21+ Remarkable Things To Do In Reykjavik

For most international visitors, Reykjavik, Iceland is the first, or last, stop in the country. They arrive at Keflavík International Airport (located 45 minutes from City Center) and spend a day or more exploring Iceland’s capital before, or after, a longer Iceland itinerary.

Regardless of the length of stay, there are several incredibly unique things to do in Reykjavik.

We’ve broken down what to do in the capital city into two main lists: things to do in Reykjavik City Center if you only have one day, and how to get to know Iceland’s history and culture if you have a little more time.

Couple strolls on Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik

Reykjavik is a fascinating city and surprisingly easy to get to (see our post about short flights to Reykjavik.) We think it’s ideal for a romantic weekend getaway from the East Coast. To that end, we’ve listed our picks for date-night restaurants in Reykjavik and where to stay in Reykjavik hotels within the City Center.

Are you convinced?

Before you pack your bags, check our Essential Iceland Packing List (FREE Checklist) and our money-saving Iceland travel tips.

Want to stay longer?

Take advantage of cheaper flights and hotels by traveling to Iceland in the offseason. Or, if you can swing a longer vacation, here’s our tried-and-true 8 Day Iceland Itinerary.

Where Is Reykjavik?

Reykjavik is situated in southwestern Iceland, along the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state, lying just over 64 degrees north of the equator. The city is nestled in a region characterized by a scenic blend of ocean vistas, mountain ranges, and rolling hills.

The Faxaflói Bay to the north and the mountainous area of Bláfjöll to the south serve as natural boundaries, offering both breathtaking views and outdoor recreational opportunities. Despite its relatively remote location on the global map, Reykjavik is well-connected by air and sea, primarily through Keflavík International Airport, which is about 50 kilometers away from the city center.

The city itself is a gateway to the broader wonders of Iceland, serving as a starting point for adventures into the country’s volcanic landscapes, geysers, and glaciers.

Blue Lagoon at sunrise

The Blue Lagoon Is The One Thing You Won’t Want To Miss

It’s impossible to overstate how amazing it feels to submerge yourself in the Blue Lagoon’s geothermal pools. Between the therapeutic treatments, the mud masks, and the poolside beverages this may well be the most relaxing thing a couple can do in Reykjavik.

And because visitors often arrive in the pre-dawn hours (the international airport is only 24 minutes by car,) you can even time a visit so that you begin an Iceland vacation with a stunning sunrise, as well as a rejuvenating soak.

Hooked on geothermal pools? Plan to stay a little longer at the Blue Lagoon’s Retreat Hotel. Or, try some of Iceland’s many other geothermal pools, including the upscale new Sky Lagoon that’s also near Reykjavik.

Things To Do In Reykjavik City Center If You Only Have One Day

Start Your Day At A Reykjavic Bakery

The best time to hit up Reykjavik’s famous bakeries is early morning before all the good stuff is gone. At Braud & Co., known for its legendary cinnamon rolls, that can be very early indeed.

But if what you really want is a decadent pastry accompanied by a leisurely latte in the afternoon, you might do better to head to Sandholt or BakaBaka.

See our round-up of the best bakeries in Reykjavik for details.

Front entrance of Hallgrimskirkja Church

Climb To The Top Of Hallgrimskirkja Church

You couldn’t miss seeing Hallgrimskirkja Church if you tried. The iconic waterfall-shaped building towers above all the other structures in the city center.

The church and massive organ inside are just as impressive, while the best view of Reykjavik is undoubtedly from atop the tower. (See featured image above blog post.) Open daily, there is a modest fee for the elevator to the church bell tower.

Reykjavik’s Instagram-famous Rainbow Street is directly in front of the church, and if you follow the colorful road to its end, you’ll arrive at Laugavegur Street, the city’s main street. The name translates to “wash road” as it originally led to hot springs where the laundry was done.

Photographing Rainbow Street is one of the most popular things to do in Reykjavik

Nowadays, both Rainbow Street and Laugavegur Street are filled with shops, restaurants, and art galleries.

FYI – You can find our recommendations for the best restaurants for couples, as well as top choices for purchasing outdoor gear in previous articles.

Shop For Souvenirs In Downtown Reykjavik

Of course, half the fun of souvenir shopping is the thrill of discovery. But here are a few of our favorite things to buy in Iceland.

Icelandic sweaters top the list, of course, and the best shop for locally hand-crafted woolens is Handknitting Association Iceland. But if you prefer the softness of angora or cashmere, do check out ponchos and blankets at Muk Iceland.

Jewelry maker Fridas Iceland woodcarving

The variety and quality, of jewelry shops in Reykjavik, are particularly noteworthy. Even so, Frida’s stands out. We were especially impressed by customizable gold hoop earrings featuring mythical dragons that drew inspiration from 17th-century Icelandic church wood carvings.

If you spend any time at all driving around Iceland you’ll appreciate the whimsical sheep magnets at the Iceland Memories Gift Shop. We particularly like the option to pair magnet board landscapes with your choice of puffy sheep magnets.

Try Icelandic Food

Directly in front of Hallsgrimskirkja Church, Cafe Loki serves the fermented shark and Black Death that’s supposed to be Iceland’s typical food.

But you can also get the much more palatable Lamb Meat Soup that’s so delicious you won’t believe it’s lamb. Somehow Iceland’s sheep, free-roaming since 800 AD, don’t have the gamey flavor that Americans usually expect.

See Reykjavik Restaurants for more date-worthy spots.

Northern Lights and the Imagine Peace Tower Lights in front of the Sun Voyager.
Northern Lights and the Imagine Peace Tower Lights in front of the Sun Voyager.

Where To See The Northern Lights In Reykjavik

The Northern Lights are fickle. Supposedly, the best time of year for seeing the aurora borealis is from October to March. But friends tell us that they saw them in August.

At the Aurora Reykjavik museum, we learned that the best time of day to see the lights is Magnetic Midnight. That’s when the Magnetic Pole is between the sun and the observer, usually around 11 pm in Iceland.

In practice; however, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights any time the sky grows dark. Still, we found that if you’re walking around Reykjavik’s streets, you’re unlikely to see anything in the sky due to street lights.

Even as you walk away from the lights, the Northern Lights might not look like more than a fuzzy haze. But when you capture an image, even if it’s on a phone, the green streak of light became much more visible.

At that point, though, you’ll also see a swarm of people headed toward the waterfront. The fact that they’re all looking up at the sky, even as they’re walking, is the final tip-off.

Many visitors book a Northern Lights tour that takes them outside the city. For sure, those tours are led by guides who know the best times to catch the occurrence, as well as the best spots to avoid light pollution.

Nevertheless, in our experience, it pays to look for the lights every night of your Icelandic stay, even if you’re in the city. Our best photos of the Northern Lights were taken at The Sun Voyager sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason. Its location on Reykjavik’s waterfront places it far enough away from streetlights so that the aurora borealis can be seen in the sky.

And, just by luck, we were there on a night when the Imagine Peace Tower was lit (only on certain days between October-March,) so we saw the beam of blue light join the dance of Northern Lights.

The memorial, a tribute to John Lennon from his widow, Yoko Ono, is actually located on Viðey Island. When open, it can be accessed by ferry; however, it is currently closed.

Top Things To Do In Reykjavik To Learn About Icelandic History

The Settlement Exhibition | Reykjavic City Museum

Learn about Iceland’s history by learning about who lived in Reykjavik. At the center is an excavation of the island’s original Viking settlement, while other walk-through exhibits explore the lives and homes of the Icelandic people through the ages.

Viking settlement exhibit

National Museum of Iceland

Another way to learn about Iceland’s history and heritage is through an exploration of the National Museum’s permanent exhibit on the Making Of A Nation. The exhibit weaves 2000 artifacts and 1000 photographs into a compelling story about Iceland from the time of Viking Settlement through modern times.

Reykjavik Maritime Museum

It wasn’t long ago that Iceland and the United Kingdom engaged in increasingly hostile confrontations dubbed the ‘Cod Wars.’ Learn about this and the vital link between fisheries and the making of Iceland.

National Maritime Museum exterior

The museum is across the street from Aurora Reykjavik, and only a few minutes walk from the Þúfa Art Installation. It’s also next door to the Grandi Matholl food court with its outstanding Umami Sushi Bar.

Cool Things To Do In Reykjavik For Art Lovers

Reykjavik has several world-class museums. One of them, the National Gallery of Iceland is actually housed in three locations. (Admission to one includes access to all three locations.)

The main location hosts visiting exhibitions, as well as exhibits from its collections. The House of Collections focuses on its Icelandic art, from the mid1800s until the present. And the third was the home of pioneering Icelandic artist, Ásgrímur Jónsson.

Another museum, the contemporary Reykjavic Art Museum is also housed in three buildings. Additionally, the museum sponsors public artworks and events throughout the year.

Interior staircase at Harpa Concert Hall

Harpa Concert Hall

One of the most architecturally interesting buildings in the world, the Harpa Concert Hall hosts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera, Reykjavik Big Band, and the Múlinn Jazz club. But even if you don’t attend a scheduled event, it’s worth a visit.

As stunning as the modernistic building is on the outside, it’s even more grand inside. Plus, it boasts a contemporary art gallery, the Rammargerdin design/gift shop, a children’s play space, and La Primavera Italian Restaurant.

Þúfa Art Installation

At first glance, you might wonder if the green hill on the waterfront is a natural feature of Reykjavik. But upon closer inspection, there’s a perfectly-circular winding path to the sheltered seat at the top.

There’s a meditative quality in the climb to the top, and back down again. And the view of the entire harbor is superb too. But it’s a little too perfect to be the work of Mother Nature.

Þúfa art hill

The Old Harbour landmark is actually Þúfa (meaning small mountain,) an art installation created by Icelandic artist, Ólöf Nordal.

It’s easy enough to get there if you have a car. If not, it’s in the same Grandi Harbor area where you find the National Maritime Museum, the Whales of Iceland Museum, Aurora Reykjavik, and the Saga Museum. Certainly, you could easily spend an entire day just in this Reykjavik neighborhood.

Reykjavik Street Art

Street art in Reykjavik is an evolving scene, with new pieces by some of the best-known graffiti artists in the world being added all the time. Spotting the artwork is as easy as taking a walk down city streets.

street art in Reykjavik
The Famous Vampire mural by FACE and Agent Fresco is located on Laugavegur Street, near Hotel Alda, while the latter by Kids Don’t Float is on Bjargarstígur Street.

Currently, there are no organized mural tours, but there are a couple of travel blogs that list many of the pieces and their location:

Unusual Things To Do In Reykjavik

The Icelandic Phallological Museum

The Icelandic Phallological Museum is the result of one man’s life’s work collecting phallic specimens from every type of mammal found in Iceland. Sigurður Hjartarson was a teacher and writer, and his son, Hjörtur Gísli Sigurðsson, carries on his work as the curator of this most curious of museums.

Exhibits at The Icelandic Phallological Museum

Contrary to expectations, the emphasis here is on scientific research. Although you will see preserved penises ranging from that of the tiniest mouse to the gargantuan member of a sperm whale, it is done so in a very clinical and objective manner.

The Icelandic Punk Museum

It’s hard to top a Penis Museum for quirky and unusual things to do. But the Icelandic Punk Museum comes close.

Housed in a former public restroom, in front of the BakaBaka Bakery Cafe, the setting is about as grungy as it gets. Inside, the story of Iceland’s punk scene winds through former bathroom stalls.

Punk Museum

And what a story it is! We learn that it all began with the music that American servicemen brought with them when stationed in Iceland after WWII, although punk music didn’t emerge until the 1970s.

The entire display and story it tells is in your face irreverent, and all the more true to its roots for that.

But if that’s not enough, leather jackets, guitars, and a drum set are provided for obligatory Instagram-selfies.

Aurora Reykjavik – The Northern Lights Center

Maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights by discovering all there is to know about them. Learn about the science behind the meteorological phenomenon as well as where they’ve been spotted across Iceland.

Interactive exhibit at Aurora museum
Send out a postcard that places you among the Northern Lights at Aurora Reykjavik.

Then, discover how to photograph the vivid lights, and practice your skills in a simulator. Check out a virtual reality Northern Lights event, and finish up at the well-stocked gift shop.

Finally, If you want to join a Northern Lights tour outside the city, take a look at multiple options available through the Northern Lights Center. It’s definitely a good a idea to let a guide do the driving if you plan to be out on the road late at night.

Whale watching tour boat in Reykjavik Harbor

Best Day Tours From Reykjavik

Whale Watching Tours

Whale-watching tours are available year-round, although the best time of year is considered to be April through September. That’s when you’re most likely to see dolphins, porpoises, and minke whales.

Icelandic horses and riders taking a break.

Icelandic Horse Rides

We can’t rave enough about riding Icelandic horses in the countryside near Reykjavik. Our excursion with Laxnes Horse Farm included pickup in the city center and then a 2-hour group ride. The horses were more spirited than expected, making for a fun ride, although fortunately well within even the beginner’s abilities.

1-Day Road Trips FromReykjavik

Several tour operators offer excursions to the Golden Circle or around the Reykjanes Peninsula. But if you rent a car, it’s easy enough to go on your own. (Be sure to check our car rental tips first.)

Golden Circle Road Trip

The Golden Circle is a 190-mile road trip route that takes you to Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gulfoss Waterfall. It takes about 2 hours to drive from Reykjavik to Gulfoss, the furthest point east.

Rainbow over Gulfoss Waterfall
It’s not uncommon to spot a rainbow over Gulfoss Waterfall.

But if you want to spend time at the main attractions, or additional ones, it could take a lot longer. Allot 30 minutes-1 hour for each of the main stops, except for Thingvellir National Park. There, you could easily spend an entire day.

It’s both a historic and natural treasure. This is where Althing, Iceland’s Viking parliament met from the 10th to 18th centuries. And now, a well-marked trail explains the archeological excavations that brought to this story to light.

Divers ready to enter Silfra Fissure

But it’s also where you can drop a penny, and/or snorkel or scuba dive, in the Silfra Fissure, a clear blue water split between the North American and Eurasion Tectonic Plates.

As for dining on this road trip, you can pick up snacks at the gas stations. However, if you want an upscale, sit-down meal, book a reservation at the Hotel Geysir Restaurant in the Geysir Geothermal Area.

If you time it right, you can even stay to check for Northern Lights activity by the geysirs after dinner.

Reykjanes Peninsula Road Trip

When you land at Keflavik International Airport, you’re landing on Reykjanes Peninsula. From the airport, it’s a 20-minute drive to the Blue Lagoon–which is also on the Reykjanes Peninsula–or a 45-minute drive to Downtown Reykjavik.

But there’s a lot more to Reykjanes Peninsula than the airport or the Blue Lagoon.

Seltún Geothermal Area in the Krýsuvík, on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
Seltún Geothermal Area in the Krýsuvík, on the Reykjanes Peninsula.

In fact, Reykjanes Peninsula was designated a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2015. It has 55 geosites, every one of which would be wonderful to explore. And that’s not all.

There are the Krýsuvíkurbjarg Cliffs, the Valahnúkamöl Coastline, the Bridge Between Two Continents, the Reykjanes Lighthouse, and so much more. It’s probably too much for one day, so pick and choose. You can’t go wrong with any of these sights.

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  • Sandra Foyt

    Sandra Foyt is a storyteller, road trip junkie, and award-winning travel photographer. A veteran of many cross-country road trips, she drove Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, the Fossil Freeway, the Extraterrestrial Highway, and even “The Loneliest Road in America.” Sandra is based in Upstate New York, with family homes in California and the Caribbean. Her work is influenced by tropical colors and warm relationships. And she believes that the best travel photography connects us across time, place, and culture.

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