Reykjavík is the capital of Iceland. It is the smallest capital city in Europe and despite its small size it has everything a “proper” capital city should have, vivid night live, museums, great restaurants, lively music scene, theaters, galleries and so much more.
Reykjavík is the capital city of Iceland and nearly two-thirds of the country’s population lives in the capital area. It is a small but modern city with a population of approximately 123,000 while 217,000 people live in the Capital Region, also called the Greater Reykjavík area. Despite its small size, however, it has everything a proper capital city should have: vivid nightlife, a lively music scene, a busy downtown area, modern museums, world-class restaurants, and so much more.
In our detailed guide, you will learn everything that is important and useful for planning your stay in Reykjavík. You will receive a brief overview of the local Viking history just to understand the context and the Nordic atmosphere. You will find a handy collection of the must-see places and must-do activities, including all of the things you can do for free. We have also listed a bunch of helpful recommendations on where to eat and drink in the capital area. Let us guide you around our lovely capital city of Reykjavík!
Things to Know About Reykjavík
Reykjavík is the northernmost capital of a sovereign state in the world.
It is among the cleanest, greenest, and safest cities in the world.
The first permanent settlement in Iceland was in Reykjavík in 874 AD.
The word Reykjavík translates literally as “smoky bay”. The name refers to the steam that used to rise from the hot springs and geothermal vents.
64% of all Icelanders live in the capital area.
Reykjavík is the only Western European capital without a Starbucks or a McDonald’s.
Reykjavík is the only capital city in the world that is home to a puffin colony.
Dogs were banned in Reykjavík from 1924 to 1984.
As a consequence of the dog ban, Reykjavík is still a mostly cat city.
There is a penis museum in Reykjavík called the Icelandic Phallological Museum.
One of the Safest Capitals in the World
Iceland has been near the top on the list of the safest countries in the world for decades and Reykjavík also has topped the list of the safest cities. The crime rate here is unbelievably low! Scams, racism, homophobia, violence, and sexual harassment are almost nonexistent. If you are afraid of walking down the streets at night, you should come to Reykjavík in the summer as there is no darkness at all!
The Weather in Reykjavík
The weather in Reykjavík is slightly different from the rest of the country. It is the mildest region in the country and probably one of the wettest regions as well. Summers are modest with more clouds and slightly lower temperatures than in North Iceland while the winters are milder with more rain and less snow than in the north.
Average temperatures are between -2 and 4°C (28-39°F) from December to March. They start to rise slightly in April and May to reach a maximum of 13 to 14°C (55-57°F) in the summer months. Occasionally, it can be 18 to 20°C (64-68°F) in summer, but that does not happen very often. The temperatures start to decrease from September until November when winter will return with its freezing temperatures.
Most precipitation falls between October and March, which are also the windiest and darkest months. Read our comprehensive guide to the weather in Iceland to find out more.
How to Get to Reykjavík
Getting to Reykjavík has never been easier. A number of airlines operate regular flights to Iceland which depart from nearly 90 cities around the world. The majority of travelers arrive by plane and land in Keflavík International Airport (KEF). It is located 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Reykjavík’s city center.
There is also a domestic airport in central Reykjavík and several small airports around the country, such as those in Ísafjörður (North-West), Egilsstaðir (East), and Akureyri (North). These airports receive a few international flights as well, mainly from Nordic countries.
Getting to Iceland by sea is also possible as numerous cruise ships sail to Iceland. Most of the cruise ships sailing to Reykjavík are from Europe or North America. There is also a scheduled ferry service on the Smyril Line. It departs from Denmark and crosses the North Atlantic with a stop in the Faroe Islands. This ferry does not, however, dock in Reykjavík but rather at a 10-hour drive from the capital in East Iceland.
The Best Time to Visit Reykjavík
The short answer is: anytime! Every season has its own benefits. The best time for you to visit only depends on your own personal interests.
If you would like to see the Northern Lights, you should come between September and March. If the Aurora are the only reason for your visit, come between November and February when the nights are the darkest and longest.
If you would like to hike and camp, take long road trips, enjoy the benefits of the midnight sun, and see Reykjavík at its busiest, summer is the best option. Spring and autumn are the season’s edges and are the best for budget travelers and for those who want to get a little bit of every kind of weather and experience.
A Brief History of Reykjavík
Reykjavík was the location of the first permanent settlement in Iceland. It was established in 874 AD by a Norseman named Ingólfr Arnarson with his family and slaves. There was no urban development in the area during the following centuries.
Reykjavík in the Middle Ages
In 1225, an Augustinian monastery was founded on the offshore island of Viðey, which was later destroyed during the 16th-century Reformation period.
In the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, the country went through a civil war and was first absorbed into the Kingdom of Norway before later being absorbed into the Scandinavian Kalmar Union. After the union dissolved, Iceland became subject to the Danish Crown.
The Foundation of Iceland’s Capital City
In the early 17th century, the Danish king declared a trade monopoly on Iceland, leaving the country starving. Around this time, in the 1750s, local sheriff Skúli Magnússon, the “Father of Reykjavík”, established wool workshops in the area allowing it to quickly become a hub of wool production.
Thanks to these workshops, Reykjavík started to grow significantly as a port and slowly transformed into a regional – and later national – center of commerce, population, and governmental activities.
This growth was further boosted when the Crown declared free trade for Iceland with all nationalities. This year, 1786, is regarded as the foundation of Reykjavík.
Reykjavík in the 1860’s. Photo: Sigfús Eymundsson
Iceland’s Steps Towards Independence
In 1874, the Icelandic Parliament gained limited legislative power and, in essence, became the institution that it is today. In 1904, home rule was given to Iceland and the office of Minister for Iceland was established in Reykjavík. The biggest step towards independence was taken on December 1, 1918, when the Kingdom of Iceland became a sovereign country under the Crown of Denmark.
Reykjavík During and After World War II
With the rest of the world at war, there was a huge demand for sources of fish among the fighting nations. This was a service which Iceland could provide. Because of its strategic location in the mid-Atlantic, Britain invaded Iceland in 1940, helping to protect its fisheries, and then the US took over this protective occupation in 1941.
When the war ended in 1944, Iceland declared its complete independence from Denmark. From that point on, Reykjavík became the capital city of this newly independent country.
After WWII, during the Cold War, some US troops remained in Iceland. During their stay, the Americans dramatically pushed Reykjavík towards development. They wanted to eat, drink, go out, attend cultural events, and to be entertained.
They also had a large social impact on the locals who started to feel the need to extend their social lives as well. To fulfill these new needs, Reykjavík started to develop new infrastructures. Bars and restaurants opened and the city began to invest in sports and the arts.
A once simple village rapidly transformed into a modern city. During the last decade of the 20th century, cultural interest in Iceland grew rapidly due to pop bands and musicians such as Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Múm, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men; the poet Sjón; and the visual artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Reykjavík was chosen as one of the European Cities of Culture and one of the UNESCO Cities of Literature. Today, it is at its peak as more and more visitors come to visit the northernmost capital. In 2018, approximately 2.6 million people visited Reykjavík.
Things to See in Reykjavík
Reykjavík may be a small city, but there is so much to see! The downtown area can be easily walked in just 2-3 hours while there are many other interesting sights further from the walking streets as well.
The Main Sights
The Sun Voyager is a metal statue resembling a Viking longboat which sits on the seashore in Reykjavík. This piece of artwork by Jón Gunnar Árnaso is one of the most visited sights in Reykjavík and makes a great photo location with its view of Mount Esja on the other side of the bay.
The Harpa Concert and Conference Hall is one of the major tourist attractions in Reykjavík. This stunning glass building won an award of contemporary architecture and hosts the best music and cultural events in Iceland. After dark, its outer walls are lit up in an assortment of patterns and displays.
The Flea Market is open every weekend and offers an amazing variety of handmade artifacts, jewelry, and knitted wares among the many interesting antiquities and secondhand items.
The Old Harbor area offers a stunning selection of fish and steak restaurants, cafés, and a lovely atmosphere which resembles the city’s close relationship with the sea. All of the whale watching, fishing, puffin watching, and Northern Lights boat tours depart from here.
The Parliament Building hosts the meetings of the Icelandic parliament (Alþingi). It was built in 1880-1881 and has the oldest public garden in Iceland. The modest parliament building is also home to the National Library, the Antiquities Collection (a precursor of the National Museum), and the National Gallery.
The City Hall and the Pond, called Tjörnin, and the nice park that surrounds them is another of the most commonly recommended places in Reykjavík to explore. The prominent lake is home to 40-50 bird species and the park is one of the locals’ favorite recreation areas.
The Cabinet House was originally built to accommodate vagabonds in the 18th century but then the Danish government decided that the house should serve as a prison, which it did until 1816. In 1904, when Iceland was granted home rule, this announcement was read publicly on the steps of the Cabinet House and then the official flag of the country was hoisted for the first time in front of this building. Consequently, the house was occupied by the ministers of the Icelandic government and got its present role.
Laugavegur is the main shopping street in Reykjavík. It is famed for its boutiques, souvenir stores, restaurants, and bars. It is one of the oldest streets in Reykjavík and is considered to be the heart of the downtown area.
Hallgrímskirkja church, with its height of 74.5 meters (244 feet), is the largest church in Iceland and one of its tallest structures. It is visible from everywhere in the city as it sits at the top of a small hill. Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran parish church designed to resemble the trap rocks, mountains, and glaciers of Iceland.
Perlan, a distinctive glass dome resting on five water tanks on the top of a hill, now serves as a museum, café, and restaurant. It offers one of the best views over Reykjavík and is surrounded by a beautiful, small, forested park.
Perlan in Reykjavik. Photo: Tony Hisgett (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)
The Northern Lights in Reykjavík
For most visitors, one of the main sights in Reykjavík during the winter months are the Northern Lights. If the Aurora is strong enough, you will be able to see the lights from anywhere in the city. The best is, however, to seek for a place where the light pollution is at its lowest and where there are no large buildings around to block the view of the horizons.
The best place for Aurora hunters in Reykjavík is probably the Grótta Lighthouse. It is located quite far from the downtown area (1 hour on foot), but the light pollution is close to zero and you have almost a 360-degree view. Other good options include the coastal walking area next to the Harpa Concert Hall, any larger city park, or the Perlan.
Things to Do in Reykjavík
Even though Reykjavík is small, do not think that it is boing. There are plenty of great options for entertainment for people of any age.
Organized sightseeing tours, food and beer tours, walking tours have the benefit of being guided by locals who know all the history, folk tales, fun facts, and secrets of the city. There are a number of guided activities in Reykjavík, starting with the Hop-On Hop-Off buses, small group tours, and private tours.
Self-Guided Walking Tours
If you prefer to explore the city by yourself, you can easily walk around the downtown area in just a few hours. We created a Reykjavík city walk map for your self-guided walking tour that includes all of the must-see locations within walking distance from the downtown area.
Reykjavík Street Art
Reykjavík is famous for its vibrant street art scene. Urban graffiti and sophisticated wall poems appear on every third building in the downtown area, but there are probably hundreds of pieces scattered all over the city.
Reykjavík is home to some world-class art galleries as well as modern, interactive natural and scientific exhibitions and historical museums. Reykjavík is the cultural center of Iceland and a major figure in the Nordic cultural scene. Here is a list of the museums you should visit:
Reykjavík is famous for having a thriving nightlife scene and for hosting some of the best music festivals in Northern Europe such as Iceland Airwaves. Thanks to its size, the downtown area is ideal for bar crawls. Breweries can be found everywhere and the craft beer selection is just stunning.
Cocktail bars and dance clubs and are numerous and one can find a good place to enjoy any party style in the downtown area, for sure. To the joy of bar crawlers, some hot dog stands are open around the clock downtown. Check out our recommendations and our ultimate guide to Reykjavík’s nightlife.
Geothermal Swimming Pools
Reykjavík is built on the top of several geothermal springs. This is where its name comes from: Reykjavík translates to “smoky bay”. Locals have made their lives more comfortable by soaking in the hot springs and when the city was modernized, they built geothermal swimming pools using the naturally hot water that comes from the ground for free.
There are 14 swimming pools in Greater Reykjavík. Here are the five of the best ones:
There are some excellent gourmet restaurants in Reykjavík as well as cheap and cozy places and good street food. Icelandic food is among the healthiest in the world. Thanks to the incredibly clear water and air, freely-grazing livestock, abundant wild fish, and chemical-free plants, Reykjavík’s restaurants offer what may be the best quality food you may have ever tried.
Reykjavík is the base for most guided tours. Tour companies pick up their guests from a number of locations throughout the capital. It is recommended that those who would like to join a guided tour book their accommodation within the city of Reykjavík. The closer to the center of the city, the better. (More information about pickup locations can be found here.)
Reykjavík is the ultimate base for the nature sightseeing tours as well as many activities such as glacier hikes, snorkeling, lava caving, and so on.