While a relative newcomer on the global travel itinerary, Iceland is fast becoming a staple tourist attraction and for good reason. While mainland European cities have their obvious allure, you should not miss a visit to this northernmost capital for its unique cultural offerings and atmosphere of friendliness, charm and rugged beauty.
While sometimes feeling like a village, Reykjavik still has all the trappings of the modern capital city, but without some of the drawbacks like overwhelming noise and pollution. With the ocean breeze constantly bringing fresh, clean air through the streets, you sometimes forget you are in a city.
In Reykjavik there is always something new to hear. Venues are constantly buzzing with new bands and musicians from many different bands playing together. With the scene being so small, word travels fast and concerts are spontaneous – all of this adds to music feeling very organic. Check out music festivals like Iceland Airwaves, Dark Music Days and Secret Solstice.
There are many excellent restaurants and cafes in Reykjavik, offering the best local ingredients with expert chefs serving carefully crafted dishes. With years of practice making seafood, Iceland has perfected a variety of ways to enjoy fish. There are also many great local breweries offering unique flavors such as Einstök White Ale, which combines coriander and orange peel.
There are many places in Reykjavik to see outdoor public sculptures integrated beautifully into the surrounding landscape. Einar Jónsson, for example, has a large public sculpture garden where you can see his mythological bronze figures. The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat (1993) by Magnús Tómasson sits next to parliament downtown. Sculpture (1968) by Gerður Helgadóttir sits across from the pond downtown. These and other sculptures provide a great walking tour through Iceland’s cultural history.
There is an everydayness to visiting the swimming pool in Iceland that is very relaxing and community-oriented. It is as though everyone knows it is almost a holy time in which you clear your thoughts and your pores, letting the geothermal water take care of life beyond the hot pot. The city pools each offer a hot and dry sauna, a cold pot and swimming lanes as well three to four varying heat temperatures of hot pots.
Situated in the old harbor area of Reykjavík, Hafnarhús, or harbor house, was built in the 1930s. This is where to find the most contemporary exhibitions by both Icelandic and international artists. The museum features a permanent collection of works by Erró (1932–), one of Iceland’s most well-known postmodern artists and a pioneer of Pop Art. In 1989, the artist donated more than 2,000 works and personal artifacts to the museum.
Þjóðminjasafnið is located next to the University of Iceland. With more than 2,000 artifacts collected from around the country, the National Museum of Iceland shows a fascinating display of history, representing the earliest cultures as well as contemporary culture. The museum features a door dating back to the 12th century, which represents Icelandic sagas and is the only medieval Icelandic carved door.
The Icelandic language has changed very little since the first settlers arrived. If you manage to learn a few sentences, you are essentially speaking Old Norse, the root language of all other Scandinavian languages. Icelanders are understandably protective of their language, as it becomes more at risk for distinction since computers cannot grasp its unique grammar and English is more heavily relied upon.
There is nothing quite like looking up into the night sky and seeing undulating curtains of neon green, lavender and white dancing across. Very often seen from downtown as the light pollution of Reykjavik is quite minimal, the Aurora Borealis is always incredible. A great place to view them from Reykjavik is from the city pool’s rooftop hot tub, Sundhöllin, or from the nearby bird-watching sanctuary of Grótta or from the balcony of a bar downtown.
Ásmundursafn, for example, is dedicated to the Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982). The building, designed by the artist himself as a studio in the 1930s, is worth visiting for its fascinating architectural domes and open light source – an ode to the artist’s admiration for Bauhaus style. The church Hallgrimskírkja is also a sight worth seeing.