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Iceland is most famous for its stunning landscapes and breathtaking natural wonders, but that doesn’t mean you should forget about Reykjavik. Roughly translated to ‘Smokey Bay’, Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital, though it’s certainly not a huge, sprawling metropolis. The city is small and cosy and one of the best places to discover the culture of modern Iceland.
Many visitors to Iceland use Reykjavik as a base for exploring the wider country. But it’d be a shame to miss out on the exciting things that you can discover in the city itself. As a small city, sightseeing in Reykjavik is easy to manage, and you’ll be amazed at the things you might discover!
In this guide, we’ll show you what to see in Reykjavik, things to do, and tours and trips in and around the city.
Top Sights in Reykjavik
From museums to cathedrals to beaches and even thermal spas, there are plenty of sights to see in Reykjavik.
One of the most iconic Reykjavik sights, Hallgrímskirkja Church is a focal point of the city. Standing at almost 75 metres tall, it’s hard to miss, and you can see it from pretty much anywhere in the city. The stunning architecture is a wonder to behold, and is inspired by the breathtaking basalt columns of Svartifoss Waterfall.
Inside, you’ll find a magnificent 25-tonne pipe organ, standing 15 metres tall and boasting 5,275 pipes. The church is free to enter, though you’ll need a ticket to ride the elevator up to the top of the tower. It’s worth the 900ISK (around US$6.50) fare though, as you’ll discover unrivalled views over the city.
Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach
You might not have considered your trip to Iceland to resemble a beach holiday, but beach bums can enjoy sandy golden beaches within Reykjavik. Sunbathe under the midnight sun, bathe in the naturally warmed secret lagoon, or take a dip in the icy ocean, you can do it all at Nauthólsvík! Complete with showers, changing facilities, hot tubs, and steam baths, it’s a great place to relax.
Seltjarnarnes Peninsula and Grótta Lighthouse
The entire peninsula is stunning, and though it’s famed for its iconic lighthouse, there are plenty of cycling, hiking, and birdwatching opportunities. The lighthouse dates back to 1897 and offers spectacular views out to the ocean, taking in Mount Esja. You can only reach the lighthouse during low tide, so be sure to check the timings.
Reykjavik Botanical Gardens
Free to enter and absolutely stunning, the gardens are home to over 5,000 species of plants, as well as birdlife. If you get hungry, the small on-site cafe serves up dishes prepared with herbs and spices grown in the garden. During summer, you can even enjoy a free 30-minute guided tour in English, at 12:40 every Friday in June, July, and August.
Heading downtown in Reykjavik is a real treat, and it’s unlike your typical downtown area. Instead of the usual McDonalds and gimmicky souvenir shops, you’ll find an array of independent boutiques housed in colourful, quirky buildings. These stores typically offer handcrafted goods, such as volcano rock pottery and cosy woolen clothing. There are also numerous cafes, bars, and restaurants, each offering local delicacies. Additionally, you’ll discover a number of sculptures dotted around the area, including the iconic Solfar ‘Sun Voyager’, the ideal place to capture sunset.
Harpa Concert Hall
You don’t have to catch a show to appreciate a visit to the Harpa Concert Hall. The building itself is a work of art, featuring a veritable hive of honeycombs, which reflect the natural colours of the sky during the day, and shine with a rainbow of lights in the night. There are 2 restaurants in the building, as well as a gift shop.
Reykjavik Thermal Pools
Home to 17 ‘swimming pools’ Reykjavik is a paradise for water lovers. However, the local pools are like nothing you’ve experienced before. Icelanders use natural thermal water to fill their pools, use very little chlorine, and bathe year-round in waters heated to around 30℃. Each of the pools is more like a luxury spa than a simple communal swimming pool, featuring facilities such as cold pools, swimming lanes, saunas, hot tubs, and outdoor pools. Sundhöll Reykjavíkur is among the most popular, located right in the centre of the city.
Reykjavik is home to a host of fascinating museums, each exploring various aspects of Iceland’s history and natural landscape. Here are some of our favourites.
Arbaer Open Air Museum
This beautiful open air museum is like stepping back in time to a historic Icelandic village. It features more than 20 traditional homes from across the centuries, showcasing traditional building techniques and living conditions. It’s a great way to get a glimpse at what life was like, while discovering more about the culture and history of Icelandic people. After touring the restored village and farm, grab a cup of coffee at Dillon’s House Cafe.
Perlan Museum of Icelandic Natural Wonders
Perlan Museum is home to an amazing array of exhibits that highlight the natural beauty of Iceland. From volcanoes to cliffs, the hands-on exhibits are fully interactive and immersive, offering a real insight into what Iceland is made of. The stunning glacier exhibit is packed full of interesting information, while an ice cave replication gives you a chance to explore the frosty interior in temperatures well-below freezing! Plus, if you didn’t get a chance to catch the Northern Lights, you can head to the planetarium, where you can enjoy an immersive, audio-visual 360 display. Finally, head to the observation deck for a panoramic view over the city.
The Reykjavik Sightseeing Bus
This hop-on, hop-off service travels throughout the city, offering great views from the open top deck. With 16 stops, the route takes in a variety of different attractions, offering plenty to see and do, including thermal pools, museums, and natural sights. You can buy either a 24 or 48-hour ticket, which enables you to explore at your leisure, and the bus runs year-round.
The Best Tours in Reykjavik
Sometimes the best way to discover a city is to take a tour. This way, you’ll find hidden gems, eat and drink like a local, and discover inside stories that round off the entire experience. Fortunately, there are plenty of tours that’ll help you figure out what to do in Reykjavik. Here are some of our top picks.
Small and personalized, this walking tour takes in the top sights that Reykjavik has to offer. You’ll be led by a local guide, an expert in the city who’ll tell you stories of the quirky streets and buildings you pass, while providing a fascinating overview of the local history. After a 2 and a half hour tour, you’ll get to indulge in a delicious traditional lunch.
This is a great choice for craft beer fans! The walking tour takes in 3 of Reykjavik’s best bars, where visitors will get a chance to try 10-locally produced beers. You won’t find these outside of Iceland, so it’s a unique opportunity. If you’re not overly keen on beer, you can instead opt to try a selection of local schnapps and spirits! Along the way, you’ll learn about the history of beer in Iceland through funny stories and anecdotes. Aimed at small groups, it’s another great chance to get a more personalized tour.
Lovers of fantasy will adore this quirky and entertaining alternative walking tour of Reykjavik. Along the way, you’ll hear the story of Iceland from a number of mystical perspectives, while discovering the myths and legends that have been passed down for generations. The tour also takes in a number of mysterious sites, including fairy ponds and graveyards. As well as discovering local fables and traditions, the tour also offers a fascinating insight into the mindset of the Icelandic people.
Reykjavik is a foodie paradise and this 4-hour tour will show you why! It takes you on a leisurely stroll through the city, stopping off at 6 very different local restaurants. From small family-run joints to the most popular venues in Iceland, and even hotdog stands, there’s plenty to discover. You’ll try 8 traditional Icelandic dishes and hear the story of how food has evolved in Iceland over the years. If you want to whet your appetite, check out our full guide to food in Iceland!
Top Trips from Reykjavik
While there’s lots to do in Reykjavik, it’s likely that you’ll want to explore the surrounding countryside as well. Fortunately, there are plenty of things nearby that you can check out, either as a tour or by yourself.
Visit the Golden Circle from Reykjavik
The Golden Circle is a route that takes in some of the best sights in the highlands of West Iceland. The route is very close to Reykjavik, so it’s a great chance to get out of the city and into nature. The entire thing can be done in one day, so if you’re short on time, it’s a great choice! For us, the Golden Circle is best explored on a self-drive trip. This way, you get to take your time at the places you’re most interested in and make detours. Highlights include:
- Gullfoss Falls: aka the golden waterfall, from which the route takes its name.
- Thingvellir National Park
- Kerid Crater
There’s loads more to explore, and you can find out all you need to know about planning the perfect Golden Circle trip by checking out our guide, right here.
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s top attractions, not to mention one of the wonders of the world! It’s only around a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik, making it a top choice for visitors who are looking for a bit of pampering and the ultimate relaxation. Milky, vibrant blue waters provide a stark contrast against the black, volcanic sands that surround them.
While the lagoon began life as the waste-water site of a nearby geo-thermal plant (don’t worry, it’s clean!), nowadays it’s a 5-star retreat. You’ll find top of the range facilities, including saunas, a 5-star hotel, steam rooms, and treatment centres. There’s even a lagoon bar!
The water maintains a soothingly warm 39℃ all year round, ideal for bathing, while mineral-rich waters are also great for your skin. As one of the top-10 spas in the world, you’ll need to book in advance, and entry starts at around US$50. It’s great in summer and winter alike, depending on whether you want to enjoy the northern lights or the midnight sun.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
The best way to enjoy sightseeing in Reykjavik is to spend a few days in the city. When it comes to places to stay, you’re spoiled for choice. From luxury hotel suites to wallet-friendly campsites, there’s something for every type of traveler.
If you’ve done any research into Iceland, you’ll have heard that it’s an expensive country to visit. While this is true, and there are many hotels that will cost up to US$1,000 per night, there are an increasing number of quality budget hotels appearing in the city. Budget doesn’t always mean low quality and there are some fantastic options available these days.
- Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura: with rooms to suit everyone from single travelers to larger families, this is a welcoming and friendly hotel. It’s located just outside the city centre, and features a cosy library, a pool, sauna, hot tub, and in-house bakery and restaurant. Prices start at around US$90.
- 22 Hill Hotel: small and friendly, this city centre hotel offers great comfort, naturally lit rooms, and all the essentials for a great price. It’s located in a quiet part of town, but is close enough to the main attractions. They offer a buffet style breakfast at the neighbouring Potturinn og Pannan restaurant. Prices start at around US$100.
Hostels have become increasingly common in Iceland over the last few years. While they might not be as affordable as in other parts of the world, they’re a great place to meet fellow travelers. Here are some of the best.
- Kex Hostel: with space for over 200 travelers, Kex is a top place to socialize. Don’t worry though, built in a former biscuit factory, it’s spacious enough for everyone! Situated in the heart of downtown, it’s perfectly located for sightseeing in Reykjavik. It has a variety of dorm rooms, including 16-beds, as well as private rooms, offering a bed for any budget. Plus, it’s rated as Iceland’s only 5-star hostel.
- Galaxy Pod Hostel: each guest is provided with a futuristic, private space pod style bed, complete with smart TV, free WiFi, and a locker. It’s a cool experience, and there are tons of extra facilities, including a self-service kitchen, a lively bar, and even a virtual reality games room! With dorms for up to 24-people, the prices are pretty affordable. Located just a 10-minute walk from the city centre, it’s still surrounded by bars, restaurants, and shops.
You might not consider camping a viable option when visiting most capital cities around the world. But Reykjavik isn’t like most capital cities! The locals love camping, so there’s no shortage of campsites outside the city, as well as a few that are inside. They’re a great choice for backpackers and those traveling by motorhome alike. By far the most affordable accommodation in Iceland, here are some top choices!
- Reykjavik Eco Campsite: just 2.5km from downtown, this eco campsite is a top choice, with prices starting at under US$20 per night. They offer top amenities, including hot showers, BBQ areas, kitchens, WiFi, washing machines, and guest computers, as well as pitches for tents and motorhomes.
- Reykjavik Domes: Okay, so this isn’t your traditional campsite, but if you like the idea of being close to nature without losing the luxuries of a hotel room, this is a great middle ground. Each dome is fitted with a comfy double bed, a carpeted floor, a wood burning stove with a chimney, a shower, a decking area, a BBQ, and a hot tub. It offers great views over the mountains, though it’s around 10km from the city centre. Glamping at its best, with prices starting at around US$120 per night.
We love to hear from you
Hopefully this guide helps you to plan an incredible day or even two or more days in Reykjavik. There’s lots to do and see in this dynamic city. Although, city tripping is probably not the reason for coming to Iceland, so also have a look at our extended Iceland Travel Guide for incredible routes, amazing places to see and incredible things to do.
If you have any further questions or if you have been to Reykjavik, let us know by leaving a comment below. We love to hear from you!