From the Sagas to Eyjafjallajökull, here’s a quick guide for history buffs tackling the rich cultural and natural history of Iceland.
Are you interested in history? Are you the type of traveler who just wants to dive right into a museum with a notebook, taking in the stories and cultures of the past? Me, too. What better way to appreciate and understand the present day, after all? Here’s a quick guide for where to soak in the most history during your stay in Iceland. While educational, these suggestions are also fun and full of art, literature, nature, and more – so don’t be wary on dragging along your less-enthusiastic travel companions or children. There’s something for everyone!
Let’s start with the most pivotal history museum in the city: the National Museum, Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, located at Suðurgata 41. This is quite simply an essential stop for any history buff. It is a beautiful, thoroughly-curated museum that allows you to explore early Icelandic history all the way up towards the country’s contemporary culture. The museum’s permanent exhibition is entitled Making of a Nation: Heritage and History in Iceland, and boasts a collection of over 2,000 objects and 1,000 photographs. The objects in particular date all the way back to the time of the Settlement Age, which is historically stated as starting in the late ninth century. These are, really, some very old historical objects. What’s particularly nice about the National Museum is that they explain the context in which these objects were found. So, if you are interested in archeological digs in particular, this is an essential stop, with plenty of ancient artifacts for you to admire. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10.00-17.00, and admission is 2000 ISK for adults, 1000 ISK for seniors and students, and free for children under 18. Plus, your ticket is also valid for the Culture House!
Located at Hverfisgata 15, the Culture House offers you a look at the history of design and art, as well as some natural science artifacts. The museum is in a central location and hold a diverse collection in everything from two-dimensional design to photography to animal skulls and minerals. Admission is 2000 ISK for adults, 1000 ISK for seniors and students, and free for children under 18. They are open 10.00-17.00 daily, and they are closed on Mondays in the wintertime. Again, let me reiterate that buying entry to the National Museum gains you access to the Culture House for the day, and vice versa! It’s a great deal to take advantage of, and both museums can certainly be done in one day. There are plenty of places to eat and grab a cup of coffee in town between these museums, too – make a day of it!
For a great family-friendly option, don’t miss the capital city’s Árbæjarsafnið. Built on a historical farm, this is an open-air museum that encompasses 20 buildings that form a village-like atmosphere, truly giving you a glimpse at past Icelandic life and culture! From September to May the museum is open daily from 13:00 - 17:00, and from June to August it is open from 10:00 - 17:00. Entry for adults is 1.650 ISK, students are 1.100 ISK, and children and seniors are free.
We cannot discuss history, of course, without bringing up the Icelandic Sagas. These are a world-renowned collection of adventures, which offer a detailed look at early life in the country. The Saga Age tends to be defined as from the ninth to eleventh centuries – this, too, is some old stuff. To learn more about them, you can always visit the Saga Museum, Sögusafnið, at Grandagarður 2. This fun museum is 2200 ISK for adults, 800 ISK for children, and 1700 ISK for seniors and students, and is open daily from 10.00-18.00.
Of course… if you really want to dive into the Sagas, the best way is to read them for yourself! Translated copies of selections are available in bookshops around Reykjavík. Be sure to stop by Mál og Menning and Penninn Eymundsson Laugavegi, two options found in the major shopping district on Laugavegur.
Okay, okay… most tourists are pretty excited to learn about one thing in particular: Vikings. I definitely suggest going to the National Museum and the Saga Museum, but these may only serve to further fuel your curiosity, and there’s plenty of exhibitions around town that focus on this part of history.
Did you know you can visit a recreated farmhouse based on what experts believe it would have looked like in the times of the Settlement? In the South Islands at Þjórsárdalur Valley, Þjóðveldisbærinn is based off of the farm Stöng in Þjórsárdalur, which was likely abandoned in 1104 after Hekla’s volcanic eruption. By visiting this beautiful medieval-style farm, you can truly see how Icelanders lived in past ages. This is a true gem for a history lover - and is open from 10:00 - 17:00 June through August. Tickets are 1.000 ISK for adults, 750 ISK for seniors, and free for children under 16.
To dive into more history, you can experience the longhouse ruins of a Viking building at the Settlement Exhibition - Reykjavik 871± 2 at Aðalstræti 16, down by the Old Harbour. If you want a look at what life was like in Iceland during the Settlement age, this is a must-see. Also, this part of town is particularly beautiful, with a great view of Esja. Open daily from 9-18:00, entry is 1,650 ISK for adults, free for children and seniors, and 1,100 ISK for students.
While in the area, you can also hop a ferry and wander around Viðey Island, which was settled around 900 and has a rich local history.
Being an island, Iceland of course has a vibrant and influential maritime culture. To get a thorough look at the history of the herring industry in Iceland, you can visit the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður. Founded in 1994, this award-winning museum has five distinct exhibition spaces, all offering a detailed look at the culture of the industry. The museum is open by appointment in the wintertime, and daily in June through August from 10:00 to 18:00, and in May & September from 13:00 to 17:00. Adults are 1.800 ISK, seniors and those under 20 years old are 1.000 ISK, and children under 16 are free. Your ticket gains access not only to all of the buildings included in the Herring Era Museum (Róaldsbrakki, Grána and the Boat House) but also to the Folk Music Center! Located less than a ten minute walk away at Norðurgötu 1, 580 Siglufirði, this museum gives you a chance to explore the traditional music of Iceland, from epic poetry to Icelandic fiddle.
If you are in the Westfjords, the Byggðasafn Vestfjarða, or the Westfjords Heritage Museum, is a must see for more maritime history. To truly gain an understanding of the history of Iceland, it’s pivotal to explore the culture tied to the fishing industry, after all. The museum is open daily from May to September from 9:00 - 17:00, and tickets are 1200 ISK for adults and 950 ISK for students and seniors. In the summertime, there is also a functioning blacksmith shop nearby, with entrance also at 1200 ISK for adults and 950 ISK for seniors.
For a different perspective of maritime history, you can visit the French Museum in Fáskrúðsfjörður. Did you know that French sailors stayed at Fáskrúðsfjörður from the 1800s to World War I? You can learn more about their history, their original buildings, and how their story has impacted local culture by visiting the exhibition, which is open from 10:00 to 18:00 from May to September.
I’m going to be honest here: the absolute best way to learn about Icelandic history and culture is to talk with Icelanders. I have learned some great stories (and jokes!) simply by talking with guides while taking tours, so don’t be shy! Guides are especially knowledgeable about the natural landscape, and Iceland’s natural history is rich and active… the land is, after all, very volcanic. If you, like me, are a lover of natural history, then Iceland’s truly the place to be. There’s a rich world of geology, geothermal activity, and volcanology to explore!
To really experience some awesome natural history, I suggest taking a tour to the South Coast of Iceland. A stunningly beautiful landscape, the area is popular for its glacier hikes, black sand beaches, and rainbow-laden waterfalls – but it’s also where you can see Eyjafjallajökull in the distance, the volcano that became world famous during its 2010 eruption, which, as you may recall, wrecked a bit of havoc on air travel for a while there!
If you’re very interested in natural history, I suggest the Eldheimar Museum of Remembrance on Heimaey, one of the Vestmannaeyjar islands, which tells the story of the devastating 1973 eruption which lasted five months and destroyed hundreds of homes on the island.
By the way, if you’re in the South Coast area, you can also visit the folk museum Húsið at Eyrarbakki, which is one of the country’s oldest buildings… dating back to 1765! They are open 1th May – 30th Sept. Daily from 11-18, and by arrangement from 1th Oct – 30th April. Admission is 1000 ISK.
There’s plenty of other places to learn about the natural history of Iceland, of course – for instance, in the West there is The Volcano Museum Stykkishólmur, organized by the volcanologist Haraldur Sigurðsson. There is the thorough Lava Centre at Austurvegur 14, Hvolsvöllur, which is very educational and includes both an exhibition and a cinematic experience. You can find tickets here. Finally, right in Reykjavík there is also the Volcano House, which has a free exhibition as well as a ticketed documentary that airs every hour and costs 1,790 ISK for adults, is free for children, 1,400 ISK for students and seniors, 1,000 ISK for teenagers, and 1,400 ISK if you have a City Card. This documentary tells you more about the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull and the Westman Island listed above.
Truly, the natural history of Iceland is very unique, active, and exciting… there is much to explore, and these volcano museums are a great, family-friendly experience to compliment your views as you tour the countryside. What better way to appreciate a black sand beach than to understand the volcanic activity that put it there?
There’s a lot of history to explore in Iceland, from the Sagas to Eyjafjallajökull, and everything in between. Take your time and enjoy the brilliant museums speckled around the country, and make sure to talk with locals to learn even more. There’s a lot to take in… but hey, you can always pick up a copy of Njáls Saga and read it on the plane ride home.
Photos: Mae Kellert