Did you know that Reykjavik is the most northern capital city in the world? Or how about the intriguing fact that Iceland’s capital is home to well over 60 percent of the country’s entire population? Perhaps you had no idea that in Reykjavik, you can visit the world’s largest “phallological museum” (more on that below), or that in Iceland, you can bathe outside in geothermal hot springs all year round!
Visit the Icelandic capital, and you’ll soon pick up on all these quirky factoids and more as you explore the best things to do in Reykjavik. This exciting city somehow manages to be both low-key and super absorbing. It’s quite unlike any other European destination!
You’ll love the unique architecture and colorful streets, the enthralling and informative museums, and the fact that you can easily join whale-watching tours in the harbor. And don’t forget, you might be in a city, but you’re still in the “Land of Fire and Ice.”
You can enjoy Reykjavik as a city break destination or use it as a base or starting point for adventures into Iceland. You’re never far away from a volcano, glacier, geyser, or waterfall, and if you’re here in the winter, you can quickly escape the city to find beautiful views of the Northern Lights while in the summer, the Midnight Sun never sets!
With so many fascinating things to see and do in Reykjavik, you might not know where to start. That’s why we decided to compile our list of the best things to do in Reykjavik for you. Give these fun and unique Reykjavik bucket list recommendations a try, and we’re confident that you’re going to have an exceptional time exploring the beautiful Icelandic capital!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Reykjavik
1. Dig into Icelandic history at the National Museum of Iceland
There are a lot of excellent museums in Reykjavik, but if you only have time for one, then we recommend visiting the National Museum of Iceland. It’s the type of museum that’s just as fascinating to explore if it’s your first time in Iceland or if you’re here on your hundredth trip.
Located on the main Sudurgata road in Reykjavik, the National Museum of Iceland is guaranteed to take you on an all-encompassing journey through Icelandic history. Iceland might be a small nation, but you’ll soon realize how much history there is here as you stroll through the endless exhibits and displays.
You’ll start at the beginning, learning about Iceland’s “Settlement Era” when the island was first inhabited by Norse settlers who faced an extreme climate on the edge of the known world. You’ll learn how Iceland became famous for its Norse “Sagas,” how one of the world’s first parliaments was created here, and how Iceland was eventually taken over by Denmark before regaining its independence in the 20th century.
It’s a fascinating historical journey, and to learn more, we suggest signing up for one of the museum’s free guided tours, which are scheduled at various times throughout the week (check ahead to confirm the exact days and times).
If you’re going to be visiting more than one of the city’s many museums (which you should!), then we also suggest purchasing the Reykjavik City Card. The handy card includes entrance to the National Museum of Iceland, plus many more attractions.
2. Take a stroll down Laugavegur Street
Reykjavik is a city that was made for walking (when the streets aren’t covered in ice, that is), and one of the best places to take a stroll is Laugavegur Street. This is considered to be one of Reykjavik’s most important main roads, and it’s lined with shops, restaurants, and bars right in the heart of the city.
Laugavegur Street is one of the busiest streets in Iceland (not just in Reykjavik!) and one of the oldest and most historic, too. “Laugavegur” loosely translates into English as “Wash” because, for many centuries, this was the main thoroughfare from the city to nearby hot springs, where citizens would bathe themselves and clean their clothes.
Laugavegur Street is just over a mile long, loosely running from east to west across the city center, just a few blocks back from the waterfront. You’ll find street art and colorful murals as you stroll from one end to the other. Plus, you can stop off for an Icelandic beer, hot coffee, or some delectable food en route.
3. Admire the architecture at Hallgrimskirkja
One of the most iconic Reykjavik sightseeing attractions is Hallsgrimskirkja, which is guaranteed to astound, no matter how many photographs you see of this unique church while you plan your trip! And when we say unique, we mean seriously unique because Hallsgrimskirkja dominates the city’s skyline with its unusual height and unusual design.
This modernist church is the tallest church in Iceland. At an impressive 74 meters (243 feet) in height, you’ll be dwarfed by this tall structure when you stand beneath the grand entranceway.
But this is no normal church. Hallsgrimskirkja took 41 years to complete, with an architectural style that’s intended to emulate the beautiful basalt and rock formations that you’ll find around the country.
Hallsgrimskirkja was completed and consecrated in 1986, and it was built on top of one of Reykjavik’s hilltops to ensure that you just can’t miss it! You can even take an elevator to the top of the church tower, where you’ll find an observation deck offering one of the best panoramas of Reykjavik anywhere in the city.
4. Catch a performance at the Harpa concert hall
Reykjavik is packed full of modern architecture, but one of the best buildings to see is Harpa, the city’s stylish concert hall.
You can’t miss the magnificent glass panels of Harpa, which are said to have been inspired by the basalt rock formations that are found across Iceland. Harpa looks out over Reykjavik’s harbor, and it’s been wowing visitors since it first opened in 2011.
As you might expect, Harpa has won numerous awards recognizing its unusual architecture, but the concert hall has also won awards for its acoustics. The concert hall is home to several of Iceland’s most important musical institutions. If you’re lucky (or plan ahead), you can catch a performance of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra or the Icelandic Opera while you’re staying in Reykjavik.
5. Learn all about Norse history at the Settlement Exhibition
A visit to the Settlement Exhibition is one of the most unique things to do in Reykjavik, especially if you’re a big fan of Norse or Viking history.
This excellent exhibition is located below ground, where you can see the excavated remains of one of the oldest known structures to ever be discovered in Iceland. The Settlement Exhibition preserves a 9th-century longhouse alongside other structures and archaeological remnants that were built, lived in, and used daily by Iceland’s earliest settlers.
This early settlement can be accurately dated to the year 871 AD, thanks to the presence of volcanic material, which scientists know came from an eruption in the same year. The longhouse was discovered over a thousand years after it was first built when building work uncovered the ruins in 2001.
Much of the Settlement Exhibition is now interactive, and you can learn all about the discovery and excavation of the longhouse while delving back in time to the earliest years in Icelandic history.
6. Visit Reykjavik’s unusual Phallological Museum
If you’re not quite sure what a “Phallological Museum” is, don’t worry too much, because they are incredibly rare. Reykjavik, however, is home to the world’s largest Phallological Museum, and as soon as you walk in, you’ll quickly understand what the museum is all about.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum holds an extensive collection of 215 phalluses, or penises. The overwhelming majority of these are taken from animals rather than human specimens. Although, several humans have donated to the collection.
It’s an unusual place to visit, but you’ll also soon realize that this museum is a place of serious scientific study, too. If you’re looking for a quirky yet educational museum to explore, then this is it. If you’re squeamish or traveling with family, this might be one to stay away from!
7. Get icy at Magic Ice
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Reykjavik, then make sure to include a stop at Magic Ice on your travel itinerary. Magic Ice is an ice bar where you can enjoy ice-cold cocktails and crystal clear ice that’s been sourced from glacial water.
But Magic Ice is more than just an ice bar. While you’re sipping on iced beverages, you’ll also be able to appreciate the ice sculptures and ice art that’s on display. Everything you see has been painstakingly carved, sculpted, and shaped by Reykjavik’s best ice artists. Plus, you’ll love how much of the artwork is in keeping with the bar’s Nordic and Viking themes.
You’ll need to dress up warm for this bar and art gallery, but you are in Iceland, after all. Perhaps most surprising, though, is the fact that Magic Ice is not only open during the cold winter months but all year round. If you visit in summer and stay until midnight, then you’ll still be able to walk back to your hotel in broad daylight!
8. Walk among whales at Europe’s largest whale exhibition
As you might expect from an island nation, Icelanders have a close relationship with the sea, and that includes a serious love for whales. You can learn more about these magnificent sea creatures with a visit to the Whales of Iceland exhibition, which is easily one of the best things to do in Reykjavik.
This is Europe’s largest whale-focused exhibition, and you’ll find yourself walking among the life-size models of 23 different whale species, which are commonly found off of the coast of Iceland. You’ll come face to face with the mighty blue whale and sperm whale, you’ll learn why orcas are one of the ocean’s top predators, and you’ll hear the dulcet delights of whale song.
The Whales of Iceland exhibition is located in Reykjavik’s Old Harbor area, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This used to be one of Europe’s busiest whaling harbors, but these days Icelanders would rather protect and preserve their whales rather than hunt them!
9. Join a whale watching tour at the Old Harbor
We think that the Whales of Iceland exhibition is one of the must-do things in Reykjavik, but still, nothing beats seeing these gentle giants in the wild!
Don’t worry, because once you’ve explored the museum, you can then join a whale watching tour to see these sea creatures in the flesh. Regular boat tours depart from Reykjavik’s Old Harbor, right by the Whales of Iceland exhibition, and you don’t have to go far to have a chance to see at least one species of whale.
Throughout much of the year, you can spot minke whales, porpoises, and humpback whales, while there are always a few pods of dolphins hanging around in the bay. April to October is considered to be the best time for whale watching in Iceland. Visit during these months, and you might be lucky enough to encounter giant blue whales, sperm whales, and pods of orcas!
Whales aren’t the only wildlife you can spot, and you’ll quickly realize that Reykjavik is full of birdlife, including vast numbers of puffins in the summer months. In the winter, many tour operators still take tourists out whale watching, when you’ll also have the opportunity to see the Northern Lights shimmer over Iceland.
10. Visit the ‘Number 1 attraction in Reykjavik’
If you’d love to visit the “Number 1” Reykjavik attraction, then you need to schedule a visit to Perlan into your sightseeing plans. The Perlan website confidently claims to be the “Number 1 attraction in Reykjavik.” While that’s certainly up for debate given the fierce competition, there’s no doubt you’re going to have an incredible time exploring this unusual museum.
Perlan is not easy to describe, simply because it’s so many things. “Perlan” means “Pearl,” and the museum’s large glass dome is one of Reykjavik’s most well-known landmarks. The museum stands on a hill just outside the city center, where it sits on top of thermal water reservoirs that are used to supply Reykjavik.
Inside Perlan, you’ll find a planetarium, life-sized models of Iceland’s famous natural landmarks, and various exhibitions that showcase everything from nature photography to hydroelectric power. There’s even an observation deck and a restaurant in Perlan’s rotating dome. Best of all, though, is the 100-meter (328-foot) ice tunnel, which gives visitors a glimpse inside Iceland’s glaciers without ever having to leave Reykjavik.
11. Embrace nature at Tjornin Lake
You’ll find Tjornin Lake right in the middle of Reykjavik, making this lovely, natural water feature a wonderful break from the city. Tjornin Lake is a fantastic example of how urban development can accommodate existing natural features. For many years, the lake has been an integral part of Reykjavik’s urban expansion plans.
Many museums, colorful houses, and even the Reykjavik City Hall overlook Tjornin Lake, while the water and the surrounding banks are incredibly popular with birdwatchers, nature lovers, or anyone looking for a little peace and quiet.
Despite its city center location, Tjornin Lake is home to upwards of 40 different species of birds at various points throughout the year, including many migratory species such as the Arctic tern.
12. Take the ferry to Videy Island
Videy Island is one of the best sights in Reykjavik, but you’ll need to take the ferry across the bay to reach this beautiful piece of nature that sits out in the bay. Luckily, the ferry ride is free if you have the Reykjavik City Card, and once you reach the island, you’ll be free to explore the art, history, and nature that awaits you.
Videy Island is mostly untouched, aside from the world-famous Imagine Peace Tower that lights up the skyline at night. The Imagine Peace Tower was designed by Yoko Ono to honor John Lennon, and it consists of a large beam of light that’s emitted from a stone memorial.
There are several other art installations to be found on Videy Island as well. Plus, you’ll find nature trails to hike or bike, plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities to enjoy, and lots of Norse history to uncover. A visit to Videy Island is one of the best things to do in Reykjavik, especially if you’re looking for an easy way to escape the city!
13. Explore Iceland’s Golden Circle
You’re going to love how easy it is to escape the city when you’re enjoying your Reykjavik sightseeing trip. More specifically, we know that you’re going to love exploring the nearby Golden Circle, where you can enjoy a brief but glorious taste of all that the Land of Fire and Ice has to offer!
The Golden Circle is one of Iceland’s foremost attractions, and it consists of three major tourist sights that are no more than a one-hour drive from the capital. It’s a fantastic day trip, and you can self-drive or join an organized tour, depending on your travel style.
The Golden Circle begins at Thingvellir National Park, a spectacular area that’s both beautiful and historic. Thingvellir National Park is where Iceland’s first Althing (or parliament) was held, and it continued to be held here until the 18th century when it moved to Reykjavik.
This is also the point where the North American and European tectonic plates are slowly moving away from each other, creating a unique valley-like landscape that’s strewn with fissures. You can even go snorkeling or diving in one of these fissures, which are filled with glacial water, for one of the most unique experiences in Iceland.
Next up is the Haukadalur Geothermal Field, where you can see Iceland’s explosive geothermal energy in action. You can watch the Great Geysir exploding upwards into the sky, then walk through bubbling fields of mud and hot springs as you explore the area.
The final stop on the Golden Circle itinerary is Gulfoss, or Golden Falls, where you’ll be awed by the sight of one of the most powerful and impressive waterfalls in Iceland. Gullfoss stands 32 meters (105 feet) tall and drops dramatically into a steep-sided canyon that you can safely admire from the viewing area above.
14. Relax at one of Reykjavik’s many thermal baths
Everyone knows about the Blue Lagoon, and while yes, we agree that this artificial geothermal spa installation is one of the best things to do in Iceland, the capital’s geothermal bathing culture actually runs much deeper!
You can visit the Blue Lagoon on your way to or from Iceland’s international airport, but while you’re in the city itself, you can relax and unwind at the local baths. Geothermal swimming and bathing are so popular here that Reykjavik has 17 public geothermal swimming pools, many of which can be visited with the Reykjavik City Card.
The most famous is Sundhollin – which literally means the “Swimming Palace” – where you can bathe indoors all year round. Other popular local pools include Laugardalslaug, where there’s a 50-meter swimming pool, or the Sky Lagoon, a natural geothermal pool that’s found on the coast.
15. Try out the local dishes (if you dare…)
Iceland isn’t necessarily seen as a culinary destination, but the Nordic nation has plenty of unique local dishes for you to try. You can start out easy by sampling Reykjavik’s best hot dogs at the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand. Hot dogs are a firm national favorite, and you’ll find this simple street food stall has long lines every lunchtime.
Next, you can try out Iceland’s oldest restaurant by booking a table at Kaffivagninn in the Old Harbor. This historic restaurant has been serving customers since 1935, and it’s a great place to try Iceland’s famous fish stew or fresh fish and chips.
If you’re feeling adventurous, then there are many unusual dishes for you to sample (if you dare!). Dried or fermented fish is served in most establishments, although you’ll need to have an especially strong stomach to enjoy the fermented shark. You might see sheep’s head or blood pudding on menus, and there are many more animal parts for you to try because nothing goes to waste in Iceland!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Reykjavik. What’s your favorite thing to do in the Icelandic capital?
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