Reykjavik is the capital and the largest city of Iceland. Being the international travel hub into the country, Reykjavik gets a huge amount of visitors every year. This is understandable – who doesn’t have Iceland on their travel bucket list?! Iceland is known for its dramatic landscapes, geothermal areas, lava fields and glaciers. If you travel to or have a stopover in Iceland, read on about the top things to do in Reykjavik.
Start with Laugavegur street – one of Iceland’s oldest streets. The name of the street means “wash road” and comes from the times when women of Reykjavik walked down this street towards hot springs to wash their laundry.
Nowadays you won’t see women with laundry walking down Laugavegur street, but instead find many cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, colorful houses, souvenir and boutique shops.
Make sure to dine in one of the restaurants on Laugavegur or nearby streets and try popular Icelandic foods such as Icelandic rye bread – Rúgbrauð – from a hot spring, Icelandic yogurt (Skyr), seafood chowder and many other varieties of seafood dishes popular in Iceland.
From Laugavegur street turn to Skólavörðustígur street to find one of the Reykjavik attractions better known as Rainbow street. The street has been painted in rainbow colors in a sign to support the country’s LGBT community.
Continue walking on the Rainbow street to reach one of the most prominent landmarks in the city – Hallgrimskirkja Church.
It took 41 years to build Hallgrimskirkja Church – the construction started in 1945 and completed in 1986. At 74.5m tall it’s the second tallest building in Iceland. There is a viewing deck at the church tower open to visitors for a small fee.
Statue of Ingólfur Arnarson
Arnarhóll is a small green hill between the central street of Hverfisgata and the waterfront.
On the Arnarhóll hill you will find a statue of Ingólfr Arnarson – the first permanent Norse settler of Iceland. The statue shows Ingólfur standing by the mast of his ship, holding a shield and a spear.
Walk to Arnarhóll Hill to enjoy a nice view towards Harpa concert hall and Old Harbour.
Harpa concert hall
Another prominent landmark in Reykjavik is the Harpa concert hall and conference center. Harpa is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera and Reykjavík Big Band.
Its very distinctive architecture features a colored glass facade inspired by the Northern lights and basalt landscapes of Iceland. Harpa stands on the waterfront right next to the old harbour.
Reykjavik Old Harbour and Whale watching
Reykjavik Old Harbour (or just Reykjavik Harbour) is a natural harbour on the city’s waterfront. Its colorful houses were built mainly for the fishing industry between 1913 and 1917. These days many buildings in the Old Harbour were repurposed for cafes, museums and souvenir shops.
If you consider one of the boat tours to watch whales or puffins, the Harbour is the departure point for the tours. Here are some of the whale watching tours to choose from:
Sculpture and shore walk
If the weather is nice we recommend walking from the Harpa towards the Kirkjusandur beach via the ‘Sculpture and shore’ walkway. It’s a nice walk along the waterfront with beautiful views of the Reykjavik cityscape.
You won’t miss the big steel sculpture of Sun Voyager set beside the sea on the walkway. The sculpture resembles a Viking ship and is a very popular photo spot in Reykjavik.
Lake Tjornin (often referred as pond Tjornin, or simply Reykjavik City Pond) is a shallow lake in central Reykjavik. It’s a nice place to walk around, enjoy the sculptures along the pond, watch the local birds and just relax by the green space near the pond. If you’re travelling in colder months, instead of green areas you can enjoy ice skating on Tjornin as the pond freezes over in winter.
The lake is inhabited by many species of birds (mostly ducks, geese and swans). Watching and feeding the birds on Tjornin is popular enough that locals refer to the lake as “The biggest bread soup in the world”. However, if you’re visiting Tjörnin it’s better to avoid feeding bread to the birds as it causes dirtying of the water and attracts seagulls.
There are several sculptures around the lake. I really liked the sculpture of a mermaid sitting in the pond, but our boys’ favourite was the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat.
Another interesting one was the actual stone from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as a pledge of peace.
Next to the lake you will find a building of City Hall with a Visitors Center inside and a big 3D map of Iceland.
We also walked to a small but charming park near the lake – Hallargarðurinn – and admired its greenery, art statues and elegant houses.
Seltjarnarnes Peninsula and Grotta Lighthouse
Next on our Top things to do in Reykjavik is Grótta lighthouse on Seltjarnarnes Peninsula. It’s a bit far to walk from the city center, so if you’re taking a car then park it at the ‘Parking at the Lighthouse’ and take a walk along the Sculpture and Shore Walk. Yes, that’s the same walk that goes all the way to Reykjavik Old Harbour, via Harpa, and to Sun Voyager.
During low tides you can even reach the Grotta lighthouse on foot.
Seltjarnarnes Peninsula is a popular place to watch the northern lights. We visited in summer when it never really gets properly dark and so not a good season for watching northern lights. But if you’re travelling to Iceland between September and March, we would recommend to take one of the popular northern lights tours:
There are many interesting museums and exhibitions in Reykjavik. So if you’re staying for longer visit some of them.
Learn about the history and legends of the northern lights in Aurora Reykjavík: The Northern Lights Exhibition.
Visit the National Museum of Iceland or Reykjavík Maritime Museum.
Step into the Viking Age in The Settlement Exhibition of Reykjavík City Museum or in Saga Museum.
Not for everyone, but perhaps you would want to visit The Icelandic Phallological Museum to see the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts.
Learn the history of Reykjavik in the Árbær Open Air Museum.
Best day trips from Reykjavik
Needless to say Iceland attracts visitors not with its city sightseeing but with its nature and outdoors. So, after you spend a day or two in Reykjavik it’s time to explore more of Iceland.
One of the beauties of Reykjavik is that there are many amazing places to explore not too far from the city. To complete the Top things to do in Reykjavik, here is our list of best day trips from Reykjavik:
Snaefellsnes Peninsula is a region in western Iceland famous for its beautiful landscapes and natural sights. There are many things to see and do in Snaefellsnes – from mountains and volcanoes, to waterfalls, scenic beaches and dramatic cliffs.
Read our post on Perfect One Day Trip to Snaefellsnes Peninsula for more information on things to see and do in this popular destination.
The Golden Circle
One of the most classical one day trips from Reykjavik is The Golden Circle. Rent a car in Reykjavik and take this 300 km route within just one day.
Some of the highlights of The Golden Circle route are the famous Gullfoss Waterfall, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Kerið Crater.
It’s about 190km from Reykjavik to Reynisfjara Beach, which might be a bit too much to spend on the road going there and back in the same day. However, if you don’t mind the driving, the trip is totally worth it.
On the way there make sure to stop at Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls and Dyrhólaey peninsula with scenic views.
Read next – 10 Day Road Trip Around Iceland
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