Reykjavik’s origins can be traced back to AD 870, when it is believed to have been Iceland’s first permanent Nordic settlement. There are monuments to its past as a seat of the Vikings all over the city, and also to its role as the birthplace of the Althing, the world’s first parliament.
Despite all its history, modern Reykjavik holds its past and future in even balance. Its modernism is striking – from the clean lines of its buildings to its experimental music scene to its status as one of the cleanest, most environmentally conscious cities in the world. So whatever it is that draws you to Reykjavik, there’s plenty to explore when you get here.
Reykjavik’s compact size (it has only 120,000 inhabitants, over a third of Iceland’s entire population) makes it the perfect place to get round on foot. If you want to get your bearings, start by taking a trip in the elevator to the top of Hallgrimskirkja; Iceland’s largest church resembles the vast helm of a Viking ship – or an iceberg – stretching from the ground. From the top, 73 metres up in the air, you’ll get a panoramic view of Reykjavik’s colourful rooftops.
A trip to the city must take in its incredible cultural centre, Harpa. An architectural stunner, its southern façade was designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. It’s free to enter and definitely worth a visit even if just to wonder at the modernist magnificence of the building’s interior – but as home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra it also puts on an impressive selection of shows in its concert hall.
Art and culture lovers are well catered for. Learn about Icelandic history at the National Museum of Iceland, or get a sense of cutting-edge Icelandic contemporary art at the Reykjavik Art Museum’s Hafnarhús location (the museum is split over three venues) a converted warehouse a herring bone’s throw from the harbour. Then there’s the excellent sculpture garden at Einar Jónsson Museum. If you prefer your art a little more transient, the city’s streets are full of vibrant street art, too.
Those looking to get to grips with nature also have a lot of options – from whale watching at the harbour to hiking along the rugged coastline (which is also perfect for navigating by bicycle). Then there are the city’s famous hot pools. A handy by-product of Iceland’s natural volcanic action, you’ll find them all over the city – though the historical Sundhöllin Public Baths (Iceland’s oldest public swimming pool) are a popular bet.
Hallgrimskirkja Skólavörðustígur. +354 510 1000. 9am-5pm daily. Admission to the tower 700 kr.
Harpa 2 Austurbakki. +354 569 6700.8am-11pm daily. Box office 9am-6pm Mon-Fri; 10am-6pm Sat, Sun. Free admission.
National Museum of Iceland 41 Suðurgötu. +354 530-2200. May 1-Sep 15, 10am-5pm daily; Sep 16-Apr 30, 11am-5pm Tue-Sun. 1500 kr.
Reykjavik Art Museum (Hafnarhús) Tryggvagata. +354 590 1200. 10am-5pm Mon-Wed, Fri-Sun; 10am-8pm Thur. 1300 kr.
Einar Jónsson Museum Eiríksgata. + 354 561 3797. Jun 1-Sep 15, 1-5pm Tue-Sun. Sep 16-May 31, 1pm-5pm Sat, Sun. Museum admission 1000 kr.
Sundhöllin 45a Barónsstígur. +354 551 4059.6.30am-10pm Mon-Thur; 6.30am-8pm Fri; 8am-4pm Sat; 10am-6pm Sun. 600 kr.