My travels are often driven by art and culture, both for my reporting and my own interest. I was ecstatic to find the thriving contemporary art scene in Reykjavik. Iceland is primarily known for its natural wonders, but the culture is worth a trip on its own. If you’re on limited time there are a few must-sees while in the city.
The National Gallery of Iceland
The National Gallery of Iceland features 19th and 20th century Icelandic and European art as well as a few contemporary exhibits. When I visited they had a Picasso on view and some more traditional landscape and abstract paintings. My favorite exhibit was the contemporary piece pictured above, called “Nervescape VII” by an Icelandic artist known as Shoplifter.
This spot is a great way to please a party with varying tastes. You get the cerebral, contemporary work and the more traditional all under one roof.
The Reykjavik Art Museum
The Reykjavik Art Museum is actually the contemporary museum, which goes to show how crucial active artists are to the culture. Surprisingly, this was the crowd favorite during our trip. My family wasn’t always comfortable with the art, but it did get them talking and thinking. Seeing everyone discussing the work we saw was my favorite part of the trip. After all, that’s what art is all about, sparking dialogue.
The museum actually has three different locations. Hafnarhús, where we went, is the central downtown location. This has several levels of galleries displaying art in a variety of media. The Kjarvalsstaðir locations hosts performances, and the Ásmundarsafn is a sculpture park and museum dedicated to the work of Ásmundur Sveinsson. We went to the sculpture park as well and it was very serene, I recommend if you have extra time. Buying a ticket to any site entitles you to entrance at any site for 24 hours.
The city has a HUGE public art program. Sculptures abound and you can find murals on virtually every street corner. Above is “Sun Voyager” by Jón Gunnar Árnason, one of the more famous public sculptures in Reykjavik. It sits on the mile long Shore and Sculpture walk which I recommend if the weather is nice enough. It takes you along the coast showcasing gems like “Sun Voyager” against the backdrop of the ocean, which sustains the Icelandic population economically.
When the government began cracking down on illegal graffiti a few years back, artists began seeking permission to create their works on buildings. The result is a mural scene reminiscent of Baltimore and Chicago. Conde Nast Traveler did a great photo guide to some of the best murals around the city. (Also helpful for planning your Instagrams).
Iceland is also known for its music scene (and not just cause of Björk). The biggest music venue is the Harpa concert hall, a magnificent building on the water made of colored glass. This is where you’ll find the symphony and visiting concert artists. For smaller shows, most bars in the downtown area offer a live music program.
What’s On Reykjavik is a good resource for local music, as many of the main tourist sites only source the Harpa concert schedule.
Even if you only have time for one stop, you’re not seeing the whole pictures of Reykjavik without taking in some of the art scene.