Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík, is one of the smallest in the world, but that doesn’t stop it from being a bucket-list destination. Reykjavík’s natural wonders, historic and cultural landmarks, eye-popping architecture, hip music scene and enthusiastic nightlife offer every visitor something to write home about.
In Reykjavík, summer light is forever. And that means summer visitors can witness one of nature’s most magnificent shows on Earth — the setting of the midnight sun.
Reykjavík is particularly well-situated for such scenic observations of the midnight sun; viewing locations include the lighthouse at Grótta in Seltjarnarnes or on the waterfront by Sólfarið near The Sun Voyager sculpture. Midnight sun tours are available from a variety of outfitters, allowing visitors to make the most of the phenomenon by seeing Iceland’s most famous natural attractions during the bright nights.
Hallgrímskirkja, a 240-foot-tall Evangelical Lutheran church, is Reykjavík’s main landmark. The church’s tower can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. The structure took 41 years to build and it opened in 1986. Its architecture, which resembles volcanic basalt lava columns, is an ode to modernism and a reminder of the Icelandic landscape. The church is home to a 25-ton, 5,275-pipe organ installed in 1992. Admission to the church is free, but there is a fee for visiting the tower.
Reykjavík Art Museum
Whales of Iceland
Before or after a whale-watching excursion, pay a visit to Whales of Iceland, located in the Grandi Area, close to the old harbor and a 15-minute walk from the city center. The exhibit consists of 23 manmade, life-size models of the various whale species found in Icelandic waters throughout natural history, including an 82-foot- (5-meter-) long blue whale, a full-size sperm whale and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Guided tours of the exhibit teach groups about the different whale species; tours last 45 minutes. For additional information, visitors can download the Whales of Iceland app.
The Blue Lagoon
About a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík, the Blue Lagoon is a relaxation paradise. The lagoon’s geothermal seawater makes it a literal hotspot for visitors, who spend an average of three to four hours in the water and at the on-site restaurants, Blue Cafe and LAVA. The water temperature ranges from 98–104 degrees Fahrenheit (37–40 degrees Celsius) and is rich in minerals, such as silica, that offer many skin benefits. Due to the lagoon’s popularity, reservations must be made in advance.
Arguably one of the biggest draws for visiting Iceland is the northern lights. The phenomenon can be experienced during the winter months, especially during clear, crisp nights. A variety of factors affect the visibility of the aurora borealis, including cloud cover, moonlight and urban light pollution. It’s recommended that groups seeking this experience use a guide or join an organized tour. Viewing spots by the sea or outside of the city center optimize the chance of seeing the lights.
Groups visiting Reykjavík in the spring, summer or fall can still get a northern lights experience. Aurora Reykjavík is an information and exhibition center dedicated to teaching visitors about the northern lights. The center is divided into sections: history of the northern lights, interactive displays, legends and stories from around the world, and an introduction to northern lights photography. In the theater, an HD film displays some of the most magnificent auroral displays seen across Iceland.
Located in the heart of Reykjavík, Harpa Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre is a distinguished landmark featuring stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean. Groups can learn about the building’s award-winning architecture on private, guided tours, which explore areas not open to the general public. Guides share some of Harpa’s secrets; stories of odd incidents; and how Icelandic nature, volcanoes and the Arctic light inspired the unique design and the amazing glass façade. Technical enthusiasts can take a more in-depth tour, which shares complex engineering details.
A short ferry ride from Reykjavík’s Old Harbor, Viðey Island immerses visitors in nature, with the familiarity of the city skyline still in view. The island offers ancient ruins, rich history, bird-watching and an extensive network of trails.
A major draw to the island is the Imagine Peace Tower, a work of art conceived as a beacon to world peace by the legendary artist, musician and peace advocate, Yoko Ono. The work is designed in the form of a wishing well from which a powerful tower of light beams. The words IMAGINE PEACE are inscribed on the well in 24 different languages. The artwork was dedicated to the memory of John Lennon on what would have been his 67th birthday. The tower lights up the evening sky annually from Oct. 9 to Dec. 8, a week during the winter solstice and spring equinox, and on New Year’s Eve.