It’s tempting to think that the capital city of Europe’s most sparsely populated country, today numbering well under 400,000, might be lacking in what we traditionally think of as “culture.” After all, from its initial settlement in the late 9th century, Reykjavik constituted little more than a farming and fishing village for nearly a millenium. But as anyone who has ever dropped in on the annual Iceland Airwaves music festival or surveyed the cityscape from Hallgrímskirkja’s viewing deck can attest, this is a city with far more to offer than just access to an adventurous landscape of fire and ice. These days you’ll find modern museums, public sculptures, international festivals and architectural landmarks aplenty, not to mention a small but vibrant entertainment scene that has long since captured the interest of energetic travelers everywhere. So before lacing up the hiking boots and heading out into the wilderness, take a minute to get to know the cultural side of the Icelandic capital you may not have known about.
First off, when it comes to its national heritage, Reykjavik is more than happy to show off the goods. The 3-location Art Museum (Harbour House, Kjarvalsstaðir and Ásmundur Sveinsson) showcases works of experimental art, modern art, and sculpture respectively, with a strong Icelandic presence felt in permanent displays from Erró, Jóhannes S. Kjarval and Ásmundur Sveinsson himself. For all you fans of ancient Nordic texts, the Culture House was renovated in 2014 to help bring to life over 1,000 years of culturally insightful writings, while the National Museum of Iceland remains one of the city’s most popular and well-respected institutions, complete with artifacts and photos the trace the Icelandic lineage from the modern day back to its founding years. The architecture of the city boasts its own landmarks as well, from the awe-inspiring, 73 meter-tall steeple of the Hallgrímskirkja church to space-age structures like the Harpa and Perlan buildings, each hosting galleries and performances of their own. And (no pun intended) this is just the tip of the iceberg, when you consider that there are well over 50 museums, theaters and stages scattered throughout this easily accessible city.
But in case you’re getting the feeling that Reykjavik is all pomp and history, rest assured that the experience of daily life here is far from overwhelming. If old records, Nordic kitsch and traditional Icelandic shark meat sound appealing to you, stop into the weekend Kolaportið Market and see how many unique items both your bag and your stomach have room for. More interested in a cold beer and some good conversation? Take a stroll down Laugavegur Street and stop into any number of cafes, bars or restaurants. However you want to experience this colorful city, we’ll be willing to bet you’ll find the mix of small, personable size and big, capital-worthy culture just to your liking. Provided you don’t mind a little chill, that is.