Iceland is known more for its nature than for its capital city, but if you’re using Reykjavik as a base for exploring these natural wonders, visiting the city on a cruise or a stopover, or simply prefer the city to the wild, you’ll find plenty to do in Reykjavik.
Iceland has a reputation for being expensive, and generally speaking, it is a reputation it deserves. You can easily blow through a lot of cash in Iceland if you’re not careful. Fuel costs almost double what it does elsewhere, accommodation is pricey, and food can be up to ten times more expensive than it is in other parts of Europe. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a good time in Iceland on a budget – or that there aren’t free and cheap things to do!
Like most cities, there are a variety of maps and guides you can pick up for free at tourist places like tour bus stops. I found What’s On In Reykjavik (online version here) to be the best for suggestions, and not only does it not cost anything, but some of the activities it recommends (just a couple!) don’t cost anything either.
Iceland is all about its natural beauty, and many of its sights are free to visit – once you get there, of course. That being said, fuel is expensive, and tours aren’t cheap either, often costing $100 or more.
One of the most famous – and free – attractions of Iceland is the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. You can, as we did, join a tour to see them (make sure you look for one that offers a free rebooking if you don’t see the lights the first time), or if you have a car, you can drive yourself. Note that you’re unlikely to see any activity within city limits – you need both dark and cloudless skies to see the show, and the city lights will interfere with this.
If you’re looking for a place to see the lights, check this forecast site. Note that the green on these charts represents clouds – not aurora activity! You want to seek out the white places where there will be fewer clouds (check all of the maps to see what the clouds will be doing at different heights in different parts of Iceland). Make sure you have the time set to when it will be dark (the right-hand side of the page tells you when the sun will set and rise, and what hours it will be darkest). You’ll also see there an aurora forecast, which predicts the levels of aurora activity (we never saw it go above 3 (out of 9) during our stay, but we still got to see the lights).
You’ll also find free apps like My Aurora Forecast on Google Play or the App Store.
We had a successful trip with Reykjavik Excursions, but even if you’re driving yourself or taking another company’s tour, it’s worth checking out their Twitter for RE’s tips on photographing the Northern Lights. Remember to charge your phone and camera beforehand, and I’d recommend testing your camera for night photography well in advance (the hardware on some phone cameras cannot take the kind of long-exposure photographs you’ll need for capturing the Northern Lights even if you download alternative software).
If you only have one day in Iceland, What’s On recommends The Golden Circle Tour for highlights. These tours generally include three stops:
- Þingvellir national park, where the Icelandic Parliament congregated since Viking times, and where you can walk between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates
- Geysir, the erupting hot spring that lends its name to all other geysers in the world (and some other geothermal wonders in the same park), and
- Gullfoss, the awesome waterfall that inspired the name of the ‘golden circle’ route, thanks to the heavenly glow it emits when the sun is shining.
While these places are free to enter, you won’t be able to get there for free – unless you’re a child aged between five and eleven! Many tour companies (including Reykjavic Sightseeing who we went with) offer free tickets for young children (provided they meet the safety-related age requirements of the tour) and half-price tickets for kids up to 15. If you’re traveling as a family, this is well worth looking into.
If you’re planning on taking a tour, we recommend doing your research before you arrive – make a note of which tours you’re interested in, take a look at some YouTube videos to narrow the list down, then once you’ve come up with a top handful, check various sites to see which companies provide the cheapest deals. More expensive doesn’t always mean the best, and we found several tours where the highest rated provider wasn’t charging the most, and where the most expensive tour wasn’t the best rated.
It’s also a good idea to bring your own drinks and snack with you, whether you’re driving or taking an organised tour. The establishments around tourist attractions unsurprisingly have a high mark-up on their food options, with simple snacks costing double or triple what you’ll pay at the grocery store, and meals costing between $20 to even $50 a serve.
While I wouldn’t recommend paying to come all the way to Iceland without having a bit of cash to splash on a tour or on car hire and fuel (either keep saving or choose a more affordable destination that has it’s own share of mother nature’s beauty) there is plenty of gorgeous nature to be seen in and around the capital that you can walk to, and that really doesn’t have to cost you a thing.
We stayed in a lovely (and affordable!) AirBnB a little outside of the centre of Reykjavik, near Elliðaadalur. Elliðaadalur is a wonderful park to explore in any season, with picturesque waterfalls, and wild bunnies and geese in the area! We happened across this place in the afternoon when some locals were out feeding the rabbits grass, and it was fantastic to watch them feed.
There is also the Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach, and Tjörnin (the pond) in the centre of the city to explore.
One of the tours I was interested in but couldn’t justify spending the money on was the South Coast tour – primarily to see the black beach. If you find your budget doesn’t extend to this tour, or you simply don’t have the time, you may be thrilled to know that there are some black beaches in town for you to explore. While they may be of a coarser texture than the more sandy black beaches the country is famous for, you can still experience the wonder of a black beach for free by wandering along the Sculpture and Shore Walk.
Art and Culture
Of course, art lovers will enjoy the shore walk as much for its sculptures as for its natural beauty. The most famous of these is probably the Sun Voyager – a modern sculpture of a beautiful Viking ship that serves as an ode to the sun. But you’ll also find the fascinating ‘Recycled House’ built by director of the film ‘The Raven Flies‘, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson.
Unlike many cities, Reykjavik does not have many free-of-charge museums, however, there are a couple, if your day in the city turns inclement. Reykjavik city library offers internet access, magazines and books. Hafnarborg is free entry and has a collection of Icelandic art and regular exhibitions. The Central Bank’s Nuismatic Museum, where you can learn about one of the world’s smallest currencies, is also free of charge.
While the museum itself is not free, Einar Jónsson Sculpture Garden is not only free of charge, but open all-year round!
Iceland’s parliament, founded in 950 AD, is the oldest in the world. For centuries, the Parliament gathered in the open air in Þingvellir (which actually means ‘Parliament Fields’!) but in recent years, Parliament has moved indoors. You can see the house of parliament at Althingi Parliament House, a modest classical building of hewn Icelandic dolerite. (In the summer, make sure to check out the garden behind the building as well)
Austurvöllur is Reykjavik’s public square, surrounded by cafes and restaurants. It’s used for celebrations on holidays and in December (when the city’s largest Christmas tree is located there) and is a nice spot for a stroll all year round. In the centre is a statue of Jón Sigursðsson, credited with Iceland’s independence.
Finally, a further free treat in along the Sculpture and Shore walk is Laugarnes, where not only are there several sculptors’ houses, but historical ruins as well.
Reykjavik’s iconic Hallgrimskirkja is probably the city’s most famous piece of architecture, and is not only free to look at, but free to enter (as it should be – it is a place of worship after all!) There is a fee to go up the tower, but don’t be put off by the signage regarding tickets at the entrance – you are more than welcome to visit the church without paying to enter the tower, and the building is just as impressive inside as it is out. Plus, if you’re lucky, you might also get to hear some organ music for nothing!
Do take a look at some of Reykjavik’s other churches as well, like Frikirkjan i Reykjavik.
Epal Harpa is Iceland’s biggest concert hall, and while the shows are not free, the building is open for anyone to wander through and admire.
Perlan is considered another of Reykjavik’s most iconic buildings. While the attractions inside do incur a fee, it’s free to admire the architecture from outside!
Also make sure to add Hofdi House and Reykjavik City Hall to your map.
The Old Harbour is more than just a harbour these days, but has morphed into a tourist attraction in itself, with whale and puffin watching tours and fishing tours operating out of the port, bike and scooter hire, and cafes and restaurants (expect tourist prices!) There is also a lot of shopping and galleries in the area. The Old Harbour can be a little hard to locate on Google Maps, so I recommend searching for Old Harbour Souvenirs.
Shopping and Food
Speaking of souvenirs, obviously, shopping isn’t something I’d recommend for anyone on a budget (frankly, unnecessary shopping – and that covers almost all souvenir shopping! – isn’t something I’d really recommend at all. But there is a nice touristy area of shops called Laugavegur that is worth checking out for the colourful buildings.
If you’re in town on a weekend, why not check out Kolaportið, the indoor flea market where you can find dried fish, fermented shark, Icelandic candy, and thrifted clothes.
Eating out can be extraordinarily expensive in Iceland – a burger combo at a fast food chain can easily set you back almost $20 (all prices here are AUD). But there are more affordable options if you look for them.
By far the most affordable option, however, is to cook for yourself. Find an AirBnB with a kitchen, then visit the grocery store. Bonus is one of the cheapest in Iceland.
But even grocery shopping can give your wallet a hit, unless you’re careful and flexible. Scout around the shop before you decide what to buy, then come up with a meal plan that will maximise the ingredients you choose. Consider items that will fill you up (like rice), that will give you the nutrients you need (like spinach) and that will give you flavour (like cured meats or dried onion). All of these are surprisingly affordable in Iceland, especially if you choose the store’s own brand.
None of this means that you need to miss out on Icelandic foods, though. You can buy fish stew and fermented shark at the grocery store, and we truly enjoyed the Icelandic dairy product ‘Skyr’ (a kind of yoghurty-soft cheese, that comes in all sorts of flavours like berries, crème brulee, dark chocolate, and pear, but is high in protein and low in fat, sugar, and carbs). Icelandic flat breads and lava breads can also be bought easily and cheaply, and are delicious!
Even if you’re not much into cooking, consider substituting junk foods you might eat out for ones you can prepare at home. It takes hardly any effort to heat up a pizza in the oven, but you’ll find the savings can be substantial. We bought 3 pizzas from the supermarket for around 500kr (approx $5), Compare that to the price of 1000 kr ($10) for a single slice of plain (cheese only, no other toppings) pizza on the street.
Sample budget meal plan:
- pepperoni pizza (with extra vegie toppings added)
- salami and winter vegetable risotto
- yakisoba noodles
- homemade soup with traditional flat or lava-baked rye bread and Icelandic butter
- vegetable and sausage fried rice
- fish cakes with steamed vegetables
- chicken and stir-fry vegetables on rice
Leftovers for lunch, plus the occasional dessert of skyr cost us $100 AUD (about $70 USD) for the two of us for nine days (that’s just $2.70 per person per meal).
Sure, it’s not the most exciting or healthy of menus. But it’s a hell of a lot better for you, and a hell of a lot cheaper than eating out every meal. So don’t let high prices put you off – there’s so many ways you can make savings on your trip to Iceland so that you can afford to take some trips out of the city to see the country’s beautiful nature. Our top tip is to find an AirBnB with a kitchen (contact us via Instagram @escapementality if you want a recommendation, and a voucher for first time users!)