Iceland's capital city is the launching point for nature walks and mountain hikes, but it also offers ample opportunities to take it slow, walk around downtown, and explore art and culture. If you're traveling with kids, there's plenty of family fun to be had.
Excursion to Viðey island
Did you know that a few islands are considered part of the Reykjavík metropolitan area? One of them, Viðey, is accessible by a 5-minute ferry ride. This island used to be inhabited, but the island's village was abandoned in the mid-20th century. The stately white mansion you'll see here was built in the mid-18th century and now serves as a café in summer. Take a walk around the island, and explore its history and outdoor art, including Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace Tower.
Get lost in Icelandic forest Heiðmörk
Another little-known fact about Reykjavík is that it actually has its own forest, Heiðmörk Nature Reserve. This forest is accessible by bus No. 5 from Hlemmur to bus stop Bugða. Walk among the 26 species of trees and try to spot some of the 60 species of wild birds that nest there. Bring something to BBQ or for a picnic, play in the playgrounds and fish in the lake. In late summer, look out for berries or mushrooms. Heiðmörk is perfect for families, but it's also popular among runners and bikers.
Sea swimming in Nauthólsvík
Going to the beach is maybe not something you would expect when visiting the world's northernmost capital. However, Nauthólsvík is a small white-sand beach (the white sand was moved there to make it look like the Mediterranean). The seawater here is geothermally heated, and there is a proper hot tub. Locals love to come there for picnics and BBQ, play beach volleyball, make castles in the sand and sunbathe when warm enough. Sea swimmers come all year round to swim in the frigid sea around the heated cove and soak in the hot tub afterward. If you want to try it, start with a few minutes close to land. Combine a visit with a drink, lunch or dinner at Bragginn or Nauthóll.
Explore Reykjavík by bike
Reykjavík is a fun city to explore by bike. You can join several bicycle tours, but if you want to make your own discoveries, find a cycling route that looks promising and see where it takes you. There are multiple places to rent bikes in the city. It's particularly enjoyable to cycle along the shore and breathe in the fresh sea air, perhaps all the way to Grótta lighthouse on Seltjarnarnes and through the valleys Fossvogsdalur and Elliðaárdalur.
Feel the groove of Grandi
The Grandi fishing district has become a haven for hipsters and a base for innovative companies, artists and foodies while maintaining its authentic atmosphere and honoring maritime culture. Interesting museums are based here, including the Reykjavík Maritime Museum, Whales of Iceland and the Living Art Museum, and here you can have pretty unique experiences like FlyOver Iceland. The cozy Coocoo's Nest is popular for brunches – the sourdough bread is definitely worth a visit – and the Grandi Mathöll food hall offers a view of the harbor. Kaffivagninn is Iceland's oldest restaurant – for something truly Icelandic, order a pancake roll with sugar. Icelanders love ice cream in any season, and Valdís has some of the best scoops in town. Omnom Chocolate is another local favorite, and its factory shop also serves ice cream (if you're feeling adventurous, try something with licorice).
A visit to Grandi is not complete without summiting Þúfa, a grassy hillock at the district's far end. The outdoor artwork by Ólöf Nordal invites people to climb to the top and enjoy the view of downtown Reykjavík on the other side of the harbor.
Curious culture walks
Reykjavík is a compact city with something exciting to discover at every street corner. Do some museum hopping in the town center and Grandi harbor district, absorb modern and classic art and learn about Iceland's history at the Settlement Exhibition and National Museum. Take a guided literature walk with the free Reykjavík Culture Walks and find locations central to your favorite Icelandic books. You can also join the Dark Deeds tour. The capital is known for its array of outdoor sculptures. There's an app for hunting sculptures.
Diving into Icelandic swimming culture is a must. The best way to do so is by entering one of the public swimming pools and soaking with the locals in the hot tubs. Sundhöllin in the city center is an establishment sought after for its rooftop hot tub and the 2.75 m diving board. Designed by renowned architect Guðjón Samúelsson, the Art Deco style building is a thing of beauty. Other pools near the center are Vesturbæjarlaug and Laugardalslaug (which has a bigger slide). Árbæjarlaug offers a fabulous view of the city. If you feel like having a fancier bathing experience, try the Sky Lagoon (although not strictly in Reykjavík), which opened in 2021.
Reykjavík from the above
For a different perspective of the capital, find a good viewpoint. If you're in the city center, walk up Skólavörðuholt to Hallgrímskirkja church and take the elevator up to the tower for a fantastic view of the city's colorful houses. For a 360° view, the top of forested Öskjuhlíð hill by Perlan is a good spot, and the viewing platform is better still. Admission is charged for the platform, but it's included in a ticket to the museum. You can also enjoy the view from the café and restaurant on the top floor, which rotates at certain times. For an even better view of the capital area, hike one of its mountains, Úlfarsfell (which strictly speaking is located in Mosfellsbær) or its bigger and better-known sister Esja. Take buses No. 15 and No. 57, respectively.
Family fun in Laugardalur
Reykjavík Park and Zoo is fabulous when visiting with young children. They love to meet the Icelandic domestic animals, wild foxes, seals and reindeer, ride on hand-led horses, play in the playgrounds and try the rides. The park is in Laugardalur, a green valley in central Reykjavík. Also, visit the Botanic Garden with its beautiful flowers and have a bite or something to drink at Flóran Garden Bistro. Find the geothermal pools where Reykjavík inhabitants did their laundry before washing machines and have a coffee at the family-friendly Dalur Café at the HI Hostel. There's also a campsite in the valley, so you never have to leave!
For a perfect end to a day in Laugardalur, go for a swim in Laugardalslaug, try its thrilling slide, and have a "hot dog with everything" afterward.
Horseback riding between pseudocraters
Experience a different side to the capital from the back of an Icelandic horse. Tours run from Reykjavík – by Viking Horses or Sólhestar – often include Rauðhólar, pseudocraters with spectacular red lava. Riding between these formations feels like entering a fairytale landscape. Icelandic horses are small, gentle and smooth, and suitable for beginners. Riders a bit more advanced should try the tölt, a special and particularly soft gait.
Attend a concert in Harpa
Discover the capital's marvelous Harpa concert hall and conference center from all angles. Stroll along the seashore and admire the façade designed by Ólafur Elíasson. Before entering, check out the sculpture by Elín Hansdóttir, inaugurated in May 2022. The building is best enjoyed by attending an event of some time, so check out the events calendar before you trip and see what's on – Eldborg, the main concert hall, is amazing for powerful concerts, best combined with dinner and drinks in one of its two restaurants. If you're traveling with kids, don't forget to explore the new family-friendly space Hljóðhimnar with all senses.
Submerge into suburbia
Grafarvogur is a proud Reykjavík suburb, surrounded by sea and kind of like a world of its own even though it's only in a 15-minute driving distance from the city center and a 30-40-minute enjoyable bike ride away. It's also easily reachable by bus No. 6. Take a walk along the shore or in the Sculpture Park (here the Reykjavík Art Walk app comes in handy) – and if you're travelling with kids, the playground on Gufunesflatir by the old Gufunesbær farm is a must. The adjacent Skemmtigarðurinn entertainment park offers activities for older kids and active adults, like kayaking and paintball.
Thrilling sea tour
Reykjavík is a harbor city, and whether you want to go sea angling, whale watching, bird watching, or all of them simultaneously, a sea tour is great fun for the whole family. Feel the thrill as you cruise through the waves, breathe in the fresh sea air, admire the sea birds' skills in catching fish and watch Reykjavík grow smaller as you head out into the open ocean. You may see a whale blow or wave its tail, and if you're lucky, it will move closer to the boat for some people watching. Sea angling is an exciting sport: Drop the line to the ocean floor and wait for a fish to take the bait. Haul it in and try your luck again. Afterward, the catch is barbecued on board; it's the freshest fish you'll ever taste! Tour operators include Sea Tours and Elding.
Tune in to the Icelandic festive spirit
For true Icelandic festive spirit, time your visit around one of the annual festivals when downtown is packed with happy people. There is an array of events for people of all ages, concerts and street food. Culture Night is celebrated in late August on the capital's birthday. The day starts with the Reykjavík Marathon, followed by a tradition in which the residents (the mayor included) invite strangers to their homes for waffles, and it all wraps up in the evening with fireworks show. All events are free. Reykjavík Pride has evolved into a multi-day event in early August, bursting with color, solidarity and joy. The event culminates in one of the world's biggest Pride Parades. Other noteworthy festivals include Reykjavík International Film Festival, the famous Iceland Airwaves music festival in the autumn, and the biennial Reykjavík Arts Festival.
A night on the town
You're bound to have heard about the wild Reykjavík nightlife. You may have seen the 1990 hit movie 101 Reykjavík, which put the city on the map for partygoers. Kaffibarinn – the protagonist's favorite hangout – still exists and is open till late. While a true Icelandic party doesn't properly start until after midnight, more and more Icelanders have discovered the upside to starting early. Try happy hour at cozy bars like Veður, Port 9, or in sunny weather, the rooftop bar Petersen svítan. Remember to grab a bite to eat, perhaps at one of the gastropubs, like Public House or Kex Hostel. For live music and events, try Röntgen or Gaukurinn, and Prikið and Lebowski Bar are great for dancing. At Dillon, the DJ is Iceland's beloved "rock and roll grandma".