City of the Moment: Reykjavík

Reykjavík is having a moment. 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 highly individualistic style.

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; 1786 is considered the city’s official founding date.

Reykjavík is the most compact capital city in all of Europe.
Reykjavík is the most compact capital city in all of Europe. Photo © Paul van den Berg/123rf.

Today, Reykjavík has a lot of people, cars, and trees, in stark contrast to the rest of the country. Roughly 200,000 of Iceland’s 330,000 residents live in the capital city. Though it’s small, its energy mimics that of New York City or Berlin. Reykjavík residents are known to have two lives: They work by day and become musicians, artists, or poets by night. While strolling on Reykjavík’s main street, Laugavegur, you’ll see street art among the high-end shops, musicians playing impromptu concerts outside coffeehouses, and small art galleries boasting original “Icelandic Design.” It’s undeniably a creative place.

While Reykjavík can seem quite urban with its galleries and restaurants, nature is never too far away. The air is unbelievably clean (unlike in many urban areas), and whales can be seen passing by the harbor during the summer.

Planning Your Time

Given its small size, Reykjavík can be “done” in 1-2 days depending on your level of interest. Some travelers treat Reykjavík as their starting point before heading out on the Ring Road or booking day trips into the countryside, while others travel to Reykjavík specifically for the nightlife and art scene.

Getting Around

Reykjavík is the most compact capital city in all of Europe. City center and the old harbor are situated in the northern half of the city, and the main bus station (BSÍ) is in the south. Most of the hotels, museums, shops, and restaurants are in the northern half, and tourists don’t have to venture far outside city center on short trips to Reykjavík.

The main street in central Reykjavík is Laugavegur, which starts in the east. As you move west, it eventually becomes Bankastræti, which ends up Austurstræti. The streets tend to have long names, and there isn’t a grid system in place, but the city is small enough that you won’t get too lost. Hlemmur bus station on the east end of Laugavegur is Strætó’s main depot downtown. It can connect you to just about anywhere in central and greater Reykjavík.

Travel map of Greater Reykjavík
Greater Reykjavík

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