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While Iceland is arguably best known for its stunning natural scenery that includes countless waterfalls, black sand beaches and soaring volcanoes, the colorful capital city of Reykjavik offers lots of its own. As most visits to the country start here, you may want to plan at least a couple of days checking out its attractions and just wandering the streets, many of which including buildings plastered with some impressive murals. To help you get started, here’s a look at the top things to do while in Reykjavik.
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The first thing to do when you reach the city is to soak up the view from Iceland’s largest church. Set atop Skolavorduhaed Hill, this magnificent church was inspired by the beautiful columnar basalt of Svartifoss water in South Iceland. Visitors can take the elevator to the top for a panoramic view of downtown Reykjavik, the very best vista of the city you’ll find and a great way to get a perspective of its layout. In front of the church is a statue of Leif Ericsson, an early explorer who discovered North America in the year 1000, centuries before Christopher Columbus.
The legendary Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s top attractions, a very unique experience as a natural spa with milky aquamarine waters that are surrounded by jet black lava rocks. While it’s not right in Reykjavik, located about 20 minutes from Keflavik Airport, there are shuttle buses available to get you there. No matter the season, soaking in the naturally warm waters feels incredible, perhaps even more so on a chilly, rainy day. Swim out to the bar in the middle to sip strawberry champagne or a healthy green smoothie, enjoy an in-water massage or skin enhancing treatments like an algae face mask or volcanic rock scrub. Dining is available onsite at the upscale Lava restaurant and a poolside café.
Iceland is one of the top destinations for viewing the northern lights, or aurora borealis as the colorful spectacle is also known. They can typically be spotted on a clear night from around late September through mid-March, though it’s possible during other times of the year as well. Marvel at them from the comfort of your hotel room, particularly if it’s away from the city lights, take a walk down to the waterfront, or join an excursion through an outfitter like Extreme Iceland – you’ll be picked up right from your hotel and taken out on a 4×4 in search of the very best sighting.
Iceland is famous for its hot dogs, and Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, is the world’s most famous hot dog vendor. An institution in the Reykjavik Harbor since 1937, it become known internationally after former President Bill Clinton sauntered up to the counter for a dog. If you want to order what the locals’ favorite, ask for the “ein með öllu,” a lamb-based hot dog smothered in mustard, ketchup, fried and raw onion, and remoulade, a sweet mayonnaise-like dressing.
As you ascend down the hill toward downtown and the water from Hallgrimskirkja Church, strolling Skólavörðustígur Street which stretches to the harbor, you’ll discover quite a few cool indie boutiques along with a fantastic hidden gem: 12 Tonar. Jam-packed with CDs and vinyl, including rare limited editions, open any one of them up, kick back on one of the comfy chairs or sofas and listen while sipping free espresso to discover what Icelandic music is all about.
The new Harpa building is a stunning concert venue and conference center with the design of its facades inspired by nature. Its location at the edge of the crystal blue bay makes it ideal for capturing a postcard-perfect photo, and you’ll be mesmerized by watching the water through the honeycomb glass. There are also a number of vendors inside selling local Icelandic items. Be sure to visit after dark as well, as its outfitted with tens of thousands of LED lights, coming alive with color and patterns that move across the entire facade.
This unique and fascinating museum is one of the city’s most unique tourist attractions. Colloquially known as the Penis Museum, it showcases a collection of over 200 phallic specimens representing almost every mammal in Iceland. If you ever wanted to see what a whale penis looks like, this is where you can do it. Although, it is in a jar, and not attached to a whale, of course. The museum sits on Reykjavik’s busiest shopping street and features a large room with shelves and glass cases filled with animals’ penises raging in size from a hamster’s to a whale’s, all preserved in formaldehyde.
As you walk the streets of Reykjavik, you’ll find a pleasant surprise around nearly every corner, with so many of the city walls and buildings decorated with vibrantly-colored murals. You could easily and joyfully lose yourself for days in this sweeping sea of creativity – in fact, the city now enjoys status as one of the world’s true street art capitals, popping up in the most surprising places all over town, bringing plenty of color to otherwise dull corners.
The Golden Circle is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist routes, located just a short drive from the city. If you rent a car you can easily tour it independently, though there are multiple outfitters that offer various excursions and pick you up from your hotel. The Geysir Hot Spring Area is a popular stop, dotted with boiling mud pits and erupting geysers, including the liveliest, Strokkur, which explodes 100 feet into the air every five to 10 minutes. Iceland’s version of Niagara Falls, Gullfoss Falls can be viewed along the route as well. It plunges down in two steps, one 36 feet high, and the other 72 feet in height, cascading into the over a one-mile long canyon below.