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15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Reykjavik

Written by Anietra Hamper
Mar 10, 2020

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The capital city of Iceland, Reykjavik sweeps you off your feet with its quaint and vibrantly colored coastal homes, one-of-a-kind boutiques, and reminders of the country's Viking history at every turn. In a city of only 215,000 people, Reykjavik is quiet, whimsical, historical, and artistic. The land of fire and ice is naturally stunning, so the backdrop is memorable no matter whether you stroll the charming downtown streets, indulge in a sightseeing excursion, or relax in one of the city's 17 thermal pools.

The best view of Reykjavik is from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja church, in the heart of the city. Reykjavik is a mecca of stunning architecture and cultural elements. You will feel the deep roots of Viking history meshed with the contemporary energy of modern creativity.

While there is much to do within the city itself, its location enables easy day trips to many must-see spots, like the Blue Lagoon and natural waterfalls in the countryside. No matter how you choose to spend your time in Reykjavik, public thermal pools and the signature northern lights are just part of the scene, so you can sprinkle those elements in when you have time.

Plan your travels through the city with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Reykjavik.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Hallgrímskirkja Church

Hallgrímskirkja Church
Hallgrímskirkja Church

The most prominent landmark in Reykjavik is Hallgrímskirkja church in the city's center. Since it can be seen from almost anywhere in Reykjavik, it is an easy way to navigate and it should be one of your first stops. The national monument is as stunning on the inside as it is on the outside.

It was built as a tribute to Icelandic poet, Hallgrimur Petursson. The magnificent 25-ton pipe organ inside the church is one of its most notable features. Construction on the Hallgrimskirkja church took more than 40 years, and it has become a symbol of Reykjavik. After you explore the main chapel, buy a token in the gift shop and ride the elevator up almost 74 meters to the steeple. This is the best view of the city.

Address: Skólavörðuholti, Reykjavik 121
Official site: http://en.hallgrimskirkja.is

2. Whale Watching Tour

Whale Watching Tour
Whale Watching Tour

Iceland is surrounded by ocean, and for tourists, whale watching is one of the most popular things to do. The excursions provide up-close encounters with humpback and minke whales. You will likely see other wildlife on the tours such as dolphins.

Several tour companies, including Elding, Special Tours, and Whale Safari, run regular trips out of the Old Harbour. Depending on the time of year that you visit, there could be specialized tours available, like those offered during months where there is midnight sun (June-August) with trips that depart late at night.

3. Downtown Reykjavik

Downtown Reykjavik
Downtown Reykjavik

Plan some time during your visit to Reykjavik to explore the downtown area. It is unlike any downtown scene you have ever experienced. Instead of kitschy souvenir shops, you will find independent boutiques selling unique items, like Icelandic wool clothing and volcanic rock pottery. Take your time to enjoy the shops and fine eateries serving up traditional fare.

Let your stroll take you to the waterfront walkway to feel the ocean breeze and observe the fine art and architecture in the city. In the late afternoon, position yourself near the waterfront Solfar sculpture to enjoy one of the most majestic sunsets you will see in Iceland.

4. Harpa

Harpa
Harpa | David Phan / photo modified

Even if you do not attend a concert at the Harpa concert hall, this extraordinary landmark is one of the best places to visit in Reykjavik. The award-winning architecture of the building is uniquely artistic. The honeycomb exterior is eye-catching in the daylight and mesmerizing at night as the windows change in a rainbow of colors.

There are two restaurants inside serving authentic Icelandic food, and the small gift shop sells unique gifts, many from local artists. If you can catch a concert in Harpa, plan on extra time before or after to enjoy dinner and a stroll by the water around the venue.

Address: Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavik
Official site: https://en.harpa.is/

5. Thermal Pools

Thermal Pools
Thermal Pools

One of the top things to do in Reykjavik is to relax in the public thermal pools. The 17 pools located around the city are filled with Iceland's natural geothermal water. The thermal pools are Reykjavik's community meeting spots that provide a natural therapy for the mind and soul.

These communal pools are an important part of the Icelandic culture and one way for you to truly immerse yourself in the customs of the country, not to mention the healing qualities from soaking in them. If you have time, be sure to take a day trip to the Blue Lagoon for the ultimate thermal pool experience.

6. The Settlement Exhibition

The Settlement Exhibition
The Settlement Exhibition | Luc Coekaerts / photo modified

One of the best ways to acclimate yourself to Icelandic culture is with a visit to The Settlement Exhibition museum. The museum is operated by the Reykjavik City Museum, but it is located in a separate building and requires a couple of hours to visit. Guided tours are available, but the museum layout makes it easy to explore on your own.

Learn about the first Vikings settlement in Reykjavik through preserved archaeological artifacts. Digital interactive displays take you back several centuries to experience primitive Icelandic life and give you a new appreciation for the Viking influences that you will see throughout the city.

Address: Adalstraeti 16, Reykjavik 101
Official site: http://borgarsogusafn.is/en/the-settlement-exhibition

7. Day Trip to Mount Esja

Day Trip to Mount Esja
Day Trip to Mount Esja

The majestic presence of Mount Esja in the distance of Reykjavik is one of the best day trips you can take during your visit. Enjoy Iceland's fresh air by hiking one of the main trails around the mountain. Each path up the mountain is marked with signs indicating the level of difficulty.

Mount Esja is suitable for both casual hikers and extreme day trippers. You can hike to the top, at 914 meters, and sign the guestbook, or turn around at the more common stopping point just short of the peak at a rock called Steinn. Take note that the path beyond the Steinn is rather difficult, so only experienced climbers and hikers should attempt it.

8. Perlan Museum of Icelandic Natural Wonders

Perlan Museum of Icelandic Natural Wonders
Perlan Museum of Icelandic Natural Wonders

The Perlan Museum of Icelandic Natural Wonders is a stunning building with new, state-of-the-art exhibits focusing on the many natural wonders of the country, from the cliffs and volcanos to the sea life around the island.

One of the most impressive exhibits is a replicated ice cave that you can explore at a chilling 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The glacier exhibition examines the history of glaciers in Iceland, as well as the future outlook for these natural wonders.

The Perlan planetarium is an immersive audio-visual experience where you can experience the Northern Lights even if you do not get to see them in the countryside during your visit. When you visit Perlan, head to the observation deck for a 360-degree panoramic view of Reykjavik.

Address: Reykjavik 105
Official site: https://www.perlanmuseum.is/en/

9. Old Harbour Area

Old Harbour Area
Old Harbour Area

Strolling through the Old Harbour area of Reykjavik gives you a true sense of Icelandic culture. This section of the city has some of the best views of the bay and Mount Esja. It is also the departure point for whale watching tours and puffin excursions.

Many of the vibrant colored buildings in the Old Harbour district are renovated fishing sheds that are repurposed into stores, cafes, and restaurants. There is an eclectic energy in the Old Harbour from the collision of historical Scandinavian influence and a hip and modern flare.

10. Arbaer Open Air Museum

Arbaer Open Air Museum
Arbaer Open Air Museum | Graham C99 / photo modified

The Arbaer Open Air Museum is a small village with more than 20 historical Icelandic homes for you to explore. Walk the grounds to see how village homes were built over the years and take a peek inside for a glimpse of authentic Icelandic life. This is an interactive way to learn about the unique history of Iceland as you walk through this restored village and farm.

After exploring the exhibits, stop by Dillon's House for a cup of coffee and take a minute to enjoy the surrounding landscape.

Address: Kistuhylur 4, Reykjavik 110
Official site: http://borgarsogusafn.is/en/arbaer-open-air-museum

11. Videy Island

Videy Island
Videy Island

The allure of Videy Island is almost too difficult to resist. Thankfully, you can visit the island and enjoy a spectacular view of the Snaefellsnes peninsula and the mainland. This island is significant because it was one of the first areas settled in Iceland.

The natural elements, from wildlife to vegetation, are abundant, making this a favorite spot for photographers, artists, and those looking to soak up the peaceful natural beauty of Iceland. There are several trails available for both pedestrians and cyclists. A point of interest during your visit to Videy Island is the Imagine Peace Tower artwork by Yoko Ono.

12. Bruarfoss Waterfall

Bruarfoss Waterfall
Bruarfoss Waterfall

You do not have to go far to experience one of the most breathtaking waterfalls in Iceland. The Bruarfoss waterfall in Reykjavik showcases natural blue water in a color that does not seem real. The full waterfall is a series of cascades from converging springs.

It is not surprising that the Bruarfoss is a popular waterfall to photograph. If you plan to visit, carve out time to get there because depending on weather conditions, the trails may be slippery and navigating is sometimes difficult. Pack a pair of sturdy shoes and you should be fine. The view of the waterfall is worth the extra room that the shoes will require in your suitcase.

13. Grotta Lighthouse

Grotta Lighthouse
Grotta Lighthouse

The small Grotta Lighthouse on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula in north Reykjavik is a great spot to take in a sunset or just go for a morning walk. The lighthouse has been here since 1897, erected on farmland. It is a popular place for tourists to visit, mostly because of the views, but there are also great bird-watching opportunities.

If you plan to visit the Grotta Lighthouse you will want to take into account the timing of the low and high tides.

14. Volcano House

A small and quirky museum in Reykjavik that is worth visiting is the Volcano House. In the land of fire and ice, the presence of volcanos is an important part of life and history. The Volcano House is a great museum to learn about volcanic eruptions, which happen on the island about every five years.

The Volcano House has mineral and geology exhibits, as well as a Volcano Cinema, where the fiery eruptions come to life. Be sure to stop into the gift shop where you will find minerals and lava jewelry for sale.

Address: Tryggvagata 11, Reykjavík
Official site: http://www.volcanohouse.is

15. Reykjavik Maritime Museum

Reykjavik Maritime Museum
Reykjavik Maritime Museum | Luc Coekaerts / photo modified

With so much of Reykjavik's history reliant on the maritime industry, a visit to the Reykjavik Maritime Museum puts much of the present-day culture into perspective. The museum is appropriately located in the Old Harbour. You will see exhibitions that showcase how early Icelandic settlers relied on fishing as their main industry. You will also see stories and artifacts that relate to the lives of Icelandic fishermen and women who cultivated this important industry for the country.

Address: Grandagarður 8, 101 Reykjavík
Official site: http://borgarsogusafn.is/en/reykjavik-maritime-museum/

Where to Stay for Sightseeing in Reykjavik

The lodging options in Reykjavik range from eco-focused hotels to luxury apartments with hotel servicing. You can also find a wide range of pricing.

  • Luxury Hotels: You can live like a local during your stay in Reykjavik at the Black Pearl apartments, which feel like a home but have hotel amenities. The Black Pearl is centrally located in downtown Reykjavik and close to many of the main attractions. Two other luxury hotel options in downtown Reykjavik are the Reykjavik Residence Hotel, which also has apartment-style accommodations, and the boutique Kvosin Downtown Hotel.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: If you want to keep a home base close to city tourist attractions, Hotel Lotus is within walking distance of many sights and bus routes. The Hotel Leifur Eiriksson is also centrally located in downtown making it easy to walk or catch the bus to nearby attractions.
  • Budget Hotels: The cheapest lodging in Reykjavik is in hostels in the city, and there are quite a few, including the Circle Hostel located downtown and close to a number of restaurants and attractions. A budget-minded hotel in the city with just the basics is the 4th Floor Hotel that is centrally located and just a few blocks from the waterfront.

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