All About Reykjavik

By Michael Chapman

A little city with a big reputation!

All About Reykjavik

By Michael Chapman

A little city with a big reputation!

Reykjavík is our planet’s northernmost sovereign capital; a coastal city, no-bigger than a town, that boasts more culture, history and excitement than one might expect of Iceland’s only major city.

Reykjavík is where the vast majority of visitors will arrive and stay during their time in Iceland, and is close by to some of its greatest attractions, including the Golden Circle Iceland tour.

Where is Reykjavík?

Reykjavík is found on the southwest coast of Iceland, a sub-arctic island east of Greenland. The country is located roughly midway between North America and Europe; the city itself marks the halfway point between New York and Moscow.

Due to this geographical location, the city makes for a great weekend break for travellers arriving from both sides of the Atlantic. So too does it serve as the optimum stopover for business people, a vibrant Nordic city in which to hold conferences and presentations.

A white church in Reykjavík
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Evelyn Paris)

Looking north from Reykjavík, guests will look out over the glittering blue waters of Faxaflói Bay, named after one of the island’s earliest settlers. On clear days, it is possible to make out the outline of Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano, as well as buildings in the small town of Akranes.

Reykjavík has its own domestic airport, though this is only used for local and private flights. Iceland’s only international airport is Keflavik, which is approximately forty minutes drive from the capital.

The History of Reykjavík

Icelandic Saga Museum
photo by Kevin Pages

As the oldest, largest and most industrious city in Iceland, Reykjavík is considered the cultural heart of this country. Over the last thousand years, this city and this country has remained isolated from the outside world, passed between greater powers as if as an afterthought.

It is only since the outset of the Second World War that Icelanders began to consider themselves a people in their own right, pursuing a lasting independence from their Norwegian or Danish overseers. For now, however, let us go back to the beginning; to the very first time people set foot on a land that would come to be beloved by so many.

The settlement of Reykjavík

Icelandic horses grazing in the countryside
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Vladimir Riabinin)

In Icelandic, Reykjavík translates to ‘Smoky Bay’. According to the Book of Settlement, this island’s first settler, Ingolfr Arnason, coined the name after spotting plumes of steam from his ship. While then these were surely a mystery to the crew, we know today they were looking upon the geothermal fields that dot West Iceland.

As was tradition among Norse seafarers at the time, Ingolfr let loose two large logs from his ship, then waited to see where they washed up on the shore. It would be here the earliest settlers made home; rudimentary buildings constructed of stone and timber, the remnants of which can still be seen at the Settlement Museum downtown.

Reykjavík in the Second World War

Icelandic police training during the WW2
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Public Domain.

Reykjavík served as the arrival point of Operation Fork, the codename used for the British invasion of Iceland that took place on 10 May 1940. Iceland was then neutral during the war, so the Allies decided it was important to deny Nazi Germany a stranglehold over the North Atlantic.

The invasion, if indeed it can be called that, occurred without a single shot being fired. In fact, many Icelanders helped British soldiers with the unloading of their ships. Among the first priorities of the new arrivals was to arrest the German consulate, who they quickly found in his respective embassy burning documents.

The British would remain stationed in Iceland for the next year, at which time American forces took over. Throughout this period, Reykjavík experienced enormous growth, bolstered by the construction efforts of foreign soldiers. The presence of said troops also brought with it problems, namely rivalry between them and the local men for the attention of girls.

Reykjavík in 21st Century

The Reykavik Summit in Iceland
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Public Domain.

In more recent times, Reykjavík remains central to Icelandic politics, and is home to both the Prime Minister’s house and the parliament building of the government, known as the Althingi. Reykjavík has also maintained an important place in world politics and culture.

The 1986 Reykjavík Summit saw US and Soviet Union leaders meet at the iconic Höfði House to discuss bringing an end to the Cold War. Though their meeting was ultimately unsuccessful, many historians believe discussions held at Höfði House were instrumental in bringing about peace between the two superpowers.

The capital also sees meet-ups of the Nordic Council and Arctic Council group, as well as visits by foreign dignitaries. It is for reasons such as these that Reykjavík is still rightfully seen as the governmental and economic centre of the country.

How many people live in Reykjavík today?

Colourful homes in Reykjavík
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Nicolas J. Leclercq)

As of 2021, around 131,000 people live in the municipality of Reykjavík, equating to about a third of the total population. Around 233,000 people live in the greater Capital Region, by far making it the most populous region in the country.

The second largest settlement in Iceland, Akureyri, is roughly 5 hours drive north from Reykjavík. Its 19,000 strong population shows a significant difference in how busy each region is, though has lent the town the unofficial nickname, ‘Capital of the North’.

What are people from Reykjavík like?

Though it is impossible to speak for every resident of the city, Reykjavíkings tend to share similar values, placing high emphasis on personal freedom, the pursuit of equal rights and the sanctity of freedom of speech. When it comes to the heart and imagination, the city has a truly eclectic performance scene, made up of musicians, comedians, writers, painters and cartoonists, all bound by a love of the arts.

Reykjavík is a city of two halves; the summer sees the population come alive, frenzied by the sudden appearance of the Midnight Sun. During this period, they will spend nearly 24 hours lavishing in the city’s beer gardens, playing frisbee-golf in the park, languishing in a hot pool or setting out into the wilds for a dash of hiking or horseback riding. No surprises then that it is at this time urban Icelanders live up to their reputation as rugged outdoorsy folk.

Lupin flowers in Iceland
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Michael Humphries)

It is during the winter that Icelanders’ more cerebral qualities come into play. It is then they will resume working on their take on the great Icelandic novel—1/10 people here will publish a book in their lifetimes—or squirrel themselves into a basement cafe, chugging coffee after refillable coffee over a game of chess, or perhaps an intimate performance by a local music act or speaker.

Reykjavík is considered a very safe city. Icelanders are, by and large, very welcoming to travellers of any persuasion. With that said, the local people have had their fair share of run-ins with disrespectful and obnoxious tourists over the years, many of whom, it must be said, have had one too many whilst out discovering Reykjavík’s taprooms. Sucdsh incidences can be grating, especially after repeat offences.

If you’re hoping to avoid a good stripping-down by the locals, might we remind all visitors that we hope Reykjavík remains a safe and peaceful location for many decades to come.


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What do people from Reykjavík call themselves?

A man enjoying Iceland
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Farouk Mechedal)

Residents of the city are considered Reykjavíkings in Icelandic, though you’ll rarely hear the term thrown around town if you’re just here for a visit. At least colloquially, the hipster crowds refer to themselves as Downtown Rats, praising—or bashing, depending on who you decide to ask—classic Icelandic films like 101 RYK and Sodoma Reykjavík as cultural influences.

Somewhat amusingly, somewhat nastily, Icelanders from the countryside can sometimes take a dim view of their urban compatriots, demonstrating that a divide in mindset is as real here as it is anywhere else.

For that reason, you might hear, at some point during your travels, the people in the city described as “lattelepjandi lopatrefillinn”, or latte sipping wool scarf wearers. If you fit the bill—as I’m afraid, the author does—it’s best not to take it too personally. When was the last time you milked a cow, after all?

What to see and do in Reykjavík?

There is no-end of things to see and do in Reykjavík, and thankfully, the vast majority of its attractions are within easy walking distance from one another. Visitors loyal to the traditional methods of exploring a city will want to check out Reykjavík’s most iconic landmarks first and foremost.

Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church

Reykjavík's most famous landmark, Hallgrímskirkja church.
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Yves Alarie)

Hands down, the best place to begin your walking tour of the city is Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church. Hallgrimskirkja is to Reykjavík what the Big Ben is to London, what the Colosseum is to Rome or the Empire State Building to New York. With its towering grey steeple, built up like a naturally-formed pyramid, this building has been synonymous with Reykjavík since first opening its doors in 1986.

Designed by the respected state architect, Gudjon Samuelsson, Hallgrimskirkja’s steeple was inspired by the hexagonal basalt columns that surround Svartifoss waterfall in southeast Iceland. Gudjon is also responsible for the designs of many other buildings in the capital, no less the National Theatre of Iceland, the University of Iceland and, of course, a favourite spot among locals, Sundhöllin swimming pool.

Some have remarked the church outline resembles the hammer, Mjölnir, belonging to the Norse God of Thunder, Thor. Of course, this hypothesis is quickly debunked in light of the fact the Christian Church is unlikely to endorse icons associated with Iceland’s prior Pagan beliefs. Hallgrimskirkja is among the tallest points in downtown Reykjavík, making for great views over the colourful tin rooftops so characteristic of Iceland’s capital.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre

Harpa Concert Hall in Iceland's capital, Reykjavík
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jeremy Zero)

Another building equally worthy of your admiration is Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, a glassy, abstract construction composed of unique window panes, some that look out over the city, others over neighbouring Faxafloi. Home to staple acts like the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera, Harpa also regularly attracts performers from overseas.

Though Harpa is today considered an essential landmark to visit while in the city, there was a time when the structure, then unfinished, served as an uncomfortable reminder as to government overspending. Thankfully, Harpa’s popularity is proof Iceland has finally moved on from the economic crisis’ that plagued it only ten or so years ago.

The Sun Voyager Sculpture

The Sun Voyager in Reykjavík
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Lamerbrain)

Walking down along the water-front promenade that sits besides Harpa, it is only a matter of time until guests will stumble upon the iconic sculpture, The Sun Voyager.

Shaped like the skeleton of an ancient ship, the piece was designed by the late Jón Gunnar Árnason. Most visitors believe the boat to resemble a Viking vessel, though the artist’s intention was merely to create a ‘dream boat’, a testament to the sun, forever sailing towards the horizon.

Learn about Iceland’s history at Reykjavík’s museums

Perlan Reykjavik Iceland
(Photo Credit: Kevin Pages)

Previously, we mentioned the incredible view that comes from standing atop Hallgrimskirkja. Another excellent viewpoint is promised at the 360-degree observation deck found atop the unmissable, domed ceiling of Perlan Museum, set out amidst the pine-trees of Reykjavík’s Öskjuhlíð hill.

Once used for holding the city’s water, the four enormous cylindrical tanks that frame the museum adds to the unusual aesthetic of this place. These are not likely to hold your attention, however, given you will have full scope over the city skyline, Faxafloi bay and the ever-present tabletop mountain, Esja.

Esja Mountain Reykjavik
(Photo Credit: Kevin Pages)

Inside Perlan, you’ll find the ‘Wonders of Iceland’ exhibition; a multimedia journey into the natural forces that have sculpted this magnificent island. Not only will you witness a fully recreated version of the Latrabjarg bird cliffs, but will also step inside an artificial ice tunnel, taking your imagination deep beneath the glaciers.

The National Museum of Iceland provides a more traditional look back at this island’s history, focusing on the development of its culture and the many talented people who have helped to sculpt its national identity over the years. It is the oldest museum in the country, having been founded in 1863, and can be found between the University of Iceland and Lake Tjornin.

Another great stop for anyone looking to learn more about Iceland’s heritage should pay a visit to Safnahúsið (the Culture House), where many of this island’s most revered artifacts are on display.

Sample delicious Icelandic cuisine

Reykjavík is a great city for fine-dining
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Marco Samaniego)

There are many sophisticated, affordable and critically-acclaimed restaurants in which to dine-out in Reykjavík, a city that has only recently stepped-up its game regarding cuisine.

Famished guests looking to sample the dishes that have traditionally been eaten in this country should pay a visit to the aptly-named Icelandic Bar (Íslenski barinn) downtown. Among its cosy pub-like confines, you can sample fermented shark, rye bread and the tart Icelandic liqueur, Brennivin.

Several other charming restaurants can be found down by Old Harbour, a picturesque and historic location in the city where diners can eat their food whilst surrounded by bobbing yachts and swooping seabirds. Venture a little further and you’ll reach the neighbourhood, Grandi; a sure favourite among locals with its row of stylish eateries and new indoor food market.

Take part in live events in Reykjavík

Reykjavik Fringe Festival
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ahmad Odeh)

The events calendar in Reykjavík is jam-packed each year, and as eclectic as you would expect from a city so invested in the arts. On any given week night, you’ll find bars and cafes playing host to a rotation of local musicians, and two comedy clubs, The Secret Cellar and Gaukurinn, offer laughs for next to no cost. Come the weekend, the nightlife takes on a far more debaucherous tone, with locals and guests alike making the most of the happy hour deals on offer. Without exception, Friday and Saturday nights provide the best outlet for seeking out the best in authentic live performances.

Of course, there are some events that simply cannot be overlooked, namely the enormous music festivals, Iceland Airwaves and Secret Solstice. While the former sees a mix of live and international acts perform within small venues in the city, Secret Solstice attracts the crowds with its domineering outdoor stages and the foreign superstars who perform atop them.


Travelling to Iceland?

Check our overnight tours with a driver guide that includes a one night stay in a bubble.
See Guided Tours

*Starting from ISK 74.900 per person