Many visitors flock to Iceland for its spellbinding natural features and wild and remote landscapes, however, there are many cultural, historical, and scenic treasures to be discovered in the vibrant capital city of Reykjavík.
Reykjavík is the world’s northernmost capital and its proximity to Keflavík International Airport and plenty of sight-seeing routes means it serves as a popular base for many to launch their Iceland adventures.
Whether you’re spending a week in Reykjavík or you just have one day, afternoon, or evening to explore the city, this guide will ensure you make the most of your time here.
Any guide to Reykjavík has to include the city’s most famous landmark, Hallgrímskirkja church. It’s one of the tallest man-made structures in the country, making its distinguished spire visible from many parts of the city. If you’re visiting Reykjavík for the first time, you’ll definitely want to get a better look up-close to admire its architectural flourishes designed to emulate Iceland’s natural features such as glaciers and basalt columns.
Hallgrímskirkja is located in Reykjavík’s downtown, at the top of one of its most pretty and popular shopping streets, Skólavörðustígur. Many choose to snap their pictures of the church from different vantage points along this street, especially at its base which has been painted in the Pride rainbow colours.
Lit up at night, Hallgrímskirkja is visitable any time of the day but if you’re there during office hours check if the tower is open. For a small fee, you can ascend to the top of the tower (via a lift) to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the city. During opening hours, it’s possible to view the inside of the church for free where you can see its huge pipe organ consisting of over 5000 pipes.
Harpa Concert and Conference Hall
This impressive architectural landmark is a must-see attraction when visiting Reykjavík. Completed in 2011, Harpa has won numerous awards for its staggering feats of design and dazzling beauty. It is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and offers a variety of exhibitions and shows all year round.
However, you don’t need a ticket to admire Harpa’s dazzling grandeur as it’s free to enter the building and take a leisurely stroll to explore. One of the best things about Harpa is that it’s stunning inside and out, so even if the weather is bad, you’re still guaranteed to be able to capture a striking shot of its oddly shaped colour glass windows and views out to sea.
Harpa is located downtown close to Reykjavík’s old harbour making it a perfect stop as you walk around the city centre. There is also a cafe and restaurant inside the building as well as regular shows that cater to English-speaking audiences. So if you have that little bit of extra time in Reykjavík, be sure to check out the schedule.
Go to a Museum in Reykjavik
Explore Iceland’s rich cultural heritage and visit one of Reykjavík’s museums. There are many to choose from depending on your interests and they can provide a great spot to ride out bad weather while still getting the most out of your visit to Reykjavík.
The National Museum of Iceland boasts the largest collection of artefacts and archaeological remains from the settlement era to the present day. This is the best museum to give you the clearest overall scope of Icelandic history and since it is organized in chronological order, you literally have the opportunity to travel back in time.
The National Museum is just a short scenic walk away from the downtown area. Included in your entrance fee is admission to an additional museum downtown, The Culture House, so don’t miss out on this 2-for-1 experience.
Another stop for history lovers has to be the Saga Museum, located in the up-and-coming Grandi neighbourhood of Reykjavík, very close to downtown. Here you will be literally confronted by the past by way of life-like wax exhibits of famous historical figures. You are guided through the different stories and exhibits via an audio tour which is available in several different languages.
Other museums in the Grandi area include the Whales of Iceland Museum and The Northern Lights Centre, offering you some further insight into the more mystical experiences to be had in Iceland.
If you find yourself downtown with a short amount of time but you still want to visit a museum, why not check out the Settlement Museum. This subterranean attraction has been built around a real archaeological excavation of a Viking longhouse that took place in 2001 and offers a very real look into Reykjavík’s long history.
Last but certainly not least is Iceland’s notorious Phallological museum. Also located downtown, this one-of-a-kind museum is small but impressive; it boasts over 200 penile specimens from all of the mammal species that call Iceland home, including Homo sapiens. You will definitely want to tell your friends that you visited Iceland’s Penis museum and to prove it, there are a plethora of phallological souvenirs to be found at the gift shop, most of which are simply hilarious.
Perlan Observation Deck
The Perlan dome is a distinctive rotating structure built upon five hot water storage tanks on top of the city’s highest hill with sweeping views of Reykjavík and its surrounding countryside. The viewing deck has long been a favourite of visitors to the city and you can access it by buying admission to Perlan.
Included in your ticket price is access to Iceland’s only planetarium where you are well and truly guaranteed to see the Northern Lights as well as access to all of the nature exhibits on offer, including the Ice Caves and Glacier exploratorium which features the world’s first indoor ice cave. There is also a cafe, ice cream parlour, and a restaurant.
If you’re on a budget, Perlan is still a great place to visit as its surrounding forested area Öskjuhlíð offers many walking paths. Located only a small journey from the city centre, Perlan is accessible by car and public buses.
Take a Picture at The Sun Voyager
One of the most popular free things to do in Reykjavík is to visit The Sun Voyager sculpture located on the city’s seafront very close to the Harpa Concert Hall. Created by Jón Gunnar Árnason, The Sun Voyager is a steel sculpture of a ship facing out towards Faxaflói, the bay that surrounds Reykjavík.
Easily one of Reykjavík’s most famous pieces of art, The Sun Voyager serves as the perfect foreground for any snapshot whether it be during the Midnight Sun-soaked months of summer or the starry skied long nights of winter. Whatever the season or weather, you’ll definitely want to feature this must-see attraction on your Instagram.
If the Northern Lights are out in Reykjavík, you’ll definitely be able to see them here. Also, it’s completely free to visit, so what are you waiting for?
Walk around Tjörnin Lake
Located in the heart of downtown Reykjavík, Tjörnin pond is as convenient as it is beautiful. It is home to a large number of bird species, even in the wintertime. Feeding the ducks is a favourite local pastime so if you choose to go, maybe take something along for our feathered friends?
The beautiful architecture of the surrounding buildings adds to the elegance of the pond, and there are several bridges from which to take the perfect photo. It’s just as romantic at night when the lights from the adjacent buildings twinkle over the still water.
The body of water stretches from Reykjavík’s town hall to the BSÍ bus station, and there are several different routes you can take. There’s an abundance of grassy areas and benches should you want to enjoy a snack while you enjoy your serene surroundings.
Tjörnin is especially beautiful in the wintertime and when temperatures drop below zero, the pond freezes solid, and it’s a tradition for locals to go ice skating and play games on its icy surface.
Visit a Swimming Pool in Reykjavik
Your chances of experiencing the geothermal power of Iceland don’t just depend on finding that perfect natural hot spring; you could also just go to a local swimming pool. There are no less than 17 municipal swimming pools in and around Reykjavík; most of them are outside and all of them are geothermally heated.
Each pool boasts its own distinctive features and character and locals often become fiercely loyal to their swimming pool of choice. You can expect every pool to offer jacuzzi-like hot pools of varying temperatures as well as saunas, steam baths, and massaging water jets, making the trip to the swimming pool feel more like a day at the spa.
Icelanders have a cultural relationship to the swimming pool as it’s not only a place to bathe and exercise but many choose to catch up with friends and family to discuss politics or the latest social drama. There is perhaps no better place to experience Reykjavík like a local than at the swimming pool.
If you’re mostly getting around by foot, the swimming pool, Sundhöllin is perfectly located downtown and only moments away from the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church. It is also the oldest public bath in the city. Still close to downtown but a little further of a walk is Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pool, nestled in a cosy but still bustling suburb.
Entrance fees are relatively cheap and most pools are open until 10 at night.
Kolaportið Flea Market
Another local secret is the Kolaportið flea market which is open on the weekends. Here, you will really get a feel for Icelandic culture and an opportunity to encounter some of Reykjavík’s most eccentric characters. For decades, Icelanders have brought their wares to sell at Kolaportið and you can find a huge variety of things for sale. It’s located downtown, close to the old harbour.
If you are searching for the perfect souvenir, Kolaportið is definitely a place to visit if you find yourself in Reykjavík on the weekend. Stalls sell an assortment of goods such as jewelry, Icelandic woolen jumpers (or “lopapeysur”), antiques, books, old postcards, stamps, and coins and there’s also a food section. If you haven’t tried the infamous Icelandic delicacy of rotten shark, no fear, you can also find it at Kolaportið.
The building has undergone recent renovations and there is now a well-stocked bar if you fancy a well-earned tipple after your bargain hunting. There is also a rustic café that serves hearty local meals such as meat soup (“kjötsúpa”) and baked goods such as kleinur, Iceland’s version of a donut.
See the Northern Lights in Reykjavik
The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis often clinch the top spot on people’s Iceland bucket list. Most visitors prefer to leave the city to maximise their chances of seeing these celestial apparitions and many tours offer pick-ups from Reykjavík’s city centre.
However, it is possible to see the Northern Lights from Reykjavík despite the light pollution of the city, and most big hotels offer a wake-up call if the staff spot them during the early hours of the morning.
One secret location that offers particularly good views of the Northern Lights, should they be out, is at the Grótta Lighthouse, located on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula not far from the city centre. This is also a great place to visit during the day and when the tide is low you can walk all the way up to the lighthouse. Just be sure you don’t get stuck out there as it becomes inaccessible from the mainland at high tide.
Eat the Best Hot Dogs in Iceland
If you are looking for a snack in Reykjavík that actually tastes good and doesn’t break the bank, you need to try an Icelandic hot dog. Bæjarins Beztu is a hot dog stand located in downtown Reykjavík and the name literally translates to “the town’s best”.
Icelandic hotdogs are special for many reasons, but first and foremost, the hot dog itself is made of a blend of lamb, pork and beef, giving it a really unique and delicious flavour. It’s recommended you get one with everything for the full experience – this includes crispy onions, finely chopped raw onions, ketchup, mustard and ‘remúlaði’, a vinegary mayo relish. This may sound like a lot, but they know what they’re doing at Bærins Beztu.
The hot dog stand itself was established in 1937 and it’s still family-owned and run. Bill Clinton famously bought a hot dog there with only mustard which has since been dubbed ‘The Clinton’. Don’t be surprised to arrive to find a long line but don’t be dismayed as the line moves quickly.
Explore Reykjavik’s Nightlife
Does Reykjavík have a good nightlife? I hear you ask, well, yes, yes it does. Of course, given the city’s size, it should not be compared to other European capitals such as London or Berlin, but given its size, it certainly is impressive!
All of the bars you want to go to are conveniently located pretty much next to each other in the downtown area which makes Reykjavík perfect for bar hopping. If you grab a drink somewhere and you’re not feeling the vibes, all you have to do is cross the street. Icelanders do this too and there’s often as much of a party scene on the streets as indoors, especially in the summer.
Reykjavík is somewhat unique as there are very few establishments that serve only as clubs or party venues. Many bars operate as coffee houses and eateries during the day, only to put the tables aside come night time to make space for a dance floor. It can be quite fascinating to visit one place during the day and come back later at night to witness the total transformation.
Another advantage of Reykjavík’s party scene is that it is very safe; Iceland boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Along with the small size of the downtown area reducing your chances of getting lost, Reykjavík’s nightlife is perfectly welcoming to solo travellers who want to let loose and meet locals and fellow travellers alike.
The city is constantly evolving and venues come and go but here are some consistent establishments worthy of note. Prikið is Reykjavík’s oldest coffee house and on the weekends, it is one of the best places to go to dance. The crowd is young and the music is geared towards hip hop. If you would prefer to sit down, Kaldi and Ölsmiðjan are both cool and cosy bars full of character (and characters!) and the vibe is still appropriately rowdy.
Go to Gaukurinn if you want to catch a live show or concert. It’s a bit of a dive bar and you can expect a very eclectic bunch of patrons from drag queens to goths. Go to Jungle or Public House if you fancy cocktails. Many restaurants offer cocktail happy hours and you don’t have to order food so keep a look out for advertisements which are often placed outside on the street.
You can make the best of the Happy Hours on offer in Reykjavík by using the ‘Appy Hour’ smartphone app issued by the Grapevine.
The recent explosion in the popularity of craft beers did not miss Reykjavík so if you’re looking to sample some local brews, you won’t be disappointed. Skúli Craft Bar, Microbar, and Brewdog are only a few of the places you can go where you’ll be lavished with choice for local craft beers on tap.
‘Skál’, pronounced ‘scowl’ is Icelandic for cheers, so have fun and bottoms up. Skál!
Climb Mt. Esja
Towering over Reykjavík is the beloved Esja mountain. The noble peak not only serves as a stunning backdrop to any Reykjavík view (facing that direction) but it’s a popular hiking spot for locals and visitors alike.
It’s approximately a half hour drive from the city or it can be reached by taking two public buses. There are several different routes leading to Esjan’s peaks and there’s a map in the car park to help you get your bearings.
Most of the hiking trails are gentle but be sure to bring the right type of shoes. Approximately 200-metres from the peak, there is a signpost for ‘Steinn’ which means stone in Icelandic and it would explain the large rock you are now facing. From this point on, the trail becomes a lot dicier and it is only recommended for more confident hikers.
The appeal of climbing Esja is that you won’t necessarily be joining a herd of homogenous tourists. You’ll be in the midst of Reykjavík dwellers power walking with friends, families with their children and dogs, joggers over-taking you and all different sorts. Whether you climb Steinn or not, you’ll be accompanied the entire way by stunning views over Reykjavík and its surrounding countryside.
Be sure to check for weather warnings before planning any journey and dress appropriately.
Einar Jónsson Sculpture Park
This stunning sculpture park is one of Reykjavík’s secret treasures only a stone’s throw away from the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church. The park features 26-bronze cast sculptures inspired by stories from Norse Mythology as well as basic facts of life such as love, ageing and death.
The garden is the perfect spot in the wintertime as the high walls provide ample shelter from any strong winds and a dusting of snow adds to the elegance of the captivating sculptures.
The impressive art-deco house which towers over the garden is where the artist, Einar Jónsson, lived with his wife Anna and has since been converted to an Art museum dedicated to the sculptor. Although entry to the garden is completely free, there is a small admission fee for the museum but it’s highly recommended and an excellent place to warm up.
This is the perfect spot to visit after Hallgrímskirkja church or if you find yourself with a bit of spare time before a tour or dinner reservations.