Iceland is freaking expensive. Like, really freaking expensive. We didn’t realize this when we booked a seven-day stay on our way to Europe (don’t be like us). It’s so expensive you might show up and consider selling your firstborn (if you have one) just to pay for your lodging. Airlines don’t tell you that, though, when you book that “free” stopover on your way to Europe. They don’t want you to know you’re about blow your entire budget in five days in Reykjavik. But you are. Maybe. You don’t have to. Here are some things to do in Reykjavik on a budget. Enjoy your time in Iceland’s capital city without losing your mind (and all the money in your wallet).
Things to do in Reykjavik
Fossarétt, a small but lovely waterfall on the way from Reykjavik to Glymur waterfall
Rent a car
This is the easiest way to get to the places around Reykjavik, but not necessarily the cheapest. Public transportation is good in the city, so if you’re staying near the center of town and not planning to venture out, skip the rental. However, if you plan on seeking out hot springs or taking a drive on Iceland’s Golden Circle or Southern Road, this is your best bet, especially if there are several people traveling together or you don’t want to take a tour. SAD Cars was the cheapest car rental company we found, but it’s bare bones and old cars. Of course, the earlier you book the less you’ll pay, so if you know you’ll want a car, reserve it early. And if you’re planning to do the Ring Road all the way around the island (which takes 7-10 days), you’ll probably want to rent a campervan, which starts at around 14000 kr ($140) per day.
Kerið volcanic Crater Lake located on the driving route commonly known as the Golden Circle.
Whether you rent a car or not, consider ridesharing to save costs. We decided to rent a car for two days so we could drive the Golden Circle and the South Coast. Then we used the Couchsurfing app to find other travelers who wanted to go to the same place but needed a ride. We traveled around the Golden Circle the first day with a French couple who paid for our fuel for the day 3500 kr ($35) and adventured solo the second day to Vik as we couldn’t find any other interested travelers (and paid for our own fuel – $45). And then our last day we ended up in the car with a pair of German girls and helped them pay for gas for the drive to Glymur waterfall and some secret hot pools! Fuel is about 200 kr ($2) per liter or $7-8 per gallon, so it helps to have others sharing the cost.
Buses in Reykjavik are a great way to get around if you don’t mind paying. It’s 400 kr ($4) per ride (though you can ask for an exchange ticket good for another ride within 75 minutes), so obviously we were too cheap to pay for that multiple times a day. You know how we do. Walking is free. Our feet work. They might have been pretty sore from the miles we walked every day, but they work.
Wow Air offers a city bike share program in Reykjavik, but it’s not cheap
Reykjavik is a bike-friendly city, but I’m just going to break it to you now: going by bike isn’t going to save you any money. Renting a bike for the day can cost around 3000 kr ($30). Wow Airlines has city bike rental stands around – you know, those automated lines of bikes where you swipe a card, take a bike and return it to another stand near your destination – but it’s 350 kr ($3.50) for the first 30 minutes. Then it actually gets more expensive the longer you keep it. No bueno.
It’s widely accepted in Iceland and it seemed like folks never waited long to get a ride. We hitched into the city from the lighthouse one evening when we didn’t have the energy to make the long walk back and all of minute and a half later we were in the car with the two German girls we just mentioned a second ago and on our way not to the city center as we had planned, but to a Festival of Lights in a nearby town where they were headed and nice enough to invite us along after having known us for 30 whole seconds. It went something like this: “Where are you going? Hop in. Where you from? What are you doing tonight? What are your names, by the way?” If you are going to hitch outside the city, make sure you’re prepared with food, warm clothes and a tent in case you don’t make it to your intended destination, but every time we saw hitchhikers they’d be gone if we passed back by a few minutes later.
Accommodation in Reykjavik’s city center can be expensive
You know our recommendations for accommodation. Couchsurfing is free. However, there are so many people visiting Reykjavik these days you’ll be extremely lucky if you locate a host. We got together with some other surfers one night for a drink and none of the six of us present were actually surfing in the city (we just connected through the Couchsurfing app).
The next best option we found was AirBnB where you can still expect to pay around 6000 kr ($60) per night or more. Book as early as possible for the best rates. We didn’t or we might have found a place cheaper and closer to the city where we didn’t have to walk 45 minutes into town twice a day because we paid too much for a room and now couldn’t afford the bus…
If you’re traveling alone and don’t mind a dorm room with 10-12 beds, there are hostels that are cheaper than AirBnB (more like 4000 kr or $40 per night) if you’re only paying for one bed.
We noticed several campsites in Reykjavik and beyond. They were definitely cheaper than hostels if you’re traveling with all the right gear and can stand the cold nights. Expect to pay 2000 kr ($20) per night.
Free things to do in Reykjavik
Help knit a scarf! Outside of the Knitting Association of Iceland’s headquarters.
Explore (aka walk)
Kidding! Sort of. But not really. Almost nothing in Reykjavik is free except walking. So lace up the comfiest shoes you have and hit the pavement. Walk down the main tourist drag, visit interesting local shops, peruse menus in the windows, truck to the lighthouse, take a dozen photos by the steel sculpture of the viking ship and peer up at towering steeples and pastel houses. It’s not a bad looking old city, so there’s plenty to look at. Take your time and take it all in.
Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center, located on the waterfront
Take a tour
OK, so there are a couple of free things to do in the city. City Guides offers a free walking tour several times a day led by local history students. You can let them wend you around the city as you listen to interesting histories, funny stories and quirky facts. For example, did you know nearly all of Reykjavik burned down at one point so building wooden houses was banned and they’re all made of concrete or metal now? Now you know. The guides do take tips at the end, but you can give as much or as little as you can afford.
Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach and hot pool
Hit the beach
If it happens to be one of the four days a year when you don’t feel the need to throw on at least a light jacket, check out Nauthólsvík Beach. There’s (really) cold water in the inlet and a hot pool with locker rooms and showers which are purportedly free in the summer, but when we visited at the beginning of September (winter hours apparently begin in August) they were charging 500 kr ($5).
The free view from the observation deck of the Perlan Museum
Find the best view
If you don’t feel like paying 900 kr ($9) per person to go up in the tower of Hallgrímskirkja church at the top of the hill for panoramic views of the city (I feel like they should pay me to walk up that many stairs), the next best thing is the viewing deck at Perlan. It’s a museum, but there’s a cafe with a gift shop and viewing deck on the forth floor and it’s free to peer out over the city and the water from up there.
Peruse the Market
Kolaportið flea market is the place to be on Saturdays and Sundays if you enjoy sifting through piles of second-hand clothing to find a sweater in your size because you underestimated how cold it would be in Iceland. Or souvenirs. There’s weird Icelandic food available in the food court, too, so fellow vegans, try not to freak out when you see shark or horse on the menu. You’ve been warned.
Sun Voyager (Icelandic: Sólfar) is a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason
Marvel at the sculptures
The Einar Jónsson Sculpture Garden (free) is located outside the art museum of the same name (not free) next to Hallgrímskirkja. Have a wander, pack a picnic, and snap a selfie or two.
By which I mean go to a park. Elliðaárdalur, to be exact. It’s accessible by bike and public transport just at the edge of the city and it’s got walking trails and even waterfalls. Can’t beat that for free.
Enjoy the Northern Lights
Alright, so this is a long shot, but if you’re in Iceland in the fall or winter and the weather isn’t totally wretched (it was cloudy every single night we were there), you might just get to see the dazzling display in the heavens. We didn’t, so if you go and do, we don’t want to hear about it. We might be bitter. Download an aurora app to tell you when you’ll have the best chance of spotting it.
We had to shimmy along this pipe to cross the stream to get to the hot pots waiting on the other side
Locate the hot pots
Or hot pools. Or hot springs. Whatever you call them, you can find them using the website hotpoticeland.com. It will give you the location of not only free hot pots out in the wilderness but paid-entry pools, too. Granted, you’ll need a car to get to most, if no all, of the free sites, but if you’ve already decided to rent one, it doesn’t cost any extra! Some of my favorite memories from our trip were soaking in thermal pools surrounded by rolling hills and streaming rivers alongside new friends.
Cheap things to do in Reykjavik
OK, so “cheap” is relative, especially in Reykjavik, but if you run out of free things to do, adding a few of these cheap activities to your list won’t drain your account and are classic Iceland.
Visit a local pool
Not The Blue Lagoon. That’s not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Also it’s filled with tourists. Rub elbows with the locals (sometimes literally, depending on how busy the pool is), by going to a local pool. You’ll have to shower completely naked next to 30 other members of your gender before getting in (they do usually have about two private stalls), but since you won’t be making eye contact with any of them, you won’t even recognize them sitting next to you in the hot tub outside. Pools are geothermally heated so are comfortably warm. Then there are usually several hotter tubs and pools around the edges where you can enjoy a nice soak for as long as you want. There are several located around the city and cost about 800-900 kr ($8-9) to get in.
Rent a Car
OK, so it’s not “cheap,” but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than paying for day tours if you want to get out of the city and see some impressive stuff! Even with gas added in it will be cheaper than a day tour if there are more than one of you traveling together. Then you can drive the Golden Circle and Southern Road to Vik on your own time.
Go to Viðey Island
The ferry over costs about 1500 kr ($15) and you can either rent a bike or take a walk and spend the day wandering on the little island off Reykjavik’s coast. There are art displays on the island, too, so pack a picnic and make an afternoon of it.
Cheap Eats in Reykjavik
Tighten your belt, cause if you don’t want to drop a mint on sustenance in Reykjavik, you’ll be eating light if you aren’t careful.
Have a hot dog
Icelanders make a big deal about their hot dogs for some reason. Couldn’t tell you why. But they are cheap and if you’re cool shoving mystery meat in a tube down your gullet, then this is the way to go. There are stands peppered around the city and they’re pretty much the same price everywhere.
We ate here multiple times because it was the cheapest, most filling option we could find in the city center and it was delish. They only have one vegan sandwich (several for omnivores), but when that one sandwich is spicy falafel, one is really all you need. It was about 1500 kr ($15), but it fed both of us satisfactorily.
It’s a grocery store whose logo is a pink pig that looks like it just lost a bar fight. Ridiculous, but picking up groceries at this cramped chain of stores will save you a whole lotta money if you can make most of your meals instead of dining out. There are other chains, too, but this one has the reputation of being the cheapest. And surprisingly, it has quite a few vegan options in the freezer section. Hagkaup, too, doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
Yeah, they’re french fries. Or Icelandic fries, or Belgian fries or whatever. They’re fried potatoes with sauce on them. It’s about $10.50 for a large and you can choose a sauce to go on top, including a couple of vegan ones (that aren’t all ketchup).
It’s not in the city center, but it’s worth a trip into the neighborhoods to get a vegan chocolate-covered croissant or giant cinnamon bun. Most of their pastries aren’t vegan, but the ones that are are delightful and will only run you 300-400 kr ($3-$4).
And speaking of dessert, if you want to skip a meal and have sugar instead, this place has you covered with vegan (and dairy) gelato and toppings. You can even get it on a vegan gluten-free waffle if you like (though that’ll run you closer to 1000 kr or $10 than 600 kr or $6 for two scoops).
I realize that’s less of a “place” and more of a “dish,” but it’s often the cheapest item on the menu, so seek it out when you select a restaurant. The Vegetarian restaurant Glo, which is quite expensive generally, vegan joint Caffi Vinyl and Suppubarin all have options for under $13. Yup. Thirteen dollars. For Soup. Welcome to Iceland. Fortunately, it does usually come with bread.
It’s a free entertainment paper around town that will help you find free and cheap (and not so cheap) entertainment. Live music, shows at Harpa, festivals, you name it.
Get the AppyHour app
Beer is expensive in Iceland. And you can’t just pick up a cheap 6-pack at the grocery store because alcohol sold there is limited to 2.5% and nobody wants that. This app will help you find the best deals on drinks and more so you can spend less.
Reykjavik Discount Card
If you’ll be around town for a few days and are really into museums, check out this discount card to see if it could save you some money on admissions. It also includes entry to local pools and the ferry to Viðey Island, and is a bus pass, so you could certainly make the most of it. It’s available in 24, 48 and 72 hour versions and costs 3700, 4900, and 5900 kr ($37, $49 and $59), respectively. Before you buy, check the list of benefits and your travel schedule to make sure it will actually be worth it (most museums are $10-$15).
So, yeah. Iceland is expensive. One of the three most expensive countries in the world. But don’t let that stop you from experiencing the beauty of the island. Use these tips to save some cash and make the most of it! Happy hot pot hunting and wander on!
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com