The view of Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja (Shutterstock)
List Words : Elizabeth Atkin | 01 May 2019

12 of the best things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland

More than a base camp for day trips to glaciers, hot springs and mountain hikes, the small-yet-distinctive city of Reykjavik is perfectly-placed for a cool city break…

Iceland’s coastal capital, Reykjavik, is the largest city in the whole country. Yet compared to other capitals, it feels small, and understated.

An obvious base camp for excursions to the likes of the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, the mystical Blue Lagoon and Aurora Borealis sighting spots, there’s also plenty to keep you busy in the city itself.

In fact, Reykjavik’s almost-too-cool-for-school charm simply goes to show that there’s another side to Iceland, beyond its undeniable, all-powerful natural prowess: the steaming hot springs, rugged countryside, icy glaciers, and otherworldly skies we all know and love.

Here are 12 of the best things to do while in the city of Reykjavik…

1. Go whale watching

A humpback whale making an appearance near Reykjavik, Iceland (Shutterstock)

A humpback whale making an appearance near Reykjavik, Iceland (Shutterstock)

Yep, you don’t have to leave the city to get your wildlife fix. From Reykjavik’s harbour, close by to the city's many hotels, are multiple boat tours heading seawards, in search of whales, dolphins and even puffins.

The best times of year to catch a glimpse of whales is April to October, but tours are available all year round. There are numerous operators to choose from, but the best-known option is probably the three-hour daily round trip by Elding

Make sure you’ve got a strong stomach for this one, especially if its windy outside – the water’s likely to be choppy!

2. Make it to the top of Hallgrímskirkja

The impressive Hallgrímskirkja up close (Shutterstock)

The impressive Hallgrímskirkja up close (Shutterstock)

Start your pilgrimage to Hallgrímskirkja with a wander up the hilly Laugavegur shopping street. Browse the cute boutiques and outdoor clothing stores, before veering off towards the supremely tall landmark. It’s difficult to miss it its imposing, jagged structure.

Hallgrímskirkja is a 74m-tall Lutheran church, designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson in the 1940s and finally finished in the 1980s. It costs 900 ISK (approx £5.70) per person to enter, but it’s worth it getting to the top for the famous 360 views of the colourful rooves. Don’t worry – there is a lift.

3. Explore downtown Reykjavik's street art

An eagle on the side of a Reykjavik building (Dreamstime)

An eagle on the side of a Reykjavik building (Dreamstime)

Reykjavik’s cool factor comes from many things, but what really amps it up is the many boldly-coloured murals taking over sides of shops and buildings.

Downtown Reykjavik is particularly well known for these murals, which started popping up in force in 2015 and 2016, encouraged by the arty folk drawn to the Iceland Airwaves music festival.

Luckily, Reykjavik is so proud of its street art, that Visit Iceland even offers a free Reykjavik street art map for visitors.

4. See The Sun Voyager

The Sun Voyager, Reykjavik (Dreamstime)

The Sun Voyager, Reykjavik (Dreamstime)

The Sun Voyager is an art piece-turned-attraction, designed by Jón Gunnar Árnason, in 1990.

It’s supposed to be a message to the sun, but is also called the ‘dreamboat’. Whatever your interpretation of this impressive sculpture, it’s worth a look.

Its scenic location, right on the water, makes for a perfect picture, too.

5. Catch a city glimpse of the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights above the city of Reykjavik, Iceland (Shutterstock)

The Northern Lights above the city of Reykjavik, Iceland (Shutterstock)

Your best chance of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland obviously isn’t in the city – though there are plenty of tours from Reykjavik to take you to clearer viewing spots.

However, that’s not to say you won’t catch a glimpse of a changed sky from the capital, depending on the weather, the time of your visit and your vantage point.

Your greatest shot at an Aurora Borealis moment in the city is during the winter months of December, January and February. Generally, aim to visit between September and March.

You’ll need it to be completely dark and crucially, a completely clear, cloudless night. Rely on the advice of your tour guides (if you have them) and on-the-day weather reports, as conditions will always vary, and expect to stay up well into the early morning for the view.

Our viewing was at around three in the morning, in mid-October, from the roof of an apartment building. We saw sky-wide swirls of neon green lighting up the black night. Truly amazing – especially since our Northern Lights tour early in the evening hadn’t produced any activity.  

6. Get stuck in to Reykjavik's street food

Ingólfur Square in Reykjavik, home to shops, cafes, street food stands and sporting events on TV in the summer (Dreamstime)

Ingólfur Square in Reykjavik, home to shops, cafes, street food stands and sporting events on TV in the summer (Dreamstime)

Reykjavik’s known for being a pricey city to eat in. At the same time, it’s got a secret underbelly of delicious street food, from Korean bao buns to classic hot dog stands, dotted all over the city.

We’ve seen the well-priced and creative sub sandwiches from Hlollabatar, a stand located on Ingólfur Square (right next to many of the city’s hotels, Airbnb apartments, the Art Museum and flea market) dubbed the best sandwich in Iceland.

Only you can be the judge – though we’d have to agree they’re pretty tasty.

7. Stroll around Tjornin Lake

The peaceful centre of Reykjavik, Tjornin Lake (Dreamstime)

The peaceful centre of Reykjavik, Tjornin Lake (Dreamstime)

Reykjavik’s surrounded by water, and you’re not far from Iceland’s rugged countryside – but Tjornin Lake slap bang in front of the city hall is far closer and so, so peaceful.

A stroll around the lake is an ideal way to spend an hour one morning, drinking a tea or coffee from one of Reykjavik’s cool central cafes, and admiring the geese and ducks swimming slowly.

8. Discover the past at Árbær Open Air Museum

One of many grass-covered ancient homes in Árbæjarsafn, the Árbær Open Air Museum (Shutterstock)

One of many grass-covered ancient homes in Árbæjarsafn, the Árbær Open Air Museum (Shutterstock)

Árbæjarsafn is a historical open-air museum consisting of 20 old-school buildings, taken from their original sites, to show the visiting public what life in the capital used to be like.

Expect to see quaint Icelandic homes, a church, and a farm. Farm animals roam the village and museum guides dress in 19th century costume, which only adds to the experience. There are exhibits, crafts sessions and other activities on throughout the year.

Entry costs 1,700 ISK per person (approx £10.70) and you can expect to spend one to two hours here, depending on your interest.

9. Consider the Icelandic Phallological Museum

A woman exploring the inside of the Icelandic Phallological Museum (Shutterstock)

A woman exploring the inside of the Icelandic Phallological Museum (Shutterstock)

Like visiting the Sex Museum in Amsterdam, this is one of those tick-it-off-the-to-do-list things for Reykjavik. Open during June to September, you've got a limited visiting window. It costs 1,700 ISK per person (approx £10.70), so no laughing matter.

Once you've stopped yourself from snickering, you'll find the sheer amount of phallic finds and artefacts impressive in itself. There are 56 specimens related to 17 different kinds of whales, for example. There's even one from a polar bear.

At the very least, the museum is unique. The museum bills itself as one of, if not the, only museum of its kind – containing phallic specimens for every type of mammal in the country – in the world. 

10. Bag a bargain at Kolaportið flea market

A view of Reykjavik's old harbour (Shutterstock)

A view of Reykjavik's old harbour (Shutterstock)

Reykjavik’s only flea market lives up to the hype – and doesn't need any competition. Every Saturday and Sunday, the harbour-side warehouse fills up with vendors selling everything from vintage clothes, records, bric-a-brac, sweets, furniture, even fish - and whatever else you could possibly dream up. 

Savvy shoppers will enjoy a stroll through this market – it's plenty big and though all flea markets have their tat, there are bargains to be had. Don't be afraid to haggle a bit, even as a visitor. Just make sure you've got enough room in your backpack or suitcase to get your goods home on the plane.

Be warned: it is a bit smelly in here. The combo of sweet things and old stuff and the fishy scent is noticeable. You may also want to be aware of the fact that fermented shark is sold here at some stands. It should be easy to avoid.

11. Experience modern art at Reykjavik Art Museum

The exterior of Reykjavik Art Museum is just as stylish as the inside (Shutterstock)

The exterior of Reykjavik Art Museum is just as stylish as the inside (Shutterstock)

Close by to the bustling flea market is Reykjavik Art Museum. Decidedly more peaceful, and minimalist, you can expect to see a variety of exhibits in this old harbour warehouse – all varying depending on when you visit.

Past showcases include works from international artists and local talent, across six galleries.. It costs 1,800 ISK (approx £11.42) to get in, but a worthwhile fee to take in the talent on display.

See Reykjavik Art Museum's upcoming exhibits

12. Try Svarta Kaffið soup in a bread bowl

Soup in bread bowls. Available all over Reykjavik (Shutterstock)

Soup in bread bowls. Available all over Reykjavik (Shutterstock)

This delicious dish is an impractical must-try while you're in Reykjavik. It's available in a few locations across the city, including a few Irish pubs – though Svarta Kaffið on the main street, Laugavegur, is probably the most famous.

We’re not going to lie to you: it’s difficult to eat. But worth the struggle for its warming effects, and for the novelty factor. The ideal way to round off a busy city break in Reykjavik.

More alternative city breaks:

11 incredible day trips from Reykjavik

11 of the best things to do in Kiev, Ukraine

How to spend a weekend in Gozo, Malta

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