Things to see & do in Reykjavik, Iceland

The world’s northernmost capital is in fact more like a regular town in size and population. Established by a 9th century Norse chieftain and isolated for centuries by its remote location, the city is now Iceland’s center not only of power, but of culture, too. It also soaks up the majority of tourists coming into the country on planes and cruise ships, and suffers from overtourism.
So if you’re planning to visit Iceland’s capital, on a short break or as part of a longer exploration of the island, try to visit during quiet months – July and August remain peak season – and once here, evade the crowds by strolling off the main tourist drags, often lined with souvenir shops and little else. Reykjavik lends itself to exploration on foot. If booking through a responsible vacation company, they will help you discover hidden gardens and parks, colourful houses clad in corrugated iron, waterfront routes where locals jog and cycle, and dramatic views of the mountains that rise up just beyond the city’s boundaries. For a brush with Iceland’s wilder side without leaving the city limits, explore Ellidaardalur Valley, popular with walkers and cyclists, and Laugardalur (Hot Spring Valley) to the east of the city center, the capital’s go-to spot for sports and recreation.
the past

Explore the city’s past

Reykjavik’s reputation as a fun, cool place for a whistlestop weekend has grown up since the banking crisis of 2008, when prices dropped and visitors were invited in with open arms, but it hardly does justice to the long and rich history of this city. If you’re spending time in Reykjavik, show it the respect it deserves by investigating its past. Mug up on life in Viking times at the Settlement Exhibition, built around a carefully excavated longhouse from the 10th century or at the National Museum, which romps through Iceland’s history, from the Vikings right up to contemporary times. Families will appreciate the Saga Museum, which recreates key moments in Iceland’s history and helps kids imagine how life was once lived on this remote, volcanic island.
Capital culture

Enjoy some capital culture

As well as being geothermally active, Iceland is a veritable hothouse of creativity, with Reykjavik its epicenter and its museums and galleries a window onto the island’s unique cultural life. Reykjavik Art Museum and National Gallery is a great place to start, with shops featuring cutting edge Icelandic design, and do swing by the big statement modernist centerpiece that is Harpa Concert Hall, too.

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Then be sure to make time for a potter through the city’s quieter streets, popping in and out of small galleries, independent shops and contemporary spaces to see what’s happening at grass roots level. Keep your camera handy, too, so you can snap some of the sensational graffiti gracing the city’s walls and be sure to extend your stroll to include sculpture ringed Tjornin Pond and the waterfront. Here, you’ll find the Sun Voyager sculpture, which looks like a Viking ship, but was created by sculptor Jón Gunnar Arnason as a dream boat and ode to the sun. As you explore, stop off for a coffee or a snack in small, neighbourhood cafes, placing your tourist money directly into local hands, where it’s most appreciated.
Reykjavik has been designated a UNESCO City of Literature – the first non native English speaking city to receive this prestigious title. Discover some of its original medieval manuscripts at the Culture House, including the Poetic Edda, a collection of old Norse poems brimming with important Nordic mythology. Bring some more up to date reading with you, too; the Reykjavik based crime novels of Arnaldur Indridason would be ideal.

Take in a festival

Reykjavik hosts a huge number of festivals – they’re hard to miss, so join in. Film, food, jazz and blues, literature and children’s literature, a Viking festival and winter lights events all keep the capital hopping throughout the calendar. As the first country in the world to elect an openly gay head of state, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir in 2009, Iceland also hosts a wonderful Pride festival in August each year.
Strip off
for a dip

Strip off for a dip

Thermal baths pepper volcanic Iceland and the most famous is the Blue Lagoon, a large pool and spa which is fed by the futuristic Svartsengi geothermal plant. It’s certainly beautiful and otherworldly, but it’s also one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, conveniently located close to Keflavik airport. To avoid contributing to its crowds, dip into an equally warm and wonderful experience, and a more authentic one, too, by visiting one of the many public pools in Reykjavik. Here, for a few krona you can enjoy a swim, sauna, steam room and hot pools heated to various temperatures alongside locals who come here every week. Just be sure to have a full shower before diving in, to ensure the water stays perfectly clean.
Out of town

Get out of town

Reykjavik is tiny, so you’re never far from the great outdoors. Dramatic mountains, stormy seas and populations of puffins exist just on its fringes and although two thirds of Iceland’s population lives here, they remain intimately connected to this wilderness on their doorstep, which informs their art, culture and lifestyle.
Even if you are only in Reykjavik for a short time, try to travel beyond its boundaries. You’ll have the joy of seeing extraordinary landscapes in clear, clean light, while also easing the pressure on the busy capital. The best option is to join a guided tour. Many of these head to the famous Golden Circle, which includes Thingvellir National Park, where two tectonic plates meet, regularly spurting Geysir and the waterfall Gullfoss. This is very much a go-to day trip circuit, but a good local guide will lead you to lesser known viewpoints and know when the crowd numbers drop, so you can have a more intimate experience of these rightfully popular spots.
Better yet, seek out a tour that takes you to lesser known places within striking distance of the capital, to walk, explore and learn more about the landscape from an in-the-know local guide. If you prefer to drive yourself, choosing an organised self drive vacation rather than just hiring a car is the best option. You’ll benefit from carefully planned routes designed with insider knowledge, that lead you away from overtourism hotspots and towards little visited treasures.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: MartinPutz] [Remarkable Reykjavik : Rose Breen] [Reykjavik street and shops: Ruth Hartnup] [Explore the city's past: Jessica Simpson] [Enjoy some capital culture: David Phan] [Reykjavik graffiti: Emmanuel Eragne] [Take in a festival: Orlyguyr Hnefill] [Strip off for a dip: Luke Flitter] [Get out of town: Theo Crazzolara] [Gullfoss waterfall: KLMNT!]