Reykjavík (translated to "Smokey Bay") is the northernmost capital of the world, comprised of a population so minute that it hardly amounts to a city. But, despite being home to under 200,000 inhabitants, Reykjavík presents a wealth of sights and activities that appeal to culture, nature and nightlife enthusiasts alike.
As with any city, the choice for activity is truly plentiful; so plentiful, in fact, that no list could ever fully summarise all of the experiences on offer. The following list is recommended for those looking to relax, soak up the Icelandic culture and make memories to last a lifetime.
- See also: What to Do & Where to Go in Iceland
From the mighty glaciers to the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean to the steaming geothermal pots, Iceland is a land that, in many ways, is defined by water. What better way than to connect to Icelandic culture then emulating the locals and visiting one of Reykjavik's local pools? Thanks to Iceland's renewable energy policies, the use of water in large capacities (ie; for swimming pools/saunas) is very cheap, therefore making it a favourite past time amongst Icelanders.
That passion results in 18 swimming pools being located in the greater Reykjavík area alone! Some of these pools have both an indoor and an outdoor pool, a sauna and at least one hot tub (some even have as much as 7 or 8!) Thankfully, the pools have heated water, making them accessible all year round.
Think of Icelandic swimming pools as more like a luxury spa than your everyday communal pool at home. For the entry price of only 900 ISK, this might be the cheapest spa you've ever come across. Additionally, if you're looking for something a little more natural, there is the geothermally warmed up water by Reykjavík beach, Nauthólsvík, and a small foot bath called Kvika, found by Grótta Lighthouse. Both of these small pools have free entry.
Photo from Reykjavik.is
If you're staying in central Reykjavík, the obvious choice would be to attend Sundhöll Reykjavíkur, situated only a few hundred metres behind the mighty Hallgrímskirkja Church. This swimming pool, housed in a building dating back from 1937 (the oldest pool within Reykjavík) is currently being renovated with a brand new outdoor pool and will be open again from August 2017.
Another popular pool for people staying in central Reykjavík is Vesturbæjarlaug, the swimming pool in the west part of the city. This is an outdoor pool with a few hot tubs and a couple of saunas; a popular hangout spot for locals and travellers alike. There's also a lovely café situated right across the street from the pool, Kaffi Vest, that is perfect for a warming cuppa after relaxing in a hot tub.
A third one, and the largest pool in Reykjavík, is Laugardalslaug pool. This one is situated within Reykjavík's recreational centre, Laugardalur, where you can also find: a sports hall, a botanical garden, a family park & zoo, a sculpture museum, a large gym (World Class), a spa (Laugar Spa) and a skating rink. Given the wealth of attractions on offer here, Laugardalslaug is the perfect place to bring the whole family.
Photo by Reykjavik.is
Given the sensibilities of our foreign guests, one thing to be aware of is that you will be required to get naked with the locals before entering the pools. This is not some peculiar ritual, but strictly hygiene. The showers are gender separated, but since there's a very low level of chlorine in the swimming pools, everyone is required to wash thoroughly before taking a dip. If you try to avoid it, you will most certainly be told off by a local or even one of the bathing guards!
Perhaps the best thing about Reykjavík's swimming pools is that they can be enjoyed all year round and in every type of weather. You can perfectly enjoy a soak in an outdoor hot tub, even if it is -5° outside and snowing! Check out the above map to find your nearest swimming pool.
- See also: The Best Swimming Pools in Reykjavík
Towering over the centre of Reykjavík is Hallgrímskirkja church, visible from almost every angle of the city and therefore making it very easy to find. At the top of this 74.5m expressionist building is a viewing platform boasting 360° views over the entire city. Along with the view from Perlan on Öskjuhlíð hill, this is probably the best view you will get of the city, save for from air.
The tower is open daily, except on Sundays when there are services for mass. This is an operating church so the tower may sometimes be closed due to services or concerts being held inside. Entry to the top is 900 ISK for adults but 100 ISK for children aged 7-14. Travelling to the top is free for younger children.
The church, the largest in Iceland, is named after pastor and poet Hallgrímur Pétursson, author of the Passíusálmar (The Passion Hymns). Its architecture is inspired by the beautiful basalt columns of the Svartifoss waterfall in South Iceland. The building was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, one of Iceland's most well-known architects, and houses the largest concert organ in Iceland. The concert organ is 15m tall, has 5275 pipes and weighs 25 tonnes! The building was opened in 1986.
Also take note of the beautiful entrance door and glass art, designed by local artist Leifur Breiðfjörð. In front of the church is a statue of Leif Eriksson, who discovered North America in the year 1000, more than 500 years before Columbus.
- See also: Sightseeing in Reykjavik
From Hallgrímskirkja church you'll want to explore the nearby streets of Reykjavík's city centre, best explored on foot or by bike. To truly soak up the culture, you'll want to make sure to visit the main shopping streets; Laugavegur, Bankastræti, Austurstræti, Lækjargata, Skólavörðustígur - all easily accessible in the central area of Reykjavík.
If shopping is your thing in particular, I heartily recommend the many outdoor clothing chains selling extreme wear and outdoor gear. Such companies as 66° North, Cintamani, Zo-On and Ice Wear can all be found in this area.
You will also find Icelandic design to be extremely fashionable; you can catch up with the latest trends in shops such as Kraum, Spaks Manns Spjarir, Aurum, Herrafataverzlun Kormáks & Skjaldar, Verslun Guðsteins Eyjólfssonar, GK, Aftur and Jör.
Away from the shopping, there are numerous other neighbourhoods in Reykjavík that are worth exploring. The Neighbourhood of the Gods (Þingholtin) is a good example; these are the residential streets between Hallgrímskirkja church and the city pond.
The names of the streets in this neighbourhood all stem from Nordic religion and you can find Odin's Street (Óðinsgata), Thor's Street (Þórsgata), Loki's Path (Lokastígur), Freya's Street (Freyjugata) and a number of others. You'll also find colourful houses, luscious gardens and plenty of street art, and will most likely bump into one of the resident cats (cats are very common pets in central Reykjavík.)
Reykjavík's city pond (Reykjavíkurtjörn, or for short Tjörnin) is popular with travellers, especially bird enthusiasts. In winter, the pond sometimes freezes over, meaning people can cross, go ice skating or even make a slippery football field. Right by the city pond, there is City Hall, where you'll find Guide to Iceland's tourist and travel information centre, as well as a large and informative 3D map of Iceland.
South of the city pond, one will find both the Nordic House and the University of Iceland. The Nordic House is Reykjavík's only building to be designed by an internationally famous architect, Finnish-born, Alvar Aalto. You'll often find exhibitions or live music at The Nordic House, as well as a tasty restaurant.
Further south, you'll come to the sea and can walk along Ægissíða street. Travelling east, you will pass the domestic airport, heading towards Nauthólsvík beach and the forested Öskjuhlíð hill. Here, you can easily grab an excellent vantage point of the city by visiting the Pearl viewing platform. Alternatively, you could head further west towards Grótta with its lighthouse, beach and scenic foot bath (walking all the way to Grótta is a rather long and laborious; you might want to have a bike or, at the very least, set aside a whole day for your exploration).
Austurvöllur Square is just north of the city pond, an excellent spot to gather with friends and family. On sunny days, people come here to drink beer and sunbathe, whilst during national celebrations, concerts are held. When people are upset politically, they come here to protest the Icelandic parliament, located just by the square. One side of the square is lined with cafés and shops and just behind the parliament building is Reykjavík's oldest church, Dómkirkjan.
Whilst treading the city streets, why not head towards the picturesque Old Harbour? Here, you can easily learn about Iceland's marine life and even book a whale watching trip. If your stay in Reykjavík happens to cover a weekend, you could also visit the city's very own flea market, Kolaportið, an eclectic marketplace where once can buy a hand knitted wool jumper (lopapeysa) – a must have souvenir!
The flea market is located down by the Reykjavík harbour and has a lot of interesting stuff for sale, including many local delicacies. The shellfish is particularly recommended. The atmosphere is lively and good bargains can be made between 11:00 and 17:00 on Saturdays and Sundays.
A little further ahead you can find Grandi, Reykjavík's 'fish packing district', where old fishing factories and boat repair shacks have now turned into trendy shops, cafés, start-up companies, museums, restaurants and even breweries. Here is an example of the city's ever-changing face.
Whilst here, you could visit Valdís for one of the best ice-creams in town, have a locally brewed beer at Bryggjan Brewery, or sit down for some Japanese tea at Kumiko. You could also check out the Marshall House, the Whales of Iceland Museum or Aurora Reykjavík Museum. Also look out for the stunning street art on Vesturgata and visit the grassy hill, Þúfa, an outdoor art piece by Ólöf Nordal.
Reykjavík is a city of pleasant surprises. You can try discovering its hidden treasures on your own, or team up with some locals who, more than often, are eager to show you around.
You could, for example, explore Reykjavík's food scene and savour some of the countries most delicious delicacies. Alternatively, you could go on a scenic helicopter ride over the city where you might make a sightseeing stop on top of one of its surrounding mountains. You can also choose to go on a walking tour to explore this colourful and quirky city culture by joining a free City Walk Reykjavik, only a 2 hour tour.
Other popular tours in and around the city include the whale watching and puffin tours as well as horseback riding tours. The most commonly sighted whales in the Faxaflói bay next to Reykjavík are minke whales, humpbacks, porpoises and dolphins. On some tours you may also be able to visit the islands off the Reykjavik shore, the most famous of which is Viðey, home to the Lennon/Ono peace-tower. Various seabirds also frequent the shore and the islands, such as gannets, gulls, cormorants, the arctic tern and of course the puffins (only in summertime).
- Find all tours in and from Reykjavík
Depending on who you ask, the Reykjavik nightlife is either famous or infamous. People party into the early hours and after closing, the streets will still be full of drunk party people, either trying to find their way home or to an after party.
From Sunday to Thursday, cafés are open until 1 in the morning, but on Friday and Saturday nights, places stay open until 5 in the morning. A number of bars and cafés offer live music at night, and the city is bustling with all sorts of live entertainment, be it: stand up comedy, theatre, opera, drag shows, cabaret performances, musicals and even poetry brothels!
Weekly, there are live jazz sessions in a number of cafés around town. Every Sunday night, there's jazz at Bryggjan Brewery. Every Monday night, at Húrra, Tuesday nights at Kex Hostel and every Wednesday night at Peterson Suite. Múlinn jazz bar at the top of Harpa Concert Hall is also worth checking out.
Rosenberg Reykjavík is a jazzy music venue that has events almost every night of the week, except Sundays when they are closed, ranging from live blues, jazz or folk performances to regular cabaret variety shows.
Gaukurinn has a weekly stand-up comedy show in English on Monday nights and is also the venue of choice for the local drag scene, where our very own blogger Wanda Star makes a regular appearance.
Tjarnarbíó and Iðnó are great venues for theatre, music and dance performances, located on either side of the City Hall. And Bíó Paradís is the city's art cinema, often screening classic Icelandic films with English subtitles, as well as weekly party screenings of international classics.
There are 2 film festivals in Reykjavík, Reykjavík International Film Festival (September/October) and Stockfish Film Festival (February/March.) Besides these regular events, there are endless amounts of one-off night outs; you can always see our weekly top picks, as well as a list of all festivals in Iceland in our article Top 10 festivals in Iceland.
Reykjavík has some truly outstanding local and international cuisine. You can find restaurants that specialise in seafood or grilled meats and besides Icelandic restaurants, there are also great Thai, Italian, Indian, Mexican, Japanese or even Ethiopian restaurants to be found within the city.
Local cuisine focuses on seafood and lamb, and you can never go wrong by ordering the fish of the day in one of Reykjavík's restaurants. However, if you feel like trying out something different, then you can also try whale meat, sheep heads or cod heads. Delicious! One of the most popular dishes at Matur og Drykkur is the cod's head cooked in chicken stock. Try it, you won't regret it.
If you are not vegetarian or, by principle, averse to whale hunting, you can try out some whale meat. There are many restaurants that serve whale meat, particularly down by the Reykjavík harbour. One of these (a very affordable choice) is the Sægreifinn seafood restaurant, where they even serve whale kebabs.
And if you're into trying a different type of food then you are used to, then why not check out some of the traditional Icelandic cuisine. At the BSÍ bus terminal, in the shop Fljótt og gott, you can purchase the traditional boiled sheep's head for a very moderate fee.
One person's disgusting food may be the other's delicacy. The most notorious food in Iceland is probably the fermented shark. The shark is usually washed down with a shot of Brennivín, Iceland's own black death schnapps. This is often seen as a sort of a rite of passage or proof of strength, and a particularly popular dare for Icelanders in regard to foreign visitors. Find some fermented shark in the flea market Kolaportið, open every weekend.
- See also: The World's Most Disgusting Food
Most people on your travels will recommend that you grab an Icelandic hot dog. The hot dog stand Bæjarins bestu ("The Town's Best'), near Reykjavík harbour, has a reputation for selling the most delicious hot dogs in Iceland. There is usually a long queue there, particularly in the afternoon and on weekends, but most foreign visitors claim these sausages to be the best in the world. Just ask Bill Clinton and James Hetfield, just two of the stand's most well-known guests.
A classic is to get "eina med öllu" i.e. "one with everything": remoulade (a mayonnaise-based sauce), mustard, ketchup, crunchy onions and raw onions. Whatever your preferences, if you like a good hot dog, this is the place to go, and it won't break the bank.
Photo by Visit Reykjavík
Good cafés; there are far too many to list them all, but you could check out Kaffi Vínyl for records and vegan food, Café Loki for traditional Icelandic food, Stofan for a cosy atmosphere, Kaffibrennslan for people watching, Babalú for a drink on the balcony, The Cuckoo's Nest for a weekend brunch, Svarta Kaffið for tasty soup served in a bowl made of bread, Peterson Suite or Loft Hostel for the views or Reykjavík Roasters for some of the best coffee in town - just to name a few...
And your trip wouldn't be complete without trying the cinnamon buns from the bakery Bread&Co!
Harpa Concert and Conference Hall is an impressive glass building situated by the old harbour of Reykjavík. It's worth visiting this iconic building for its architecture alone, as you'll be able to admire it both from the outside and inside and get some great pictures.
It's also worth checking out what's taking place in Harpa during your stay in Iceland, as you might be able to see the Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra during a rehearsal or attend a concert with some of Iceland's most famous bands.
Harpa is the sole venue for the electronic music festival, Sónar Reykjavík; it's also one of the venues for Iceland Airwaves and hosts Reykjavík Fashion Festival, Eve Fanfest and events and talks during Design March. At the end of 2017, it will be hosting an artistic residency and a festival called Norður og Niður for 3 days by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós.
- See also: Best Annual Events in Iceland
Multiple multicultural celebrations take place in the building and at night it's lit up with a moving LED artwork by Ólafur Elíasson. The lights on the façade of the building have also been used in an interactive way, such as when people could control the lights by playing a light organ, splash a colour of their own on the lights through their phone or play the computer game, Pong.
It's not just in Harpa and in the live performances that you can find some art in Reykjavík. Museums, galleries, outdoor sculptures and street art are all widely available; take your pick!
The sculpture, Sun Voyager (pictured above), is a popular attraction, nestled along the seaside close to Harpa Concert Hall. The sculpture has a fantastic view towards Mt Esjan. If you keep your eyes peeled, you will likely be able to spot a number of other sculptures around town. The two largest sculpture museums are the Einar Jónsson Museum (next to Hallgrímskirkja church) and Ásmundur Museum in Laugardalur recreational area.
There are a few other smaller sculpture museums around town, such as Hallstein's park (Hallsteinsgarður) in Gufunes, and in Hólmasel in Breiðholt. You could also take a stroll along Grandi and visit the outdoor sculpture, Þúfa, a green circular hill that you can walk to the top of and get great views towards Harpa Concert Hall.
There are also dozens of art museums and smaller art galleries. The largest ones are Reykjavík Art Gallery, Kjarval Museum and the National Gallery of Iceland. The newest member of this institutional family is the Marshall House.
Besides these larger institutions, you can also find smaller venues dotted around such as: Mengi, Berg Contemporary, i8, Art Gallery 101, ART67 Gallery, Gallery Fold and Gallery List, just to name a few.
On top of that, amazing street art has been blossoming in recent years, with mesmerising artworks taking over entire sides of buildings all over town.
If it's history and culture you're looking for or simply knowledge about Iceland's rich nature and wildlife, then you can also choose between a number of historical museums, such as the Saga Museum, the National Museum of Iceland or the open air Árbær Museum. To learn about nature, visit the Maritime Museum, Whales of Iceland Museum or Aurora Reykjavík: The Northern Lights Centre.
There are numerous green areas and parks you can visit in Reykjavík. Public gardens in the city include Hallargarður and Hljómskálagarður, by the city pond, as well as Klambratún/Miklatún, surrounding the art museum, Kjarvalsstaðir. These are popular areas for outdoor games throughout the summer time.
Another popular destination all year round is Grótta, with its iconic lighthouse and views over Faxaflói bay and Reykjavík's signature mountain Esjan (and even Snæfellsjökull glacier on clear days.) You can even find a foot bath (Kvika) in amongst the rocks by the seashore; the perfect spot to keep your feet warm whilst sipping on a drink (BYO) and watching the Northern Lights.
If you want to submerge yourself in water inside the city limits (but still maintain a view towards the ocean) then head towards Nauthólsvík beach. There is a warm wading pool by the sand, as well as a warm tub by the sea - if you're brave enough, you can go for a swim in the ocean! Changing facilities are on site as well as a café serving light snacks and drinks. Right next to Nauthólsvík is Öskjuhlíð hill, where you can stumble across some remains of old bunkers, found just in between two crooked forest trails. Keep an eye out, you might even see a rabbit or two.
Then there's Elliðaárdalur, right in the middle of the city, where you can try your hand at fishing or have a picnic by a small waterfall. Elliðaárdalur is popular with locals that go jogging or cycling through this inner-city paradise.
Venture a little further out of town into Reykjavík's outskirts and you'll find Rauðhólar (Red Hills) and Heiðmörk. The red and black hills of Rauðhólar have beautiful colour contrasts, and you can choose to go on a volcanic landscape horse riding tour through this beautiful area all year round. Heiðmörk is a nature reserve that's filled with greenery, caves and secluded bbq picnic areas. In order to reach these two locations, you'll need to take a bus from downtown, rent a car or go on a long bike ride.
- See also: National Parks in Iceland
Iceland is one of the best places in the world to experience the rare and gorgeous Northern Lights. You may be able to spot them from downtown Reykjavik, but the best place to see them within the city limits is by the seaside at Seltjarnarnes.
There, you will be away from the street lights and be able to take in the full majesty of the experience. The area of Grótta is particularly nice; many birds nest there and there is also a charming old lighthouse, perfect for photography enthusiasts.
Anywhere you can get as far as possible away from the city's light pollution is a good location, so make sure to pick your spot along the coastline, looking out towards the sea.
Here you can find more information about the northern lights and all northern lights tours in Iceland. The northern lights can only be seen between late August and early May, so if you are here in the summertime, you can enjoy the midnight sun instead.
For further advice on getting the most out of your stay for a minimum amount of money, check out the article 9 Best Cheap Things to Do in Reykjavík. Or tell us in the comments what you think is the best thing to do in Reykjavík!
- See also: What to Do With Young Kids in the Reykjavík Area
- See also: What to Do With Older Kids in the Reykjavík Area