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For being such a small city, Reykjavik offers a lot of architecture, activities and downright strange things. It’s artsy, it’s cosmopolitan, but also traditional and old and pretty much everything is within walking distance. With Icelandair offering free stopovers in Iceland for people on their way across the Atlantic, the option to spend a few hours or even a few days in Iceland is starting to get very popular with travellers.
Just to try whether it’s possible, I did all of these activities below in a span of about 4 hours. So here it is, my quick guide to the best things to do in Reykjavik:
1. Get a birds-eye view over Reykjavik
There are two spots from where you can get a really good view over the colourful toy houses of Reykjavik and the surrounding area, one is from in and around the glass dome of the Perlan, the other one is from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja. The latter one is my favourite, as the view isn’t obstructed by glass and the church tower is often deserted. Entry to the tower costs ISK 600 (about $5), but it is absolutely worth it to see the jumble of quirky houses spread out below. See if you can spot some of your other destinations on your tour to see and do the best things in Reykjavik.
2. Watch the Hallgrímskirkja get lit up at dusk
The Hallgrímskirkja, Church of Hallgrimur in English, is probably one of the weirdest buildings in the world and one of my favourite places to visit in Reykjavik. It was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, who was apparently inspired by the basalt lava flows found throughout Iceland’s landscapes. These dark, geometric lava columns can for example be admired at Svartifoss, one of the most popular waterfalls in the country. Right after sunset, Reykjavik’s most famous landmark gets lit up from all sides and maybe, you will get there just in time to listen to the choir practice before heading up in the elevator or checking out the statue in front of the church. It shows Leifur Eiriksson, who was the first European to discover America in 1000 AD.
3. Visit the Harpa Concert Hall
You don’t even have to be an architecture buff to find this modern glass and metal building fascinating. The honeycomb framework created by the steel beams and the many coloured glass panes fitted into them, give off the impression of being inside some futuristic beehive. Fittingly, many coloured glass birds hand suspended from the ceiling and stairs, platforms and different floors create sharp angles. The concert hall is brand new and was only completed in 2011, but now houses four large concert halls, cafés and bars, shops as well as lots of open space to hold a multitude of cultural functions.
4. Pose with the Sun Voyager
The Sun Voyager is a stainless steel sculpture by the artist Jón Gunnar Árnason resembling a longship, which can be found down by the waterfront. It commemorates the official founding of Reykjavik in 1786, but opposed to common belief, the Sun Voyager doesn’t represent a Viking ship. It is a dream boat and supposed to symbolize discovery and convey a sense of freedom, hope and progress. It’s a good spot to whip out your copy of The Sagas of Icelanders and spend some time reading, while watching life at the waterfront go by.
5. Giggle at sperm whale penises at the world’s only pallological museum
Who would have thought, that the world’s only penis museum is in Reykjavik and that even the owner is amazed at what it has turned into. It came to be as somewhat of a joke between Sigurður Hjartarson, the now retired head master of a school in Akranes, and his teachers. After they heard a story of Hjartarson using a bulls penis as a cattle rod in his youth, they started bringing him similar gifts when returning from visiting their relatives on their farms. The idea evolved gradually from there, but the museum now boasts a penis of every mammal living in and around Iceland, many of them sea mammals such as whales and dolphins. They float in formaldehyde, are mounted on walls like hunting trophies or have been fashioned into lamp shades and drinking horns. It’s a weird place, brutally honest about its purpose and more fascinating than one is comfortable to admit.
6. Stop at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for the best hotdog in Reykjavik
Since Iceland is, well, bloody expensive, hotdogs were a regular part of the meal plan during the week I was there. Hotdogs are a big thing and sold in gas stations, stores and restaurants around the country, but the very best place, so I heard, can be found in downtown Reykjavik right around the corner from the Harpa Concert Hall. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur has served hotdogs here since 1937, therefore it isn’t only a great and cheap place to get lunch, but also somewhat of a historical location. I determined that it’s not the usual toppings of fried onions, ketchup and sweet mustard that makes Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur so good, but it’s actually the mayonnaise and sweet relish based sauce getting added on top of it making this an essential stop.
7. Try to find as much graffiti as possible
Reykjavik is far from the generic city one might expect when hearing the word “capital”, and thus, the things to do in Reykjavik are far from tame and lame as well. Maybe it’s the cold and dark climate that produced this, but everything is surprisingly colourful; from the rooftops to the facades. Even garbage bins are decorated in some way or another and often, little thoughtful details get added to fences, window frames and benches. There is a creative vibe saturating Reykjavik, it’s a place where street art and graffiti are not frowned upon or barely tolerated, but openly embraced. Property owners give permission to artists and then it starts with little paintings or details drawn on doors and ends with gigantic pieces of art decorating whole concrete facades. You want to see as many as you can? Check out this map of the best street art spots in Reykjavik.
8. Go shopping and get inspired by Iceland’s unique style
Hey, like me you might not be able to afford anything, but it’s always a lot of fun to just walk around and get inspired. When strolling through the streets of Reykjavik, I was impressed by the sheer number of cute little vintage shops, designer stores and studios dotted around the city. Icelanders have a great sense of fashion and every person seems to be showing off their unique style in a way that rivals Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Hipster center of the universe. If you just want a quick impression of the shopping culture, head down the main shopping street Laugavegur; but if you have some more time, skip the tourist traps and try to find the second hand venues, gorgeous little boutiques and record stores where you can literally browse for hours.
9. Try an Icelandic coffee and become a coffee snob in one of the many downtown cafés
There are a lot of cafés in Reykjavik, and by that I mean a lot. When I started researching the coffee culture of Iceland, I even learned that the Icelanders are the fourth largest coffee consumers in the world. Of course, the beans are all imported, but them being real roasting snobs, the locals claim that they definitely brew the meanest cup of coffee on the planet. Just don’t insult them by trying to order a decaf. Most cafés offer wifi, so they are the ideal place to start the day before heading out into town or to just hang out and check your emails. Good places to start are Kaffitar, Te & Kaffi and Kaffismiðja Íslands and simply grabbing a coffee at one of these awesome places belongs to the coolest things you can do in Reykjavik.
10. Visit the revolving restaurant at the Perlan
The Perlan might look like extraterrestrials have set down and built their base in Reykjavik, but it’s actually just a bunch of hot water tanks, which are used for heating the city, surrounding a glass dome with a restaurant inside. If you have enough cash, the restaurant and bar are superb, but budget travellers, like me, go there for the free panoramic views of the city.