Living in Downtown Reykjavík

discover iceland
Skyline of Reykjavík harbor with Esjan in the background
Scott Hillen
Winter Harbour Skyline

Living in Iceland brings with it many charms and challenges to many who call this mid-Atlantic island home, with most Icelandic residents living in the Greater Reykjavík metropolitan area.

Nearly all visitors to Iceland will visit Reykjavík at some point on their travels, but as a local, especially coming from the UK, what are the key things we notice living in the world's most Northerly Capital?

Community Spirit

Living in a city with a population of just over 133,000 and a capital region of around 233,000; this might seem not a lot to some, but for myself and the Icelanders living here, we find it just right. To compare, the capital's population is less than that of one square mile in Manhattan.

The pace of life in Iceland is also a lot more relaxed and slower compared to what other nations may be used to, so coming from the UK where everything seems to be to a strict schedule, this did take some getting used to.

Making friendships in Iceland did feel daunting at first, but this is overcome once you start to get to know the people you work with, and your natural networking starts to develop. Just remembering that we are all on this island together for some unknown reason, you make sure you have a good network of people to visit bars or grab a coffee with on those dark winter nights.

Weather in the City

grey reykjavik
Scott Hillen
Greykjavik Street Art

Weather in the city can change faster than a blink of an eye, with all four seasons happening in the space of day on occasion. With this, Reykjavík can have more than its fair share of cloud coverage. This can give it the nickname of Greykjavík to residents and tourists alike, so much so this was immortalised in street art last year. I always leave the house with a jacket even on midsummer sunny days, even if it doesn't rain, it can still be useful as a windbreaker on harbourside walks.

The Calling of Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja church at night
Scott Hillen
Hallgrímskirkja at night

Hallgrímskirkja church stands proudly over the city, standing at the top of Skólavörðurstígur in the city downtown area. Named after Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson, this famous church stands out among the colourful homes, with its cool grey roughcast and basalt rock type design; truly making it stand out as one of Iceland's most recognisable architectural buildings.

The rhythmic bells chime every quarter from 8am to 10pm daily, and although seem loud at first, you get used to the clockwork concerto rung out. Just don't party too hard on a Saturday night, as the bells will chime for Sunday service continuously until 11am, giving you another reason to hate that Sunday morning headache.

When I'm returning to the city from the countryside, seeing this landmark in the distance is always a reassuring horizon reference to know I'm nearly home.

A Hazy Shade of Winter

Northern Lights over houses and trees in Reykjavik
Scott Hillen
Northern Lights in Reykjavik

The main question everyone in Iceland gets asked in the winter months by tourists is;

Have you seen the Northern Lights and where is the best place to find them?


The answer is simple. Yes, I've seen the Northern Lights too many times to count, and the best place to see them is anywhere!

The best locations to capture the brightest photographs are outside the city limits, as less light pollution lets you see the amazing colours dance in the sky; but that doesn't mean you don't see them in the city too. As long as the skies are clear and the aurora forecasts are favourable, put your warm layers on, head outside, look up, and be patient. The picture above proves, that even with a low forecast, your mobile phone can still capture some amazing light shows right on your doorstep.

The Social Life of a Downtown Resident

Iceland has one of the highest costs of living in Europe, only second to Switzerland, so when it comes to socialising, you better keep yourself to a budget or find yourself a good deal. Heading out for a meal or a few drinks with friends might sound scary for your wallet at first, but rest assured, you can always find a way to make the system work for you.

With a plethora of bars and eateries stretching from Hlemmur Square all the way down to Grandi Harbour, locals and tourists alike are spoiled for choice. The quality of food Reykjavík has to offer is second to none, making a downtown apartment kitchen feel neglected. With simple dishes to 6 course tasting platters, there is always something on the menu suitable for any occasion.

Pub crawls are common place, with nearly every bar, café and restaurant offering happy hour deals for patrons. As there is no entry fee to most locales, you can go from a wine bar, to upmarket brasserie, and end up in one of Reykjavík's many Irish pubs. You soon learn to find your local haunts and your favourite place to catch up with friends, which is all that really matters on those cold winter nights. Just don't forget to toast, as they say in Icelandic, Skál!

Drinks in a downtown basement bar
Spánski Bar - Ingólfsstræti 8
Drinks in a downtown basement bar

About the Author

Scott Hillen

Scott Hillen

Scott is originally from Scotland, previously working for a furniture manufacturers in Glasgow before moving to Iceland in 2017. He joined the IMG team in Summer 2018. When not in work, he enjoys spending time with friends.  He hopes one day to visit Canada's West Coast, and plans to see more of Europe's impressive architectural cities.

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