What are Reykjavík’s most iconic sites? Where can one find the best of the city’s art, history and culture? Read ahead for all you need to know about sightseeing in and around Iceland's vibrant capital.
Iceland is known across the world largely because of its nature: its Northern Lights, mighty glaciers, incredible waterfalls, beautiful Highlands and, of course, explosive volcanoes. When most come to visit, therefore, they often cast little thought as to what they will do in Reykjavík.
The capital city, however, is full of surprises and attractions of its own that appeal to people with a wide variety of interests.
History buffs will be impressed by the city’s old buildings and the relics of its Viking and medieval past; the cultured will appreciate sites such as Harpa Concert Hall and Hallgrímskirkja Church. Those with a passion for visual art will find a wealth of impressive statues, sculptures and street-art throughout Reykjavík; and nature-lovers will find they can observe plenty of spectacular landscapes without actually leaving the city.
It is not just the destinations of a sightseeing tour, however, that make spending a day or more exploring Reykjavík so enjoyable. The city has a wonderful charm stemming from its many contrasts.
Old houses with colourful tin roofs surround new constructions that ooze modernity and sophistication; narrow, hilly streets with cluttered buildings are broken up by wide green spaces; and quiet places where one can contemplate in peace are within easy walking distance of the thriving downtown area.
The capital feels both like a close-knit community and a forward-looking city. Other than its sites and natural charm, it welcomes visitors with its wealth of galleries, museums, boutiques and bars, and constant live events and festivals. Reykjavík continues to ascend as one of the world’s foremost cultural capitals.
There are multiple ways to enjoy the sites of Reykjavík, and the options are ever increasing with the growing number of visitors. Up to two million people are expected to pass through the capital in 2017, and there are tours tailored to suit the vast variety of different tastes that come with such numbers.
Guided walking tours run throughout the year, which take you to a select list of iconic places; many of these are free although you can pay for a private tour, and combine it with cultural activities such as beer tasting.
There are hop-on, hop-off buses that you can use to reach a wider variety of destinations over a longer period of time, as well as guided minibus and private car tours. Those who enjoy a bit of exercise will also find biking tours.
If these options are not quite daring enough, there are a variety of 'flightseeing' tours that provide you with a fascinating perspective of the city’s most iconic buildings and surrounding landscapes.
Photo from Reykjavík Summit Helicopter Tour
A final option, however, is to simply see the city sites yourself, tailored to your own interests and tastes, be they history, culture, art or nature.
According to the Book of Settlements, Reykjavík has been inhabited since 874 AD; it therefore has a fascinating past that colours many of its most popular sites. Home to the house where the seeds to end the Cold War were planted, the world's longest-running parliament, and 10th Century Viking ruins, Reykjavík has a wealth of locations that are sure to fascinate those with a passion for history.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, creative commons, picture by Polarlys
Höfði House is one of the most internationally significant historical sites in Iceland. Originally the country’s French Consulate, in 1986 it took on a role far bigger than its humble appearance would lead you to believe. It was here that the Reykjavík Summit was held, where President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev met to discuss an international ban on ballistic missiles during the Cold War.
While the talks fell apart, they showed each side the concessions that the other was willing to make, and thus the Summit in Höfði House was crucial in the passing of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Many also consider their meeting to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, creative commons, Picture by Zinneke
In the downtown area, you can find the Icelandic Parliament (the Alþingi) and Reykjavík’s Cathedral right beside each other. The Parliament was brought here in 1849, centralising power in Iceland in Reykjavík after it had existed in Þingvellir National Park for over seven centuries.
Alþingi is the longest-running parliament in the world, and you can often see the forces of democracy still at work here; there are often protests going on outside the front doors. Such demonstrations have made international news for their scale before, particularly those in response to the economic crash and the Panama Papers.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, creative commons, Picture by JuTa
Reykjavík Cathedral is often overlooked, as many presume that its role belongs to Hallgrímskirkja, the church that dominates the city skyline. This quaint building, however, is Reykjavík’s oldest church, having been consecrated originally in 1796. Its simple Lutheran style speaks a story of Iceland’s religious history.
Photo by Matito
Stjórnarráðshúsið, on Lækjartorg right beside the downtown area, is the official Office of the Prime Minister and has been used as such since 1904. Located very centrally, and without fencing or visible security, the site speaks volumes of the safe and calm atmosphere of Iceland (or, when it is covered in toilet paper and graffiti, that the people are not happy with the incumbent).
The office is located on the same street as the oldest school in Iceland, Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík. This school began in 1056, in the Episcopal See of Skálholt, moved to Reykjavík in 1786, and settled on its current site in 1846.
Photo from The Settlement Exhibition
Although this list will avoid museums as sightseeing sites, Reykjavík’s Settlement Exhibition must be an exception, as it should not be missed by those with a passion for history. Within it, you can look upon the archaeological relics of the oldest settlement found in the Reykjavík area, with some pieces dating back to the 9th Century. There is also a well-preserved hall and wall fragment from a 10th Century longhouse.
The Settlement Exhibition cost 1600 ISK for adults to enter and is free for those under 17 and over 67. It is located on Aðalstræti, the oldest street in Reykjavík, which has buildings dating back to the mid-18th Century.
Photo from Happy Hour | Reykjavík's cheapest beers
Laugavegur is Reykjavík's main shopping street, renowned for its boutiques, restaurants and bars. It is also, however, one of the oldest streets of Iceland. Its name translates to ‘Wash Road’ or ‘Water Road’, as it was through here that people took their clothes to be cleaned in the hot-springs in Laugardalur.
The road itself was constructed in 1885, and still has several historical buildings along it, such as Reykjavík’s oldest restaurant, Prikið, and the birthplace of Iceland’s only Nobel Prize Winner, writer Halldor Laxness.
In the 20th and 21st Centuries, Reykjavík's culture exploded. Prior to World War Two, the city was rather barren of any notable places, be they beautiful buildings or venues where people could enjoy the arts and socialise. With the post-war development and later focus on tourism, however, Reykjavík developed incredibly rapidly, to the extent that it was named one of nine European Cities of Culture in 2000.
Hallgrímskirkja is probably Reykjavík’s most iconic building. At 74.5 metres high, it is one of the country’s tallest structures, and its position atop the hill only adds to its scale. This Lutheran Church was consecrated in 1986 after 41 years of construction and was named after the 17th Century Icelandic poet and clergyman, Hallgrímur Pétursson.
The beauty of this church largely comes from the inspirations in its aesthetic. Classically Icelandic, its three main influences are the simplicity of Protestant design, the hexagonal basalt columns that can be found across the country (most significantly, those at Svartifoss Waterfall), and the shape of the hammer of Þór, the Old Norse God of Thunder.
The church can be entered for free; its vast hall, enormous organ, and tasteful art make it a beautiful location. The tower can be ascended too, for some incredibly beautiful views across the colourful tin roofs of Reykjavík and the surrounding nature. This costs 900 ISK for adults, and 100 ISK for children 7 to 14.
Since its opening in 2011, Harpa has competed with Hallgrímskirkja for the capital’s most iconic building. A feat of modern architecture, with a glass facade that consists of windows of all different shapes, it is designed to resemble the basalt landscapes of Iceland’s nature. The acoustics inside are amongst the best in the world, elevating the already incredible sounds of the Symphony Orchestra and National Opera that operate within it.
It took four years to complete, a process lengthened by the 2007/8 financial crash. Initially, it was feared that construction would have to be stopped to save costs, yet since it’s completion, it has started to rake funds back in. It now hosts concerts from international artists, performances as diverse as the ballet and comedy, and enormously popular festivals such as Airwaves and Sónar.
Photo Credit: the National Theatre, www.leikhusid.is
Reykjavík’s National Theatre opened in 1950 and is known for its unusual architecture and incredible performances. While most are in Icelandic, the venue also hosts shows in English, both old and new, as well as puppet shows and shows for children. Many of the acts that debuted here have won national and international awards, and have gone on to tour the world.
Many of the most notable subjects of sightseeing around Reykjavík are the pieces of art on public display. From historical statues to murals that cover the walls of buildings, Reykjavík is a city of artistic craftsmanship that pays tribute to the skills and hard work of its people. Those with an eye for such talent will be mesmerised by the works on display as they visit the following sites across the capital.
The Sun Voyager looks out from Reykjavík across Faxaflói Bay to Mount Esja. What its designer, Jón Gunnar, wished it to represent becomes very clear upon looking upon it; it symbolises the tantalization of adventure, the desire for discovery, the need to move forward, and the bridge between the realms of dream and wake. Described as an ‘ode to the sun’, it is Reykjavík’s most famous sculpture.
The Sun Voyager started as a design entered into a 1986 competition for a piece to commemorate Reykjavík’s 200th anniversary as an official town. It was unveiled on the capital’s ‘birthday’, on August 18th, 2000. Sadly, Gunnar did not live to see its grand unveiling, but the mark and message he left upon the city with this sculpture mean he will not be forgotten.
Einar Jónsson was one of Iceland’s most talented and groundbreaking artists. Born in 1874, he spent twenty years abroad learning sculpture, an art-form barely known in Iceland at the time. Critical of copying other artists, and passionate about carving a unique path in the craft, he made such a name for himself internationally that the Alþingi invited him back home to work for the nation, providing him with a studio and a home.
Until 1954, he created incredible artworks, usually made from plaster, which could take him up to a decade to complete. The majority of his works are now held at the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Garden, right beside Hallgrímskirkja Church. The garden is free to enter, and a walk through here is sure to mesmerise any with a knowledge of or passion for incredible artistic craftsmanship. The Einar Jónsson Museum can be found on site, and entered for 1000 ISK for adults, 500 ISK for those over 67, and free for children.
Since Einar Jónsson, sculpture has become much more common an art-form in Iceland. Even so, he created some of the most notable works dotted around the city. He, for example, sculpted the statues outside the Office of the Prime Minister, of Danish King Christian IX handing the Icelandic nation their first constitution, and Hannes Hafstein, the first minister after Iceland gained Home Rule. He also made the statue of Reykjavík’s founder, Ingólfur Arnarson, which stands on Arnarhóll hill overlooking downtown.
Many other artists have contributed to the sculptures of famous historical figures, however. Hallgrímskirkja, for example, has a sculpture of Leif Eriksson in front of it, the first European to reach the Americas, which was gifted by the USA in 1930. The poet Tómas Guðmundsson sits on a bench downtown, created by Halla Gunnarsdóttir.
There are also pieces made to represent modern everyday folk, such as the sculptures ‘Son’, ‘Girl’, and ‘the Musician’, by Ólöf Pálsdóttir, and historical everyday people. The most notable of these is the ‘Water Carrier’ by Ásmundur Sveinsson, which represents the women who carried water up and down Laugavegur from Settlement.
Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, in Central Reykjavík
Not all the sculptures simply represent people, however. Some are abstract, such as Gerður Helgadóttir’s twisted piece simply called ‘Sculpture’. Others are political, such as Magnús Tómasson’s ‘Monument to an Unknown Bureaucrat’, which is pictured above. The 2012 ‘Black Cone, Monument to Civil Disobedience’, by Santiago Sierra, celebrates grassroots power breaking through corruption, by showing a small metal cone cracking apart a great rock.
One of the highlights of sightseeing around Reykjavík is the wealth of vibrant street art that decorates the city. Inspired by music, Icelandic folklore, and the imagination, many of the city’s walls are beautifully painted, providing a delight to any walking past them.
There are too many pieces to list, but some of the most notable works emerged in the 2015 WALL-POETRY campaign, which was a collaboration between the Airwaves Festival and Berlin’s Urban Nation. Ten street artists worked with ten musicians to create murals all around the festival area representing the artistry of both parties and completely lifting the face of the city while doing so.
Possibly the most well-known and beloved street-art, however, has been featured around the historic Old Harbour since 2013. Australian artist Guido van Helten painted vintage, photo-style images on the crumbling walls, transforming one of Reykjavík’s most dilapidated areas into one of its most celebrated.
Though a capital city, Reykjavík is immersed in Icelandic nature. On clear days, there are many points where one can look over the barren, volcanic landscapes of the Reykjanes Peninsula, the snow-capped peaks of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the daunting shadows of Bláfjöll, the Blue Mountains. Furthermore, the city has plenty of green spaces where one can escape the busy centre.
Grótta Lighthouse is a beautiful site in Seltjarnarnes, where you can attain incredible views over the city, the ocean, and the surrounding nature. Peaceful and romantic, it helps to complete any sightseeing tour by taking you away from the bustle of the capital. The area is especially worth visiting at sunrise or sunset, and during clear winter nights for a great shot at seeing the Northern Lights.
There is a little hot pool that visitors can heat their feet in as they unwind in this serene location. It is also possible to walk across a path to the lighthouse, but only at low-tide; it is covered at high-tide, and people have occasionally found themselves stranded.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, creative commons, Photo by Tillea Benutzer
Along with Hallgrímskirkja and Harpa, Perlan (or ‘the Pearl) is one of the most iconic structures in all of Reykjavík. Perched atop a forested hill called Öskjuhlíð, it is a dome shaped building, the top of which used to be a rotating restaurant. It has a viewing platform that is open to all for free; the panoramas here, across the forest, city, coast, and surrounding mountains, are beautiful to behold.
The forest of Öskjuhlíð is a perfect place within Reykjavík to escape the noise and people. Densely packed trees block out any sign that you are in a capital city, and there are many pleasant hiking trails around.
Some of these lead to old World War Two fortifications that were, thankfully, never used; others lead to a Temple of Ásatrú, the religion of the Old Norse Gods. Just below the forest is the man-made beach of Nauthólsvík, which is geothermally heated in parts to let you swim in the icy waters of the North Atlantic without too much trouble.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, creative commons, Photo by Helgi Haldórsson
Laugardalur Park is a large green space within the city, with many attractions to draw the sightseer in Reykjavík. It features a botanical garden, with a wide variety of Arctic flowers and plants, that is open throughout the year but best visited in summer when it is in bloom. The Family Park and Zoo are open year round and have a host of Icelandic animals to admire, including Arctic Fox and reindeer.
The park is also home to Laugardalslaug, the largest pool in Reykjavík, with slides, hot pools, saunas, steam rooms, and ample swimming areas. A visit to Laugardalur allows you to immerse yourself in the flora and fauna of Iceland, as well as to enjoy its geothermal activity, without leaving the city.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, creative commons, Helgi Halldórsson
The final sightseeing destination on this list requires a boat to access but is a lovely experience for those who seek natural tranquillity, as well as a bit of history and culture. Boats to Viðey, an island just off Reykjavík’s coast, leave every day in summer and over the weekend throughout winter.
The island is uninhabited now, but still has plenty to entertain visitors. Ruins from when it was settled still dot the island, which you are free to wander through, and the buildings still standing have a significant past; the church on the island is one of the oldest in the country, and Viðey House was Iceland’s first stone building.
Viðey is also home to two significant art projects. Richard Serra’s ‘Milestone Project’ is featured here, and has been since 1990. More recently, and more famously, the island became home to Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower, which casts a beam of light representing her and John Lennon’s message of world peace into the night sky at certain times of the year.
Reykjavík has become a vibrant, modern, unique city. With a wealth of history, culture, art and nature, its sites appeal to people of all interests. As more and more people come to visit, it can be expected only to improve, grow and thrive.