Reykjavik might be best known as a launching off point for enjoying Iceland's impressive natural phenomena, but the capital city itself is worth exploring on any trip to the island nation. Spend time bar hopping in downtown Reykjavik, known for its late-night party scene; admire the city's distinctive Church of Hallgrímur, designed to mimic the basalt rock found throughout the country; or empty your wallet along Laugavegur street, a mostly pedestrian zone packed with high-end collectibles, woolen goods, and minimalist boutiques.
Learn About Iceland's History
Reykjavik's many museums offer insight into the country's fascinating Nordic History. Begin at the Saga Museum for an interactive way to learn about how the Vikings fought and feasted — view wax figures depicting various scenes from the earliest settler days (circa 874 AD). The National Museum's permanent exhibition, History and Heritage, displays more than 2,000 artifacts from the ninth century to the present day. And for an even more tangible experience, live actors at the open-air Reykjavik City Museum — Arbaejarsafn — offer an insight into how residents lived in the old days. It is Iceland’s biggest open-air museum, and it traces the development of Reykjavik and Iceland from their beginnings to the present day.
It would be easy to pick up a classic Nordic wool sweater — called lopapeysa in Icelandic — and call it a day, but you'd be missing out on the country's vibrant fashion and design scene. Spend time strolling down Laugavegur in Rekyjavik, the capital's high street, and you'll spot minimalist, nature-inspired jewelry designs at Aurum; locally made knitwear at Geysir; and eclectic home goods at Myconceptstore, a web-first shop that opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Iceland. Adventure travelers in particular should dedicate time to 66 Degrees North, Iceland's chic and practical answer to North Face. The outdoor gear purveyor began outfitting fishermen in 1926; today, more than 90 percent of Iceland residents rely on the brand to keep them stylish, warm, and dry in the island's unpredictable elements.
While the Blue Lagoon is not situated within the Reykjavik city area, this attraction is an absolute must when traveling into or out of Reykjavik. The mineral-rich thermal waters are always a perfect 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and the silica and algae that color the water are said to improve skin and even cure psoriasis. The Blue Lagoon is about 30 miles away from Reykjavik, an hour's drive depending on traffic.
The city of Reykjavik is known for its colorful and entertaining nightlife. Note that in Iceland, the partying starts rather late (bars/clubs get busy after midnight)! People often begin the evening meeting at someone's house before they head downtown. There are countless bars, nightclubs, pubs, and late-night restaurants in Iceland's capital - you can spend the whole night visiting different places!
For an exciting sea adventure, try one of the many whale-watching tours that are available from Reykjavik. The ocean around the city is a natural habitat for many types of whales (dolphins and seals are often see, too.) Tours also pass by Puffin Island. The whale watching season runs from late March to late October. Another exciting option is to catch your own fresh fish on a sea-angling cruise, which is now offered by some of the boat operators.
Eat at the Perlan (The Pearl)
Reykjavik's landmark, the Perlan, is a unique piece of architecture - built in 1988. On top of the large tanks in which natural hot water is stored for heating the city, a glass dome has been constructed: under the dome is a rotating restaurant serving fine cuisine! The dome also contains a cafe, while around the outside is a viewing platform with beautiful panoramic 360-degree views of the city and its surroundings. Access to the viewing platform is free of charge. Photo opportunity!
Climb to the Top of the Church of Hallgrímur (Hallgrímskirkja)
Hallgrimskirkja Church can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. It is probably the most controversial building in Iceland. Its steeple rises above all other buildings in Reykjavik and the church can seat over 1000 worshipers at a time. It was named after the Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson, and the grounds also house a statue to the first Viking said to have discovered America, Leifur Eiríksson. The Nave is open to the public daily; purchase a ticket to visit the top of the tower for aerial views of the city.
Take a Boat to Videy Island
Reykjavik's Videy Island is a unique site that combines history, culture and nature, and is only a few minutes away by boat. Videy was inhabited until the 1940s and it is here that you can find Videyjarstofa, the oldest stone building in Iceland built for the High Sheriff in 1752. There are hiking paths around the island, which is renowned for its varied bird life. At least 30 species of breeding birds have been counted on the island. Videy also inhabits interesting sculpural art work.
Reykjavik is surrounded by the ocean, and the waterfront paths are perfect for a relaxing stroll, some jogging, cycling or rollerblading. The city's northern waterfront is a popular area, with a view of Reykjavik's landmark mountain, Mt. Esja. The striking sculpture Sun Voyager by Jon Gunnar Arnason stands here. It is a massive steel sculpture in the shape of a Viking ship. Stand by this sculpture during sunrise or sunset, at any time of the year, and enjoy an unforgettable moment.