Going to Iceland was my first time traveling internationally again since 2018. It was also my first international trip with my partner and my first weeklong trip as an adult. Those things made me a little nervous to go to a country that I’d never been to before, meaning I definitely over prepared for this vacation. I had a long list of restaurants, bars, and of course, museums and landmarks that I was excited about, and I wrote down what was open when and in what area.
Reykjavík, at least in the city center area, is not very big nor crowded, making it a good option if you’re easily overwhelmed when traveling. During my trip to Iceland, I spent four full days in Reykjavík exploring the city and eating a lot of great food. Over those four days, I felt that I got to know the city pretty well, even though I wasn’t able to cover all of the places I wanted to go. While many travelers visit Iceland for the Golden Circle and the country’s beautiful nature, I think Rekjavík on its own is worth the trip across the Atlantic! For this post, I’ve narrowed this post down to include the must-do things in Iceland’s capital.
Admire Hallgrímskirkja’s architecture
Hallgrímskirkja is Iceland’s biggest church, second tallest building, and perhaps the most famous landmark in Reykjavík. The building was constructed over a span of 41 years, and the building’s appearance is said to have been designed to resemble the mountains and glaciers of Iceland. Inside the church, there is a massive pipe organ and beautiful ceiling design. Hallgrímskirkja is open to the public during the day if you want to pay a short visit, but they also have musical events and church services on Sundays and Wednesdays if that’s of interest.
Walk through an ice cave and enjoy the view of Reykjavík at Perlan
Part museum and part educational experience, Perlan has numerous exhibitions housed in a beautiful dome-shaped building. Here you can learn about Iceland’s ocean life, geological forces, and auroras. You can also walk through an indoor ice cave and learn about the past and future of Iceland’s ice and glaciers and the impact the continuing climate crisis could have on the country. The admission fee isn’t cheap (~$35 USD), but it’s 100% worth it.
There’s a lot to be learned at Perlan, but at the top floor in the dome, there’s an outdoor observation deck and a cafe, both boasting incredible views. This is definitely my favorite viewpoint in Reykjavík, and you get a chance to look at the center of the city from afar. Capture some photos outside during golden hour or enjoy the landscape with a good cup of coffee. There is also a restaurant on the same floor as the cafe which was closed when I visited, but it’s set to reopen sometime in 2022.
Learn about Icelandic History at the National Museum of Iceland
This one is pretty self explanatory—when in Iceland, you should visit a museum where you can learn about the country’s history! The National Museum of Iceland has a standing exhibit titled Making of a Nation: Heritage and History in Iceland, which tells the story of Iceland from the time of the first settlement to present day. There are also a handful of rotating exhibitions—during my visit, there was one that showed common and popular items in Icelanders’ homes through the decades, such as snack packaging, toys, and electronics.
The National Museum of Iceland has full descriptions and labels of artifacts in English so it’s easy to navigate. But if you want a guided tour, the museum offers one on Saturdays in English!
Go on a guided beer (or food) tour!
My partner and I both like craft beer quite a bit, and while we usually try to visit a local brewery or bar specializing in craft beers during a trip, we booked a beer tour with Your Friend in Reykjavík so that a local could show us the ropes. Sure we could just walk into a bar and order drinks, but it’s way cooler to know the stories of where we’re drinking and what we’re drinking.
Our tour guide Ástþór was incredibly knowledgable about Icelandic beers, Reykjavík’s best bars, and the city’s lively nightlife. He took us to three bars where we tried many different beers, some which were selected by him and some which were selected by us. The tour was very engaging and very fun! Ástþór also shared with us the tale behind Brío brewed by Borg Brugghüs, and he let us in on exactly which bars and breweries we should check out on our next visit to Iceland.
If you’re looking for a food or culture tour in Reykjavík and Iceland, definitely check out Your Friend in Reykjavík. They are a smaller tour company than others, and I felt that there was a really good personal touch for our beer tour.
Book tickets to a show at Harpa
If you take a stroll near the water in Reykjavík (as you should because the view is beautiful!), you can’t miss Harpa. Though the gigantic geometric windows may initially catch your eye, Harpa is the venue for some of Iceland’s best musical and theatrical performances. Book yourself seats to a concert, or if you’re a tourist, go see one of the regular performances of How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes. The comedy show has been running for ten years and for good reason; it’s hilarious and you get to learn a bit more about Icelandic culture!
See the Sólfar (Sun Voyager) by the sea
Sitting right by the sea, this sculpture was the winning entry of a 1986 contest to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavík. You may assume that the Sun Voyager is a viking ship, but it is a dreamboat and an ode to the sun, representing undiscovered territory and light and hope. The Sun Voyager is accompanied by a breathtaking background of the ocean and mountains, and if you happen to see it around sunset, it is even more beautiful. As a very significant piece of Icelandic art, it’s worth checking out.
Bonus: Visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum
This one is self explanatory. You get science education and a bit of rude fun in one go. Where else can you get that?