There’s no shortage of things to see and do in Reykjavík. Spend your days seeing the top ten sights of the city while you’re waiting for its famous nightlife to get started.
Sólfar (Sun Voyager)
Situated near a coastal path popular with cyclists and runners is Sólfar (by the street called Sæbraut), a huge aluminum sculpture that resembles a Viking ship. Before Harpa was built, Sólfar was the top spot to take photos near the harbor. But, it’s still a big draw for tourists and definitely worth a visit. Icelandic sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason was inspired by undiscovered territory and chasing the sun, hence the name the Sun Voyager. The sculpture was unveiled in 1990, just months after Jón Gunnar’s death. The view of Mount Esja, the sea, and passing boats is the perfect backdrop for photos. On clear days, you can see the town of Akranes across the bay.
Listasafn Reykjavíkur (Reykjavík Art Museum)
The Reykjavík Art Museum is actually three museums (Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn) in three different locations. Admission is 1,200ISK, and each museum is open 10am-5pm daily. It’s important to note that if you purchase a ticket to any one of the three museums, you are granted free admission to the other two. But the free entry is only available on the same day your ticket was purchased. Each museum is pretty small and you can hit all three in one day, as an hour at each is enough time.
Hafnarhús (Tryggvagata 17, tel. 354/590-1200), which focuses on contemporary art, is the crown jewel of the three museums, in part because of its permanent collection of Erró paintings and prints. Erró, an Icelandic pop artist, is one of the most celebrated modern Icelandic artists. The museum’s collection is extensive, and works are regularly rotated to make room for new works. His work ranges from light pop art with bright colors and interesting characters to samples of line sketches from his earlier work. While the art can be playful, the artist also tackles political and social issues in his work. The museum also houses works from other Icelandic artists, as well as rotating exhibitions of foreign painters, designers, and visual artists. You get a sense that this is Reykjavík’s version of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The museum is based in a nondescript white-block building, and the interior has three floors of exhibitions. The ground floor holds the souvenir shop and coat check along with a large open space for exhibits. The upper floors are dedicated to exhibitions.
Kjarvalsstaðir (Flókagata 24, tel. 354/517-1290) is the place to go if you’re looking to explore the works of Icelandic painter Jóhannes Kjarval (1885-1972), who is best known for his dark and moody paintings of Iceland’s landscape. Kjarval was a master of capturing Iceland’s raw nature in the winter light. The majority of Kjarval’s collection was left to the city of Reykjavík after his death. The other wing of the museum features various Icelandic artists, ranging from well-known modern artists to some of Iceland’s best and brightest art students. The museum is one level with a coffeehouse in the middle of the two wings. The high ceilings and wall of windows by the coffeehouse make for an interesting space. A large outdoor field behind the museum sometimes serves as a spot for sculpture exhibitions. The museum is on the small size, so budget an hour to check out the art.
Ásmundarsafn (Sigtún, tel. 354/553-2155) is an impressive sculpture museum featuring only the works of Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982), who worked with materials including wood, copper, and iron. Ásmundur’s work is housed in a gorgeous stark white domed building. It’s small, so you only need an hour or less to explore the work, but it’s an hour well spent. An exhibit features what his workshop looked like, as well as renderings of projects, and his masterpiece, a chair carved out of wood. The detail of the chair is spectacular. An outdoor sculpture garden features interesting works among trees, shrubs, and flowers.
Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrímstorg, tel. 354/510-1000, 9am-9pm daily June-Aug., 9am-5pm daily rest of year, free) is one of the most photographed, and most visited, sites in Reykjavík. The “Church of Hallgrímur” is a national monument dedicated to Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of the most cherished and celebrated poets of Iceland, who lived 1614-1674. It’s a modern structure, made out of concrete, that has basalt-style columns at the bottom coming to a point at the top.
Standing at 73 meters, the Lutheran church was designed by state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, and work started on the church in 1945. Completed in 1986, the church is a must-see for tourists. The interior is home to a gorgeous organ constructed by Johannes Klais Organworks in Germany, as well as beautiful stained-glass windows. Concerts ranging from choirs to organ performances are frequently held at the church. Be sure to check the website for upcoming concerts. An annual Christmas concert features traditional songs sung in English. It’s an active church that holds services.
The highlight of a trip to Hallgrímskirkja for many is a visit to the tower (9am-9pm daily June-Aug., 9am-5pm daily rest of year, 800ISK) at the top, which has spectacular views of the city. An elevator takes you to the tower.
Listasafn Íslands (National Gallery of Iceland)
If you have time for only one art museum, the National Gallery of Iceland (Fríkirkjuvergur 7, tel. 354/515-9600, 10am-5pm Tues.-Sun. mid-May-mid-Sept. 15, 11am-5pm Tues.-Sun. mid-Sept.-mid-May, 1,000ISK) should be it due to its large and varied collection. The National Gallery houses the country’s main collection of Icelandic art, with particular emphasis on 19th- and 20th-century Icelandic and international art. Here you will see everything from traditional landscape paintings to art depicting the sagas to works by modern Icelandic artists. Works from international artists on display include some from Pablo Picasso and Richard Serra. The stately white building is a stone’s throw from Tjörnin (The Pond), so if the weather is fair, taking a leisurely stroll after visiting the museum is quite nice.
Tjörnin (The Pond) is a small body of water, rich with birdlife, situated next to the Reykjavík City Hall building. Its scenic strip of colorful houses begs to be photographed. When the weather is nice, a walk around the pond, which is about 1.5 kilometers around, is delightful. Sculptures and benches dot the perimeter. Birdlife is plentiful, with arctic terns, ducks, seagulls, and swans. Feeding the birds is not allowed, so don’t be that tourist who empties a bag of stale bread at the edge. In the winter, the pond freezes and becomes popular for ice skating.
Reykjavík’s newest landmark, Harpa (Austurbakki 2, tel. 354/528-5000) is a striking glass structure that hosts rock concerts, operas, the Icelandic Symphony, and international conferences. Designed by Icelandic/Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson, the concert hall’s exterior features individual glass panels that light up during the darkness of winter. Individual glass panels sometimes blink in a pattern, or simply change colors. The building is particularly striking since it’s so close to the water in the harbor area.
Since opening its doors in 2011, Harpa has been lauded by design organizations and magazines around the world, even earning the title of “Best Performance Venue of 2011” by Travel & Leisure magazine. There are daily guided tours of the building available for 1,750ISK, but it’s also a fun place to explore and take pictures, even if you’re not going to attend a concert or conference. A café on the bottom floor serves coffee, soft drinks, light meals, and cakes, and a formal restaurant on the fourth floor has stunning views of the harbor. Two shops also occupy the first floor: the record shop 12 Tónar and the design shop Epal.
Perlan (Öskjuhlíð, tel. 354/562-0200, free) was a unique addition to Reykjavík’s skyline in 1991. The dome-shaped structure named “The Pearl” offers one of the best views of the city skyline. It houses a café that serves coffee and light meals, a souvenir shop next to the café, and an outdoor viewing platform (10am-10pm) that overlooks the city. The main attraction, however, is a rotating fine-dining restaurant on the top floor that completes a full rotation every two hours.