All About Reykjavik: Iceland's Capital
Did you know that Reykjavík is home to 60% of Iceland’s entire population? This charming capital city, which was founded by Norwegian Vikings, is located on the southwestern coast of Iceland.
The name Reykjavík actually means ‘Smoky Bay’ in Old Norse. It was inspired by the many geothermal pools and hot springs in the greater Reykjavík area. This geothermal energy actually provides heating for the city of Reykjavík.
Talk about unique, Reykjavík is also the world’s only capital city with a large puffin breeding colony! Reykjavík, with its rich cultural heritage and diverse wildlife, was named UNESCO's fifth City of Literature in 2011.
A Quick History of Reykjavík
Founded all the way back in 874 by a Norseman named Ingolfur Arnarson, Reykjavík was the first inhabited place in Iceland. Reykjavík evolved from a cluster of farms to a bustling trading community in the 18th century. It is now a lively city at the center of Icelandic culture.
Urban settlements started to form in Reykjavík in the 1700s when the wool industry got up and running here. Reykjavík officially became a town in 1786 and acquired its own coat of arms and seal, containing symbols related to the sea.
Reykjavík Cathedral, consecrated in 1796, was the first building to be built. It was done with the intention of Reykjavík becoming the country's capital.
The University of Iceland was founded in 1911 and the first swimming pool was opened in Reykjavík in 1937. Reykjavík has since expanded to a population of almost 123,000 in the city center. It now has over 234,000 people across the seven municipalities that form the wider Reykjavík area.
What to Do in Reykjavík
With so many choices of things to do around the lively city of Reykjavík, it can be hard to know where to start! Let’s take a virtual tour around some of the best that Reykjavík has to offer.
Reykjavík City Center: 101 Reykjavík and Laugavegur
Easy to explore on foot, downtown Reykjavík is bursting with cool restaurants, shops, museums and bars.
101 Reykjavík, or Midborg, is the oldest part of Reykjavík’s city center. Perfect for a pleasant stroll around the colorful houses and quaint streets. You’ll also find trendy bars and clubs in 101 Reykjavík, which are famous among Icelanders. Lots of the city’s most famous landmarks and attractions are located in the 101 Reykjavík area. You can definitely spend more than a day exploring all this vibrant area has to offer!
Laugavegur is another must-visit area during your time in Reykjavík city center. Laugavegur is Reykjavík's main shopping street. It features fancy boutiques, top-rated restaurants, and cute cafés to explore for hours. One of the oldest streets in the city, Laugavegur is full of the best stores and entertainment venues. Perfect for exploring during either the day or night. You’ll find something for everyone at Laugavegur!
Top Reykajvik Attractions
We’ve gathered all the must-see places for when you visit Reykjavík to help you plan your perfect Reykjavík city itinerary. Here are our top Reykjavík vacation hotspots:
- Hallgrimskirkja Church. The tallest church in Iceland, Hallgrimskirkja is one of the most famous buildings in Reykjavík (and the country!). A 74-meter tall building designed to mimic Iceland's natural basalt rock formations. A must-see when you visit Reykjavík, Hallgrimskirkja is free to enter.
- Althing, or the Icelandic Parliament. One of the world’s oldest surviving parliaments. The Althing was founded in 1930 and is situated in Reykjavík city center, close to many of the capital’s most famous attractions. You can take a free guided tour to learn all about the history of the Althing and also explore Iceland’s oldest public garden, located on the grounds.
- Reykjavík Harbor. As a coastal capital, the harbor of Reykjavík has served an important function throughout history. Nowadays, you’ll find a variety of cafés, restaurants, arty shops and museums to explore. We definitely recommend taking a simple stroll along the picturesque harbor and soaking in the beautiful sea views.
- Sun Voyager sculpture. This sculpture on the Reykjavík harbor is another famous landmark that symbolizes the city's Viking past. This sculpture in the shape of a Viking long-ship was designed by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason. It aims to represent the spirit of adventure, progress, freedom and hope.
- Harpa concert hall. It’s well-worth walking along Reykjavík harbor to Harpa concert hall for a view of this striking building. The distinctive glass exterior of Harpa was also designed to mimic the beauty of Iceland’s natural basalt rock formations. Yet, in a totally different way to Hallgrimskirkja. Experience the best of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera and Reykjavík Big Band by attending a concert at Harpa.
- Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach. Even though you’re in a city, you can certainly take a beach trip in Reykjavík. Nautholsvik is a golden-sand beach with a man-made hot spring lagoon. You can take a dip in the ocean or enjoy a drink at the seaside snack bar – perfect for relaxing after a day’s exploration in Reykjavík city center.
Museums in Reykjavík
There are so many captivating museums to choose from in Reykjavík – over 60 to be exact! Here are some of our favorites:
- Reykjavík City Museum. Explore Reykajvik’s Viking past and maritime history at the open-air Reykjavík City Museum. The museum actually consists of five separate museums located across the capital.
- Perlan. Experience the world’s first indoor ice cave! And take in amazing panoramic views of Reykjavík at Perlan, as well as enjoying a beautiful Northern Lights simulation.
- Reykjavík Art Museum. The perfect choice for art lovers! You can enjoy contemporary art by Icelandic and international artists at Reykjavík Art Museum.
- Whales of Iceland. Interested in learning more about the whales you can spot in Icelandic waters? The Whales of Iceland Museum is located along the harbor and showcases life-size models of 23 whale species.
- The Settlement Exhibition. The exhibition, built upon the ruins of an old Viking house, guides visitors through the process of the settlement of Iceland
- National Museum of Iceland. The National Museum of Iceland offers a complete tour through the history of Iceland. It shares the stories of famous and notable Icelanders. Plus, featured exhibits on Icelandic cultural heritage.
Fancy a night on the town? You can choose from a range of bars and clubs, depending on what kind of vibe you’re looking for. The best place to head to for nightlife in Reykjavík is Laugavegur. Here you’ll find bustling bars, local pubs and buzzing nightclubs all in one location.
If you want to enjoy a pleasant drink in a traditional Icelandic bar, we can recommend Bryggjan Brugghaus. It's the first microbrewery in Iceland! You can also enjoy a meal here if you want to experience dinner and drinks out in Reykjavík. Kaldi Bar is another great local bar in a central location along Laugavegur where you can enjoy an Icelandic beer.
For clubbing, some of the most popular venues are Auto, so-named because it’s located in a converted parking garage. The ever-popular Paloma where you can dance to an eclectic range of music, and Pablo Discobar, which is the perfect place to enjoy a fancy cocktail.
Food in Reykjavík
Whether you’re interested in trying some of the most famous Icelandic delicacies, such as hakarl (a.k.a. fermented shark). Or if you’d simply like to enjoy a lovely meal down by Reykjavík’s stunning harbor, you’ll find something here for you:
- Icelandic Street Food – To truly eat like a local, you have to try Icelandic lamb. Icelandic Street Food is the best place in Reykjavík to do just that. Visit this family-owned business to savor the taste of some traditional Icelandic recipes! Including fish stew and the happy marriage cake.
- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – Another must-try is the traditional Icelandic hotdog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. It is a hit among both locals and tourists. The Reykjavík hotdog comes with fresh onions, crunchy onions and sweet brown onions.
- Grandi Mathöll – When you take a trip down to Reykjavík’s harbor, be sure to stop at the cool food hall, Grandi Mathöll, for a bite to eat. You’ll find a variety of delicious options here at this super cool and popular street food hall.
- Hlemmur Foodhall – Another fantastic option, Hlemmur Foodhall is Reykjavík’s first food hall. It is full of tasty options from a diverse range of food vendors – yum!
- The Icelandic Bar – For an authentic Icelandic food experience, The Icelandic Bar is the place to go. Here, you can sample a range of seafood, meats, flatbreads and tomato soup, which are all traditional Icelandic dishes.
- Mama Reykjavík – For vegetarians and vegans, Reykjavík has a whole range of options for you! One of our favorites is Mama Reykjavik, a plant-based restaurant. It serves healthy and delicious salads, curries, soups and more.
When to Visit Reykjavík
Debating when to enjoy your Reykjavík adventure? While Reykjavík is stunning at all times during the year, you may prefer to visit in a certain season. Depending on what you’d most like to do during your time in this magical city. Here are a few pointers to help you out when planning the timing of your Reykjavík vacation:
Reykjavík Summer Vacation
The main benefits of visiting the Icelandic capital during summer are the extended daylight hours and the warmer weather. Temperatures range between 12 °C and almost 24 hours of daylight (yes, really!). You can then enjoy the spectacle of the Midnight Sun during summer in Reykjavík.
The long days will give you plenty of time to get out and about, exploring all your top picks around this beautiful city. You can enjoy a drink in the sunshine and pleasant strolls around the city streets. And even day trips to surrounding natural wonders when visiting Reykjavík in summer.
All roads are open in the Reykjavík area and across Iceland during the summer season. That's because the harsh weather comes to an end for another year, so you can take a trip outside the city center if you desire. You’ll also be able to spend a beautiful afternoon on a dolphin or whale watching trip – pretty cool, right?!
Reykjavík Winter Vacation
Covered in a blanket of snow, Reykjavík during winter truly looks like a Christmas card brought to life! In the winter season, you can explore the magical Christmas markets and experience a spectacular New Year fireworks extravaganza. You can also take a tour to some nearby icy wonders and enjoy a heartwarming Icelandic meal in a cozy pub.
Reykjavík winter temperatures average at 1 °C, so you’ll need to be wrapped up warm! It’s important to note that the nights get much longer in winter, with around 4 to 5 hours of daylight during winter. This makes winter in Reykjavík the perfect time to spot the Northern Lights, but not the best for visiting loads of outdoor attractions each day.
During the winter season, Reykjavík's museums and galleries remain open, and visitors can also enjoy the city's famous geothermal pools. With fewer tourists in town, you can have a more tranquil vacation and easy access to the most popular city center destinations.
Where to Stay in Reykjavík
When visiting Reykjavík, you’ll have your pick of downtown apartments, classy hotels, budget-friendly hostels and some truly unique accommodation solutions, such as the Reykjavík domes!
Wherever you choose to stay, we recommend booking early to avoid disappointment. Some of our top Reykjavík hotel picks are:
- Apotek – Located in downtown Reykjavík, this boutique 4-star hotel is the perfect place to rest after an action-packed day of exploring the capital.
- Kvosin Hotel – Near Reykjavík Cathedral and the Icelandic Parliament, Kvosin Hotel is another luxury 4-star hotel in the heart of the city center.
- Edition – This 5-star hotel located on Reykajivk’s harbor offers stunning panoramic views of the city with private terraces to enjoy the cityscape from.
- Alda – If you want to be in the heart of the action, Alda is for you. This 4-star hotel is located on Laugavegur Street and offers beautiful rooms, some with living areas and balconies.
- Loft HI Hostel & Bar – If you’re looking for a hostel, Loft is a great choice. Located in Reykjavík city center near the harbor, you’ll find basic accommodation and a bar at Loft, where you can meet other fellow travelers.
- Kex Hostel – Super close to the waterside, Kex Hostel actually has a gastropub attached to it! Here, you’ll find a range of private rooms and shared dorms.
Day Trips From Reykjavík
Not only is Reykjavík a stunning capital city offering a whole host of activities you can enjoy, it’s also surrounded by spectacular natural beauty. From volcanic fields, to cascading waterfalls, to breathtaking mountains and, of course, the famous Icelandic hot springs, there are so many natural wonders for you to enjoy in the Greater Reykjavík area and beyond.
Explore our selection of top day trips you can take from Reykjavík for some travel inspiration:
- Blue Lagoon – A must-see on your visit to Iceland, this world-famous geothermal oasis is less than an hour drive from Reykjavík city.
- Whale and dolphin watching – Take advantage of Reykjavík’s waterside location to head out to sea on a whale and dolphin spotting excursion.
- Mountain hikes – Escape the hustle and bustle for a while by enjoying one of the many beautiful hiking routes in the Reykjavík area, such as Mount Esja and the Glymur Waterfall hike.
- Golden Circle – A full-day excursion, taking the famous Golden Circle route from Reykjavík will allow you to explore some of Iceland’s most popular geological wonders, including volcanic craters, impressive canyons and towering waterfalls.
- Glacier tour – If you really want to see a glacier on your Iceland trip, you can get to and from Iceland’s second-largest glacier, Langjökull Glacier, on a day trip from Reykjavík city.
Top Tips for Your Reykjavík Vacation
Get the most out of your Reykjavík, Iceland vacation by reading through our top travel tips to help you have the best trip possible!
- Book in advance. Reykjavík is a popular tourist destination and is becoming increasingly more so each year, meaning places can get busy. We recommend booking your accommodation and any attractions you’d like to visit ahead of time to guarantee your place. It’s also important to reserve your Reykjavík car rental beforehand, too, so you can take advantage of the best deals.
- Get a Reykjavík City Card. Save yourself money and guarantee yourself entrance to some of the best attractions in the city by purchasing a Reykjavík City Card. With different options for 24, 48 or 72 hours, the Reykjavík City Card includes entrance to galleries, museums and pools, as well as discounts on some of the best restaurants and cultural venues around the capital.
- Bring layers and waterproof clothing. Iceland is famous for its unpredictable weather, so you’ll definitely need some layers to adjust to the varying degrees of sunshine, wind and rain you may experience. A waterproof jacket and waterproof shoes are also a good bet to bring along with you to keep yourself warm, dry and comfortable.
- Check the weather and road alerts before heading out. If you’re planning to take any road trips out of the city, it’s wise to check the local weather alerts and Iceland road closure updates, just to make sure your route is clear, and your trip can go ahead safely.
- Learn a few words of Icelandic. Although English is widely spoken, you can connect to the friendly locals by learning a few words of Icelandic. Here are a few words to get you started: hállo is hello, takk is thank you, nei is no and já is yes.
Make Your Dream Reykjavík Vacation a Reality!
Inspired for your very own Reykjavík vacation? Prepare to enjoy your dream visit to Reykjavík by exploring accommodation and travel options today.
Want to have the ultimate freedom on your Reykjavík vacation? Why not rent your own car, so you can explore Reykjavík and Iceland to your heart’s content? Our range of affordable car rentals at Keflavik Airport could be just what you’re looking for. Simply pick up your car at the airport and let the holiday begin!
We look forward to welcoming you to our beautiful city of Reykjavík soon!