Capital of Iceland is a small but vibrant city with a population of around 131,136 (and 233,034 in the Capital Region). Europe’s most northern capital is the center of Iceland’s culture and nightlife. Reykjavik has become a popular tourist destination these days and it indeed has a lot to offer from visiting world-famous attractions to the places that only locals know. We will share all its secrets with you, what to do in Reykjavik, what to visit and what to experience. Read on!
A bit of history
Let’s start with a few facts that you might be interested in but not bored with as well.
- Reykjavik as a place of settlement was a random choice. Ingólfur Arnarson tossed his high seat pillars overboard and settled where they washed up. So around 874 AD he and his fellows settled on a smokey bay, that literally translates to Reykjavik. As the soil here was poor, most of the farming moved to the South of the island.
- It is only after 17th century that Reykjavik became a fish-trading center with Danes. However, Denmark had strengthened its hold over the country’s lands, and the crown had a complete trading monopoly. And only in 1944 Iceland declared its independence from the neighbor.
- World War Two helped Reykjavik to grow as Britain and then the US built armies their military bases on the island. It triggered the development of all types of facilities – accommodations, bars, athlete centers, cinemas, new trading and cultural centers.
- Reykjavik’s Women’s Day Off in 1975 inspired the entire world to fight for equal pay and better working conditions. Icelandic women just refused to go to their jobs, do the housework, or raise the children.
- After the infamous Eyjafjallajökull has stopped the aviation industry, Iceland became the hot destination. And Reykjavik had to offer accommodation to millions of tourists. So, it grew and grew and became a truly modern city with a hint of history.
Museums worth visiting
Of course, Iceland has a lot of traditional museums that display Icelandic classic and modern art, but we want to recommend you more of a fun experience.
First, there is the Penis Museum. Yes, you read it correctly. It was previously a personal collection of Sigurður Hjartarsson that expanded to the whole museum. The exhibition contains more than 300 exhibits of varied species. You could see sexual organs of whales, walruses, mice, horses and even a human one. The fun fact is that the human penis belonged to a 95-year-old Icelandic man. It is believed he was a great womanizer. And when he died in 2011 his organ was donated to the museum to immortalize his owner.
Then there are a couple of interactive museums in the Grandi area (close to the Old Port) that are fun for children and adults. One is the Whales of Iceland Museum, with the collection of 23 life-size models of sea creatures. You also can familiarize yourself with all the species of whale present in Icelandic waters, enjoy interactive exhibits and audio-visual panels.
Close by is located the Saga Museum. It is an Icelandic (and much smaller) version of the Madame Tussaud’s museum, with Vikings atmosphere. So, you could learn about Icelandic sagas, settlement, and main historical personas through a walk between them. We recommend taking an audio-guide as it will explain a lot and will point out the smells of Medieval Iceland, that were synthetically reproduced inside.
While walking downtown, there are a few small galleries worth your attention. The newest addition to the art scene is Gallery Port. It exhibits modern Icelandic and international artists, usually having a bi-weekly display update.
Gallery Null & Punk Museum used to be two public restrooms opposite each other, but now they are small and eccentric galleries. One is dedicated to the history of Punk culture in Iceland, another gives a space for young Icelandic artists to be seen.
Perlan Museum is a great way to spend your day learning about Iceland with interactive exhibitions, visiting an Ice cave, watching the Northern lights at the Planetarium and enjoying 360-degree view over Reykjavik. Plan beforehand to spend here at least couple of hours!
Parks of Reykjavik
Öskjuhlíð that lies close to the Perlan museum is a place to get lost (for like 5 minutes) in trees and huge stones covered in moss that remind you of trolls or hidden people. Here you can easily imagine why Icelanders believe in supernatural beings. However, you can also find reminders of modern life and especially World War II here – the forest used to be a military base for the British army, so some objects still remain there. Öskjuhlíð is also a great area for mount biking, cycling and just walking with a dog.
If you continue your path further from Öskjuhlíð you will find yourself close to the Nautholsvik geothermal beach. This is less a park but more a public beach where you could take a dive into the ocean. It is artificial yellow-sand beach with changing rooms and showers, two hot pots (30–35°C), one of which is built into the sand, and it is free!
Laugardalur and the Botanical Garden. Yes-yes, Botanical Garden sounds nerdy and boring… But in Iceland, where the flora is not as reach as in other countries, we do appreciate all blooms! And around it the Laugardalur park with recreation area, small zoo, sport facilities and the biggest outdoor swimming pool in Reykjavik, Laugardalslaug. We highly recommend visiting the pool as it has a hot pot with sea water, and in general it is lovely to relax there. In Laugardalur you can also find a vast camping area that is comfortably located within the city.
Cafes and nightlife in the capital
Reykjavik well deserves to be the nightlife capital of the North. All bars and clubs are conveniently located downtown, so you don´t need to catch a taxi to change the vibes you want to dance for or to do a pub-crawling. There are as well plenty opportunities to listen to live music. Many bars have weekly live music nights (Mál og Menning, Húrra) and there is always someone playing in the English pub. The entertainment program is vast as well: from poetry nights to drag-shows. We would recommend to check Gaukurinn and Sirkus bars, but if you are up for some dance moves you should visit Kaffibarinn, Pablo Discobar or KiKi (LGBTQ+ bar).
If you are tired of nightlife and just want to chill in a pleasant atmosphere, consider visiting Luna Florence or Lola Florence – these two sister-cafes are well-known for their love of plants, magic, vintage, and healthy food. Locals are fond of the coffee house – Kaffi Brenslan, where you can order hot chocolate with lovely waffles. A recent addition to the café scene is the cat-café Mjá, that hosts few cats and serves nice coffee in a cozy interior. The less popular place is café Iða, it is close to the Old Port and further from touristy streets. It is a combination of a small café with a bookshop, so you can sit down and look through some vintage journals or exciting books, while sipping your tea or coffee.
First off, if you didn´t visit a swimming pool in Iceland, you have not been to Iceland properly! Outdoor pools, the variety of hot-tubs, saunas and massage options elevate Icelandic pools from regular pools greatly. And of course, try out ocean-dive at the public beach, Nautholsvik. So, don´t forget your swimsuit when packing for a trip to Iceland!
Next on – Zip line! This new attraction only opened last year, so it is new even for the locals. There are two 230-meter lines going down from Perlan’s tank down to Öskjuhlíð forest at a speed of about 50 km/h. The total experience takes about 30 minutes and 3000 Icelandic kronas, and starts on the 4th floor of the Perlan museum.
Fly Over Iceland is more an experience than a museum, so we include it here. It is an ultimate flying ride as it says in the name, over Iceland. But before the ride you will meet interactive guides that will tell you the story of Iceland. And after, the technology will allow you to experience flying as if you really were! You will be hang suspended, feet dangling, before a 20-metre spherical screen. Special effects, including wind, mist and scents, combined with the ride’s motion will create an unforgettable experience. The attraction is open every day from 10 AM to 7 PM and the ticket fare is 5000 Icelandic kronas.
And the last drop, the last stop is a beer-tasting experience at the local feminist brewery, Lady Brewery, that is located in the same area as Fly Over Iceland. Tasting includes introducing Lady’s history, its feminine approach in the craft brewing world, and a tasting of signature + seasonal beers. Tasting takes around 40 minutes and the price per person is 3500 kr.
So now you know what to visit, what to see, what to try and experience in Reykjavik. Don´t hesitate to reach to us out and ask more questions, we are here to help!