Top Sights to See in Reykjavik, Iceland

After a not so hearty lunch, it’s time to explore what Reykjavik has in store. It’s our first day so we’re stoked on what awaits us so never mind the astronomical price we paid for a simple meal. We spent two days exploring the capital and here is a rundown of the top sights to see in Reykjavik, Iceland.

DAY 1

Old Harbour and Mt Esja

We proceeded to the harbour which is just a few minutes’ walk from the restaurant. Docked in the azure waters were some ships and small boats for whale and puffin watching cruises. Gazing on the horizon, the clouds reluctantly unveiled the majestic mountain range Esja still partially draped in glacier.

Old Harbour

Above us is nothing but the sun in all its glory against a backdrop of a magnificent blue sky. It was a beautiful day in Reykjavik.

Harpa

Moving on, a stunning building aesthetically made of glass came into view. The award-winning Harpa is a concert hall and conference centre and Iceland’s symbol of economic recovery. It was the only building project that was allowed during the crisis in 2008.

Harpa_Exterior

We walked in and admire as the three o’clock sun glistened through the glass. A convention was going on but we were able to wander around the unrestricted areas.

Harpa_Interior

Sun Voyager (Sólfar)

A leisurely walk along the scenic waterfront brought us to Sun Voyager (Sólfar in Icelandic), a stainless steel outdoor sculpture erected to commemorate Reykjavik’s 200th anniversary in 1990.

Sólfar

Many thought that it was modelled after a Viking ship but the artist’s vision was that of a dreamboat of hope, progress and freedom. The sculpture’s beautiful setting with the bay and Mt. Esja in the background provides a perfect spot for photo opportunities.

Laugavegur

We slowly made our way back to the city centre and at Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street, we ambled past the Icelandic Phallological Museum (aka The Penis Museum). This museum houses a collection of phallic specimens of various types of animals. The wife was not bothered as she’s more interested to check out some shops.

Postcards from Iceland

Having happily spent some kronas for postcards and fridge magnets, we bought groceries for the days ahead. We engaged ourselves in a game of mental gymnastics in stretching our budget. Some grocery stores in Reykjavik (and Iceland, for that matter) like Nettó, Krónan, Bónus and a host of lesser-known ones offer good value for your money.

Hallgrímskirkja

With our early morning flight and a lot of walking in the city, we’re all knackered so we call it a day. On the way back to our hostel, we checked out our last attraction – the iconic and uniquely designed Lutheran church of Hallgrímskirkja.  Not only it is the largest church but it is also one of the tallest Icelandic structures.

Hallgrímskirkja from Laugavegur
Hallgrímskirkja from Laugavegur

One would not miss the mighty sculpture of Leif Ericson standing tall in front of the church.  Ericson was the first known European to have discovered North America before Christopher Columbus. The statue was a gift from the United States and sculpted by the famous Alexander Calder.

Hallgrímskirkja

We found weary tourists like us checking out the church’s interior and enjoying the music from a large pipe organ. The church has a viewing deck which offers amazing views of Reykjavík and its surroundings for a nominal fee. We did not take the lift, we knew of a place where we can have the same views for free. And that is our first to-do activity for tomorrow.

DAY 2

It’s surprisingly not that cold at 5°C on our second day as we continue our exploration of the Icelandic capital. The heavens will not cooperate with us today as the sun was virtually nonexistent, unlike yesterday.

Perlan

We reached Perlan after about a kilometre and a quarter of an hour of walking on well-paved roads followed by an easy climb atop Öskjuhlíð hill.  A sculpture of four dancing musicians can be noticed immediately before the entrance. A unique way of welcoming the structure’s visitors.

Perlan

Perlan is a landmark building with a hemispherical glass dome sitting on top of six large, cylindrical hot water tanks. It has an observation deck on the fourth floor which encircles the structure. An awesome 360° view of Reykjavik and beyond can be enjoyed from the deck. A big letdown for us because it was grey weather all day long; otherwise the sceneries would have been fantastic on a clear day.

View from Perlan

A café and a gift shop can be found under the glass dome. A fountain inside the ground floor shooting waters high up across the floors at timed intervals was also thrown in for good measure. It was an obvious mimicry of Strokkur, Iceland’s well-known geyser.

A Fountain Inside Perlan

Note: Since our visit to Perlan which was in April 2016, a restaurant and a museum which will feature exhibitions were opened. Also, Perlan now charges admission on its observation deck. Please check its website for more information.

City Centre

We returned to the city centre and came across groups of local youth in fancy costumes probably engaged in a competition. A group of lovely girls approached us and asked if they can lift either my son or me. My son willingly obliged.  To our amazement, one of the girls heaved him without much effort. It was pure fun as photos were snapped. After thanking and high-fiving us, the girls hurriedly left for their next task.

A Group of Icelandic Lasses

Old Harbour

For lunch, we found ourselves back at Old Harbour again. We discovered that food prices away from the city centre are slightly cheaper. Sjávarbarinn offers all-you-can-eat buffet and its interior walls were adorned with lovely watercolours and fish drawings. The restaurant owner’s wife was a Filipina who was so excited to meet and serve us. She gave us a discount and a loaf of rye bread as a takeaway for free.

Lunch at Sjávarbarinn

Across the restaurant is the Reykjavik Maritime Museum which we did not bother to visit. The harbour with its ships and other sea vessels of different sizes and some rusting ones, which we thought were no longer in use, was for us a museum in itself.

Reykjavik Maritime Museum
Reykjavik Maritime Museum

Old Harbour Views

Prime Minister’s Office

We kept on walking until we stumbled upon on a busy road an unassuming building flanked by statues. I found out later that it was the Prime Minister’s Office and where the Cabinet of Iceland meets.

Prime Minister's Office

Austurvöllur and Alþingishús

Nearby is Austurvöllur, a small public square where a statue of Jón Sigurðsson – a scholar, statesman and leader of the 19th-century Icelandic independence movement, proudly stand. Again, we saw groups of youth in their lovely costumes hanging out in the park.

Austurvöllur

During the month of April 2016, anti-government protests about the tax affairs of some key government officials were held in Austurvöllur. As a result, the Prime Minister resigned and a new one was appointed. The generally peaceful demonstrations ended two days before we flew to Reykjavik.

The park was the focal point of protests as literally a stone’s throw across it is Iceland’s parliament building, Alþingishús. It was erected in 1881 of hewn Icelandic stone. The edifice houses Alþingi, the oldest and the longest running parliament in the world.

Alþingishúsið

Ráðhús and Tjörnin

Farther down is Ráðhús, Reykjavík’s City Hall which seemed to float in the corner of a prominent lake. The mayor holds office here and an official tourist information can be found as well where tourists can book tours, accommodation and car rentals in Iceland.

Ráðhús Reykjavíkur - Reykjavík's City Hall

I am not impressed with the architecture of Reykjavik’s major political buildings as they look rather ordinary and unimposing. A far cry from the grand and stately institutions of the same nature in the European continent. Nevertheless, Iceland’s rightful place in history had been cemented and its future continued to be charted by its leaders in the august chambers of these inconspicuous structures.

Also, the political buildings appeared as unsecured. I did not see fences around their perimeters. Furthermore, I did not notice any CCTV and anyone can just hang out and loiter around these important buildings. This may be attributed to the fact that Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world.

Tjörnin or The Pond is a small lake in central Reykjavík frequented by more than 40 species of water birds, particularly during warmer weathers. Locals and visitors alike feed some of the birds which led to the lake being called “the biggest bread soup in the world.”

Tjörnin

Around the lake are numerous lovely coloured houses, the National Gallery of Iceland (Listasafn Islands) which contains a collection of traditional Icelandic art and culture by famous Icelandic artists and a beautiful white and green Lutheran church, among others.

Listasafn Islands aka National Gallery of Iceland
National Gallery of Iceland (Listasafn Islands)

My favourite amongst the many sights around the lake is the sculpture known as “The Unknown Bureaucrat.” It portrays a man in a suit holding a briefcase, with half of his upper body still in a slab of unsculpted stone. The sculpture is perhaps a satirical tribute to the thankless, anonymous job of a bureaucrat.

The Unknown Bureaucrat

We spent our time at the lake watching and admiring the ducks and the different birds until the early hours of the evening. An opportune time to relax and rest our tired legs from two days of walking and exploring. Also, to recharge our energy for the first of our two-day road trip for the following day.

Reykjavik is a small and compact city that can be explored by foot. However, bike rentals are available and are a dime a dozen. Some bike rentals and companies offer guided tours which suit those who have limited time but want to cover a lot of ground in the city.

If you’ve been to Reykjavik, do you have other top sights to see that you may want to add to this list? If you haven’t been, are you looking forward to visiting?

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Top Sights to See in Reykjavik, Iceland

13 Comments

  1. Harpa looks impressive! I didn’t really know how to appreciate architectural wonders until I went to Singapore. Now, looking at the buildings has become one of my favorite touristy things to do. I just love how Harpa looks like a block of ice. And I also like the structural design of Hallgrimskirkja. These two will probably be included in my itinerary when I get to Iceland.

  2. Looking back at the photos and reading this post sure did bring back some amazing memories of my visit to the Icelandic capital. Never did Harpa and that does look impressive.

  3. I love whale watching, but puffin-watching cruise would be so cool. I have only seen them in an Aquarium. There are so many interesting buildings in Iceland, my favourite on this page is the Lutheran church of Hallgrímskirkja. I can’t believe we haven’t been yet.

  4. I have heard so much about the prices in Iceland. I can’t believe it’s really that expensive! Love the views, though. Even in the harbor you get your money’s worth in going there already. And that glass building! Wow! So much to see in Reykjavik! Looking forward to visiting!

  5. I love architecture and the Harpa is stunning! I love that you are frugal on your travels. That is how our family is, sometimes you can get the view for free and that makes all the difference.

  6. Harpa looks amazing, especially from the inside. That church is pretty neat looking too. Good to know there is a better free view from somewhere else. I too would rather look at shops than a penis museum. What an odd thing to exhibit.

  7. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland for so long – this gives me such wanderlust (and a very good to-do list). the Harpa building is very impressive, it reminds me of the opera house in Oslo which is all glass and very modern. Hallgrímskirkja church is also vey unusual!

  8. This sounds like an epic first day in Iceland. I was there last February (and I’m heading back in June) and I found the Penis Museum to be incredibly amusing. It sounds weird, and it is, but totally unique as well.

  9. I didn’t realize Iceland was known for its architecture, but that concert hall looks amazing! It’s so cheap to fly to Reykjavik from the States now that I’ve been tempted to go for just a long weekend — seems like the city alone has plenty to do.

  10. Well, I can’t spell a single one of these places, but I’d still like to see them. How cool that Calder made a sculpture of Leif Ericson. Contemporary art meets history in Reykjavik. Really, I’d love to retrace your steps.

  11. I haven’t been to Iceland, but it’s on the list. I’ve heard the food is expensive. Thanks for the list of top things to do in Reykjavik. I plan to pin this post for future reference!
    The city looks like an intriguing combination of historic (the Lutheran church of Hallgrímskirkja) and modern structures (the gleaming Harpa concert hall) – I’m excited to see more.

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