Planning a trip to the Land of Ice and Fire? Reykjavik is a great city for creative professionals, provided it’s in your budget. Iceland is a photographer’s dream and the capital city is teeming with cozy cafes where plugging in and getting a little digital nomad work done is a breeze.
When to Go
Iceland is an excellent year-round destination. Summer will naturally have the warmest temperatures and the famous midnight sun. If you’re on a tighter schedule, those long July days will help you squeeze as much as possible into your visit. This is also the best time to go whale watching, so animal lovers should mark their calendars for a summer trip. Winter might not seem the best season for visiting the Arctic, but the months between September and April hold the greatest likelihood of glimpsing the Northern Lights. If that’s at the top of your bucket list, bundle up and enjoy the thinner crowds and rock bottom prices. Spring and fall, of course, form the country’s shoulder season, as is the case with most European destinations, so in these months you’ll have somewhat fewer tourists to compete with, milder and more variable weather, and moderate prices.
How Much to Spend
If you’re traveling during peak season, expect to spend at least $200-250 on airfare, $40-$50 per night on a hostel bed, and $30 a day on budget meals. Excursions from Reykjavik with tour operators range from about $75 to $400, and if you go the DIY route, a manual transmission rental car will run at least $85 a day, plus gas/petrol, which is sold by the liter and so roughly equals $5 per gallon.
While Iceland is part of the EU, the country still uses its own currency, the Icelandic krona (ISK). The conversion to USD is currently 122.39 krona to 1 dollar. A good mental shortcut is to round that down to 100 krona to 1 dollar – this way when you’re out and about you can simply move the decimal place two spaces to the left and have a ballpark estimate of the cost.
Many tourists in Reykjavik are probably taking advantage of the Icelandair free stopover program. While this works great for vacationers en route to another European destination, if you want to spend more than a week in the country, you’ll need to book a simple one-way ticket. You may also want to compare Icelandair’s prices to Wow Air, which recently started serving select airports in the U.S.
If you do choose to go with Wow Air, make sure you book directly from the airline’s website. Third party booking agents like Expedia and Priceline may not have all the add-on options you want, like purchasing a checked bag or extra carry-on allowance, and these things will cost more to add at the check-in desk.
Wow Air’s flights are surprisingly comfortable for such low costs and it’s a short enough red eye that with a couple snacks and a good book in your carry-on, you likely won’t miss the amenities other airlines provide.
Whatever airline you book with, start searching for the best price three to four months in advance, and always remember to clear your browser history and cookies after each search to ensure your favored sites don’t have any price-spiking tricks up their sleeve.
Once you land, the best way to get to Reykjavik is with Flybus, which is operated by Reykjavik Excursions. A direct transfer to your hotel will cost about $20 one way. You’ll be given a colored transfer ticket to present at the main bus station as you get off the big bus and move to a small shuttle.
Downtown Reykjavik is very small and you can easily walk between all the city’s major attractions. You will see bright yellow public buses running, with one-way fares set at about $2.50, but you really don’t need them to get around the capital.
If you’re leaving Reykjavik to explore the country, car rental runs at about $85 per day in peak season (June-August), and drops as low as $35 per day outside peak season (September-May). Make sure you book online to get the lowest price, and keep in mind that automatic transmissions are in shorter supply and higher tourist demand, so they will cost much more than a vehicle with manual transmission. Don’t forget to factor gas into your budget – petrol in Iceland is sold by the liter, and therefore costs at least $5 per gallon. If you are renting a car, it’s best to pick it up from the airport and save yourself the cost of the shuttle transfer to town.
If you’re traveling with a companion or group of friends, there should be no debate – splitting the cost of a rental car is the cheapest way to explore the country. If you’re traveling solo, however, do plenty of research to compare the prices of your preferred sightseeing tours against a rental car. You may find it more cost-effective to join a tour bus, particularly if you’re visiting in peak season.
What to Pack
Even at the height of summer, Iceland rarely sees temperatures break into the sixties, so warm layers are a must. In July, a fleece jacket and a waterproof shell will probably be enough, and the deeper you venture into spring, fall, and winter, the more heavy sweaters, down jackets, and cozy hats and gloves you’ll want to add to the list.
At the same time, Reykjavik is well known for its vibrant nightlife and Icelanders love to get dolled up for a night on the town. Pack at least one dressier outfit if you plan on partaking in a happy hour or two.
Digital nomads will naturally need to include their preferred technology, be it smartphone, tablet, laptop, camera equipment, or anything in between. Iceland has type F power sockets with a standard of 230V and 50Hz, so you’ll need a two prong plug adapter, just as you would use in other European countries.
Don’t wait to buy toiletries after you’ve arrived. Iceland has to import everything making the cost of living sky high. Packing your own soap and shampoo is worth the extra weight.
You should always travel with a reusable water bottle, like the collapsible Platypus, but in Iceland, it really pays off. Tap water comes straight off the glacier and is some of the cleanest, best tasting water in the world, so fill ‘er up!
Where to Stay
If you’re on a tight budget, a hostel dorm is probably your only affordable option, and in peak season you may find yourself in a larger size dorm than you typically opt for. KEX Hostel may be the most famous on the backpacker circuit, but you can enjoy the atmosphere at its restaurant and bar no matter where you stay. You’ll find the rooms at Hlemmur Square to be far more comfortable and lower priced to boot. If you have the budget and the inclination for a private or more luxurious room, there are plenty of hotels in downtown Reykjavik, including Fosshotel and Hotel Borg.
If you’re embarking on a longer road trip around the country, be prepared to either camp or do some digging to find comfortable guest houses along your route. No need to pack camping equipment – there’s a rental office in downtown Reykjavik.
Where to Eat
Reykjavik has a booming cafe culture – the kind creative professionals can only dream of. The Laundromat is much lauded by bloggers from around the world, and for good reason. The food is moderately priced with friendly, if somewhat slow, service, the WiFi signal is strong, and the atmosphere is ideal for both concentration and people watching. Be sure to turn up before 11am to take advantage of the morning menu – you can grab a pot of tea and a croissant sandwich for less than $10. Cafe Babalu, with its low cost muffins and Star Wars-themed bathroom, is also an excellent choice for the earlier hours of the day, but the Laundromat is a bit larger and more likely to have a table free. Finally, Bergsson Mathus is a wildly popular weekend brunch spot and well worth a work day, if you’re looking for the best people watching vantage point.
No trip to Reykjavik is complete without a visit to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, the harborside hot dog stand populated equally by tourists and locals, and once patronized by Bill Clinton. The sausages are a blend of beef, pork, and lamb, with the casing left on, so you’ll have a richer flavor and a snappier bite than you’re used to at home. Get one with the works – a combo of raw and fried onions along the bun’s crease, and generous rows of ketchup, sweet brown mustard, and remoulade on top. One dog will set you back a mere $4, and your only regret will be not ordering two.
Other budget meal options in the city include Noodle Station, where a steaming bowl of veggie noodle soup will cost you less than $7; Icelandic Fish & Chips, where the fish of the day starts at roughly $12 and you can add on a variety of sides and dips; and Saegreifinn, whose famous lobster soup is about $10.
If you can afford slightly higher menu prices, try the organic fare at Glo, or a more upscale meal at Kol or Grillmarkadurinn.
Self-catering is a must for budget travelers. Bonus, which you’ll recognize by its quirky pig logo, is the cheapest supermarket in town, with a convenient location on Laugavegur.
Where to Drink
Reykjavik is known internationally for its djammid nightlife, but budget travelers beware. The tax on alcohol in Iceland is through the roof. Do as the locals do and stock up at the duty free store in Keflavik airport, or one of the Vinbudin liquor stores, so you can pre-game at your hotel before hitting the town.
Keep your eyes peeled for happy hours around town. Micro Bar offers a super low-cost happy hour special, as well as a reaosnably priced flight of local brews. And always keep your wits and common sense about you. Famous watering holes like the Lebowski Bar or the Chuck Norris Grill will have the highest prices.
What to Do
Compiling a free, self-guided walking tour of famous landmarks is super simple in tiny Reykjavik. Start with a seaside walk to the Harpa concert hall, pausing for a photo op at the skeletal Sun Voyager. Entry to the Harpa is free, so even if you’re steering clear of the venue’s performances, you can still admire its unique, honeycomb architecture. Explore the harbor, and perhaps join a whale or puffin watching excursion from the docks. The classic tour with Elding costs about $80 for a two- to three-hour tour, and if you don’t spot any whales, you’ll get a voucher to return for free and try again. Take a swing up Laugavegur and browse its many shops and art galleries – Reykjavik is design central, and you’ll have a hard time not getting inspired by the city’s creativity. Keep your eyes peeled for the excellent street art as well. Whatever you do, save Hallgrimskirkja for the late afternoon when the sun hits its facade perfectly. Photographers will be disappointed by the morning light. Afternoon is also the best time to ascend the church’s tower for the best skyline views of Reykjavik.
Reykjavik is also home to many museums, though these come with rather pricey admission fees in the $15-20 range. The National Museum of Iceland, the Saga Museum, and the Settlement Exhibition are all better saved for rainy days, as a result.
If you want to explore more of the island and haven’t rented a car, you have dozens upon dozens of day tours to choose from. Reykjavik Excursions will often have the lowest prices and the most departure options, but these come with larger groups of up to 50 people, and sometimes also mean moving at a quicker pace throughout the day. Active types will gravitate toward Arctic Adventures or Extreme Iceland, but note that because these are smaller companies, they haven’t quite nailed the hotel pick-up process and may show up much earlier or much later than the advertised pick-up time.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the Golden Circle. While the Geysir geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir national park are all well worth a visit, you can expect much larger crowds at these areas. Consider skipping the famous Blue Lagoon as well – there are many other hot springs in the country like Fontana and the Secret Lagoon, where you can get a similar experience with lower costs and fewer crowds. If you consider the Blue Lagoon a must-do, schedule it for a stop on your way into Reykjavik from the airport.
If your time is limited, you’ll get the most bang for your buck touring Snaefellsnes, the Icelandic western peninsula where Jules Verne aptly set Journey to the Center of the Earth. Often called “Iceland in a nutshell,” here you’ll find glaciers, volcanoes, black sand beaches, charming fishing villages, stunning basalt cliffs, waterfalls, and ample wildlife.
Ready to splurge? Book an experience completely unique to Iceland, like the tour Inside the Volcano. Hike through a lava field before descending 120m into the crater of Thrihnukagigur, which has laid dormant for 4,000 years.
Whatever type of guided tour you have your eye on, the What’s On tourist information center in the middle of Laugavegur will have the widest selection of brochures. It’s worth waiting until your arrival to book tours.