The Complete Reykjavik City Guide: Pools, Activities & Climate
With its latitude of 64°08’N, Reykjavík is the northernmost capital in the world. It has roughly 127,000 inhabitants, a number that rises to almost 210,000 if you include the entire urban agglomeration with its nearby suburbs. Essentially, this accounts for over 60% of Iceland’s total population of 330,000 inhabitants. Despite its modest size and clear geographical isolation from the rest of Europe, Reykjavík boasts many intriguing sites to see and carries a rather cosmopolitan spirit.
According to the most widely accepted version, the city was founded by the Norman navigator Ingólfur Arnarson around 871 AD. Its name, Reykjavík, means ‘Bay of Smoke’, an apparent nod to the vapors of the thermal springs. For centuries, it remained a small village, partly due to commercial restrictions imposed by the Danish Crown. The birth of the first local factories in the eighteenth century spurred economic growth, finally culminating after World War II with a population surge.
What to see in Reykjavik
Situated along Iceland’s west coast, Reykjavík overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, facing Greenland. Two days are sufficient to explore the city and discover its primary tourist attractions, mainly located in the center, some of which is pedestrianized, although traffic is rarely an issue here.
The historic center, as usual, is the city’s heart. Curiously, it surrounds a small lake, Tjörnin, home to over 40 bird species. The Town Hall (Ráðhús), a post-modern concrete and glass structure, is open to the public to view a relief map of Iceland. A block north stands the Icelandic Parliament, the Althing (Alþingi), a dark basalt building dating from 1881, where you can enter and even attend sessions. Adjacent to the Alþingi, the Dómkirkja is the country’s most important Lutheran church, while the nearby Austurvöllur is a bustling garden-square hosting occasional events and shows. A statue of patriot Jón Sigurðsson stands at its center.
It may surprise you how many museums are found in Reykjavík.
In the central area, among many, we highlight the Colonization Exhibition (Aðalstræti 16), an archaeological display of a 10th-century Viking dwelling. The Reykjavík Art Museum is spread across three different locations, each focusing on a theme: the Hafnarhús (Tryggvagata 17) is in a restored old warehouse, exhibiting contemporary art. Kjarvalsstaðir, in Miklatun Park outside the center, hosts temporary exhibitions of modern art and 20th-century Icelandic painters, while Ásmundarsafn (Sigtun Street) is sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson’s former studio, now displaying his works.
For photography enthusiasts, the Reykjavík Museum of Photography (Tryggvagata 15) occupies an exhibition hall in the city library’s upper floor.
South of the lake, the National Museum (Suðurgata 41) chronicles Iceland’s history and culture from colonization to the present day. Lastly, at Aðalstræti 2, a tourist office offers maps and information on local sights and activities.
Step into the historic charm and modern allure of Reykjavík’s old port, a place where the past and present dance in unison.
Shop and Sip – Meander through quaint shops that invite you to discover Icelandic treasures, or settle into cozy cafés that offer a taste of local flavors.
Whales of Iceland: Giants of the Deep – Enter a world of majestic oceanic wonder at the Whales of Iceland. Here, 23 different species of whales that inhabit the icy waters around Iceland come to life through life-sized models.
Vikin Maritime Museum: A Fishy Tale – Located in a building that once froze fish, the Vikin Maritime Museum (Grandagardur 8) offers an intriguing glance into Iceland’s fishing legacy.
Sagas Museum & Aurora Reykjavík: Mystical Wonders – Enveloped in the haunting ambiance of the Sagas Museum (Grandagardur 2), Icelandic traditions and legends come alive.
Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur: Reykjavík’s Beating Heart
Welcome to the bustling boulevards of Reykjavík: Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur. These dynamic streets serve as the city’s fashion, food, and fun centers, drawing both locals and visitors into their vibrant embrace.
- Indulge in Nightlife – From Austurstræti to Laugavegur, evenings here are an exciting whirlwind of clubs and bars, pulsating with life, especially on weekends. Keep dancing until 5 in the morning but be mindful of your pocket, as Icelandic alcohol carries a princely price tag. A pub beer never dips below 1,000 kroner (around €7). But hey, who said luxury comes cheap?
- Explore Rich Culture – Wander around and discover museums, historic buildings, and fascinating art venues. Allow the sleek Harpa Concert Hall, which glimmers by the sea, to captivate you with its irregular shapes. Hosting concerts, conferences, and shows, its rich agenda offers something for every taste. Guided tours are available too, granting you a behind-the-scenes look!
- Art Aficionado’s Paradise – Art lovers, rejoice! The National Gallery of Iceland, Ásgrímur Jónsson Collection, Einar Jónsson Museum, House of Culture, and Kjarvalsstaðir await your arrival. These places serve as portals into the world of Icelandic artists, showcasing the nation’s creative pulse.
- Quirky and Intriguing – The Icelandic Phallological Museum (Laugavegur 116) promises a unique experience. Showcasing both reproductions and authentic male sexual organs of Icelandic mammals (and even a human one), the museum goes beyond cheeky humor. It’s well-maintained, thought-provoking, and yes, free of charge!
- Architectural Marvels – Standing tall at Skólavörðustígur is Hallgrímskirkja, a large Lutheran church whose imposing silhouette defines Reykjavík’s skyline. Take a lift to the top and relish an extraordinary view of the city. Nearby, the Sólfar (The Sun Voyager) sculpture adds to the city’s charm, resembling a stainless steel Viking ship and commemorating Reykjavík’s 200th anniversary.
- Swimming Pools: Iceland’s Social Hubs – An Icelander’s day starts with a dip in the pool. Follow suit, but heed local customs like washing thoroughly before entering the warm outdoor pools. Join the locals at Laugardalslaug, Sundhöllin, Vesturbæjarlaug, or the geothermal beach of Nauthólsvík.
- Activities and Excursions – Reykjavík is best explored both solo or through guided tours. Pick your adventure—be it whale-watching, birdwatching, fishing, or exploring the famous Golden Circle. In summer, venture to the Blue Lagoon and enjoy the soothing geothermal spa nestled in black lava landscapes.
Reykjavik’s Baths and Beyond: An Invigorating Exploration
Starting the day with a splash in a geothermal pool is a cherished ritual in Iceland. Embrace this tradition, but remember the local etiquette – a thorough (naked) wash with soap before donning your swimsuit.
Top Picks for Pools & Baths
Dive into Laugardalslaug, one of the largest swimming complexes, or take a dip into history at Sundhöllin, the city’s oldest pool. Vesturbæjarlaug’s proximity to the center makes it a favorite, and Nauthólsvík’s geothermal beach buzzes with summer joy.
Reykjavik lends itself to exploration both by oneself and in the company of other travelers by taking part in guided tours that can be completed on foot, by bus, or by bicycle, in accordance with a wide range of proposals that can be consulted in the flyers and brochures available at the local tourist office. We highlight a few of the most well-known from among the countless.
From the port of Reykjavík there are boat excursions for those who want to go whale-watching, as well as organized fishing trips and birdwatching outings in search of puffins. Given the prohibitive temperatures for most of the year, the period of greatest activity for boat trips to spot whales is generally the one included in the warmer months.
Among the most popular excursions there are those that leave in the morning (the return is expected in the late afternoon) and lead to some of Iceland’s main tourist destinations, namely the Gullfoss waterfalls which, together with the Thingvellir (Þingvellir) Natural Park and the geyser of Geysir, form the famous Circolo d’Oro (Golden Circle).
Equally inflated is the trip to the Blue Lagoon (the Blue Lagoon, or Bláa Lónið), the best known geothermal spa in Iceland, which we talk about in our guide dedicated to the nearby town of Grindavík. In the context of a natural landscape covered in black lava, the water in the pool has a constant temperature between 37°C and 39°C and has a characteristic milky blue color from which the lagoon takes its name.
No less interesting are the speleological outings and tours in the lava tunnels, favored by an underground world, the Icelandic one, which is truly fascinating and constantly evolving.
Those who prefer can instead try their hand at walking and ice climbing, but also with diving and snorkelling in the very cold Icelandic waters (adequately equipped, it goes without saying), with the possibility of trying the experience of night diving under the sun of midnight.
Climate. When to go to Reykjavik?
Given its geographical location, 250 km from the Arctic Circle, Reykjavík has a subpolar climate with a marked oceanic influence. For this reason it often rains and the temperature varies relatively by a few degrees throughout the year.
Obviously, summer is the hottest season, with minimum temperatures of 9°C and maximum temperatures of 14–15°C in July and August. The long days, which almost surpass 24 hours of daylight in the summer and are the finest time to visit the capital, are a distinctive feature of the latitude.
Winter is not as cold as one might think and temperatures rarely drop below freezing. With the scarce presence of the sun (only a few hours of light during the day), precipitation often falls in the form of snow.
The rains also continue in spring, which despite a few more degrees and the lengthening of the days, remains a not particularly suitable period for a trip to Reykjavík. The same is true, but with decreasing daylight hours and temperatures, for autumn.