Although Reykjavik is technically a cold, remote small port city, it’s actually an exciting hub of art, design, cafe culture and historial treasures.
Reykjavik is also home base for most people’s amazing adventures in Iceland. This small city is actually one of the most interesting cities in Europe, with a very unique character.
The Hallgrímskirkja church, the city’s tallest and most conspicuous landmark, is reminiscent of volcanic basalt columns. The Sólfar sculpture at the waterfront looks something like a Viking longboat. Laugavegur street is alive with music, public art and restaurants.
Art is everywhere; there’s vibrant street art scene with murals around every corner, houses are painted in different colours, and galleries display everything from Viking artefacts to Icelandic Impressionists.
And let’s not forget, Reykjavik is home to a hot dog stand that is second to none.
Driving in Reykjavik
The drive from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik should have been simple. After a terrible, sleepless video game drive of aquaplaning and tempting the fuel tank to its final drops, we reached Iceland’s capital.
The absence of a dark night proved an asset as we scanned street signs for the hotel. I had learned how to pronounce Reykjavik (like Ray-kya-vik). But now there were street names to untangle. We had gotten lost a dozen times trying to navigate the truly un-pronounceable and un-rememberable street names.
Follow Snæbraut. If you pass Langholtsvegur, you’ve gone too far. Right onto Kringlumýrabraut, then onto Sundlaugavegur. Oops, we took Laugalækur instead of finding Laugarasvegur. We finally arrived, at about 4am, tempers already fraying between the four of us.
So, driving was confusing. We left the car parked at the hotel, for our road trip, and decided Reykjavik was best explored on foot.
A charming capital city full of quirks
Iceland’s weather was baffling from the moment the door of the plane opened at Keflavik airport, and a blast of icy needles of rain hit me in the face.
This was summer! Good thing we packed warm. Secondly, when we landed around midnight, the rich blue sky was actually night time. It never really got dark here in summer.
The main commercial street and tourist hub is the pretty Laugavegur Street, which runs parallel to the waterfront.
The pedestrian only section has gates made out of old bicycles, colourfully painted.
Up and down this street, we popped in and out of second-hand clothes stores, souvenir stores, novelty restaurants (anyone for a steak at the Chuck Norris Grill?), hipster bakery/cafes and CD shops where the owner offered coffees as we listened to headphones.
Up the hill stood Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s eye-catching concrete church, and the city’s most recognisable landmark. Guðjón Samúelsson, who designed the church in 1937, chose striking vertical shapes that were inspired by columns of volcanic basalt rock. The church began construction in 1945, but it wasn’t until 1986 that the church was entirely completed, with decorative wings and nave.
Hallgrimskirkja church pipe organ
One of Reykjavik’s most impressive features is its 15-metre tall pipe organ, designed and built by Johannes Klais from Bonn, Germany. In total, there are 5275 pipes, and the whole instrument weighs 25 tons!
Leif Erikson statue
The Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson (970-1020) was the son of Erik the Red, the man who discovered Greenland. Following in his father’s footsteps, Leif Erikson sailed as far as Canada, landing at Newfoundland, making him the first European to land on American soil, and predating Christopher Columbus by 500 years.
The statue was a gift from the United States in 1930 for the Alþingi Millennial Festival, celebrating 1000 years since the birth of Iceland’s parliament at Þingvellir.
The Sun Voyager sculpture
By the waterfront of Reykjavik is the Solfar, the Sun Voyager. It was the winning artwork of a competition to celebrate Reykjavik’s 200-year anniversary. Sculptor Jon Gunnar Arnason was sick with leukaemia when he created the artwork, and didn’t live to see it put on display in 1989.
It isn’t actually supposed to represent a Viking longboat, as many people assume. It is supposed to be a dream boat, symbolising light and hope, and an ode to the sun. In the distance is Mt. Esja, making the Solfar one of the best photograph spots in the city.
Reykjavik’s famous hot dogs – Baejarins Beztu Pylsur
Located on Tryggvagata, near the Reykjavik Art Museum by the waterfront, is this popular hot dog stand. In business since 1937, it sells the town’s best sausages (its literally what the name translates to)!
Expect a hot dog in a bun with raw onions, crispy fried onions, rémoularde, and their secret mustard-ish sauce. It’s often considered one of the best hot dog stands in Europe. Bill Clinton even ate a hot dog here, and Anthony Bourdain did, too!
Art and museums in Reykjavik
Reykjavik is a great place to see artworks.
The settlement exhibition
A small, but interesting historical museum, the settlement exhibition is built on the remains of an old Viking longhouse. It is also called Reykjavik 871±2, named for the year of the ruins.
Reykjavik in a nutshell
Armed with winter coats to protect us from the surprisingly cold summer, Reykjavik is so much fun to explore. There’s a friendly, community feel in the pedestrian streets, plenty of art galleries and public graffiti to discover, and great food.
The next stop for us was the famous Golden Circle. I couldn’t wait to get going.