8 reasons Reykjavik is one of Europe's most unusual city breaks

A far cry from the dazzling streets of Paris or the gritty neighbourhoods of Berlin, the Icelandic capital makes for a rather unconventional weekend away.

Reykjavík, one of Europe's most unusual city breaks
Reykjavík, one of Europe's most unusual city breaks © jeremyreds - Fotolia.com

It may be significantly smaller than many of Europe's most popular cities, but it can be just as, if not more, exciting: there's a surprising variety of things to do, and its dramatic location on the southwest edge of the country, looking out to a smattering of mountainous islands, makes it one of the continent's most picturesque.

Think European city break and your feet might start to ache just at the prospect of tackling one of the continent's numerous sprawling capitals.

Getting to Reykjavik: check out the latest deals from TUI to get there for less.

It's small but still vibrant

Reykjavik is Europe's eighth smallest capital city with a population of just 122,000 residents. Consider that London is home to nearly 9 million people and suddenly Iceland's capital is looking pretty puny.

But don't let this put you off. Creativity flows through the streets of this city: it manifests through its museums, bars, restaurants, and a weekend flea market near the seafront.

Plus, its relatively small size means the city is digestible in a weekend. You can walk from one attraction to the next in a matter of minutes, without wearing out your soles.

The Aurora makes a regular appearance

One of the most appealing aspects of a visit to Iceland in the winter months is the chance to see the Northern Lights (or, Aurora Borealis). This natural light show can be elusive, though, so a weekend in Reykjavik is the perfect way to see them.

Aurora borealis over Reykjavík, Iceland
Aurora borealis over Reykjavík, Iceland - photo courtesy of Visit Iceland

Spend your days exploring the city or the surrounding wilderness, and at night head out into the nearby countryside in search of some light entertainment. No other city in Europe can offer such high chances of spotting the aurora in all her glory.

It survives on geothermal power

Reykjavik translates as "Bay of Smokes", a name that comes from the hive of geothermal activity that sits beneath the city. Around 95% of the buildings in Iceland's capital are powered by geothermal energy, making it one of the cleanest cities in the world when it comes to CO² emissions.

You can make the most of your geothermal surroundings at one of the many public baths in Reykjavik: Laugardalslaug has a whole complex of heated pools and Nautholsvik is a geothermal beach, where manmade hot tubs bubble away in the sea.

There are some seriously strange landscapes

'Otherworldly' is a word often used to describe Iceland's varied landscapes, and that's a fair review. It's a country famous for its volcanoes, geysers and waterfall, it's "the Land of Fire and Ice" after all, and you don't have to travel far from the city to be awed by them.

Skogafoss Waterfall south east of Reykjavík, Iceland
Skogafoss Waterfall south east of Reykjavík, Iceland © Orangemania - Flickr CC BY 2.0

Unlike many European capitals, Reykjavik sits close to some astonishing natural wonders. Day trips from the city can take you out the Reykjanes Peninsula, along a stretch of dramatic black coastline where you can stand between the American and Eurasian continental plates.

You can also opt for a tour of the Golden Circle to take in the three most famous sights in the country: the explosive Strokkur geyser, the thundering Gullfoss waterfall, and the historical Thingvellir National Park.

It sees almost 24 hours of daylight

As the northernmost capital city in Europe, Reykjavik sees up to 21 hours of daylight each day during the summer months. This means the regular Friday night runtur (pub crawl) is rowdier than ever as revellers party through the midnight sun.

For winter, though, the city is bathed in darkness for much of the time, with the sun rising around 11 am on its shortest days, providing only a few hours' reprieve before setting over a crisp, snow-laden landscape. It might sound depressing, but winter in Iceland is magical, if only for the strikingly pink sunrises.

It has some unconventional attractions

In no other city in the world will you find so many people willing to queue to visit a defunct power station. As unglamorous as it sounds, though, Reykjavik's premier attraction is indeed part of a disused power plant.

Sitting just outside the city on the Reykjanes Peninsula, the Blue Lagoon is a striking sea of topaz among a desolate volcanic landscape.

Swimming in the Blue Lagoon in mid winter, Iceland
Swimming in the Blue Lagoon in mid winter, Iceland - photo courtesy of www.bluelagoon.com

What once served as the wastewater pool for the Svartsengi power plant is now a bright blue public bath, the colour due to its rich mineral content, that sees hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Its nine million litres of water travels up from 2,000 metres below the earth and arrives at the surface at a balmy 38°C. In winter, there is perhaps no more rewarding experience than baring all in sub-zero temperatures to dive into this delightful pool.

Please note: the Blue Lagoon is currently closed owing to a recent eruption in late 2023.

Meanwhile, in the city centre, an art museum and the City Hall share the stage with the world's most comprehensive penis exhibition. Need we say more?

There's hardly a chain in sight

Reykjavik's main shopping street isn't the thoroughfare you'd expect to see in most European capitals. Thanks to the city's compact size and small population, high street retail giants like Zara and H&M, and the big designers are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Laugavegur is packed with little independent boutiques and bars.

You can see some of nature's giants

Perched on the edge of Iceland, Reykjavik offers world-class whale-watching opportunities.

Watching orcas off Reykjavík, Iceland
Watching orcas off Reykjavík, Iceland - photo courtesy of Visit Iceland

Tours depart daily to head out into the North Atlantic in which around 20 species of whale, from humpback to sperm to minke, thrive. Along the way, you're likely to meet porpoises, basking sharks, dolphins and seals, as well as a few cute little puffins.

Climate in Reykjavik

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Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
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Find out more about the weather in Reykjavik in our complete climate guide.

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Lottie Gross

Lottie Gross

Article updated on Monday 24th May 2021 in: City Europe TUI

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