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Reykjavík is one of the smallest and most remote capitals in the world. But the Icelandic city, which can easily be explored on a weekend break, offers a wealth of cultural, gastronomical and visual experiences.
Reykjavík is a popular destination that often attracts visitors looking to explore Iceland’s diverse landscape through day trips to areas outside of the city. But there’s a range of things to see and do within the capital itself. From natural wonders to cultural institutions, get the most out of your visit with the help of this guide of the best things to see and do.
It’s difficult to miss Harpa Concert Hall with its honeycomb glass panels and shimmering coloured lights. Situated by Reykjavík Harbour, this award-winning architectural wonder offers a modern contrast to the city’s traditional buildings. Often recognised as a symbol of Iceland’s recovery after the economic crash, Harpa is the home of Iceland Airwaves festival and a number of innovative musical and entertainment events. While there’s no entrance fee, tickets have to be purchased to take part in the tour. If you happen to be visiting Reykjavík on New Year’s Eve, stop by Harpan to see the building transform into a light show.
Overlooking the city from the highest point in Reykjavík, this iconic concrete church can be seen from anywhere in the city. The unusual architectural style represents the basalt columns that are found throughout the Icelandic countryside, and appears to be pixellated when viewed in low light, as each column casts a shadow onto the next. Though it’s free to enter Hallgrímskirkja, it’s highly recommended that you pay the fee to take the lift up to the top of the building as it offers one of the best views of the city. Open year-round, you can see the snow-capped Snæfellsnes glacier on sunny days; however, watch out for the cold winds blowing at the top, even on the warmest days. A visit during the summer means that you’ll be able to catch a concert during the international organ festival when musicians from all over the world come to play on the Hallgrímskirkja pipe organ.
Many people visiting the Sun Voyager mistake it for a Viking ship. But the sculpture – created by Jón Gunnar Árnason – was intended to be a dreamboat and an ode to the sun. The popular attraction is Iceland’s most famous sculpture and can be found just a short walk from the city centre along the Sæbraut coastal road. Though the area surrounding the sculpture tends to get crowded during the day, the best time to visit is at sunset or sunrise when the colourful sky and the backdrop of Mount Esja, enhances the sculpture’s appearance.
The main street in Reykjavík extends all the way from downtown to the trendy district of Hlemmur. Known as the city’s main shopping street, Laugavegur is one of the oldest roads in Iceland and was once the route that women took to wash clothes in the hot springs centuries ago. Home to a number of fashion boutiques, vintage stores and puffin gift stores, Laugavegur turns into a pedestrianised street in the summer with local residents making it their main route for pub crawls.
Located on the outskirts of Reykjavík, atop a forested hill, Perlan is a dome-shaped building offering a 360-degree view of the city and sea. The state-of-the-art entertainment centre is like a time capsule and has world-class exhibitions covering different eras while explaining how they shaped Iceland. The popular tourist attraction is also home to a man-made ice cave, a planetarium showing Northern Lights short films and a revolving restaurant.
Reykjavík has upped its game in recent years to provide premium entertainment for visitors. The latest attraction to offer a stunning visual experience and give tourists a taste of the wider countryside is FlyOver Iceland. Easily accessible in the Grandi harbour area, visitors are able to take a virtual flight over the Icelandic landscape, flying over waterfalls, black sand beaches and glaciers. Suspended with your feet dangling, the ride comes with special effects to give visitors a surreal experience.
Whales have long been a part of Icelandic culture and folklore – in fact, Keiko, the orca in the Free Willy films, was from Iceland. Twenty-three whale species can be found in Iceland alongside dolphins, porpoise and puffins, which are also served at certain restaurants. Visitors can sign up for a half-day tour that departs from Reykjavík’s harbour several times a day, all year round to get up-close with Iceland’s wildlife. Though it’s available at any given time, a visit in the summer gives you a greater chance to spot minke and humpback whales.
This scenic lake in the centre of downtown Reykjavík is home to 40-50 species of birds. In the summer the area swarms with Arctic terns swooping to catch flies in the evenings, and during wintertime, you can hear Hooper swans taking turns to honk at each other. As the lake freezes in the winter, the pond becomes the main place for ice skating in the city. Meanwhile, the council pumps hot water into one end of the lake to ensure the birds are still able to swim there.