Part 5 of 6
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I spent my last few hours before my flight back home walking around Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. I’m glad I did as I fell in love with this little city. And, you can’t blame me. This little gem in the middle of the ocean is overflowing with beauty, charm and magic.
Unlike some other cities, Reykjavik isn’t really close to the international airport Keflavik, and it’s very easy to fly in, explore Iceland and not once step foot into Reykjavik. But that would be a travesty and a mistake, because not so surprisingly, Reykjavik is just as special and surprising as the rest of this small island nation.
I know, everyone wants to get out and see the beautiful countryside and scenic landscapes and they should. But the capital city deserves just as much time, at least on that first visit. The city centre where most of the major sights are located is compact and very walkable. Some personal highlights for me include:
- Head to Perlan for stunning views of the city
- Grab lunch at one of Reykjavik’s famous hot dog stands, the most popular snack in the country (order it the Icelandic way, they’ll know what you mean)
- Marvel at the architecture
- Take pictures of the brightly coloured, Danish inspired buildings and amazing street art
- Walk along the marina area and enter the Harpa Concert Hall
Reykjavik, located in southwest Iceland, is actually the world’s northernmost capital and boasts a population of only 125,000 people. It’s also thought to be the location of the first Norse settlement way back in 870 AD. The awesome Viking history is seen all around, from the local traditions to the food to the souvenirs.
Reykjavik is also one of the greenest and most sustainable cities the world because it uses geothermal and hydrogen power. And, their tap water is their own pure natural spring water. It comes with a smell of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide for the more chemistry-minded people out there), at least where I was staying, but it’s still perfectly safe to drink so that’s okay!
The city is also a haven for history and museum buffs. In fact, there are a myriad of museums one can check out to satisfy curiosities and pocket some new and interesting titbits. To learn more about the Vikings or Iceland itself, look no further than Tales from Iceland, the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition, or the Saga Museum to brush up on your Icelandic history. Art lovers will want to check out the Reykjavík Art Museum.
But if you’re looking for something a little more outside the box then check out the Icelandic Punk Museum or The Volcano House. And for (truly) less standard fare and an almost guaranteed good chuckle? Why, look no further than the Icelandic Phallological Museum, of course! You’ll be hard pressed to find a more dazzling display of penises anywhere in the world!
Unfortunately, I was on a shoestring budget and also tight on time as I only had a few hours in Reykjavik before driving off to the airport so I was unable to visit any of the museums in the city. However, since most travellers visiting Iceland spend some time in the capital, I wanted to recommend some things you can do for free in Reykjavik, no matter what time of year you visit.
Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in the city, is absolutely striking. It was built to mimic the look of volcanic basalt rock, which are quite bizarre-looking lava rock columns, paying tribute to the island’s geological history. A statue of the famous explorer Leif Eriksson stands in front.
The church is itself a monument to the famous Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson. You can visit most days, except during Sunday services or if there happens to be a special event/concert going on. The lift to the top costs 900 ISK (around €6) for adults. The view of the city from the top is really something to shout about!
Harpa Concert Hall
This must be one of the coolest-looking buildings I’ve ever visited. Harpa Concert Hall is completely made of glass, reflecting the Icelandic landscape, sea, and sky off its wild geometric design. This impressive structure is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera.
The Harpa Concert Hall is situated with a clear view of the sea and the mountains surrounding Reykjavik. The design was made to form a mountain-like massif similar to basalt rock on the coast. A sculpture in its own right, the landmark project reflects the harbour and the life of the city.
At night there are moving multicoloured lights, making the building seem alive! Try to see a concert here, but if not, it’s still worth going in and having a look around (which is free). Make sure to walk around the backside by the docks too!
The Sun Voyager Sculpture
This remarkable piece of art, built by Icelandic sculptor Jon Gunnar Arnason is an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope. It’s the most famous sculpture in Iceland. If you love art and culture, this sculpture is a must-see stop while exploring Iceland’s capital city! One of the best times to view it is around sunset. You can reach it on foot heading east from Harpa Concert Hall.
A popular misconception is that the Sun Voyager represents a Viking Ship. However, that is not quite the case. According to the sculptor’s vision, the piece rather accounts for a vessel of dreams. In his own words, the artist says that the sculpture represents, “the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.”
Eat an Icelandic Hot Dog
Icelanders LOVE their hot dogs. In fact, the hot dog has been called the National Food of Iceland so at lunch time, when I was feeling rather peckish, I made it a point to stop at one of the various hot dog stands in the city!
Order an Icelandic hot dog as most Icelanders do and yours will be served on a warm, steamed bun topped with raw white onions and crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and remoulade, a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs. Yummy!
Street Art Hunting
The city centre of Reykjavík is covered in street art murals and graffiti. You do not really need to do much hunting actually to find them. All you have to do is wander around the streets of the city centre looking for these cool murals.
Perlan Museum & Viewpoint
Sitting on top of Öskjuhlíð Hill in Reykjavik you’ll find the very cool glass-domed Perlan Museum. Not only does the museum boast one of the best viewpoints of the city but it also houses Iceland’s largest nature exhibition.
Thanks to the building’s privileged location on Öskjuhlíð Hill, the viewpoint offers spectacular panoramic views of Reykjavik, almost rivalling that of the Hallgrímskirkja Tower. Walking around the Perlan dome, you’ll enjoy 360 degree views of the Icelandic capital and its surroundings. And it’s completely FREE to climb up here for the views.
Kolaportið Flea Market
Kolaportid Flea Market is an old warehouse located in the harbor area of Reykjavik. Packed with all kinds of odds & ends, cheap souvenirs, and used books. If you want to buy a classic Icelandic wool sweater, this is the place to find a deal.
It’s fun to wander looking for a bargain, or to just people-watch and hang out with regular Icelanders. You can also get food here, like dried fish, flatbread, fresh licorice, and Iceland’s famous fermented shark too. It’s usually open on weekends, and all week during the summer months.
Walk around Hljómskálagarður Park
Hljómskálagarður Park is a very nice city park located on the west side of the city of Reykjavik. It’s only a short walk away from the Hallgrimskirkja Church and city centre. It’s a lush green space with a lake that attracts a variety of birds, plus play equipment & statues.
The park contains lots of benches for people watching or watching the ducks and geese in the quiet, serene pond during the warmer spring and summer months. The park is a popular site to unwind after a day of shopping, particularly in summer, and can be dark enough during winter to spot the northern lights. It’s great for both adults and children; the latter will be entertained by the play park on site.
Don’t forget to check out the nearby neighbourhoods as well. Some of the nicest and richest homes in all of Iceland are in the immediate vicinity of the park.
I always cringe when I talk to someone who is planning a trip to Iceland and they tell me they don’t have any intention of exploring Reykjavik. They plan to hit the ground running the minute they touch down in Iceland and get out to the countryside. In other words, bypassing Reykjavik is their intentional decision!
But I’m happy to say that if you have the good fortune of visiting Iceland, please make room for Reykjavik in your schedule, even if you have just a morning or afternoon in your travels to give it. It’s one of those places that firmly plants itself into your heart forever and will have you pining for it long after you’ve said goodbye. Until we meet again Reykjavik …