It’s easy to do: land in Reykjavík, hop in your adventure vehicle and head directly into Iceland’s potpourri of unreal landscapes. It’s a country made for tranquil rural escapes – meaning that too often, a lengthy stay in the capital is left off the itinerary.
Well, that’s a mistake. Not only is the Greater Reykjavík region and the city itself home to some of Iceland’s biggest attractions, from shopping on the boutique-draped Laugavegur to taking a dip in the steamy Blue Lagoon, it also has some of the country’s most memorable outdoor spaces.
Within Reykjavík’s parks and outdoor areas, you can witness (and often join in on) the spectrum of activity, whether it’s a quiet day in a green space or taking a dip in one of the country’s famed pools. This is a country that loves the outdoors, and two-thirds of its population lives in the capital, so there’s clearly enough outdoorsy allure to keep its staunchest residents happy – and in turn, wow visitors both new and seasoned.
Here are some of the top outdoor spaces in Reykjavík.
Take in the city skyline at Hljómskálagarður
Tucked just off Reykjavík’s City Hall and the National Gallery of Iceland, this central green space offers the panoramic vistas more commonly found in smaller Icelandic towns. Visual staples of the experience include Tjörnin lake, where ducks often frolic in the frigid waters as flowers blossom along its bands, as well as church steeples, pops of colorful buildings and mountains at the distance.
This is a serene spot for making your own adventures during the summertime, and local families will likely be doing the same nearby. Don’t leave without checking out the park’s five large-scale sculptures, all made by European women.
Gawk at Hallgrímskirkja (and enjoy a tasty treat) at Frakkland
One of the smallest parks in town and easy to miss in the northern shadow of Hallgrímskirkja, this is a Reykjavík hidden gem – a small rectangular park with a handful of benches.
To make the most of it, head north up nearby Frakkastigur street to Reykjavík Roasters and Brauð & Co. to buy a specialty coffee and a cinnamon bun – the best in town in their respective categories. Head back to the park, find a bench, enjoy your morsels while taking in the scenery, and you’ve achieved multisensory nirvana.
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Birdwatch (and maybe surf?) in Grótta
Tucked at the end of the northwesternmost point of the Seltjarnarnes, Grótta is a protected nature reserve, and on any given day you can see feisty wrens protecting their nests as waves crash along the shore. The surrounding coastline is primed for a sunset stroll and – if the night is just dark enough – catching a glimpse of the northern lights.
While most surfing in Iceland takes place in the Reykjanes Peninsula south of the capital, there have been some big waves to grace Grótta in recent years. Just remember, you’re working with Arctic water, so come with the right equipment.
Take a day trip to pine-clad Heiðmörk Nature Reserve
For many of Iceland’s landscapes balled into one massive park, head 10km (6.2 miles) southeast of Reykjavík’s city center. The Heiðmörk Nature Reserve is loaded with trails and diverse sceneries, including more than 25 species of trees, 50 species of birds and the eerie red craters that make up the Rauðhólar geographical phenomenon.
Popular outdoor outings include a leisurely stroll up Mt Helgafell, fishing in the park’s three lakes and horseback riding with companies like John Ker Iceland Tours.
Explore the region’s biodiversity at Reykjavík Botanic Gardens
In 2021, Reykjavík Botanic Gardens celebrated its 60th anniversary. Today, the green space, which is run by the city of Reykjavík, has eight distinct fauna collections totaling more than 5000 species of plants. The gardens are located within the Laugardalur recreational area, which also houses a family park, zoo and multifaceted sport complex, including the stadium where the national soccer team plays.
Check an Icelandic pool visit off your bucket list
Without knowing anything about Iceland’s pool culture, it may seem a little crazy to go for an outdoor dip in a Nordic nation, but get over your fears to enjoy a true cultural experience. Reykjavík is home to some of the finest pool complexes in the country, including its largest, Laugardalslaug, which has indoor, outdoor and thermal options. For kids and adults alike, don’t miss gliding down the large slide.
Within the capital’s confines, there’s also Sundhöllin – the oldest public pool in Iceland, with a rooftop hot tub – and Vesturbæjarlaug, which has a steam room and sauna to complement the geothermal spa vibe. For a pool-hopping adventure, look into the Reykjavík City Card, which gets you 24- to 72-hour access to all pools in the city, in addition to free museum and bus tickets.