The capital of Iceland has become a hugely popular tourist destination in recent years and it’s not hard to see why. As one of the world’s smaller capitals, Reykjavik is compact enough to make it easy to navigate for visitors and has so much to see and do – and that’s without mentioning the otherworldly scenery that encompasses the city. Here’s a look at ten things you must do in Reykjavik.
Visit Hallgrimskirkja and see the city from above
One of Reykjavik’s most striking landmarks is Hallgrimskirkja: the large church that dominates the city’s skyline. Opened in 1986, it’s a must for all visitors. Although the main body of the church is impressive, it’s the large tower and the views it provides that really pulls in the tourists. A trip up costs 900ISK (just less than £5) and you pay in the shop inside the church. I’ve visited twice now; the first time was a misty and dull October day but despite that we still enjoyed the vistas. Our return was a crisp and clear day in September and it ordered much more far reaching views across the colourful houses of the city and beyond.
Learn about the past at The Saga Museum
Icelandic history has been traditionally passed down from generation to generation by verbally-told stories known as The Sagas. They’ve also now all been written down but one of the best ways to learn more about them is at the Saga Museum. We visited on a rainy and windy Reykjavik morning and found it both informative and entertaining with a range of exhibits and figurines to bring history to life. We were given an audio guide to use with the exhibits and at the end we were given the chance to see how we would’ve looked as Vikings by trying on some outfits – complete with shields and swords so there’s something for all ages.
Reykjavik has a range of other museums including the National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik Art Museum and the unique Icelandic Phallological Museum (which is basically one guy’s collection and a very odd place but not the most educational museum in the city).
Eat at the Sea Baron (Sægreifinn)
Located by the old harbour in Reykjavik, the Sea Baron is a popular eatery for visitors and it’s always busy – but don’t let that put you off. It’s a small, rambling shack with long, communal tables with small barrels used as stools so you might find yourself squeezing past fellow diners to grab a seat. It’s also got more of a canteen style set-up in terms of ordering; there’s no menu per say as you simply select from the raw fish in the fridge next to the counter, tell the staff what you’d like and they’ll give you a number and bring it over to you when it’s ready. It’s renowned for its lobster soup and I can confirm it is delicious! If you’re in a large group, I’d probably give it a miss or visit as smaller groups instead as it is such a compact venue.
Have coffee and waffles at Mokka Kaffi
Icelanders love coffee and there are plenty of places to get your caffeine fix in Reykjavik but one of my favourites is Mokka Kaffi on Skólavörðustígur (the road that leads up to Hallgrimskirkja).It’s retained its glorious and cosy 1950s décor and the clientèle is very diverse with both regulars and tourists popping in for a brew. Try the waffles, they’re fantastic. Mokka Kaffi also featured in a recent episode of Icelandic drama ‘Trapped’ – you saw the Reykjavik police having a coffee in there at one point.
Explore some of the city’s free art
Reykjavik is full of art – from statues and sculptures to street art, there’s much to see. Take a stroll around the city centre and you’ll often spot intricate and eye-catching street art works – including large pieces taking up the sides of entire buildings. Other highlights include Solfar (Sun Voyager), a striking sculpture of a Viking boat on the seafront, and the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, one of Iceland’s first settlers, on top of Árnarhóll which provides great views of Harpa and the city.
Harpa is another of Reykjavik’s striking buildings. The concert hall opened in 2011 but if you’ve not got the time to catch a show during your visit, you’re still more than welcome to go in the building and look around. As a result of the coloured windows used in the building’s design, the lighting is stunning and it’s like no other concert hall in the world. Even if classical music isn’t your thing, it’s still worth popping in.
As with any city that gets a high number of tourists, Reykjavik is full of shops selling tourist tat (you know the sort of stuff, ‘hilarious’ t-shirts, crappy plastic souvenirs etc) but there’s plenty of great places to shop too scattered among some of the rubbish ones. From fashion and jewellery, to Icelandic music to local art, there’s indie shops selling a wide variety of goodies so you can avoid the cheesy stores.
Try some Icelandic beer during Happy Hour
One fact everyone knows about Iceland is that the alcohol is expensive. But it doesn’t always need to be as most bars in Reykjavik have a happy hour (or a few hours!) in the afternoon. It generally takes the form of buy one get one free offers which are very handy if there are two of you, or some venues have special happy hour prices on certain drinks. The bars do stay fairly quiet during these times despite the offers, as most Icelanders go out later on.
Eat on the streets
Grabbing a quick snack is fairly easy in Reykjavik, and the city is well-known for its hotdog stands. As a non-meat eater, I can’t vouch for any of them but they seem popular and always seem to have queues: in particular Baejarins Beztu which comes recommended by a variety of websites and apparently once served ex-US president Bill Clinton. There’s also plenty of other choices throughout the city and if you’ve got a sweet tooth, we loved the doughnuts from Don’s Donuts. Not a street cart, but if you want some great fast food to eat on the go, we loved Reykjavik Chips – especially after a few beers during Happy Hour!
Get out of the city!
Reykjavik is just one place to visit in a truly fascinating country. The scenery is awe-inspiring and there are a number of stunning natural features within easy reach of the capital. Popular with many tourists is the ‘Golden Circle’ route which includes visiting Geysir to see the geyser Strokkur blast water into the air, a trip to iconic waterfall Gullfoss and exploring Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park which is the site of the oldest parliament in the world.
Various tour providers offer coach trips for this route or you can, as we did, hire and car and visit the sites in your own time. If you’re only travelling on standard roads and not the F (mountain) roads, you don’t need to hire a massively expensive 4×4 – on both our visits we hired the smallest car possible from Blue Car Rental and it suited us perfectly.
PS: You may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned Iceland’s biggest tourist attraction, The Blue Lagoon. It’s not actually in Reykjavik which is why I’ve not featured it in this list although it will be included in some future posts!