12 Unique and Unusual Experiences to Have in Reykjavik

Pingvellir, Iceland
Pingvellir, Iceland | © subtik / Getty Images
Camille Buckley

From catching a glimpse of the colourful Northern Lights to sampling a local cuisine like no other, Iceland offers a wide range of exciting things to do. Get to know this Nordic country and all that is has to offer with Culture Trip’s list of unique experiences.

With its striking nature and must-visit attractions, Iceland is a country that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Uncover its astonishing beauty by taking part in handpicked tours that give you an insight into Icelandic culture.

1. Order a drink in Old Norse

Natural Feature

The Icelandic language, being the root of all of the other Scandinavian languages, makes it the closest to the Old Norse which the Icelandic sagas were written in during the 12th century. This means that if you manage to pick up a sentence or two of Icelandic, such as how to order a cup of coffee – Má ég að fá eitt kaffi bolla? – 0r a beer – Má ég fá mér bjór? – you are essentially ordering in Old Norse. Where else can you do this?

2. Watch the Aurora Borealis from a hot tub

Swimming Pool

Northern lights
Marcelo Quinan / Unsplash

Travellers looking to soak their weary jetlag away in a classic Icelandic geothermal pool should visit Sundhöllin Public Baths. It is the oldest public pool in the country, tucked neatly away from the hubbub behind Hallgrímskirkja. Inside is everything we’ve come to expect from the Icelandic public pools: there are two large swimming pools, diving boards, a steam room and sauna, and an array of inviting hot tubs filled with Icelanders discussing the latest gossip. There’s even an ice-cold plunge pool for the bravest of swimmers – the best cure for jet lag.

3. Eat putrified shark

Bar, Market, Restaurant, Beer, European, Pub Grub

Hákarl is a very Icelandic specialty. Originating from the days when food needed to be purified during the long winters, hákarl is processed from Greenlandic Shark – which was traditionally buried under rocks for about six months and then hung to dry for another three months. The taste has been likened to blue cheese but 1,000 times stronger in taste and smell. You can get it at a few restaurants downtown that offer traditional Icelandic food.

4. Whale watching tour

Architectural Landmark

Humpback whale in the waters of Húsavík, Iceland
Pascal Mauerhofer / Unsplash

There are a number of whale watching tour companies departing from the Old Harbour in Reykjavik. While it is most pleasant in the summertime on a warmer day when the marine mammals are feeding in the bay, a winter tour can sometimes bring sightings as well. You can see dolphins, minke whales, blue whales, humpbacks, harbour porpoises, as well as birdlife like puffins and guillemot. A truly mesmerizing experience with a view of Mount Esja across the bay.

5. Soak in the Secret Lagoon

Natural Feature

While the tourists flock to the Blue Lagoon, why not venture off the beaten path and enjoy some of Iceland’s famously soothing hot spring waters in slightly more serene surrounds. Gamla Laugin was Iceland’s first swimming pool but, until 2005, had fell into a state of disrepair. With a new owner coming in and giving it a new lease of life and eventually dubbing it ‘The Secret Lagoon‘, it now stands as the best place in and around Reykjavik to soak in natural hot springs that remain at a lovely 38-39°C. Modern facilities are available onsite, plus a restaurant and cafe too. Recommended by Gethin Morgan.

6. See the island from a different perspective with FlyOver Iceland

Theater

The otherworldly expanses of Iceland are epic but also spread out and often difficult to access. It’s impossible to discover every magical landscape across the island, even if you did commit a few weeks to exploring every nook and cranny. For the opportunity to better understand the remarkable geology of this island nation, your best bet is to head to FlyOver Iceland, which brings a birds’ eye view of Iceland to you. Strap into your seat and prepare to enjoy the sensation of flying through the air as you take off on an exhilarating virtual journey across the country. Special effects like wind and mist add an extra layer of excitement to an already thrilling sightseeing ride. Recommended by Gethin Morgan.

7. Attend Elf School

Architectural Landmark

It is a well-known rumor in Iceland that elves and mythical creatures exist in the Icelandic countryside, although it’s more often told as a tall tale for tourism. Some take the folktales surrounding the elf myths more seriously than others; if you want to learn more from the experts in the business, you can attend the Elf School located just outside of Reykjavik in Hafnarfjörður.

8. The Icelandic Phallological Museum

Museum

Truly one of a kind, The Icelandic Phallological Museum houses the world’s largest collection of penises and penile parts. Located in downtown Reykjavik, the museum has a collection of more than 250 phallic specimens, belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals found in Iceland.

9. Eat sheep’s head

Restaurant

Another part of the spectrum of food that traditionally began when Iceland’s long winters meant food scarcity, and therefore no part of the animal being wasted, sheep’s head is just what it sounds like. The whole head is eaten, with the exception of the brain; some consider the cheek, tongue, and eyes as the best parts. It just tastes exactly like lamb or mutton, but it is the presentation that is so unique.

10. Listen to the Symphony in Harpa

Architectural Landmark

Harpa Concert Hall at sunset, Reykjavik
Kristin Wilson / Unsplash

This architectural gem features a distinct glass façade reminiscent of the natural basalt columns found in the Icelandic landscape. Opened in 2011, this artistic and cultural center is a venue for many concerts and festivals, and offers great views of the surrounding mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean.

11. World famous hotdog stand

Architectural Landmark

The first hotdog stand in Iceland was set up in 1937 in Reykjavik in another location from the most famous one now standing on the corner of Tryggvagata. In 2004, Bill Clinton was seen ordering a hotdog from the stand during a conference he attended at Harpa. The rest is history as his endorsement blasted the stand into popularity. In 2006, The Guardian named it the best hotdog stand in Europe. It is recommended to order one with everything which includes ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, fried onions, and raw onions.

12. Celebrate Christmas with 13 Santas

Natural Feature

Instead of the traditional solo Santa who lives at the North Pole and visits once a year, Iceland has 13 yule lads, who are like Santa’s band of quirky, mischievous brothers. They are reputed to live in Dimmuborgir, the mystical black lava landscape in the North of Iceland. As the tale goes, the 13 brothers come one by one from the mountain beginning on the first day of Advent, and after Christmas they each leave one by one back to the mountain. Also, if you don’t receive new clothes to wear at Christmas, their cat will eat you.

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