7 Budget-Friendly Ways to Spend a Day in Reykjavik

17 January 2015

Of all the European cities I have visited thus far, I would easily rate Reykjavik within my top 5, and I have serious plans to go back in my future. It's such a cool little city with many things to do, but the rumors are true -- Iceland is, generally speaking, quite pricey.

To help you plan your own trip and keep some cash in your pocket, I've created a list of my favorite things to do in a day in Reykjavik that won't totally break your piggy bank.

I think it's entirely possible you could spend a full day doing any one of these things alone. A whole day of shopping, a whole day of eating, a whole day of bopping from cool, little hipster coffee shop here to neat, little retro-americana coffee shop there... any of the above sound like a dream to me! But when you're traveling on a budget, you often find yourself with only so much time in each place you visit, so I hope these activities will help you get the most out of your time there. 

1. Stuff your face with local fare
One thing that always tops my must-do list while traveling is to get a taste of what the locals eat. Icelandic food is not for everyone. From rotten, pickled shark called Hakarl to dried fish -- a local favorite -- your taste buds can certainly be like "What the [insert expletive here]...?" But there are plenty of great places in Reykjavik to get your nosh on.

We stopped by a little restaurant called Cafe Loki, where tourists and non-tourists alike can dine on a sampler platter of various different local dishes for around $13-20, which is really affordable for typical fare. If lamb stew and homemade rye bread ice cream sound like your thing, I suggest you check it out. Even if it doesn't sound like your thing, I suggest you check it out. Trying local food, even if it's out of your comfort zone, is a huge part of the experience and a great way to immerse yourself in the culture of the place you're visiting.

During our trip, we also stopped at the Sea Baron in The Old Harbor. While the Lobster Soup didn't live up to its reputation as being the best in the city for me, the seafood skewers are amazing and definitely worth a visit. Fresh seafood right from the harbor for about $10-15 -- can't beat that!

When evaluating meal pricing in Iceland, keep in mind that taxes are included, and tipping is not customary. 

2. ...Or try some of the non-local options to eat
On our last night in Reykjavik, we had dinner at this amazing French-inspired place called Le Bistro. First of all, every single thing in Reykjavik is adorable. Every. Single. Thing. And of course that extends to restaurant decor. This little place was located right down the street from Center Hotel Skjaldbreid where I stayed, so we gave into the curiosity that grew from walking past it every day. Each one of us ordered a variation of stew -- mine was chicken, mushroom and wild rice -- and we literally licked our bowls clean. This place was a little bit more of a splurge compared to other places we are, but we wanted to really go out with a bang. My meal with bread and a glass of wine cost about $40, which is not unlike dining in Chicago when you factor in American taxes and tip.

Before taking off to the airport on the afternoon of our flight home, we stopped for lunch in the front bar of a hostel on Laugavegur street called Bunk Bar. This place had a really cool rustic, travel-theme going on, and I really dug it. There were old, vintage maps hung from the walls, and we sat at reclaimed wood tables with iron farm-style chairs. I tried a handful of things from their "snacks" menu, including Marinated Lemon Olives, Cured Sausages and -- my favorite -- brie with grilled bread and plum smear. Holy smokes. Honestly, you could plop any kind of jam-like fruit on bread and serve it with brie, and I would gladly eat it. My little smorgasbord cost me about $18.

3. Thrift Shop along Laugavegur
I did not make nearly enough time for this, but all along the main street in Reykjavik called Laugavegur, you can find the coolest little thrift and second-hand stores to browse through. I recommend checking out this awesome list,which gives you price ranges so that you don't have to walk into a store, find something you love, and then double-back out of the shop because it's massively too expensive. Even if you don't plan to buy anything, it's really fun to browse the racks and get a feel for the local style. I do recommend checking shop hours before you plan a day around it. I was disappointed when I set aside a morning to comb through racks, only to find that the shops didn't open until later in the day!

4. Sneak in some stellar views
Whenever I go anywhere, I always look up the best places to get a good view of the city because it's often a low-cost adventure. In Reykjavik, you'll want to make a trip up to the top of Hallgrimskirkja. On the particular day that we stopped at the church, we ran out of time to do more than wander around the church itself, and I was totally kicking myself for days after seeing all of the cool cityscapes people were posting on Instagram. I highly recommend making the time and paying the $6 to climb up.

If the admission fee seems like a bit too much for you, Center Hotel Arnharvoll has a nice rooftop bar from which you can get views of Esja Mountain,  and I managed to sneak that in! Since it is a bar in a hotel, the cost of your view will be the cost of a drink, but if you need a coffee and a break from walking anyway, you can consider the view free.

5. Grab a cup of coffee 
After all of that adventuring, it's quite nice to take a break at a little cafe and have a latte or coffee. Icelandic coffee is served strong, but it sure does hit the spot. One of my favorite places to stop was the Laundromat Cafe, where you can pick up a cup for about $4. The decor is quite eclectic with old vintage maps and posters hung along the walls, and the bar is really just a handful of bookshelves stacked against each other. You are encouraged to pick one up and have a read. And, yes, there really is a laundromat in the basement!

6. Hunt for some street art
Reykjavik is known for its street art, and you really don't need to wander that far to find it. Murals decorate the buildings all along Laugavegur street. You can also take a trip out to Heart Park, which will only cost your bus fare and is one of the city's little secret street art locations. I trekked out past the Old Harbor to find this amazing piece by Guido van Helten. It's a three-part piece, which is so lifelike that I couldn't help but stop and stare at it for quite some time.

7. Catch some live music
A metropolis for music, Reykjavik does not disappoint. You can find local talent playing at almost every bar on any given night of the week at just the cost of what you decide to drink. Icelanders are such great musicians, too. I didn't hear an act that I didn't like! I recommend checking out Cafe Rosenberg, a unique jazz bar with lots of seating and vintage decor.

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