A city guide to Reykjavik: Whale watching, sightseeing, Northern Lights and the Blue Lagoon

Rosie Paterson explores the Icelandic capital, where one can visit the 74.5m high top of the Hallgrimskirkja Church, whale watch and relax in their most famous geothermal spa.

Eyjafjallajökull. It’s not the catchiest of names, but in 2010 it dominated international media headlines.

The now infamous Icelandic volcano grounded flights when it erupted – ironically, none in Iceland itself – and propelled the country to travel stardom. Helped also, in part, by it’s starring role in the Game of Thrones TV series, the number of tourists has quadrupled in just six years.

The compact capital, Reykjavik, is in fact the country’s largest city and home to around 128,000 people – a somewhat smaller figure than the number of visitors from the US alone. The word itself translates to ‘Smokey Bay’ (named after steam rising from geothermal vents), and it does, perhaps unsurprisingly, sit on the shore of Faxa Bay, less than an hour from Keflavik Airport.

Hidden amongst the picturesque, colourful buildings you’ll find a burgeoning art scene, lively social scene and a proud Viking culture.

Sleep in style

The new, boutique Sandhotel occupies an envious location on Laugavegur Street. It’s fuss-free courtyard entrance is hard to spot, so look out for the iconic Sandholt bakery, to the right of the hotel, which sells ludicrously large (and delicious) cinnamon buns. Bus Stop 7, where tour buses to other parts of Iceland and the airport pick up passengers, is a couple of minutes walk away.


Beyond the innocuous front door, you’ll find a spacious, design-led living room and all-day dining restaurant – including an inclusive buffet-style breakfast. Much more importantly, there’s an excellent selection of gin on offer at the bar.

Upstairs, the monochrome, elegant interiors in the 66 bedrooms (including 11 suites) are surprisingly cosy, thanks to button-back headboards, cloud-like mattresses and oversized cushions in a mishmash of textures. In-room amenities include a Nespresso machine, Bluetooth speaker and fragrant Soley Organics bath products in the powerful walk-in showers (so good we stocked up on them before the return trip home).


Staff are super helpful in that low-key when you don’t need them, on hand with perfect recommendations when you do way. Ask for a room overlooking the courtyard, to ensure a peaceful nights sleep.

At check-in, guests receive a mobile phone to use for the duration of their stay—an ingenious touch that we are surprised hasn’t cropped up elsewhere.

Rooms at the Sandhotel start from £343 per night. The hotel is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection. If you’re after something different, find more hotels in Reykjavik here.

Things to do

The most obvious (and easy to spot) landmark is Hallgrimskirkja Church, which towers over the majority of the city. If you’ve got a head for heights there’s a viewing platform, at the top of the 74.5m building.

Whale watching and puffin tours are popular activities. Minke and humpback whales, porpoises and dolphins are all regular visitors, and your chances of spotting something are high, though never guaranteed. Elding is one of the most reputed operators for such trips.

If you prefer your feet on firm land, head to the Whales of Iceland permanent exhibit (located in the Old Harbour). The giant warehouse space boasts life-size models and educational information on the country’s regional sea-faring mammals.

There are regular, walking tours that take around two hours. These operate on a ‘pay as you please’ basis – each walker pays whatever they think is fair, at the end of the tour. Away from the busier shopping streets you’ll find pockets of residential Reykjavik – The Neighbourhood of the Gods is a section of streets whose names stem from Nordic religion: Odin’s Street, Thor’s Street and Loki’s Path.

Shopping is undeniably expensive, but there’s a plethora of contemporary homeware stores and outdoor clothing shops that are hard to resist. 66° North is native Icelanders go-to for everyday technical wear and there are numerous branches throughout the city.

You’ll need to wrap up warm if you visit in the winter. It’s well worth the bother: winter is the best time to see the Northern Lights. Clear skies are vital to viewing the natural phenomenon, and a longer stay will greatly improve your chances of changing upon the right weather conditions.

The Northern Lights - Aurora Borealis – in Scandinavia

The Northern Lights: Go in winter, wrap up warm and pray for clear skies… (Pic: Alamy)

Beyond the confines of the city there’s plenty to see, all within easy reach. The ever-popular Golden Circle circuit takes in Pingvellir National Park (in Autumn the foliage begins to change colour in beautiful fashion), hot springs and dramatic waterfalls.

Iceland’s biggest attraction – how could we not mention it? – is the Blue Lagoon. The naturally heated, mineral reach pool is halfway between Reykjavik and the airport, amidst a startlingly lunar-looking landscape (actually moss-covered lava fields). Try to avoid at peak times.