The Top Museums and Indoor Activities in Reykjavík
Reykjavík is a small, charming capital city full of history, art, and beautiful outdoor spaces. Relatively affordable airfares are drawing weekenders from both sides of the Atlantic, giving Iceland’s capital city a chance to show off its urban appeal and individualistic style. There are numerous museums, galleries, and iconic spaces to visit. Below are a few suggestions for a great stay in bustling Reykjavík.
History of Reykjavík
Reykjavík’s history dates back to AD 874 when Ingólfur Arnarson from Norway established the first settlement in Iceland. The city slowly grew over the centuries, and in 1786, Reykjavík was established as an official trading town. Today, Reykjavík has a lot of people, cars, and trees, in stark contrast to the rest of the country. Roughly 230,000 of Iceland’s 370,000 residents live in the capital city. Though it’s small for a capital city, its energy mimics that of bigger cities like Berlin.
Attractions in Reykjavík
Reykjavík has many cultural attractions that draw visitors from around the world. While the outdoor spaces in the city are spectacular, many indoor attractions are worth a visit. Some suggestions are below.
A striking glass structure, Harpa hosts rock concerts, operas, the Icelandic Symphony, and international conferences. Designed by Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson, the hall’s exterior features individual glass panels that light up during the darkness of winter, sometimes blinking in a pattern or simply changing colours, and the building’s harbourside location lends itself to lovely reflections. Since opening its doors in 2011, Harpa has been lauded by design organisations and publications around the world. It’s also just a fun place to explore and take pictures of, even if you’re not going to attend a concert or conference.
Perlan, “the Pearl,” is the distinctive, dome-shaped structure in Reykjavík’s skyline that offers one of the best views of the city skyline from its outdoor viewing platform, where you can walk the perimeter and get a perfect panorama. The interior underwent a significant renovation in 2017, and the public building now hosts exhibitions on ice caves, glaciers, volcanoes, and puffins, among others. There is also a planetarium and northern lights exhibition in the building.
Hallgrímskirkja is one of the most photographed and visited sites in Reykjavík. The “Church of Hallgrímur” is a national monument dedicated to the celebrated Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674). The Lutheran church is a modern structure made out of concrete, with unique basalt-style columns at the bottom coming to a point at the top. Standing 73 metres high, the church was designed by prominent state architect Guðjón Samúelsson. However, for many visitors, the highlight of a trip to Hallgrímskirkja is a visit to the top of the church tower, which offers incredible panoramic city views. There’s a small fee to access the elevator that transports you to the church’s top.
Bessastaðir is the official residence of the President of Iceland and an important historical site that has played a prominent role in the country’s history. The property of Bessastaðir, which is considered “the people’s house “, has a history that runs from the settlement age. Bessastaðir was first settled in 1000; it became one of Snorri Sturluson’s farms in the 13th century. After Snorri’s murder in 1241, Bessastaðir was claimed by the King of Norway. After that, it became a Royal stronghold and the home of the King’s highest-ranking officers and officials in Iceland. In the late 18th century, Bessastaðir was changed into a school for a few years before becoming a farm. In 1867 the farm was purchased by the poet and statesman Grímur Thomsen, who lived there for almost two decades. Among later owners were parliamentarian Skúli Thoroddsen and his wife, Theodóra Thoroddsen, who was well known for her literary works. In 1940 Sigurður Jónasson bought Bessastaðir and donated it to the state in 1941 as a residence for the President of Iceland. Today, tourists are welcome to view parts of the house on tours.
Icelandic Lava Show
The Icelandic Lava Show allows guests to get up close and personal with lava at a safe distance. In the Grandi neighbourhood of Reykjavík, the lava show recreates a volcanic eruption by superheating natural lava up to 1100°C and then pouring it in front of an audience. This is the only live lava show in the world and has received multiple innovation awards and recognition for its educational and cultural value. Even if a volcano isn’t erupting in Iceland at the time of your visit, you can see lava in Reykjavík.
FlyOver Iceland gives visitors a thrilling bird’s eye view of the stunning landscapes of Iceland. Located in the Grandi neighbourhood in Reykjavík, the experience utilises state-of-the-art technology, with full motion seating, for a true sense of flight. On the ride, guests will hang suspended, feet dangling, before a 20-metre wraparound screen, giving you the sensation of flying around Iceland. The film takes you on an fantastic journey across Iceland, seeing the diverse landscape from all angles.
Whales of Iceland
If you are looking for a family-friendly museum, Whales of Iceland is perfect. It’s a large museum located near Reykjavík’s harbour dedicated to Iceland’s gentle giants. The museum is home to 23 life-size models of different whale species found off the coasts of Iceland, and kids love this museum! There are also interactive displays where you can learn about the whales and a film.
National Museum of Iceland
Reykjavík’s main heritage and history museum houses everything from tools and clothing of the settlement era to models of Viking-era ships. This is the best museum in the city to get insight into the history of the Icelandic nation and its people. The artefacts and exhibitions are well presented with clear information in English.
If art is more up your alley than history, stop by Hafnarhús. This museum focuses on contemporary art and is home to a permanent collection of paintings and prints by Erró, one of the most celebrated modern Icelandic artists. Furthermore, if you pay for entrance at Hafnarhús, you can also enter two more museums. Kjarvalsstaðir explores the works of Icelandic painter Jóhannes Kjarval (1885-1972) and Ásmundarsafn, an impressive sculpture museum featuring the works of Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982).
Tours in Reykjavík
Companies like Gray Line offer Reykjvaík tours that stop at many of the attractions listed above. The advantage of taking a tour is that you are transported in a comfortable vehicle and don’t have to worry about navigating. Leave the driving to the professionals who will transfer you between attractions. It’s possible to sign up for a Gray Line tour of Reykjavík that includes a visit to Bessastaðir as well as a combination tour that pairs visits to Reykjavík sites with the iconic attractions of the Golden Circle. This all-day tour gives you the best of both worlds: urban and countryside.
Are museums in Iceland free?
Most museums in Iceland charge a fee. However, some attractions, such as Hallgrímskirkja, Harpa, and Bessastaðir, are free to enter.
Does Iceland have a Viking museum?
Iceland has a number of Viking-related museums located throughout the country. In Reykjavík, the National Museum of Iceland offers fantastic exhibitions that include the rich history of Viking-era Iceland. There are artefacts on display from the time of settlement.