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Some cities want to be conquered and some cities are meant to be enjoyed. Reykjavik is one of those cities that are meant to be savored and treasured. And with so many fun things to do in Reykjavik, you will never get bored.
Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, is the world’s northern most capital city. Despite being small in terms of size and population, this is a great city to explore. Visitors can walk across the entire downtown Reykjavik area in about 20 minutes.
When we first came here in the early 2000s, the country’s tourism boom hadn’t happened yet and this was a quiet, relaxed city. It’s still relaxed, but now there is no shortage of cool, fun things to do here. Be sure allow a minimum of two days for visiting Reykjavik on any trip to Iceland.
And despite the small size, this is one of the world’s hippest cities. The city is full of great museums and exceptional restaurants. And there’s street art, food tours, cocktail tours, walking excursions, whale watching, and about anything else you can possibly thing of.
See Related Article: The Best Time to Visit Iceland
The Best Things to do in Reykjavik
Whether you like arts & culture or prefer a more active, adrenaline filled vacation, you can find stuff to do in Iceland…and in the capital…that will meet your interests. Here are our picks for the best Reykjavik attractions and activities.
Visit the Hallgrimskirkja Church
The Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgríms Church) is the iconic Reykjavik landmark that can been seen atop the hill from everywhere in the city. This building is part church, part monument, and part art. And it’s worth a visit.
Unlike many churches in Europe, it is free to go into the Hallgrímskirkja and look around. And unlike many churches in Europe, the interior of the church is very, very plain.
The church is designed to invoke elements of Icelandic nature. The interior is designed to resemble an ice cave. The long vertical lines are designed to resemble the famous Basalt columns located at several places in the country, particularly the Svartifoss waterfall. In fact, the organ is the only thing inside the church that isn’t a shade of light gray.
And while the church is beautiful for its simplicity, we were more enthralled by the statue of Leif Ericson out in front of the church. The statue was gift from the people of the United States in 1930 recognizing that Leif Ericson was the true discoverer of America and the New World – not Christopher Columbus. There’s something refreshing about the honesty of the statue.
See the Views from the Top of Hallgrimskirkja
From the small gift shop inside the Hallgrimskirkja, you can purchase tickets to ride the elevator up the tower. And it is absolutely worth it!
The elevator takes you up the tower, where you climb another three flights of stairs to a viewing platform, which offers archways looking out into the four directions. From here, all of downtown Reykjavik lies at your feet.
From the top of the Hallgrimskirkja, you can see all of the colorful buildings in downtown, the harbor, and the mountains beyond. There’s no finer view in the capital of Iceland.
Check Out the Views from the Perlan
The Pearl in Öskjuhlíð is city’s other view. The cities old water towers were turned into a cultural center that houses permanent and temporary exhibits. Such exhibits include the wonders of nature in Iceland and a planetarium presentation on the Northern Lights.
But most people visit The Perlan for the views of the city. This is a beautiful vantage point to see the Hallgrímskirkja church with the rest of the city and the mountains in the distance.
Best of all, it can be done as a quick stop while heading to or from the airport.
Explore the Street Art Scene
The locals call Reykjavik Greykjavik. This is partly due to the drab winter weather, but also some of the construction materials used in the city aren’t very inspiring. This is a far cry from the more traditional Scandinavian colors (red, yellow, and blue) which can be seen in pockets through the city.
However, what the buildings lack, young artists have added. The real color can be found on the sides of buildings throughout town. The culture of street art in Reykjavik is going strong!
The murals showcase aspects of Icelandic life, culture, nature, or the whims and dreams of Icelandic artists. While initially controversial, these works have come to be beloved by locals.
Hit Up a Coffee Shop
The locals love their coffee. The city has a vibrant coffee culture. Locals and tourists alike gather every morning to socialize, gossip, read the news…and drink a cup of coffee.
The best coffee shop in Reykjavik is the famous Mokka Kaffi. Get here early to grab a seat with the locals. If you are looking for take away options, Kaffitar is also very popular.
Learn at the National Museum of Iceland
The National Museum of Iceland is a first-class cultural institution and one of the top Reykjavik attractions. It brings both important historical objects as well as iconic pieces from the more recent period. You can see ancient Viking implements or Bjork’s first album from 1977 in adjoining rooms.
The Icelandic national museum gives a good overall view of the unique history and culture of the country, which is really unlike any other place in the world.
Understand the Country’s Past at the Reykjavik Maritime Museum
The Reykjavik Maritime Museum is located in the old harbor of the city and focuses on the country’s important nautical history. It’s excellent museum and covers everything from the Vikings to the Icelandic cod wars with Europe.
The museum is housed on land that was reclaimed from the sea and in a building that once housed a fish factory. Visiting is a great way to immerse yourself in the most important part of the Icelandic economic.
Walk Around the Tjörnin
The Tjornin is the city’s front yard. The lake is a beloved feature of the city and local’s call it the Reykjavíkurtjörn (Reykjavík’s Pond or the Reykjavik City Pond). Once an ocean lagoon, a barrier was erected closing the pond off from the sea and making it a body of fresh water.
In the evenings you’ll see locals strolling around the lake, talking, or sitting on a bench and taking in the view. Reykjavik’s town hall sits at the western end of the Tjornin. It’s not uncommon to see city officials stepping out for fresh Icelandic air.
Walking around the pond and mingling with the locals is one of the best free things to do in Reykjavik.
Dive into the Culinary Scene
No, this isn’t a punchline to some long-forgotten joke. The whole idea of a culinary scene in Iceland would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. This was a city that felt more like a culinary wasteland than a true capital of Europe.
Those days are long gone. These days, gourmands flock to the city for the culinary revolution happening here. Yes, there’s still lamb and fish on every menu, but they are being re-imagined for a new generation of Icelanders.
Traditional Icelandic cuisine is being reshaped into fine art. And there’s every kind of international cuisine you can possibly imagine. These days, fine dining is one of the new, cool things to do in Reykjavik.
If you’re interested in dining, check out the section on where to eat in Reykjavik below.
Stand in Awe at the Sun Voyager Sculpture
When it comes to your list of what to see in Reykjavik, the Sun Voyager (or Solfarid) sculpture is probably high on the list. It would seem every visitor to Iceland needs to take a selfie in front of this sculpture.
However, there is a far more moving story here. The work was conceived and built by sculptor Jon Gunnar Arnason to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city. He conceived of the sculpture, built it, but never saw it installed. He passed away from Leukemia before the work could be completed.
The Sun Voyager resembles a Viking long ship, but wasn’t designed to represent the Vikings. Rather, it is a “dream boat” that is designed to “convey the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.”
The Solfar or Sun Voyager sculpture is particularly beautiful at sunset with Mt. Esja in the background or in the early morning with the sun at your back.
Shop for Traditional Garb at the Handknitting Association of Iceland
In 1977, a group of Icelandic women established the local handknitting association. Their goal was to knit goods (sweaters, shalls, etc.) and sell them to those who didn’t knit or to tourists.
Over 40 years later, the association is still going strong. There are two locations in the capital city, but most people visit the downtown Reykjavik store located on Skólavörðustígur.
In retrospect, the association was a brilliant solution to a common problem: a poor economy in Iceland. After years of cod wars with Europe and high inflation due to the oil crisis, the Icelandic economy was struggling. These enterprising women literally stitched the country’s economic back together.
Catch Some Culture at the Harpa
Other than the Hallgrimskirkja church, the most famous building in Reykjavik is the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center. Occupying prime waterfront real estate at the harbor right downtown, this building is a showpiece for the country.
Designed by the firm of Henning Larsen Architects in partnership with the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, this building is truly a work of art. Constructed from 2007-2011 (with a brief break due to the Icelandic financial crisis), it is now one of the top Reykjavik sties to visit.
See the Reykjavik Settlement Exhibition 871 +/- 2
The Settlement Museum 871 +/-2 is an interesting and unusual museum with an even more unusual name. This is partly from the unusual name that highlights the settlement of Reykjavik as occurring some time between 868 and 872, and partly because this museum is in the basement of an ultramodern hotel.
During the construction of an earlier building, the remnants of an early Viking building were discovered. When the modern hotel was to be built in 2001, measures were taken to carefully excavate the site and preserve the artifacts.
The exhibits at the Settlement Museum Reykjavik are detailed and allow you to see foundations of the earliest houses up close.
Live It Up and Explore the Nightlife
Hold onto your livers! The Reykjavik bar and nightclub scene is legendary. While there’s no shortage of ways to spend your time or money in the city, one of the best things to do in Reykjavik at night is to indulge in some of the city’s famous nightlife. It’s unlike any other city in the world.
The bars and lounges in Reykjavik are perfect for a night out. They stay open really late (like 4:00 or 5:00am late). There’s no cover charges. There are no velvet ropes or bouncers or elitism. There’s delicious drinks (albeit pretty expensive). And all of the bars in Reykjavik are in a very centralized area so you can go between them easily.
The bar scene changes quickly with places going into and out of fashion quickly. We were big fans of the Jungle Cocktail Bar and their craft mixology. And, for pop culture appeal, don’t miss having a White Russian at the the famous Lebowski Bar.
Even if you aren’t a “club person,” the nightlife in Reykjavik is not to be missed.
Eat a Hot Dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Many people consider the hot dog to be the national food of Iceland (or “sausages” as they call them). Icelanders certainly eat large quantities of these hot dogs, particularly from the numerous gas stations through the country.
And while the hot dog is iconic, the location of the best hot dog in Iceland is not disputed. Most people end up at the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the hot dog stand in the heart of downtown Reykjavik. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur has been serving sausages since 1937 and the long lines at the stand attest to their popularity.
During his Presidential visit, Bill Clinton famously had a hot dog here in August 2004. He ordered his with only mustard, but most people get their hot dogs “with” – meaning with everything.
Things to Do Near Reykjavik
Most travelers to Iceland stay near the capital region. There are lots of things to do near Reykjavik.
The Blue Lagoon
No trip would be complete without a visit to the Blue Lagoon. This is the most famous geothermal pool in Iceland (and perhaps the world). Located between the city and the airport, this is an Instagram model’s delight. Or just skip the selfies and enjoy the water for what it is.
The Golden Circle
If you’re wondering what to do in Reykjavik, a visit to the Golden Circle is essential. This full-day outing from the city allows you to see the very best of Iceland in a single day. You’ll get all the waterfalls, lakes, geysers, volcano calderas, and hot springs you would ever want. If you don’t have time to drive the Ring Road or explore the rest of the country, you can get a sense of it here.
The Golden Circle takes you to the Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is the patriotic “home” of the Icelandic people. It’s also located directly on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates intersect. It makes for some very interest geological formations.
And then there’s waterfalls and hot springs…and the list goes on. If you don’t time to explore Iceland, at least give yourself a day on the Golden Circle.
Search for Northern Lights
For many people, coming to see the Northern Lights in winter is one of their activities. Since the capital is a fairly large city, it is difficult to see the lights clearly within the city. If you really want to see the dancing green lady in the sky, you’ll need to head outside of the city.
The good news is that the capital makes a decent base to go hunting for the Aurora lights in the winter. If you want to see them, just rent a car and head out into the countryside. Alternately, there are large numbers of Northern Lights tours that leave from Reykjavik every evening in the winter.
Yes, Greenland. One of the most unique things to do in Reykjavik is to get on a small propeller aircraft and fly to another country. Yes, there’s plenty to see and explore in Iceland, but for visitors looking for a bit more, go to Greenland.
On our very first trip to Iceland, we discovered you can take a day trip to Greenland from Iceland. And we did it. While Greenland is very difficult to visit from North America or Europe, it’s actually surprisingly easy to visit from Iceland.
What’s in Greenland? There are glaciers and icebergs. There’s lots and lots of snow and ice. And while you’re expecting to be awed by the scenery and the nature, the biggest impact could be the cultural aspects. Whatever you expect from Greenland, you will be surprised and challenged.
Where to Eat
Here are some of our favorite restaurants in Reykjavik:
Sumac Grill + Drinks (or sometimes called Le Sumac). This Lebanese restaurant on the main drag is one of the most popular and talked about restaurants in the city. The food is remarkable, and they have a very playful view of Middle Eastern cuisine. We cannot recommend this place highly enough. Reservations are absolutely essential.
Austur. This is essentially an Indian restaurant (with a few other Asian dishes thrown in). Austur has been one of the more popular Reykjavik restaurants for over a decade. There are lots of good vegetarian options here.
Islenski Barinn/The Icelandic Bar. This local establishment is extremely popular with tour guides…and their tours. While the menu has lots of traditional items (i.e., very meat heavy), there are lots of other options. That said, this is the place to go if you want to try “local Icelandic.” We give high marks to the lobster hot dog.
Matarkjallarinn – Foodcellar. This is one of the nicest places in town for fine dining with an Icelandic flair. The mixed grill is exceptional, as are all of the fish specials. Tends to be expensive, but worth it. One of the best restaurants in the city for their service. Reservations are essential.
Fiskmarkadurinn – The Fish Market. Extremely popular for more than a decade, this is a kind of Japanese/Icelandic hybrid restaurant that focuses on fish. It is on the expensive end of things. The miso fish is excellent.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. See more above. This is the place to try the national dish of Iceland: the hot dog. BBP is the most popular place for hot dogs in Reykjavik. Just look for the long line. Don’t worry, it moves quickly.
Mokka Kaffi. This is the best coffee shop in Reykjavik. Grab a cup, pull up a chair and chat with the locals.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
Reykjavik feels like a small town. No matter where you stay, you’ll be in close proximity to everything. With that said, we prefer to stay in downtown so we can walk in the evenings and not need to worry about drinking and driving. In the city, we enjoying staying in apartments, which gives us a little more flexibility. Here are two of our favorite apartments in Reykjavik, plus a hotel we’ve enjoyed in the past:
- TownApartment Reykjavík: Close to everything and modern Scandinavian decor make this place a winner! (Read reviews and book a room)
- Baldursbrá Apartments: Right in the heart of the capital and with private parking, Baldursbra has everything you’ll need for an enjoyable visit. (Read reviews and book a room)
- 101 Hotel: One of the most central hotels in Reykjavik with a sleek, modern design and an incredible location. Bonus: One of the few hotels with on-site parking. (Read reviews and book a room)