In the great rush to see Iceland’s amazing natural landscapes, you might be tempted to cut down on your time in its capital Reykjavik. That’s a mistake, as the city is a charmer and there’s a lot to see and do. In fact, when it comes to what most people would term Iceland highlights, Reykjavik often scores highly. So if you’re coming to Iceland soon, here’s what you should not miss in Reykjavik.
Reykjavik Highlights – The old town
Park up for this one as the old center of Reykjavik is best explored on foot. The one single standout structure is Hallgrímskirkja. Nature – this time in the form of Iceland’s iconic columns of basalt – was the architect’s muse. Guðjón Samúelsson designed the church. It took many years to complete. From the time it was commissioned in 1937 to 1986 when its nave was finally consecrated. It’s one of Reykjavik’s most recognizable landmarks and its height means you can see it from all over the city. Though you really should view it up close for maximum impact.
But there’s much more to Reykjavik city center than simply a church, even one as splendid as Hallgrímskirkja. Art Deco fans should try to stay at least one night at the luxurious Hotel Borg. Or at the very least have a peek into its lobby. Icelandic wrestler Johannes Josefsson was the unlikely person responsible when it was commissioned and built in the 1920s. Today, it’s been sympathetically refurbished and retains the embellishments that create its signature style, such as globe lamps, and brass fittings.
The city center
A short stroll takes you to Althingi Parliament House and its pretty gardens. From where it’s a stone’s throw to Reykjavik City Hall. Located by the side of Lake Tjörnin, this building was deliberately designed to be harmonious with its surroundings and attract birdlife with its huge panes of glass and moss-covered walls. Pop inside, where you’ll find a huge map of Iceland that is a perennial favorite with visitors.
Outside, check out the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat. This humorous – or was it serious? – statue created by Magnús Tómasson in 1994 features the ultimate faceless bureaucrat. This official wears a basalt boulder in place of his head and shoulders, yet despite that extra weight, still has to carry his briefcase, the poor soul.
Museums and Galleries in Reykjavik
Museums and galleries are plentiful in the Icelandic capital. The National Gallery of Iceland graces the shore of Lake Tjörnin. This art museum features both local and international artists, and the collection showcases works from the 19th and 20th centuries. Not far away, The Culture House focuses, as the name suggests, on Iceland’s cultural history. Or for something a little quirkier, check out the Icelandic Phallological Museum which concentrates on one part of the male anatomy.
Shopaholics will love Reykjavik’s most important shopping streets: Laugavegur, Bankastræti, and Skólavörðustígur. Laugavegur is the largest of the three and as such offers the best choice of retail outlets. You’ll find fashion, souvenirs, specialty shops and plenty of cafés to take the weight off your feet when you’ve overdone it with the shopping bags. Don’t miss the Blue Lagoon spa shop where you can stock up on their unique skincare products. Beyond these three streets, head to the Grandi District and the Old Harbour for more designer and artisan stores.
The waterfront of Iceland’s Capital City
We recommend taking a drive along the waterfront as the views across the bay to Mount Esja are well worth seeing. Park up near the Sun Voyager. This iconic sculpture is one of those spots that cannot be missed. Jón Gunnar Árnason created Sólfar, as it’s correctly called. It represents a dreamboat and is floodlit at night. It looks particularly beautiful when the rising or setting sun casts a pink hue across its gleaming surface, and of course it’s spectacular if the Northern Lights dance across the sky above it.
A little further along the waterfront is the architecturally stunning Harpa Concert Hall which has made quite a statement since opening in 2011. Park up here as you’re going to want to take a closer look. The result of a collaboration between Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and Icelandic Batteríið Architects, the building successfully marries form, function and style in an effortless way. In 2013, Harpa won the European Union’s award for contemporary architecture, a much-deserved honor. There’s much to be admired from the outside, but try to fit in time to step inside. There are 714 windows in the Harpa building, all of them irregularly shaped. The views from some of them over the old harbor are simply wonderful.
Reykjavik Highlights and Cultural Events
Cultural events take place both at Harpa and at other venues across the city. There are several cultural festivals that are well supported by locals and visitors alike, including the Winter Lights Festival, the Children’s Culture Festival, Reykjavik Culture Night, Iceland Airwaves Festival, and Reykjavik International Film Festival.
Opposite Harpa is an attraction of a very different kind. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is probably the most famous hot dog van in the country, if not in Europe. Even Bill Clinton has eaten there. It’s been a fixture on the waterfront since 1937 and, as its name translates as “the best hot dog in town”, it’s no surprise that the food is worth queuing for. The recipe mixes Icelandic lamb with a little pork and beef. Ask for one with everything – in Icelandic “eina með öllu” – which in this case means onions, ketchup, mustard, and sauce.
Reykjavik’s Old Harbour
Though many visitors come down to Old Harbour to dine, thanks to its many excellent restaurants, there are plenty of other reasons to visit. If you’re keen to go whale watching, then make your way to this area as that’s where tours depart. Ferries also depart for Viðey Island daily in summer, though in winter they run weekends only and you’ll have to drive a short way out of the city to Skarfabakki pier. The island boasts nesting birds, panoramic views and has a network of hiking and biking trails to explore, as well as Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower, an art installation dedicated to her late husband John Lennon.
Old Harbour is also home to a bunch of excellent museums, one of which is the Saga Museum, whose waxwork figures bring Icelandic history to life. The Reykjavik Maritime Museum is there too, housed in what was once a fish factory, and you’ll also find Aurora Reykjavik, a good place to learn about the Northern Lights before heading out to try to see them for yourself.
A museum you shouldn’t miss is Volcano House, which does an excellent job of explaining the volcanic and geological processes that have created the Icelandic landscape. Remember, this is Iceland, where you can visit both North America and Europe thanks to the tectonic plate boundary that bisects the country. Don’t miss the fascinating documentary shown on the hour which describes some of the country’s most infamous eruptions. You can even buy a sample bottle of ash from Eyjafjallajökull at the museum shop.
Outlying Reykjavik Highlights
Visiting the areas on the edge and just outside the city is where you’ll really be glad about your rental car. Take a drive up to Perlan, which is situated on top of a small hill called Öskjuhlíð just outside the city center. You’ll have no trouble finding it, as its massive hot water storage tanks have carried a huge glass dome for decades. There’s an observation deck with breathtaking views across Reykjavik and the surrounding countryside. Inside, don’t miss the fabulous Áróra presentation. This is a phenomenal 8K Northern Lights planetarium show which is truly jaw-dropping in every sense of the word.
While you have the car, by day, make a beeline for one of the swimming pools or hot springs. There are many within easy reach of the city center. By night, you can get away from the light pollution and try to see the Northern Lights from a more rural location. One of the most popular is Grótta lighthouse, an easy drive out of the city center.
Though it’s straightforward enough to hop on the airport bus if you plan to head to the Blue Lagoon. It’s much more convenient for those with their own wheels to pop out there and back during their stay. Likewise, it’s no trouble to arrange day tours to attractions such as the Golden Circle, but if you’ve rented a car you can set your own pace and spend a little longer at Gullfoss, Geysir, or Thingvellir National Park should you prefer. Where will you end up?