The Colourful Buildings and Street Art of Reykjavik, Iceland

Colourful buildings, shops, Reykjavik

I was surprised to learn Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital city, but this interesting fact was only the first of a long list of surprises I would discover during my trip to Reykjavik.

Reykjavik is only a small city, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character and colour. You can travel everywhere by foot and within minutes you’ll notice it’s a city that takes pride on skirting away from the norm.

You won’t find the same generic shops, restaurants and bars that most major cities possess. Instead every corner invites you to learn more about Icelandic culture, whether it’s one of the restaurants offering fresh lobster soup, or one of the many independent shops stacked with books and vinyl records. In fact, this is the first capital city I’ve been to that doesn’t have a McDonalds! Though this hasn’t always been the case, the world-famous chain had landed here previously but after the economy crashed in 2008 the fast food outlet packed up, and to be honest, I say good riddance!

Bright coloured building, Reykjavik, iceland

I’m not a person who goes crazy for shopping, but Reykjavik has some excruciatingly nice boutiques, not only with stylish clothes but flawless shop interiors. There’s something about the simplicity, lightness and minimalism of Scandinavian design that I find so appealing.

Whilst I’m talking about Scandinavia some people might be reading this and thinking, ‘but Iceland isn’t a Scandinavian country’, and whilst this is true it’s often labelled part of Scandinavia because it used to be under Danish rule and so shares a large cultural and political likeness with these countries.

Harpa Concert hall, Reykjavik

Harpa Concert Hall is not to be missed. You can freely walk around and enjoy the views of the harbour from the glass panels. A lot of  light floods through the building, a feature which Scandinavian design executes well.

A common characteristic of Scandinavian architecture is the inspiration or involvement of nature, and Harpa showcases this beautifully. The concert hall has been inspired by the basalt rocks which can be found all over Iceland. For further information you can read a post I’ve written about Iceland’s basalt rocks and where you can find them.

Inside Harpa, Reykjavik
Harpa City Hall, Reykjavik
In a bid to conserve money, most of my time was spent walking around the streets of this lively city. If I could only describe Reykjavik in one word, it would be ‘quirky’ (just to confirm the thousands of people who’ve said that before me), because architecturally speaking, it’s far from beautiful or intricate yet its surprising colourfulness brings the city alive.

The colour is necessary because most buildings look more like garages. This is mainly due to the island’s lack of natural raw building materials such as wood and stone, so most buildings are made from concrete and corrugated steel.

But this city doesn’t let its lack of raw materials affect its visual appeal… new sculptures are cropping up around the city, vast areas of street art sprawl over buildings, and old gentlemen fashioning huge handlebar moustaches have become one of the city’s quirky fixtures.

Street Art in Reykjavik, Iceland

colourful street art, iceland
Sculpture in Reykjavik
Quirky Sculpture in Reykjavik,

If you go to the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church, you’ll get awesome panoramic views of city. From a birds-eye perspective it makes the city like look a monopoly board because the buildings create a row of bright red, blue, yellow and green cubes. This toy like appearance isn’t so apparent when walking around the city so I would definitely urge heading up to the church tower for approx. £6.
Hallgrímskirkja Church, Reykjavik
Hallgrímskirkja Church dominates the very low-rising cityscape of Reykjavik

stained glass window, church, reykjavik

Panoramic view of Reykjavik
Panoramic view of Reykjavik from the church tower

colourful buildings, city

And because once wasn’t enough, I went again at sunset.

The colourful city of Reykjavik at sunset

In some ways, Reykjavik reminded me of Lodz in Poland, because it’s impossible not to notice the creative vibe that filters through both cities. Streets art is not merely tolerated in these cities but they are embraced. It’s difficult not to walk down a street without seeing something brightly coloured to catch your eye, and in this sense the art doesn’t feel subversive and disrespectful: it feels free and liberated, and creatively thought over.

Bird, street art in Reykjavik

street art in Reykjavik

Skate Ramp, graffiti, Reykjavik

Now look closely at this picture:

Painted door, street art, Reykjavik
Would you be surprised if I told you the door on the right wasn’t real? Well ladies and gents, the door on the right is actually a painting! I wouldn’t have given it a second look if it wasn’t for the cat. I spotted the cat, and thought it was strange how it didn’t react to the people walking past, and then when I noticed it wasn’t moving, that’s when the penny dropped! Don’t you think it’s virtually impossible to tell that this door and cat is actually just one very cleverly disguised painting?!
Street art of a cat in Reykjavik
I hope you enjoyed this insight into Reykjavik’s colourful streets – just one of the many reasons why so many people describe this city as quirky.

Have you been to Reykjavik? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.

'The Colourful Buildings and Street Art of Reykjavik, Iceland' have 29 comments

  1. March 2, 2013 @ 8:54 pm Mike

    I consider Iceland to be a part of Scandinavia because the Norwegians moved there around 1,000 years ago and the Icelandic language today is what the Norwegian language was back then. Trippy photo of the doors and stellar shot of the colorful homes.


    • March 3, 2013 @ 12:37 pm admin

      I too consider Iceland to be part of Scandinavia, but I thought I should highlight the alternative view just in case someone wrote a comment in opposition!

      I wasn’t aware that the Icelandic language today is what the Norwegian language was 1,000 years ago – so thanks for filling in more details Mike!


  2. March 2, 2013 @ 9:40 pm memographer

    Wow, roofs are so colorful!
    Hallgrímskirkja Church looks amazing.
    Love a pic of you running on a skate ramp. A wolf does look scary 🙂
    A painted door rocks!


    • March 3, 2013 @ 1:33 pm admin

      The brightly coloured roofs are great, aren’t they? Apparently Halllgrimskirkja is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it! Either way you definitely can’t miss it as it towers head and shoulders above everything else.

      Haha I couldn’t help pretending to run away from the big, bad wolf!


  3. March 3, 2013 @ 8:09 am Mary {The World Is A book}

    Love it! Quirky is exactly how I described Reykjavik too. You certainly walked around a lot because we missed some of the awesome street art you have here. Glad you got to go inside Harpa. Those views from Hallgrímskirkja are amazing no matter what season. Beautiful shots, Shing! That door painting is awesome!


    • March 3, 2013 @ 4:51 pm admin

      The general consensus definitely describe Reykjavik as quirky! Yes, Harpa is gorgeous inside, it was definitely my favourite of the more well known buildings in Reykjavik (although you can’t beat the view from Hallgrimskirkja, can you?)

      Surprisingly, most of the street art shown here was around Laugavegur, the main shopping street! You must have only been a head turn away from it Mary!!


  4. March 4, 2013 @ 8:36 pm TheTuscan

    Not geographically part of Scandinavia, but inhabited by Scandinavian people. That’s how I see it….


    • March 5, 2013 @ 10:16 am admin

      There’s that too!


  5. March 7, 2013 @ 8:26 pm Richard

    A great read – thanks for sharing. Reykjavik has been near the top of my wishlist for a while so you’ve just pushed it up a notch. No McDonalds is fine with me, but can I ask how much that lobster soup costs?


    • March 8, 2013 @ 8:33 pm admin

      The lobster soup translates to around £5.50 so not too bad. This was inside a place near the harbour called Seafood Baron – I would definitely recommend going there for a quick bite to eat! It’s very cute and homely – more like a cafe. In some of the restaurants it maybe a little more expensive. On a whole, I would compare the prices of Reykjavik to London… Expensive but not as expensive as Norway!

      Hope you make it to Reykjavik, and ensure you explore the geological wonders of South West Iceland whilst you’re there… it’s incredible Richard!


  6. March 11, 2013 @ 2:22 am Agness

    This is incredible how colorful Reykjavik ca be. So different from Oslo. When did you go there? Late spring or early winter? Can’t see the snow? Is it that colorful even in winter?


    • March 12, 2013 @ 2:07 pm admin

      Hey Agness, I went towards the end of February a few weeks ago! Even though the weather wasn’t great, the air is so fresh and the buildings are still so colourful, the days never seemed too dreary.

      Yes it’s very different to Oslo! A completely different vibe! While I think both places would benefit from having more sunshine! I hope you make it back to Scandinavia… and Norway – second chances and all that! 😀


  7. March 25, 2014 @ 9:28 am Kristin

    Hi! I am a student that is going to take a language course in Reykjavik this summer. I found this page via google because of the lovely pictures. If I link to your blog; could I use one of your pictures? 🙂 Kind regards, Kristin.


    • March 25, 2014 @ 12:14 pm admin

      Hi Kristen, your summer in Reykjavik sounds very exciting! Good luck on the course, and of course you can use any of my pictures with a link to my blog!
      Best wishes,


  8. April 27, 2014 @ 8:36 am escapehunter

    The city itself feels like a toy city. The houses are so cute… I suppose the colours make it feel a lot warmer 🙂


    • June 8, 2014 @ 9:33 am admin

      Aren’t they cute? The colours certainly break up cold winter days!


  9. June 7, 2014 @ 8:05 pm Aurelie

    Nice article really !!!!
    I’m currently in Reykjavik and I tried everythin’ you talked about this city is really interesting. I love street art and spotted the most part of the graffitis you show but I can’t find the painted door ! Where is it ? Pretty sure I walked near this or even walked in front but I did not notice it. Thanks!!!!!


    • June 8, 2014 @ 9:25 am admin

      Hi Aurelie! I’m happy you’ve found this article useful! Yes, it’s very central but easily missed!! The painted door is at the side of Caruso Restaurant, Þingholtsstræti 1, 101 Reykjavík. The main building of the restaurant is yellow but the painted door and cat is on a grey building next door. Hope you find it, and have fun!


      • January 20, 2016 @ 4:46 pm PRADEEP

        I am planning to visit Reykjawik this May. Could you please let me know exact addresses of the street arts that you have shown.( As you have mentioned about painted door with cat ). I shall be obliged.


  10. December 3, 2014 @ 5:08 pm Max

    Nice picture book of downtown Reykjavik…did you know from the (downtown) lagoon you could see Hallgrinskirkja and do try to attend its weekly noon organ recitals…..and just a few steps out of downtown past the hospital and towards the art museum is a beautiful landscaped park surrounded by all concrete built homes of all sizes plus large apartments. Best of all, Reykjavik residents are welcoming and diverse.
    The Ring of Fire route is a nice day escape to experience the islands’ geology.

    My trip to Iceland was made possible by the summer seasonal Icelandic air non stop flights over the pole to/from Anchorage, Alaska. Reykjavik and Anchorage are cycle friendly cities…bring your bicycles


  11. January 14, 2015 @ 4:52 pm Poul Madsen

    Pretty cool blog! Well done. You do a thorough research. A single piece of information:

    Scandinavia: Denmark, Norway, Sweden (3 countries)

    Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Faroe Islands and Finland (6 countries)


    • January 30, 2015 @ 3:13 am admin

      Hi Poul! Sorry about the late reply, I’ve been without the internet for a couple of weeks! Hehe, yeh I know the distinction but I guess I use the more popular term of Scandinavia to group them all in. I know this isn’t correct, and I probably should highlight this distinction in the future! One question… if you include the Faroe Islands, would you also include Greenland since it’s ruled by Denmark too?


  12. January 30, 2015 @ 12:27 pm Poul Madsen

    I don’t consider Greenland to be part of the Nordic countries, no. Though sharing the Danish Queen with Denmark, Greenland has its homerule, its own parliament. I’d love to see Greenland united with Denmark, however, one should support them if they want independence. Greenland is part of North America due to plate tectonics. Then why is Iceland a Nordic country since the midatlantic ridge runs right through Iceland? I don’t know to be honest but up until 1944 Iceland were part of Denmark


    • January 30, 2015 @ 1:57 pm admin

      I agree, one should support Greenland’s desire for Independence but at least being under Danish rule they are in better hands than say another country who might not think twice about extracting oil from places that really ought to be preserved… but I guess that is another conversation entirely!!

      I guess part of Iceland is European and the other half is North American… is that how we can explain it?!


      • January 30, 2015 @ 3:33 pm Poul Madsen

        Well… that’s a way of putting it, yeah!

        I keep thinking of your photographer… brilliant job he or she does! But I presume you decide which photos to be shown. Keep up the good work


        • January 31, 2015 @ 12:57 pm admin

          Hi Poul, I take all the photos on my blog unless they are of me of course 😀 Really happy to read you like my blog, thanks for commenting!


  13. May 17, 2016 @ 6:18 pm Tom

    My wife and I are going to Iceland this weekend. Thank you for posting some of these interesting pictures and suggesting some places to get a bite. We are checking out some of the other areas of the island for a few days then plan on going to Reykjavik for a day or so before we head back to the USA. We appreciate your research. Good luck in your travels! Take care.


    • May 21, 2016 @ 9:41 pm Shing Yoong

      Hi Tom, I hope you and your wife are having a fabulous time?! I’m glad you’ve found my blog useful. Happy travels 🙂


  14. September 15, 2016 @ 2:01 pm Bipasha

    Hi Shing, I was road-tripping through Iceland a couple of weeks ago…isn’t it the most amazing place?! I saw some of the street art that you have written about, and some others, too. And that door, that’s way over cool!


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