There's plenty of arts and culture to take in when you're traveling – but where do you start? Here's a quick guide to the vibrant cultural scene here in Iceland.
Do you want to immerse yourself in the cultural scene in Iceland, but aren’t sure where to start? It’s understandable – along with the breathtaking natural landscape, Iceland’s thriving arts, music, and culture scenes draw tourists from near and far. Depending on your interests, Iceland has so much to offer… but where do you begin?
Photo: Mae Kellert
Let’s start with the visual arts. Iceland is well known in the art history world – painters such as Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval, sculptors such as Olafur Eliasson, and photographers such as Sigurður Guðmundsson are world famous and widely renowned and studied. Stopping by the arts museums and galleries in Reykjavík is really a lovely way to compliment any adventures you may be taking in the rugged countryside. How do local artists interpret this landscape, this lifestyle? The arts offer a different perspective, and of course, an additional beauty or dimension to your experience. But where can you see art?
If you’re on a budget, it’s always a good idea to stop by art galleries, no matter which country you’re in, as they are generally free of admission charge. Iceland certainly has plenty – in Reykjavík, for instance, there are Art67, i8, Berg Contemporary, and plenty of others. All of these can be found in the city.
If you’re willing to spend a bit of money for a ticket, the city’s art museums are definitely worth your visit. In fact, if you buy one ticket, you gain access to Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn art museums. To see a wide selection of rotating contemporary art exhibitions, you must definitely visit Hafnarhús. Kjarvalsstaðir, meanwhile, is dedicated to the work of painter Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval. Ásmundarsafn was designed by Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson, who also worked in the breathtaking domed building. His sculptures can also be seen in the gardens outside.
This museum gives you a chance to enjoy the lovely Laugardalur neighborhood as well. Tickets are 1650 ISK, 1100 ISK for students, and free for children and adults over age 67, and remember: your pass gets you into all three museums within the same day, so it’s quite a deal, and you get the chance to see multiple exhibitions and mediums. Plus, these exhibitions change, so if you have already been to the Hafnarhús, you can always stop by again on your next trip to see something new! Hafnarhús is open from 10.00-17.00, and 10.00-22.00 on Thursdays. Kjarvalsstaðir is open 10.00-17.00, and Ásmundarsafn is open 10.00-17.00 from May to September, and 13.00-17.00 from October to April.
Photo: Mae Kellert.
Photography fan, visiting Iceland for some inspiration? You’ll certainly find it in the natural landscape! While in the city, though, don’t miss the photography museum above the library at the harbor at Tryggvagata 15. Their collection currently reaches 6 million photographs, dating back to 1860! While this is certainly impressive, their rotating exhibitions pull either from their collection or highlight other contemporary photographers, both Icelandic and not. Admission is 1,000 ISK for adults, 700 ISK for students, and free for seniors and children. They are open from 10.00-18.00 Monday through Thursday, 11.00-18.00 on Fridays, and 13.00-17.00 on weekends, though keep in mind they are also closed for Easter, Christmas, and New Years breaks. Also in this building are the City Library and the City Archives, if you’re interested in literature or history.
For some more art, the Culture House at Hverfisgata 15 holds lovely and diverse collections in everything from design to photography to natural artifacts. 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, though they are closed on Mondays in the wintertime.
Perhaps you’re interested in sculpture? Iceland has a rich history in this medium in particular. You can visit the sculpture garden at the Einar Jónsson Museum for free, which features work by this renowned Icelandic sculptor. You can also visit the museum itself for 1000 ISK. This is located at Eiríksgata 3.
Still not enough art? I agree – there’s never too much. Just stroll around town with a warm drink and take in the public art. I’m always being surprised by a sculpture I hadn’t noticed before – as a tip, there’s plenty at the park areas around Tjörnin Pond!
Photo: Mae Kellert.
You know Björk. You know Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, Olafur Arnalds, Ásgeir, Kaleo, and more. These musicians are worldwide phenomena, and for good reason. Want to immerse yourself in the music of Iceland during your visit? Don’t worry - there’s plenty for you to take in.
If you happen to be in town in November, the world-famous music festival Iceland Airwaves takes over the city with major headlining acts. There’s also the electronic music festival Sónar Reykjavík in February, and June’s Secret Solstice Festival in Laugardalur Park.
Elsewhere in the country, there are also music festivals such as Aldrei fór ég suður in Ísafjörður, which has no admission fee! Plus, you can also check out concerts at Harpa, the breathtakingly geometric building you may have noticed near the harbor. In particular, the performances by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra are stunning and worth a listen.
Not into live music? Why not stop by one of the record shops around Reykjavík? These include 12 Tónar, Reykjavík Record Shop, and several more… the best way to discover music shops is to simply wander around town during your souvenir shopping. There are plenty to choose from!
Want to dive into the classic music of decades past? You can stop by the Punk Museum at Bankastræti 0 - constructed from a former public toilet! It’s definitely a must see for a music fan, and was opened by the Johnny Rotten. Tickets are 1000 ISK and the museum is open weekdays from 10.00-22.00, weekends 12.00-22.00.
And hey, you can also infuse the Icelandic music scene into your everyday life once you return home from your trip! Just turn on a radio, or pop on some Björk.
Photo: Mae Kellert.
Let’s move on from the arts for now – maybe that’s not quite your thing. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways for you to dive into the cultural scene in Iceland. Are you a history buff? There’s no better way to explore the early Icelandic culture than by stopping by the honestly awe-inspiring collection at the National Museum, Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, located at Suðurgata 41 and affiliated with the Culture House mentioned earlier. This museum offers an extensive and immersive look from ancient history to modern times, with particularly impressive artifacts and explanations of archeological digs.
Passing through the museum, you can see how Icelandic culture has changed over time, and you gain a deeper perspective on the contemporary culture and lifestyle that you’ll see as you enjoy the rest of your trip here. 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!
Maybe you’re mostly interested in learning about Vikings. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Icelandic Sagas? They are pivotal piece of Icelandic history – a detailed collection of tales preserved from antiquity, which you can read and study today. To learn more about them, you can always visit the Saga Museum, Sögusafnið, at Grandagardi 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.
Foodie? Same. I’m sure you’ve heard of the infamous fermented shark dish Kæstur hákarl. Or perhaps the more popular street food choice, Icelandic hot dog or pylsur? Certainly you can find hot dogs around town, and definitely at the world famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stands located in the capital, but you can also explore the numerous restaurants and cafes around the country, enjoying everything from fish and chips to rye bread and butter, lobster soup to ramen. And, of course, don’t forget to wash down your comfort food with a beer, or perhaps a nice cup of coffee. As a tip - keep an eye out for food trucks while wandering around the city, as well!
Are you vegan or vegetarian, by any chance? Me, too. You may be worried, coming to an island nation where fish is such a pivotal part of the local diet. However, many restaurants and cafes are very vegan and vegetarian friendly, so don’t worry too much! There’s not shortage of veggie burgers here, certainly.
From the highlands to downtown Reykjavík, it’s impossible to deny that Icelanders have style. The beautiful wool sweater, lopapeysa, is a world famous look, after all. You can find these traditional threads around city and town shops, or even, if you’re creative and good with your hands, learn to knit your own.
If you’re in Reykjavík, you’ll want to wander around the shops on the street called Laugavegur. Iceland is home to brilliant designers, brands, and shops such as Geysir, 66° NORTH, Farmers Market, Icewear, and others. What’s particularly nice about shopping in this area is that you can pop into the countless boutiques to find handcrafted jewelry, pottery, ceramics, and homeware, all beautifully created by local Icelandic artisans. You can also enjoy other Scandinavian brands, such as the Swedish backpack company Fjällräven, which has a brick-and-mortar store on Laugavegur.
Plus, what better way to enjoy Icelandic style than to check out the street fashion? Perhaps you can get some inspiration from what the locals are wearing. If you’re into thrift shopping, there are some consignment shops around town as well, for instance Hertex, Spúútnik, and Basarinn, among others. For a more extensive guide, check out this guide to Reykavík’s Thrift Stores!
Photo: Mae Kellert.
I’ve already mentioned the Sagas, so it perhaps may not be surprising that Iceland is home to a rich literary scene. But did you know just how impressive it is? In 1955, Halldór Laxness won a Nobel Prize in Literature. Did you know you can even visit his house, Gljúfrasteinn? It is in Mosfellsdalur, mid-way between Mosfellsbær and Þingvellir.
Speaking of which… Reykjavík is a Unesco City of Literature, a prestigious title that perhaps hints at an active literary scene, including a yearly book fair in late November and a biannual International Literature Festival. The University of Iceland is also home to the Vigdís International Centre for Multilingualism and Intercultural Understanding, which has held national and international conferences and events, as well as classes for students at the University, since 2017.
Pop by cafes and grab a book to read, visit the libraries in town, or stop by one of the bookshops. Mál og Menning and Penninn Eymundsson Laugavegi are two good options, both found in the major shopping district on Laugavegur and surrounded by cafes, conveniently placed for you to dive into and start reading with a cup of coffee. Here’s a great chance for you to pick up some Icelandic literature, since both shops sell translated versions in multiple languages. You can also check out the City Library and the National Library, both located in Reykjavík.
If you’re in the mood to truly immerse yourself, you can take literary walking tours using your smartphone and check out the tools offered on bokmenntaborgin.is for more historical details – including a podcast, news about upcoming literature events such as city-hosted literature walks, and a timeline that explores Icelandic literature all the way back to the Sagas!
Still overwhelmed? Can’t decide what to do? It’s a lot, I know. Iceland has such a vibrant cultural life that it may be tough to choose where to start. If you’re around Reykjavík in August, you can always attend Menningarnótt, the city-wide Culture Night. It’s actually a great chance to see as much as you can in one day – entry into museums, for instance, is free all day! This is really a nice tip for the budget-conscious traveler. Traveling is expensive, and August in Iceland is totally lovely, so it’s something to keep in mind if you’re planning a trip. If you time it well, you can see multiple exhibitions throughout the day, and then swing by the outdoor concerts happening around town.
Long story short, there’s plenty of exciting culture to take in when you’re here in Iceland. This is only a quick look at the museums, shops, and festivals you can find – there are plenty others, and all are easy to get to via public transport or by simply meandering around the streets of Reykjavík. Try to pack as much as you can into your trip to fully immerse yourself in the vibrant arts and history Iceland has to offer.
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.