It’s entirely possible to explore Reykjavik’s art galleries in one day in winter, with time for coffee stops. Most winter travellers stay in the city for less than a week and prioritise nature and excursions.
However, if you’re into all things creative, we recommend taking the time to delve into Reykjavik’s art galleries in one day or even better, across two days, fitting in further-out locations and exploring the fantastic street art.
Why is Reykjavik famous for art?
You may have heard that Reykjavik is a thriving hub of art, music, alternative and generally any kind of culture. This is something we found to be true.
Reykjavik is generally famed for its progressiveness and this is best felt in its mix of national and smaller, independent galleries. Many of the small independents double up as boutique stores and these are part of what make the city’s arts scene so unique. The layout and purpose of a gallery space as we expect to find it is challenged as creativity and commerce become intertwined. This means that there are plenty of opportunities to find a memento or invest in some local art.
Despite Reykjavik’s compact layout, its galleries are spread out and keep varying opening hours in winter, so a little planning is essential. Add favourite spots on a GPS app to get the most out of your gallery hop, or scribble our recommendations on a map.
Reykjavik’s art galleries in one day
The best way to begin is to make an early start and thankfully that can be around 10am. While you’re waiting for the galleries to open, stop for coffee, read a newspaper, play a board game or taste the famous ‘dirty breakfast’ in the colourful Laundromat Café on Austurstræti.
Hafnarhús, the most central of Reykjavik Art Museum’s three branches
Reykjavik Art Museum – Hafnarhús
1.) Reykjavik Art Museum has three branches, Kjarvalsstaðir, Ásmundarsafn and its main hub, Hafnarhús. Hafnarhús opens at 10am and admission costs 1,500 Kr (£8 or US$12). The gallery retains a strong focus on Icelandic, rather than international artists. You can expect to see its permanent collections rotated, which include the likes of postmodern hero Erró (or Guðmundur Guðmundsson), Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval and Ásmundur Sveinsson. Despite its office-block external look Hafnarhús is light, neutral and spacious inside and split over two easily navigated levels. Its tranquil reference library overlooks the waterfront and the gift shop is a good source of unusual souvenirs.
2.) Once 11am hits, the nearby i8 Gallery opens its doors. Leave Hafnarhús, turn right and continue up Tryggvagata to no. 16 on the opposite side of the street. With its glass-fronted exhibition space exposed to the waterfront, the natural light gives i8 an open and welcoming feel. The gallery represents a range of contemporary artists, offers work for sale, hosts exhibitions and tours work at international art fairs. Visually, i8 is strangely different inside and out, its wood-clad front complementing its contemporary innards.
If it’s not quite noon when you’re done with i8, take a trip back in time to Stofan Cafe. On the corner of Vesturgata and Grofin, this haven of mismatched furniture from days long gone will give you a decent caffeine jumpstart.
The Reykjavik Museum of Photography
3.) The Reykjavik Museum of Photography opens at 12pm and is housed inside Reykjavik City Library on the corner of Tryggvagata and Grofin. Again, this place will
make you work to find what you need but ask at the front desk. The only way in is through the library, with no hint that there’s a gallery upstairs.
Take the elevator up to be rewarded with calming views over the neighbourhood. The museum is all about high standards when it comes to the quality of work, its spacious layout and ease of wandering. The gift shop is worth the visit alone, especially for photography nuts, as it sells some stunning books and all manner of quirky trinkets. Note to Reykjavik’s art galleries – well done on the retail.
Be sure to take the winding staircase on your way out as it’s dotted with exhibits right down to the bottom, making for a kind of slow-motion hipster helter skelter.
Should your stomach be rumbling, head back towards i8 Gallery and go next door to Ramen Momo for a Japanese-themed lunch. For something more traditional, try a local take on fish and chips, including batter made from organic spelt at the popular Icelandic Fish and Chips at Tryggvagata 11.
SIM – The Association of Icelandic Visual Arts
4.) With a full belly and renewed energy, it’s time to head over to SIM – The Association of Icelandic Visual Arts, on Hafnarstræti. SIM, a non-profit community minded organisation, offers a common space for artists to live and work alongside one another and even a rental apartment for visiting creative professionals. It also produces the local zine STARA in-house. Accessible online (the PDF version is translated into English), STARA is a sexily designed arts bible giving authoritative insight into Iceland’s arts scene. Pop into Reykjavik’s apparently oldest cafe, Mokka, on Skólavörðustíg to give it a read over coffee.
5.) From SIM, walk down to Gallery GAMMA at Garðastræti 37. GAMMA is an unusual fixture on the city’s arts scene in that it’s operated by the economic advisory company of the same name. Despite this, it doesn’t come across as a corporate CSR project. Rather, it feels like a dedicated entity in its own right and hosts four new exhibitions annually. Entry is free and the focus is on the promotion and appreciation of modern art, which is all good in our book.
Perlufesti – String of Pearls
6.) Next up is some open-air freebie action, courtesy of Reykjavik Art Museum. Wander down the edge of the city’s lake Tjörnin, affectionately nicknamed ‘bread soup’ by big-hearted locals who perhaps feed the birds a little too often. Stop off at Hljómskálagarður park, where you will find six sculptures, collectively known as Perlufesti, or the String of Pearls. The collection features works of well-regarded female sculptors hailing from or based in Iceland. These include Gunnfríður Jónsdóttir, Nína Sæmundson, Þorbjörg Pálsdóttir, Ólöf Pálsdóttir, Gerður Helgadóttir and Tove Ólafsson (1909–1992). It’s encouraging to see this recognition of female artists, although sad the emphasis on gender is necessary.
Reykjavik National Gallery – Listasafn
7.) If you skip any parts of this guide, don’t miss The National Gallery on Fríkirkjuvegur, which is one of Reykjavik’s best arts spaces in terms of content, environment and, well, general oomph. Even its exterior is striking, the white-walled church-like building sitting like a beacon on the edge of Tjörnin.
From the sheen of the National Gallery, head towards some of the city’s independent spaces as the sun sets. From Fríkirkjuvegur, walk up Bjargarst, but be careful as the street is sloped and can be icy in winter.
8.) On the corner of Odinsgata and Tysgata is the wonderful Harbinger. A bright and playful oasis, we were greeted to a palm tree ‘planted’ in the floor during our December visit, providing some tropical relief amid minus temperatures. We found Harbinger to be innovative but unpretentious and filled with a welcoming crowd – don’t miss it.
9.) According to the artists that established and manage it, Mengi “has no particular beginning or an end”. But what we do know is that it is a wonderful, multi-tasking venue that you can find at Óðinsgata. Mengi is an exhibition space, an art store, an events hub and a music label for progressive Icelandic musicians. It holds events three times a week, giving visitors a glimpse into the local scene (check their posters and flyers for details).
Time for a small detour and a well-earned coffee at the cosy Kaffibrennslan on Reykjavik’s main artery Laugavegur. The drinks are decent, the atmosphere cosy and it’s a great spot to sit and reflect in the early evening. If you accidentally ingest one of its quivering slabs of cake, no worries, we won’t tell.
Spark Design Space
10.) Spark Design Space at Klapparstigur 33 prides itself as Reykjavik’s only design gallery and provides a platform for collaboration between creatives. It also hosts exhibitions, which are rotated every three months. Items from each project are slowly collected and added to its gallery-cum-retail space, or as its owners dub it, the “slow shop”. Spark is a sensory overload with colourful and intelligent pieces dotting its shelves, stairs, walls and even floors. The temptation to part with some cash will surely kick in during your visit.
Wind and Weather and Better Weather Galleries
11.) It’s all about the outdoors next with Wind and Weather and Better Weather galleries. These window spaces are used to rotate local artists’ work and can be visited by passers-by 24/7. The mission of the minds behind this is to “connect art in the urban setting of Reykjavik with the people on the street”. By the number of shoppers grinding to a halt to take a look, they seem to be hitting the target.
Kling & Bang
12.) Kling & Bang Gallery, which was housed on Hverfisgata 42 but is now in the process of moving (watch the website for details), is our star recommendation for seeking new and challenging art in Reykjavik. We happened to visit during a launch event which saw the artists and visitors mingling to chat about the work, always a bonus. Firmly in the conceptual camp, Kling & Bang is a must for exposure to invigorating fresh ideas and reveals the kind of burgeoning young arts scene any city would envy.
13.) Thirteen is unlucky for some but we couldn’t help but recommend a visit to Gallery Gallera to end your jaunt. Located upstairs at Laugavegur 33, Gallery Gallera is a show space for the work of local creatives and presents temptation in the form of handmade books, zines, prints and t-shirts.
That’s it – you just did a respectable number of Reykjavik’s art galleries in one day. You can now safely claim acquaintance with the city’s vibrant and impressive creative scene. Nice work, double high five.
Reykjavik art galleries we missed
There are several places missing from this guide that are worth visiting if they are open and you have time before the sun sets.
The Icelandic Printmakers’ Association sounds fantastic, but we are sorry to say that we failed to find it. A Google sanity check later revealed that it was in fact in the same building as the Hafnarhús art gallery, around the other side on the waterfront – we hope your efforts to find it will be more successful than ours. Thursday – Sunday 2pm – 6pm.
Another place we failed to find despite having a good look (honest!) was Gallery Bakari at Skólavörðustígur 40, likely to be our error at the end of a long day.
- Update Feb 2016 – The Living Art Museum, Kling & Bang and Ólafur Elíasson set to move to Marshall húsið (Marshall House).