10 Things Under £10: Reykjavik

27.8.13

Iceland is a notoriously expensive choice of holiday destination. Anyone who's ever read a single article about the country will feel qualified to warn you of that before you go. My grandad, who visited Iceland on numerous occasions as a fisherman, must have told me about 25 times. "Iceland? Oh, it's so beautiful! But it's very expensive. It's like another world! But it'll cost you a lot. You'll love it! But you'll spend a fortune!"

In some respects, this belief is well-founded. A small island, Iceland is impressively self-sufficient in energy provision (all geothermal), dairy produce, fish, meat and a number of fruit and vegetables (through the use of thermal hot houses), but many other goods have to be imported into the country and this immediately sends prices high. Hostels in Reykjavik are on a par with London prices; alcohol is apparently extortionate (I wouldn't know); the cost of eating out is pretty high; and travel around the country is expensive, especially into remote areas, with coach tours or private hire cars setting you back a fair bit.

That said, it is possible to do Iceland on a budget. Many a thrifty traveler has tracked down the drink-related bargains (Reykjavik Backpackers have a 2 for 1 happy 'hour' from 4-8pm, for starters); stocked up on food from cheaper supermarkets like Bonus; and cut their travel costs by sharing a car or braving hitch-hiking (which is relatively safe and commonplace in Iceland with its low crime rates). 

And Reykjavik, in spite of its renown for high prices, offers a number of options for the budget-conscious amongst us.

Here are just 10 of them:

1. Join a free walking tour.
What better way to get acquainted with a city than with the inside knowledge of a local? There are a number of free walking tours to choose from, but I opted to join one provided by GoEcco Eco Adventures, which meets at the old harbour (beside Elding Whale Watching) at 12:45pm every day from May to September. Lasting about 90 minutes, the tour only covers the old area of Reykjavik - a relatively short walk from the harbour up to city hall - but the guide was entertaining (cheeky and sarcastic) and hugely informative, pointing out places we wouldn't have noticed ourselves, both educating and enchanting us with stories covering everything from their Viking history to their religious beliefs; their parliament to their property; their economy to their belief in trolls and elves. I finished the tour feeling far more familiar with the people and their land and it's well worth doing to find your feet.
Cost: Free, but tipping (around 500ISK, or £2.70 per person) is encouraged.


2. See the city from Hallgrimskirkja.
At some 244ft, the tower of Hallgrimskirkja church is visible throughout much of Reykjavik. Open daily from 9am-9pm, much of Reykjavik is also visible from it! Take a trip up the tower to see the city from a new and beautiful perspective and snap away at the pastel-coloured rooftops 'til your heart's content. Back downstairs, the body of the church itself is also worth a visit and there are regular free organ recitals to enjoy throughout the day.
Cost: £3.75 (700ISK) for a trip up the tower; access to the church is free.

(Alternatively, the Perlan on Oskjuhlid Hill has a viewing platform you can access for free, though I can't personally vouch for its view.)


3. Visit the Harpa. 
The glass-fronted Harpa - Reykjavik's concert hall and conference centre - is a fascinating building, as much for its architecture and kalaedoscopic reflection of the light as for its history and significance culturally. Watch the exterior interplay with its surroundings, or visit one of the cafes/restaurants or shops inside to see it in a different light.
Cost: Free, although a 45 minute guided tour will set you back around £8.


4. Enjoy a burger at the old harbour. 
Dining out in Reykjavik can be an expensive affair, but Hamborgarbúllan proudly promises the "offer of the century!" Iceland's answer to McDonalds, the menu is simple - a variety of burgers, fries and drinks - but the portions are generous and the food is good. The setting too is a delight - based in an unusual, round building at the old harbour, the inside is clad with wooden panels, retro posters and autographs from previous guests - and the constant Icelandic chatter seems a good indication of the establishment's popularity. 
Cost: £8 (1500ISK) for a burger, fries and soft drink.


5. Take a boat ride to Viðey island.
Lying just off the coast of Reykjavik, Viðey Island is a quick ten minute boat-ride from the pier at Skarfabakki. A natural treasure, as their website proudly proclaims, the island forms the tip of a long-extinct volcano and has just as intriguing a landscape as you might expect. There are a number of walking or cycling routes to explore around the circumference of the island, taking in cliff tops, beaches, lakes, hills and a group of beautiful Icelandic horses. The island is also home to a small church, a series of Afangar (or milestones) by sculptor Richard Serra, a restaurant, and Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace Tower - a tribute to John Lennon which sends a pillar of light into the air between the dates of his birth (Oct 9th) and death (Dec 8th). This little island was an unexpected highlight of my trip.
Cost: £5.90 (1100ISK) for a return boat ride.


6. See the whole of Iceland. 
Okay, you're not really going to see all of Iceland for less than £10, but you can see an incredibly detailed topographic model of the entire country instead. Some 70 square metres in size (apparently.. I didn't get out the tape-measure) and painstakingly built to scale, the model gives a fascinating overview of Iceland's landscape and it's fun to try and identify the places you might have already seen or intend to visit. The model is housed in City Hall which lies on the northern shore of Lake Tjornin - a good place to feed the birds, people watch and relax in the sun while you're there.
Cost: Free.


7. Watch the sunset at the Sun Voyager.
During the summer months, the sun hardly seems to set at all in Iceland and the nights are almost as bright as the days. Despite this, there is a period in which the sun visibly sets in Reykjavik (though its rays continue to light up the night sky) and it is quite beautiful to see. It only makes sense that a sculpture called the Solfar - or Sun Voyager - would provide a good vantage point for this. It gets pretty crowded with all the tourists trying to take the same pictures and locals trying to fish, but it makes for a friendly buzz around the place. Designed by sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason, the Sun Voyager is worth a visit at any time of day as it looks majestically out over Reykjavik's coast.
Cost: Free.


8. Soak up the sun in the botanical gardens.
Heading towards the outskirts of Reykjavik, the Botanical Gardens are a solid 40 minute walk from the centre of the city (though a bus is available), but it's pleasant enough on a sunny day. The gardens themselves house some 5000 species of plants spread around a number of ponds and sculptures, with a family of geese (and various other birds I couldn't identify) for company. It's the perfect kind of place to pass a sunny afternoon with a book and a picnic, or perhaps some sweet treats from the garden's Cafe Flora. If you're travelling with children, they might prefer the neighbouring park and zoo with its farm animals, aquarium and science exhibition. 
Cost: Botanical gardens: free. || Park and zoo: £4 (750ISK) for adults or £3 (550ISK) for kids.


9. Grab a coffee and a book in the Laundromat Cafe.
Reykjavik has very much adopted the coffeeshop scene and you won't be stuck for choice when in search of a good shot of caffeine. I sampled many a cup of coffee in my time there, in many a different location, and the Laundromat Cafe very much stuck out to me. The coffee itself was not any better than the rest, particularly, but the setting is beautiful - maps all over the walls; bookshelves around the counter - and full of unique charm. Enjoy a tasty treat, swap your old book for something new, grab a free postcard and even head downstairs and do your laundry.. What more could you possibly ask for?!
Cost: Depends on your choice of treat. A latte costs around £2.10 (390ISK)


10. Swim in one of the city's geothermal pools. 
I'm going to let you in on something. Two things, actually. Number 1: To use any of Iceland's pools (the Blue Lagoon included), you first have to get naked. In front of strangers. Number 2: I am socially awkward enough with my clothes on, so I never did experience any of the country's pools.
If you're braver than me, however, you probably should. Geothermal pools are at the centre of the social scene in Iceland - whether you're swimming a few laps to keep fit or reclining in the hot tub after work - and they're sort of the place to be. The Blue Lagoon - Iceland's most visited tourist attraction - is the best known of them all, but if the prices there make you baulk, why not give one of Reykjavik's seven (yes, seven!) geothermal pools a try instead? Or if that isn't enough to choose from, why not consider the geothermal beach?
Cost: £3 (550ISK) entry to a swimming pool. || Entry to the beach is free during summer.


If you've done all that and still find yourself with time on your hands, pay a visit to the Kolaportið flea market (open Saturdays and Sundays), warm yourself with a big bowl of soupy goodness from the Noodle Station and then check out one of Reykjavik's many, many museums. Ranging from the National Museum of Iceland (£6.40, 1200ISK) and the Maritime Museum (£6.40, 1200ISK), to the three buildings of the Reykjavik Art Museum (£6.40, 1200ISK) or the National Gallery of Iceland (free), to the slightly, er, different Icelandic Phallological Museum (£6.70, 1200ISK) there's bound to be something to interest everyone!


There really is plenty to keep you busy in Reykjavik, even on a tight budget, and you won't be stuck for things to fill your time.

Don't let the price rumours put you off - it'd be a real shame to miss out on the experiences this beautiful, mysterious country is waiting to offer up!

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