It’s easy to be swept up in the otherworldly nature on show in Iceland, but equally impressive is the country’s rich culture and history. From Vikings to volcanoes, Reykjavik’s best-curated exhibits will give you unique insights into the history of Iceland.
“We’re incredibly lucky – Reykjavik is a city with museums and galleries in numbers and attendance far beyond what can be expected for a country of 360,000 inhabitants,” says Ólöf Kristín Sigurðardóttir, director of Reykjavik Art Museum. We sat down with her and marketing manager Guðrún Helga Stefánsdóttir from Reykjavik City Museum to find out more about some of the city’s world-class institutions.
The Settlement Exhibition
The Settlement Exhibition explores the challenges faced by Iceland’s first settlers | Courtesy of Reykjavik City Museum
Located in downtown Reykjavik, the Settlement Exhibition is based around the foundations of an old Viking longhouse that are the oldest remains of human presence in the city. “Everyone should try and take some time to visit… it gives an amazing introduction to Reykjavik’s settlement and Viking history,” says Guðrún. Believed to have been inhabited between AD 930 and 1000, the remains are the centrepiece and provide context for the interactive displays that explore Reykjavik’s settlement era. Each room is different, sharing insight about the settlers, where they came from and how they survived through interactive tablets.
See Icelandic treasures at the National Museum of Iceland | Courtesy of National Museum of Iceland
The National Museum of Iceland is one of the country’s most admirable institutions. Step inside and you’ll find the museum’s main permanent exhibition, Making of a Nation, that displays Icelandic treasures. From cultural relics such as medieval weapons and tools to Viking longboats, the museum is home to over 2,000 artefacts. It’s all set out chronologically, so visitors can discover the country’s evolution from the settlement era in 874 to the modern nation it is today. You can use your National Museum ticket to enter the Culture House, too.
The Reykjavik Maritime Museum explores one of the most important aspects of Iceland. “Fishing has always been at the heart of Icelandic life and has shaped our country. This is a great museum that tells the story with state of the art interactive displays,” says Guðrún. Located in downtown Reykjavik, the former fishing factory features exhibits that show the evolution of Icelandic fisheries from the 19th century. Here, visitors can learn more about different aspects of the industry through short films, displays of fishing relics, model boats and old photos.
It’s hard to miss the iconic Perlan building, the silvery dome perched on top of the hill Öskjuhlíð. Once a geothermal water plant, the building and its six large water tanks have been remade into an interactive museum that explores Iceland’s nature. There’s a lot to discover here: a replica of an ice cave and a Northern Lights planetarium show, not to mention engaging exhibitions about the volcanoes, glaciers and geothermal energy. End your visit with a 360-degree view of Reykjavik from the top-floor café and restaurant.
Situated next to lake Tjörnin, the museum is a must for art fanatics. A visit to the gallery allows to visitors immerse themselves in art from the likes of Hulda Hákon and Ásgrímur Jónsson, who have both helped shape the city’s art scene. “The breadth and quality of works by Icelandic artists on display here is extraordinary. It sometimes feels unrealistic to take part in this fearless and creative art scene,” says Ólöf. Suitable for local and tourists alike, the museum hosts an art collection from international artists and gives you access to both the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum and the Ásgrímur Jónsson Collection.
Delve into Iceland’s Viking era with a trip to the Saga Museum, where key scenes and moments in Icelandic history have been recreated using lifelike replicas of renowned historical figures. Inspired by the Icelandic sagas, with clothes and weapons made through traditional methods, the exhibition gives a visual insight into life during the early years. While you’re there, enter the Viking room where you can dress up as a Viking for photos.
This open-air museum in the suburb of Árbær aims to give visitors a tangible sense of how Reykjavik looked before industrialisation reached Iceland. A collection of over 20 historic buildings is spread out over the grounds, all moved from central Reykjavik for their historical significance and continued conservation. Each has its own unique story to discover, and some of the larger houses contain exhibits of their own, including one that looks at the role women played throughout Iceland’s history. The historical atmosphere is enhanced by the staff, who are all dressed in traditional Icelandic clothing.
Head down to Hverfisgata in downtown Reykjavik, and you will find the Culture House, where six different cultural institutions have come together under one roof. Here, curated exhibitions explore Icelandic culture, life and history through medieval and cultural artefacts, sculptures, paintings and artworks. Often referred to as one of the most beautiful buildings in Reykjavik, the Culture House has a history of hosting prominent figures. Step inside and you will be surrounded by custom-made furniture that has been carefully maintained since construction was completed in 1908. Tickets to the Culture House also give you access to the National Museum.
Reykjavik Art Museum exhibits work by three renowned Icelandic artists | Courtesy of Reykjavik Art Museum
The Reykjavik Art Museum (RAM) exhibits work by three renowned Icelandic artists: Erró, Kjarval and Ásmundur Sveinsson. “The museum is a great place to learn about the country and its people through the works of its artists. We are committed to serving diverse audiences, and to be an inviting destination for the community as well as the city’s visitors,” says Ólöf. Admission gives 24-hour access to all three of the RAM buildings: the contemporary downtown venue Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, a Modernist gem in Klambratún Park and Ásmundarsafn, a sculpture museum and garden near the city’s largest swimming and sports complex, Laugardalslaug.
Located in a warehouse in the Grandi neighbourhood, Whales of Iceland explores all things wildlife-related. Look up and you’ll see 23 scale models of all whale species found in Iceland hanging from the ceiling. Look down and you will spot informative displays that share information about their anatomy, mating habits and swimming patterns. The visit is enhanced by the virtual-reality headsets on offer that transport users to the ocean floor to observe the whales in their natural habitat.