Just-Outside the City Life: Quick Reykjavík Escape to Viðey Island

If you’re debating the City Card purchase because you aren’t big into museums, but are into the pools and busses, another perk to use it for is the short ferry ride to and from Viðey Island.

Viðey is a small island in the harbor north of Reykjavík. Most of the year, you can get there from the old harbor, behind HARPA, and the most active pier at Skarfabakki. The latter is accessible by bus line 16 (easy to catch from Hlemmur), or if you’re in the eastern side of the city, it’s a nice walk along the seaside path. It’s about an hour’s walk from downtown, well worth taking the bus unless you’re intentionally trying to get the miles in or go slow. Be sure to check the schedule, because in the off-season, the ferry may only run on weekends from Skarfabakki.

Map of Viðey and Reykjavik
Map of Viðey with HARPA and Skarfabakki piers

I recommend arriving at least 15 minutes before departure time, as you’ll need a few minutes to pay for your ticket or for them to enter your city card information to create a ticket. You can depart from one location and return to another, too. Also, grab a map in the ticket area!

View of Viðey from the ferry
Viðey from the ferry

From Skarfabakki, the small boat (with indoor and outdoor seating) makes the trip in about 5 minutes.

The island itself is a fantastic retreat from the pavement and bustle of the city. There are only a couple buildings on it, including one of the oldest houses in Reykjavík (which now houses a café/restaurant). The island was used as a monastery (1225 to 1539), and there used to be a small village there until the early 1940s. Since then, it has been the destination for two site-specific artworks. Richard Serra’s “Áfangar” (Milestones) consists of pairs of basalt columns, a natural feature seen in many coastal places of Iceland. Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower is a short walk from the pier (go up the steep hill and turn left, about 20 minutes walk and on the left, overlooking the city skyline), is carved with the words for “imagine peace” in 24 languages. A strong beam of light comes out of the wishing well-like structure from October 9 to December 8 (John Lennon’s birthday to the date he was killed), and is visible from the mainland.

Viðey is covered with wonderful trails, and you can walk or bike. However, most are rough gravel or small walking tracks worn into the peat-like soil, so be prepared for a bumpy ride or to leave the bike to explore little paths. Use your map to navigate, but keep an eye on the time because the ferry doesn’t run any more frequently than hourly. Other than the chapel, house, and a couple other structures nearer the pier (for upkeep and groups), the island is quiet and untouched. Roam, breathe, and soak it in. Many species of bird come to breed on the island, and there are several accessible beaches (of the pebble variety). From the small hills and the north/east sides of the island, you have a dramatic view of Esja, the ridge that watches over Reykjavík, reminding you that you’re on a geologically young and changing island.

A low shot on Viðey of tall and short green grasses and small white and yellow flowers with teal ocean bay water and the mountain ridge Esja in the background
Summer on Viðey

If this is your scene, plan to be here for at least two hours. One hour only gives you enough time to get to the Imagine Peace Tower and stop to explore one other viewpoint along the way and then get back to the pier. If you’re making a whirlwind or stopover visit to Iceland and only visiting Reykjavík and the Golden Circle, but prefer the nature side of things, spend longer and take some snacks. It will take several hours to thoroughly cover the island, if that’s your goal.

On my first visit to Iceland, my CouchSurfing host suggested Viðey, knowing that I was going to explore the museums and use the busses already with my city card, but had more time and no money. I’ve been back a few times and it’s still a highlight of visiting Reykjavík.

Ok, one more picture, of the Richard Serra installation…

Richard Serra's Áfangar (Milestones) on Viðey
Richard Serra’s “Áfangar” (Milestones) on Viðey