Things to Do in Reykjavik
The Blue Lagoon is a unique wonder of Iceland, a result of all that volcanic activity the small island is so famous for. In the middle of the weird and wonderful, flat black lava fields of the Svartsengi National Park, the huge, outdoor lagoon is filled by naturally heated geothermal water which comes from 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) below the surface of the earth. It is full of minerals, silica and algae and is especially good for the skin and relaxation. In fact, part of the Blue Lagoon development is a health clinic specializing in cures for psoriasis. The water is almost startlingly blue in color, and the white of the silica on the black lava rocks around the edges makes an amazing contrast.
As well as soaking and swimming in the pool, the Blue Lagoon offers in-water massage treatments, saunas and steam rooms, and a cafe. On any visit to Iceland a few hours soaking in The Blue Lagoon is essential, and its location between Reykjavik and the airport makes it easy to do.
Reykjavík's most attention-seeking building is the immense concrete church Hallgrímskirkja, or Hallgrimur's Church, star of a thousand postcards and visible from 12 miles (20 kilometers) away. For an unmissable view of the city, make sure you take an elevator trip up the 250 ft (75 m) high tower. In contrast to the high drama outside, the church's interior is puritanically plain. The most startling feature is the vast 5,275-pipe organ, which has a strangely weapon-like appearance. Between mid-June and mid-August you can hear this mighty beast in action three times per week at lunchtime/evening concerts.
The church's radical design caused huge controversy, and its architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, never lived to see its completion - it took a painstaking 34 years (1940-74) to build. Those sweeping columns on either side of the tower represent volcanic basalt - a favorite motif of Icelandic nationalists.
Intrepid travelers visiting Iceland during the winter months can take their chances on viewing the elusive Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, but for summer visitors or those short on time, the Aurora Reykjavik (Northern Lights Center) offers the next best thing.
A fully interactive exhibition devoted to the otherworldly phenomenon, the center features a 23-foot-wide (7 m) time-lapse video of the majestic lights, which allows visitors to experience nature’s most impressive light show alongside innovative exhibits chronicling the discovery of the lights around the Arctic and the many myths and legends formed around the mysterious spectacle.
Additional highlights include a Northern Lights photo simulator, where budding photographers can master the art of capturing the lights, an awe-inspiring array of Northern Lights photographs and multimedia demonstrations of the science behind the lights.
The striking steel and glass Harpa Concert Hall, opened in 2011, houses both the Icelandic Opera and Symphony Orchestra. The building, designed by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, features honeycombed glass panels that reflect the sky and the ocean.
As the hub of the Reykjavik cultural scene, there’s something going on within Harpa Concert Hall nearly every night of the week; the venue also hosts most of the city’s most popular events. Besides performance spaces, the building also houses a couple of restaurants and several shops selling Nordic music, books, design items and gifts. Guided tours take visitors behind the scenes to areas of the theater typically only accessible to performers, including the stage itself.
Only about a half-mile off Reykjavik, in the fjord Kollafjordur, lie six islands, two of which have puffin colonies, Akurey and Lundey.
Akurey has the largest puffin colony and also cormorants, black guillemots, eider ducks, seagulls, kittiwakes and several other seabirds. Puffins nest on the island in burrows they dig for safety and warmth.
Puffins return to the same site to breed year after year. They lay a single egg in late April or early May and then feed the fledgling for a month or two before deserting the nest and the fledgling. Puffins begin breeding at around five or six years of age and live up to 20 years.
Akurey is uninhabited which is why it has become such an important place for nesting seabirds, despite how close it is to the city center. Many of the whale-watching boats pause at Akurey because it’s possible to see the puffins and their nesting burrows from on board the boats.
The National Museum of Iceland offers numerous temporary exhibitions, plus a permanent display chronicling the history of Iceland, from the Viking settlement era through to the modern age. This main exhibition, entitled Making of a Nation, features more than 2000 artefacts, giving a complete overview of Iceland’s society and culture throughout the years, including how the ancient chieftains once ruled and the introduction of Christianity.
Among the museum’s extensive collection are various weapons, drinking horns, and a bronzed figure of Thor. Its most prized possession however is a 13th century Valþjófsstaður door, which features intricate medieval carvings depicting scenes from the legendary 12th century knight’s tale, Le Chevalier au Lion.The museum goes into some depth of the period from the 1600s to today, detailing how Iceland struggled under foreign rule before finally gaining independence.
The Hofdi House in Iceland is considered to be one of the most historically significant buildings in the Reykjavik area. This beautiful building was built in 1909 and sits near the waterfront. Originally it served as the location for the French consul and there are still signs of this on the building such as R.F., which is the abbreviation for the Republic of France, the name of the consul, and the year of its construction above a door on the inside. The house has hosted several celebrities and heads of state, such as the Queen of England, Winston Churchill, and Marlene Dietrich.
In front of the house is a sculpture that depicts pillars from the chieftain's seat of the first Norwegian settler in Reykjavik. The Hofdi House is best known as being the location where US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbatsjov met in 1986, marking the end of the Cold War. Images of this house were broadcast throughout the world.
More Things to Do in Reykjavik
Iceland’s principal art gallery, located on the banks Reykjavik’s Tjörnin Lake, the National Gallery of Iceland houses a vast collection of 19th and 20th century Icelandic art, alongside works by international artists like Pablo Picasso, Edward Munch, Karel Appel, Victor Vasarely and Richard Serra. The museum’s permanent collection, containing around 10,000 works, is showcased through a series of rotating exhibitions, spread throughout 3 floors of gallery space. Among the highlights are pieces by famed Icelandic artists like Þórarinn B. Þorláksson, Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval, Bjarni Jónsson and Einar Hákonarson, along with a variety of modern sculptures, installations and paintings by new and upcoming artists.
Founded in 1884 to house the personal art collection of Icelandic lawyer Björn Bjarnarson, the National Gallery was originally based in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a number of key works by Danish artists like Joakim Skovgaard, Christian Blache and Peter Krøyer.
With its tunnels of multi-hued lava, dripping with stalactites and dotted with peculiar rock formations, stepping into the Leidarendi Lava Caves is like discovering a subterranean fantasyland. A natural phenomenon formed out of solidified lava more than 2,000 years ago, the network of caves lie beneath the Stora-Bollahraun lava field in south Iceland and run underground for over a half-mile.
The Leidarendi caves take their name, which translates to "the end of the journey,’ from the carcass of a dead sheep that was found at the end of the tunnel, but intrepid travelers needn’t worry – thousands of visitors have safely visited the caves since they opened to the public. A popular day trip from Reykjavik, exploring the Leidarendi Lava Caves is an adventure in itself, with the rugged terrain requiring visitors to scramble, clamber and crawl through the narrow passageways, using torches to light their way.
Conceptualized by Yoko Ono — a notable musician and peace advocate — the Imagine Peace Tower on Viðey Island serves as a literal and figurative beacon of world peace. The permanent art installation takes the form of a wishing well, from which 15 powerful beams of light emerge nightly between John Lennon’s birthday (October 9) and the anniversary of his death (December 9). When lit, the pillar of light is visible from the mainland. On the well itself, the words ‘Imagine Peace’ are inscribed in 24 different languages. The electricity used to power the lights comes from clean geothermal energy.
Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly alternative to sightseeing or want to experience one of Iceland’s famous geothermally heated pools, Laugardalur, or Hot Spring Valley, has everything you would expect from the capital’s largest recreational area. The centerpiece of the park is its huge swimming pool, the largest outdoor thermal pool in Reykjavík, but there’s also the Laugardalsholl Arena (a soccer stadium and music venue), a sports hall, running tracks and an indoor ice rink on-site, as well as the city’s only campsite and an abundance of playgrounds, picnic and barbecue areas.M.
Laugardalur is also known for its botanical gardens, home to variety of Arctic plant and flower varieties, and its zoo, where visitors can view Icelandic wildlife like reindeer, foxes and seals.
An expanse of uninhabited and unspoiled volcanic terrain located in central Iceland and largely off-limits to vehicles, Landmannalaugar has fast become a popular choice for those looking to escape Reykjavík and explore off-the-beaten-track. Among Iceland’s top hiking destinations, Landmannalaugar is best known for its spectacular scenery, with its multi-colored rhyolite mountains, rugged lava fields and steamy thermal pools, set against a backdrop of the ominous Helka Volcano.
The No. 1 challenge for enthusiastic hikers is the 43-kilometer-long Laugavegur trail, Iceland’s most famous long distance trail, which runs from Landmannalaugar all the way to the Thorsmork Valley. Alternatively, less-experienced adventurers can tackle the 16.5-km Landmannahellir Hiking Trail around the Laugahraun lava field, enjoy a day hike or horse riding excursion through the Jokulgil valley, camp out one of the remote mountain huts or soak in one of the many natural hot springs.
Looming on the horizon north of Reykjavik, the 914-meter peak of Mount Esja offers a striking backdrop to the city and the capital’s nearest mountain is also a captivating attraction in its own right. A small mountain range made up of basalt and volcanic tuff, Esja is best known for its cap of pale rhyolite rock that appears to change hues with the sunlight, as well as the impressive views it affords over Reykjavik city and bay.
A network of hiking trails traverse the peak of Mount Esja, the most popular of which starts from Mógilsá, and most trails converge at the “Steinn”—a rocky plateau and lookout point about 200 meters from the summit. From here, seasoned hikers can opt for the steep climb to the top, while less experienced walkers can follow an easier, winding trail to the summit.
One of Iceland’s most impressive buildings, located in Alftanes, just outside Reykjavik, the Bessastadir is the official residence of the Icelandic president. Dating back to 1761, the striking edifice once housed one of Iceland’s first educational institutions, before being donated to the state in 1940. After the Independence of Iceland in 1944, the Bessastadir became the official residence of the President and First Lady of Iceland and remains so today.The Bessastadir is also renowned for its church, one of the oldest stone-made structures in Iceland, dating back to 1796 and featuring exquisite stained glass windows, painted in 1956 in honor of Asgeir Asgeirsson’s (Iceland’s 2nd president) 60th birthday.
Visitors to Iceland’s capital have the singular opportunity to descend 394 feet (120 meters) into a dormant volcano that erupted some 4,000 years ago. Iceland is a hotbed of volcanic activity — one of the most active volcanic regions on the planet — yet the Thrihnukagigur volcano has been dormant for thousands of years. Inside the Volcano equips visitors to explore this natural wonder on a five- to six-hour tour.
The adventure begins with a 2-mile (3-kilometer) hike to the volcano across a stunning lava field. Visitors then board an open elevator for a six-minute journey into the magma chamber of the volcano. Back on the surface, participants warm up with a bowl of traditional Icelandic meat soup and a warm beverage before heading back across the lava field and continuing on to Reykjavik.
Reykjavik is the capital and largest city of Iceland at around 120,000 people, which comprises half the country’s total population. Although it was the site of the country’s first permanent settlement dating from around 870, there was no actual city here until 1786. Since then this friendly city has developed into a lively, creative capital with a focus on fishing, banking and the creative industries, predominantly music, fashion and design.
The laidback, low-rise city is dotted with new high-rise developments dating from the heady days of wealth before the 2008 banking crash. The jewel in the crown is the recently completed architectural showpiece and concert hall, Harpa, located on the waterfront. Smaller ships will dock at the Old Harbor but most will tie up at the Cruise Dock a couple of miles from the center of the city. There is little to see here, but shuttle buses take only about ten minutes into the heart of Reykjavik.