Updated: Jan 26
Once the domain of Reykjavik’s busy fishing fleet the Old Harbor has undergone many changes in recent years. Built between 1913 and 1917 a vibrant fishing industry grew up around the capital’s natural harbor. Huge warehouses and factories processed many tonnes of seafood. Picking, packing and shipping fish out across the country. Today though the area has been completely opened up to the public. The industrial buildings transformed into galleries and wide promenades taking in the views across the bay to Mount Esja.
This is still the place to come for fantastic seafood though. With restaurants and bars serving up ultra fresh fish and seafood. But along with your fish supper, you can enjoy arts, culture, shopping and more. Here’s our guide to the best of the Reykjavik Old Harbor area.
Old Harbor Museums
Culture Vultures will be in their absolute element in the Old Harbor neighbourhood. There are so many interesting museums to explore and art galleries to peruse. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the excellent Reykjavik Maritime Museum. This homage to the rich fishing heritage of Reykjavik is fascinating to explore. Visitors can take a look back in time and find out all about the lives of the fisher folk. Entrance to the Maritime Museum is included with the Reykjavik City Card.
Other museums include the Saga Museum that takes visitors through the history of the settlement of Iceland. Expect life-size model Vikings and a hair-raising soundtrack. The Whales of Iceland Museum is another worthwhile experience especially if you intend to take a whale watching tour. The gallery offers a unique insight into the 23 different species of whale that frequent the waters here. With life-size models and skeletons bringing home the sheer scale of these giants of the ocean.
Old Harbor Art Galleries and other cultural attractions
One of the most striking features of the area has to be the impressive Harpa Concert Hall. This beautiful building has a singular design dreamt up by architect, designer and installation artist Ólafur Elíasson. The sweeping expanse of dark glass panels reflects the waters of the bay. By night there are often light shows enhancing the surreal beauty of the construction.
As well as enjoying it from the outside you can also wander in and explore. Perhaps book tickets for a classical music concert or see what exhibitions are currently on. There is always something happening and the café serves great coffee in a buzzy atmosphere.
Many excellent art galleries have moved into the disused factories of the harbor too. These large-scale industrial buildings make really great spaces for enjoying art. The ultra-modern Kling & Bang is a must, as well as Stúdíó Ólafur Elíasson. Here you will be able to gain an insight into the creative process of this unique designer. Then there is the Reykjavik Art Museum as well as the nearby independent gallery i8. Both deserve to be visited if you have the time.
Old Harbor Reykjavik restaurants, bars & Cafes
Eating and drinking is another popular pursuit in the area. From high-end restaurants to quirky diners there will be something to suit every palate and wallet. For a unique take on the traditional cuisine of Iceland head to Matur og Drykkur. You’ll need to book in advance for this exceptional concept dining experience.
For something more casual head to the Grandi Mathöll. This street food market housed in a former fish factory is bang on trend. Long tables are set up so diners can eat together and make new friends as they sample the delights. There is a lively atmosphere and a great mix of international and local specialties.
For seafood we love Sægreifinn, an unassuming harbor side shack that serves up the best lobster stew in the world. They will also grill you fresh seafood skewers in a relaxed diner atmosphere. For a quick snack on the go head to the classic Bæjarins Beztu harbor hot dog stand. You can follow that up with ice cream at Valdis and later perhaps a craft beer at the Bryggjan Brugghús microbrewery. Iceland's beer culture is well and truly thriving!
Reykjavik Harbor Cruise Ideas
Culture and feasting aside one of the other main reasons people visit Reykjavik Old Harbor is to board a boat. If the weather permits there are all sorts of boat tours and cruises to enjoy.
The most popular is a whale watching boat trip out into the sheltered Faxaflói Bay. The calmer waters here shelter all sorts of marine wildlife including many species of whale and dolphin. The high season for whale watching is from April to September. But it is often possible to see whales outside of this time. As long as the Iceland weather is settled enough the boats will set forth.
In the summer months whale watching can be combined with puffin spotting. These feathery creatures gather to nest on the coastal cliffs of the islands in the bay. Boat cruises will often include binoculars so passengers can observe their antics up close.
In the winter there are also dark night cruises in search of the Northern Lights. When the sky is clear visitors can wrap up warm and head out into the ocean. Away from the lights of Reykjavik there is a good chance the lights will put on a show. The dancing lights are reflected in the waters for added impact.
If you are planning on renting a camper van or motorhome be sure to spend a few days in Reykjavik. You might prefer to factor it in at the start or end of your Iceland road trip. Either way we very much recommend spending some time relaxing in the capital and exploring the Reykjavik Old Harbor. There’s so much going on here that you won’t want to miss out.