“Have you ever seen Björk?” asked a member of our Reykjavik walking tour group.
“Of course,” shrugged Erik, our guide. “In a city of 220,000 people, it’s easy. I also frequently bump into my father, my ex-girlfriend, another ex-girlfriend …”
Reykjavik, Europe’s northernmost capital city, is small but perfectly formed. Home to two-thirds of Iceland’s population of 350,000, it is also a great base from which to explore southern Iceland, including the famed Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon.
Its compact size, friendly people and cool vibe mean that you can explore and get to know it with relative ease. And as most of Reykjavik’s attractions are close to one another, it is simple to explore on a walking tour. What’s more, a walking tour is free, which helps you to cut the cost of your Iceland trip.
Only have one day in Reykjavik? No problem. Here’s the pick of the best things to see.
Let’s start with Reykjavik’s most iconic sight, Hallgrímskirja, which dominates the city’s low-lying skyline.
Built over a period of 40 years, this Lutheran church was consecrated in 1986. Its architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, drew his inspiration from two Manhattan Art-Deco masterpieces: Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. But he also paid homage to the Icelandic landscape, inspired by the shapes created when lava cools into basalt rock.
Upon entering Hallgrímskirja’s coolly sparse interior, turn around and look up at the enormous pipe organ designed by Johannes Klais of Bonn.
Don’t miss taking the lift to the observation deck at the top of Hallgrímskirja. With its tower standing 73 meters high – the tallest church in Iceland – you will get fantastic 360-degree views of Reykjavik.
Outside the church, take a moment to look at the statue of Leifur Eiriksson, a Viking explorer and the first known European to set foot in America.
- Hallgrímskirja is open from 09:00 to 17:00 in winter; 09:00 – 21:00 in summer. Admission is free.
- Entrance to the tower, which closes half an hour before the church, costs ISK 1000 (10 USD).
- To get a good photograph of Hallgrímskirja, I recommend arriving before it opens in the morning when there are fewer people and the light is kind.
Those colourful buildings that you are able to see from Hallgrímskirja’s tower are clustered around Grjóti village (Grjótaþorpið), the oldest neighbourhood in Reykjavik.
These houses are mostly constructed out of wood and embellished with corrugated iron, brought to Iceland by British merchants in the 1860s, in a parade of different colours. In 1915, a devastating city fire destroyed many houses and wooden buildings were banned from Reykjavik’s centre.
The closest that Reykjavik gets to a downtown area is Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping street, and Skólavörðustígur, which leads up to Hallgrimskirkja.
Amongst this area’s shops, bars and restaurants, keep your eyes peeled out for some of Reykjavik’s best street art.
Tjörnin Pond & City Hall
Whilst City Hall may not win an award for being the most beautiful building in Reykjavik, it is well worth a visit to view the topographical model of Iceland displayed on its ground floor.
Outside City hall is Tjörnin Pond, home to Reykjavik’s vocal population of ducks, geese and swans. The “blockhead statue” facing City Hall represents a faceless bureaucrat on his way to work. Sculpted by Magnús Tómasson in 1994, it is unclear if it was intended to be a tribute or a satire. You decide.
In the midst of winter, the pond completely freezes over and becomes an icy playground for the city’s inhabitants. But don’t worry about our feathered friends. During these cold months, warm water is pumped into a corner of Tjörnin Pond, creating a bird jacuzzi to keep them toasty.
Most Icelanders will have a view on Harpa, Reykjavik’s harbourside concert hall. Built in the turmoil of Iceland’s crippling economic recession, many were outraged at its cost, put at 164 million Euro.
Conceived as a concert venue with retail space, a hotel and luxury apartments, it was left to languish in construction purgatory until Iceland’s economic recovery. In 2009, the Government bailed it out, resulting in an uproar from its citizens.
And it was not only Icelanders who were outraged. On completion, Harpa did not meet the vision of its creator, Olafur Eliasson. It had become, in his words, “a conference centre with some music on the side.”
Ten years later, views have softened and even reversed. Harpa is lauded for its design and for its acoustics, and it has become a potent symbol of Iceland’s economic recovery.
It is stunning both inside and out. Don’t just admire it from the outside but take the lift to the 5th floor to fully appreciate its honeycombed glass walls and ceiling, and for great views over Reykjavik harbour.
Sólfar – “Sun Voyager”
The “Sun Voyager”, our final stop, is five minutes’ walk along the harbour from Harpa.
Created by the artist Jón Gunnar Áranson (1931 – 89), it represents a Viking longship. According to its creator, it was meant to represent a dream vessel floating off to a new beginning towards the setting sun.
A fitting place to end your day in Reykjavik. Now for a refreshing glass of Icelandic craft beer …
If you have more than one day in Reykjavik …
If I had more than one day in Reykjavik, I would have considered the following:
National Museum of Iceland
Through its display of artefacts from settlement to the modern age, Iceland’s national museum tells the story of the country’s history and culture.
Reykjavik Art Museum
Split over three sites, this focuses on modern and contemporary art and sculpture.
The Settlement Exhibition
Based on the remains of a 10th-century Viking longhouse, this high-tech exhibition allows an insight into early Icelandic life.
However, based on reports from other travellers, I would skip the Saga Museum, Whales of Iceland and the Icelandic Phallological Museum, a vast collection of pickled penises!
Reykjavik’s Old Harbour
Challenging weather whilst I was in Reykjavik wasn’t conducive to a gentle stroll around this area. This is where to head for whale watching and puffin tours. The old harbour also has many eateries.