As tempting as it might be to pass through the capital city without a second thought, there are so many things to see and do in Reykjavik.
So, before you head out to Iceland’s glaciers, volcanoes, and black sand beaches, don’t forget to spend some time exploring the fascinating museums or checking out the nightlife that the capital has to offer.
You’ll find loads of activities to enjoy right from the city, including wildlife tours, botanical gardens, and fascinating exhibitions. This article will give you 27 ideas to get you started, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list of Reykjavik’s attractions.
1. Whale and Wildlife Tours
While it’s true that Whale Watching is best in the North of Iceland, you’ve got a good chance of seeing whales near the city during the summer. You can board a small vessel at the city harbor that will take you to see the gorgeous puffins at Akurey Island. Or, if you’re up for more than an hour’s trip, you could go on a three-hour whale-watching expedition right from the city instead.
2. Northern Lights
You won’t have as much luck with marine wildlife in the wintertime, but you will get the chance to see the Northern Lights. In the right conditions, you can see the Aurora Borealis right from downtown Reykjavik. But they will be even better where there is less light pollution. So consider heading to city parks or the edge of the city for a better view. The most popular spot for seeing the Northern Lights in Reykjavik has got to be Grotta Lighthouse!
3. Whales of Iceland
You don’t have to go on a boat trip to appreciate our gentle giants. So for anyone who prefers to keep their feet on firm ground, you can head to the Whales of Iceland exhibition instead. This is an excellent exhibition for adults and kids alike. You’ll see life-size models of 23 different whale and crustacean species, and you can also have a go with virtual reality equipment to explore the seafloor without getting wet!
4. Saga Museum
There’s no shortage of museums in Iceland. We highly recommend the Saga Museum if you can only choose one. You will learn about the ancient stories of Iceland as you walk through lifelike wax scenes of battles and Viking raids. The audio guide will explain the sagas you are seeing, but the scenes could be upsetting for young children or people with an aversion to gore. So the saga museum is a great way to learn about Iceland’s early history, but make sure everyone is game to see a bishop’s head getting chopped off before booking your tickets.
5. Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Garden strikes visitors more like a park than anything else. But it has a collection of 3000 plants, and a guided tour brings the collection to life. (These are available on a Friday in the high season). The garden is a 40-minute walk from the city center, so it might not be the best choice for someone with limited time in the city. But if you’d like to take a stroll around many native plants and say hi to the ducks in the pond, this can be a great place to take a picnic. (Or you can check out the Floran Cafe, which serves ingredients grown in the garden!)
6. Reykjavik Family Zoo
While you’re at the botanical garden, you could check out the family zoo, which is right next by. As well as farm animals that you expect to see in a petting farm, you can find arctic foxes, reindeer, seals, and a small number of exotic animals like reptiles. If you prefer to see seals in the wild, don’t forget about the wildlife tours you can take from the harbor!
7. Phallological Museum
The Iceland Phallological Museum is undoubtedly memorable. It is a collection of more than 215 preserved penises from the animals you can find on Icelandic land and in the water. This includes some human specimens which were donated. (Presumably, after their owners had passed away.) If you want to stand next to a towering whale penis, this is the Reykjavik museum for you. And if you don’t? Fair enough.
8. Perlan Museum
Don’t worry, Iceland’s museums aren’t all that unusual. The glass-domed Perlan museum is a spectacular building. You’ll find an ice cave built inside, which you can explore as you learn more about Iceland’s glaciers. Through cinema and exhibitions, you’ll learn all about Iceland’s natural wonders. And you’ll enjoy some pretty incredible views of the city too.
Hallgrimskirkja is the tallest church in Iceland, towering above the nearby buildings at 244 feet. You’ll find it in the center of the city, and you’ll either love or hate the architecture. Some people say it reminds them of Iceland’s wild and desolate beauty. Others say it looks like a concrete multi-story parking lot. You’ll have to visit and come to your own verdict!
10. Maritime Museum
Reykjavik’s Maritime Museum explores Iceland’s intimate relationship with the ocean. You’ll find out all about the brave fishermen that battled the elements to bring food home to their families, and you can also take a tour of the onsite coastguard ship.
11. Night Out
You’ll want to let your hair down after all those museums. You’ll find most of Iceland’s bars on the street called Laugavegur, as well as the adjoining Bankastræti and Austurstræti. The capital city is small, but most bars are close together, so you can walk from venue to venue as the night evolves. Reykjavik doesn’t have massive clubs with VIP areas, but people will enjoy a dance in the bars. Drinking venues stay open until 5:30 am at the weekend, which can be a shock for Europeans used to closing times at 9 pm.
12. Shopping at Laugavegur
Laugavegur is famous for more than its bars. This is also a great place to do some shopping or hang out in one of the cozy cafes. So if you have some vacation money to spend and want to bring some beautiful Icelandic sweaters home with you, this is the place to head!
13. Culture House
The Culture House is one of Iceland’s most beautiful buildings, and it’s home to a wide range of exhibitions that change throughout the year. There are over 13,500 Icelandic works of art in the Culture House collection, so art lovers shouldn’t hesitate to check it out.
14. Punk Museum
The Punk Museum couldn’t be more different from the elegant culture house. This underground museum is in an old public bathroom. But don’t let that put you off! The exhibition is tiny, but you’ll find a kaleidoscope of colors amongst the punk rock artifacts.
15. Blue Lagoon
If you’d rather hang out in a world-famous volcanic spa than a public toilet, we don’t blame you. The Blue Lagoon is a 40-minute drive out of the city, but you can easily take a morning or afternoon there if you’re in the capital. Make sure you get tickets well in advance because they sell out fast.
16. Settlement Exhibition
You’ll find the settlement exhibition right in the middle of Reykjavik. It’s built around the ruins of an ancient Viking Long House so that you can walk around on the footprint of the building. It’s one of the oldest structures found in Iceland, and it will give you a glimpse into the life of the earliest settlers. (Trust us, it was no piece of cake!)
17. City walking tour
After learning about the Viking past, a city walking tour will teach you about present-day Icelandic culture. You can take a two-hour pay as you feel walking tour to learn all about the city’s evolution. When you’re finished, you can pay the guide however much you feel the tour was worth.
18. Arbaer Open Air Museum
You can carry on enjoying the open air at the Arbaer Museum. You will walk around the 20 reconstructed buildings to get a feel for Reykjavik’s past. It’ll give you a totally different perspective than you could get from reading a book or looking at a painting!
19. Sun Voyager
Sculpture lovers can head down to the ocean at Sæbraut road to see the famous Sun Voyager. This beautiful artwork by Jón Gunnar Árnason was commissioned for Reykjavik’s 200th anniversary. It looks like a fusion between a boat and a whale carcass, representing hope and new beginnings for the early settlers.
20. National Museum
For such a small city, Reykjavik sure does have a lot of museums! The National Museum has many interesting artefacts from settlement to the present day. We recommend you go on one of the free guided tours that you can join on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 11 am. You’ll get far more out of the visit!
21. Horse Riding
You don’t have to stray far from the capital to meet one of Iceland’s famous horses. Some riding tours will pick you up and drop you off right in the capital, so there’s no reason not to give it a go while you’re in Reykjavik!
22. Harpa Concert Hall
Music lovers should check out what concerts are on at Harpa Concert Hall while they are visiting. You’ll find both Icelandic and International artists performing in this stunning location overlooking the ocean.
23. Shopping Mall
Iceland doesn’t have many shopping malls, but Reykjavik does have a few options. So if you need to do some shopping, you’ll probably be best off at Kringlan in the city. Smáralind is the only bigger mall in Iceland, but it’s further out from Reykjavik city center.
Iceland has lots of fantastic swimming pools at hot springs. If you’re in Reykjavik, we think Laugardalslaug is your best option. This public bath and swimming pool is in the Laugardalur region. It’s nothing near as fancy as the Blue Lagoon, but it’s a lot cheaper!
25. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is a little hot dog stand that’s been open since 1937! If you don’t fancy a sit-down meal, it’s an excellent place to grab a hot dog before heading to a park or the ocean to eat beneath the open sky.
26. Reykjavík Museum of Photography
Iceland attracts a lot of budding photographers. If you’re one of them, don’t hesitate to check out the Reykjavik Museum of Photography while you’re here. You’ll find a vast range of photos, from old family portraits to stunning landscape shots.
27. Klifurhúsið Climbing Gym
The Klifurhúsið Climbing Gym is a great value activity for a rainy day in Reykjavik. The old-school climbing gym will get your heart pumping, and the regulars are friendly and welcoming.
There are plenty of activities to keep you busy on your next trip to Reykjavik. For more Icelandic travel information and hand-picked tours, don’t hesitate to explore the rest of the Play Iceland site. We look forward to welcoming you to the land of fire and ice!