Known for the colorful houses that line its streets, a trip to Iceland is not complete without a visit to the quirky capital city of Reykjavík. The world’s northernmost capital city, Reykjavík might not be a large capital city, but there is plenty of life and activities to be found here and we can help you create your dream vacation to this mini-metropolitan. You should also check out our article about the top photography spots in Reykjavík.
The downtown area of Reykjavík is the cultural hub of Iceland. Here you will find a growing foodie scene, design shops and art galleries, museums and exhibitions, and plenty of entertainment options to keep you more than busy. Reykjavík is a very walkable city making it the perfect place for a city escape. You never know what gems you will find as you wander around the colorful streets of Reykjavík!
Whether you have only a few hours in Reykjavík or a few days, see the best of the city with a visit to the following 10 must-see attractions.
Wondering how to kick off your time in Reykjavík? We recommend a visit to the iconic Hallgrímskirkja, one of the main landmarks of Reykjavík, and the largest church in Iceland, its large structure can be seen from all over the city.
Why visit a church to kick off your time in Reykjavík? Thanks to the height of the church, and a viewing platform at the top of the church, you can get some of the most impressive views over Reykjavík from here. It is a great way to get a look over the entire city before you head off to explore further. The views of the colorful rooftops and ocean will make you that much more excited to start exploring the streets of Reykjavík
While the views from the tower are worth the visit alone, the church itself is an impressive sight to see. The church structure was designed to resemble the rocks, mountains and glaciers of the Icelandic landscape and took 41 years to build. Inside the church, you will find a pipe organ that stands at 15 m and weighs 25 tons! If you are lucky you will get to hear music coming out of the impressive organ. Outside of the church, you will find a statue of Leifur Eiríksson who was the first European to discover America.
Before you say goodbye to this iconic Reykjavík landmark don’t forget to take plenty of pictures in front of the church, it is one of the most popular spots for pictures in Reykjavík, and with all the history and beauty here you will see why!
A natural pond located in the center of the city, Tjörnin is the perfect place to head to for a little nature escape while wandering around Reykjavík. Here you will find a variety of birdlife playing around in the water, many waiting to catch some bread that visitors toss their way. Pathways surrounding the lake are a great spot for wandering around or taking a break on one of the many benches along the way to enjoy the views. If you are traveling with little ones the open park space and playgrounds in this area will keep them busy and happy little travelers.
While the pond itself is a beautiful sight, the views around the water are just as lovely. On one side you will see charming colorful houses, another side has one of Reykjavík’s historical landmarks, the “Free Church of Reykjavík”. Before you leave the area be sure to stop into Reykjavík City Hall, which is located on the northwest corner of the lake, they often have interesting exhibitions to check out.
If visiting during the winter months Tjörnin will likely be frozen, aside from one small corner of the pond where warm water is pumped in to help keep an area for the birds to swim around. When the pond has frozen completely over you will find people out ice skating or playing ice hockey, or just making their way slowly across the pond.
And for those in Reykjavík over New Year’s Eve, Tjörnin is a great location to be to view the fireworks around the city!
Originally a cluster of hot water tanks, this glass dome-shaped building that overlooks Reykjavík is a must-visit while in the city. At Perlan you will find a viewing platform with some of the best views in Reykjavík, a restaurant and cafe, and thanks to a recent renovation several different exhibitions and museums that will keep you busy for hours.
In the past few years Perlan has become home to some new fascinating exhibitions. To name a few, the types of exhibitions you can find at Perlan are:
● The Perlan Planetarium - built inside one of the hot water tanks, here you can take in unique shows such as seeing the Northern Lights across different landscapes of Iceland.
● Forces of Nature - see, hear and feel the different powerful nature in Iceland from volcanoes to geothermal energy at this interactive exhibition.
● Glaciers and Ice Cave Exhibition - learn about glaciers in Iceland, and then get up close with them while you explore the first indoor ice cave!
Before leaving Perlan be sure to head to the observatory platform for some impressive views all around Reykjavík. And if you are still feeling like an adventure head off for a walk around the forest that surrounds Perlan, one of the few areas you will find trees in Reykjavík.
Tip: There is a shuttle to Perlan from the downtown location Harpan if you do not have a vehicle while in Reykjavík. You can find further information on the shuttle here.
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4. Old Harbor
Built between the years of 1913-1917, the old harbor in Reykjavík is a must-see attraction while in the city. A popular place to head for a stroll, this area has been booming in recent years with several new businesses being built, it is quickly becoming an action-packed district of Reykjavík.
Head down to the harbor for a walk and take in the ocean views with Mt. Esja in the background. Pop into the cozy cafes and restaurants all boasting the same stunning views. More often than not you will find large boats pulled into the harbor for repairs, an impressive sight to witness up close. And if you are exploring around the harbor area during the weekend be sure to stop across the street to the large flea market, Kolaportið, to pick up some fun souvenirs.
If you are more interested in museums you will find several in this area such as the Whales of Iceland exhibition and Reykjavík Maritime Museum. Or, if you plan on taking a whale watching tour, or another type of water-based tour, this is the location where you will find all the tour operators.
Before heading off from the harbor be sure to walk around Grandi, an area that was once filled with warehouses and industry but in recent years has undergone a transformation to become one of Reykjavík’s most hip districts. Here you will find delicious restaurants and speciality shops, a brewery, the famous Valdis ice cream shop, and a variety of stores to browse around.
Head a few minutes outside of downtown Reykjavík to the northern part of the city and you will find a beautiful peninsula called the Seltjarnarnes peninsula. At the tip of this peninsula, is the lovely Grótta nature reserve where you will find walking trails along the rugged coastline, a black sand beach often frequented by wind suffers, an active birdlife, and the Grotta lighthouse which you can walk out to during low tide.
Thanks to the few city lights around this area, Grotta is one of the best places to view the Northern Lights while in Reykjavík. And if you are visiting during the summer months you will be in for a treat watching the midnight sun slowly dip beyond the horizon. Or just come during the daytime and enjoy the magnificent views of Reykjavík city, Mt. Esja, and the ocean from this area.
Wondering how to reach Grótta if you do not have a car while in Reykjavík?
There is a well-paved pathway that will take you along the oceanside all the way back to Grotta. Either walk this path or rent a bicycle or scooter from one of the many locations around town and make an adventure out of it.
Reykjavík’s concert hall and conference center, Harpa is one building that stands out in the city, not only because of its large size, but because of its distinctive design of geometric shaped glass panels. One of the newer attractions in Reykjavík, Harpa opened its doors in 2011 with its first concert and has quickly become a cultural and social hub in the city.
Since its completion Harpa has won several architecture design awards and once you lay eyes on this interesting structure you will see why. Don’t miss the glass facade at night as it brightens up the night sky with the changing colors of the glass panels. And see Harpa really shine during the daytime when light reflects off the building making it look like it is sparkling all over.
Enjoy a walk around this unique building and take in the stunning views over the harbor and water. Don’t forget to look up to catch yourself from all different points of view. You can even take a building tour to learn more about Harpa if that is of interest to you. Or, if you are interested in seeing what entertainment is happening while you will be in Reykjavík you can find the calendar of events here.
One of the oldest streets in Reykjavík, Laugavegur is often referred to as the main street in downtown and is the place to be if you like being where the action is at. On this two kilometer street you will find shops ranging from Icelandic jewelry stores to clothing stores, art galleries and cafes, and many of the city’s most popular restaurants and bars.
In the summertime this street is closed to cars and the sidewalks and road alike come alive with crowds of locals and tourists. During the dark winter months the street is brighten up with Christmas lights and decorations. No matter the time of the year Laugavegur is always a festive place to be.
8. Sun Voyager
A massive steel structure designed to resemble a Viking ship, the Sun Voyager has become a must-stop photography place in Reykjavík. Located along the Reykjavík waterfront, the Sun Voyager stands on a circle of granite slabs facing the iconic Mt. Esja. According to the designer of the Sun Voyager, the structure was designed to symbolize a dream of hope, progress and freedom as well as undiscovered territory.
Just as impressive as the structure itself is the walk along the seaside pathway to reach it. Enjoy a stroll along the pathway to reach the Sun Voyager and the beautiful views over Reykjavík and the waterfront before getting your own memorable picture at the Sun Voyager.
9. The Swimming Pools
While we know that swimming pools are found all over the world, there is something special about the pools in Iceland that make them a must visit attraction. The swimming pools in Iceland, they are more than just your average local pool. They are a gathering place. A place to go get the latest gossip. A place to meet up with old and new friends. Winter or summer you will always find Icelanders enjoying their pool time.
If you enjoy getting an authentic experience for the local culture then going to the swimming pools in Reykjavík is the activity for you. Here is a list of some of the different pools in the city that we recommend checking out:
● Vesturbæjarlaug - located in a neighborhood just west of downtown, this pool recently underwent renovations all while keeping the charm this local pool has that the locals love. This pool is always full of Icelanders catching up with friends and family while relaxing.
● Sundhöll Reykjavíkur - the oldest pool in Reykjavík, this location right in downtown and is always a fun one to check out.
● Laugardalslaug - one of the biggest pools in Reykjavík this location has a pool for everyone to enjoy and there is lots of fun toys for the kids.
● Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach - take your Icelandic pool experience to the beach for a swim in the hot pool located on the man-made beach in Reykjavík, Nauthólsvík. A popular place for sea swimming, enjoy relaxing in the warm water while you watch brave individuals head out for a dip in the chilly water, or join them for an experience you certainly won’t forget!
A public square in downtown, Austurvöllur is a popular gathering place for locals. Austurvöllur is surrounded by cafes and restaurants as several landmarks that are important to the city’s cultural history such as the Icelandic Parliament building and the oldest church in Reykjavík, Domkirkjan.
A variety of events are held over the year in Austurvöllur and the square becomes particularly lively during the summer months. On warm sunny days the square is full of locals enjoying a drink or meal outside, or lounging in the grass around the square. At Christmas time Austurvöllur is the location of the city’s Christmas tree that arrives as a gift from Oslo turning the square into a festive location. Austurvöllur has also become known as the location of protests due to the Icelandic Parliament building being located here.
Reykjavík might be a small capital city, but it certainly has a lot to offer! Whether you are looking for a cultural experience, stunning nature to enjoy, or a taste of the Scandinavian charm, you can find it in downtown Reykjavík. For more insider information to things to do in Reykjavík head to our blog!