In a country renowned for its rural geographic wizardry, Reykjavík is a humming urban core. Approximately 350,000 folks live in Iceland, with nearly two-thirds of them calling the Greater Reykjavík region home.
Sure, the “Bay of Smokes” may not be the sprawling, high-rise-clad capital that so many of its metropolitan European counterparts are – there are only ten formal districts in Reykjavík after all. But each of its distinct districts, neighborhoods and surrounding towns carry a unique punch, with a handful worth penning into any Icelandic itinerary.
Among the standouts are its museum and shopping-filled center, a recreation-infused utopia and quiet retreat with an open-air museum.
With a modern bus system, rentable scooters everywhere and pedestrian-friendly streets, it’s easy to experience the best Reykjavík neighborhoods in a two-day span.
With that, here are the Reykjavík neighborhoods and districts to set your sights on.
Best for nights out and cultural happenings
If you’re going to experience a crowd anywhere in Iceland – besides picking up your luggage at Keflavík International Airport – it will be in Reykjavík’s downtown, known as Miðborg. Within its confines – which are dotted with mom-and-pop shops, high-end boutiques with parkas and snow gear and two- to three-story residences with colorful rooftops – you’ll find Iceland’s biggest consumer thoroughfare, Laugavegur. If you’re looking for an evening on the town, this is the spot, with time-tested staples like the hostel bar-restaurant KEX Bar, saloon-esque Prikið and the laid-back Kaffibarinn offering great opportunities to indulge in local nightlife.
Miðborg is also the epicenter for cultural happenings – the National Museum of Iceland, National Gallery of Iceland and the very adult and quirky Icelandic Phallological Museum can all be found here. And on the northern edge of the neighborhood overlooking the Old Harbour sits the all-glass Harpa Concert Hall – it is the place in town to catch symphony and opera performances.
Amid all the activity in Miðborg, there are plenty of quiet places to escape, too. To dip your toes in some geothermal water without leaving city limits, head to the Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach tucked just south of Reykjavík City Airport. Miðborg has it all and if convenience and options are what you seek, this should be your home base.
Best for outdoor activities
This is the district where Reykjavík residents get their sweat on. In the heart of Laugardalur is a massive green space that includes the vast Laugardalslaug outdoor pool complex, the Iceland national soccer team’s stadium, an ice rink and – for when temperatures aren’t too frigid – running tracks. Right there as well are the Zoo & Family Park, a botanical garden and, on the neighborhood's southwestern edge, the Reykjavík Art Museum Ásmundarsafn and sculpture garden.
A bit quieter and more residential than its Miðbor neighbor, there are a few big-name hotels along the Suðurlandsbraut street. Options include the Hilton Reykjavík Nordica and Reykjavík Lights by Keahotels, each with panoramic mountain and park vistas.
Best for local life
This district strikes a wild balance of industrial, trendy, and traditional Icelandic charm. Along and around the warehouse-studded Fiskislóð road in the northern part of the district, you’ll find some of Reykjavík biggest draws and trendiest eats, including the highly-publicized FlyOver Iceland simulating flight experience, Omnom Chocolate Ice Cream Shop and factory and the Grandi Mathöll food hall.
South of this area in a region known as the “Old West Side,” Vesturbær emits a super-residential vibe. A few fun facts: This was the first district to be developed in Reykjavík, dating back to the late 1800s. And, today, it is among the city’s most refined and in-demand areas for real estate. So, this area is a top choice for the Airbnb crowd looking for a quiet option with easy access to the city’s center.
Best for urban retreats
Located approximately 6 miles (10km) southeast of Reykjavík’s center, the Árbær district still sits within city limits, and for those seeking an urban retreat with a small-town feel, it does not get any better. Outdoor lovers rejoice in the neighborhood's Elliðaárdalur recreation area, which features the Elliðaá River and the Kermóafoss waterfall. And for the quintessential Icelandic swimming pool adventure, head to the Árbæjarlaug.
On the cultural front, the Árbær Open Air Museum is a favorite for locals and tourists alike. The space comprises more than 20 buildings – many of which have been moved from around Reykjavík – to create a model village, town square and farm. For as charming as Árbær is, the hotel scene is non-existent and B&B options are very limited. So, plan for a day-trip – and likely not a stay – here.
Best for getting off the beaten path
While not technically within the city of Reykjavík’s borders, it geographically feels like it should be. Whereas Árbær emits a countryside vibe, the Seltjarnarnes peninsula – located just west of Vesturbær - is as dreamy as a shore-landscaped area gets. Here you’ll find a nine-hole golf course on the water, the Sundlaug Seltjarnarness pool complex and the area’s best spot for catching the Northern Lights, the Grótta lighthouse.
This neighborhood is super-residential with minimal B&B options, so if you’re lucky enough to snag a room at the Blue House B&B, do it. If not, Seltjarnarnes is just a 10-minute bus or car ride west of Reykjavík’s heart.