The Ultimate Guide to Reykjavik
Located in the south west of Iceland, Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly capital city. (Technically Nuuk in Greenland sits at a higher latitude but isn’t the capital of a sovereign state.) With a population of barely 130,000 Reykjavik is tiny in comparison to many of Europe’s capitals, yet it punches well above its weight when it comes to things to see and do.
Even so, visitors planning a trip to Iceland face something of a dilemma. Should you base themselves in Reykjavik and concentrate solely on what’s in and around the city, or should you instead head off to loop the country’s famous ring road? Actually, if you can compromise then a hybrid of the two is probably the best idea. Hang around for a few days to see what Reykjavik has to offer and then venture further afield to see what the rest of the country is like.
Want the lowdown? We’ve got you covered with our ultimate guide to Reykjavik.
A bit of background history
Reykjavik was founded in 874 by a Norseman called Ingólfur Arnarson. The name means “smoky bay” which most likely is a reference to volcanic activity in the wider area. Almost throughout its history, the settlement remained quite small. It started to feel more like a capital city when the Althing was disbanded in 1800 and parliament moved to Reykjavik from Thingvellir. Things really began to change in the 20th century when Reykjavik’s position was consolidated further when Iceland gained its independence from Denmark in 1944. Hosting an important US-Russian summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 further cemented its status on the world stage.
Things to do in Reykjavik
Indoors and out, there’s no shortage of things to do in the Icelandic capital no matter what time of year you plan to visit.
Things to do in winter
In winter, colder weather and fewer hours of daylight means that attention turns to indoor attractions. That gives Reykjavik’s many museums a chance to shine. It should come as no surprise to learn that Iceland’s relationship with the ocean is explored at length, for instance in the Reykjavik Maritime Museum down by the harbour, the country’s fishing industry and seafaring heritage makes a fascinating subject. Close by, inside Whales of Iceland you’ll find exhibits covering 23 different species of cetacean found in Icelandic waters.
Iceland’s cultural heritage is also a popular topic. The Settlement Exhibit preserves what remains of city’s 10th century inhabitants, while the Saga Museum tells some of the most important stories from those Viking days. It’s worth travelling just outside the city to the excellent Árbær Open Air Museum as this is where you’ll find a significant collection of historic buildings on what was originally a farm, including a chance to see those quirky turf roofs at close quarters.
Christmas and New Year
One particular part of winter is extra-special: Christmas and New Year are magical times to be in Iceland, but especially in Reykjavik. There’s a whole host of special events taking place at this time of year. The twinkle of Christmas lights , stores selling artisan-made gifts and a sense of festive cheer will lift your spirits. If it’s cold enough, Tjörnin pond freezes over and skaters glide across the surface of the ice. At New Year, there are fun celebrations with a party atmosphere and people letting off fireworks all across the city.
Things to do in summer
Of course, all these places are open year-round, but in summer, the warmer weather opens up yet more possibilities. Fewer storms make this a better time to head out into Faxaflói Bay on a whale watching trip. Though it’s possible to see cetaceans at any time of year, boats can’t always put to sea if conditions are windy and flat calm seas mean your full attention can be fixed on spotting these majestic creatures. Summer’s also a great time to spot puffins. These comical seabirds will delight you with their clumsy antics.
Iceland might feel like an odd place to plan a trip to the beach. But even though the country doesn’t have the hot weather you might encounter further south in Europe, it has a secret weapon: geothermal energy. At Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, this warm water is pumped into a manmade lagoon. Add some golden sand and, hey presto, you’ve got yourself an Icelandic beach resort.
If you prefer a luxury spa experience, then Sky Lagoon’s barely a 15 minute drive away from downtown. In nearby Reykjanes, thanks to its convenient location between Reykjavik and the airport, the Blue Lagoon’s similarly easy to tick off your bucket list if you have a morning or afternoon to spare. Both are immensely popular in summer, but because of the warmth of the water they’re a pleasant experience no matter when you call in. Even on the most hurried stopover, you should make time for at least one of these, and a day out to the Golden Circle too if you can squeeze it in.
If winter conditions have put you off driving, then you can make a virtual visit to many of the country’s most impressive natural environments at Perlan – without even leaving Reykjavik. In the capital city of the Land of Fire and Ice, you don’t have to travel far from downtown to experience both. It’s home to exhibits about glaciers – with its own ice cave made from real snow – and volcanoes.
Perlan’s also where you’ll find the Áróra show, a fabulous alternative to seeing the Northern Lights outside if the clouds stubbornly refuse to lift during your visit. If you do get clear skies, one of the darkest places closest to the city centre is out at Grótta, whose lighthouse is a short bus ride away yet perfectly placed to witness the dazzling display put on by the Aurora Borealis when it makes an appearance.
The best views in Reykjavik
While the views from the Old Harbour – or anywhere along the waterfront for that matter – take a lot of beating, riding the elevator up to the top of Hallgrímskirkja is a must. It’s the best way to experience this landmark church known for its magnificent architecture and this lofty vantage point is a handy place to come to get your bearings and plan your next move.
Perlan also has a wraparound observation deck offering breathtaking views across the city. The building’s location on top of Öskjuhlíð hill provides that all important extra height and makes it possible to see right over Reykjavik’s rooftops to the oceans and mountains beyond. You can dine here too, absorbing that breathtaking 360° panorama in between courses.
Where to eat
Perlan is considered one of the best restaurants in Reykjavik but there’s plenty of competition. Many restaurants cluster around the harbour so you can watch the boats come and go while you eat, especially in summer if it’s warm enough to sit outside. Fish features heavily on the menu, as you might expect, but Iceland’s also known for its high quality lamb.
If you and your friends can’t agree what to eat, then head over to one of the city’s cool food halls where you can find great food at affordable prices. Street food is perennially popular. One of the staples of the fast food scene is the humble hot dog, which is a must while you’re in the city. The most iconic hot dog stand is Baejarins Beztu Pylsur that’s served everyone from Bill Clinton to Kim Kardashian. Follow it up with an ice cream – topped with liquorice as the locals prefer – and your kids will love you forever.
How can you not be tempted by Reykjavik? Whether you’re here for a couple of days on a stopover, a fun city break or a longer stay, year-round there’s something here to suit everyone.
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