Reykjavik: My 24-hour Experience

View of downtown Reykjavik from the top of Hallsgrimkirkja church
View of downtown Reykjavik from the top of Hallsgrimkirkja church

As a girl on a budget, my research for activities on this trip was not just focused on what things to see but also how much those things cost. I discovered that while many activities (museums, cathedrals, castles, etc.) commonly do charge admission, you can often bypass each individual fee by buying what is often referred to as a “city card” that will grant you access to many of the most popular attractions for just one large fee. Essentially it is the Costco card of European tourism. When investigating these cards however, it is important to keep track of what places are on the card that you actually want to see and what places are just convenient. If you only really want to go to one place that has a nominal fee but the card costs twice or three times as much as the admission, it is not really worth it. However, the problem with being a budget traveler (aside from not having any money) is that many reviews on practical matters such as these are not geared towards your specific price point. Many reviewers on TripAdvisor reflect the opinions of more mature wayfarers who traveled with kids or spouses/couples and were more concerned with entertainment for the masses. So, attention thrill seekers on a budget; this is for you! And anyone else that cares to read it… The “Reykjavik Loves the City Card” is worth it!

First allow me to preface by saying Reykjavik is EXPENSIVE. Between food and drink, museums, never ending tours all over the island, and souvenirs (of which I bought none so don’t get excited folks at home) it’s amazing how much money you can spend in a day. For this reason, I thought the city card would be a money saver and on this rare occasion I was right.

The card comes in three different time lengths: 24, 48, or 72 hours. The price difference between the three tiers varies with the best value option being the 72-hour card for 4900k. But this was not only out of my price range, but also my time frame. Therefore, I went with the entry level, 24-hour card for 3300k, or $25. Having only had very frugal parents for travel partners, it became immediately important for me to make my money back on the city card. Each place I went, I tallied the cost of the admission in the hopes that I would not only save the 3300k I spent but also make a little money back! I am happy to say that goal was achieved and I saved an additional 2000k (about $15).

So what did I get for my money? Let me tell you! The recommended sites via travel sites and TripAdvisor reviews that were included on the card were the National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik Art Museum Hafnarhús, National Gallery of Iceland, and the Culture House (to name a few). The card also includes many other places and activities, as well as discounts for tours and restaurants, but these were the places that I wanted to see whilst in Reykjavik.

I purchased the card in the late morning from a nearby hostel (it’s available all over town, just check the webpage for local listings) so it was valid until the same time the following day, hence 24 hours. But this tangent aside, with my card in hand, I headed to Reykjavik Art Museum at the Harbour House with my new Canadian friends, Ari and Lindsey, that I met the previous day at the Blue Lagoon.

To say that art is subjective is most certainly an understatement. This became especially clear when taking in the work currently on display in Reykjavik, an international hub for ecclectic art. Located next to the water and within the main part of downtown, the art museum at Hafnarhús is currently home to five temporary exhibitions. Some interesting, some not so much; others that really make you furrow your brow with a mixture of confusion and intrigue. To keep it relatively brief, I will let the art speak for itself and try not to inundate you with too much text. Although some things do deserve a longer explanation than others.

Lego Hallsgrimkirkja and other works

The first exhibition that we walked into was by Magnús Sigudarson and focused primarily on digital media. The main focus of the piece was a video made by the artist set in the everpopular Hallgrimskirkja church. Also in this room were a series of mountainous landscapes all printed digitally and geometrical in design, as well as a miniature model of the church made of Legos.

The exhibit in a nutshell…

The next gallery contained a plethora of black ink prints in curious shapes on white canvas. A very simple display, it did not take us much time to get from one end to the other.

Just a taste of the crazy genius that is Erró!

The third gallery was much more my speed! It was focused around the famous Icelandic painter, Erró, who I of course has not heard of until I was staring at his art. A very talented painter, Erró excels in his collage-style art, the process for which was a big part of his exhibition. It was both fascinating and thought-provoking, as the creative choices he made were quite nuanced and avantgarde. I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about him and his notoriety, especially within the gaze of Icelandic art as a whole.

Erró again. For good measure!

The last exhibition that we visited (the fourth one was very short and somewhat insignificant, sorry Reykjavik) was quite possibly the creepiest thing I have ever seen in my short time as an art critic, or person in general really.

One of the many creative choices on display in this gallery

Titled BEARS: TRUTHS… by Kathy Clark, it is a found art piece utilizing donated, lost, or discarded teddy bears as the main medium and copious amounts of wax and thread as co-conspirators. Is your skin crawling yet?

In case you were interested in what the artist has to say

The bears are apparently a metaphor for human nature, which I could see
in some parts of the display. But in others, I had to wonder what had happened to this woman to make her outlook on human nature so bleak!At any rate, it was more exciting than any of the other exhibitions and we definitely spent the most time in this room. Although it was spent primarily documenting every inch of the gallery so we could share many a WTF moment with our friends when we got home.
In short, this museum was not something I would have paid to see if I didn’t have the card. On the other hand, the national gallery (as far as art is concerned), would be worth the admission.

But if this kind of art isn’t for you, your tastes might be better matched to those of the National Gallery of Iceland, which contains a little more of what you might expect from a gallery. Of course, it has it’s oddities as well, but I suppose that’s just Iceland’s style.

Jacqueline by Picasso
Jacqueline by Picasso

Currently, the National Gallery of Iceland contains a “bust” by Picasso of his last wife, Jacqueline (the piece is entitled Jacqueline with a Yellow Ribbon). The other exhibitions are interesting, but nothing really blows your mind in my opinion; though I did learn a little bit more about the Icelandic art scene, as many local artists were also on display. The Picasso exhibition is very well curated. It is secluded in its own room and complete with loads of information on the late Jacqueline and her infamous husband, of whom I knew very little about. Admission without the City Card is 1200k or less than $10.


The Cultural House, which used to be the Reykkavik Pubic Library

The Culture House is another place that may or may not need to be visited, depending on what you are looking for. Regular admission is also 1200k. Currently, the main exhibition is Points of View which focuses on different parts of Icelandic culture using direction as a metaphor for life and culture. This idea is very innovative and creative, but the exhibitions themselves don’t follow the same unique pattern. It wouldn’t have been at the top of my list.

A small collection of what can be seen at the National Museum

The National Museum of Iceland, however, was the most worthwhile attraction included on the card. Complete with artifacts from the entire lifetime of Iceland dating from 800 BC to the current decade, it would be easy to spend a day here. Especially if you pay the additional 300k for the audio guide. Since I didn’t pay admission (regularly 1500k) I sprang for the audio guide which cost a little more than $2 USD. Unfortunately I was in a bit of a hurry to get through the museum since my 24 card was coming up on its 24th hour and I wanted to hit another spot before its expiry date so I didn’t hit every stop. Therefore, my own audio tour ws aa bit shorter than I think the museum would have liked. But overall, very informative and easy to navigate. It was a great introduction to the history of Iceland and a great orientation to the rest of my trip.

A figurine of the Icelandic god, Thór

Briefly, I will also mention that we used our city card to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum where we received a 20% discount on admission. Had this discount not been in effect, I don’t know if I would bother with this novelty museum. It is quite comical and you do learn your fair share about the shape and size of the many penises in the animal kingdom, but it is rather small and more humorous than informative. However, I suppose it is one of those “When in Iceland” sorts of activities that makes for interesting Instagram posts.

My #insta post for evidence!

As I have already emphasized, the card was worth it for me. But it’s not necessarily worth it for everyone. I won’t lie and say it was easy to get everywhere in 24 hours because it wasn’t (though transportation is included on the card). And I didn’t get to spend as much time in some places for fear of missing others, which was a bit of a bummer. But I was able to see a lot and it was also a good way to acclimate myself to the layout of the city, as well as the city busses (for free). To conclude, get the card if it’s going to be worth it to you. Do your research, make good choices, all that jazz!


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