The 10 best things to do in Reykjavik / Iceland’s capital lacks the hustle and bustle of many other world metropolises, but still has a number of attractions. Here we present the best. / Reykjavik Tips
Around 125,000 people live in Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world – that’s almost 40 percent of Iceland’s total population. Due to its geographical location, Reykjavik rarely gets warmer than about 20 degrees during the day, even in midsummer. One looks in vain for skyscrapers here and the traffic jams known from other metropolises are unknown – nevertheless, Reykjavik has some remarkable super-modern buildings, especially in the center. There are also a handful of historic buildings and a number of museums, some of which are quite bizarre. However, one should not imagine long party nights, because Reykjavik is more for individual travelers who appreciate an unusual travel destination. Here you can find out more about the 10 best sights of the Icelandic city!
Reykjavik is the capital city of Iceland and has the title of being the closest capital city to the polar region on earth, and is a city that hosts half of the country’s population. Located in the southwest of Iceland, Reykjavik is a very popular tourist destination for travelers who want to experience life in a cold country.
It covers a small area in the quaint old town of Reykjavík, Iceland’s tourism, cultural, economic and political center, with colorful houses, souvenir shops, cafes and bars serving fine food and drinks. On the other hand, the city is home to many historical buildings and cathedrals, as well as open spaces such as many museums, art galleries, beautiful city parks and botanical gardens.
1. Hallgrim Church (Hallgrimskirkja)
Undoubtedly the most iconic historical building in Reykjavik, it is not only the largest church in Iceland, but also the second tallest building in the country. Its construction dragged on for decades, because 60 percent of the construction costs were financed by donations. The planning of the church dates back to 1929, but construction work did not begin until 1945. Three years later, the crypt beneath the chancel was consecrated. The church tower was completed in 1974 and it took another twelve years until the nave was finally completed in 1986. Perched on a hill with its 74.5 meter high spire, the church dominates Reykjavik’s cityscape and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.
2. National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands) / Reykjavik Tips
Founded in 1863 as a ‘Museum of Antiquities’, the National Museum of Iceland’s exhibition has since expanded significantly and now covers all aspects of Iceland’s cultural and historical history over the past 1,200 years. However, the most fascinating exhibits are still the archaeological finds in the permanent exhibition. These include a small bronze figure of the Old Norse god Thor from the year 1,000, weapons and utensils of the Vikings, as well as an invaluable, completely preserved incunable (early book printing) from the late Middle Ages, the first Bible in Icelandic.
3. Reykjavik 871±2 Museum
It is well known that Iceland was first settled by the Vikings. Leif Eriksson is also said to have set out from here to finally discover North America, which he called “Vinland” (wine country) because of the wild grapes growing there. Reykjavik itself is said to have been founded around the year 870. The Reykjavík 871±2 exhibition proves this dating by means of the remains of an earthwork built in the year 871 with a possible deviation of plus or minus two years (hence the museum’s name). The real sensation of the exhibition is a Viking longhouse, the ruins of which were not discovered until 2001 and which, according to archaeologists, was inhabited from around 930 to 1,000. It is one of the oldest human dwellings ever found in Iceland.
4. Harpa Concert Hall
One of Reykjavik’s most modern buildings, the Harpa Concert Hall, which opened in 2011 and also has a conference center, rises directly at the harbor. The building is now the home base of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra as well as the Icelandic Opera. The cubic shape of the building with its abrupt angles and the grey-black color of the exterior façade are intended to evoke the volcanic basalt deposits that are so characteristic of the Icelandic landscape. The complex was originally intended to also include a hotel, a shopping mall, a restaurant zone and the headquarters of the National Bank of Iceland – but these plans were scrapped during the financial crisis that shook Iceland in 2008.
5. National Gallery of Iceland (Listasafn)
With a focus on Icelandic artists such as Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval and Ásgrímur Jónsson, Iceland’s National Gallery offers an excellent insight into the country’s art historical development. However, the collection, which currently has around 5,000 works of art, also includes works by foreign artists, above all from Scandinavia. Interestingly, the older part of the museum complex is housed in a former ice house built in 1916-1917, where fish were preserved. Between 1980 and 1988 the museum was expanded with a modern new building.
6. Icelandic Phallus Museum (Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn) Reykjavik Tips
Arguably one of the most idiosyncratic museums in the world is located on Reykjavik’s main shopping street, Laugavegur. Founded in 1997 by a private individual, Sigurdur Hjartarson, and since his retirement has been run by his son Hjörtur Gísli Sigurdsson, the Icelandic Phallus Museum deals solely and exclusively with the male genitalia. The collection now includes around 200 preserved penises from different mammal species. Since 2011, she has also been joined by a human penis for the first time – with the identity of the “donor” being kept top secret. In addition to the physical exhibits, the collection is supplemented by – if we may put it that way – “theme-related” works of art such as paintings and sculptures.
7. Saga Museum
Less deadly serious and more of an “experience museum”, this facility near the port attracts families in particular. The exhibition includes numerous scenes in which life-size groups of figures recreate the history of Iceland. Of course, there is a focus on the country’s Viking past, and visitors can witness, for example, how Leif Eriksson (or at least his likeness) sets out with his troupe to explore North America. Children in particular (and the young at heart alike) have a lot of fun here when they can slip into Viking costumes and then be photographed for a souvenir photo.
8. Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum
The largest open-air museum in Iceland is located within the capital, but somehow still in the countryside – after all, the buildings on the outskirts, apart from the densely populated city center, which are quite far apart, do not give a big city atmosphere. Árbæjarsafn Museum is a collection of around 30 historic wooden buildings from Reykjavik and other parts of Iceland that have been dismantled and reassembled here piece by piece. These include, for example, old farmhouses and a traditional turf church, as well as various craftsmen’s houses in which volunteer workers still demonstrate their traditional art to visitors today. There’s even an original printing house, housing a historic printing press that Iceland used to print its banknotes for a short time (now they’re commissioned from specialized companies abroad).
9. Austurvöllur square / Reykjavik Tips
Austurvöllur has always been popular with Reykjavik residents as a place to meet for a chat or just to soak up the warmth on a park bench in the sunny weather. Afterwards, people like to go to one of the numerous cafés that line the adjacent streets Vallarstræti and Pósthússtræti. A statue of Jón Sigurdsson, a one-time leader of Iceland’s independence movement from Denmark, stands in the square, which in the past has often served as a meeting place for demonstrations due to its proximity to the Parliament building. Austurvöllur is also a great base for visitors to explore the city, with many attractions within easy walking distance.
10. Icelandic Parliament Building (Alþingishúsið)
While many residential buildings in Reykjavik are still built predominantly of wood, Iceland’s parliament building is made of a much more durable material, namely blocks of the medium-grained subvolcanic rock dolerite, which usually takes on a deep green, almost moss-like color due to oxidation in the air. The Althing (Alþingi), as Iceland’s national assembly is called in reference to the Viking Age, meets in the 19th-century building, whose simple architecture looks like an old schoolhouse.