My name is Stacey Katz and I‘m an American who’s been living, working and exploring in Iceland for the last 5 years. I live in Reykjavik but in my spare time I love to get outside the city and into the countryside, there is so much to do, see and take photos of! That being said, sometimes I don’t have the time to go out of town but still want a bit of exploration.
With the large increases in tourism to Iceland, Reykjavik is often a stop on everyone’s trip. When people think of Reykjavik they often think of the small downtown area with the cute colorful houses. Downtown Reykjavik is great and worth a visit, but the capital area is much more than just the zip code 101! When I want to explore around the capital area, I have a few go-to places that I would recommend.
1. Grótta in Seltjarnanes
Seltjarnanes is technically its own municipality not included in the city of Reykjavik, though it is very close to downtown. Seltjarnanes is built on a peninsula by the sea and at the end of that peninsula there is a great walking path, a lighthouse, and a golf course. This is one of my go-to places to get some fresh air, walk on the beach, and take photos of the northern lights. During low tide you can walk out and around the light house, but be careful to make back safely before the tide rolls in!
Grótta is only about a 5 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik, or a longer bike or walk, and is a frequented place by the locals. During the period of the midnight sun, this is a great place to catch the long sunset and sunrise at 1am!
Alftanes is another municipality not included in the city of Reykjavik (now part of Garðabær) and is where Iceland’s President resides at Bessastaðir. As it’s a bit out of town and surrounded by the sea on almost all sides, it’s a taste of nature still quite close to the city. Alftanes is a great place to walk along the sea shore, enjoy the view over to downtown Reykjavik and of Esja, and often see some Icelandic horses. I have also witnessed some great sunsets here with reflections on the ocean on a calm day. Whenever I’m in Alftanes I always think “wow, Iceland’s President has such a great view!”. The town’s swimming pool is also a very nice one for a dip. Alftanes is about a 20 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik.
Straumsvik is a place that many Icelanders would laugh at if you told them you were going to visit since the name refers to the aluminum smelter that is in the area. However, I don’t go over to the smelter and this is by far my favorite view on the way from Reykjavik to Iceland’s international airport in Keflavik! Once you drive past the smelter, you make a right turn right by the white house with a red roof. The area is full of lava fields and little lava islands often with great reflections on the sea. It’s good for both a walk by the water and northern lights photos in good conditions. Straumsvik is about a 25 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik.
Laugardalur is one of my favorites because I live in the neighborhood and it is on my regular walking route! Laugardalur is well known in Reykjavik’s history since it’s where women used to walk to wash their families clothing in the hot springs which were in the area. Now it is known for outdoor activities, the camping ground, the swimming pool, the botanical garden, the ice skating rink, and the family park (Reykjavik’s “zoo”). The botanical garden is one of my favorites in all seasons. In winter, the little ponds are frozen over and it becomes a winter wonderland. In summer, everything is green and in bloom and the ducks are busy quacking around. There is a great café, named Flora, that is open seasonally that I recommend. Sitting outside there on a nice day feels wonderful! The swimming pool is also one of the most popular ones for tourists – it’s not my favorite in Reykjavik but it’s easily accessible. Laugardalur is about a 5-10 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik, or a longer bike or walk.
Hafravatn is a lake right outside of Mosfellsbær, another municipality in the capital area. It’s a nice outdoors area good for a walk and taking some photos. The lake often freezes over in winter and can be walked on (though of course it’s important to make sure this is safe before doing it!). There are mountains in the distance, which I definitely have a soft spot for, and the area is often very quiet with very little tourist traffic. I have gone over to Hafravatn in all seasons when I want to “get away” even though it’s quite close and have also stopped by here when driving to Thingvellir and taking the back road, through route 435 which is a wonderful drive. Hafravatn is about a 20 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik.
A few tips:
- For Grótta and Laugardalur you can walk, bike or take public transportation since they are close to downtown Reykjavik. If you decide to bike or walk I would make sure you’re dressed for all seasons! I once bike rode out to Grótta on a beautiful February day which then turned into a hail storm that I had to take shelter from in a bus stop. Iceland is always full of surprises!
- For the rest of the destinations, I would rent a car and drive around which you’re probably doing anyways to explore the countryside, it’s the easiest and most flexible way and these places are not difficult to find. Note that the back road to Thingvellir (route 435) is not maintained in the winter so do not go this route unless you are in the proper car and tires! In the summer, it is no problem.
- Anywhere by the sea in Iceland can be quite windy so be prepared!
Happy exploring! Check out my Instagram account @stacey.katz.photography to follow my travels in Iceland and abroad 🙂