If you are looking for a place in Reykjavik that bursts with activity, you may find it in the Reykjavik Old Harbour area. From restaurants to museums, what else could you ask for?
One of the nicest areas in all of Reykjavik is the part known as Old Harbour. It was built between 1913 and 1917; today it’s one of the most popular destinations for visitors thanks to its wealth of restaurants, leisure attractions, and other amenities. If you’re keen to find out what’s on offer at Reykjavik Old Harbour, here’s a brief guide.
There is a clutch of intriguing museums in or very close to Old Harbour and they’re well worth checking out. Start with the Maritime Museum, seeing as you’re so close to the sea. Housed in a former fishing factory, its focus is on the industry and how it has impacted Iceland and its people throughout history.
Another must is The Volcano House. This place focuses on the country’s underlying geology and specifically how geothermal and tectonic processes have shaped Iceland into what it is today. Every hour they show a fascinating documentary about some of Iceland’s more famous eruptions and the effect that they had on the land and people.
Art lovers should not miss the Reykjavik Art Museum. Once it was the home of artist Ásmundur Sveinsson. Now this place houses a collection of his sculptures as well as regular exhibitions of contemporary art, which often showcase up and coming artists. Next door is the Reykjavik Museum of Photography if you like your art through a lens.
Whether you rock up for a concert, find yourself there for a conference or simply hang out on the pavement to check out the cool reflections in its glass panels, a trip to Harpa is an essential part of any visit to Old Harbour. Construction began on this breathtaking building in 2007, but the first concert didn’t take place until 2011.
The architects who designed the building wanted to make a nod to Iceland’s basalt rock in the shapes of its steel, but it’s the multicolored glass that really gives the place its wow factor. Unsurprisingly it’s rapidly cemented its place as one of Reykjavik’s must-see buildings and you’ll soon see why when you stand in front of it.
One of the reasons tourists come to Old Harbour is to board a whale watching or puffin trip. A Reykjavik harbor cruise is one of those Iceland bucket list activities, along with an excursion to the Golden Circle and a dip in the Blue Lagoon. It’s a good opportunity to blow away the cobwebs and get some fresh air.
Trained naturalists accompany cruises in the waters near the capital. Though wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, you have a good chance of spotting minke whales, humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, and harbor porpoises. If you’re really lucky, you might also see killer whales, fin whales, and long-finned pilot whales.
Your chances are increased if you visit in summer and the better weather means cruises are less likely to be postponed until the seas aren’t as rough. Nevertheless, even on the shortest days during the months of December and January, there is one scheduled departure each day, with six per day on the timetable for the summer months.
Strolling along the waterfront of the Old Harbour is a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon. The iconic Sun Voyager sculpture, created by Jón Gunnar Árnason to resemble a dreamboat or ode to the sun, is within striking distance. About a fifteen-minute walk from the far side of Old Harbour or half that from Harpa, it’s well worth the detour.
Across the bay, you have an uninterrupted view of Mount Esja, which is about 10 kilometers away. It’s more of a mountain range than a single summit peak but that doesn’t make it any less attractive. On a clear day, with blue skies overhead it looks spectacular – even more so on a winter evening if you’re lucky enough to experience strong enough auroral activity to make the Northern Lights visible this close to Reykjavik.
As you might expect, the fish is fresh and tasty in the restaurants around Old Harbour, but there are other options too, such as the meat on the menu at Steakhouse. Our picks of the Old Harbour Reykjavik restaurants include Slippbarinn, which alongside an excellent menu also serves decent cocktails (time your visit for happy hour) and often live music, and Höfnin (The Harbour) which offers Icelandic cuisine with a modern twist and incredible views of the harbor through its windows.
The Old Harbour is situated within easy reach of downtown Reykjavik. It’s less than a 20-minute walk from Hallgrímskirkja for instance. If you’re based on the edge of the city or coming from beyond Reykjavik, then you probably will have considered car rental. If so, there’s plenty of parking at Harpa concert hall, plus there’s also a bus stop right outside if you’re relying on public transport.