Reykjavik: Best things to see and do

Reykjavik Cityscape, Iceland, Europe

Whether you're planning a stopover or a short break, Iceland's capital is a unique and fascinating place to explore. Here Aol Travel's Iceland expert Annabel Else gives her top tips on things to see and do in the capital.

Getting your bearings

One of the best ways to get an idea of your surroundings is from the top of Reykjavik's stunning church, the Hallgrímskirkja. From here you can see almost all of Iceland's compact capital city laid out before you. To the north, across Faxaflói Bay, stands the magical mountain Esja, which has such a special place in the hearts of Reykjavik dwellers that apartments with views of it are very highly prized.

To the west lies the old harbour, where retired fishermen gather in a cosy waterside cafe to talk about the old days and drink treacly black coffee. West is also where you'll see the brightly painted houses clad in corrugated tin that give the city's oldest district (named 101 after its postcode), the distinctive Nordic look that's reminiscent of Copenhagen, Bergen and Stockholm. To the southwest is Tjörnin - a shallow lake often teeming with birdlife - which almost freezes over in the depths of winter.

To the south, just beyond the bus station, is the tiny domestic airport (as opposed to Keflavik International where you probably landed) from which smaller planes serve the other towns in Iceland. And lastly, if you turn to the east, you'll be facing towards the more modern part of the city which stretches along the bay and to the mountains beyond.

Whale watching boat, Reykjavik, Iceland

Whale watching and day trips

You'll be surrounded by sea and mountains throughout your stay in Iceland's capital, and you'll be able to get a taste of both on a short trip. Whale watching trips from the old harbour (which is also the home of the black Hvalur whaling vessels that still hunt minke whales from time to time) also provide opportunities to glimpse several species, including humpbacks, and these often circle small rocky islands favoured by puffins and other seabirds. The guides will use a 'clock' system to indicate which way to look - with 12 being straight ahead, 9 being to your left, 3 to your right, and so on.

Getting into the mountains and the spectacular glaciers is also easy from the city centre, with organised tours taking in the sights of the so-called Golden circle (including the waterfall Gullfoss and the nearby geysirs), the national park and lake at Thingvellir (home to the country's first parliament and the giant crack in the ground that runs through the middle of Iceland). Reykjavik Excursions run lots of short and long day trips starting from the city centre bus station, and they often pick up from city centre hotels and guesthouses too. Some of the longer trips include an adventure along Iceland's south shore (don't miss Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon if you have time), and the gorgeous Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland which is almost like a miniature version of the whole country.

Northern lights

Back in the city, if you're here in the winter months, you stand a good opportunity to see the Northern Lights - perhaps even from a hotel bedroom window. For the best chance, try to find a place where the street lamps and other city lights don't dominate your view of the sky. You'll need clear weather and some solar activity. The Icelandic Met office's excellent website provides an aurora forecast and cloud cover information. There are plenty of organised tours to see the Northern Lights, but effectively they're just taking you to location where the light pollution from the city is lower. Wrap up warm as there can be a lot of standing around.

Iceland, Reykjavik, Hallgrimskikja church

Art and culture in Reykjavik

Reykjavik is bristling with museums covering Iceland's history, culture and art including the Hafnarhús Reykjavík Art Museum by the harbour which always has something interesting on, and save a half an hour for the small but perfectly formed Photography Museum just next door. There's even the infamous Phallological Museum which exhibits more than 200 penises from 46 species: don't forget to exit through the gift shop if you're in search of an eyebrow-raising souvenir. Entry to all the city's museums can be had for a modest daily fee using the Reykjavik City Card which also entitles you to unlimited bus travel around the city and entrance to its many swimming pools.

If you're a fan of architecture or music, head for the city's grand new opera house and cultural centre, Harpa. The exterior, covered with thousands of glass panels and designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, reflects light to and from all directions. It's particularly worth seeing around sunset when the pink light from the west hits the glass.

All of Reykjavik's current events including concerts, gigs, films and exhibitions are listed in the excellent English-language publication The Reykjavik Grapevine. There are also extensive and up-to-date listings and reviews of cafes and restaurants to suit all tastes. Free print editions are often available in shops, hotels and bars.


Shopping in Reyjkavik

If shops and cosy cafes are your thing, you'll find plenty lining the main streets of Laekjagata, Hafnargata, Bankastræti and Laugavegur and the surrounding areas. One slightly hidden gem is the tiny Grái Kötturinn (Grey Cat) cafe on Hverfisgata which serves great coffee and huge cooked breakfasts in small book-lined rooms. Coffee lovers might also want to try Prikið (which also serves bagels, cakes, sandwiches and beer) and Mokka which hosts small photographic exhibitions alongside excellent expressos.

If you're here on a Saturday or Sunday, head for the indoor flea market, Kolaportið, which houses lots of small stalls with a range of secondhand clothes, books and household items as well as a huge range of tat, both new and old. The highlights are the food section (vacuum-packed smoked salmon and trout is cheaper here than at the airport shop, for example) and a bustling cafe selling hot dogs and strong coffee.

Shopping street - Bankastraeti und Laugavegur, Reykjavik

This part of 101 is also the home of some of Reykjavik's nicest shops, Kirsuberjatréð (The Cherry Tree) selling innovative artworks, handcrafts, clothing and soft furnishings. Magazines, books (including plenty in English), puzzles, games and stationery can be found at Eymundsson on Austurstræti. Its big rival, Mal og Menning, on Rekjavik's main shopping street, Laugavegur, boasts a good cafe serving very reasonable lattes, cappucinos and flat whites. Music fans might want to head for Reykjavik's legendary music shop, 12 Tónar which also runs its own record label. If you're travelling with a teenager, feel free to park them here – they'll probably have formed a band with the locals by the time you need to leave for the airport.

If you want to indulge in a bit of people-watching, head for Cafe Paris which backs on to Austurvollur Square and the rather grand Hotel Borg. The Parliament building, the Althingi, is the dour-looking grey basalt building nearby. Architecture fans might also want a look at the modernist Radhus (City Hall) next door, while those with small children could join in with young Reykjavikurs and feed the ducks, swans and geese at Tjörnin just behind. And if you find yourself playing the 'Which house would we live in if we moved to Reykjavik' game, make sure you check the ones on the streets around the lake including Tjarnagata itself which has a great selection of brightly coloured homes, often with twinkling lights in the windows to fight back the winter darkness and give that extra cosy feeling known as hygge.

Reykjavik city skyline

The city's swimming pools are a great place to meet Icelanders as they're more of a social experience than a sporting one. You can find out more about them at, a useful website. It's said that more business deals and political discussions take place in the country's pools than in its offices, boardrooms or bars. Bear in mind that you'll be expected to shower with soap before entering the pool but once in, the soothing hotpots will more than repay the effort. The main ones are at Laugavegur, Sundhöllin (near the Hallgrimskirkja) and Vesturbæjarlaug in the west of the city near the university.

Iceland in pictures
See Gallery
Reykjavik: Best things to see and do

See also: The best time to visit Iceland?

See also: Take an 'incredible stopover' in Iceland

Useful links

How to drive in Iceland is the official source for safe adventure in Iceland and has a wealth of information about driving, hiking, glaciers, whale watching and a range of other outdoor activities.

Icelandic meterological service (includes an aurora forecast)

Information for cyclists

Video: Camping trip around Iceland

6-Day Camp Around Iceland: Camping Trip with Mariana and Zach

Read Full Story