Reykjavik is the capital city of Iceland and the northernmost capital in the world. It is only 40 minutes away from Keflavik airport, where all international flights arrive into Iceland. Over 60% of Iceland’s entire population lives in the community of Reykjavik, and there is much to see and do here in this very modern European city.
I visited Reykjavik this past October with four other couples before we embarked on a bus tour of southern Iceland. We had two full days here and tried to see and do as much as we could in a short period of time. The morning our flight arrived, we checked into our hotel and immediately hit the streets to get our body clocks adjusted to the time zone. We had blue skies and temperatures in the high 50s. What perfect weather! We walked a few blocks from our hotel to the well-known Braud & Co. for some delicious, buttery pastries – all locally made. After some coffee, sugar, and a brief stop, we were off to a explore Reykjavik!
Where to next? Reykjavik’s town center was relatively small, which made it easy for us to explore on foot. We continued walking down Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík and not far from our hotel. This street is well-known for its boutiques, brightly painted houses, restaurants, artistic graffiti, and bars. We strolled down Laugavegur all the way to Hallgrimskirkja church, which prominently stands on a small hill in the downtown area. A huge statue of Leif Eriksson, the Icelandic Viking that sailed to North America, stands in front of the church. Hallgrimskirkja is a beautiful, architectural church and a tourist “must see.” We paid a small fee to ride an elevator and then to climb a few stairs to the top of the church for stunning views of Reykjavik. Hallgrimskirkja stands 244 feet tall and is the largest church in Iceland. It is visible from almost everywhere in the city and is very recognizable by its “step” design that is made to mimic the glaciers of Iceland and the basalt columns that are found throughout the countryside.
After exploring the church, we visited a few of the many museums located in the downtown area. We walked to the Tales from Iceland Museum where we watched some beautiful videos that gave us a unique perspective of the country. There were two floors of exhibits here with 14 screens, each with a set of sofas in front of them. They provided us with free coffee, hot chocolate, drinks and snacks while we enjoyed the exhibits. This was the perfect place to fight the jet lag and “chill” for a bit, while still learning about the “Land of Fire and Ice.”
Our next stop was the Icelandic Phallological Museum (giggle if you must!). This museum is pretty small, and we didn’t spend a lot of time there, but it was well worth a visit just so we could say we have been there! There were over 200 penile parts from land and sea mammals in Iceland (from a tiny hamster member to a 6-foot-long specimen from a sperm whale). Some parts of the museum were very scientific, some were laughable. It was something I will never forget!
As the day and time change began to wear on us, we retreated to the hotel for a little rest and some dinner. Later that evening, we decided to walk a few blocks down to the harbor to see if we could see the Northern Lights. The day had been clear and we were hopeful that the night skies would be. The chances of seeing the lights is always slim – but we thought we would give it a try.
All I can say about this first evening in Reykjavik is – OH, MY! The skies did not disappoint!
How lucky were we? It was just our first night in Iceland and the Northern Lights started showing off for us. It was around 10:00 p.m. as our group sat on huge rocks that made up the harbor seawall. We watched as the skies swirled and danced with greenish gray, windswept lights of the aurora borealis. We were in disbelief seeing this phenomenon on of very first night! What luck!!
We actually saw the Northern Lights again the next three nights in Reykjavik. The second night, they were not only visible from the harbor again, but we could actually lie in our hotel beds with the curtains open and watch them from our room. They covered the night skies and were more colorful this second night. The third night, we drove out to a secluded church yard, away from the city light pollution, and once again got a marvelous light show. This sight was incredible and an experience I will never forget. I could now officially check “see the Northern Lights” off my bucket list.
Our second morning in Reykjavik brought more clear skies and warm temperatures. Our group decided to take the “Hop-on-Hop-off” bus since it picked up right in front of our hotel and went all over Reykjavik. We boarded the double-decker bus and headed down to the harbor. Our first stop was the cruise ship dock where we saw the John Lennon Memorial. We rode the bus for a brief time before heading off on foot down the seawall and harbor walkway. Our next stop was the famous Hofdi House. This house, built in 1909, sits on the shoreline and is considered to be one of the most beautiful and historically important buildings in Reykjavik. It is best known as the location for the 1986 summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that marked the end of the Cold War. We stopped here for a photo op before heading on down the paved harbor walkway.
As we continued to explore this area of the city along the sea wall, we took in the gorgeous sights of Reykjavik on this beautiful morning. There were many sculptures and works of art along our way, including one of the highlights of my trip – the Sun Voyager. The Sun Voyager is a large, abstract, metal sculpture resembling a Viking longboat. We took some great photos here with a view of Mount Esja on the other side of the bay. It was most impressive!
Our group continued down the seawall and headed to the Harpa Concert Hall. Sitting on the bay in Reykjavik, this glass and steel, architectural building is nothing short of breathtaking. It is an impressive, contemporary structure with colorful, honeycomb-type windows that change colors in certain light. The Harpa is a city-owned building that hosts concerts, cultural events, movies, and exhibitions. We stopped in for refreshments, restrooms, and shopping at the high-quality gift shops.
We continued our walking tour and headed away from the bay to locate the Hard Rock Cafe (for shirts!). We also had plans to find a local lunch spot. I was leaning towards the Icelandic hot dog stand that Bill Clinton made famous on his visit to Reykjavik years ago. After a couple of inquiries from locals, we found Baujarins Beztu (translates as “the best hot dog stand in town”). We stood in a long line before ordering our hot dogs and cokes. We found outdoor seating nearby and sat and enjoyed our lunch. The hot dogs were unique and delicious!
After lunch, we found ourselves in a very popular shopping area. A few of us wandered into the Flea Market, a large, indoor shopping area where the most interesting section was a fish market in the back building. The vendors here were entertained by tourists trying samples of the local delicacy “hakarl” which is the national dish of Iceland. It consists of a Greenland shark that is cured by a fermentation process and is hung to dry for 4-5 months before being cut into bite-sized cubes. Two brave souls in our group actually tried a sample and described it as tasting like urine, ammonia, and rotten fish. No thank you! I passed.
Our group then walked around a nearby historic area that housed the Old Harbor, the Parliament Building, City Hall, the Pond, and the Cabinet House. We saw some very beautiful buildings, gardens, and interesting local architecture. The next stop on our agenda was the Settlement Exhibition. This was an unusual, underground museum (due to it being built around an actual archaeological dig). In 2001 when nearby buildings were being renovated, relics were found and archaeologists were called in. This area turned out to be the oldest remains of human habitation in Reykjavik and included a tenth-century Viking longhouse. This was a most impressive museum and the site was very well-preserved. The longhouse dated back to 1000 AD where Iceland’s first settlers made their home. This was a very informative exhibition with original artifacts, iron-works, carpentry, etc. We enjoyed our time here and learned a lot about the Viking way of life.
We ended up walking to the Old Harbor and “hopped” back on the bus. We rode a complete route back to the hotel after seeing most of Reykjavik and its highlights. The next morning we left on our bus tour.
After a week touring southern Iceland, we returned to Reykavik midday. Several of us checked back into the hotel and spent the afternoon at the Perlan, a well-known sight in the city. The Perlan is a distinctive glass dome museum that rests on five gigantic water tanks perched high on top of a hill. We had a wonderful lunch here in the revolving restaurant that overlooks Reykjavik and enjoyed the great views. This was a very modern museum with many interesting videos, exhibits, and interactive displays. We watched the featured film about the Northern Lights. We learned about Icelandic glaciers, lava, and wildlife. We then dressed in cold weather gear and explored the Ice Cave. It was a most enjoyable afternoon!
Reykjavik is a very vibrant European city with a diverse cultural scene. There are plenty of parks, museums, restaurants, galleries, shops, and bars to enjoy here. It is very modern but without tall skyscrapers, congested traffic, and crime associated with most large European cities. Reykjavik is also the perfect base from which to experience some of Iceland’s breathtakingly beautiful natural wonders. The famous Blue Lagoon is only 40 minutes away. You can go on a Golden Circle tour that leads you to geysers, valleys, waterfalls, and basalt mountains. Or you may choose to visit the South Coast from here and see the Glacial Lagoon, the Black Sand Beach, and Diamond Beach.
I loved my time spent in Reykjavik and would go back in a heartbeat! The sights were amazing, the people were friendly, and the food was very enjoyable. Who knew? We were lucky enough to have great weather, see the Northern Lights, and have some memorable adventures. It was a wonderful experience and we all had a fantastic trip. Two thumbs up for Reykjavik!