Best things to do in Reykjavik | A guide to Reykjavik Sightseeing

By the will of God, the two pillars swept ashore
For three good years, they remained obscure
Till finally the good slave managed to find the new land 
Amid the Bay of Smoke and Icy sand
Reykjavik - they decided to name the space
Over time, this Viking town became a bustling space.

Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, is one of the smallest and most remote capitals in the world, but that doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of things to do in Reykjavik.

A small city but filled with so many Reykjavik sightseeing attractions
A small city but filled with so many Reykjavik sightseeing attractions PC: Pixabay

In this Reykjavik city guide, I will share the best things to do in Reykjavik as well as some background on the city’s history and tips on the best time of year to visit Reykjavik. Reykjavik is a truly unique city and your experience with Reykjavik sightseeing will be completely different in summer compared to winter. A lot of people tend to plan for only one day in Reykjavik – primarily as a quick stop to the rest of the fabulous places to see in Iceland. However, once you see the list of Reykjavik activities, you will wonder if one day is really enough!

History of Reykjavik city

Reykjavik means bay of smoke and it was named by the early Viking settlers for the geysers sending steam out of the ground.  The city was first settled way back in 870 AD. There is an interesting legend about how the first Norse settlement came about. Ingólfur Arnarson is said to have thrown his high seat pillars into the sea with a pledge to settle wherever Gods decided for him. He then sent his slaves in search of these pillars, which are said to have been found after three years by his slaves. This marked the beginning of the Nordic settlement in Iceland and marked the establishment of Reykjavik.

The legendary land of Vikings - Reykjavik
The legendary land of Vikings – Reykjavik PC: Pixabay

Over time, it was a part of the Danish kingdom and then later in 1944, it eventually became the capital city of independent Iceland. What makes its history interesting is the transition of Reykjavik from being a mere fishing village to a trading post to a university town and now capital city. The city is now home to 135,000 people, about one-third of Iceland’s total population. It is widely proclaimed as the cleanest city in the world.

Top things to Do in Reykjavik | Best Reykjavik activities

Reykjavik sightseeing and activities include something for each type of traveler. From adventure activities to nature, wildlife and interesting cultural Reykjavik landmarks – you will find it all in this one single city. In fact, many of these Reykjavik activities are a vital part of a traveler’s bucket list. Read along and find that one thing that you always wanted to do – and I bet, even if you don’t find it, you will be adding it to your bucket list.

Visit one of the key Reykjavik landmarks – Iceland’s National Church – Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja, the national cathedral of Iceland, dominates Reykjavik’s skyline. The harsh architecture of the tower is striking and reflects the landscape of Iceland’s geology viz the glaciers, ice mountains and trap rocks. The church is relatively modern, construction was started in 1945. Hallgrímskirkja church is considered to be one of the tallest structures in Iceland and is one landmark of Reykjavik that is visible from almost anywhere in the city.

Hallgrímskirkja  - one of the key landmarks of Reykjavik church
Hallgrímskirkja – one of the key landmarks of Reykjavik church PC: Pixabay

There are three major parts of this Reykjavik church – the Hallgrímskirkja tower which is 74.5 m high, the central church area and a cylindrical sanctuary area that is designed like a Viking’s helmet. You can pay a fee to climb the Hallgrímskirkja tower to get the best views of Reykjavik city or just spend time wandering inside, taking in the soaring ceilings and enormous 15 m pipe organ.

Fancy a guided tour of Reykjavik with a Viking?

Check out this walking tour of Reykjavik that takes you through all the key landmarks of the city including the Hallgrimskirkja church – all with a Viking as a guide.

Soak in The Blue Lagoon or any of the other geothermal baths

The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. These geothermal baths are only a short drive out of Reykjavik and easily accessed on the way to or from the airport. The best time to visit the lagoon is around sunrise (close to 10 am in winter) so you can have the slightly eerie experience of floating in the pools in the dark as well as getting to see the often snow-capped hills that rise up around the edge of the lagoon.

A must-visit Reykjavik attraction - Blue Lagoon hot springs
A must-visit Reykjavik attraction – Blue Lagoon hot springs PC: Pixabay

Interestingly, the Blue Lagoon was an accidental formation owing to the wastewater that came from the Svartsengi geothermal plant. The soft blue water was found to have curative properties for ailments like psoriasis and eventually, the place turned into a natural spa. Today, the place has become an important attraction in Reykjavik, with its own therapeutic treatments and shuttle buses that allow visitors to make a day trip from Reykjavik.

Like the many other hot springs in Iceland, it has been developed into a large visitor facility with saunas, smaller spas and massage and treatment rooms. All visitors are given a free face mask and can purchase other products, treatments or food using a wristband. There’s even a swim-up bar selling skyr smoothies.

GetYouGuide has numerous tours to the Blue Lagoon and also, offers roundtrip bus transfers from Reykjavik. You can look up these tours through this link. 

In case you cannot include Blue Lagoon in your Reykjavik itinerary, then you can consider the other popular geothermal pools like the Sky Lagoon or the Sundhöllin – both of which are closer to Reykjavik city. Kvika footbath is also, a good option for a hot spring in Reykjavik – though you can only dip your feet here 🙂

Take a Reykjavik food tour

Icelandic cuisine is unique and some of the local dishes like fish jerky and fermented shark can seem quite unapproachable to foreigners. The best way to learn about and get a taste of Icelandic food is to sign up for a food tour and fortunately, there are a few options in Reykjavik.

Try an Icelandic food tour - one of the recommended Reykjavik activities
Try an Icelandic food tour – one of the recommended Reykjavik activities

These tours will take you to over five different stops where you can try famous Icelandic dishes like the free-roaming grass-fed Icelandic lamb, skyr (a high protein yogurt) and seafood. The local guides can also help you with restaurant recommendations for the rest of your stay in Reykjavik. These food tours in Reykjavik are designed to include some of the oldest food joints like the famous hot dog stand by the harbor. Called Baejarins Bestu, this Reykjavik hot dog stand has hosted many famous personalities including President Bill Clinton and Metallica.

Whether you’re a foodie or just feeling nervous about trying Icelandic food or even just a cultural connoisseur, this is one of the best things to do in Reykjavik.

Go on a street art walk – one of the key Reykjavik sightseeing tours

Reykjavik Street art tour - one of the best things to do in Reykjavik
Reykjavik Street art tour – one of the best things to do in Reykjavik

The city of Reykjavik is covered with urban art known as Wall Poetry. Many of the murals in the city are inspired by the music played during the Icelandic Airwaves Festival that takes place in Reykjavik every November. The largest selection of murals in the Reykjavik city center is on Laugavegar Street but if you take your time wandering the surrounding alleys (Iceland is very safe) then you’ll find even more hidden artworks. Lots of the pieces depict animals found in Iceland and use a color palette of greys, whites and blues that reflects the surrounding mountains and ocean.

One of the many art installations in Reykjavik Iceland
One of the many art installations in Reykjavik Iceland

As well as murals, there are a few iconic statues in Reykjavik. These include:

  • the Christmas Cat (only on the show for the few months around Christmas time)
  • Jón Sigurðsson Statue (a 19th Century Icelandic parliamentarian).

Sign up for a cooking class

If the food tour got you inspired about Icelandic cuisine, then consider trying your hand at an Icelandic cooking class in Reykjavik. At Salt Eldhus you get to make a few Icelandic dishes using local ingredients as well as taste small portions of some of the more unusual delicacies. The teachers are a local couple who share stories about the island and how its cuisine and culture have evolved. The class duration is generally 3 – 4 hours and involves putting together a complete 3-course meal and finally, actually sampling it.

Go Shopping in Reykjavik city

Whether you’re looking for clothes, art or beauty products, Reykjavik has a lot to offer on the shopping front. The main area for shopping in central Reykjavik is around the pedestrian street of Laugavegar. Most of the shops here are boutiques and Icelandic brands, so there’s a good selection of local products. Icelandic skincare is now known the world over due to its potent naturally derived ingredients, you can pick up a face mask or some gifts to take home.

Lopapeysa - an Icelandic specialty that you can carry back home
Lopapeysa – an Icelandic specialty that you can carry back home PC: Wikimedia commons

There are also lots of shops selling winter warmers like thick woolen jumpers in cable knits as well as gloves and beanies. One of the specialties of Iceland is a woolen sweater called lopapeysa. The wool used in lopapeysa is from Icelandic sheep and has this typical diamond shape yoke design on it. The sweater is so light and warm that even in light cold of spring and autumn, just this is enough to keep you comfortable. You might see prams sitting outside shops, this is a peculiarly Reykjavik practice that results from small shops and a high level of safety in the city.

Chase the Northern Lights

Northern Lights in Iceland 
Northern Lights in Iceland 

One of the main reasons to come to Iceland is to see the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis. The good news is that you don’t need to go far from Reykjavik to see them. In fact, you can book a coach tour or boat cruise from Reykjavik where you’ll be taken out of range of the city’s light pollution and have a good chance of seeing the lights.

This is definitely one of the best things to do in Reykjavik in winter – primarily because you do have a higher chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Given that, you might want to plan your trip to Reykjavik for mid-winter, around December or January. Make sure to book in early so that if you don’t see the lights on your first outing you can be rebooked on a later night.

There are several tours to see the Northern lights from Reykjavik. You can find some highly rated ones on GetYourGuide which you can review and book using this link.

Visit some Reykjavik Museums

Reykjavik is home to several museums that showcase the history of Iceland and its people. Visiting one, or more, of these museums is a great way to learn about the country. I recommend the Settlement Museum which has a preserved house from the early Icelandic settlements. It’s a smaller museum, but there is also the National Iceland Museum which offers more of a deep dive into Iceland’s history. Watch out for one of the prized artifacts in the National Iceland Museum – the 13th-century Valþjófsstaður door that belonged to a church. The carvings on the door depict Yvain – one of the Knights from the legend of Arthur slaying a dragon.

National Iceland museum in Reykjavik
National Iceland museum in Reykjavik PC: Wikimedia Commons

If history isn’t your thing, the Iceland Phallological Museum is a quirky adults-only experience. It’s surprisingly scientific, containing phallic specimens from every species of mammal living in Iceland. Arbaer open air museum is another interesting Reykjavik sightseeing attraction – especially if you are interested in culture. The museum features various types of abodes that have been used throughout Iceland.

A little out of the city is the Perlan museum which showcases the natural beauty of Iceland. Here you get to see a show of Northern Lights plus walk through real ice tunnels and learn about the various volcanoes in this tiny country. What is more, is that it is located on a hill and has a stunning view that you can enjoy.

Consider buying Reykjavik City Card for your trip to Iceland

Reykjavik City card is a single pass that allows you unlimited bus access to the various sightseeing attractions in Reykjavik. It also, grants you free entry to all Reykjavik museums as well as some of the geothermal spas. You can get all the details through this link and even buy it online.

Capture one of the most iconic Reykjavik landmarks – Harpa

Harpa - an iconic building in Reykjavik
Harpa – an iconic building in Reykjavik

Located on the water, Harpa is a stunning conference and concert hall located at the Reykjavik Old Harbour. The building was built in the 2010s and has this beautiful facade that almost changes color with the time of the day. There are events planned throughout the year at the Harpa. When you visit it, watch out for those while enjoying their free exhibition and grabbing a bite or two at their cafe. This is one of those free things to do in Reykjavik – unless of course, you opt to be a part of one of those paid events.

Head to the most photographed Reykjavik sightseeing attraction – the Sun Voyager

A famous Reykjavik landmark - The Sun Voyager
A famous Reykjavik landmark – The Sun Voyager

A steel sculpture created to resemble the Viking ship, the Sun Voyager is an iconic landmark of Reykjavik. The structure was designed by Jón Gunnar Árnason who unfortunately, could not see the end of his creation as he passed away before it was completed. The Sun Voyager was created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of this capital city. There are no charges to visiting this – making it yet another attraction that you can add to your list of things to do in Reykjavik for free.

Have A Whale Experience | Whale watching in Reykjavik

Whale watching - one of the most recommended Reykjavik activities
Whale watching – one of the most recommended Reykjavik activities PC: Pixabay

Iceland’s relationship with the elephants of the sea is complex and controversial. The harbor around Reykjavik as well as the seas around Iceland generally are home to several species of whales and Iceland is one of the few countries where whaling does still occur. The practice has roots in the country going back to the 12th Century, although there is now a policy to end whaling by 2022.

While in Reykjavik you can visit the Whale Museum to learn about the whaling industry and conservation, take a whale watching cruise in the surrounding bay, or try whale meat, depending on your views and preferences.

Whale Watching in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Read about my whale watching experience in Sri Lanka

If you are looking to do Whale Watching in Asia. you can head straight to Sri Lanka – specifically Trincomalee or Mirissa. Here, they guarantee you a whale sighting else you get your money back. Check out my experience of the same.

Enjoy the Magic Ice Bar in Reykjavik

Located right in in the city, visiting the Magic Ice Bar and Gallery is definitely one of the recommended Reykjavik activities. One can enjoy the numerous ice carvings and sculptures while grabbing a drink or two at the ice bar. The entrance ticket includes one drink along with a warm poncho and gloves. What makes it even more interesting is that it is hidden below the Alafoss store. To get to it, you have to enter the store and head downstairs. Definitely one of those secret things to do in Reykjavik.

Spend a few serene moments at Tjörnin

Tjörnin - the serene setting in Reykjavik Iceland
Tjörnin – the serene setting in Reykjavik Iceland PC: Pixabay

Tjörnin is a central lake in Reykjavik Iceland. You can walk around the lake and enjoy the sight of swans wading around. There are very colorful houses around the lake as well as important Reykjavik landmarks like the Supreme court, the City hall and the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat. If you happen to visit Reykavik in winter, you will be able to do ice skating around the lake

Take A Day Trip from Reykjavik

Reykjavik is the ideal (and only) jumping-off point to explore the island of Iceland. The island isn’t all that big so you can easily access areas like the Golden Circle or the South Shore via day trips from Reykjavik. Most of these are bus day tours but, depending on the time of year, there are boat and helicopter options. While some of the more popular Reykjavik day trips as mentioned below, you can find more options as well as tips in this guide to day trips from Reykjavik.

Reykjavik might be a small city but there’s a lot going on and so many things to do. The capital of Iceland is absolutely a bucket list destination. I am sure that with this, you will be keen to book your tickets to Reykjavik Iceland. For that, check out the tips and the FAQS section of this Reykjavik guide.

Common FAQs about Reykjavik in Iceland

What is the best time of year to visit Reykjavik?

Because Iceland is so close to the North Pole, the island experiences extreme seasonal variation. In summer, there is close to 24 hours of daylight whereas in winter, you’ll get only around 5 hours of light each day. While the climate in Reykjavik is not as harsh as the internal parts of the island, the city still swings between an average of 12°C in summer and a winter average of 1°C.
 
If you want to avoid crowds, winter is by far the best time to go to Iceland. However, you will have to plan carefully to squeeze all your activities into the few hours of daylight. You’ll most likely see more in summer, but that’s balanced against the swarms of tourists flocking to Reykjavik.

How long do you need to spend in Reykjavik?

To have enough time to experience the highlights of Reykjavik, I suggest a 3-4 day stay. If you want to explore more of Iceland using Reykjavik as a base, you may want to stay up to a week.

How to travel around Reykjavik?

Reykjavik is a small city and practically everything is walkable. In fact, it is probably the best way to take in the various sights of the city. You can even take the Hop On Hop Off bus to get to the various Reykjavik attractions. There are several Segway and bike tours that you can book using the Booking resources section.

If you are planning any of the day trips from Reykjavik, you can either take a cab or bus or hire a car to drive around.

Where can you stay in Reykjavik?

The capital city of Iceland has several stay options that range from budget accommodation to luxury hotels. Try to book these stays in the Hallgrímskirkja area or the Old Harbour area as these are quite central to Reykjavik. You can use the links in the Booking resources section for the same.

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Booking Resources

  • Booking.com has a range of Reykjavik hotels that you can book using my affiliate link. Remember there is no additional cost but the commission received definitely helps the website to keep going.
  • Another option for booking hotels in Reykjavik is through Agoda.com. You can click through this link and access the complete list of hotels on the website.
  • Consider GetYourGuide for any local tours like a Walking tour of Reykjavik, day trips in Iceland, special activities like hiking and even airport or city transfers. Check out all that they have in Reykjavik through this link.
  • Viator.com is yet another options for booking walking tours, skip-the line tickets, day trips etc. You can get to these Reykjavic activities through this link
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
This post has been written by my guest author - Kate. Kate is a Kiwi travel blogger based out of Sydney, Australia. She loves all things travel, food and wine. When not travelling, planning a trip, or writing about travel, you’ll find her out on a run or with her nose in a book. Check out her blog at KateAbroad.com or on Instagram at @kateabroadblog. 

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