The beautiful capital city of Reykjavik is becoming increasingly popular with visitors for its unique setting on Faxafloi Bay in the southwest of the massive geothermic volcanic rock of Iceland. Surrounded by wildernesses, hot springs and active volcanoes, it’s the cultural centre for the island’s peoples, bathed by the Gulf Stream and home to over 100,000 residents. Tourism here is seamlessly integrated into the city itself, with Reykjavik hotels offering cosy boltholes during the freezing winters and pleasant stays during the warmer summers.
Landmarks and monuments here are linked to the country’s Icelandic heritage and Viking history, with its churches both ancient and modern its loveliest examples. Urban development as a trading town was established in the late 18th century, although Viking settlements existed here for over 1,000 years. The cityscape is low-density, set on the coastal plain and backed by snowy hills, with its charming Old Town set on the old harbour, now a destination for cruise ships as well as fishing boats.
Iceland’s natural attractions are a major draw for visitors to its capital, with summer arrivals loving the 24/7 nightlife made daylife by the months-long midnight sun. On winter nights, the glow of the Northern Lights bathes the city in its green glory, a unique and humbling experience for visitors from more southerly climes. Reykjavik is known as the nightlife capital of the north, with over 100 bars and clubs, although having a good time here is extremely expensive! There’s a surprising amount of interesting attractions here, most easily accessible on foot, although self-drive is the best way to get about in and outside the city during the winter months.
Dividing the must-sees into city and surrounding countryside, the Old Town is a great starting point, with its colourfully painted buildings and homes clad with corrugated metal panels. Art galleries, two world-class museums and several more of interest, the Icelandic Parliament building and the two contrasting main churches vie for attention with the nearby rural attractions of geothermic spas, forest and nature reserves, a geothermally-heated beach, glorious little bays, volcanic craters and offshore islands. Further inland are the massive active volcanoes, glaciers and endless snowfields.
For visitors fascinated by Viking history, the Culture House tells it all, even showing rare medieval manuscripts relating the legendary Icelandic Sagas. Together with its many national treasures, the exhibitions here are world class and give a glimpse of the country’s unique maritime heritage. The Reykjavik Museum brings together reassembled historic buildings from across the country and the Icelandic Maritime Museum pays homage to the Viking ships of yore as well as traditional fishing vessels.
Archaeology buffs will love the contrast between the older and modern buildings in the city, with the two main churches the perfect examples. The breathtaking modern Hallgrimskirkja protects the town from its hill, its gleaming white fluid spire visible from all points, and the traditionally-styled Landarkokskirkja is a massive and imposing Catholic pile. The picturesque and colourful Old Town set back from the old port is best explored on foot and is crammed with small, interesting shops as well as bars, clubs and restaurants.
Outdoor activities are big in this spectacular land, with horse riding, walking, cycling and hiking in summer around the national parks and wilderness areas close to the city a favourite activity. In winter, cross-country skiing, dog-sledding and snowshoeing, once the only means of getting around, are now a means of enjoyment of the freezing winter landscapes. A unique summer experience is the small geothermally-heated beach close to the harbour, and the warm waters of the ever-popular geothermal outdoor swimming pools are meeting places year-round for locals and visitors alike, giving a whole new aspect to people-watching. There’s truly something for every visitor in this unique city and its surroundings.
Lek Boonlert is an editor and content reviewer at DirectRooms and is responsible for all Reykjavik Hotels content.