Even though Iceland’s capital has only the population of a medium-sized town in England, Reykjavík has developed into a place full of varied activities to take part in. From museums to cultural buildings, bars to restaurants and, of course, an abundance of geothermal swimming pools, you’ll never be bored here. An exploration of the city center will show you just how much Icelanders value their art, cultural heritage, and well-being.
Touristic Highlights of Reykjavik
This is Reykjavík’s natural history museum. You can hardly miss it; it’s the huge glass dome sat atop Öskjuhlíð Hill, a building that can be seen from miles away. The dome is perched on six huge hot-water tanks, which contain geothermally-heated water; this water is used to heat the building in the winter. Regarding the museum itself, Perlan (translation: The Pearl) takes its readers on a journey through Iceland’s geological history up to the present day, as well as providing detailed information on the native wildlife.
Its exhibitions include a real ice cave, a Planetarium, and many interactive exhibits showcasing all the features of Icelandic nature. First opened in 1991, the museum also features a dining area on the top floor and an observation deck offering 360° views of the city. Perlan is located in the south of the city center and is easy to find; just look for the big glass dome on the hill.
This church is one of Iceland’s most famous landmarks. Named after the 17th Century Icelandic poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson, this building is a Lutheran place of worship but is open to all. The church itself is free to enter, but the tower that gives great views of the surrounding area is ISK 1000 or 7,22 USD.
At 74.5 meters (244 ft) tall, Hallgrímskirkja is visible from far away and towers over most other buildings in the city. You’ve probably seen pictures of the spire with ‘wings’ on each side, shaped like gradually lengthening steps. It is extremely impressive to view up close (I would hope so, it took 41 years to build! Between 1945 and 1986) so it absolutely must be visited on a trip to Iceland. It is easily found in the center of downtown Reykjavík.
Harpa Concert Hall
The Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is another easily recognizable building. Found in the Old Harbour in Reykjavík, Harpa is a fairly new addition to the city, having first opened in 2011. In addition to conferences, concerts and plays are regularly held there, including live performances by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
The design is based on Iceland’s basalt landscapes, and the exterior of the building is comprised of 714 glass panels, all fitted with LEDs that flash various colors. Even if you don’t attend a concert during your time in Iceland, Harpa is worth taking a tour around to marvel at the architecture.
Reykjavik City Tour
You can either stroll around Reykjavík at your own pace or join an organized tour. The company CityWalk runs a ‘free’ walking tour (donations are welcome) which takes you on a journey around the city center while the guide discusses the history of the city and the rest of Iceland. Then there is the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour, which you can join and leave as you please to visit the city’s tourist attractions and which includes an on-board audio commentary.
Unique Things to do in Reykjavik
Hydro Flot (Float) Spa
If you want to relax, you could hit one of the city’s seven public heated swimming pools. Or, if you’re looking for something more private and meditative, you could head to Hydro Flot Spa. This experience involves laying in a floatation tank for an hour, in body temperature water saturated with Epsom Salts to allow you to float comfortably.
The tank is completely silent, so you are cut off from all distractions; hence the term ‘sensory deprivation tank’. This is a fantastic way to reset and collect your thoughts. It provided me with a deep insight into my subconscious and is honestly high on my list of best wellbeing activities. The Spa is conveniently located right near to Hlemmur Mathöll food court, on Rauðarárstígur.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
There are a number of things Iceland is famous for: having the largest glacier mass in Europe, some of the world’s most active volcanoes, and the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts. This museum found opposite Hlemmur Mathöll food court in the city center contains a display of over 282 specimens from 93 species.
The collection is an almost complete showcase of the mammal phalluses found in Iceland and its surrounding waters, in addition to foreign species. This unique attraction opened in Reykjavík in 1997 and has been growing ever since.
This independent cinema feels authentically Icelandic and rustic. If you fancy catching an old film, cult-classic, or an Icelandic movie, head to the address Hverfisgata 54. It reminds me of how all cinemas used to be before chains took over the global market. With its old movie posters covering the walls and small theatres, the experience feels very intimate and exciting.
Another great aspect of Icelandic cinemas is that they aren’t much more expensive than western European prices, so you feel like you’re getting a good deal.
Many visitors to the city head to the Grótta Lighthouse, found west of the city, late on a winter evening in the hope of seeing the northern lights. However, not many tourists know about, or even notice, the small naturally heated (but man-made) footbath on the way to the lighthouse.
It’s a wonder to see a clear night sky from this location, but this experience is enhanced by soothing your feet in the warm water as you enjoy the view. A good rule for Iceland is to always bring a towel and swimming costume whenever you embark on a trip because there are pools and hot springs everywhere.
Reykjavik Street Art
One of the most wonderful things about walking through Reykjavík is experiencing the abundance of incredible street art dotted around the city. It seems that every time I take a new route, I notice a painting I haven’t seen before. And they are huge, often covering the side of a building or a whole alley. If you have time, rather than driving or relying on Reykjavik's public transportation when you go out for dinner, take a walk and see what art you can spot.
Nightlife in Reykjavik
One of the positives about the nightlife in Reykjavik is that it's mostly focused on or near the main street in the city center, Laugavegur. Another plus is that Iceland is statistically one of the safest countries in the world, so you can truly relax and enjoy your night out, while still taking care of yourself of course.
There are numerous bars of varying styles to cater for your taste, but be aware that the legal drinking age in Iceland is 20. Some of the most popular are the Lebowski Bar (frequented by students) which has a decent-sized dancefloor at the back. Kaffibarinn is the most famous bar in Iceland and has a chilled vibe. It’s fairly busy on the weekends, although Icelanders don’t generally go out until around 1 am, so don’t worry about getting there too early. Head to Skúli Craft Bar for Icelandic crafted beer and a friendly atmosphere.