We all know that the beautiful scenery in Iceland is enchanting. There are a lot of famous sights scattered around the island; and visitors who are not planning to travel around the island on a road trip, usually stay in Reykjavik or Akureyri, going on short day trips to the outskirts of the area. Here are some of the places that I explored in Reykjavik, and soon discovered that the capital city has more than natural scenes, but also some modern architecture and fun activities. Furthermore, one doesn’t have to go far to have a taste of Iceland’s unique natural treasures in the Southwest.
Keflavík International Airport
Upon my arrival in Reykjavik, I had already noticed that the airport is actually quite artistic. It’s not a giant hub (though it gained some popularity as a transit hub in North America and Europe), it is warm and welcoming with wood panels on the floor with a modern touch in its decor and design. Like many other airports, it has numerous artworks on display, most of which are created by local artists. The venue also hosts art exhibitions occasionally with physical artworks or video illustrations. The Rainbow and the Jet Nest at the entrance of the airport are probably the two most notable artworks (and the most viewed in Iceland) in the bunch. The Rainbow was created by Icelandic artist Rúrí and stands in front of the airport’s north entrance. It’s a 24-meter-high artwork consisting of square-shaped stained glasses on a stainless-steel tube that is attached to a base of Icelandic dolerite rock. The bending position of the tube is as if it was blown by the wind in motion. According to the artist, it is in fact an “unfinished” piece, with the hope that it will be “completed” by continuing on adding elements to the top until the full arch of the rainbow is completed when it touches the ground on the other side. The Jet Nest was also created by an Icelandic artist, Magnús Tómasson. The 9-meter high steel sculpture depicts an egg that is perched on a nest of rocks, with a beak poking out of the shells; it represents “ a new beginning” and “birth”, it may also be a representation of the country’s deep connection with nature and wildlife. Jet Nest is a bold and eye-catching art that would be difficult to miss as you board a bus or a car, heading to Reykjavik.
How to get from the airport to town
Keflavík International Airport is located about 50 kilometers away from the city and it’s a 45-minute drive. One way to explore the island with a rental car; since Iceland has no train system – another option is to take the flybus or a taxi. The flybus service operates every day all year round, and the drop-offs are located at many major hotels and guest houses in Reykjavik with the last drop at Reykjavik bus station. The bus fare ranges from 1,950 to 2,500 ISK. Some private tours may also offer a pickup service at the airport that could be checked separately with the respective tour operators.
When to visit
Icelandic weather is notoriously unpredictable. In summer, Reykjavik tends to be cloudy and showery, though there can be long, clear spells of sunny weather, too. However, one thing is consistent – it’s never really warm. Summer in Reykjavik is more about the long daylight hours than a sudden surge in temperature – the average summer range in the city is 8-14°C. Since Reykjavik lies south of the Arctic Circle, it doesn’t experience true midnight Sun, though nights are light from mid-May to early August. Conversely, in winter, days are short and dark – at the shortest time of the year, in December, the sun doesn’t rise until around 10:30 to 11 am, setting again just a couple of hours later. Between September and January, there’s a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights. During winter, storms are frequent and temperatures tend to hover a few degrees on either side of the freezing point.
Architecture in Reykjavik
The city center of Reykjavik is compact and it can be easily explored on foot. It’s about 30 minutes at most for you to walk from one checkpoint to the other. For a city that’s quite tiny (also with slightly over 130,000 people living in Reykjavik, it is one of the least populated capitals in Europe.), it has no lack of modern architecture and landmarks.
Harpa Concert Hall
The Harpa Concert Hall is one of the most eye-catching buildings on the waterfront. The building serves as a performance venue and conference center in the city, and its opening concert was held on May 4, 2011 (which is quite recent, don’t you think?). The building is 43 meters in height, costs 164 million Euros to build, and was designed by the Henning Larsen Architects and Batteriið Architects. While it may look like a simple glass building from afar, the concert hall features a distinctive colored glass facade in a honeycomb pattern that is stunning to look at from the inside. I said the honeycomb, the facade was actually inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland.
The Harpa also marks the beginning of the Sæbraut road, a.k.a. Route 41 is a highway running along the north shore, and connecting to the Keflavík International Airport. The Sun Voyager is a short walk away from Harpa. The sculpture is described as a dreamboat or an ode to the Sun. Created by Jón Gunnar Árnason in 1990, the art piece is conveying the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress, and freedom. The bone-shaped sculpture is mainly constructed of stainless steel, standing on a circle of granite slabs. While it may look smaller in the picture, the size of the sculpture is actually pretty big – the boat reaches 18 meters in height and you could see in my picture that I look pretty small with it. The Sæbraut road also offers a great view of the north shore of Reykjavik and the mountain Esjan, a volcanic mountain range made from basalt and tuff.
The other side of Harpa leads to Skólavörðustígura main street that ends at Hallgrimskirkja. On our way there, the Supreme Court was situated on the side of the road that didn’t quite catch my eye at first. Until then I noticed that the building was the supreme court, I found it special because its design has set new rules for functional buildings of its kind to be made predominantly from basalt stones and green copper.
Tjörnin, City Hall, and the parliament
The same goes for Reykjavik City Hall. Tjörnin is a small lake in the central part of the city, yet a number of important buildings are located around the lake, including the City Hall and several museums. Most visitors pass along its shore as they explore the city, and feeding the birds (there are many) on the shores is a popular pastime, so much that it is called “the biggest bread soup in the world”. While the city is filled with modern and novel architecture, it retains something old nearby the lake. Alþingishúsið is a classical 19th-century structure that houses Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament.
While it’s not quite comparable with many other prestigious art museums in Europe, the Ásmundarsafn Museum is, however, one of the most special art museums in Reykjavik. It’s about 3 kilometers away from the city center and it is a unique space designed by modern art sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson, the museum features a number of Sveinsson’s sculptures in an elegant garden.
Graffiti and Street Art in Reykjavik
Another thing to do while you are in Reykjavik, explore the city’s graffiti art! The city is home to a vibrant street art scene. Even if you don’t mean to, you will probably bump into a few giant frescoes on building as you are walking in the streets. In the early 90s Icelandic teens worked and beautify the city with their own style. Check out the locations of the street arts:
Another predominant architecture in the city is Perlan, a landmark and nature exploratorium. The building is located on top of a small hill that could be viewed clearly on top of the Hallgrimskirkja.
There are quite a lot of things to see and do in Perlan. Each compartment of the building has a feature and visitors get to experience different sides of Iceland:
- Ice Cave and Glaciers Exploratorium is the world’s first indoor ice cave and 100 meters long walkway built with over 350 tons of snow. The interactive exhibition showcases insights into Icelandic glaciers.
- Forces of Nature is an epic exhibition that introduces the power of volcanoes, earthquakes, and geothermal energy.
- Látrabjarg Cliff is a promontory and the westernmost point in Iceland. Here, a massive realistic model of the cliff is built-in Perlan and visitors could get to see what the largest seabird cliff in Europe is like, with inhabitants of this natural skyscraper.
- Icelandic Museum of Natural History features the nature of water and how it is connected to the lives in Iceland.
- Iceland’s Only Planetarium explores the sky as it unfolds, it’s a 360-degree experience and you are guaranteed to see the northern lights (huh, stimulations) here with some top-notch technologies.
- The Observation Deck provides a panoramic view of Reykjavik and it is a must-visit venue on a clear day.
- It also features a revolving glass-domed fine dining restaurant in a park with a cocktail bar.
Finally, I am introducing the Hallgrimskirkja as it’s probably the most visited and featured landmark of Iceland. The iconic Lutheran Cathedral is the tallest building in Iceland, it is located on a hill and could be seen almost anywhere in Reykjavik. Unlike many classic churches all over Europe, it stands out from the “norm” with its futuristic and simplistic design. Some say the cathedral looks like a space shuttle but in fact, the design resembles the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s extraterrestrial landscape. The interior of the cathedral, like the outside, is very simplistic but elegant.
The hall houses a massive pipe organ that was built by Johannes Klais of Bonn and features transparent photographic work adhered to the four translucent clock faces in the church’s bell tower, Beating Time. The 9-feet diameter clocks align with the four major compass points. The interior clock faces are made of translucent glass. In the central section, a connected series of photographic images, taken on Iceland’s Outer Right Road, depicts hand-holding quotidian objects such as wires and glass shards which suggest by their placement physical and perhaps metaphoric alignments with the sun and the surrounding landscape. The images selected for the segmented windows surrounding each clock’s core reference early 20th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s sequenced action photographs of a conductor’s hands, and the evangelical basis of Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran doctrine. Giving a contemporary and real-life aspect to the work will be the incorporation of photographed hands of the reverends and musical conductor of the church arranged to simulate the “conducting” of the church’s most well-known hymn by founder, Hallgrimur Petursson.
At the top of the Bell Tower, I enjoyed a panoramic view of Reykjavík with colorful rooftops, glaciers, the Atlantic Ocean, and beyond…
Whales of Iceland
The best place to go whale-watching is usually in northern Iceland like Akureyri and Húsavík. Húsavík Whale Museum showcases information on whales and their habitat, including skeletons and specimens. It’s also possible to do so in Reykjavik, like at the Whales of Iceland, in the city’s harbor. Apart from going to the water, there are quite a few places worth visiting in southwestern Iceland, or the Suðurland area.
Viðey is the largest island of the Kollafjörður Bay in Iceland and it’s a popular city getaway for locals, and it could be for the tourists as well. It is only a short ferry ride away from the city and if you own a Reykjavik City Card, the ferry ride is free. Take a walk on the island, view birds, and have lunch – but the best activity on the island is taking a guided horse riding tour on adorable Icelandic horses in Laxnes Horse Farm.
Exploring Southwestern Iceland
Grindavík – The fishing past and the lighthouse
Grindavík Municipality has one of the best and most advanced fishing vessel ports on the South Coast of Iceland. The construction and operational history of Grindavík Harbour read like an adventure.
In 1939, construction began on the outer reef. The plan was to build a temporary dam by the upper mouth of the prospective channel, so that water remained inside the Hop during low tide and the men could dredge for 4 to 5 hours per tide. Hand tools were used to loosen the stones, and wheelbarrows to remove them. In September, they had created a 10-meter wide channel through the isthmus, deep enough for the fishing boats to float in and out during the ebb and flow of the ocean. The difficult labor of hauling the boats to the shore at night was history. After unloading. The boats were moved into the Hop where they were bound until the next fishing trip. A series of enhancement projects took place after that in the 40s and 60s, as the channel was continuously broadened and deepened to make way for the fishing industry to expand in the region. Furthermore, extensive harbor development took place during the years 1963 to 1966, including the building of a levee at the isthmus, adding a steel embankment, and deepening the channel. A new wharf was built in 1973, and a pier was built by Eyjabakki in 1974.
In 1995, another improvement reshaped the Harbour once again. The new construction experiments with a renovation that copes with weather, tides, and natural conditions in the area. After 60 years, the channel is still operating and has proven to be a successful project.
The Hópsnesviti lighthouse (or the Hopsnes lighthouse) witnessed Grindavík’s fishing past and today, the area is a popular recreational destination with hiking and biking trails.
The Brimstone mountain is a natural manifesto of volcanic caves and sulphuric rocks, however, the caves are located below the mountains and cannot be reached by vehicles, it takes about 6 to 8 hours with a Lava Tour.
Krýsuvík – The Geothermal Area
Dramatic red, green, and yellow-colored hills frame an expanse of steaming volcanic vents and boiling hot springs. Krýsuvík is a geothermal area in southwest Iceland, and at a depth of 1000 meters, the temperature is above 200 degrees Celsius. Seltun belongs to one of the four volcanic systems that lie along the eruptive fault on the Reykjanes peninsula. The steam vents are surrounded by considerable sulfur deposits, which in earlier times were exploited for the production of gunpowder.
The Krýsuvík area is part of Reykjanes Country Park, which is on the broad peninsula of Reykjanes, established in 1976. The park covers an area of around 300 sq. kilometers. What is now parkland in the vicinity of Seltun Hot Springs once belonged within the historical Krýsuvík parish. Today about 43 sq. kilometers of this are owned by the town of Hafnarfjörður.
The Icelanders Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson were the first to experiment with ground drilling in Iceland. In 1756, they used a soil auger borrowed from the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters to explore ground layers in the Krysuvik hot spring areas. The first of their two holes reached down 10 meters, while the second, only 3 meters deep, hit a hot water vein. After pulling the auger out of the hole, muddy water shot up 2 to 3 meters high, so they managed to create a new hot spring. In 1941, exploratory drilling was carried out by the south end of Kleifarvan lake, with the intention of using steam to generate electricity. Drilling continued between 146 and 1950, leading to some holes that were promising and produced plenty of steam. However, they proved disappointing and did not last long, apparently becoming blocked by silica deposits. Experimental drilling mostly came to an end after 1950, although some drilling has occurred since then, signs of which can still be seen at Seltún. The Queen’s Hole was drilled to a depth of about 230 meters and blew steam for half a century, until becoming chicken late in 1999. It exploded ten days later, leaving a huge hot spring crater some 30 meters in diameter.
Most visitors visit the Þingvellir National Park and witness the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet). There is another place in Iceland where you could experience such a thrill and it’s actually even closer to Reykjavik. The “Bridge between Continents” is a symbol connecting the two continents at Sandvík. Here, you could see the diverging plate margin with your own eyes, as they are constantly drifting apart due to the gaping drifts. Walk the intercontinental bridge and visit Duus Hus Cultural house to get a certificate for crossing the continent.
Among the many dramatic viewpoints and locations in the area, the Blue Lagoon probably needs no introduction as it’s for sure a must-see for any visitors to Iceland. It is popular and it is close to the airport, in fact, many stop by the lagoon before taking a flight at the end of the trip – nothing’s more refreshing than having a soak in the hot water, and enjoying a lovely meal before boarding a plane. The geothermal spa is located in a lava field, with rich silica content that gives the water a milky blue shade, hence the name “Blue Lagoon”.
The lagoon’s water provides incredible therapeutic and health benefits, owing to its rich salt and algae, plus the soft white mud at the bottom of the lake that draws out impurities deep cleanses and clarifies your skin, and then gives your skin a radiant glow. Check out Blue Lagoon’s website for more information about their spa packages – a day trip usually includes access to the lagoon, a silica mud mask, and a drink. If you are interested in an upgrade, add a meal at the Lava restaurant with a second mask and other amenities.
For an even more luxurious experience at the lagoon, stay in The Retreat at Blue Lagoon Iceland or nearby Silica Hotel overnight which includes unlimited access to the Retreat Lagoon and the Blue Lagoon.