Looking at a map, you could be misled by the size of Iceland’s capital. As you’re circling the 105-square-miles city packed full of every kind of every landscape imaginable, it might be hard to believe that its entirety hardly reaches a population of 200,000.
On the city’s northeast coast, the attraction-with-motion flyover meets a dramatic landscape of mountain and glacier; head to the heart of the city, and you’ll find the Perlan museum among a thick swath of beautiful woodland; at the city center, the striking tower of the modern cathedral stands tall; and to the west sits an open-air that tells the city’s history.
Reykjavik is one of the most charming capitals in Europe—with a wealth of sights and activities that appeal to any travel enthusiast.
The first settlers of the city named it “Smoky Bay,” or Reykjavik, after the columns of steam that rose from the hot springs. History says that the first settler of Iceland—Ingolfur Arnarson—decided to establish his home in Reykjavík using a traditional Norse method.
He cast his high seat pillars into the ocean when he saw the coastline, then settled when the pillars came to the shores.
The city is by far the northernmost capital in the world, sits in southwestern Iceland, and is home to about 60% of the country’s population.
Tourists Attractions in Reykjavik
The choice of activities in Iceland’s capital is inexhaustible. They’re so plentiful that there’s no single list that can ever summarize all the experiences this capital city offers.
Are you seeking to relax, soak up in Icelandic culture, and make lifetime memories? Or is it the nightlife, day tours, or historic attraction that gets your adrenaline pumping?
Reykjavik has plenty to offer:
The Northern Lights
Witnessing the Northern Lights is one of the rarest and dearest experiences people wait for years—even a lifetime—to see. The condition has to be perfect for a spectacular display.
The good news?
Iceland is among the best places on the globe to see this spectacle.
You can spot the Northern Lights within the city center of Reykjavik. However, the best place to get a glimpse of the aurora borealis within the city limits is by the seasides at Seltjarnarnes. The location is away from the street lights and allows you to take in the full majesty of the experience.
The secret to getting an almost-guaranteed view of the lights is to find a dark spot.
The whole coastal path from the old harbor to the new commercial within Laugarnes is excellent because there’s no artificial light to obscure the extraterrestrial view.
Reykjavik Local Swimming Pools
From the mighty springs to the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean to the steaming geothermal water—water defines Iceland in many ways. The country’s culture works around water.
While you’ll need to get out of Reykjavík to find natural springs like the Blue Lagoon, the city has no shortage of swimming pools. It has a total of 18 pools with heated water making them accessible all year round.
When talking about the Icelandic pools, think more of a luxury spa than your everyday communal kind at home.
If you’re staying in central Reykjavik, your first choice would be Sundholl Reykjavikur.
The pool is a few hundred meters behind the Hallgrimskirkja church. It’s an in-house pool and sits in a building that dates back to 1937. This pool is the oldest in Reykjavik but was renovated in 2017.
Another popular pool in the city center is Vesturbæjarlaug.
It’s in the western capital area and is an outdoor pool with a few hot tubs and a couple of saunas. Across the street is a lovely cafe where you can grab Icelandic cuisine after relaxing in a hot tub.
The third and largest pool in Reykjavik is Laugardalslaug.
It sits inside the city’s recreational center, where you can find a botanical garden, a family park and zoo, a sports hall, a sculpture museum, a well-equipped gym, a skating rink, and a spa.
Laugardalslaug is the perfect place to bring the whole family because it offers a wealth of attractions. Plus, the showers are gender-separated.
The best thing about pools in Reykjavik is that travelers can enjoy them all year round, even during winter, because they have geothermally heated water.
Suppose you’re looking for natural options, you’ll find geothermally-heated water by the Reykjavik beach, Nautholsvik, and a small foot bath by Grotta Lighthouse called Kvika. You’ll incur no entry fee to access these two small pools.
Hallgrimskirkja Church in the City Center
The Hallgrimskirkja church towers over the center of Reykjavik and is visible from almost every angle of the city, making it easy to find.
At the top of this 74.5 meters tall church is a viewing platform for a 360° view of the entire city. This and the view from Perlan on Öskjuhlíð hill are the best you’ll get of the city from the land.
The tower is open daily except on Sunday when the mass services are on. What’s more, Hallgrimskirkja is an operating church, so the tower may not be open sometimes due to service or concerts going on inside.
Going to the top attracts charges.
The church is the largest in Iceland, and it’s named after pastor and poet Hallgrímur Pétursson—the author of The Passion Hymns.
The church’s architecture was inspired by the beauty of ballast columns at the Svartifoss waterfall on the South Coast of Iceland. A local artist, Leifur Breiðfjörð, designed the beautiful entrance door and glass art.
Museum and Architecture
Are you a history, wildlife, and architecture enthusiast?
Reykjavik has plenty of museums and sites worth a stop. Close to the center of the city, you’ll see a round building standing atop the hill. This building is the Perlan—a unique museum full of specimens from all over the country.
The museum features artificial ice-caves, which is excellent if you aren’t planning to visit a real one, a planetarium with Northern Lights presentation, a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a 360° view of the city.
Apart from the Perlan museum, you’ll also find the Saga Museum, which covers the rich Viking history of the country, whale of ice, the National Museum of Iceland, Volcano House, the Punk Rock Museum, and the settlement exhibition in Reykjavík.
Whether you’re a fine art enthusiast or a history buff, Reykjavik boasts a fantastic selection of sites to take your breath away.
Book Local Activity from Reykjavik
Reykjavik is usually a starting point for popular tours.
From the city, you can book a scenic helicopter ride over the city for a sightseeing stop on top of one of its surrounding mountains, Mt Esja. You can book other tours like:
- Whale watching and puffin tours
- Horseback riding tours
- Glacier hiking
- Bird watching
The nightlife in Reykjavik is infamous. In downtown Reykjavik, the city bustles with all sorts of live entertainment, including:
- Stand up comedy
- Bars with live music at night
- Drag shows
- Cabaret performances
The city’s nightlife spots are all in one place—within easy walking distance from one another—and rarely require entry fees. Icelandic nightlife is fun and inclusive, and there aren’t many constraints on the party atmosphere in town.
Many venues are open until 1 am from Sunday to Thursday, but Friday and Saturday nights, the places stay open until 5 am.
And that’s just on an average weekend downtown. During the festive and cultural events—like New Year’s eve—the night gets more intense.
The nightlife in Reykjavik centers around the main shopping street—Laugavegur. Here, you’ll discover all manner of restaurants and bars, shops, and convenience stores.
Other bars and restaurants are in the neighboring street, Hverfisgata, though this area is usually quieter.
There are hardly any nightclubs in Iceland. You won’t find a club with three floors and seven different VIP rooms. Instead, you’ll find a blend between bar and dance venues, cafes, and restaurants. This makes for excellent intimate atmospheres.
Learn More About Iceland
Apart from visiting Reykjavik, a trip to Iceland has plenty more to offer. Here are additional reads to help you plan your visit:
- Iceland volcano tourism: how to get the thrill of your life safely
- The definitive guide to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland
- The Golden Circle Iceland: the ultimate guide and must-see attractions
- Best Iceland tour companies