It may be one of Europe’s smallest and most remote capitals, but Reykjavik offers a wealth of cultural, gastronomical and visual experiences to entice even the most demanding of visitors.
National Museum of Iceland
Iceland’s rich history and heritage is brought to life in the city’s modernized National Museum, which displays an impressive collection of artefacts from the era of the very first Viking settlers to 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.
National Museum of Iceland, Suðurgötu 41, Reykjavík, Iceland, +354 530-2200
The Old Town district and Lake Tjörnin
Any visit to Reykjavik is bound to start or end with a walk in the Old Town district, an undeniable local favorite. Laid out around the photogenic lake Tjörnin, the area holds a great concentration of intriguing sights, including Iceland’s 19th-century Parliament House and the modern Reykjavik City Hall with its huge 3D map of Iceland for the eager explorer, as well as several art galleries and museums. The shallow waters of Tjörnin act as a habitat for over 50 different bird species that patiently wait to be fed by visitors, a popular pastime, especially on a sunny day.
Iceland’s emblematic Hallgrímskirkja or Church of Hallgrímur is devoted to the Icelandic clergyman and tormented poet Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674), who was the author of the Passion Hymns, one of Iceland’s most cherished works of religious poetry. Designed by State Architect of Iceland Guðjón Samúelsson, who passed away before seeing the completion of the church, the iconic building is a piece of both Icelandic soul and nature, constructed with local materials and inspired by the unique basalt columns of Svartifoss. The tower of the church is one of Iceland’s tallest buildings and is visible from almost anywhere in Reykjavik. The top of the church tower offers breathtaking bird-eye views of the city and surrounding mountains.
Reykjavik’s waterfront and The Sun Voyager
In a city surrounded by water, few experiences are as satisfying as an early morning walk along the waterfront, and Reykjavik’s city harbor doesn’t disappoint. As the city’s heart of marine activities and point of departure for whale-watching and bird-watching tours, the old harbor has emerged as the new cool quarter with its variety of interesting shops and cafés, and some stunning views of Mount Esja across the bay. It is also home to the beautiful Sun Voyager, a unique skeletal sculpture of a Viking boat captivating the adventurous Icelandic soul that was designed by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason to commemorate Reykjavik’s 200th anniversary. The most recent addition to this vibrant neighborhood is the marvelous Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, Iceland’s contemporary architectural wonder with a magical glass façade that offers fantastic photo opportunities.
A few kilometers away from downtown Reykjavik, along the harbor and on the tip of a smooth pebble beach, sits the quaint Grótta Lighthouse. The lighthouse can be reached on foot when the tide is right, and the locals come here to enjoy the crisp ocean air, rich bird life and secluded scenery that makes Grótta a perfect setting for romantic gateways. Grótta is a favorite spot among visitors to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in winter, due to its accessibility and proximity to Reykjavik, and wide open skies.
Kolaportið, Reykjavik’s flea market
Vibrant Reykjavik boasts some excellent second-hand shops scattered around the city, but the best bargains are undoubtedly found at the city’s flea market, Kolaportið. The colorful market is downtown by the Reykjavik harbor, and the patient and curious visitor can find here some great finds, from vintage clothes to vinyl and old books, as well as Icelandic souvenirs at affordable prices. For the gourmet, the most attractive feature of Kolaportið is its food section, where local delicacies such as purified shark and boiled sheep head are sold and, with a bit of luck and the right attitude, sampled. This is a great place to buy the moist and delicious Icelandic rye bread, which is cooked underground using the island’s abundant geothermal heat. Open Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur’s unforgettable hot dogs
Iceland is often featured as one of Europe’s most intriguing culinary destinations for its unbelievably fresh fish and famous lamb, and Reykjavik prides itself on its excellent and diverse restaurant offer. The most visited foodie spot is, however, a modest hot dog stand tucked away in a street near Reykjavik’s harbor. At Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur you can find legendary Icelandic hot-dog, pylsa, which contains lamb meat and is served with a delicious mix of condiments. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is an award-winning hot dog stand that has welcomed famous visitors including Bill Clinton and Charlie Sheen.
Ásmundur Sveinsson’s outdoor sculptures
Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982) is widely viewed as a pioneer of sculpture in his native Iceland, and his ingenuity lies in the purposefulness of his artistic work. Convinced that art should be enjoyed by the public, rather than an elite of connoisseurs, he conceived, created and placed his work in public spaces. Ásmundur’s powerful and evocative figurative and abstract sculptures reflect the artist’s keen interest in Icelandic local history, folklore and nature, and often celebrate common people in moments of everyday life. A collection of Ásmundur’s work is housed at the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum, the sculptor’s former house and studio, while over 30 sculptures can be enjoyed for free in the garden surrounding the museum and on the hill Öskjuhlíð near The Pearl, as the artist himself intended.
Imagine Peace Tower
A memorial to John Lennon by his widow Yoko Ono, the striking Imagine Peace Tower is located on Viðey Island in Kollafjörður Bay, a ferry ride away from Reykjavík. The cylindrical glass structure with the words ‘imagine’ and ‘peace’ engraved in 24 languages was unveiled by Yoko Ono on 9 October 2007, on what would have been John Lennon’s 67th birthday, and is dressed in shimmering light every year from 9 October to 8 December, the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. This pillar of light is an utterly mesmerizing sight to see on a clear night or under the iridescent Northern Lights.
The eerie landscape of Reykjanesviti offers an ideal sight for the visitor wishing to escape the urban buzz of Reykjavik. Built in 1908 to replace the lighthouse of Valahnúkur that was threatened by constant earthquakes and erosions, Reykjanesviti sits comfortably on the side of Bæjarfell hill, on the western edge of Reykjanes peninsula. Architect Frederik Kjørboe and engineer Thorvald Krabbe dressed the concrete lighthouse in a traditional red and white look that contrasts with the greenery of the landscape and jagged black rocks coming out of the silver waters. Rising 69 meters (226 feet) above sea level, the beautiful lighthouse offers splendid views of the North Atlantic Ocean and the rugged coastline of Western Iceland.
Reykjanes Lighthouse, Islandij, Reykjanesbær, Iceland +354 420 3246
Nauthólsvík beach has been a popular hangout for centuries. Redeveloped in 2000, the Blue Flag-certified artificial beach surrounds a saltwater lagoon of bracing Icelandic waters and a communal hot tub—heated to a balmy 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). The practise of going for an icy dip before jumping into the thermal tub has mental health benefits. There’s also the wooded coastline to explore or rent boats, canoes, and small sail boats during summer.
Nauthólsvík beach, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland +354 511 6630
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