More background info:
The history of Reykjavik goes back to the earliest settlement in Iceland in the 9th century. For much of its time it remained a small trading outpost – mostly for the Danish crown. Growth set in during the 18th century. The Icelandic general assembly was moved from its original site at Thingvellir (see Iceland
) to Reykjavik in 1845. Even though that assembly had little power while the country was still under rule from Denmark
, 1845 can be seen as the year when Reykjavik became the capital of Iceland. It gained further significance when Iceland was granted home rule in the early 20th century.
Over the next few decades Iceland’s and hence Reykjavik’s economy, especially its fisheries, became larger and more important, and the country was set on course to eventually turning from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of its richest.
A big turning point was WWII
. After Nazi Germany
’s occupation of Denmark
began in 1940, Great Britain
became anxious that Iceland
may be a next target, so the Royal Navy was sent, and Britain effectively occupied the island. Later military forces from especially the USA
joined. The British constructed the first airport at Reykjavik (what is now primarily the domestic airport), while the Americans built an airbase at Keflavik – which later also became Reykjavik’s and Iceland
’s civilian international airport.
Iceland became a fully independent state in 1944 and Reykjavik thus the proper capital city and the seat of government. The city also grew fast after the war and established itself as the country’s economic hub and main population centre, as more and more people moved from the countryside to the city. Today Reykjavik itself has ca. 130,000 inhabitants, but together with the municipalities around it, which form the Capital Region conurbation, it’s almost twice that, meaning that almost two thirds of Iceland’
s total population live in the city area.
It’s a sprawling city, in that most residential buildings are spread out over a large area, with lots of empty spaces in between, but the centre and focus of attention in terms of tourism is very small – see below
The city’s general affluence suffered a blow during the banking crisis of 2008, which hit Iceland very hard. But with some drastic political steps taken, the country and its capital gradually recovered. Price levels, which had fallen a bit after 2008, are solidly back in the heights they were at before the crisis. And with the Covid-19 pandemic declared over, tourism is booming like never before.
The hyping of Reykjavik as a city destination sometimes gets a bit out of proportion, though, e.g. when the Lonely Planet once claimed Reykjavik had surpassed New York
as a hip and happening travel destination. That is nonsense, of course. The centre of Reykjavik does have a reputation as being a party hotspot, and it is, but naturally far from being on New York’s scale. In fact, Reykjavik hardly feels like a city at all. The cosy little centre feels more like a small town than a metropolis.
Reykjavik certainly has plenty of charm, and is one of the most walkable and safest places anywhere. But its touristic offerings can be pretty exhaustively explored in a few days.
What there is to see:
Reykjavik is hardly a dark-tourism hotspot, but it has a few points of interest in that regard, though mostly minor. One exception is perhaps the Reykjavik branch of the Lava Show
(the original, which I visited and described in its separate chapter, is in Vik on the south coast of Iceland
Another exception and top attraction is unpredictable, but when a volcano eruption is ongoing at the nearby Reykjanes Peninsula
then one thing to consider is a scenic flight by helicopter over the eruption site
. These are operated out of Reykjavik’s city airport. There are also guided hiking tours with transfers to the trailheads.
If you include the Viking
heritage as an aspect of, or akin to, dark tourism, then the large modern steel sculpture by the waterfront called “Sun Voyager
” that is meant to depict a Viking longboat (though it also resembles some form of crustacean crawling ashore) could be of interest. (I wouldn’t normally include such things in my concept of DT – see here
– but some see it differently; and this particular sculpture has even featured on the cover of this dark-tourism-themed book
Viking fans could also visit the Saga Museum, which sports several life-size dioramas with Viking warriors engaged in acts of violence … but I spared myself a visit, so I can’t say any more about it.
I also spotted a recent dark aspect on a square in the western part of the city centre: previously called Reykjavik Palaza it was renamed “Kyiv Square
” (‘Kyiv-torg’ in Icelandic) aftre the Ukrainian capital city
sometime after the beginning of Putin’s war against Ukraine
in 2022. It’s supposed to be a symbolic act of solidarity. So that’s a pretty recent war-related dark aspect. The same square is also home to a monument donated by Latvia
in gratitude for the fact that Iceland was the first nation to recognize that country’s independence, which was declared before the collapse of the USSR
but contributed to it.
And speaking of the USSR, the final leader of the Soviet empire, Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit meeting with then US president Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik in 1986. This is generally seen as a crucial turning point in the Cold War
. The venue is a smallish traditional Icelandic house called Höfði House
, which stands set back from surrounding houses and streets on a wide grassy square near the waterfront to the east of the centre.
When wandering the streets of Reykjavik keep your eyes open for the numerous graffiti as well as sculptures, a few of which also feature darkish aspects.
Stretching the idea of dark tourism even further (possibly overstretching it by now) one could also mention the small Punk Museum at the bottom of Bankastræti. It’s housed in a former public toilet!
More quirky than properly dark is also the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which features various phallic works of art as well as all manner of pickled real penises from the animal kingdom, including predictably large-sized ones from whales or elephants.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: easy enough to get to by plane and airport bus; generally expensive
Details: Almost all visitors to Reykjavik (except those coming on cruise ships – but those are unlikely to ever use this website) come by international flights to the international airport at Keflavik. From there you can get a number of transfer options, the least expensive of which are the airport buses (there are at least two companies running these). These go to the coach station a bit out of the centre but they also provide shuttle services by smaller vehicles to various drop-off points at or near hotels. They’re not exactly a bargain but still cost significantly less than a taxi would. Many visitors pick up hire cars at Keflavik airport and could then drive to Reykjavik themselves – but then you’d have to find accommodation that also offers parking.
Reykjavik’s own airport is these days primarily for domestic flights only, although flights to/from Greenland also use this smaller airport.
Getting around in Reykjavik can easily be done on foot, as the centre is very compact indeed. You’d only need public transport when heading to places further out, such as the Perlan – or the domestic airport.
Accommodation options in Reykjavik are by far the widest in all of Iceland. There aren’t many real budget options other than hostels or self-catering units, but booked well in advance you can find hotel rooms that cost less than the average tourist hotel rooms, which go at around 30-40,000 IKS (200-275 EUR) a night, at least in high season. In the upscale range the sky’s the limit.
With regard to food & drink
, eating out
options are also very plentiful in Reykjavik, but none are really cheap. As in Norway
, I found that trying to save money by going for street/fast food isn’t as effective as you might expect; so it’s better to just accept the local price levels and go for a proper restaurant, which often costs only about 20% more and can be so much better. When in Iceland
you may want to sample some traditional Icelandic food – and Reykjavik is indeed the best place for that in the country (except for Heimaey
with its outstanding New Nordic restaurant Slippurin). A long-established institution for this is Þrír Frakkar (“Three Coats”), a little off the very centre, but there are now numerous alternatives right in the touristic heart of the city centre too. In addition you now get all manner of international cuisines, from Indian to Chinese and whatnot, and of course plenty of hot dog and/or burger joints as well as fish restaurants. It is worth doing some research in advance in order to make informed choices.
Drinking alcohol is very expensive in Iceland in general, and that applies to drinking in restaurants and bars even more. A bottle of wine (all imported, of course) can often exceed the price for the meal. The craft beer revolution has firmly established itself in Iceland, and Reykjavik has plenty of choices where excellent brews can be had. But the prices for really special beers can be seriously eye-watering too.
To get a good impression of the city a couple of days are enough. But if you want to see every museum, exhibition and so forth you’ll need a bit longer. You won’t find enough to fill a whole week, though, unless you use Reykjavik as a base from where to undertake day excursions into the country, which indeed many people do (especially on the Golden Ring – see under Iceland
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Iceland
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Reykjavik is not big and there aren’t all that many historic buildings but there’s still some noteworthy architecture, e.g. the old Althing house on Austurvöllar next to the Domkirkjan church. Interestingly, the square also has a monument to civil disobedience (and that right by institutions of government and religion!).
Nearby is also the modern City Hall on the northern shores of the city’s lake, which is called Tjörnin and has some notable birdlife.
The No. 1 landmark of Reykjavik, however, is the huge concrete Hallgrimskirkja that overlooks the city and is visible from practically everywhere. It’s a modern structure completed in the 1980s and features concrete in the shape of volcanic basalt columns (or organ pipes, others say).
Even more modern is the Harpa – a concert and conference venue in a futuristic building. It’s completion was halted during the banking crisis of 2008, but by now it’s finished and operational and some of the surrounding developments (with yet more ultra-modern architecture) are nearing completion too.
Another icon of Reykjavik is the Perlan a bit out of the centre near the domestic airport– it’s a glass dome that sits atop six geothermally heated water tanks (providing heating for housing in Reykjavik!). Inside the dome are exhibition spaces (natural history mostly, including volcanism) and a restaurant (though no longer the gourmet place that used to be here).
Reykjavik also has its share of further exhibitions, art galleries and speciality museums. One of these is the Whales of Iceland exhibition in the harbour area (not far from the Lava Show). Given that Iceland controversially continues to be engaged in whaling, this could have been a dark sight, but as far as I could determine that aspect is not covered here; it’s more about celebrating the big cetaceans.
The main (touristic) shopping street in Reykjavik is Laugarvegur that traverses the eastern part of the city centre. A much-photographed street branching off from this towards the Hallgrimskirkja is known as “Rainbow Street” because its tarmac has been painted in such colours as a symbol of the Gay Pride movement (Iceland’s society is a very open one, so it’s no big surprise to find such symbolism not only here but also in other places in the country, such as Heimaey.)
Reykjavik even has a beach! The artificial seawater pool by this beach is geothermally heated! Since I’m anything but a beach person I didn’t go there, though.
For more see also under Iceland
- Reykjavik 01 - city centre west from the air
- Reykjavik 02 - city centre east
- Reykjavik 03 - Perlan and domestic airport
- Reykjavik 04 - Tjörnin lake in the centre
- Reykjavik 05 - at the City Hall
- Reykjavik 06 - Frikirkjan from the early 1900s
- Reykjavik 07 - the very modern Hallgrimskirkja from the 1980s
- Reykjavik 08 - city centre square
- Reykjavik 09 - the old Althing
- Reykjavik 10 - architectural detail
- Reykjavik 11 - former French Hospital
- Reykjavik 12 - the Harpa cultural centre
- Reykjavik 13 - counterculture at the Punk Museum
- Reykjavik 14 - blockhead
- Reykjavik 15 - Viking boat sculpture by the waterfront
- Reykjavik 16 - Rainbow Street
- Reykjavik 17 - fluffy puffins galore in one of the souvenir shops
- Reykjavik 18 - Latvian monument of gratitude
- Reykjavik 19 - square renamed after the start of the war in Ukraine