Iceland's capital Reykjavík is the smallest in Europe. Indeed, despite a steadily increasing population, Reykjavík has only 122,000 inhabitants, 200,000 if you include the suburbs.
Reykjavík literally means “the bay of smoke” and takes its name from the hot springs that for much of its history generated reams of smoke and steam that hung above the city.
The streets of central Reykjavík
Although it may seem underpopulated or even empty to tourists coming from major European cities, no less than 60% of the island's inhabitants live in the capital and suburbs, and it is by far the largest city in the country ahead of Akureyri in the north and its 17,000 inhabitants.
Reykjavík is also the northernmost capital in the world, located at high latitude on the south-western tip of Iceland and the Reykjanes Peninsula. This is the obligatory first stop for adventurers heading down Route 1 to start their itinerary. Less than an hour's drive from the airport, the capital is the first and last stop before heading to Keflavik to catch the flight out.
An eco-conscious city, nearly 25% of Reykjavik's surface is green space, and much like its young population, the capital has a dynamic cultural life.
There are countless museums and the city center gets festive and crowded on weekends. Reykjavík is a lively and modern capital where you can enjoy a string of big-name music festivals including Secret Solstice, which takes place every year in June to bring in the summer, or the (in)famous Iceland Airwaves in October.
Compared to its big European sisters, you'll notice something missing in this capital: there are no Starbucks or McDonalds in Reykjavik or anywhere in the country. There are, however, numerous fast foods in the city, but these are very often local businesses such as Aktu Taktu or Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for example.
Reykjavík seen from Hallgrímskirkja Tower
Reykjavík was founded in 874 by 3 Norwegian settlers, including Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttir.
The colonization process was slow throughout the 18th century, the population being almost insignificant until 1752. This was when the first mention of Reykjavik appears in the history books, the year when the city was ceded to a Danish institution by the King of Denmark.
He then donated land and resources to help the development of the city, funding the fishing, sulfur extraction, and agricultural sectors among others. In 1786, Reykjavík and 5 other cities in the country obtained a commercial charter, officially marking their appearance on the world map.
Iceland was the birthplace of the first parliament in the world, “Althing”, founded in 930 in Thingvellir. In 1845 it was moved to Reykjavík and the city became the capital of the country. 1874 saw the drafting of the first constitution and on December 1st, 1918 the country officially rose from a Danish colony to the Kingdom of Iceland.
At the end of the Second World War, Iceland gained full independence and became the republic we know today.
Located less than 50 km from Keflavik Airport, it's a quick 45 minutes car ride to the capital via Route 41.
By bus, you can take line 89 direct to the capital or book an airport shuttle ahead of time:
The city is also located near the number 1 ring-road, which roughly outlines the island and runs all the way to Akureyri in the north or Vik in the south.
The capital spreads out into the suburbs with Hafnarfjörður, Kópavogur, Mosfellsbær and Garðabær. At the tip of the peninsula, we find Seltjarnarnes where many locals live, dominated by its famed lighthouse.
The city is divided into 10 neighborhoods, or districts. The districts of Vesturbær, Hlíðar and Miðborg are known locally as the "101" (after the central postcode) and form what is basically the main tourist hub. This is where you will find the vast majority of the city's points of interest.
It extends from Nauthólsvik Beach in the south to the old port and includes the famous Laugavegur Street and its shops as well as Harpa, Lake Tjornin and the famous Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral among others. (See detailed map of Reykjavík with points of interest above.)
The city streets in this hub are alive with brightly coloured dwellings and very original murals that give the city it's characteristic charm.
Skólavörðustígur Street, leading to the cathedral, has become a riot of colour with its Gay Pride affiliation.
Street Art is very present around Laugavegur and near the old port: houses and walls are often adorned with stunning murals. The city features dozens of paintings, each more beautiful than the last, and it's a delight to wander the city taking them in.
The busy streets of Reykjavík on the weekends
The city has no shortage of attractions, and there is fun to be had whatever the season.
In summer, the midnight sun gives you incredibly long days to stroll through the city's shopping streets, while from October to March the capital becomes a watching station for the Northern Lights. Iceland in winter has a lot of charm and a strong nightlife.
Reykjavík, due to its very high latitude, is not the warmest capital in the world, but paradoxically it is not as freezing as one might expect.
Indeed, the climate in Iceland is milder than the country's latitude might suggest thanks to the Gulf Stream's warm embrace.
Located in the south, close to a coast and therefore mostly spared from the more extreme temperatures that strike the island center, Reykjavík has an average temperature of 4.4°C with January as the coldest month (-0.5°C) and July as the hottest month (10.6°C on average).
Skólavörðustígur Street, Reykjavik's homage to Gay Pride
While there's lots to see in the capital, it is quite small and visitors rarely need more than 2 days to catch the best of downtown Reykjavík. Visitors often spend the late afternoon and evening there after landing in Keflavik in the afternoon, and then spend a day there at the end of their stay.
In winter, many visitors stay in Reykjavík to explore the nearby sights with short outings and activities not too far outside the city. You'll find the capital remains the starting point for numerous excursions (see below) to the Reykjanes Peninsula, the Golden Circle, the south of the island or even the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
In summer, the road becomes much more user-friendly and travelers take the opportunity to explore further out into the region rather than staying in Reykjavík, of course depending on the length of their itinerary.
The city is brimming with interesting places to visit: museums, shops, natural, cultural or historical sites. Travelers manage to find accomodation in 101 will be able to walk everywhere, so be sure to book accommodation as early as possible.
While the area is truly a pedestrian dream and easy to navigate, you can also discover the city by tour bus with a guide. If you want to skip the guide but still bus around Reykjavík, the Stræto bus line takes you to every corner of the capital.
While there are countless sights in Reykjavík, here are our favorites:
In the heart of the city, close to Laugavegur and Lake Tjornin, the Lutheran Cathedral should most definitely not be missed. You can't miss it dominating the city skyline.
You can tour the interior and for a few hundred crowns even climb to the top of the 74 m tower for an absolutely breathtaking panoramic view of the entire capital.
The statue at the foot of the church depicts Leifur Eiríksson, son of Erik the Red, who discovered America. Additional information in our article dedicated to Hallgrímskirkja.
Laugavegur Street is the Champs Elysées of the 101 district. It boasts some of the best shops the city has to offer. The 1km shopping section runs from Snorrabraut in the east to Lækjargata and Arnarholl Park in the west.
Countless pubs, luxury boutiques, and souvenir shops make this street the most famous in the Icelandic capital. On Fridays, this is where we attend Rúntur: the street then becomes a place to party on Friday evenings where young people meet to celebrate the weekend. During your visit to Reykjavík, it is very likely that you will spend the majority of your time there.
Drakkar - Sun Voyager to Reykjavík
Few leave Reykjavík without snapping a photo of this famed monument. Near Laugavegur Street where it meets the coastline and the old port stands the famous Drakkar (Sólfar: Sun Traveler), a few hundred meters from Harpa.
An original metal sculpture pointing to Mount Esja built in 1990, the sculpture evokes a Viking ship heading towards the sun, a masterwork signed Jón Gunnar Árnason.
Harpa in October
Harpa is Reykjavik's main exhibition and concert hall and is well worth a visit, a true architectural masterpiece that shines most when its iridescent windows are touched by the sun.
After the 2008 financial crisis that hit Iceland particularly hard, its construction was halted and risked never seeing the light of day. Today, this small architectural marvel is the pride of locals.
The building is nearly forty meters high and is located near the water front between Lake Tjornin and the Drakkar in Reykjavík. More information in our article dedicated to Harpa.
Very close by is the old port of Reykjavík, which make for a fine stroll. In fact, most tourists start their tour of the city center from the port before heading inland. Numerous whale-watching excursions leave this harbour daily so it is a lively area with scores of cafes and other souvenir shops among the docks, twisting alleys, and fishing huts.
Also in the port district, in Grandi, you will find the artist Ólöf Nordal's creative installation: Thúfa hill, a place of inner peace and mediation in the heart of the city. Just walk up the scenic little path to the top of the small hill for a breathtaking view of Harpa.
Lake Tjornin in Reykjavík in winter
A stone's throw from Laugavegur Street and Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral, Lake Tjornin is a family-friendly location, peaceful and quiet, where the children can play near the waterline.
The lake is often frozen during the winter period, and bird-watchers will enjoy the local wildlife on the lake shore with duck, arctic terns, gulls, geese, and various swans. Nearly forty species of birds inhabit the shores of Lake Tjornin.
The Perlan is one of city's best known monuments. Located just outside the 101, it is distinguished by its “bubble” shape, while inside you will find restaurants, exhibitions, and a planetarium.
Indeed, Perlan showcases “the wonders of Iceland” through magnificent shows and educational events to teach passerby about volcanism, ice formation, the Northern Lights, geothermal energy. A great way to discover the unique natural phenomena found in Iceland, and the shows are good fun for young and old. More information in our article dedicated to Perlan.
The city's main shopping center is the Kringlan mall, the largest shopping center in the city with no less than 150 stores.
A great place to do a few errands and find souvenirs when the weather forces you indoors.
Kringlan is located a little further away from the downtown area, to the east of Perlan.
A few hundred meters from Perlan is Reykjavík Beach just behind Reykjavík University.
The place is particularly popular with Icelanders because while the ocean temperature is rather cool in summer (12-16°C), the naturally heated “hot tubs” (jacuzzis) keep you piping hot at 38°C.
The sandy beach is ideal for kids to play and collect shells while their parents relax in the heated pool...
The Sky Lagoon hot baths opened very recently, in spring 2021, located just 8 km from the capital in Kopavogur.
Icelanders are an island people, and they believe that being near the ocean is a stress reliever and charges you with positive energy. The Sky Lagoon was designed facing the sea with a panoramic view of the ocean and it is truly a balm for the senses.
The experience is truly exceptional if you have a chance to dip your toes in these geothermal baths with the unique Icelandic sunset ahead of you in summer, or the Northern Lights above you in winter. Additional information in the article dedicated to the Sky Lagoon.
There are numerous museums in Reykjavík but the most notable would have to be:
The Reykjavík City Museum offers the largest art collection in Iceland, and the largest museum exhibition space in the country. There are nearly thirty exhibitions every year on a range of subjects across the 3000 square meters of the establishment.
Dated back to 1863, the National Museum of Iceland is home to a wealth of artworks and historical artefacts from Icelandic culture such as weapons, jewelry, or household items.
The Arbaer Open Air Museum is a glimpse into local history, featuring nearly 30 19th-century peat houses and various dwellings to visit, fully furnished as if they were lived in. Even the museum guards wear period costumes.
Like all major cities, Reykjavík offers a “City Card” which will get you into museums and other attractions at special low rates. Learn more and get your Reykjavik City Card.
Aside museums, you can visit Reykjavík Zoo or the numerous pools, such as the one in Laugardalslaug, which are very popular among locals. The Icelandic Parliament, Althingi, is another great historical landmark in the city center, quite simply the oldest parliament in the world, so don't miss it.
All year round excursions depart from Reykjavík, but in Winter in particular when roads are less accessible or even closed, tourists often stay in the capital and take day trips to nearby sights.
For example, the many whale-watching excursions ship out from the old port:
From Reykjavik you can also take a shuttle bus to the famous Blue Lagoon:
The beautiful Snaefellsnes peninsula is accessible with a day trip from the capital:
In winter, tourists also enjoy hunting for the Northern Lights:
Located not far from the capital, the Golden Circle region (Geysir, Gullfoss, Thingvellir) is well worth a visit, with many excursions from Reykjavik heading there or to the Secret Lagoon in the same region:
As any major city, there is good food to be found. The great restaurants in Reykjavík are mostly located along Laugavegur Street or near the Old Port.
Some favourites include:
The Sea Baron, for example, offers absolutely sublime grilled seafood and lobster soup.
For fish lovers, Fiskfélagid, better known as the “fish company”, is in the 101, with great variety and a well-deserved reputation.
Near Hallgrimskirkja, Café Loki allows you to try Icelandic specialties: black bread, smoked meat, dried fish, shark, herring... all accompanied by a good Icelandic beer or even Brennivin (schnapps). The traditional mutton soup of the region is excellent here.
For a more salt of the Earth cuisine, Icelandic Street Food near Lake Tjornin offers delicious traditional soups.
Pylsur (Icelandic hot dog) is served in many of the city's fast foods, including the Bæjarins Beast.
Finally, while it's not hard to find a drink in the 101, it's definitely worth mentioning the Lebowski bar, a stunning establishment decorated as a tribute to the cult Cohen brothers movieThe Big Lebowski.
For camping enthusiasts, the Reykjavik Campsite is near the city center (3 kilometers) and has all the amenities, but remains quite expensive at 2,400 ISK per night, about double the average price for an overnight stay elsewhere on the island.
It is open all summer between June 1st and October 15th. Official site: https://www.reykjavikcampsite.is/
Generally, if you want to be within walking distance of the best city attractions, we recommend staying close to district 101. Guesthouses and hotels are not hard to find but remain quite expensive, especially in summer and during the Christmas period, so it is strongly recommended to book well in advance.