map of Reykjavik Nordical Travel Iceland

The Capital Reykjavík

Nordical Travel, last updated: July 4, 2021

Reykjavík is the nation’s capital, with almost 230,000 people living in the greater capital area. This is over two-thirds of the total population! The lively capital has made a name for itself with picturesque houses, quirky shops, and the most famous of all churches in Reykjavík, Hallgrímskirkja.

Reykjavík downtown

History and Culture

The name itself, Reykjavík, was the name that was given to the city by its founder, Ingólfur Arnarson, in the 9th century. Upon the first glimpse of the area, the geothermal springs and the subsequent steam clouds inspired him to call the area “Smoky Bay”.

Nowadays, Reykjavík is a thriving little town, with a rich and vibrant culture in music, art, and theater. Iceland Airwaves and Secret Solstice are two hugely popular music festivals held in the winter and summer respectively. Music is very important here, and Reykjavík has one of the most beautiful and unique concert halls in the world: Harpa.

Harpa hall

Harpa stands proud on Reykjavík’s harbor, beaming its dazzling light show for all to see. The lights themselves almost appear to represent the Aurora Borealis, and its exquisitely designed windows look as though they are inspired by fish scales. Two things that Iceland has in abundance.

The most famous of all the churches in Reykjavík is Hallgrímskirkja church, located in the middle of town – a beacon and shining symbol of the city. We recommend taking the lift to the top and take in the stunning panorama. You might have to wait in a cue, but it is totally worth it.

Hallgrímskirkja church

There are many churches in Reykjavík, but Hallgrímskirkja church is the most iconic. Its architecture resembles basalt columns, which can be found in Icelandic nature, for example at Svartifoss waterfall in the Southeast. It was designed by the famed state architect Guðjón Samúelsson (1887–1950) and completed in 1986, after a construction phase that lasted 41 years.

There is certainly no shortage of museums in Reykjavík either. From the National Museum and the Settlement Exhibition, where you can see a beautifully preserved early settlement house, to the Reykjavík Art Museum, the Maritime Museum, or the Whales of Iceland exhibition, which features life-size replicas of these sea giants. Many art museums also celebrate Icelandic painters and sculptors such as Einar Jónsson and Ásmundur Sveinsson, whose works can be seen throughout the city. There’s even a penis museum, so you can see that we see the absolute wonder in everything here!

Cuisine in Reykjavík

Reykjavík also boasts a wide array of outstanding restaurants, including one Michelin star winner, offering popular fare as well as high-end Nordic cuisine using twists on traditional recipes and using local ingredients.

Fish features heavily on the Icelandic diet (well, we are an island, you know?) and lamb is plentiful and a very common feature on almost every menu. Popular local dishes that can be found in downtown Reykjavík are meat soup (kjötsúpa), which is a lamb and vegetable broth, “plokkfiskur,” a cod and potato dish, as well as dried fish (harðfiskur), fermented shark (hákarl) and the world-famous Icelandic hot dog (highly recommended). There is also a broad selection of vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants, as well as a wide variety of international cuisine available.

food Reykjavik

For such a small city, Reykjavík has many independent breweries and distilleries. There is a very strong craft beer culture, with most bars offering a wide array of local lagers, ales, and stouts. There are many staple favorites, as well as frequent guest brews and seasonal beers on offer, particularly around Christmas, Easter, Summer, Halloween, and special Icelandic celebrations such as Þorrablót. Icelanders often use any excuse to brew up a special concoction, so beer lovers will find themselves right at home any time of the year!

Downtown

The city itself is utterly charming. The downtown area is centered around the shopping streets Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur, the city pond Tjörnin and the old harbor district.

The old town invites you to take a step back into the past and a chance to see the quiet and characterful streets and colorful buildings, whilst the main shopping street of Laugavegur is full to the brim of stores that promote local, handcrafted treasures and international brands. You will also find a generous offering of cafés, restaurants, and bars which are open until very late.

During a stroll, you will notice that all churches in Reykjavík are completely different from each other, there are no two alike. All the churches in Reykjavík are Lutheran Christian, except for one Roman Catholic church.

Nature

There are hiking routes very close to the city. For example, we recommend paying a visit to Esja, the mountain across the bay (the one you can’t miss).

It takes around 2-4 hours to reach the top and back, depending on how fast or slow you want to go. This is best recommended in the summer months, as the winter can be deceptively dangerous and unpredictable if you pick the wrong day. You can go a little further into Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) to escape the city for the day, and here you will find the hiking trail to Glymur, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls. It is also a short hop to nearby Hafnarfjörður, a pretty little town with a beautiful harbor area and the third-largest town in Iceland. It is also quite special because the town is partially built in a lava field and is very close to the volcanic systems of the Reykjanes peninsula.

Festivals in Reykjavík

The two biggest music festivals in the Icelandic calendar happen in Reykjavík. The Secret Solstice and Iceland Airwaves, which take place at the summer equinox and early winter, respectively, attract not only the biggest names in Icelandic music but also major global artists from around the world. These extremely popular music festivals have proudly staked their claim as being two of the “must attend” music festivals in the world. People from all over visit Reykjavík to experience Iceland’s diverse, local talent.  

August also sees Menningarnótt (Culture Night) which offers a plethora of art installations, music, games, and activities, including the annual Reykjavík Marathon. Reykjavík Pride also takes place in early August and sees the renewed painting on the rainbow streets and the ever-popular Pride Parade, a vibrant, joyous, and colorful experience. 

Reykjavík really has it all, you will never be bored, and it captures the hearts of all who visit it!

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