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Reykjavik Area Museums

According to all the travel guides and websites, there are several history, natural history, art and Saga-related museums in Reykjavik. If one has time to only visit a couple, which are the “must sees”? Which ones are skipable?

• The National Museum of Iceland
• Culture House
• Arbaejarsafn Living Museum
• The Settlement Exhibition – (formerly Reykjavik 871 +/-2)
• Saga Museum at the Old Harbor

• National Gallery of Iceland
• Reykjavik Art Museum (RAM)

• Volcano House
• Aurora Reykjavik
• Whales of Iceland

• Vikin Maritime Museum
• Vikingaheimar (Viking World) in Njardvik
• The Icelandic Settlement Centre in Borgarnes

Thanks.

Posted by Lane
Seattle, WA, USA
1112 posts

I did not go to any of the museums listed during my 5-day visit to Reykjavik. So apparently they are all skipable! ;)

Posted by Agnes
Washington DC Region, USA
4655 posts

I wouldn't skip Reykjavik's museums - there are many gems out there and I only had a chance to visit a few.

I really liked The Settlement Exhibition – (formerly Reykjavik 871 +/-2), the National Museum of Iceland, and Reykjavík Art Museum. I went to the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum, which is part to the Art museum (there are apparently two other independent buildings). It had fantastic sculptures and I really enjoyed it.
http://artmuseum.is/asmundarsafn

I would also stop at the Harpa Concert Hall and at least see it from the outside.

Posted by amgunn1959
1 posts

I think much depends on what aspects of Iceland and its history you're most interested in. I loved the Saga museum, which shows realistic people of old Iceland involved in vignettes of their personal stories. I think kids would like it a lot. I also loved the National Gallery, although that's a hit-or-miss proposition, since they carry different installations, but their core pieces are lovely; Iceland's artwork is very much a product of the "ljus" Danish school, and should be carefully researched before you see it, otherwise you'll miss the point of it.

The Maritime museum is also a personal favorite, especially if you're interested in the history of fishing (the industry that kept Iceland alive until relatively recently). Lots of poignant stories in that museum, since fishing in Icelandic waters was, and probably is, an extraordinarily dangerous job, as the museum makes very clear. Close to the Maritime museum is the Aurora exhibit, where I went one night at about 10 p.m. and had the place to myself. I learned a lot about auroras, and in fact, the exhibit explained so much about auroras, and put you in the middle of what it would be like to see one, that I finally understood why I have never seen an aurora in Iceland.

There are a few things that aren't necessarily fascinating, and yet should be seen if you're really interested in Icelandic history (and to an extent, world history when it comes to the Culture house). The Settlement exhibit is absolutely fascinating if you would like to see the bare bones of a farmhouse unearthed during building of what has become the older part of downtown. The exhibit is underneath a hotel, but has its own entrance. Culture house is where you must go if you want to see some of the earliest versions of the written 'sagas,' but there is so much more there, look it up online before you go, so you don't miss anything.

As for the old harbour, where the various whale excursions start, there's a lot to see and do right in that one area, as well as many fish restaurants. From there, you can walk (you have to cross streets with traffic lights) up and down the waterfront, walk down to Harpa, which is a must-see, if only from the outside, especially at night, when its 'fish scales' change colors all night long.

I just think that no matter what you might be interested in, look it up online before you go, because there are usually details you won't appreciate unless you've learned a bit about Iceland ahead of time.

Posted by Laura
Rick Steves' Europe
15026 posts

If Rick Steves Iceland is one of your resources, note the star/triangle rating system of 0-3, with a summary of top sites on p. 66 but used throughout the book. The highest rated museum for general-interest travelers is the first on your list

Posted by Shoreline OP
33 posts

Thanks all.
Laura, I saw that but I am also interested in hearing what others who have visited have to say. I really like Rick and use his resources religiously, but occasionally I've found we don't agree so it's good to hear what others think. Only have two full days in Reykjavik so can't do them all.

Posted by HK
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
128 posts

I'm both a museum and a history person, so I went to as many as possible. For history, the National Museum and the Settlement Exhibition are unbeatable (and unmissable). For folk culture, Arbaejarsafn is unmissable. It's not only the buildings, but also exhibitions inside some of them. It basically covers Reykjavik from 1840-1950, although some buildings are furnished to represent later in the 20th century.

Culture House is probably miss-able for most, but entrance is part of a ticket with the National Museum - so it might be worth a quick visit if you go to the National Museum. The Volcano House is small - the lobby area has some free exhibits and then there is the cinema show (which I didn't see). We found the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes surprisingly rewarding, but it probably isn't worth going north just for that. However, they are open until 9 pm in the summer (with a great restaurant), so easy to pick up if you are driving back through Borgarnes in the evening.

I have mixed feelings about Viking World. I got a lot out of it, but had to work pretty hard for that reward. It also paid off when information and ideas from that museum resonated with other things we saw. The museum seems to be trying to position itself as a large tour stop or a place to visit from the airport during a stopover. We saw at least three large tour groups there (it's a pretty small place). They have a breakfast buffet for only 500 krona more than museum entry; at least one group seemed to have come from the airport and were much more interested in the breakfast than the museum.

Posted by Geor
Seattle, Wa, USA
430 posts

Hi Shoreline:

I visited Reykjavik in April, 2016. At the edge of the business district was a "penis museum" in case you are interested:

http://phallus.is/en/

I passed on this one.

Have a good trip.

Posted by sarahlou89
11 posts

I was just in Iceland for 6 days and devoted 2 and a half days to exploring Reykjavik. During those two days I visited the National Museum of Iceland and the Settlement Exhibition. Both, in my opinion, were top notch museums that really helped me understand the bigger picture of Iceland's history and culture.

If you are planning on doing the Golden Circle and going to Thingvellir National Park, I would suggest going to the National Museum of Iceland either before or afterwards to help complement what you have learned for better understanding. The National Museum of Iceland gives you the grand scheme of things and gives you just enough, not too much, to really understand the bigger picture.

The Settlement Exhibition was one of the most interesting things that I did on my trip. It showcases the real archaeological site where the oldest building in Reykjavik was found. You are literally standing feet away from a dig site and real building that some of the first Viking Settlers built in Reykjavik. The exhibit was well presented and it was easy for me to imagine what life was like for the people who lived there. It was well worth my time and admission.

I would highly recommend picking up Rick Steves' Iceland book. Like an aforementioned post stated it tiers the sights and museums as well as provides a synopsis of what to expect and practical information. Also might I suggest doing the Reykjavik walk that Rick has put in his book as an introduction to the city? As soon as I arrived in the city I started my sightseeing with Rick's custom made Reykjavik walk using the guidebook and really learned so much and really enjoyed myself. I found that in Reykjavik there are lots of little hidden gems to look at and aspects of the culture that you can see just by looking at the buildings or statues. If not for Rick's Reykjavik walk I would have passed right by all of these things without any greater understanding of the bigger picture. Plus it takes to some back streets that most tourists wouldn't think about going to.