City Life: Reykjavík Exploration, Museum Edition

To-do list for a curious traveler:

  1. Walk and get your bearings (know where the pond, harbor, cathedral, and HARPA are in reference to your lodgings)
  2. Visit a geothermal pool and take your time to enjoy and experience it
  3. Explore a few museums (if you love museums, get a City Card!)
  4. Find some affordable food and drink

learn, think, connect.

Museum-lovers should get the City Card! It includes most museums: history, art, culture, maritime life, even a discount to the semi-notorious “penis museum”! Schedule your days to get the most of it. (Also includes bus fares, various local discounts, admission to pools, and the ferry to Videy.

The National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafni Íslands) is a great place to start. It’s located on the University of Iceland campus (Haskolí Íslands), and if you walk west a little past it, the student union has cheaper drinks and snacks (by Icelandic standards). The museum also has a nice little café inside, but can be overwhelmed at typical meal times. An hour inside will only allow a light skim – a curious person could spend HOURS here! Be on the lookout for aesthetics of different periods of history, and look for them in contemporary design and architecture.

Also for the history fans, check out the Settlement Exhibition. Between the heart of old downtown and Tjörnin, this is an excavated Viking longhouse from early settlement (841+/-2), which has had the museum built around it. It describes life in this period and the development of early Reykjavík, with some interactive exhibits, too.

Arbaer is the open-air folk museum, located a drive/bus ride distance on the east side of Reykjavík. This site has relocated buildings from earlier days, as well as a few of the special Icelandic sheep and horses. Exhibits in the building describe domestic and agricultural life in days past, as well as the role of women, the church, and other societal pieces. It’s a nice break from the city for those interested in these types of museums in good weather.

Toward the Grandi neighborhood (the working harbor) there is a Maritime Museum. I’ve only visited once, but happened to go when grad students had installed a clever exhibit about the Cod Wars. I learned a lot and enjoyed the puns (In Cod We Trust, for example). Great visit for those who like industrial museums.

Art Museums

Reykjavík is known for its contemporary art and design. There are some private galleries around, but check out the following (all included in the City Card unless otherwise stated):

the Reykjavík Art Museum (Listasafn Reykjavíkur) Hafnarhús (translation: harbor house, once a warehouse) for contemporary works

the Photography Museum (on the 6th floor of the library, or bóksafn) for small but excellent exhibitions of photography and video

Kjarvalsstaðir for works by modern artist Jóhannes S. Kjarval (painting and sculpture)

the National Gallery (Listasafn Íslands) for selections from their permanent collection as well as new exhibitions from Icelandic artists

across the street from Hallgrímskirkja, there’s an open sculpture garden featuring the works of Einar Jónsson (there is also a museum indoors, which is good, but is not participating in the city card anymore)

sometimes there is a small but free and intriguing exhibition in City Hall, near the 3D topographical map model of Iceland (located on the north/harbor side of Tjörnin, the pond)

the House of Collections (formerly known as the Culture House) is a beautiful old building filled with intriguing things, now in the form of rotating themed exhibitions

Public and Street Art

Reykjavík is a canvas. Keep your eyes up and you’ll see plenty, from unicorns to landscape to realistic portraits to abstract vibrant patterns. If this is your jam, check out this page. There are more, I’m sure, but downtown and near sides of it are rich. Alongside the brightly colored corrugated metal buildings, it’s a beautiful mashup of color, cement, construction, and new build glass/metal.