What to Do in Reykjavik

Despite its modest size, visitors are rarely stuck for something to do in Reykjavik. The city offers a range of sights, from the scenic Tjörnin lake to the more dramatic Hallgrimskirkja church and the glittering Harpa concert hall, which hosts world-class concerts and events. There are museums and galleries aplenty, plus a host of interesting events and festivals year-round.

Tjörnin, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Despite being so close to the harbor and the ocean, Reykjavík’s city lake has a charm and atmosphere all its own. Bordered by a main road on one side and a string of pretty, colorful residences on the other, the natural, stone-edged Tjörnin is home to a community of ducks, swans, and geese that hang out here even in winter. A popular strolling spot to clear the cobwebs after a night out, it’s also often busy with local families and visitors, who come armed with bread for the waterfowl (but beware of the seagulls—they can be aggressive). The nearby Reykjavík City Hall is also worth a look for its huge 3-D relief map of Iceland, featuring clearly marked glaciers, volcanoes, and fjords.
Hallgrímstorg 101, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
You can’t miss Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík’s 240-foot-tall, rocket-shaped church, which soars above the city skyline and is illuminated at night. Designed by famed national architect Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937, and inspired less by outer space than by Iceland’s picturesque basalt rock formations, the church took over 40 years to construct, finally opening in 1986. The statue outside the church doors is of Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to discover continental North America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The church interior is well worth a visit, if only to admire the giant organ, which has over 5,000 pipes and was designed and constructed by German organ builder Johannes Klais of Bonn. You can also take the elevator to the church’s tower for magnificent views over Reykjavík’s colorful rooftops.
Laugavegur 116, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
Surely the world’s only museum to showcase the phalluses of an entire nation’s mammalian wildlife, Iceland’s Phallological Museum is somewhat unique. Despite its obvious quirk factor, the museum is actually an interesting and—for the most part—fairly serious establishment. It offers guests the chance to inspect almost 300 penises (including parts of penises) that together represent pretty much all the land and sea mammals to be found throughout the country. A quarter belong to various types of whales, but there are also samples from polar bears and seals, as well as a letter from a local human pledging his own personal specimen posthumously. There are also elf penises, though you’ll need special psychic powers to see them.
Rekagrandi 14, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Reykjavík’s old harbor, built between 1913 and 1917, has seen quite the transformation in recent years, morphing from a mainly functional area dominated by ships and their fishermen to a lively, modern tourism area that’s almost a new city district of its own. The sparkling, award-winning Harpa concert hall and conference center has dominated the area since it opened in 2011, and several restaurants and cafés, along with offices, now line the harbor promenade, interspersed with the occasional cultural spot such as the fascinating Reykjavík Maritime Museum. The boats, trawlers, and whaling ships are still there, of course, and remain a big part of the atmosphere, but they’re today joined by a number of tourist boats offering whale-watching and puffin tours.
Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Opened in 2011, Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is not only the most significant classical music venue in Iceland (home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera), but also one of the country’s most striking examples of modern architecture. Located close to the old harbor, the building was part of a larger development meant to breathe life into the downtown district (the plan was abandoned due to the subsequent economic crash, but funds to complete Harpa were found). The coruscating, eye-catching facade was designed by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, and the spacious interior has four handsome halls, the largest of which can accommodate up to 1,800 seated guests. There are also smaller conference rooms dotted throughout the building, and the ground floor hosts a record shop, café and restaurant, and other public areas. In addition to classical concerts, the venue holds music festivals, pop shows, art exhibitions, and more.
Suðurgata 41, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
The National Museum of Iceland is a great spot to find out about the nation’s fascinating past. The permanent exhibition stretches right back to the first settlement and comes up to the present day, and contains some 2,000 objects plus around 1,000 photographs from the 20th century. Displayed chronologically, the exhibit starts with replicas of the ships that the settlers arrived in and ends, with a modern flourish, with Keflavik airport—which lets in people every day from all across the globe.
4, 110, Kistuhylur, Reykjavík, Iceland
This impressive open-air museum was once a functioning farm as well as a popular resting place for people on their way to and from Reykjavík. It was transformed into a museum in the 1950s in an attempt to preserve something of an old Reykjavík that was disappearing quickly due to postwar developments. Today the original farm is supplemented by around 20 buildings, most of which have been relocated from central Reykjavík, including a grass-roofed timber house from the late 19th century. The ensemble forms a small village, complete with a village square. On display are several exhibitions pertaining to older periods of Reykjavík’s history, including antique farm machinery and a slew of domestic animals that call the place home. There are also regular events along the same theme.
Sæbraut, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
The Sun Voyager is a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason. The Sun Voyager is a dreamboat, an ode to the sun. Intrinsically, it contains within itself the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress, and freedom. The sculpture is located by Sæbraut, by the sea in the center of Reykjavík. I had seen this sculpture in so many photos before we went to Iceland and really wanted to see it in person. When we got there we had the most amazing sunset and the sculpture itself is very beautiful. I am really happy I got to see it.
16 Aðalstræti
Reykjavík’s Settlement Museum was established in 2001 after archaeological remains were discovered during an excavation. Said remains turned out to be the oldest relics of human habitation in the city, with some fragments dating to before 871 C.E. Today the museum has many of those finds on display, including the largest element from the historic haul, parts of a 10th-century longhouse, whose main hall and wall fragment form the focal point of a compelling exhibition about the nature of local life during Viking times. Mixing multimedia technology such as holographic dioramas with original artifacts from various excavations around the city (farming implements, sacrificial cow bones), the exhibition does a great job of bringing the Viking era to life.
One of the most popular day trips from Reykjavík, this dramatic and scenic rift valley is both the historical site of Iceland’s Viking parliament and a geological wonder in its own right. Among the highlights are the Almannagjá cliffs, where the island’s chieftains and most of the Icelandic population traditionally congregated for an annual Alþing (general assembly), the last of which was held as recently as 1798. Wooden walkways around the park lead to other sites of interest like the black-roofed Þingvellir Church and Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. There are also waterfalls, flower-filled valleys, and abundant wildlife. It is possible to organize a diving trip to explore the tectonic rift that divides the Eurasian and North American plates, and there’s a visitor center with great views and decent coffee as well as exhibitions and a gift shop.
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