Think of Iceland and images of rugged volcanic mountains, glacial lagoons and steamy hot springs come to mind. But many who visit the country will start off in a culture-rich Nordic capital that has its own list of must-see attractions.
The world's northernmost capital city, Reykjavik lies at a latitude of 64° north, and is just 2879 km from the North Pole. It’s the perfect base for a city break, or as a starting point for a larger road trip around Iceland. Of course, you can’t miss the Blue Lagoon and a day trip visiting the Golden Circle if it’s your first time in Iceland, but what else is there to do in Reykjavik?
With a population of around 135,000 people, Reykjavik has more of a small town feel than a capital city. A staggering 64% of Iceland’s 376,000 residents live in the capital area, making it the most heavily populated place in Iceland. But Reykjavik definitely isn’t crowded, and as a cultural hub there’s a lot to do in the city. Whether it's losing an hour in a museum, catching a boat to go whale watching, or walking the scenic shoreline, there are plenty of interesting ways to spend your time in Reykjavik.
Take a stroll around Tjörnin Lake, the prettiest part of town with colourfully painted houses, perfectly manicured rows of trees, and picture-perfect flower beds. Here you will come across statues like the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, and the beautifully landscaped Hljómskála Park.
Visit the nearby National Museum of Iceland to explore 1200 years of human history. Then see remnants of 10th-century Viking settlements, and the iconic Icelandic turf houses, perfectly preserved in the interactive Settlement Exhibition.
There are a few city-commissioned and many ‘pop-up’ street art murals dotted around the city. Find some of the best artworks in the hip Grandi neighbourhood, grab some lunch from the food court, Grandi Mathöll, and enjoy views over the harbour and out towards Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower.
You can also make a stop at the Harpa concert hall while in the old harbour. A multi-purpose building, it not only hosts musical concerts and conferences, but it also features stand-up comedy, art exhibits, and musicals. The geometrically designed building has even been used as a screen to play the computer game Pong on.
Another popular thing to do in Reykjavik is to visit the popular photo stop at the Sun Voyager sculpture. It’s a huge stainless-steel sculpture of a boat created by Jón Gunnar Árnason in 1990. Although many call it a viking ship, it’s actually the artist’s depiction of a dreamboat: “It is an ode to the sun and something that inspires dreams and imagination, symbolising light and hope”. The dramatic views out to the sea and over into the mountains make this one of the best spots for photographers in Reykjavik.
On a particularly nice day join the locals at the Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach for a dip in the naturally warm baths. Nauthólsvík was opened in 2001 in an ambitious project to construct a lagoon with large sea walls where cold sea and hot geothermal water fuse together. This has resulted in average temperatures of 15°-19°C in summer, much more appealing than the frigid sea temperature of 8°C.
Climb the 75 metre tower at Hallgrímskirkja, and get views right over the city. The nordic church is an unmissable landmark on the Icelandic skyline, distinctive for its cascading basalt-like columns. The interior is quite bare and unusually stylish for a religious building, no elaborate gold angels or renaissance paintings here. A large 15 metre high organ by the German master Johannes Klais sits pride of place, eclipsing everything else inside.
A statue of the Norse explorer Leif Eriksson stands at the entrance, renowned as the first European to set foot on American soil during the 11th century. From here head down Skólavörðustígur, the main shopping street lined with art galleries and trendy coffee shops. Further down you will uncover part of the street painted in the colours of the Rainbow, as it’s pedestrianised you can wander freely shopping for local wares like reindeer pelt, viking chess sets and Icelandic salt.
Reykjavik is one of the best places to see whales in Iceland from, second only to Húsavík on the north coast. Head to the old harbour and jump on a boat tour around Faxa Bay. During the summer months of April to September it’s possible to see up to 20 species of whale gather here, but the most common sightings are minke and humpback whale. You might be lucky enough to spot puffins on the way past the island of Akurey as well as seals, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises.
By night Reykjavik comes alive, and the central 101 area is the place to be. Get some wallet friendly dinner from 101 Reykjavik Street Food (located next to Rainbow Street). Afterwards, join the open and friendly bar scene - often mentioned in travel magazines as one of the best nights out in the world. A local favourite is the Lebowski Bar, a lively themed establishment giving homage to the Coen Brothers’ movie ‘The Big Lebowski’.
The Seltjarnarnes Peninsula juts out west of the main city and is a popular place for birdwatchers, as well as runners and walkers. Hike the 7.4 kilometre loop around the seaside path, linking on to the Sculpture and Shore Walk.
The Grotta Lighthouse is only accessible during low tide, but you can get great pictures of it along the Seltjörn beach. It’s also a great place to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik, along with the more famous spots in the Reykjanes Peninsula.
If you are only visiting Reykjavik on your trip to Iceland, you might feel like you are missing out on the many natural wonders outside of the city. But you don’t have to. Visit the Perlan ‘Wonders of Iceland’ museum to learn about glaciers, volcanoes, and see what the Northern Lights look like (without having to face the cold Icelandic nights).
This interactive museum is great for kids and a fun way to spend a rainy day in Reykjavik. You can walk through a man-made ice cave, experience an erupting volcano, and even meet puffins through the use of virtual reality! It’s also a great place to see Reykjavik from above, head to the observation deck for 360-degree views of the city.
It’s no secret that things aren’t particularly cheap in Iceland. A great place to shop for souvenirs and try a variety of local dishes is the Kolaportið Flea Market. There’s everything from fermented shark meat to handmade wool sweaters at fairly reasonable prices. The flea market is open on weekends and bank holidays, and has an eclectic mix of antiques and handicrafts, as well as local food.
Some authentic Icelandic foods to look out for include rugbraud (Icelandic rye bread that is cooked underground), dried fish, smoked horse sausage, ox tongue, pickled lamb testicle, and hakarl. If none of that tickles your fancy head out back to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for Iceland's most famous hotdog, made of lamb instead of beef, the little food stand has been serving up this iconic dish since 1937. Doing a local food tour is a great way to learn all about the dishes, without accidentally eating something you may regret!
Reykjavik’s tourist centre isn’t huge and you can access most of the city by foot without the need of public transportation. The 101 district is a good place to base yourself, here you will be close to everything and within easy reach of some of the best restaurants and cafes in the city. A great place to stay in Reykjavik is the 4 star Reykjavik Konsulat Hotel, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton. It’s situated right in the heart of the central 101 district, in fact it used to be a department store!