Reykjavik captures plenty of hearts with its colourful streets and thriving cultural scene. Known as the world’s most northernmost capital, the city is brimming with celebrated landmarks, world-class museums and fascinating attractions.
Reykjavik has a mixture of cultural and historic attractions, from geothermal pools to architectural wonders. Uncover the beauty of this small yet rich capital with this guide to the city’s must-visit attractions.
The Hallgrímskirkja church stands at the top of Skólavörðustígur street, towering over Reykjavik. Designed by the former state architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samúelsson, the architecture is inspired by the power of Icelandic nature; hexagonal basalt columns rise from the outside in, forming what resembles an erupting geyser. The church offers unbeatable views of the city, too, so take the lift up to the top floor to enjoy the city from above.
What used to be a cluster of geothermal water tanks on top of Öskjuhlíð hill has been transformed into one of Reykjavik’s must-visit museums. Step inside and you’ll find exhibitions covering Iceland’s diverse and powerful natural wonders, from volcanoes and glaciers to geothermal energy and wildlife. At Perlan, you can catch an immersive short film about the Northern Lights, and using using virtual-reality tools you can walk inside an artificial ice cave or observe sea birds on the cliffs around the country. When you’ve finished exploring the museum, go up to the observation deck on the top level for panoramic views of Reykjavik.
The most popular piece of public art in Reykjavik, the Sun Voyager is a curving sculpture of shining steel that forms the shape of a boat. It was designed by the late Icelandic artist Jón Gunnar Árnason. Viewed from the right angle it seems to float above land and sea, offering the perfect foreground subject for photos of Mount Esja or a stunning Icelandic sunset. You can find it on the edge of the ocean, close to downtown Reykjavik.
Dominating the edge of Reykjavik with its glass-panelled facade is the Harpa Concert Hall. Home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, the building won the 2013 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture, cementing its place among the most famous Icelandic landmarks. The mesmerising crystalline design reflects light off its glass windows, making it a treat to see from the inside and out. More than just an impressive architectural wonder, the concert hall is open all year round offering theatre, music and comedy shows.
The Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most well-known attraction, with its milky-blue hot springs set in a beautiful setting of black lava bedrock. Some may call it a tourist trap, but what a lovely place to be trapped; aside from the picturesque location, the Blue Lagoon offers pool massages, a swim-up bar and silica masks for impromptu facials. Easily accessible from Keflavik airport, the geothermal pool is also easily reachable from the city centre, with multiple bus connections departing from Reykjavik on a daily basis.
During the warmer summer months, thousands of whales migrate to the waters surrounding Iceland. Located in a warehouse in the Grandi district, the Whales of Iceland exhibition is dedicated to educating visitors about these gentle giants, their anatomy, swimming patterns and mating habits. With the help of virtual-reality headsets, visitors can observe whales in their natural habitat, and spot 23 scale models of all whale species found in Icelandic waters hanging from the ceiling.
Iceland’s rich history and heritage are brought to life in the city’s modernised National Museum, which displays an impressive collection of artefacts from the era of the very first Viking settlers to the present day. Browsing through the 2,000 objects and 1,000 photographs of Making of a Nation, the museum’s permanent exhibition, is a good way to acquaint yourself with Iceland’s treasures. For a more diverse cultural experience, the museum also hosts an impressive range of temporary exhibits that showcase the work of contemporary artists, offering an intricate panorama of Icelandic life.
To get a taste of just how different things are up north, a visit to the Nauthólsvík geothermal beach is a must. Geothermally heated water from Perlan spills out into a small artificial lagoon filled with colder seawater, creating a slightly warmer-than-normal bathing experience in the Icelandic ocean. Luckily, there’s also an artificial hot spring on-site, so do as the locals do and take a quick dip at the beach before retreating to the comfort of the long rectangular pool by the changing rooms.
One for the history buffs, the Settlement Exhibition in downtown Reykjavik explores the challenges faced by Iceland’s first settlers in the late 9th century. Thought to have been occupied between 930 and 1000 AD, it’s one of the oldest built structures in Iceland. The amazing centrepiece of the museum is the remains of an old Viking longhouse that was first discovered in the basement of the building in 2001. Interactive displays delve into the functions of the different rooms, showcasing how Viking settlers survived the harsh Icelandic weather conditions.
From the Hlemmur Bus Station in Reykjavik, take a 20-minute bus ride to the hiking centre at the foot of Mount Esja. There are a few different paths to choose from to get to the top, but all of them offer beautiful scenery. A rather steep climb in places, it is still a very popular running route. Once at the top, enjoy the view of Reykjavik and the surrounding northern Atlantic Ocean.
The Einar Jónsson Museum, dedicated to Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson, houses a collection of beautiful artworks. What most people are not aware of is that behind the museum there is a garden, open all year round, that also exhibits some remarkable sculptures. It was originally designed by Jónsson himself, although parts of the garden have now been changed and redesigned. It is a pleasant place in which to stop and take in some of Iceland’s culture – even better, there are no entrance fees.
A peaceful escape from the streets of Reykjavik, the city’s Botanical Gardens show off a surprising number of plants that flourish in the subarctic climate. Paths meander through the well-kept gardens, and a café serving up light meals and snacks made from produce grown on-site can be found in the centre of the garden. Nearby is Reykjavik’s humble zoo, where you will meet the local domestic animals such as reindeer, rabbits and goats, and Laugardalslaug, the city’s biggest swimming pool and sports complex.
Visitors to Árbær Open Air Museum are taken back to an era before Iceland’s industrialisation. In fact, various historic buildings have been moved to the location from around Reykjavik for their continued preservation, each with its own unique story. With turf-covered farms, examples of city houses from Reykjavik and old schoolhouses from the countryside, the museum itself feels like a small olden-day village.
Despite the dreary weather that plagues Reykjavik for most of the year, residents love going out for a walk or jog whenever possible. Located at the remote tip of the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula northwest of the city, Grótta nature reserve is a favourite place to do so. A great spot to watch the colourful Northern Lights thanks to minimal light pollution, you’ll also be treated to unimpeded views towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Snæfellsjökull, the glacier-covered volcano at its tip.
Even if you’re visiting during the summer when the midnight sun prevents them from showing, there’s still a chance to see the Northern Lights. This small but dedicated museum near Reykjavik’s Old Harbour celebrates this mystical display of nature, exploring the science as well as the myths and legends that surround them. You can even find out how to best capture the vivid display of nature with your camera by visiting their photography section.