Museum City Guide: My Top 5 in Reykjavík

July 29, 2013


Reykjavík holds a special place in our hearts – it’s where we spent the majority of our honeymoon. And yes, part of that was spent at a museum conference, but just for the record – my husband didn’t mind and thought it was fun to get to see me speak. In fact, he really enjoys visiting museums himself too, so we clocked up quite a few during our trip.


Sometimes people are surprised at how many museums there are in Reykjavík, considering Iceland is overall a relatively small country. But it has a rich history, and you’ll be able to find something to suit most tastes, from the fairly traditional to the rather obscure.

1. Víkin Maritime Museum


Apparently, “Visting Iceland without learning something about its maritime tradition is like going to England and ignoring its royalty” – at least that’s the claim of the Víkin Maritime Museum. The permanent exhibitions cover the evolution of Icelandic fishing and coastal culture through the centuries. Also part of the museum is the Coast Guard vessel Ódinn, which took part in the Cod Wars in the last century and went on numerous searches and rescue missions. Visitors can step aboard to explore the vessel, including the engine rooms which had some pretty impressive machinery. The museum is open daily throughout the summer (1st June – 15th September), and closed on Mondays during the winter. The vessel Ódinn is also closed during December and January.

2. National Museum of Iceland

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Just a block away from Reykjavík’s beautiful central lake Tjörnin, lies the National Museum of Iceland. If you really want to immerse yourself in Iceland’s history and culture, this is the place to go. The permanent exhibition “Making of  a Nation” covers everything from the first settlement to the present day. Individual themes include homes and daily life, work and occupations, arts and crafts, language, and social culture. Around a dozen multimedia touch screens allow visitors to delve deeper into topics that interest them, and on the second floor there are two spaces with hands on activities and games. The museum is open daily throughout the summer (1st May – 15th September), and closed on Mondays during the winter.

3. Hafnarhús


Hafnarhús is one of three venues belonging to Listasafn Reykjavíkur – the Reykjavík Art Museum. Located downtown next to the harbour, Hafnarhús constitutes the museum’s institute for contemporary art. Regular readers of this blog may be surprised to see it included in my Top 5, since I make no secret of the fact that contemporary art is not my forte, but the building itself is so amazing it has to be experienced (also, I’m slowly learning that contemporary art comes in many shapes and forms, some of which I actually quite like). Located in an old converted fish warehouse, Harnarhús impresses through its size alone. Alongside a regular exhibition series devoted to the artist Erró, the museum hosts a changing programme of temporary exhibitions so I can’t tell you what you’ll find there. One our visit, we were privilege to an exhibition of oversized film stills from Lars von Trier movies, of a size one can only display in a warehouse, as well as works by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, uniquely displayed among packing crates. The museum is open daily, with a late night opening on Thursdays.

4. Saga Museum


The Saga Museum, situated in a retired water tower, tells the story of key moments in Icelandic history from the time of the first settlers onwards. If you are wondering how this is different from the exhibition at the National Museum of Iceland, the answer is that key historical scenes have been recreated with wax manuequins. Visitors are guided through the exhibits via an audio tour, which is available in a number of languages including English, German and French. If you think the life sized models look extremely realistic, it’s because they were all cast from friends and family of the owner, as he himself proudly told us. The museum is open daily throughout the year.

5. Icelandic Phallological Museum


Even though we visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Húsavík in the north of Iceland, since it has now relocated to Reykjavík I couldn’t leave it out of my Top 5. It regularly tops the lists of the world’s most obscure museums, and deservedly so. But although the museum makes most people giggle, it can actually be seen as a very unique natural history museum, being the only one of its kind to exhibit phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country. Starting out with just a single bull’s penis in the 1970s, the collection has since grown to encompass over 200 specimens from over 90 different species. At it’s old location, admission to the museum during winter was by appointment only, but in Reykjavík it seems to be open daily all year round.

Other Museums & Attractions

Some other museums we really enjoyed in Reykjavík include the Ásmundur Sveinsson sculpture museum – another member of Listasafn Reykjavíkur – which houses the artist’s sculptures in a unique building mostly designed by Sveinsson himself; the Reykjavík Museum of Photography, an independent museum with an annual programme of changing exhibitions; the settlement exhibition Reykjavík 871 +/- 2, based around an excavated Viking long house with a range of multi-media interaction; and The Culture House – National Centre for Cultural Heritage, with its Medieval Saga manuscripts (which the Icelanders refer to as their crown jewels). I’d also really recommend the Volcano Show, which isn’t a museum of exhibition, but a show consisting of three back-to-back documentaries, showing first a dramatic and exciting overview of all Icelandic volcanic eruptions since 1947 followed by documentaries focusing on the 1973 eruption on the island of Heimaey and on the birth of the island of Surtsey caused by an eruption in 1963. The film footage is amazing!

All that museum visiting making you hungry?

We didn’t actually eat at any of the museums in Reykjavík – though I remember having a very tasty “chai mjölk” (chai milk) at the National Museum of Iceland’s cafe – but if you are visiting Hafnarhus or Víkin Maritime Museum down by the harbour, you should definitely try out the following (apologies to the vegetarians):


For the most flavoursome cup of coffee, head to “Cafe Haiti”. Their coffee beans are imported from Haiti, but are roasted locally to maintain freshness. The photograph below was actually taken prior to their 2010 move to bigger premises, but I’m sure their quality of coffee and pastries has remained the same. You can find the cafe at Geirsgata 7c, among the cluster of other restaurants and cafés in the harbour.

If you’re looking for something more hearty, then you simply must head to “Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur”, which translates as “the best hot dogs in town”. And they’re not joking, these are amazing! Apparently The Guardian even named it the best hot dog stand in Europe in 2006. Hey, if it’s good enough for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for us. Make sure to ask for “eina með öllu” – one with everything, a.k.a. “the works”. They actually have several stands throughout the city, but the famous one is located at Tryggvagata, near Kolaportið.

And if you’re up for trying something fresh from the fishing boats, Saegreifinn fishing shack, at Geirsgata 8  just along from Cafe Haiti, does a selection of tasty seafood dishes including Cod, Halibut, Plaice, Sole, Monkfish and Mink Whale.


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2 Responses to “Museum City Guide: My Top 5 in Reykjavík”

  1. Katie Bowell Says:

    Ah, this post comes just in time! I’m heading there in a month and you’ve helped me narrow down my too-long museum list. But there was never any question about the Phallological Museum. How could there be?


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