Free things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the winter

Free things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the winter

Want to see a winter wonderland? Mountains covered in snow?  The Northern Lights? Spend dark nights in cosy bars?

If so, then you’ll head to Iceland in the winter and its capital Reykjavik will be your first stop. While Iceland’s landscape looks straight out of a sci fi movie, you’ll find its prices are out of this world too.

In my previous blog post I gave 25 tips for visiting Iceland on a budget. In this post everything is FREE.

 

You don't want to be sitting out in the cold
You don’t want to be sitting out in the cold

 

Inside attractions

 

If you go in winter then you’ll probably want to be indoors as much as possible.

 

Visit Hallgrímskirkja

 

This is on every ‘must see list’ in Reykjavik and it’s well deserved. Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran Church (Church of Iceland) measuring a massive 244 ft high. Making it among the tallest structures in Iceland and visible from all over Reykjavik.

Inside is a large chamber with a huge organ. It’s free to enter and closes at 5pm in the winter months.

 

Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
Inside, outside, organ
Inside, outside, organ

 

To go up the tower it’s 1000 ISK. I thought the 360 degree views were worth it and included it on my 25 tips for visiting Iceland on a budget.

 

Flea market and charity shops

 

Kolaportið is a small indoor market open every weekend. It’s free to enter and is busy with locals looking to buy books, secondhand clothing and fermented fish.

 

Inside Kolaportið Flea Market
Inside Kolaportið Flea Market

 

While it’s a great place to wander around out of the snow, I wouldn’t recommend buying anything here as it’s very expensive for a flea market. However, if you’re charming you might be able to get some free samples of fermented shark. If you do buy anything, this might be the only place in Reykjavik that still wants cash and not card payment. There is an ATM inside.

 

Volcanic Lava stone jewellery (left)
Volcanic Lava stone jewellery (left)

 

If you really want some bargain clothing then there are a couple of Red Cross Charity Shops dotted around central Reykjavik. I still recommend you take all the clothing you need for your trip with you, as you don’t want to spend £20 on a pair of gloves in Iceland that would cost £2 in the UK.

 

Harpa concert building

 

Harpa concert hall
Harpa concert hall

 

This unique building is located down by the harbour. It has an unusual architecture and is made of sheer glass walls, designed by Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson, that change colour when the light hits them. There’s lots of seating inside to rest and watch the roof and walls glisten.

 

It’s free to enter the building and you can check this website – https://en.harpa.is/ for free things going on. These sometimes include photography exhibitions or local bands.

 

Window shopping down Laugavegur

 

Walking down the main shopping high street, Laugavegur, you’ll notice how colourful and hip everything is. The road is full of souvenir stores, vintage fashion shops, bars and vegan cafes. 

 

The main high street Laugavegur in Reykjavík
The main high street Laugavegur in Reykjavik

 

The rainbow shop above isn’t anything to do with the pride flag, however, further down the road is the rainbow painted Kiki Queer Bar, Reykjavik’s main gay bar. You can also visit the ultimate hipster store called Dogma and check out the funny slogan t-shirts and novelty gifts. However, Laugavegur isn’t the place to shop if you’re on a budget as you could easily spend £50 on a fridge magnet, tea towel and lava rock bracelet.

Don’t feel too guilty about browsing and not buying anything. I saw groups of American tourists dropping hundreds of dollars in these shops. Icelandic shops are not short of customers.

 

See a vagina

 

Did you know Iceland has made it illegal to pay men more than women? Iceland’s government has pledged to eradicate the gender pay gap by 2022. In 2016 they gained media attention when MP Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir breastfed her baby in the Icelandic parliament. 

So it’s probably of little surprise that a painting of a huge vagina hangs on the wall in Reykjavik’s City Hall, where the Mayor’s office is. It’s there to celebrate feminism and make people more comfortable with the word vagina or “pika” as it is in Icelandic.

 

Vagina artwork in the City Hall
Vagina artwork in the City Hall – Taken by Akielly H, Jan 2017

To reach the City Hall you cross the bridge over Tjörnin lake and enter the large concrete building. Other good points of this building are – it’s heated, has computers with free internet access and has clean free toilets.

It’s also the building where the Free City Walking Tour ends, which I haven’t included in this post as while it has “Free” in the title, it’s anything but free and the guides expect a decent tip.

 

Outside

 

Grjótaþorpið neighbourhood

 

You can visit the Árbær Open Air Museum and see the inside of over 30 houses from different periods of time, but it costs 1,650 ISK and is located a short bus ride from downtown Reykjavik.

Alternatively, you could visit the Grjótaþorpið neighbourhood (The “Village of Grjoti”) for free. It’s the oldest neighbourhood in Reykjavik and some of the houses are over 100 years old. Many of the colourful buildings were built before planning permission was a thing, so the roads are disorganised and don’t follow a grid system.

Usually I’m unsure wether it’s ok to take photos of someone’s house or if it’s an invasion of privacy. But I’m pretty sure most of these houses are on Airbnb and there are more tourists living here than locals.

 

Apartments on Airbnb
Apartments on Airbnb

 

Icelandic homes are based on minimalism and clean compositions inspired by the country’s unique natural landscapes. The older houses are usually made of timber and a lot of interior decor is grey, white and beige, and woods in ash, birch, pine and oak.

If you’re hoping to see Iceland’s famous turf houses you won’t find them in Reykjavik, except in Árbær Open Air Museum. Turf houses can be found around the country in Skógar Museum or Keldur in the south or Glaumbær Turf house in the north.

 

Houses in Grjótaþorpið
House in Grjótaþorpið
Houses in Grjótaþorpið
House in Grjótaþorpið

 

If you get tired of Reykjavik and the tourists and want to see some more authentic houses and Icelandic living, visit the harbour town of Hafnarfjörður. It’s a 25min drive or you can take the bus from central Reykajavik. The Hafnarfjörður Museum has free admission but is only open on the weekends in winter.

 

Lake Tjornin

 

This lake is right in the centre of Reykjavik and the locals call it the “pond” as it’s very shallow (an average of depth of just under 2ft). In the winter it sometimes freezes over and people ice skate on it. However, if you wish to ice skate, you’ll have to bring your own skates, otherwise you can join the children playing football on it.

If you don’t have your own skates but want to ice skate, then try the Ice Rink Laugardalur, which costs 1200 ISK.

 

Me by Lake Tjornin
Me by Lake Tjornin

 

If you don’t feel in an active mood then there are plenty of ducks and swans to feed. Signs are up to ask you not to feed them bread but the birds wouldn’t no to some of your sandwiches and will come up to you.

 

Ducks and swans on Lake Tjornin
Ducks and swans on Lake Tjornin

 

Make friends with local animals

 

Did you know Iceland is a cat loving nation? I didn’t. I’d read that Russians were the world biggest cat lovers with a huge 59 per cent of Russians owning a cat but nothing about Iceland.

There are so many cats and dogs around Reykjavik braving the minus temperatures. These aren’t strays – they have homes and the cats I saw had collars. These cats confidently strut around the streets of downtown.

The cat outside the gift shop Ice Wear (pic below) is called Baktus and he has his own Instagram here. See if you can spot him on your visit. 

 

Making friends with the cat just chilling outside a gift shop
Making friends with the cat just chilling outside a gift shop

 

Reykjavik has opened its first cat cafe this month (March 2018) Kattakaffihúsið which is located on Bergstaðastræti 10A in downtown Reykjavik. According to this Icelandic magazine article there are very few stay cats and they’re typically found in Elliðarádalur valley or the cemeteries.

 

Chasing cats in Reykjavik
Chasing cats in Reykjavik

 

As there are so many cats on the streets of Reykjavik, I suggest setting yourself the challenge of finding the beautiful fluffy Norwegian Forest cats. Also, don’t forget the dogs! All the dogs we saw were larger breeds. Some were friendly while others weren’t. 

 

Don't forget the dogs! Reykjavik
Don’t forget the dogs!
My sister making more friends Iceland
My sister making more friends

 

The Puffin is the animal icon of Iceland. Puffins generally like to spend most of their time at sea but they have to come back to land to breed and nest. Iceland is one of the colonies where they do this and provides a breeding home for about 60 percent of the world’s Atlantic puffins! Unfortunately, winter is out of puffin season and you can only see them from April to September. Plus you need a car to reach the breeding ground from Reykjavik. You can usually see them in the rocky cliffs in the Westfjords in the North West, or make your way out to the small peninsula Dyrhólaey on the south coast or the Westman islands (which needs a car and paid ferry crossing).

 

Check out the colourful side – Graffiti artwork

 

The winter days might be short and dark but Europe’s northern most capital still makes a vibrant splash with it multicoloured shops, animal murals and graffiti houses.

I don’t know the story behind the house in the picture below, but they’re some chilled out owners to let the whole side of the building be a mural.

 

Graffiti or artwork on the side of a house in Reykjavik?
Graffiti or artwork on the side of a house in Reykjavik?

 

A lot of the street art is done by a local artist called Örn Tönsberg (a.k.a. Selur) and has been around Reykjavik for years. Its now become so mainstream that Iceland Airwaves, an annual music festival held in Reykjavik in early November (not free), has teamed up with street artists to host WALLPOETRY. The artists listens to music while they paint murals. It’s a collaboration between music and art.

 

Eagle by  Örn Tönsberg (a.k.a. Selur) in downtown Reykjavik
Eagle by Örn Tönsberg (a.k.a. Selur) in downtown Reykjavik

 

We saw more of Selur’s work in the beach bar themed Bar Ananas. Unfortunately, drinking anything except tap water isn’t free in Iceland. However, lots of bars do happy hour. Bar Ananas did it on Viking beer. 

 

I only drink Viking in happy hour, to get drunk enough to buy expensive cocktails.
I only drink Viking in happy hour so I get drunk enough to buy expensive cocktails.
Artwork in Bar Ananas, Reykjavik
Artwork in Bar Ananas

 

While WALLPOETRY and Selur’s work decorate the downtown area, the amount of building work going on makes me wonder how long this street art will last. The construction boom is due to the large influx of tourists in Reykjavik combined with its recovery from the 2008–2011 Icelandic financial crisis. 

 

Permanent Gorilla or soon to be an apartment complex let out to tourists?
Permanent Gorilla or soon to be an apartment complex let out to tourists?

 

One of largest construction sites is down by the harbour, next to the Harpa building. It’s impressive to see the construction efforts in the winter when there is only 4 to 5 hours of daylight.  

 

More construction down by the Harbour, next to the Harpa building
More construction down by the Harbour, next to the Harpa building

 

National Parks

 

This list doesn’t include the National Parks, such as, Thingvellir, Vatnajökull and Snæfellsjökull. While they are all free to enter, you need to hire a car or pay for a tour to reach them. Same goes for the famous waterfalls (Goðafoss and Skógafoss) and geysers (Strokkur). However, you could hitch-hike to them as this is common in Iceland but you might have a long wait out in the snow.

 

Hitchhiking in Reykjavik Iceland
Hitchhiking in Reykjavik

 

Overall

 

The best way to explore Iceland is to hire a car and drive around the island. However, not everyone has the money or time to do this. Reykjavik is an expensive place to visit but there are enough free things to do to keep you occupied for a long weekend. It’s a quirky city with its own style and friendly (animal) locals.

Put on a thermal vest, grab your gloves and boots, and explore the city. If you discover anything else to do for free in Reykjavik, please put it in the comments below. 

 

7 Replies to “Free things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the winter”

  1. Thanks, Fran, for the time and care you took with this blog. Loads of useful information! Really want to visit.

  2. Some great suggestions on free things to do while in Iceland over winter. I really enjoyed reading it, would certainly keep it in mind if I was to ever visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.