Located in southwest Iceland, Reykjavik has the honor of being the northernmost capital city in the world. Besides which, it is a popular tourist destination with travelers coming from around the globe to experience life in a cold country – it wasn’t named Iceland for no good reason. Settled by Scandinavian Vikings, visitors come to Iceland’s largest city to learn more about those fierce settlers and perhaps take a dip in a geothermal hot spring. Whatever tourist attraction in Reykjavik draws visitor here, the city makes a good starting or ending point for an Icelandic vacation.
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Visitors can learn more about the Norsemen, not the most peaceful of warriors, and their impact on Icelandic history at the Saga Museum. The museum, with displays sometimes described as “bloodthirsty,” brings to life the days of the Norsemen in the early settlement of the country. Visitors will see wax figures of these fierce people as well as see costumed Norsemen, perhaps looking for havoc to wreak, wandering the grounds with staffs in hand. Visitors also will see ordinary people going about their everyday lives. Wannabe Norsemen can even have their pictures taken in costume.
Iceland today may be a country of peaceful people, though its environment isn’t that way. The country is one of the most active ones when it comes to volcanoes. The country has 200 volcanoes, with one erupting every three to five years. The Volcano House is a good place to learn more about this volatility. An exhibition traces Iceland’s geologic history and includes a collection of minerals found on the island. Unlike other museums which are hands-off, the Volcano House posts signs telling visitors “you may touch!” The museum also shows documentary films about famous eruptions.
Travelers who like to shop should make a beeline to Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street. Located in the central city, Laugavegur is one of the capital’s oldest streets. The name translates as “wash road” as it leads to a hot spring where Reykjavik women did their laundry. Described as “hyper cool” by Vogue, Laugavegur is filled with hip (read “expensive”) shops in an historical neighborhood. Laugavegur also has some of the city’s top eateries and trendy nightlife, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Whenever travels are looking for fashionable clothes, house wares or just a good time, Laugavegur is where it’s happening.
Arbaer Open Air Museum is a good place to learn about Reykjavik’s past. It was a working farm until 1957 when it transitioned to a new life as a living history museum. At Arbaer Open Air Museum, visitors can see how Reykjavik’s residents lived in the past with staff wearing period costumes in what is now a village and farm. Twenty buildings were relocated from central Reykjavik to form the core of the new museum. Exhibits highlight various times in Reykjavik, with various events, including craft days and vintage car shows, highlighting the period.
Though it opened only in 2011, Harpa already is considered one of Reykjavik’s greatest landmarks. Harpa is a venue for conferences and concerts, but it’s best known for its eye-catching architecture. Different colored glass panels surround the building’s steel framework. It was the first building in Reykjavik built expressly to host concerts, with its first concert broadcast on live TV. Before construction was completed, Harpa was turned into a temporary mosque for the film version of the novel Gæska: Skáldsaga. Events it hosts include International Jazz Day and Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival.
Perlan, or the Pearl, is one of Reykjavik’s landmark buildings that serves many purposes. At the base, Perlan is an exhibition and concert venue. The glass-domed top is a different matter. It houses six huge tanks that contain geothermal hot water for use by city residents. An atrium is located between the tanks. The bottom floor is known as the Winter Garden. The fourth floor has a viewing deck where visitors look through telescopes for panoramic views of Reykjavik and the surrounding area. There’s even a man-made geyser outside the building that was constructed in 1988 on top of Oskjuhlid Hill.
Visitors whose interest in Reykjavik’s early days was piqued at the Saga Museum may want to add the Settlement Exhibition to their bucket list of things to see in Reykjavik. Reykjavik City Museum is home to the Settlement Exhibition – Reykjavik 871±2. That’s because Reykjavik is believed to have been settled in 871 AD plus or minus two years. The exhibition focuses on a hall that was believed inhabited from 910 to 1000, though it was only discovered in 2001. The hall is believed to be one of the oldest man-made structures in Iceland. The exhibit also includes relics used by Vikings.
The National Museum of Iceland showcases the country’s history from settlement by the Vikings to today. The museum, established in 1863, is heavy on the Settlement Era, telling how the chieftains ruled and displaying such items as swords, a bronze statue of Thor (the Norse god of thunder) and drinking horns. Its most prized possession, however, may by the Valþjófsstaðir church door. This 13th century door depicts a knight slaying dragons to save a lion, who then becomes his faithful companion. The museum, housed in a distinctive building, has more than 2,000 artifacts on display. Visitors give the audio guide high marks.
Solfar Sculpture, also known as the Sun Voyager, can be found on Saebraut Road on the Atlantic Coast. Designed by Jon Gunnar Arnason, the piece won a competition for an outdoor sculpture to mark the 200th anniversary of Reykjavik. Unveiled in 1990, the artist said he based his design on the belief that early Europeans followed the sun to reach Mongolia, with their descendents migrating on to Iceland. Solfar Sculpture is a huge abstract steel sculpture that resembles a ship, though not a Viking ship, and is considered an ode to the sun.
Hallgrimskirkja is a Lutheran church in central Reykjavik, but it’s not just any church. It’s the largest church in Iceland and, at 75 meters (247 feet) high, one of the tallest buildings in the country. Even for atheists, the church is a must-see landmark with its modernistic design in Iceland’s capital, as it spires high into the sky. Travelers who think the church looks like a mountain peak are spot on. It was designed to resemble the mountains, rocks and glaciers of Iceland. It’s so high because church fathers wanted it to be higher than the Catholic church here. Construction on this unique building started in 1945 and ended 41 years later.