These twenty one cool things to do in Reykjavik Iceland will help you explore the city’s history, food and urban street culture.
Reykjavik is cool.
By that, I’m not talking about it’s chilly weather, frozen glaciers and ice caves (which are indeed worth seeing in the winter). But rather, I mean that Reykjavik is an intriguing place to explore. I’ve never visited a city that manages to pack in so much ancient history and modern street culture into one tidy, compact center.
You can ping pong from a serious exhibit on Iceland’s settlement and Viking history to a punk rock museum. Have a peaceful view overlooking the city followed by a sobering stroll through a mournful sculpture garden. Have a hot dog with your street art and then finish up a cinnamon bun on your way to the penis museum.
It’s jarring in the most delightful way and all of the best things to do in Reykjavik have that element of surprise. So, what follows is a curated guide to the cool things to do in Reykjavik, designed to help you find those quirky spots and surprising moments.
Read straight through or use this handy table of contents to navigate around:
4 Streetwise & Cool Things to do in Reykjavik
4 Free Things to do in Reykjavik
Where to Eat & Drink in Reykjavik
3 Best Museums
2 Thermal Pools (that aren’t the Blue Lagoon)
3 Day Trips from Reykjavik
Where to Stay
4 Streetwise & Cool Things to do in Reykjavik
Hallgrimskirkja Church Views
This Lutheran church was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937 but took decades to complete. It is modeled after basalt columns of the sort that you can find on Reynisfjara black sand beach in Vik. The church’s columns shoot up 244 feet (75m) into the air, making it one of the tallest structures in Iceland. This means that the viewing platform on the top is the best place to get a 360′ view of the city. It was the first thing I did in Reykjavik after landing and the city looked beautiful in the low, winter morning light.
Tips for visiting: 1,000kr entrance fee. Open 9am-5pm in the winter and 9am-9pm in the summer.
But of course you are going to visit a museum featuring preserved penises!
The Pallological Museum is hand’s down one of the weirdest things to do in Reykjavik. The collection began as a passion project by Sigurður Hjartarson. He began collecting as a kid and the museum now includes specimens of animal penises from blue whales, dolphins, reindeer and foxes, which are either dried or preserved in formaldehyde.
At some point, the collection expanded to included animals that don’t live in Iceland, including a startlingly large elephant penis. He even persuaded the 2008 Olympic silver-medal winning Icelandic handball team to sit still long enough to do a silver cast of their…er…johnsons.
The museum is fascinating, funny and kinda gross, managing a balance between serious biology and a cheeky nod to the ridiculous nature of the collection.
Tips for Visiting: Open everyday but Sunday from 10a-6p.
Punk Rock Museum
If the Phallological Museum is the weirdest, then the Punk Rock Museum is one of the grittiest things to do in Reykjavik Iceland. The museum features the evolution of Icelandic punk rock and focuses on the period between 1978-1992. Iceland evolved it’s own particular flavor of punk in the 80’s and the museum features band profiles, lyrics and pictures. They also have images of a very young Bjork getting her start.
What makes the museum so gritty (and so fun) is that it’s housed in an abandoned underground public restroom. There is something so perfect about exploring an edgy, glue-huffing music form in a such a place. Don’t worry, they washed the bathroom before turning it into a museum. However, they did keep the “character” of the place by leaving some of the stall walls and urinals.
The museum is small, in fact three stalls of small, but I found a lot to see there and spent a remarkable amount of time exploring the exhibits.
Tips for Visiting: Open Mon-Fri 10a-10p, Sat/Sun 12p-10p. Go at night because it’s best to emerge from the experience in the dark.
Street Art in Reykjavik
Reykjavik is at an inflection point with their street art. Like Downtown Las Vegas or Chicago, they are at a point where their street art is evolving out of the tagging/graffiti phase into one that is more intentional and artful. You will find both sneaky and commissioned pieces along Laugavegur and Grettisgata (on the main downtown drag) as well as hiding out near the harbor district (south of the Maritime Museum).
Tips for seeing it: The walking tour by I Heart Reykjavik is designed as an overview of downtown but they also point out specific pieces and the guides are knowledgeable of the local scene.
4 Free Things to do in Reykjavik Iceland
CityWalk Free Walking Tour
(Recommended by Michael of The World Was Here First, check out his guide to doing Iceland on a budget.)
As visiting Iceland can be difficult on a budget, taking CityWalk’s free walking tour provides you with a great opportunity to learn about the capital city’s history and cultural quirks while also saving money in the process.
CityWalk runs their 2-hour tour several times a day and the guides are very informative while also making the effort to be entertaining. You will also get several great tips about other things to do and places to eat during your stay in the Icelandic capital.
Tips for the Tour: I recommend that you book in advance as the tours sometimes fill up. Also, make sure to tip the tour guide if you enjoy the tour as that is how they are able to continue running the tour for free.
Kolaportid Flea Market
The Kolaportid flea market offers a little window into Icelandic culture. It’s sort of like a mini-version of the Spitalfields market in Shoreditch London. Some folks are selling crafts. Some folks are selling old shoes. You can taste the local fermented shark, get the freshest licorice in town or troll the used book shop. There is some delightfully weird stuff for sale in the booths and it offers a good complement to some of the other oddball things to do in Reykjavik Iceland.
Tips for Visiting: Open Sat/Sun 11am-5pm. The entrance is right across the street from the hot dog stand.
Einar Jonsson Sculpture Park
(recommended by Lauren from Loppy Loves. Lauren is a local and she has the inside scoop on all the best things to do in Reykjavik.)
The sculpture park is a hidden gem just a 2-minute walk from the Hallgrimskirkja Church. You must pay a fee to enter the Einar Jónsson museum building but the grounds of the museum are free to explore. This garden is a must-see and it features many of the famous Icelandic sculptor’s soulful pieces cast in bronze.
This is the perfect spot to eat lunch, weather permitting, as it is usually very quiet and there are benches dotted around. You´ll spot a sculpture that looks very similar to the form of the iconic church next to the garden. This is the monument to Hallgrímur Pétursson, an Icelandic poet whom the church was named after.
Tips for Visiting: Find the entrance on Freyjugata, take the road down the right hand side of the museum entrance and you’ll find the gate. Visit during twilight hours for an enchanted garden vibe!
Walk the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula
(Recommended by Jennifer of Sidewalk Safari. Get more info on her Seltjarnarnes Peninsula walk here.)
The tip of the beautiful Seltjarnarnes Peninsula is about an hour walk from the center of Reykjavik. If you take an afternoon to walk around the peninsula, you’ll find contrasting coastal views. The south coast is protected and tranquil while the west and northern shores are windswept and rocky. Seltjarnarnes is an ideal spot to do some birdwatching within the city limits and there are even hides to spy on the eider ducks, whooping swans, and other avian residents at the center of Bakkatjörn Nature Reserve.
You will be rewarded with sweeping views of the Reykjavik skyline if you make it all the way around to the northern side of the peninsula. The Reykjavik city card comes with unlimited public bus rides and the bus pass will come in handy if your legs give out part way through the hike. Take the bus one way between the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel and Miðbraut or Hofgarðar to save your legs for the most scenic and rewarding parts of the walk.
Where to Eat & Drink in Reykjavik
Breakfast at Braud & Co
Even if your hotel offers breakfast, you need to go to Braud & Co for a second breakfast.
The powerful aroma of fresh baked goods lured me in from waaay down the block. They offer up a tasty selection of sourdough and seeded breads, danishes, sweet cakes and cinnamon buns. The cinnamon buns were the best I’ve ever eaten and if you want them, go later in the morning because they aren’t finished baking until after 11am. I purchased several of the sourdough rolls along with some cheese from a nearby store to take home with me on the plane. So. Dang. Good.
Tips for Eating: Weekdays “early”-6pm, weekends “early”-5pm.
Lunch at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur Hot Dog Stand
Sheesh, that name is a mouthful, but then so are their hot dogs. This is THE famous hot dog stand of Reykjavik and they do indeed produce a satisfying dog. They are just a tiny little food truck located across the entrance to the Flea Market and near the shuttle bus stop #2.
I ate “the works”, which is the way they recommend it. This includes a bunch of stuff that I either don’t normally like or that usually doesn’t go on a hot dog; relish, mayo sauce, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and ketchup. Somehow Baejarins makes it work.
Tips for Eating: The line gets long, so if you go for lunch, do it early or late. Alternatively, they are open until 1am Sun-Thurs and until 4am on weekends.
Snacks at Reykjavik Chips
(Recommended by Lauren of Loppy Loves)
After a few hours of shopping on Laugavegur, Reykjavik Chips is the perfect place to grab a cheap lunch or snack. Located on Vitastígur, just off the main shopping street in downtown, this cozy and affordable fast food joint is easy to find in a hurry. They only make one thing but they make it well; cones of hand cooked chips.
These perfectly seasoned, hand cut chips with the skin still on also come with your choice of sauce for smothering or dipping your fries. All of the sauces are vegetarian friendly and there is even a vegan option. A small cone starts at just 750kr, or 950kr if you add a can of soda. The cocktail sauce is recommended, an Icelandic staple. The pink salt in the shakers is called kartöflukrydd (potato seasoning) and it will make these chips even better-if that´s even possible!
Tips for Eating: Try to grab the seats tucked around the corner, they´re extra cosy.
Dinner at Svarta Kaffid
(Recommended by Luke from Two Restless Homebodies, find more food with his guide to eating in Iceland)
One of the most notable things about winters in Iceland is the wind. If you’re walking around Reykjavik – like most visitors – you’ll spend your day bent into the wind, and your muscles will definitely let you know how they feel about all that tension by the end of the day. While Reykjavik‘s hot tub culture isn’t to be taken lightly as a remedy for your knotty shoulders, you also shouldn’t forget about enjoying some hearty, warm food as a remedy for the soul. There’s no better or more affordable place to do this than Svarta Kaffid. It’s located in the heart of Reykjavik, on Laugavegur.
This itty-bitty pub keeps copper pots of soup on their well-stocked bar, so when you walk in, you’re hit in the face with the smell of their daily offerings. One soup is always veggie-based and the other is always meat-based, and both come in fresh-made bread bowls that make sure you don’t leave hungry. Plus, a soup dinner here is under $20 USD per person, which is one of the most affordable meals in the city.
Tips for Eating: Make sure you arrive early if you don’t fancy queuing up around the block.
Happy Hour at Loft Hostel
Loft Hostel’s happy hour is a favorite thing to do in Reykjavik among both visitors and locals. Beer and cocktails are notoriously expensive in Reykjavik but you can get a happy hour special at Loft for 800kr. The bar itself has a great outdoor deck and a cool indoor library.
Tips for Drinking: Happy hour is 4-7pm everyday.
3 Best Museums in Reykjavik
The National Museum of Iceland offers a thorough look at Iceland’s history. You wind your way through the exhibits from the Viking settlement through the modern age. It offers an understanding on how Iceland fits into Europe’s history and culture but it also gives insights into how isolated Iceland evolved into its own particular culture.
Tips for Visiting: Open daily from 10am-5pm. At 2000kr, the ticket price is expensive but you can save by purchasing the City Card, which gets you free or discounted entry into a bunch of museums and thermal pools along with a free bus pass.
Museum of Photography
The Museum of Photography is one of the best things to see in Reykjavik if you are interested in the visual arts. It’s located in the city library and the exhibits are focused on Icelandic photography from both local and foreign photographers. The exhibit space isn’t large but the offerings are thought provoking. They also house the library’s collection of photography books in a reading room attached to the exhibit space.
Tips for Visiting: Open Mon-Thurs 10a-6p, Friday 11a-6p, Weekends 1-5p. 1,000kr entrance fee.
The Settlement Museum
(Recommended by Jenn from Will Save for Travel)
The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871 +/- 2, located in the City Centre is built around an archaeological excavation of a Viking longhouse. Found in 2001, it was built around “871 +/- 2”, hence the name of the exhibition. In the museum you’ll be able to see the layout of the Viking longhouse. The walls and roof would have been made of turf, with stones along the base. There was a large fireplace in the middle. You can also see tools and other items excavated from the site. You’ll be able to get a feel for what life was like for Vikings.
Tips for Visiting: The museum is open everyday from 9:00 to 18:00. Tickets cost 1,650kr, which you can buy at the desk inside.
2 Thermal Pools that Aren’t the Blue Lagoon
Reykjavik’s thermal pools are so hot…they’re cool! The Blue Lagoon has become one of the most popular things to do in Reykjavik– and it is indeed distinctive with it’s murky blue water and mud facials. But– it’s also expensive. So check out some of the cool local spots recommended by Lauren.
Laugardalslaug Thermal Pools
Located in the Laugardalur area of Reykjavik, next to the famous Laugardalshöll football stadium, this is the largest swimming pool in Iceland and the most popular in Reykjavik. Aside from the Olympic-sized pool, there are also several hot pots of varying temperatures, an ice plunge pool, a saltwater tub, a steam bath and a water slide. Admission for all public pools in Reykjavik is 980kr for adults, 160kr for children over 6 and children under 6 go free. If you book ahead you can also get a massage here, with prices starting at 5,500kr.
Upon entry you´ll be given an electronic wristband and probably no explanation of what it does. You can choose any locker and scan the wristband to lock it – no key required. When you leave the pool you must push the entire wristband into the slot on the exit barrier for it to open.
Tips for Swimming: Visit between 1-3pm during the week when it´s usually quiet.
Vesturbæjarlaug Thermal Pools
In the west side of town, close to the National Museum, you´ll find Vesturbærjarlaug. While not as big as Laugardalslaug it’s still very popular with the locals due to the cosy atmosphere. It was voted as “Iceland´s best pool” in 2014 and 2015 and was the runner up last year. Upon payment you’ll receive a ticket – scan the bar code to get through the barrier. You must take your shoes off before entering the changing area and shower naked before entering the pool, as is the rule for all public pools in Iceland.
There is a great steam bath here, along with a few hot pots, ice plunge bath, swimming pool, children´s pool and sauna. It was actually the first pool in Iceland to offer a sauna. It can get really busy here so visit outside of peak times to avoid the crowds.
Tip for Swimming: After you’ve finished in the pool visit the cafe opposite the pool for delicious treats!
(Some of the following links are affiliate links, which means that if you chose to make a purchase, I will make a small commission)
3 Day Trips from Reykjavik
Day tours from Reykjavik are a good way to see a bit of the country, especially if you are visiting on a long stopover or otherwise don’t have a lot of time. When I was in Reykjavik, I did at day trip to go snorkeling and a night trip to see northern lights, which you can read about on my Iceland in Winter post.
Choose your day trips carefully because any destination that is more than 2 hours away means that you will spend a LOT of time on the bus, which eats into your sightseeing time. So, if you want to go to the South Coast or Snaefellsnes, rent a car or purchase a multi-day tour like this one. Otherwise, stick to the closer tours like the ones below:
- Small group Silfra snorkeling tour from Reykjavik. A 4-hour tour that has you snorkeling in the unique continental rift.
- Summer-only river rafting and beer-tasting adventure. This is a 4-hour raft down the Hvita river with hipster cool stop for craft beers after the rafting.
- Small group Golden Circle tour. This 9-hour sightseeing tour takes in the Thingvellir National Park, geyers, craters and waterfalls.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
Hip Budget: Loft Hostel
I was very kindly hosted by Loft Hostel and had a great stay. You can read my full review here, but in brief, they offer a variety of room configurations (including private rooms) at various prices. They have a full service front desk that will book tours and airport transpo for you AND they have a great lobby scene. I was so comfortable in this hostel. They even have a lobby full of books, which totally warmed my book-nerd heart. I would absolutely stay there again.
Cool Mid-Range: Skuggi Hotel
Many of the full service hotels are located just far enough outside of the city center to make walking impractical. However, the Skuggi is very centrally located to most of the above suggestions. They have a modern vibe and offer all of the usual mod cons, free parking and breakfast.
If you want to do an AirBnb in Reykjavik, just make sure to review the map carefully and find a room that is in the core city center. There are quite a few available from $27-$130/ni (USD). If you’ve never used AirBnB, you can get $20 off your first booking using this discount code.
There is a lot on this list and you may not have time to do it all. But I do hope that you take time to explore some of these more offbeat activities. If you do, I promise that you will find yourself as surprised and delighted by the city as I am. Happy Trails!
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