What are the best things to do in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland?
Best time to visit Reykjavik
Reykjavik will be cold, no matter when you choose to visit it.
If you’re not dealing well with the cold, then the best time to visit Reykjavik and Iceland in general are the summer months (July and August).
In 2023, when the entire world registered record temperatures, Reykjavik was warm as well, reaching about 22 Celsius, which is T-shirt weather.
However, that’s rather an exception.
Summers are warmer than winter. For exact weather forecasts, check Vedur.is.
There are two reasons which may influence you to pick one season over another.
In summer, you will experience midsummer, which is a phenomenon when the sun never actually sets. It’s almost 24 hours of daylight in June-July.
In winter, when the nighttime settles in, you will probably see the Northern Lights (if the skies are clear).
If you want the best of both worlds, you should visit Iceland in August. After mid-August, there should be some nighttime, and the Aurora will be visible.
But this is also a peak tourist season when prices skyrocket. And Iceland is already one very exclusive tourist destination because it’s so remote and expensive.
I talked more about when to visit Iceland and included some tips, in my guide on how to plan a trip to Iceland.
Why Visit Reykjavik?
Reykjavik is the capital city of Iceland. This is where more than half (up to 64%) of the country’s population loves.
As of 2023, Iceland’s capital is estimated to have a population of 140,000, and together with the surrounding areas, it adds up to 248,000. This is out of the total population of Iceland of about 375,318.
Reykjavik, Iceland, is the Northernmost capital of the world.
There’s no other place to experience this much beauty and nature while still being in a big city, which offers all the comfort you need.
So, let’s talk about the top things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Outdoor activities in Reykjavik
Weather will greatly impact the number of available outdoor activities in Reykjavik.
For instance, on a rainy and windy day, you won’t feel like walking too much outside.
During winter, there might not be much to see outside, except for the Aurora, if you’re lucky.
So, for these activities, make sure to have backup plans and adapt once you get there.
A tour of Reykjavik
Reykjavik isn’t a huge city, which makes it the perfect setting for a nice self-walking tour, if the weather permits.
If you are also lucky and get there on a sunny day, you will have so much to do.
Here are some top spots to check out in Reykjavik:
- Hallgrímskirkja: This iconic church offers a panoramic view of the city.
- Harpa Concert Hall: A stunning piece of modern architecture, also home to various performances and shows.
- Sun Voyager: A captivating sculpture by the sea that’s perfect for a photo op.
- Reykjavik Art Museum: A must-visit for art enthusiasts, offering a deep dive into Icelandic art.
- Tjörnin: This serene city pond is surrounded by beautiful buildings and offers paddle boating.
- Laugavegur: Reykjavik’s main shopping street, filled with cafes, boutiques, and gift shops.
- National Museum of Iceland: A comprehensive museum providing an overview of Iceland’s history and culture.
- The Old Harbour: A charming area with restaurants, cafes, and a jumping-off point for whale-watching tours.
- Perlan museum: A wonderful museum that gives a presentation of all that Iceland has to offer, and it has an observation deck that provides 360-degree views of Reykjavik and beyond.
- Árbær Open Air Museum: A wonderful place to learn about Icelandic history, featuring historic buildings and traditional crafts.
- Kolaportid flea market (during weekends): A great collection of art and crafts from local artists, vintage stuff and even traditional food.
Other activities in Reykjavik is checking out some bars and restaurants and getting lots on the streets.
Go on a tour
If you don’t have that much time and want to make sure to get to see all the important stuff in Reykjavik and beyond, then check out some of the tours offered by local companies:
Go on a 3-hour food tour around the city
Head to the port and go for a whale watching tour
Follow the Northern Lights (September-April)
If you want to increase your chances of getting a good view of the magical Aurora, then you should consider joining a Northern Light tour around Reykjavik.
The main advantage of joining a tour is the professional guide that will tell you all about Aurora and will most likely know better how to find the spots where Aurora is visible during a cloudy day.
However, I don’t want you to be disappointed. These tours depend 100% on the weather, and getting a glimpse of the Aurora requires clear skies. The guide might help find patches of clear skies, as they are more knowledgeable of the local geography, but nobody can guarantee that you will see the Aurora. They allow you to reschedule for free if the Aurora was not visible during your tour.
There are also small Aurora tours available, if you don’t like larger group tours. This tour operator also offers free reschedules of the tour and refunds if Aurora is not seen during your time in Iceland. The tour also includes the entrance to the Aurora Museum.
Hiking in Reykjavik
Locals love to hike. While Reykjavik is really flat, there are some hiking areas just a few minutes by car outside the city. Really, it’s amazing that in just about 10 minutes, you can escape the city and find yourself in what appears to be the most remote parts of the world. Check out the most popular hiking trails in Iceland.
One popular hiking area for locals is Mosfellsbæjar (Google Maps location here).
I did this hike during summer, one evening, and it offers great views over the city and the surrounding areas.
Some say this is a well-kept secret of the locals. I have to say that every time I pass by this place, I see cars in the small parking lot.
Indoor activities in Reykjavik
The first museum I recommend checking out in Reykjavik is the Perlan Museum.
This museum is a great visit for families and everyone interested in how Iceland came to be, and you get to experience everything Iceland has to offer.
I visited the museum after I visited all those places and it was a very nice experience. If you’re going there after you arrive in Iceland, you will get a preview of what you’ll experience in Iceland.
A lot of museums can be found in the port area, where the ships leave for the whale tours.
Some other cool museums to visit in Reykjavik if you have the time:
- Saga Museum: Dive into Iceland’s rich history and folklore through realistic wax figures.
- Maritime Museum: Learn about Iceland’s maritime history and its impact on the island nation’s culture.
- Reykjavik 871 +/- 2: This museum showcases the remains of a Viking longhouse and offers a glimpse into early Icelandic life.
- Ásmundarsafn: A part of the Reykjavik Art Museum, this gallery is dedicated to the works of sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson.
- The Settlement Exhibition: An underground museum that focuses on the archaeological remains from the Viking Age, discovered in Reykjavik.
- The Punk Museum: For something edgy, check out this museum dedicated to Iceland’s punk music scene.
- Whales of Iceland: Though not a traditional museum, this is a fascinating exhibit that features life-sized models of whales.
- The Icelandic Phallological Museum: A unique, off-beat museum dedicated to the study of phallology, featuring a collection of more than 200 penises from various species.
- Aurora Reykjavik: If you can’t catch the Northern Lights, this museum offers an interactive experience of what it’s like to witness them.
- The Museum of Photography: A small but impactful museum showcasing both Icelandic and international photography.
Live music and nightlife
Reykjavik’s nightlife and live music scenes are surprisingly vibrant for a city of its size.
The city offers a range of experiences, from cosy pubs with live acoustic performances to larger venues featuring both local and international acts. The nightlife is not just confined to the weekends; you’ll find something happening almost every night, especially during the long summer days or the festive winter season.
- Gaukurinn: Located on Tryggvagata Street, this is a popular spot for live music, particularly for those who love rock and alternative genres.
- Kaffibarinn: Situated on Bergstaðastræti, it’s one of Reykjavik’s most iconic bars, known for its vibrant atmosphere and occasional DJ nights.
- Húrra: Found on Hverfisgata, this venue offers a variety of live music, from jazz to electronic and indie. It also hosts weekly comedy nights.
- Mengi: Located on Óðinsgata, Mengi is more of an art-house offering a space for experimental music and art performances.
- Dillon: A cosy spot on Laugavegur Street known for its rock-oriented ambience and frequent live performances.
- Slippbarinn: Situated within the Reykjavik Marina Hotel, this trendy bar offers cocktails and often hosts jazz nights.
- Icelandic Opera: For a more formal evening, check out the Icelandic Opera located at Háskólabíó on Dunhaga. Their season typically runs from September to May.
- Prikið: One of the oldest bars in Reykjavik, located on Bankastræti, famous for its hip-hop and rap nights.
- Paloma: Located on Naustin, it’s a multi-floor venue featuring different types of music, from techno to reggae.
- The Dubliner: Situated on Hafnarstræti, this Irish pub offers a relaxed setting and occasionally hosts live music nights.
Day Trips from Reykjavik
Reykjavik serves as an excellent base for various day trips that let you explore Iceland’s natural wonders, history, and culture. Within just a few hours’ drive from the capital, you can immerse yourself in otherworldly landscapes—from geysers and waterfalls to volcanic craters and glacial lagoons. Day trips are a fantastic way to get the best of both worlds: the city’s modern comforts and the country’s untouched natural beauty.
Popular Day Trips:
- Golden Circle: This popular route includes the stunning Gullfoss waterfall, the geysers of Geysir and Strokkur, and the historic Þingvellir National Park.
- Blue Lagoon: About 40 minutes from Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon is famous for its geothermal waters and luxurious spa treatments.
- South Coast: Visit Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara, and the charming village of Vík.
- Snæfellsnes Peninsula: Known as “Iceland in Miniature,” this area offers a bit of everything: lava fields, a glacier, small fishing villages, and dramatic cliffs.
- Reykjanes Peninsula: Closer to the capital, this area is filled with volcanic landscapes, including the Krýsuvík geothermal area and the Bridge Between Continents, where you can walk between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
- The Westman Islands: Accessible by ferry, this small archipelago offers puffin-watching, hiking, and a glimpse into island life.
- Akureyri: Although a bit further away, this “Capital of the North” can be reached by a short domestic flight and offers a different vibe compared to Reykjavik.
- Húsavík: If you’re keen on whale watching, consider a trip to this town in the north. It’s a longer journey but well worth it for the high likelihood of spotting various species of whales.
What will you do and see in Reykjavik?
As you can see, the list of things to do in Reykjavik is both diverse and captivating.
Whether you’re an adventurer eager to explore the natural wonders just beyond the city limits, a culture enthusiast looking to dive into Iceland’s rich history and art, or a social butterfly aiming to experience the city’s live music and nightlife, Reykjavik has something for everyone.
The city not only offers its own array of activities but also serves as a convenient launching pad for numerous day trips that showcase Iceland’s stunning landscapes and unique attractions.
From soaking in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon to strolling along Laugavegur’s bustling shopping street and from catching a live performance at Harpa Concert Hall to venturing out to see the Northern Lights, the things to do in Reykjavik are bound to make your trip unforgettable. So pack your bags and get ready to explore all that this vibrant and beautiful city has to offer!