12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Reykjavik
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.
1 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
2 Whale Watching Tour
Iceland is surrounded by ocean, providing many whale watching opportunities. 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
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. 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.
Even if you do not attend a concert at the Harpa concert hall, you will enjoy experiencing one of the best landmarks 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
5 Thermal Pools
One of the top activities to put on your must-do list 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
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
7 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
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. One of the most impressive exhibits is a replicated ice cave that you can explore at a chilling 14°F. The glacier exhibition examines the history of glaciers in Iceland as well as the future outlook for these natural wonders. A planetarium exhibition opens in 2018 with a captivating experience under the dome of sight and sound, taking you inside the wonders of Icelandic skies. When you visit Perlan, head to the observation deck for a 360-degree panoramic view of Reykjavik. The Perlan has undergone many renovations with some of the prime exhibits opening in the summer of 2017. Check the website prior to your visit.
Address: Reykjavik 105
9 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
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
11 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
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.