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The Renaissance of Reykjavik Old Harbor

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

The Old Harbor in Reykjavik has an important history as well as an exciting present. This natural harbor was formally the epicentre of trade and fishing in Iceland. The majority of its colourful streets and buildings were built between 1913 and 1917. In fact it is because of the presence of this natural harbor that Reykjavik became so populated and busy. Ultimately it is the reason why Reykjavik is now Iceland’s thriving capital city.


Nowadays this area of functional fishing industry factories, warehouses and tackle shops is a vibrant cultural centre. It is a wonderful area to enjoy both day and night with all sorts of quirky cafes and boutiques to discover. The whole area has been opened up for the public to enjoy. Cutting edge art galleries have moved into former fish processing factories. While bait and tackle shops have been turned into hip bars, independent shops and fun cafes. People come here to promenade, to enjoy the views and spend their leisure time.


Exploring the area by day the views out over the ocean to Mount Esja and beyond are lovely. On a clear day you can even see as far as the Snæfellsnes Peninsula with its icy crown. On a stroll around the waterfront at dusk the atmospheric port lights begin twinkling in the waters. Then by night the restaurants, bars and cultural centres invite you to stay a little longer.


Museums and Art Galleries in the Old Harbor Area of Reykjavik

The most famous of the museums in the harbor area is the Maritime Museum. This venerable institution offers a fascinating insight into the lives of the fishing families of old. Iceland was built on the fishing industry and it holds a hugely important place in the cultural life of the country. This museum tells the story beautifully and offers a porthole into the past and the founding and development of the country. Entry to this museum and several of the other galleries in the area in included on the Reykjavik City Card.


There is also a wealth of art to take in around the harbor area. You’ll find the Reykjavik Art Museum at Hafnarhúsið, a former fish-processing warehouse. The building now houses several contemporary art galleries and event spaces. There are both permanent collections and changing exhibitions to take in. Nearby is the excellent Museum of Photography as well as the famous and cutting edge i8 independent art gallery. Conceptual art enthusiasts won’t want to miss this one.


You also cannot miss the striking Harpa Concert Hall on the waterfront. This impressive modern building also hosts a cafe, bar and design store. It is well worth a visit and there is usually an interesting public display of some sort going on there. The Saga Museum and the Aurora Reykjavik exhibit are not far away either. The whole area will keep culture vultures happy for days.


Reykjavik Harbor Cruise Options

Some of the other main draws of the Old Harbor are the many boat cruises on offer. Boat tours set off on whale watching excursions throughout the year often several times a day weather permitting. The boats cruise into the sheltered Faxaflói Bay where the whales tend to feed and mate. April to September is the best time to see whales but it is also possible to see them in the winter months.


Another popular winter cruise is a dark-sky tour in search of the Northern Lights. It is possible to take the boats out onto the ocean far away from the lights of the city. Out there the Aurora can put on a show with little light pollution to interrupt. If conditions are right then the dancing colours are also reflected in the waters to spectacular effect.


During the summer months puffin tours are a very popular cruise option. Just off shore the islands of Lundy and Akurey play host to numerous pairs of nesting puffins. Passengers are given binoculars so that they can see these feathery characters up close. For wildlife enthusiasts puffin spotting cruises can also be combined with wale watching tours.


Old Harbor Reykjavik Restaurants and Cafes

There are so many great places to eat and drink around the Old Harbor area. For cutting edge cuisine you should head to one of the high-end fish restaurants. Matur & Drykkur, Kopar and Sægreifinn are all highly recommended restaurants in Iceland. These are popular spots so you will need to book a table (and check your bank balance). Iceland is a notoriously expensive country and dining out is no exception.


There are also several local institutions in the area that are much more budget friendly for a quick bite. Icelandic street food is very much dominated by a national love of the hot dog. You can’t leave Reykjavik without trying one and the Bæjarins Beztu harbor hot dog stand is the place for it. Bill Clinton famously tucked into a hot dog with all the trimmings here. There is also the legendary Tommi‘s Burger Joint and the classic old timers café the Kaffivagninn Diner.


Another firm favourite is the Valdis ice-cream parlour just across the street from the Maritime Museum. This emporium of all things icy and delicious has so many flavours to tempt you. You will probably want to go back for a second helping before you leave the area. Happily there are lots of options for vegans here too!


Open on weekends the Kolaportið flea market has an interesting food section. Here you can pick up traditional foodstuffs such as stockfish and fermented shark. If that also sounds too fishy to you, don’t worry there are plenty more tasty options to enjoy.


The Old Harbor in Reykjavik shouldn't be missed!

If you are visiting Reykjavik make sure that you spend at least some time at the Old Harbor. Take in some art, hop on an ocean cruise then enjoy dinner at a top seafood restaurant overlooking the bay. You can easily enjoy a full day in the Harbor area and still come back for more the next day. There is plenty to do on a budget here too. With interesting shops to browse, cheap eats to tuck into, plenty of open spaces for walking and expansive views to enjoy. It is a must on any trip to Reykjavik!

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