Reykjavik is a unique city, which is conveniently compact and yet feels roomy and spacious with social public spaces and wide boulevards. Known for its nightlife year-round—whether glittering under the Northern Lights in winter or celebrating under the midnight sun in summer—this vibrant little capital will welcome you with open arms, and renting an apartment in the heart of the city will make sure you are close to the action while still feeling comfortably at home.
Iceland is a relatively young place, both geologically and politically speaking. The island emerged some 20 million years ago when a series of eruptions in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge created enough molten rock to rise from the bottom of the ocean to the surface and emerge as land. The volcanic island was one of the last islands on earth to be discovered and inhabited, making Iceland a newcomer on many fronts.
Literary and archaeological evidence confirms the settling of Reykjavik around 870, making it the first permanently settled place in Iceland. The first settlers were Norwegian sailors, their families and their Irish and Scottish slaves. The stories of these first Icelanders are recorded in the Landnámabók, or Book of Settlers, and later in the sagas the country is famous for, blending Icelandic history and literature into an indistinguishable genre.
Reykjavik wasn't the best place in Iceland to settle, with its soil too poor to support much agriculture, so it wasn't until the 17th century that it started to take shape as a city. Iceland was under Danish rule at the time and the port was used for first wool processing and export, then for fisheries and shipbuilding operations. Reykjavik grew slowly, decade after decade, and really became an urban center during World War II when British and American troops doubled the population of the city. Jobs and construction came with the "Allied occupation" (which was quite peaceful and in fact welcomed) and by the end of the war, Reykjavik was so used to its urbanization that it stayed a social hub and attracted many Icelanders from the hinterlands. Iceland also became a republic at the close of the war, and Reykjavik became the official capital of the newly independent nation.
In the past 50 years Iceland has developed into an important international player, despite its remote location and small population. Communications and information technology companies, as well as financial institutions, have transformed Reykjavik into a forward-thinking, ultra-modern city, which situated on the sea with its high-tech trawlers bobbing in the harbor, somehow still feels like a fishing village—warm, inviting and safe while at the same time buzzing with a vibrant, youthful and innovative energy.
Reykjavik is located in southwestern Iceland, covering several peninsulas. The city center is a compact 275 square kilometers, while the metro area stretches out over more than 700 square kilometers.
The city itself has just around 120,000 residents and there are nearly 200,000 people in the metro area, leaving only 100,000 Icelanders in the rest of the country.
Icelandic is North Germanic language very similar to Old Norse. Its closest relative is Faroese, spoken in the Faroe Islands, and it is not mutually intelligible with the "continental" Scandinavian languages—Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Icelanders learn Danish and English in school and most of the younger people speak English quite fluently.
Perhaps it is easiest to characterize a country and its capital city when it has such a small population, and so it is easy to make generalizations about the people of Reykjavik as, for instance, the nicest people you will ever meet. They are generally friendly and optimistic and exhibit an islander hospitality usually associated with more tropical island destinations. They take their arctic location in stride, spending their breath being grateful for the abundance of geothermal warmth that graces their island rather than complaining about the icy winds of winter. The city folk of Reykjavik are surprisingly cosmopolitan, so take whatever stereotype you have in mind and replace it with well-dressed business people at laptops in a café. Reykjavik has great clubs and fine art museums, unique architecture and excellent shopping. It's a modern city of glass and steel, and yet you can still fish for salmon in the middle of downtown on your lunch break.
City tours are available by bus or even horseback, but you can get a feel for the city quite easily on foot. Rather than take a city tour, consider a packaged day excursion to some of the nearby sights, which you can book at several locations throughout the city and often include transportation, lunch and entrance fees.
National Museum of Iceland: The permanent exhibit here focuses on the events that led Iceland to become a nation, from its discovery through settlement and into the modern age. The museum was renovated in 2004 and the result is a state-of-the-art presentation of important historical information. There is a rotation of temporary exhibits as well. There are guided tours in English daily in the summer months and only on Saturdays during the rest of the year.
The Culture House: Housed in the grand former library, the Culture House's best feature is an exhibit of Iceland's treasured manuscripts of histories and sagas. These are originals and they are well-presented with nice explanations in English alongside explaining what is going on. You'll also notice how well-preserved the Icelandic language is: the handwritten scrawl in the ancient books is very similar to the script you'll on street signs and menus throughout the city. Several other small rooms house exhibits and there's a nice café.
National Gallery of Iceland: The National Gallery is housed in a former fish warehouse, and where there used to be blocks of ice, there are now works of art. This is the largest collection of Icelandic art in the world, featuring an extensive collection of famed painter Ásgrimur Jónsson. However, being a rather small and young country, Iceland's national art collection is heavily supplemented with masterpieces from other countries. The gift shop has a nice selection of posters, postcards and books if you want to take an affordable piece of Icelandic art home with you.
Museum of Natural History: This is mostly a collection of stuffed birds, eggs and fish representing most of Iceland's native species. Of special note is a specimen of the Great Auk, an arctic penguin-like bird that went extinct in 1844. Other exhibits are mostly geological.
The Árbæjarsafn Open-air Museum: This museum serves as the city museum for Reykjavik's history and includes a large collection of historic buildings just a little ways out of town. Old farm buildings and machinery are mixed in with houses, shops and churches from throughout the city's history, which have been preserved and moved here. The museum is open year-round but is much more active in the summer months.
Saga Museum: Housed in one of the large hot water tanks (an empty one) that holds up the glass-domed Perlan restaurant, the Saga Museum is a fascinating representation of life in Viking-era Reykjavik. Many life-like silicone (more realistic than wax) figures make up the compelling exhibit.
Settlement Exhibition (Landnamssyningin): The Settlement Exhibition surrounds an excavated 10th-century farmhouse, which is still in its original location. This is the most authentic place to get a realistic feel of what Reykjavik was like when Vikings originally settled the island.
Hallgrimskirkja Church: One of Reykjavik's most dominating landmark, the Hallgrimskirkja looks like a cross between modern and Gothic architecture and its function lies somewhere between sacred and secular, which makes it a great representation of Iceland's relationship with religion. The church is rather sparse inside, with only the enormous pipe organ worth noting. Most visitors to the church take the elevator to the viewpoint, which despite sometimes brutally windy conditions, provides perhaps the most spectacular view around.
Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach: The sand at Reykjavik's only beach is real but imported and the seawater is artificially warmed with naturally hot geothermic water, so Nauthólsvík isn't exactly a fake beach, but it is altered to fit most people's expectations of a beach. An afternoon of sunbathing and swimming in this nearly arctic location can make you feel pleasantly transported.
Sun-Craft: While sculptures are not a rare sight throughout Reykjavik, the boat-like sculpture known as "Sun-Craft" sitting on the edge of the harbor seems to be the most popular. The scenery is quite nice and the sculpture is photographed like a celebrity every day around sunset when it appears as though the Vikings are either just arriving or just about to set off on an exploratory voyage.
Whale watching: Whale watching is a very popular summer activity (April – October) and it's quite easy to do right from the city center. Half-day trips leave right from the city harbor and your chances are very high for seeing a variety of whale species as well as seabirds including puffins which cluster together on two small nearby islets.
Swimming Pools: Reykjavik has a naturally heated swimming pool in every neighborhood and while each offers different amenities, they are all an important part of life in the city. The pools are open every day year-round and are the center of Reykjavik's social scene. Some pools are more recreational with slides and areas for children while others are more relaxing with soaking pools and saunas. Trying out all the different pools is a great way to get to know the different parts of the city.
Laugardalur: Laugardular is a park and recreational complex, which includes some of the oldest forested areas in Reykjavik, botanical gardens, the largest swimming pool in Iceland, an ice skating rink and nice jogging/walking tracks.
Mt Esja: The volcanic mountain range that looms above Reykjavik is as close as it appears and the slopes that face the city are a popular place to hike. This is especially nice in the summer months, but more adventurous winter activities like ice-climbing are become more and more popular.
Golden Circle: The most popular day trip from Reykjavik takes in three of the country's most popular sights and can be arranged yourself using public transportation or as a package tour offered by many city tour operators. However you get there, th ingvellir (site of the first national parliament), Gullfoss (a spectacular waterfall) and Geysir (the original water spout after which all are named) are three sights that shouldn't be missed.
Blue Lagoon: This thermal pool is one of the most popular attractions in Iceland. Dug out of a starkly beautiful lava field, the Blue Lagoon gets its name from the milky blue water that is a result of the (reportedly therapeutic) minerals that are leached into the pool as the water makes its way through subterranean steam vents. The lagoon is both relaxing and fascinating and package deals including round trip bus fare and entrance fees can easily be arranged in Reykjavik.
Despite its reputation as a party town, Reykjavik is a great destination for families. It is arguably the safest city in all of Europe and many of the city's attractions can be enjoyed simultaneously by children and adults. Children often get a 50% discount on entrance fees if they are not free. Consider spending the day at one of the city's reasonably priced public pools or explore the open-air museum. The Reykjavik Family Park is open year-round and includes a zoo, aquarium and hands-on kid-minded science museum.
Reykjavik is notoriously an expensive place for dining, so your meals here may need to be well-planned. Breakfast is often included with overnight accommodation but if it isn't, you might stock up on breakfast foods from the grocery store as cafés don't start opening until around 10:00. There are some lunch specials, but not like in the rest of Scandinavia where daily specials are standard. Coffee and a sandwich or a pastry are common for lunch, but save some money for dinner. Reykjavik does know how to do fish right, so you will want to pay out for at least one meal of the freshest fish you'll ever eat. Lamb is also common and done right with savory herbs. A gourmet meal in Reykjavik is expensive but unique and worth the splurge and for travelers on a budget, hot dog stands are common too and very popular.
Reykjavik's nightlife is known throughout the world, but visitors are often surprised to realize that they are still in a quite small town in a very remote part of the world and maybe the reputation comes from the concentration of nightclubs in such an unlikely place. If you want to party in Reykjavik you have several options in a number of trendy bars and nightclubs. Because alcohol is so expensive, most party-goers pre-funk at home and hit the bars around midnight. Many coffee shops evolve into bars and clubs in the evening, so be sure you try your favorite daytime café later at night and see what a difference a few hours can make. Whether you're in the mood for a low-key pub crawl or wild night out, you can probably find your scene in Reykjavik, though it may be confined to one particular spot.
Reykjavik is a popular shopping destination—particularly around Christmas time. Perhaps this is because there isn't much to do in the wintertime, but a big tax-refund for non-residents may offer a better explanation. Sales tax is always included in the price of an item, but if you qualify for a global tax refund you will receive 15% of the 24% back upon departure. Clothing boutiques for both men and women offer unique designs not found anywhere else in the world. Outdoor wear and hand-woven sweaters are common souvenirs and house ware stores, artsy bookstores and flea markets offer opportunities to bring a piece of Icelandic design home with you.
Keflavik International Airport services most international flights and is located about 45 minutes from town. The Flybus shuttle is usually there when a plane lands, ready to take you to town. It stops at the main city bus terminal and most major hotels. Reykjavik Airport—the former military base—is located right in town and is used primarily for domestic flights.
Reykjavik has the distinction of having the most cars per capita of anywhere in the world, but with its small population and wide boulevards, congestion is never a problem. As a tourist you won't need to rent a car as public transportation is sufficient for getting around, but if you want to get out of the city and explore the rest of Iceland, you will need a car and Reykjavik is the starting place for the road trips that are popular in the summertime.
The bus system is reliable and clean in Reykjavik and sufficiently services the city. However, the cost of using such an efficient system is quite high, so if you are going to be in town for a while, consider purchasing a bus pass or a tourist card, which includes entrance to many museums and sights.
Taxis are not as expensive in Reykjavik as in other major European cities, and perhaps this is because any given trip across town can't be very far, given the compact size of the city. Taxis are safe and are good option for late night journeys.
Iceland isn't as icy as it sounds and the city's location on the southwestern coast means it is more temperate than the rest of the island. Temperate is of course a relative term and it is cold in Reykjavik in the winter and it doesn't get hot in the summer. The seasons are more extreme in terms of amount of daylight and while it is just below the arctic circle, Reykjavik is dark in the winter with only about four hours of light and the sun nearly stays up until midnight in midsummer, dipping down below the horizon for only three or four hours. It's a pretty wet place year-round with misty conditions common in summer and winter and the most rainfall in spring. Temperatures hover just around freezing in the winter, with a wind chill often making it feel quite colder. Summers see temperatures around 10°C with the long hours of sunshine often making it feel even warmer.