10 Historic Spots in Reykjavik You Need To Visit
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
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Reykjavik is famous for being a base from which to explore the rest of Iceland. Many tourists stay predominantly in Reykjavik, and take day tours out of the city to see areas such the Golden Circle or the Blue Lagoon. We also used Reykjavik as a base during our 5 days in Iceland, and managed to walk around most of the city, taking in the main attractions and of course visiting some of Reykjavik's restaurants. But did you know that Reykjavik has some pretty interesting historic spots to explore?
Reykjavik surprisingly has a lot of unique and historic spots to visit, many of which are off the beaten path and not necessarily overrun with tourists. If you've visited the city before, you may have even walked right by them and not realized they were historically significant. Here are 10 historic spots in Reykjavik you should definitely visit:
Bessastadir (or Bessastaðir) has played an important role in Icelandic history for hundreds of years. There is archaeological evidence showing that settlers in this area were among the first settlers in Iceland. By the 13th century, it had been claimed by the King of Norway, and became both a royal stronghold and home to the highest ranking official in Iceland. The buildings standing today were built in the 18th century, and Bessastadir has been the official residence of the president of Iceland since 1941. Since Bessastadir isn't located in Reykjavik's city centre, it's often an overlooked attraction. It's easily accessible by car or by public transportation, and is definitely one historic site in Reykjavik not to be missed.
2. Hofdi House
The importance of Hofdi House (Höfði House) as an historic site in Reykjavik shouldn't be overlooked. It was imported from Norway and built in 1909, and is considered one of the most beautiful wooden buildings in Reykjavik. It may not look very interesting, but it played an important role during the Cold War. In 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan met at Hofdi House in what would be the first steps in ending the Cold War. Sir Winston Churchill also visited here during his trip to Iceland in 1941. Hofdi House is closed to the public, but visitors are free to walk around the grounds. It's only a 15 minute walk from the famous Sun Voyager sculpture, so if you have some time to spare it's worth the short walk to visit this famous historic site in Reykjavik.
3. The Parliament House
The Althing (National Parliament of Iceland) was founded in 930 at Thingvellir National Park, and is considered to be the oldest parliament in the world. The parliament still held sessions in the national park until 1800, and when it was restored in 1844 it was moved to Reykjavik. The current Parliament House was built in 1881 and sits right in the heart of Reykjavik, so it's very easy to add to your itinerary. If you don't know it's there, it's easily overlooked as it's not a popular tourist destination, but it's worth visiting briefly if you want to see an important historic site in Reykjavik.
4. Arbaer Museum
Historic sites in Reykjavik don't come much better than the Arbaer Museum. Prior to its opening in 1957, the land was a well established farm. I personally love open air museums, because you quite literally get to walk through history. There are more than 20 buildings that make up the Arbaer Museum, and most of them have been relocated from Reykjavik's city centre after growing concerns that the older parts of Reykjavik were disappearing. During the summer months, there are people dressed in period costumes who carry out daily routines, and the museum hosts a variety of different exhibitions too. The Arbaer Museum is a 15 minute drive from the city centre, and if you've purchased a Reykjavik City Card (highly recommended), then entry is free. If not, it costs 1740 ISK for adults or 1120 ISK for students with a valid student card. In my opinion this is one of the best historic sites to visit in Reykjavik if you want to get a better understanding of Icelandic history and how people lived in the past.
5. Videy Island
Videy Island (Viðey Island) is a very popular destination for tourists visiting Reykjavik. It sits just off the coast of Iceland's capital city, and is easily accessible by a 20 minute ferry ride. If you've purchased the Reykjavik City Card, you can hop on the ferry for free which is fantastic if you're visiting Reykjavik on a budget. The island offers stunning views of Reykjavik and the surrounding landscape, and is home to the world famous Imagine Peace Tower, which was designed by Yoko Ono as a tribute to John Lennon and their vision for a peaceful world. For those of you who love history, there are some amazing historical ruins on the island for you to explore. One of the few houses still remaining on the island was once the home of Skuli Magnusson, the father of Reykjavik, and now houses paintings from Icelandic artists.
6. National Theatre of Iceland
The same architect behind Reykjavik's most iconic attraction, the Hallgrimskirkja Church, also designed the National Theatre of Iceland. Guðjón Samúelsson actually designed a number of buildings throughout the city, and is worth reading up on if you're interested in architecture. The National Theatre was built in 1950, and is one of two theatres in the city of Reykjavik. Prior to its completion, the building was used by British soldiers in 1941 during their efforts to stop the Nazis from overtaking Iceland. It's located parallel to Laugavegur shopping street, and if you have time I would recommend taking in a performance here. If not, it's an interesting historic site in Reykjavik to visit, and you may even be let inside to take a look at its grand interior.
7. Statue of Ingólfur Arnarson
Reykjavik has a lot of interesting statues dotted about the city. One of the most historically significant ones is the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, at the top of Arnarhóll Hill. Ingólfur left Norway in 874, and became the first Norse man to settle in Iceland. Legend says that when Ingólfur spotted land, he threw his high seat pillars into the water, and said that he would make his home wherever they landed. It took him three years to find them again, in a location that he named Reykjavik. Pretty interesting, right? If you climb to the top of the hill, you can see the statue up close and get stunning views of Reykjavik too.
Laugavegur is one of the oldest streets in Reykjavik, and is the main shopping street in the city. Its name roughly translates to "water road" in a nod to the women who used to walk up and down the road to take their laundry to the hot pools to be washed. Laugavegur is filled with fantastic shops, restaurants, and cafes, and is even home to the the world's only Phallological Museum (animal penises). If you want to purchase some Icelandic designed and produced gifts to take home, Laugavegur is the place to be! This may not be your typical historic site, but it's an important part of Reykjavik and will take you from one end of the city to the other.
9. The Culture House
The Culture House is an interesting historic site in Reykjavik to visit, which exhibits a unique point of view of Iceland's history through different visual collections. Here you can take a look at everything from treasures from over one thousand years ago, to modern Icelandic art. The building itself was built in 1908 to house the National Library and the National Archives, and has also been home to the National Museum of Iceland. If you look closely, the crests along the facade bear the names of different literary figures. Entry costs 2000 ISK, but is free with the Reykjavik City Card.
10. Statue of Leif Eriksson
Hallgrimskirkja Church is probably the most popular tourist spot in Reykjavik, but don't forget to look at the statue outside of it! Leif Eriksson was the the first European to sail to North America, over 400 years before Christopher Columbus. He landed in Newfoundland, Canada where he established Icelandic settlements before returning to Iceland with an enormous supply of grapes and timber. The statue of Leif Eriksson actually predates Hallgrimskirkja Church, and was a gift from the USA to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of the Icelandic parliament in 1930. If you're ever in Newport, Virginia there's an exact replica of the statue on display. The statue in Reykjavik was intended to sit in the middle of a pond, to represent the Atlantic Ocean, but that plan never became a reality. If you're planning on visiting Hallgrimskirkja Church, you can cross off two historic sites in Reykjavik in one trip!
Some of these sites listed are off the beaten path attractions in Reykjavik, and others are right in the city centre but are often overlooked by tourists. There are countless more historic sites to visit in Reykjavik, and plenty of fantastic museums to explore as well. A great way of seeing some of these attractions is to take a free walking tour of Reykjavik, so you can get a more local insight into the history of them.
If you're looking for accommodation in Reykjavik, we stayed at a great hotel called Hotel Klettur, which sits only a 10 minute walk from Hallgrimskirkja Church and was very budget friendly. Or if hostels are more your thing, Galaxy Pod Hostel is a very unique hostel in Reykjavik, which gives you the privacy of a hotel but the experience of a hostel.
I hope to return to Iceland very soon, so if you have any tips on what to do in Reykjavik and the surrounding area please get in touch. And remember to follow me on my travels on Instagram!
If you want to have a piece of Iceland with you after your trip, check out Fox Burrow Designs who create gorgeous travel prints from a wide range of locations. Use the code "KRISTA20" for 20% off all prints, just like the one I chose below!