Ten unmissable things to do in Reykjavík
Reykjavík is small in size but big on exciting cultural attractions and activities. Ideally situated as a popular stop-over destination between North America and Europe, the world’s northernmost capital has plenty to tempt any culture-hungry (or just plain hungry) traveller looking to experience a slice of Nordic life in a brief space of time. Here are our top ten unmissable things to do on your Icelandic adventure.
1. Get to grips with Iceland’s geology
Discover the Wonders of Iceland exhibition at Perlan © Egill Bjarnason / Lonely Planet
The dome-shaped Perlan Museum and Observation Deck is the finest place in Reykjavík to learn about Iceland’s natural makeup without venturing into nature itself, making it an excellent rainy-day option. Its Wonders of Nature exhibit presents interactive displays on glittering ice caves, glacial ravines and cascading waterfalls, providing an artificial yet captivating insight into the makeup of the country’s landscapes. Upstairs, the circular observation deck allows for a panoramic view of the city’s colourful skyline, the glittering Faxaflói Bay, and the 914-metre high mountain, Esja, a powerful presence on the northern horizon.
2. Partake in a self-guided foodie tour
Hot dogs are the snack of choice for Reykjavík locals
A simple but satisfying Reykjavík institution, hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur © Marcin_Kadziolka / Getty Images
Iceland’s culinary delights often get a bad rap: boiled sheep’s head, the liquorice-tainted schnapps Brennivín, and the questionable but unforgettable taste of hákarl, or fermented Icelandic shark, being just a few examples. A tour around some of Reykjavík’s most celebrated restaurants is sure to change your mind, however, providing the perfect snapshot of Icelandic cuisine, including lamb, skyr yoghurt and the traditional hot dog, best sampled at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Fine dining options in the city include Fiskmarkadurinn (The Fish Market) and Food Cellar Matarkjallarinn, while moderately priced dishes can be sampled at the Old Iceland Restaurant or Gallery Fiskur.
3. Experience Reykjavík’s infamous nightlife
Dillon Whiskey Bar, Reykjavík
Join the locals over a drink and some live music at Dillon Whiskey Bar © David L. Moore – ISL / Alamy Stock Photo
Given its reputation for partying these days, it’s surprising to learn that beer was illegal in Reykjavík, indeed throughout the whole country, until March 1989. Icelanders have since made up for lost time, and Friday and Saturday nights see the downtown area come alive with locals and visitors alike. Happy Hour prices, provided at almost all establishments from 4-6pm, provide gentler prices for the early drinker in a destination renowned for the high cost of alcohol, though fun-loving locals routinely appear later in the evening after a few, cheaper drinks at home. Sample the water of life at Dillon Whiskey Bar, indulge in craft brews at Micro Bar or, if you’re looking to give those dance shoes a workout, hit the city’s one major nightclub, Paloma.
4. Souvenir shop downtown
Icelandic sweaters make great souvenirs
Keep warm but look cool in a traditional Icelandic sweater © Bragi Thor Josefsson / Getty Images
The beating heart of Reykjavík, Laugavegur is where eating, drinking and shopping come together in an unmissable mix, making it an essential destination during your time in the city. For a memento to keep those holiday memories alive, browse the many gift shops here. Those looking for more authenticity in a souvenir than the typical cuddly puffins can pick up a traditional Icelandic sweater, otherwise known as a lopapeysa, best found at the Handknitting Association of Iceland or Rammagerðin. This item of attire is loved as much for its appealing rustic fashion as for its ability to keep its wearer warm in the long, winter months.
5. Stroll around Old Harbour
The Old Harbour is fast becoming Rekjavík’s most popular neighbourhood
There’s more to the Old Harbour neighbourhood these days than just fishing boats © Michael Chapman / Lonely Planet
Historically the Old Harbour served as the city’s major fishing hub, its past recalled today in the docked boats, historic buildings and advantageous position on Faxaflói Bay. The neighbourhood’s contemporary appeal though lies in its whale-watching and puffin-viewing expeditions, galleries and museums, and some of the city’s most critically acclaimed restaurants. Visit the Reykjavík Maritime Museum or the Volcano House for a further education in Iceland’s culture and history, and then procrastinate over what to eat (don’t worry, it’s all good) at Grandi Mathöll, a fish factory turned international food hall.
6. Discover the Settlement Exhibition
Explore a Viking longhouse at the Settlement Exhibition
Cutting-edge technology meets thousand-year-old history at the Settlement Exhibition © Arctic-Images / Getty Images
Reykjavík was first settled in 874 AD by Ingólfur Arnason and has since boasted a truly fascinating, if often bloody, history. First ruled by the Norwegians, then quickly followed by the Danes, it has seen everything from clan violence, burgeoning independence movements and even an Allied invasion during World War II.
To learn about the city’s earliest years, the Settlement Exhibition is a visitor’s best bet. The museum space is built around the excavated hall of a Viking longhouse, dating from roughly AD 930-1000, meaning visitors are, quite literally, surrounded by history. The exhibition also provides multimedia displays and information boards dedicated to shedding light on this formative period in Iceland’s story.
7. Visit Hallgrímskirkja church
Calm, simple interior of Hallgrímskirkja
Both inside and out, Hallgrímskirkja is an architectural masterpiece © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet
Arguably the city’s most recognisable landmark, the Lutheran church of Hallgrímskirkja is a sightseeing staple and an enduring testament to the genius of visionary state architect, Guðjón Samúelsson. Not only is the architecture stunning – directly influenced by Iceland’s nature, particularly the distinctive lava columns that frame the entrance – but the church also provides guests with the opportunity to scale its tower, getting a sweeping (and often windy) view of the city’s multi-coloured rooftops and ocean beyond.
8. Step into Harpa
Harpa’s multicoloured facade
Harpa’s eye-catching exterior has become a highlight of Reykjavík’s skyline © Keong Da Great / Shutterstock
Harpa was originally designed as part of the World Trade Centre Reykjavik, a redevelopment plan for the Austurhöfn neighbourhood. With the Icelandic financial crisis in 2008, construction was halted and the future of the capital’s first purpose-built concert venue hung in the balance. However, the government pushed to complete Harpa, and thus the concert hall became one of the country’s only construction projects finished during the financial crash.
Now a striking feature of Reykjavík’s cityscape, each of Harpa’s glass tiles has a unique size and shape, and the whole building lights up in an array of kaleidoscopic colours at night, creating an ever-changing beacon on the shoreline. Synonymous with classical music, live theatre and a host of respected international and local artists, it’s home to both the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera, as well as the long-running and hilarious Icelandic Sagas: The Greatest Hits Theater Show.
9. Appreciate Reykjavík’s street art
Mural in Reykjavík
Reykjavík’s colourful and plentiful murals brighten up the city’s streets © Michael Chapman / Lonely Planet
Whereas most cities downplay the graffiti in their streets, Reykjavík celebrates it, showcasing large colourful murals on almost every other corner. Here, the street art is literally unmissable (especially for those frequenting the city’s major shopping street, Laugavegur), and often commissioned by the local government to enliven the city’s canvas. Since the early 90s, artists have created an eccentric and prevalent style, all the while presenting their capital city in a unique, and some might say psychedelic, way. Examples of notable pieces include a mural by Sara Riel on Njálsgata, and the Guideo Van Helten mural at Grandi.
10. Dip into Iceland’s swimming pools
Outdoor pool and hot-pots, Reykjavík
Reykjavík locals make the most of the country’s naturally heated pools and so should you © Magnus Hjorleifsson / Getty Images
To experience Reykjavík like a local, take a trip to one of its many swimming pools. A basic of everyday life, bathing in geothermal pools and spas has long been an important aspect of Icelandic culture, somewhere to get together with friends and family, relax, and find sweet relief from the often frigid weather. While there are plenty of natural hot springs out in Iceland’s wilderness, the capital’s pools offer a spa-like experience, with saunas, steam rooms and, of course, hot-pots (small pools) of varying temperatures. To experience one of Iceland’s largest swimming complexes head to Laugardalslaug, with an Olympic-sized indoor pool and 86-metre high water slide, or for a quieter option take a dip at Sundhöllin, the city’s oldest, originally built in 1937.