The capital of Iceland, Reykjavik is home to two-thirds of the country’s population (about 200,000 people). Most visitors spend at least a night or two here before or after they explore the rest of the country and if you’re only spending a few days in Iceland, it’s easy to base yourself out of Reykjavik and still see quite a bit in the surrounding area. If you’re headed to Iceland, here are a few tips for having a more local experience.
Swimming is big in Iceland. Icelanders are required by law to learn how to swim, and every small town in Iceland has a community swimming pool, which is a place to relax and socialize. In Reykjavik, there are several pools to choose from, and no, the Blue Lagoon is not one of them. Though the Blue Lagoon is a very unique and worthwhile experience, you’ll find mostly tourists there. If you want to swim with the locals, head to the local pool instead. Hot spring pools in Iceland are open all year round, (some are outdoors, some are indoors) and are kept between 84 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit so you will stay warm even in the winter. Services at each differ; some have waterslides and hydo-massage services, while others are more basic.
Open from early morning until late evening, the pools generally charge just a dollar or two for admission, with rental of bathing suit and towel available for an extra fee. Some tourists get nervous about the fact that swimming in a public pool in Iceland requires showering naked in front of strangers beforehand. But really it’s nothing to worry about. There’s no novelty in locker-room nudity for Icelanders, so rest assured they aren’t trying to check you out. Just wash up quickly and soon you’ll be relaxing like a local.
It’s said that Icelanders drink so much in the winter to make the cold, dark days pass faster, and that they drink so much in the summer to celebrate the sunny, warm days. Either way, they like to drink, despite the high cost of alcohol in the country (tip: stock up at the airport duty free upon arrival). In Reykjavik, don’t miss your chance to join in the weekend runtur, or pub crawl. Start your night with dinner and a few drinks (preferably at your hostel to save a bit of money) and then around midnight join the crowds of people packing the streets. The party goes until 4am or later at the city’s many lounges, music clubs, and cafes that turn into bars at night. Many places don’t charge a cover so this can be an inexpensive way to experience the nightlife of Reykjavik…so long as you don’t buy too many beers, which can cost $7 or more in a bar.
Icelanders love their hot dogs, which seems like an odd choice in a country where fish is abundant and lamb roam the countryside. But the Icelandic hot dogs are better than their fast food counterparts in the US. Made of lamb and topped with mustard, ketchup, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish, they are unlike any other hot dogs in the world. And, they’re cheap, at just over $2 each. In a country where everything is expensive, it’s a welcome change to find something so tasty and affordable. At Bæjarins beztu pylsur the 60-year old stand that once served Bill Clinton and Metallica (on separate occasions of course!), there’s a short line nearly all day, every day. But for a true Reykjavik experience, come after a night at the bars, around 3am, to feast with your fellow partiers.
Chance are that if you’ve come to Iceland as a tourists, you’re going to partake in some of the country’s amazing outdoor activities like hiking, cave-exploring, and horseback riding. And to do those activities, you’re going to wear some travel performance gear, like a fleece vest or waterproof windbreaker with insulated pants and hiking boots. But when it comes to what to wear in Reykjavik after those activities are done, you’ll need to make some changes to avoid looking like a clueless tourist. Outdoor gear is fine for casual restaurants and wandering around town, but you’ll need to sartorially step it up come nightfall. At Reykjavik’s best restaurants and any nightclubs, opt for nicer, trendier duds. Reykjavik residents have a great sense of style, so if you want to blend in with the locals, you’ll need the same.
If there’s one food that you’ll see in every convenience store and grocery store in Iceland, it’s skyr. High in protein and low in fat and sugar, skyr is a very healthy yogurt-like product that comes in plain, vanilla, and fruit flavors. Skyr is great for breakfast or for a quick and easy lunch or snack on the go. It’s delicious topped with fruit and is used in many desserts at Icelandic restaurants and you’ll even see it used in some sauces and dips. So if you want to snack like a local, pick up a few containers of skyr.
Live music is a huge part of the Icelandic nightlife scene, so don’t miss a chance to go see a band while you are in Reykjavik. And don’t expect it to be all Bjork and Sigur Ros either. Music in Iceland is very diverse, and includes pop, punk, folk, rock, blues, and more. On weekends, you’ll have your pick of several shows, but it’s easy to find live music any day of the week with a little research. Check out the Reykjavik Grapevine for the most comprehensive event listings. If you plan your trip in October, you can attend Iceland Airwaves, a four-day long music festival that is considered one of the best in the world.