The world’s most northerly capital combines colourful buildings, quirky, creative people, eye-popping design, wild nightlife and a capricious soul.
Food & Nightlife
Reykjavík is strikingly cosmopolitan for its size. It's merely a town by international standards, compared with London or Paris, yet it's loaded with captivating art, rich culinary choices, and cool cafes and bars.
The capital has seen a recent surge in restaurant openings, many of the highest standard, and expressing all manner of culinary creativity. Cafes by day turn into restaurants and bars at night. Tapas-style dining, high-concept Icelandic cuisine and burger joints all rub shoulders.
Then join the late-night party. The music scene is epic: excellent festivals, creative DJs gigging and any number of home-grown bands.
You can get a full primer on Icelandic history right in central Reykjavík, from its Settlement Exhibition built around the unearthed Viking longhouse of the area's earliest inhabitants to the enormous National Museum, keeper of the country's most precious artefacts.
In the Old Harbour you can enthrall the kids at a high-octane Saga Museum, or learn about the area's maritime history. And, as you make your way around, try to slip behind the shiny tourist-centric veneer to find today's people, who mix aesthetic-minded ingenuity with an almost quaint, know-your-neighbours sense of community.
Art & Design
The capital's art museums, shops and galleries are a perfect insight into contemporary city life. They include outstanding exhibition spaces, such as the Reykjavík Art Museum and National Gallery, as well as shops featuring cutting-edge Icelandic design. Edgy contemporary art galleries such as those in the Marshall House showcase emerging and internationally famous Icelandic artists.
Reykjavík also presents the chance to see Icelandic cinema with English subtitles. Or, wander the streets photographing creative graffiti and public art installations, like the ever-popular seaside Sun Voyager sculpture, which changes guises along with the light.
The Great Outdoors
Even if you come to Reykjavík for a short visit, be sure to take a trip to the countryside. Tours and services abound, and understanding Reykjavík and its people is helped by understanding the vast, raw land they anchor. The majority of Icelanders live in the capital, but you can guarantee their spirits also roam free across the land. Absorb what you see, hear, taste, smell – all part of Iceland's rich heritage.
Take Reykjavík, then add its snow-topped mountains, churning seas and crystal-clear air, and the chances are you'll fall helplessly in love, heading home already saving to return.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Reykjavík.
Reykjavík’s immense white-concrete church (1945–86), star of a thousand postcards, dominates the skyline and is visible from up to 20km away. An elevator trip up the 74.5m-high tower reveals an unmissable view of the city. In contrast to the high drama outside, the Lutheran church’s interior is quite plain. The most eye-catching feature is the vast 5275-pipe organ installed in 1992. The church’s size and radical design caused controversy, and its architect, Guðjón Samúelsson (1887–1950), never saw its completion.
Artefacts from settlement to the modern age fill the creative display spaces of Iceland's superb National Museum. Exhibits give an excellent overview of Iceland’s history and culture, and the free smartphone audio guide adds a wealth of detail. The strongest section describes the Settlement Era – including the rule of the chieftans and the introduction of Christianity – and features swords, drinking horns, silver hoards and a powerful bronze figure of Thor. The priceless 13th-century Valþjófsstaðir church door is carved with the story of a knight, his faithful lion and a passel of dragons.
This fascinating archaeological ruin-museum is based around a 10th-century Viking longhouse unearthed here from 2001 to 2002 and other Settlement-Era finds from central Reykjavík. It imaginatively combines technological wizardry and archaeology to give a glimpse into early Icelandic life. Don't miss the fragment of boundary wall at the back of the museum that is older still (and the oldest human-made structure in Reykjavík). Among the captivating high-tech displays, a wraparound panorama shows how things would have looked at the time of the longhouse.
With its ever-changing facets glistening on the water's edge, Reykjavík’s sparkling Harpa concert hall and cultural centre is a beauty to behold. In addition to a season of top-notch shows (some free), the shimmering interior with harbour vistas is worth stopping in for, or take a highly recommended, 30-minute guided tour (1500kr); these run two to three times daily year-round, with up to eight daily tours between mid-June and mid-August.
Oh, the jokes are endless here... This unique museum houses a huge collection of penises, and it's actually very well done. From pickled pickles to petrified wood, there are 286 different members on display, representing all Icelandic mammals and beyond. Featured items include contributions from sperm whales and a polar bear, minuscule mouse bits, silver castings of each member of the Icelandic handball team and a single human sample – from deceased mountaineer Páll Arason.
The excellent Reykjavík Art Museum is split over three superbly curated sites: the large, modern, downtown Hafnarhús, focusing on contemporary art; Kjarvalsstaðir, in a park just east of Snorrabraut which displays rotating exhibits of modern art; and Ásmundarsafn, a peaceful haven near Laugardalur for viewing sculptures by Ásmundur Sveinsson. One ticket (valid for 24 hours) gains entry to all three sites.
Largely a service harbour until recently, the Old Harbour and the neighbouring Grandi area have blossomed into tourist hot spots, with key art galleries, several museums, volcano and Northern Lights films, and excellent restaurants. Whale-watching and puffin-viewing trips depart from the pier. Photo ops abound with views of fishing boats, the Harpa concert hall and snowcapped mountains beyond. On the western edge of the harbour, the Grandi area, named after the fish factory there, is burgeoning with eateries and shops.
The placid lake at the centre of the city is sometimes locally called the Pond. It echoes with the honks and squawks of more than 40 species of visiting birds, including swans, geese and Arctic terns; feeding the ducks is a popular pastime for the under-fives. Pretty sculpture-dotted parks like Hljómskálagarður line the southern shores, and their paths are much used by cyclists and joggers. In winter hardy souls strap on ice skates and the lake transforms into an outdoor rink.
With a series of sights and interesting historic buildings, the area dubbed Old Reykjavík is the heart of the capital, and the focal point of many historic walking tours. The area is anchored by Tjörnin, the city-centre lake, and sitting between it and Austurvöllur park to the north are the Raðhús (city hall) and Alþingi (parliament).