Although Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city, it has the feel of a seaside town, with old buildings, a harbour, and brightly-coloured metal panelled houses. I stayed near the historic centre in the Leifur Eriksson Hotel, which was small but clean and comfortable. My hotel was right next to the Hallgrimskirkja, a unique modern church with a tall spire. It’s possible to go up to the top of the church tower to get a good look around the city – one advantage of it being new is that there is a lift instead of the winding spiral staircase you normally get! An advantage of staying here was that it was impossible for me to get lost in Reykjavik – anywhere I went, I could see the church spire at the top of the hill so all I had to do was follow it!
It was simple and easy to walk around the city and I found that I got my bearings very quickly – impressive considering that my sense of direction is less than wonderful. I found it to be a very quiet, sparsely populated place on the whole – very different to the bustling atmosphere of London. Down by the sea it could get quite windy. Further in, the old buildings were unusual and very Scandinavian. I seemed to see lots of fairy lights in windows wherever I went – perhaps to compensate for the long winter nights, although at the time of my visit daylight hours were longer than those in Britain.
I knew that the crime rate in Iceland was very low, and I felt completely safe and at ease during my time there. However there were a few times when I was walking around in the evening and it was getting dark, there were few people around, and the wind was whistling through the buildings that I actually felt quite spooked. The atmosphere at these times was rather eerie and I can’t really blame the Icelandic people for being superstitious!
Below I discuss the different places I visited in the capital. I haven’t normally given prices as they are subject to change, but I thought costs in general were reasonable.
Reykjavik Welcome Card
This card is available to buy from the Tourist Information Office for 24, 48 or 72 hours and gives free entry to several museums, as well as free travel on central buses and access to the city’s thermal pools. I got the 24 hour card which got me free entry to the National History Museum, the Culture House, Reykjavik 871 ±2 Settlement Exhibition and the Reykjavík Maritime Museum which worked out as excellent value for me.
National Museum of Iceland
This museum was hard to find as it was slightly out of the city along a main road and looked nothing like a museum. It had the appearance of a factory or out-of-town office block and I only knew it was the right place because a. the map told me so, and b. there was a small sign in front of it with ‘Museum of Iceland’ on. I had to walk to the end to find the entrance and to my relief it looked much more like a museum on the inside.
The museum tells the story of Iceland in chronological order over two floors, beginning with the first inhabitants right up to the modern day. I found the exhibits were well-chosen and the accompanying text informative and interesting. There was an excellent balance between giving plenty of information and not boring with too much.
National Art Gallery of Iceland
This museum was very small and there were only three or four rooms. Most of the exhibits were modern paintings and sculpture. Modern art isn’t my favourite thing in the world, but there were a couple of works that caught my eye.
Reykjavik 871 ±2
This exhibition was possibly my favourite, being an underground room in the centre of which are the remains of a Viking longhouse, dated to the year 871, plus or minus two years (hence the exhibition’s name). The house itself would be very interesting to see, being very well preserved, however the creators of the exhibit have not relied on this, instead creating a fascinating interactive exhibit on the surrounding walls, providing information on how Vikings lived and the history of the Icelandic people. There is also an interactive table with a plan of the house: you can click on different sections to find out about different areas, with text in Icelandic, English and even runic script. I found all of this incredibly interesting and spent about an hour there – not bad for what is effectively one room!
Reykjavik Art Museum
This museum was pretty much full of modern art. I wouldn’t recommend going to this unless you’re a huge fan of the stuff. There were some interesting collages on the first floor using images from American popular culture, but that’s about it.
This museum was right on the harbour with a large boat just in front. It was over two floors and there wasn’t a great deal to see, but it was reasonably interesting, particularly the model of the inside of the fishing boat.
The Culture House is the former National Library of Iceland, and now houses manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas. As a librarian and a bit of a rare books geek, I loved looking at these! They are incredibly important works of literature and it was awesome to be able to see the original manuscripts.
I loved Reykjavik and it’s definitely worth a visit.