick). Keflavík Airport is 30 miles west of the city; the easiest way
to get there is on the Reykjavík Excursions Flybus,
which can drop you off at your hotel (50 minutes; £11 to city centre, £14 to
your hotel). The city is easy to traverse on foot or by bus.
Where to stay
Rooms at Sunna are simple, with honey parquet
floors, and several have good views of Hallgrímskirkja church. There are studio
apartments that sleep up to eight, and breakfast includes home-baked bread
(Thorsgata 26; from £70).
Arnarhvoll offers views of the bay and Mount Esja. Rooms, though small,
have large windows letting in all that lovely Nordic light; head to the
basement for a sauna and steam room (Ingólfsstræti 1; from £100).
The city’s most historic hotel, Hotel Borg, had an overhaul and now
super-smart beige, black and cream décor, parquet floors, leather headboards
and Bang & Olufsen flatscreens are standard throughout (Posthusstraeti 11;
The article 'Mini guide to excursions from Reykjavik' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.