Reykjavík – Iceland’s Amazing Capital City 

Miðborg Reykjavíkur - tekið úr byggingakrana

What is there to see and do in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík? How many people live there, and how was the city founded? Let’s learn all there is to know about Iceland’s only major settlement, Reykjavík.

Reykjavík is a city like no other on earth. For one thing, most people would not describe it as a city at all – rather, it resembles a pleasant coastal town with landmarks of noteworthiness. Its diminutive population only reinforces this point, as does its lack of urban infrastructure, transport networks, and twisting highways.

Ultimately, Reykjavík is the perfect city for those who long to appreciate the lively epicentre of a nation without subjecting themselves to the incessant noise, lurking danger, and hustle and bustle so apparent in many other capitals around the world. 

Reykjavík skyline
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík from the water.

And, if you might excuse this frankly disruptive personal interjection – as a foreign resident living in Iceland’s capital, I believe wholeheartedly that it is one of the greatest cities on earth, if only for the fact that it defies what is so expected of one. In many ways, if you were to look up the opposite of a city in the dictionary, you may find Reykjavík to be the definition, at least in terms of its gentle ambience and relatively slow pace of life. 

Still, a city is what Reykjavík is. Given this fact, it is obvious that Reykjavík is where most visitors to Iceland will stay, utilising it as a go-to homebase for taking tours and excursions around the country. There are so many hotels, Air BnBs, and hostels to choose from, and at a relatively competitive price, that picking otherwise does not make budgetary sense given the high cost of vacationing in Iceland. 

Basic Facts About Reykjavík 

Photo: Golli. Reykjavík at dusk.

Reykjavík translates to ‘Smoky Bay,’ named because of how its surrounding geothermal areas produce pillars of white steam. While these outpourings are not anywhere near as noticeable to residents today, it must have been quite the surreal sight to the city’s early settlers. 

For anyone interested in observing these geothermal sites that are still in action, there are many locations on the adjacent Reykjanes Peninsula, such as the Martian-like landscape of Gunnuhver hot springs.  

As of 2024, the population of Reykjavík is approximately 139,849 people, meaning that around two-thirds of Iceland’s entire population calls the capital home. If there was any fact that demonstrates just how remote and, ultimately, wild Iceland actually is, it should be this. 

Biker crossing a busy road in Reykjavík.
Photo: Biker crossing a busy road in Reykjavík.

Since 2016, the population of the city has increased around 1.62% each year, but this can be hard to notice given the fact that almost every single tourist who visits Iceland will pass through it at one point or another during their holiday. In fact, its density of people is, almost, tribute to just how popular it is, and is not particularly a reflection of the city if it were left to its own devices. 

But then again, as much is true of any urban centre that so happens to be a beloved tourist destination… 

The Capital area of Reykjavík covers 273 km2 (105 sq mi), and so it is considered Iceland’s only major city. Akureyri is often called ‘Iceland’s Northern Capital City,’ but with a population of only 17,693, it should more accurately be described as a town rather than a major urban settlement. Still, this gorgeous settlement boasts its only cathedral, and a domestic airport should anyone want to hop on a flight between Reykjavík and Akureyri. 

Reykjavík’s connection to nature

 

Reykjavík is considered to be among the cleanest and most environmentally friendly cities on the planet. This comes down not only to how the city’s residents care for their home, but also the simple fact that so much of Iceland’s heat and electricity is geothermally, and hydrothermally, sourced. 

Saying that, Reykjavík is as much of a party city as many other places, so early mornings on a Saturday and Sunday might make you think twice about the idea Reykjavík is particularly clean – but rest easy knowing that whatever litter might be left over from the night before is quickly discarded by local services. 

If one thing can be said for the Icelanders, it is that they are extremely house proud, and they take their relationship with nature very seriously.  

Puffin Iceland
Photo: Golli. Nesting Atlantic Puffins

Speaking of the city’s connection to nature, guests should be aware that whales and puffins can often be seen from the city. Both animals have become bonafide mascots of the country – whether they are aware of it or not – thanks to the great many wildlife tours on offer here. 

One of the most popular spots from which to take whale-watching and bird-watching tours is Old Harbour, a beautiful district marked by its many boats and restaurants. 

Weirdly enough, dogs were banned from Reykjavík until the 1980s; something at odds with how Icelanders view their love of animals. However, the presence of our canine friends is now a staple part of capital life, second only to the many cats seen roaming the streets. 

A Brief History of Reykjavík 

Viking Festival Hafnarfjörður

If you were to look at the Reykjavík City Crest, you might notice that it depicts two logs. This symbolises the ancient Norse method of deciding on where to settle. Aside from Irish monks, or Papar, who were said to have lived in a monastery on Papey Island, Ingólfr Arnarson was the first person to have officially discovered Iceland. In fact, it is said that the Irish left Iceland because they did not like the presence of Norse settlers. 

Who was Ingólfr Arnarson?

 

Originally from the Rivedal Valley in West Norway, Ingólfr Arnarson arrived in Iceland in the year 874 AD. He arrived after fleeing from a blood feud that he had become embroiled in. His escape from Norway focused on a mysterious island discovered by fellow Vikings, Garðar Svavarsson and Hrafna-Flóki, some years beforehand. 

Upon spotting land, Ingólfr tossed two wooden logs over the side of his longship, observing where they beached. These logs – or polished wooden poles – were known as Öndvegissúlur (High-Seat Pillars.) So it might seem strange to us today, this method of deciding on where to set-up a permanent farmstead was common practice among the Norsemen at the time. 

Reykjavík statue
Photo: Golli. A statue in Reykjavík

And so it was that Reykjavík’s location was decided upon. You can read more about Ingólfr Arnarson and the settlement of Reykjavík in the Landnámabók, otherwise known as the Book of Settlers.   

If you want to learn more about Reykjavík’s earliest days in a more fun and practical way, then the Settlement Exhibition 871±2 is a fantastic place to visit. This historic site was built around the excavated ruins of one of the first man-made structures ever built in Iceland. And, it can be found right downtown! The ruins date back to somewhere in between 900 – 1000 AD. Ancient and mysterious, they expose details of how Reykjavík’s earliest settlers would have lived and worked.

Since Iceland became a sovereign nation in 1918 – breaking away from Denmark with the Act of the Union – Reykjavík has held the position as the northernmost capital in the world. 

Famous Landmarks in Reykjavík

Hallgrímskirkja lutheran church in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík

The columned steeple of Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church is the city’s most recognisable landmark, towering over the tin roofs of downtown. While the ground floor of this historic building is free to explore, ascending to its high-level will require an extra fee. You will find this fantastic cultural landmark at the top of Skólavörðustígur – known colloquially as rainbow street – making for fantastic urban photographs right up to its bronze double doors. 

Another of Reykjavík’s more iconic buildings is Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, located on the rocky embankment of Faxaflói Bay. This award-winning structure is a great place to catch any one of the local or international acts to grace its many stages. These include the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, Reykjavík’s Big Band, and the Icelandic Opera. 

Photo: Golli. Harpa concert hall.

What are some lesser-known landmarks in Reykjavík?

 

The circular dome of Perlan Museum and Observation Deck is a little way outside of downtown, but is more than worth a visit. Here, you’ll be able to enjoy the Wonders of Iceland exhibition. It includes artificial ice caves and bird cliffs, as well as a cinematic Northern Lights experience. To top it off, you will have access to amazing panoramic views of the capital, and its surrounding nature. That’s right… from the 360 degree viewing platform that sits atop the museum. 

When it comes to famed monuments, stop by the Sun Voyager sculpture, nearby to Harpa Concert Hall. This beautiful and artistic representation of a Viking longship is a truly unique metallic specimen, and provides a brilliant subject for those looking to photograph the table-top prominence of Mount Esja, Reykjavík’s nearest mountain. 

Perlan Öskjuhlíð haust autumn
Photo: Golli. Perlan on Öskjuhlíð

If there was any place to dwell on how Iceland was discovered by courageous sailors braving the unknown ocean, it is the Sun Voyager. 

If you’re hoping to see as many of Reykjavík’s landmarks as possible, your two best options are to take a pleasant walk around the capital, or better yet, hop on a city sightseeing bus tour!

Shopping in Reykjavík

Shopping in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Make sure to plan your budget for shopping!

Reykjavík provides fantastic opportunities for shoppers. Albeit those who are willing to pay more for products than they might do elsewhere. Unfortunately, Reykjavík is an expensive place to visit, let alone enjoy retail therapy. But if you have cash and a predilection to shop, you’ll find a fantastic array of clothes, music, ornaments, and food. 

Laugavegur is the most popular street for shopping in the capital. Strolling along it, you’ll find plenty of establishments to tickle your interest, be they galleries, book shops, or cute cafes. 

Despite this now being Reykjavík’s most well-trodden street, Laugavegur was not always so attractive to visitors. In fact, it translates to hot spring road. Locals used to wash their clothes in a trickling geothermal stream that ran directly where people walk today. 

A man reading in a book shop corner.
Photo: Golli. A man reading in a book shop corner.

You’re sure to notice the many souvenir shops around the city. Locals know these as Puffin Shops. On the other hand, guests see them as perfect places to grab an I <3 RYK t-shirt, or perhaps, a keyring or mug emblazoned with Hallgrimskirkja or the city’s crest. Whatever you choose for a memento of your stay, you will be spoiled for choice. The right souvenir shop for you is right around the corner. 

Are there good clothing stores in Reykjavík?

 

Icelanders also happen to be fashion-conscious people. But with the relatively high price of clothing items, and a lack of variety, second-hand shops are the obvious choice. 

Places like Spúútnik and Fatamarkaðurinn second-hand market offer a diverse mix of attire, much of which is inspired by the funky psychedelia of the sixties and seventies. So, make sure to stand out against Iceland’s landscapes by dressing your special for holiday photos 

Lucky Records in Reykjavík music
Photo: Golli. Lucky Records in Reykjavík

What music stores are in Reykjavík?

 

Also, the Icelandic people love their music. You will find many record stores across the city, including the likes of 12 Tónar, Smekkleysa, and Lucky Records. Browsing their collections of new and vintage music is the perfect way to spend some time in the city. It provides you with a great opportunity to gain a deeper insight into local artists. 

It’s also cool to know that many of these record stores also moonlight as indie record labels. Thus, visiting gets you even closer to the musical talent that Iceland is known for. Look out for small-scale concerts regularly held at these locales during your visit. 

Restaurants and Bars in Reykjavík 

Cocktails in the making at Tipsy, Reykjavík.
Photo: Golli. Cocktails in the making at Tipsy, Reykjavík.

Foodies will find so much to love about Reykjavík that their stomachs might demand they never leave.

Not only are there plenty of spots that dedicate themselves completely to authentically Icelandic dishes – like the scrumptious plokkari (potatoes and white fish) or, of course, roasted lamb – but there are countless other restaurants and takeaways focused on their own takes on international food, be it Thai or Italian.

What are Reykjavík’s best known foods?

 

This article would be remiss not to mention the most famous spots to sample the best Iceland has to offer. 

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is the one-stop you need to pay attention to regarding Icelandic hot dogs. Their sausages are made of a mix of lamb, beef and pork. The meat is topped off with fried onions and a generous slathering of mustard, ketchup, and remoulade.

More adventurous travellers may want to try the famous – or, in fact, infamous – Hakarl, or Icelandic Shark. 

(If you’re planning on putting yourself through this culinary ordeal, expect a rapid and severe taste of ammonia. Hopefully, the awed and giggly cheers from those around you make biting down worth the effort!)

Two people eating ice cream in the snow.
Photo: Golli. Two people eating ice cream in the snow.

Does Reykjavík have a fun nightlife?

 

Enjoying alcoholic delights is as diverse and entertaining as the food on offer in Reykjavík. Different establishments offer different types of scenes. Depending on your mood, you might find yourself sampling delicious whiskies in the city’s rock joints. Or enjoying sunset from one of the classier rooftop bars. 

Might you be more inclined to the former, the likes of Dillon Whiskey Bar or Gaukurinn Drag Bar are your bet. More sophisticated sippers might prefer SKY Bar or Petersen svítan. 

Despite the great variety of bars and restaurants on offer, guests might find the city lacking in the large-scale chains that are accustomed to at home. For example, neither Starbucks nor McDonalds operates in Iceland, though local alternatives fill the gap – like Te & Kaffi cafe for coffee, and Aktu Taktu or Metro for burgers. 

Art and Culture in Reykjavík 

A nighttime pool party in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Not all parties happen at the bar!

Icelanders – or, more particularly, Reykjavík residents – are a creative, somewhat absurd, and wildly experimental bunch. Unafraid to push the boundaries in whatever arena they choose, be it cuisine, fashion, music, or art. 

This will likely be obvious walking through Reykjavík. Many walls and houses are painted with stunning murals that add welcome and eccentric colour to an otherwise grey cityscape. 

With that in mind, art-lovers will find many eclectic galleries, exhibitions, and vibrant stores throughout the capital. Here, they can appreciate Iceland’s contributions to the creative scene. 

Read our full article: What is Icelandic Culture?

Where can you see art in Reykjavík?

Reykjavík Art Museum, for example, covers many such centres of display across the city:  Hafnarhús, by Old Harbour, focuses on modern art, while Kjarvalsstaðir in Klambratún park and Ásmundarsafn shift the focus towards sculpture and experimental contemporary works. 

Hafnarhús art museum
Photo: Golli. Hafnarhús is one of the museums in Reykjavík

On top of these museums, there are many sculptures to be found, including the likes of The Unknown Bureaucrat, located by Lake Tjörnin. 

Another interesting instalment is the Imagine Peace Tower, which is found on Viðey Island in Kollafjörður. Dedicated to the late-Beatle, John Lennon, this powerful spotlight was unveiled by Yoko Ono herself. It brightens up the winter night between October and December every year. 

For those historically inclined, there are also a great variety of museums where you can learn more about Iceland. More than that – about how Reykjavík has developed throughout the centuries.

These include the National Museum of Iceland, which displays countless artefacts related to the country’s cultural history. Then there is Árbær Open Air Museum, where you can appreciate beautifully replicated homes from the Iceland of old. 

Reykjavík Old Harbour
Photo: Golli. Outside of Reykjavík Maritime Museum

What are lesser-known museums in Reykjavík?

 

There are many other options depending on your subject of interest. For example, the Reykjavík Maritime Museum focuses on Iceland’s historic fishing industry, as well as its relationship with the sea in general, while the bizarre but fascinating Icelandic Phallological Museum dedicates exhibition space to the male reproductive organ, boasting an enormous collection of phalluses sourced from animal species across the country. 

Another recommendation would be the Museum of Photography, which has over 6 million photographs in its collection, many of which have perfectly captured how Iceland’s capital city has grown from a tiny Norse settlement into the burgeoning economic and cultural hub it is today. 

In Summary 

Skólavörðustígur Reykjavík pride LGBTQ+
Photo: Golli. A pair snaps a selfie with the Skólavörðustígur rainbow as a backdrop at the 2019 Pride Parade in Reykjavík

As you’ve surely cottoned onto by now, the city of Reykjavík is a special place through and through. 

It is the sort of place that inspires great literature, engaging nights, and breathtaking art. The sort of place where friends are made as easily as memories. Where visitors transcend the typical experiences one has come to expect of a much beloved tourist destination.   

Surrounded by mountainscapes and oceans, this exciting young capital draws is as great for immerseing oneself in nature as it is for others seeking urban delights. 

Street Closures on Culture Night

Most of downtown Reykjavík will be closed off for car traffic during Menningarnótt (Culture Night). Culture Night is an annual festival, held on the last Saturday of August, which takes over downtown Reykjavík with countless happenings. Event planners encourage residents and visitors alike to acquaint themselves with the closures ahead of time.

Most of the streets will be closed from 07:00 in the morning. Buses will leave regularly from Hlemmur bus station, up Snorrabraut street and toward Hallgrímskirkja church.

The festival will celebrate local food, poetry, music, literature, sports as well as other events and happenings. The Reykjavík marathon will also take place on Saturday, so travellers, whether going by foot, bike or car, might have to respect closures along the marathon route.

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Culture Night website: https://culturenight.is/