Last Updated on December 21, 2023
When my husband served in the U.S. submarine force and later with NATO, he had the opportunity to take a position in Reykjavik, Iceland. As the cards played out, he received orders to the warmer Mediterranean instead – Naples, Italy.
We always wanted to get back to Reykjavik to see all that we missed. We had that Iceland trip planned for 2021 and we all know what happened to our travel plans during the pandemic.
Thanks to friends who’ve visited and shared their amazing photos, Iceland is back at the top of our travel list, along with our friends’ keen advice on not-to-be-missed experiences.
On the edge of the North Atlantic, Reykjavik emerges as a vibrant and enchanting destination seamlessly marrying modern urban living with the raw, untamed beauty of its natural surroundings.
This northernmost capital in the world is more than just a gateway to Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes; it’s a cultural hub pulsating with creativity, a cityscape adorned with colorful rooftops, and a community deeply rooted in rich traditions.
Reykjavik’s unique blend of contemporary charm and historical significance beckons travelers to embark on a journey of discovery, where geothermal wonders, captivating architecture, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere converge in a captivating tapestry that defines this extraordinary city.
Must-see Reykjavik for First Timers
This towering church dominating the city skyline is a great place to begin your Reykjavik exploration. Hallgrímskirkja’s most distinctive feature is its towering spire reaching a height of 73-meters (244-feet).
Visitors who ascend to the top via elevator are treated to breathtaking panoramic views of Reykjavik and its surrounding mountains and sea.
A statue of Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer believed to have been the first European to reach North America around the year 1000, stands in front of the church. The statue was a gift from the United States in 1930, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the Alþingi (Icelandic parliament).
Perlan (The Pearl)
Another way to marvel at Reykjavik’s skyline from a different vantage point is by adding a visit to Perlan, a unique glass-domed structure situated on the top of hot water storage tanks.
Guests can explore this fascinating nature museum with exhibitions including an ice cave and take in a Northern Lights Show at the Áróra planetarium. A Lava Show captures the Geldingadalir eruption that began in March 2021 at Fagradalsfjall lasting several months.
Head up to the 360-degree observation deck for stunning views, or if you’re hungry, dine in the revolving restaurant offering a culinary experience along with impressive vistas.
This is one of the main reasons travelers come to Reykjavik. The geothermal spa located just 35 minutes outside the city is renowned for its milky turquoise waters, rich in minerals, providing a relaxing and rejuvenating experience surrounded by lava fields.
Blue Lagoon is one of a dozen public thermal swimming pools considered Iceland’s health and beauty secret. This one is by far the most well-known with temperatures near 39-degrees Celsius (102-degrees Fahrenheit) sending up billows of white steam. One friend described it as “almost surreal.”
National Museum of Iceland
This museum, established in 1863, is the ideal way to immerse yourself in Iceland’s culture and history.
Permanent and temporary exhibits showcase artifacts, art, photographs and interactive displays spanning the island’s fascinating past from its initial settlement to the present day.
Golden Circle Tour
While not strictly in Reykjavik, embarking on the Golden Circle Tour is a popular day trip and a chance to see more of the region’s stunning scenery.
The circular route covers approximately 300 kilometers (186 miles) and includes three main stops: Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Geysir geothermal area, with various hot springs and erupting geysers, and Gullfoss waterfall, a powerful two-tiered cascade creating a breathtaking spectacle.
The drive is the ideal opportunity to witness a glimpse of Iceland’s natural beauty and geological wonders.
Reykjavik Art Museum
Contemporary and modern Icelandic art is on display at the Reykjavik Art Museum, housed in three separate buildings: the Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn. Each displays a diverse range of artwork.
Located on the harbor, Hafnarhús is the main venue for contemporary art exhibitions. It features works by Icelandic and international artists, spanning various mediums such as painting, sculpture, photography and new media.
Kjarvalsstaðir is named after the Icelandic painter Jóhannes S. Kjarval and is situated in a beautiful building surrounded by a sculpture garden. Kjarvalsstaðir focuses on Icelandic visual art from the 19th century to the present, with an emphasis on modern and contemporary works.
Dedicated to the sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson, Ásmundarsafn showcases a comprehensive collection of his works. The museum building itself is a work of art, designed by Ásmundur and reflecting his unique style that blends modernist and national romantic influences.
Old Harbor Area
The Old Harbor, known as “Gamla Hafnarinn,” is a vibrant and charming district near the downtown area that has undergone significant revitalization in recent years.
Maintaining a distinctive maritime atmosphere with its working harbor and fishing boats, the Old Harbor provides glimpses into Reykavik’s long seafaring history. For those into maritime history like my hubby, the Reykjavik Maritime Museum is dedicated to Iceland’s maritime history and offers exhibits on fishing, navigation, and the mariners who worked at sea.
Visitors will love its myriad of seafood restaurants and cafes lining the waterfront offering the freshest of catches and traditional Icelandic dishes. Colorful warehouses and buildings adorned with street art add to the area’s character.
Whale Watching Tours
Mostly departing from The Old Harbor, whale watching tours provide opportunities to see various marine species, including minke and humpback whales, porpoises and dolphins.
Guests can choose from a classic half-day of whale watching, a whale watching and Northern Lights combo tour or a Whale Watching & Dolphin Yacht Cruise aboard a spacious yacht.
Harpa Concert Hall
While not directly in the Old Harbor area, the Harpa Concert Hall is within walking distance.
This modern architectural masterpiece hosts various cultural events, concerts, and performances. The building’s facade is made up of a distinctive geometric pattern of glass panels in various colors, giving it a kaleidoscopic appearance that reflects Iceland’s natural elements, such as the Northern Lights, glaciers, and basalt columns.
Harpa’s location on the edge of Reykjavik’s harbor provides breathtaking views of the surrounding sea and mountains making it a prominent landmark visible from various points in the city.