I think I can truly tell you that Reykjavík is my favourite city so far. It holds a very special place in my heart and I’m pretty sure it will capture you too, if you let it. This UNESCO City of Literature manages to combine both a village charm as well as its city vibrance. From late-night bars to simple Nordic-style churches, the Smoking Cove has it all.
Here is a list of what I would call the top sights in Reykjavík City Centre (walking distance). Enjoy!
Hallgrímskirkja is probably Reykjavík’s most notorious landmark. Standing 73 metres tall, it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. This church took 47 years to complete (1945 – 1992), after being designed all the way back in 1937! I think it’s pretty cool to think such a unique idea was thought up of back nearly 80 years ago. Guðjón Samuel was inspired by the different shapes of basalt rocks that were left after the lava had cooled down, and that’s how he came to design Hallgrímskirkja.
Once inside this magnificent church, make sure you see the 15 metres high gargantuan pipe organ above the back wall. The interior of the church is quite minimalistic, but it suits it.
There’s an elevator up to the top of the church for spectacular views of Reykjavík. You’ll be safe up there, even if it’s windy, as you look through barred, opened “windows” and are not actually outside as such. When I went up, just before I got into the elevator it was bright and sunny outside and by the time I was looking out of the top, there was severe fog and snow. It passed quickly, but it was good to see such different sights at the same time! The weather is very, very changeable in Iceland.
At the front of Hallgrímskirkja is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson, the first European to discover America. Records suggest that he found land in 1,000 A.D., and that’s 500 years before Christopher Columbus did… Just saying!
Anyway, before we start any more controversy, we’ll head straight on from Leifur and down to Laugavegur!
Built in 1885, Laugavegur is one of Reykjavík’s oldest shopping streets. The name actually translates as “wash road” because it used to lead to nearby hot springs where the women would regularly wash their family’s laundry. I love this street. It shows just because something is old, it isn’t dull and outdated. The buildings are stylishly mismatched, in both design and colour. There are modern boutiques, quirky vintage shops, and of course, the cosy “hipster” cafes (which double up as a bar at night) that Reykjavík is famous for.
Even though Laugavegur is known as the shopping street, don’t go there in hope of finding either a bargain or a popular brand store. Most of the shops here are exclusive to Iceland or are independent retailers. If you want the usual European or American chains, then you can go to the Kringlan shopping mall. I found a free shuttle there from Aðalstræti 2, across the road from Tourist Information. There’s a sign and a little mini bus came and picked me up, it was great!
If you continue down Laugavegur (past the Prime Minister’s office and towards the sea) you should be able to see a huge building made out of what looks like glass. Welcome to the Harpa concert hall. This unique structure was designed by the Danes and was finally opened in early 2011, after years of uncertainty due to the 2008 financial crisis. Some of the panels are different colours, such as pink and yellow, which, I think, look really effective in the dark, so make sure you go and see it during both day and night.
This is my own theory but the old Norse name for the first month of the Icelandic summer is “Harpa”, and the logo resembles a sun. However, I know Harpa is also an Icelandic female name simply for “harp”, which would also make sense.
Inside Harpa, besides the concert halls and the conference rooms, there’s a couple of non-tacky tourist shops and a restaurant. You can go upstairs and you really ought to. It’s free! The ceiling is mirrored, geometric tiles, and you can get some really good views of the seafront so bring your camera!
The Sun Voyager:
So, that seafront view we were just talking about? Follow that and after 5-10 minutes you’ll find the Sun Voyager, one of the most popular sites in the city. This is one of my favourites, I promise you’ll like it. I will warn you though, it can get somewhat windy here, and by “somewhat” I mean you’ll need a hood and gloves.
It’s not a Viking ship, as much as you hear tourists exclaiming that it is- it isn’t. It is a dream boat, a gift to the sun, and it symbolises “undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom”. How nice is that?!
The sun ship was supposed to be facing west, towards the setting sun, but due to planning changes it now faces north, towards the beautiful Mount Esja.
Now, if you turn back towards Harpa and keep going straight you will (hopefully) come to a lake. The name simply translate to “the lake/pond”. Now, embarrassingly enough, I had been there a few times without realising that it’s possible to walk all of the way around and the far side is really quite serene. The side we’re on now has a row of benches and a bridge entrance to the Town Hall. You can either keep going along the benches (by the church there) and turn right over the small road bridge, or go behind the Town Hall and then turn left and keep going straight. Either way, you come to a lovely park (which is actually bigger than it looks) and is filled with ducks, geese, swans and birds. The ducks (and friends) stay here throughout the winter with a little help from some geothermal heating.
During the winter the pond freezes over and is a common place for ice skating, and in the summer it turns into a popular picnic spot. I think this is my favourite place in the whole of Reykjavík!
Okay guys, we’re nearly done! It’s just a half an hour walk through the rest of the park, over a bridge and we’ll be at Öskjuhlíð. Öskjuhlíð is a large hill, covered in trees making it a small wood/forest. It’s a really nice place to walk, and there’s actually some bunkers left over from World War II there.
Once you’ve wandered upwards through the fairytale-like forest you’ll see The Pearl. Well, you’ll have seen it a lot earlier really, it looks like a giant UFO has landed and is watching over Reykjavík!
The six tanks that take up a lot of the structure are hot water storage tanks, and the sitting on those is a giant glass dome that is a revolving restaurant and viewing deck.
Inside Perlan is a small, “fake” geyser like the ones you’ll see on The Golden Circle tour. There are a couple of tourist shops here, but it’s main attraction is the (free!) viewing deck upstairs. From here you can see everything- churches, mountains, parks, sea, Reykjavík domestic airport, and more.
I hope you enjoyed our walking tour of Reykjavík’s main attractions and can find your way back to your hotel yourself! If not, Perlan has plenty of leaflets with maps inside…