Reykjavík is the northernmost capital on Earth. With a bit more than 120,000 inhabitants, the Icelandic capital is smaller than many regular cities around the world. However, don’t judge a book by its cover. The only small thing about Reykjavík is its size, but everything else is big and beautiful!
There are many things to do in and around Reykjavík. It is a city full of culture and history. There, one can get to taste some of the Icelandic cuisine. For those who like partying, Reykjavík is a good destination. The weather might be cold but the nightlife is hot! With numerous outdoor activities for the adventure seekers, Reykjavík will certainly please everyone of all ages and tastes.
Reykjavík can be translated to "The Smoky Bay". It was named by the settler Ingólfur Arnarson because of the steam rising from geothermal vents. Ingólfur was a Norwegian fugitive who became the first permanent Norse settler of Iceland. He officially founded the Icelandic capital in 874. The legend says that when Ingólfur saw the coast of Iceland, he tossed his high-seat pillars, a symbol of his chieftainship, overboard and settled where the gods washed them ashore.
For centuries, Reykjavik remained a simple farmland, but quickly became a hub of wool production, while the whole nation was centered around fish. It changed a lot through colonialism, war, trade, and migration to become what it is today. The majority of the sources about Iceland’s early History comes from a book called Landnámabók, which means the Book of Settlements. It was written by Ari Þorgilsson in the late 11th century and the early 12th.
Iceland got absorbed by the Kingdom of Norway in the 13th century, then into the Kalmar Union, which was the Scandinavian Union ruled by Denmark, in 1380. The community of Reykjavík was officially founded in 1786. It stayed under the Danish Crown until 1944, when the country won its independence.
Reykjavík changed a lot during WWII, after it helped both British and US troops stationed at Keflavík. There was a huge demand among the Allied troops for a reliable source of fish, and Iceland could provide it. In exchange, Britain as well as the US helped to protect the fisheries during the war. Afterwards, some people from the US troops decided to stay in Iceland and the country became richer thanks to the money coming from American taxes and growing trades. Reykjavík started to develop new infrastructures and the city began to invest in sports and arts. Since then, the Icelandic capital has become unstoppable. Today it's at its peak, as more and more visitors are coming to visit the northernmost capital. In 2017, more than 2 million people visited Iceland.
Here are some of the places which should definitely be on every bucket list.
Hallgrimskirkja is to Reykjavík what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Towering 74 meters over the center of the capital, the viewing platform of the Lutheran church offers one of the best 360° views over the whole city. It costs 1,000 ISK (8,20 EUR) for adults and 100 ISK (0,80 EUR) for 7-14 year old children to take the elevator to the top. Note that is free for children under 7 years old. The tower is open every day except on Sunday mornings. It can also be closed for private services or concerts.
The expressionist building was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, a famous Icelandic architect. If the church rings a bell (little play on words), it is surely because the design was inspired by the iconic basalt columns of Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell National Park, South Iceland. The church opened in 1986.
The largest church in Iceland is named after the pastor and poet Hallgrímur Pétursson. It hosts the largest concert organ in the country, which is 15 meter tall and has a total of 5,275 pipes. Just outside of the church, there is a statue of Leif Eriksson, an Icelandic explorer who discovered North America in the year 1,000, that is to say, almost 500 years before Columbus did.
Harpa is a concert and conference hall by the old harbor of the city. The massive glass building with its peculiar architecture is definitely worth a visit while in town. It is even possible to go inside and get some artistic pictures of the different glass colors. Many events are held in Harpa all year round. Don’t forget to check out the venues before coming to have the opportunity to see some local artists or an interesting conference. The Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra rehearses there too. One of the biggest music festivals in Reykjavik, Iceland Airwaves, also has a venue in Harpa.
The main designers of Harpa are the Danish architectural firm Henning Larsen and an Icelandic one called Batteríið. At night, the building is lit up with moving LEDs. Ólafur Elíasson, a Danish-Icelandic artist, is behind this beautiful artwork. The lights have also been used in an interactive way, where people could play the video game Pong using the building's facade as a monitor or choosing the light colors through their phone.
The Sun Voyager (Sólfarið) is a massive steel sculpture made by Jón Gunnar Árnason. It is a popular attraction located along the seashore at Sæbraut, close to Harpa Concert Hall. Most of the tourists think that it represents a Viking ship, but in fact, it is a dreamboat and an ode to the sun, according to the artist. It represents a premonition of the promised land, a plight for hope, pursuit, progress, and freedom. Jón described his vision as one of the possible origins of the Icelandic people.
This masterpiece is one of the most visited sights in Reykjavík. With the magnificent Mount Esja in the background, it is definitely something no one wants to miss, especially during sunset.
In 1986, Reykjavík celebrated its 200-year anniversary. For this special occasion, the town council of Vesturbær, a district of Reykjavík, held a competition for works of exterior art. The Sólfarið won the competition and the city was decorated with a prototype until 1990 when the artist died and the final piece was revealed.
Laugavegur Street is not to be confused with the Laugavegur Hiking Trail, the most popular in Iceland. In this lively street, many local shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, and most of the necessary services can be found. Laugavegur means “Wash Road” because it was once the route to the hot springs and many locals took their clothes to lauder. Laugavegur is full of colorful street art, occupying huge spaces along the street.
The street art is omnipresent in Reykjavík and can be in all different shapes and sizes. From masterpieces on the walls to redesigning electric meters, the Icelandic capital is a real rainbow. Most of the murals are made by local women, who commission their own artwork.
Reykjavík's city pond is a nice place for a picnic during the summertime. In the winter, the frozen pond becomes a popular spot for ice skating. Tjörnin literally means “The Pond” and is up to 80 centimeters (2,4 feet) deep.
Bird enthusiasts will love this place as over five duck species nest there each year. In addition to the ducks, there is a large population of greylag geese and eider, four species of wetland birds and also numerous swans.
In the old harbour of Reykjavík, one can learn a lot about the marine life. The flea market (Kolaportið) will also please everyone. There, one can buy the essential Lopapeysa, the traditional Icelandic hand knitted wool jumper.
In the flea market, there is the possibility to taste some local delicacies like shellfish and other seafood. Between 11am and 5pm during the weekend, the harbour will come to life within a really nice atmosphere.
Reykjavík is full of geothermal pools as the country is covered by geothermal areas. Thanks to this renewable energy, the use of water is really cheap in Iceland and the locals love to take a dip in their neighborhood pool. There is a total of 18 swimming pools in the greater Reykjavík area. Many of them have indoor and outdoor pools, a sauna and hot tubs. The pools are heated with geothermal water, which makes them accessible all year round. For an entrance fee under 1000 ISK (8 EUR), those pools are more kind of luxury spas. There are also natural hot springs outside Reykjavík such as Landbrotalaug, a tiny secret pool in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
The largest pool in the Icelandic capital is Laugardalslaug. Before entering any swimming pool in Iceland, visitors are required to shower totally naked for hygiene matters. The showers are, of course, gender separated and showering naked is mandatory or the entrance to the pool will be refused. So come on ! Don't be shy and take off that swimming suit !
Even if it is not in Reykjavík but a 40-minute drive away, the Blue Lagoon is the most iconic tourist attraction in Iceland. The emblematic lagoon figures in the 25 wonders of the world and is located in the middle of a rugged lava field. Blue Lagoon was man made but the natural wonders it contains (such as silica) are known to help people suffering from psoriasis and other skin diseases. Something Icelanders love to do after a relaxing bath is having a hot dog. It is quite a tradition to order “one with everything” and enjoy it before heading back home.
As I said, Reykjavík is a city rich in culture and art. To enumerate some, Reykjavík hosts the Saga Museum, the National Museum of Iceland and the Maritime Museum. In addition to the Whales of Iceland Museum or also Aurora Reykjavík, the Icelandic capital is home to a very particular one: The Phallological Museum (not a joke). History and art museums are prominent in the Icelandic capital. The choice is really varied and the wide range of museums will for sure please everyone.
Mount Esja, or also called Esjan, is a great option for hikers staying in Reykjavík. Only about 20 kilometers away from the capital, Esjan has a really easy access, with public transportation taking the hikers there (bus 15 to Háholt and then 57 to Esjustofa). On the parking lot by the mountain roots, there are maps and lots of information about the trails. It is possible to see Mount Esja from Reykjavík as it is one of the surrounding mountains. Indeed, it is the background behind Solfarið, the Sun Voyager. Mount Esja is 914 meters high (2,999 feet) and is accessible all year round if the weather is not too bad.
The path all the way up is divided into two sections and both are well-marked. The difficulty of the paths are indicated on the signs in the parking lot, one boot is for easy and three boots is for challenging. Going all the way to the top gives a wonderful panorama over the city and its surroundings. Among the essential equipment, sturdy hiking shoes and good outdoor clothing are indispensable. During the winter time, it is strongly advised to wear crampons. The main tip is to follow the trail and not going off-road, the weather conditions should be checked beforehand too.
Nauthólsvík is a nice golden-sanded beach with geothermal water. The average temperature is between 15°C and 19°C and there are some hot tubs as well. Sea swimming is a very popular practice in Iceland, it is known to be healthy. There is a small entrance fee of 600 ISK and an access to facilities. At the very West end of Reykjavík lies Grótta beach with its lighthouse and scenic foot bath. However, it is better to plan a whole day to get there and come back as it is quite far away from the center. This is the ideal place to see Northern lights during winter as there is less light pollution.
There are various parks around Reykjavík. Austurvöllur Square, by the main street, is definitely the perfect spot to enjoy a sunny day, laying on the soft grass. During summer, locals as well as tourists come here to drink a beer, have a picnic and sunbathe, even if it is not even 20°C. It is a really important place for Icelanders. During national holidays, concerts are held in this square. People also come to protest here as it is located right beside the Icelandic Parliament.
To discover Reykjavík and know more about this incredible capital, taking a city tour can be a good solution. It is possible to do so by hopping on a bus or by taking a city walking tour. This way, people will learn more about the Icelandic capital thanks to our experimented guides. Food and beer tours are really fun and it is the ideal way to meet new people while having a good time.
The wildlife is also present in Reykjavík! Take a puffin watching tour and observe those curious little guys from a boat or try to spot the whales in a whale watching boat tour!
Near Reykjavík, it is possible to enjoy a kayaking tour for some hours and explore the sea shores. Or also jump on a Quad/ATV just 15 minutes away from the capital and see some scenic landscapes. Want to see Reykjavík from the airs? Join an epic helicopter tour and fly above the northernmost capital on Earth!
There is nothing more relaxing than a hot bath surrounded by just nature. Reykjadalur natural hot springs is the ideal place to do so. One of the main attraction in Iceland for people staying a short time is the Golden Circle, which includes powerful geysers, the wonderful Gullfoss waterfall, a bright blue lake inside a volcano crater and the famous Thingvellir National Park, where you can snorkel and dive between two tectonic plates. The South Coast is also a good place to visit with its iconic black sand beach and wonderful waterfalls.
Many of our tours include pick up from Reykjavík, nearby the main hotels in town. So our customers can basically go almost everywhere in Iceland. It is better to do a multi day tour to be able to see more.