A stunning backdrop pronounces Iceland’s picturesque capital: on one side of town stand rows of prim coloured rooftops outlined by a silvery, duck- and swan-filled lake. On the other, city streets slope down to the wind-capped bay of Faxaflói and a pair of quiet, bright-green islands. The mighty ridge of Mt Esja rises in the distance, perhaps the most treasured landmark in Reykjavík.
The city proper spreads out across Seltjarnanes, a peninsula whose optimal position affords (on a clear day) a tremendous panorama that extends from the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula (near Keflavík Airport) all the way up to the icy dome of Snæfellsnes glacier, a good 100km away. This incredible view – and the remarkable sky that frames it – seems an open invitation to explore the great nature of Iceland.
What sets the capital apart from the rest of the country is the presence of people, cars, and trees – all rare species elsewhere in Iceland. Indeed, appreciating Iceland’s largest town raises the question, is Reykjavík a village that acts like a city or a city that feels like a village?
On the metropolitan side of things sit the Icelandic stock exchange, a massive harbour filled with sea-going ships, high-rise hotels, a stunning glass-panelled concert venue, the national parliament building, and an art, music, and restaurant scene that rivals anything in either London or Manhattan. Villagewise, the air is unbelievably clean, whales are jumping in the harbour, a church marks the highest point in the skyline, and by the second day you might start recognising the faces you pass in the street. It’s comforting to find such big-city delights in such a small and unusual package.
It’s nearly impossible to make any generalisations about the people of Reykjavík in terms of attitude, dialect, culture, or lifestyle. Instead, consider this town as the urban expression of Iceland as a whole, which is pretty diverse. One face of the city is dedicated solely to tourists, which is welcoming and sincere, if not a little overwhelming at times. Within that same grid lies the busy heart of Reykjavík where Iceland’s intellectual, financial, and cultural elite put in their serious hours.
Weekends witness the outrageous nightlife for which the city is famed, but by Sunday morning, the streets are as silent as the sleepy suburbs nearby. In fact, just 5 minutes from the city centre you’ll find wide pavements, clipped grass and open gardens, single-family houses with two-car garages, and giant shopping areas connected by four-lane highways (not the party town you might have expected).
What to see and do
A nice focal point is Austurvöllur (the ‘east field’), which plays the part of the city’s main square and most central park. Over a millennium ago, this was a cultivated field of Iceland’s very first settlement – sheep have continued to graze on the green ever since. Today, Austurvöllur reflects the utter tranquility and small size of Iceland’s capital city.
The field’s crisscrossed paths meet at the statue of Icelandic national hero Jón Sigurdsson, sculpted by Einar Jónsson in 1931 following the millennial celebrations of the Icelandic parliament. The statue proudly faces the front of the Alþingishúsið, or Parliament House, the modern seat of Iceland’s government. As impressive as it may appear, the two-storey stone building seems a faint counterpart to the law rock at Thingvellir and the Althing’s 1,000-year-old legacy.
The present building was designed by Danish architect Ferdinand Meldahl and constructed of grey-black dolerite, a hard local stone that gives a unique colour and texture to the outside. As one of the more stately and solid buildings in Reykjavík, Alþingishúsið has been used as temporary homes for the country’s national archives, the national library, and the University of Iceland (classes were taught on the main floor for nearly 30 years). Today, this is where Iceland’s 63 members of parliament meet to govern the country. The attached modern glass building was added in 1999 to provide additional office space.
Designed and planted in 1893, Althingisgarðurinn (Parliament House Garden) was the country’s first public garden and is probably the only place in the world where you can walk into parliament unannounced and not have a gun pointed at your face. Go to the back of the left side (when facing the front of the building) and enter at the swinging gate that opens on to the circular path. The tiny garden is planted with flowers, bushes and trees and forms one of the most peaceful spots in the city, not the kind of solitude you might expect behind the house of national government. A back gate leads out on to Vonarstræti.
Lækjartorg Square is the first open area outside the small cluster of the city centre, at the intersection of Lækjargata and Bankastræti. Today it’s a central vantage point for shopping, touring, dining, and clubbing and the city’s main transportation throughway. Stand near the square and you’ll spot whatever it is that you need (there’s a well-connected bus stop on the corner).
Sightseeing-wise, the white, slate-roofed Government House (Stjórnarráðshúsið) sits in the grassy centre of the actual square. The sturdy stone building was erected in 1770 as a prison but now serves as the offices for Iceland’s prime minister. Two statues grace the front lawn: on the right, the first native ‘prime minister’ of Iceland Hannes Hafstein, and on the left, King Christian IX of Denmark holding forth the Icelandic constitution which he brought to Iceland in 1874.
The Tjörnin, or ‘pond’, separates the city centre from the east and west neighbourhoods and provides a scenic cross-section of the city, as portrayed in countless postcards and vacation photographs. It’s bigger than it looks, and a walk all the way around (take the bridge) is just under a mile in length (1.6 km). In winter, the pond freezes solid, and up until World War II, the Tjörnin was the main source of ice used for the city’s refrigeration purposes.
Geothermal runoff now empties in at the head of the pond, which prevents a small area from freezing and keeps all the waterbirds quite happy, of which there are many. Bird-wise, anything is possible, so don’t head off into the wild until you’ve had a look here. The range of species obviously shifts through the year, but you are always guaranteed to see some big swans and ducks (mainly scaup, eider and black ducks). In winter, you will see locals ice skating on the pond.
Harbour and waterfront
Reykjavík’s formerly forgotten waterfront is now one of the more exciting parts of the city. As a candid slice of urban history, the maze-like harbour is filled with all kinds of boats and grungy warehouses and fish smells that all confirm your travels. As a once-depressed industrial quarter, there’s plenty of artful graffiti and cool urban decay, though post-gentrification, it all fits with the trendy homes, lofts, restaurants, boutiques and guesthouses.
A brief walk down Geirsgata allows a fair taste of the neighbourhood, and a walk down the piers takes you past some of the newer developments. If you continue past the old harbour, you’ll quickly find yourself in the trendy Grandi neighbourhood. In recent years this area has been the focus of the city’s revitalisation efforts, and today you’ll find several good restaurants, cafés, and museums including Aurora Reykjavík and the Whales of Iceland exhibition.
The grey tower of Hallgrímskirkja defines the Reykjavík skyline in a most impressive way. At 245ft (74m) high, this is Iceland’s second tallest building and the city’s most prominent landmark – you can see the church from a good 25km away. Such totally unique architecture outweighs its very unique height. Indeed the church’s design has become a symbol of Reykjavík in its own right: an ancient theme that honours a past hero by invoking nature with modernism.
Reykjavík offers lots of fabulous ways to spend money quickly. As a rule, never judge a shop by outward appearance alone. Sophisticated window displays may give way to super-tacky inventory, while grungy basement boutiques hold one-of-a-kind treasures.
The bulk of commerce lies within a concentrated area. Laugavegur is synonymous with shopping, and most tourists spend hours tramping up and down the hill, in and out of the few hundred shops that line either side of the city’s main drag. Laugavegur has it all, but the area favours upmarket clothing and fashion boutiques, many of which sell the work of local designers. Some of these shops make you feel cool just by stepping inside them. Be sure not to miss Hrím, a quirky store that is widely regarded as ground zero for Icelandic design.
Where to eat and drink
A cornerstone of the modern dining scene in Reykjavík, Grillmarket is beloved by locals & tourists alike. Impeccable service, inventive cocktails & Icelandic dishes presented with the creative culinary twists that put the country on the foodie map, this is one not to miss.
Kaffibarinn is where Icelanders go to run into someone famous then say they
did. Partly famous because it used to be part-owned by Damon Albarn of British band Blur & partly because it’s so hard to get into, this is a true institution.
Tiny space, tiny drinks, long queues, but nonetheless interesting, the dancefloor gets packed late on weekends so arrive early and get ready to groove!
Getting there and away
Reykjavík is amazingly accessible by plane. Direct flights connect the capital to almost every regional airport, including the Westman Islands, as well as several airports in Greenland. From the much larger but much farther Keflavík Airport, there are daily connections serving dozens of convenient international destinations.
All roads lead to Reykjavík, or rather – the road leads to Reykjavík. No matter where you are in the country, you’re bound to find some sign that tells you how many hundreds of kilometres you are from the capital, or from Route 1 if you’re not already on it. The driving distance to Reykjavík from Keflavík is 50km (30 miles) on Route 41; from Akureyri it’s 389km (233 miles) on Route 1; from the ferry port at Seyðisfjörður in the East Fjords it’s 680km (408 miles).
All major public and private bus lines service Iceland’s capital regularly, although prior planning is imperative for making connections to and from more remote places (ie: the West Fjords or the east of the country). Departure times and frequency change with the seasons, so check the latest schedules online or those printed and distributed by the individual bus companies. The service between Reykjavík and Keflavík is frequent year-round and takes about 1 hour. Other daily routes include Selfoss (via Hveragerði; 50mins); Borgarnes (via Akranes; 1hr 20mins); Akureyri (on Route 1; 6hrs 30mins); and Höfn (via Vík & Kirkjubæjarklaustur; 7hrs).