Celebrated as the world’s most northerly capital city and one of the smallest in Europe, Reykjavík has fast become one of the world’s hottest alternative travel destinations, with plenty of top tourist accolades to fuel the enthusiasm. With a fascinating history rooted in the great Sagas and its unique location, Reykjavík manages to combine a terrific blend of hip and wholesome, but without the stress that usually follows a cosmopolitan metropolis.
Whether illuminated by the unending daylight of summertime or the spectacular Aurora Borealis during the winter, visitors can enjoy countless seasonal festivals and discover numerous landmark attractions and places of historical significance.
People are often surprised and impressed that such a small capital city has so much to offer in the way of culture, arts and activities. Whilst the downtown area of Reykjavík has the highest concentration of cultural institutions, it also has an extraordinary number of tour operators offering everything from volcano tours to diving in the otherworldly waters of Silfra. The entire city is surrounded by countless natural wonders; however, if you’d prefer to discover the nature within the city limits, there are a number of interesting places to explore and a variety of beautiful parks and gardens.
Standing at the top of Skólavordustígur High Street, this impressive building was recently ranked as one of the strangest in the world. Apart from its function as a church, it also hosts a variety of concerts and exhibitions. If you get lost, it also makes a great reference point. A ride in the lift to the top of the church isn’t free, but the outstanding view from the bell tower is well worth the small donation required
The Harpa Concert Hall & Conference Centre
This is a relatively new building on the Reykjavík city skyline features an award-winning design and sensational glass with featuring a programmable lighting installation. Since its completion in 2011, a whole new world of musical possibilities has opened up for the city and it has already become one of Reykjavík’s key cultural institutions, hosting countless concerts, festivals, operas and other significant events.
The Old Harbour
Resonating with people, life and colour in all seasons the Old Harbour is swiftly becoming the new boom area of the capital. Apart from it being a beautiful place to walk with stunning views across the bay to Mt. Esja, the Old Harbour area is where the majority of marine activities, such as whale watching and puffin tours, are based. The numerous new businesses and museums established there, offering everything from marine exhibitions to the best brunch and coffee, are rapidly reshaping it as a new and vibrant area of the city.
The Sun Voyager
This striking sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason is located on the main coastal path not far from Harpa. Visitors flock to this well-photographed attraction, which resembles a Viking ship, but is in fact a dream boat and ode to the sun. Apart from the sculpture itself, this location has the added attraction of providing epic views across the bay to Mt. Esja, which are especially captivating when framed by the fiery edges of dawn or dusk during the summer or the equally impressive winter views with snow topped mountains and northern lights.
Drawing attention like a giant sparkling jewel atop of Oskjuhlid hill, is an unusual Reykjavik landmark known as the Pearl. This fantastic dome–shaped building is supported by six massive geothermal water tanks each with a capacity of four million litres. First opened to the public on 21st June 1991 the Pearl is the posthumous realisation of a grand structure envisioned by the famous Icelandic artist Johannes Kjarval, who imagined a building covered with mirrors which could reflect the northern lights with floodlights in the eaves to illuminate the whole area. The building is now home to the Museum of Icelandic Natural Wonders.
Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach
This gorgeous golden-sanded geothermal beach at Nautholsvik in Reykjavík was opened in year 2001 to the delight of residents and tourists alike and now attracts over half a million guests each year. The creation of the geothermal beach was an ambitious, but very successful, project involving the construction of a lagoon with large sea walls, where cold sea and hot geothermal water fuse together resulting in higher temperatures. The facilities include hot tubs, a steam room, showers, changing rooms and a small café.
Hofdi House was built in 1909 and is one of the most beautiful and historically significant buildings in the Reykjavik area. It’s best known as the location for the 1986 summit meeting of presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbatsjov, a historical event that effectively marked the end of the Cold War. During this meeting images of the house were broadcast all over the world. Hofdi was initially the house of the French consul in Iceland and still bears many signs of its original purpose.
Oskjuhlid is a beautiful woodland area surrounding landmark building the Pearl and makes for a popular quick getaway from city life, where visitors can cycle or ramble along the various paths, which meander enchantingly through a dense forest of prickly pines and tangled birch trees. Apart from the regular bird life you’d expect to find in woodland, there’s also a growing population of cute bunny rabbits, frequently seen scampering through the woody perennials adding a fairy-tale-like charm to the area. The paths around Oskjuhlid join an extensive network of well-maintained footpaths in Reykjavik.
The mountain range known as Esja (914 m) is the impressive backdrop of Reykjavik City, often featured in pictures, postcards and travel guides. With its network of fantastic trails it provides a peaceful destination for an easy walk or, for those who love a difficult challenge, an ultra mountain marathon. There are several different routes up and around the mountain, varying in terms of difficulty. The path is divided into sections, marked with signs along the way. Each sign gives an indication of the difficulty of the path ahead with a grade system ranging from 1 boot (easy) to 3 boots (challenging).
Situated on the southeast outskirts of Reykjavík city is the Heidmork nature reserve – a paradise of nature and a wonderful recreational area where countless trails wind enchantingly through a labyrinth of lava formations and trees. Some of the park’s most notable features are the Raudholar or ‘Red Hills’ – the remnants of a cluster of pseudo craters in Ellidaarhraun lava field. Heidmork is a favourite with the locals, especially for sports enthusiasts, those with children and couples looking for a romantic retreat.
The lovely island of Videy is situated in Kollfjordur just off the coast of Reykjavik. Apart from its extensive network of trails, ancient ruins and rich historical background, the island is home to impressive works of art by Yoko Ono (the Imagine Peace Tower) and Richard Serra (the Milestones project). The island has a rich historical background and fans of architecture will also be interested to learn that the church on Videy is one of the oldest in the country and that Videy House is the first building in the country to be constructed with stone.
Whether it’s frozen to perfection like a frosted mirror or dressed in the dazzling shades of summer, Tjornin pond is enchanting in any season and one of Reykjavík’s most photographed attractions. The pond, which is dramatically framed by Reykjavik City Hall and numerous beautifully-coloured old houses, is home to countless ducks, swans and geese that stay for the winter season thanks to a little geothermal heating. Apart from being a great place to frame a photograph, it’s also a lovely place to wander and a popular destination for families in Reykjavik, who are often seen feeding bread to the bustling birdlife.
Opening in 1992, this modernist building is situated on the northern shore of Tjornin Pond and houses the city Mayor and all the executive officials of Reykjavik. The stark features of the building contrast profoundly with the pond and the surrounding traditional houses, but together with the resident ducks and swans, the features combine to provide some pleasant scenery. On the ground floor you’ll find a tourist information centre as well as an exhibition space with a steady stream of new and exciting installations. In the main exhibition hall, there’s a huge relief map of Iceland, which is a great resource for those planning a trip around Iceland.