A pint-sized capital surrounded by epic landscapes – an expert guide to Reykjavik

Advice

Why go? 

The world’s most northerly capital city – lit by the midnight sun in summer or winter’s magical Northern Lights – is a highlight of many a North Atlantic cruise. Though architecturally underwhelming, its waterfront setting and mountain vistas imbue the city with charm, while just inland lie epic landscapes shaped by volcanoes and glaciers. 

Cruise port location

Though central Old Harbour can accommodate smaller ships from such lines as Noble Caledonia and Silversea Cruises, most lines dock some 3km to the east at one of the main cruise port’s six berths. Shuttles are generally provided for those who don’t fancy the 40-minute walk into town. 

Can I walk to any places of interest?

Pint-sized central Reykjavik is easy to navigate on foot, so smaller-ship passengers docked in Old Harbour will be within minutes of everything. Those heading into town along the waterfront from the main cruise port will pass Sun Voyager: a ship-shaped sculpture that commemorates Reykjavik’s bicentenary. 

Getting around

Public buses zip around the city (including the waterfront out to the port) but by and large the central zone can be explored at a gentle stroll. Buses travel further afield to other towns and villages, but organised tours or hire cars are essential for getting to regional attractions. A convenient car rental office is located within steps of the main cruise port, with another inside Harpa, the concert hall along the waterfront. A hop-on/hop-off sightseeing bus stops right outside the terminal.

Harpa, Reykjavik

Harpa is a striking concert hall set along Reykjavik’s waterfront

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What to see and do

Though short on landmarks, Reykjavik holds plenty of discoveries – but it’s what lies beyond that makes this such an exciting port of call. The interior is raw and unspoiled like a geography lesson brought to life, while whale and dolphin encounters await offshore. 

What can I do in four hours or less?

Those keen to experience the city in the comfort of a group can book classic Panoramic Reykjavik excursions offered by the likes of Cruise & Maritime Voyages and Viking Cruises. Though such tours cover more ground, passengers can also explore the highlights independently. Get your bearings by climbing Hallgrimskirkja church’s tower for views across the rooftops, then stroll down through the shopping district to spot Arctic terns on Tjörnin lake. Or learn about local heritage at the National Museum of Iceland and The Settlement Exhibition, which both uncover Iceland’s Viking roots. 

 Tjörnin lake, Reykjavik

Stroll down through the shopping district to spot Arctic terns on Tjörnin lake

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The redeveloped Old Harbour appeals with its cafés and fish restaurants, but it’s also the departure point for wildlife-watching excursions. Those tight for time can choose an hour-long puffin-spotting tour, while longer whale-watching trips go further out to seek minke and humpback whales. It may be cheaper to book such tours in person on the dock, but pre-arranging with your cruise line cuts the chance of trips selling out (a risk in peak season). Alternatively, escape the crowds on Videy: a nearby island where wild geese and wading birds breed. Ferries depart from the Old Harbour or the pier adjacent to the cruise terminal. 

What can I do in eight hours or less?

Iceland’s geothermal scenery is one of its leading attractions. Among the most visited spots is Blue Lagoon, a naturally heated, open-air spa pool whose mineral-rich waters offer wellness-boosting, relaxing soaks. Just about every cruise line from Marella Cruises to Holland America Line feature Blue Lagoon excursions, so it’s generally rather busy. Independent-minded passengers could instead rent a car and head to one of the lesser-known geothermal pools or even try one of Reykjavik’s naturally heated public baths. 

Also extremely popular is the Golden Circle touring itinerary that takes in three of Iceland’s most awe-inspiring natural attractions. Thingvellir National Park’s rift valley, mighty Gullfoss waterfall and the water spout at Geysir (which lends its name to all the world’s geysers) lie close to one another about an hour from the city. Without hiring a car, the only way to see them is on an organised tour. Alternatively, try the geothermal scenery on the Reykjanes peninsula (close to the Blue Lagoon) where the hot springs and continental divide are often considerably less crowded. Some luxury lines such as Crystal Cruises offer upgraded experiences here such as a ‘flightseeing’ tour by helicopter over the steaming landscape. 

Thingvellir National Park, Reykjavik

The awe-inspiring Thingvellir National Park lies an hour outside Reykjavik

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What can I do with a bit longer?

Some lines such as Viking Cruises often include overnight stays in Reykjavik, allowing passengers to sample the nightlife or venture further afield. Endless summer days open up the southern coast for self-drive discoveries of black-sand beaches, puffin colonies, glaciers and thundering waterfalls. 

Eat and drink

Hit the Old Harbour’s bars and restaurants to seek local specialities such as hearty kjötsupa (lamb soup) and plokkfiskur (fish pie); others such as fermented shark are arguably best avoided, and whatever you do, don’t order whale or puffin. Local beers such as Gull are also worth sampling. 

Don’t leave the island without… 

…splashing out on a traditional Lopapeysa: hand-woven, woollen sweaters with distinctive diamond designs. Woolly hats and gloves are also essential Icelandic must-buys, as are beautifully packaged bars of Omnom chocolate (made right here in Reykjavik). Stuffed, mounted puffins (on sale in some gift shops) should definitely not be purchased.  

Need to know

Flight time

Nonstop flights to Reykjavik take up to three hours with the likes of Icelandair (from Manchester, London and Glasgow), easyJet fly (from London and Manchester) and British Airways (from London). Jet2 operates seasonal flights from regional UK airports.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Among Iceland’s most visited spots is the Blue Lagoon, a naturally heated, open-air spa pool

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Safety

Reykjavik is easy to get around and essentially crime-free. 

Best time to go

Most cruise lines call in summer, when calmer North Atlantic waters make for plainer sailing. 

Closures

Certain museums are closed on Sundays or Mondays, so plan ahead to avoid disappointment. 

Save money

For those keen to pack in maximum sightseeing, the Reykjavik City Card is a handy money-saver. Available from tourist offices at the cruise port and City Hall, it covers admission to the city’s best galleries, museums and thermal pools, the ferry to Videy and all local buses (plus discounts at various restaurants). A 24-hour card costs around £26. 

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