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Girl with whales, Whales of Iceland, Reykjavik

It may be one of the smallest capital cities in the world, but Reykjavik, in Iceland, packs a powerful punch when it comes to things to see and do

With its stunning setting, nestled around the south side of an island-studded bay and surrounded by mountains, Reykjavík must be one of the most appealing capital cities in the world.

Undeniably hip and trendy – but at the same time managing to be down-to-earth, and not at all pretentious – the city is small, with a population of just over 123,000. But size isn't everything. Reykjavík may be tiny compared to other countries' capitals, but it's packed with things to do and places to see.

A good place to start is the excellent Tourist Information Centre – situated in City Hall, at the edge of Tjörnin Lake, in the centre of the city. Don't miss the huge 3D model of Iceland on the ground floor – it's a great way to get your bearings and learn more about the country's awesome topography.

At City Hall you can pick up a Reykjavík City Card. If you're planning to pack in a lot of sights, galleries and museums during your stay, buying a City Card is a great idea. It offers free entry, or substantial discounts, to many of the city's attractions, including thermal pools where you can take a swim – or just chill out  – in naturally heated geothermal waters. It also allows you to use the city's public transport system for free.

Here are a few of our favourite things to do in the city.

The National Museum

The National Museum is many visitors' first stop. A short walk from City Hall, through a lakeside park that's packed with quirky sculptures, this museum offers an insight into Icelandic history from the era of the Viking settlements until the present day.

Carving at The National Museum, Reykjavik
Park bench sculpture, Reykjavik
Sculpture, Reykjavik
Sculptures near The National Museum, Reykjavik
Thor figure, The National Museum, Reykjavik
Artefacts, The National Museum, Reykjavik

Not to be missed is a thumb-sized bronze figure that dates back to around 1,000 AD. Thought to represent either Thor or Christ, the figure was found in 1815 in Eyjafjörður in northern Iceland.

Other exciting exhibits include well-preserved skeletal remains from Viking graves. And there's also an extensive array of finds from the Settlement era such as beads, combs, decorative buttons and brooches – all remarkably intact. These items were often 'grave goods': personal items belonging to the deceased that were buried alongside them, for use in the afterlife – a common practice across the Nordic countries, including Iceland, at the time.

Whales of Iceland

Stepping into the first exhibition hall at Whales of Iceland is like stepping underwater into the deepest ocean. The huge rooms are infused with luminous, watery blue light, creating an other-wordly atmosphere – and suspended from the ceiling are life-sized models of 23 different cetaceans.

Whales of Iceland, Reykjavik

Starting with the smaller animals – harbour porpoise and bottlenose dolphin – the museum guides you through all the species of whales, dolphins and porpoises that are have been found in the waters around Iceland. As you travel through the museum, the mammals get increasingly larger until you reach the humpback and blue whales – gentle giants that fill the vast space above your head.

Interactive information panels alongside each exhibit help you to learn about these remarkable creatures. And don't miss the Virtual Reality glasses, which will have you believing that you're standing on the seabed, with fish swimming around you.

Whereas most museums will have “Do not touch' signs displayed prominently, at Whales of Iceland visitors are actively encouraged to touch, squeeze and stroke the exhibits. The first contact may surprise you. We were expecting hard fiberglass, but the models are soft – creating lifelike structures that look and feel convincingly real.

There's a super little café here, that's also great value by Icelandic standards. It's right inside the whale exhibition, underneath the models, so you can sip on your cappuccino while you gaze at the belly of a blue whale.  

Settlement Exhibition

The Settlement Exhibition (also known, somewhat confusingly, as Reykjavík 871±2) houses the oldest evidence of human habitation in Reykjavík – including the extensive ruins of a Viking-age farmhouse.

Settlement Exhibition

Excavated in 2001, the ruins have been successfully dated thanks to a layer of volcanic ash that lies just below the foundations of the building. This ash was the product of a volcanic eruption in 871 – so archaeologists are able to say with some certainty that the house was inhabited between 900 and 1000.

The ruins themselves are fascinating, but there's also a clever multimedia exhibition surrounding the farmhouse. This offers panoramic scenes of what the area might have looked like during Viking times, with animated figures appearing unexpectedly at intervals to perform farming duties and other tasks.

Laugarvegar Street

When you've had your fill of museums and art galleries, your thoughts may turn to shopping. Reykjavík is a superb city to just stroll around and take in the atmosphere – and because of its compact size, it's easy to get around on foot. And the superb selection of shops, café's and restaurants throughout the city make exploring on foot a real pleasure.

There are colourful historic buildings and spectacular street art to ogle at – as well as longer distance, stunning views to glaciers and snow-capped mountains. Be sure to extend your wandering into the evening, when the city's streets light up and are alive with vibrant bars and cafes.

Eagle street art, Reykjavik
Black and white street art, Reykjavik
Street art at car park, Reykjavik
Harpa Opera House, Reykjavik

Head for Laugarvegar Street for great shopping – there are lots of touristy souvenir shops on this street, but also quirky independent shops, quality boutiques selling arts and crafts, and lots of eating and drinking options. There's a Bonus here too – Iceland's most affordable supermarket chain – which is an essential stop if you're self-catering or buying picnic supplies to keep costs down.

The waterfront

The waterfront is another great place for walking, and to enjoy the natural sights of the city – the views across the sea to the mountains beyond are spectacular.

Look out for the Sun Voyager sculpture – a unique, skeletal model of a Viking ship designed by Jón Gunnar Árnason in 1986. It's along the waterfront that you'll also find Harpa – Reykjavík's opera house. This huge concert hall opened in 2011, and is uniquely designed with an exterior consisting of hundreds of glass panels. These reflect the light during the day, and are lit up in multicoloured displays when darkness falls.

Colourful houses, Reykjavik
Reykjavik city scene

Where to stay

The Swan House Apartments are an eco-friendly option right in the heart of the city, just a stone's throw from Laugarvegar Street. Housed in a historic building that was once used to produce milk, butter – and later, chocolate and coffee – the apartments are beautifully designed, with high ceilings, hardwood floors and high quality furnishings.

Fantastic for families, the spacious studio apartments sleep four, and have a kitchen and dining area for preparing simple meals. Bathrooms are spotless and beds superbly comfortable.

The Swan House Apartments has responsible tourism and sustainability policies that are continuously improving, including using no toxic chemicals, reduction of water and energy consumption, and use of locally produced and fairtrade goods and services.

Read our full review of The Swan House.

The Swan House, Reykjavik

Green Adventures May 2018


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