A Guide to Reykjavik’s Old Harbor: Your Gateway to Adventures

  • by Yanshu
  • Reykjavik
  • 1 Aug 2023

Reykjavik's Old Harbor is a place to explore Iceland’s maritime charm and endless possibilities for adventures. Gamla höfnin in Icelandic, this historic hub, surrounded by colorful buildings, houses a range of seafood restaurants, boutiques, and whale-watching excursions. A gateway to adventures, it invites exploration of the sea, city, and cultural wonders, creating an unforgettable Icelandic experience for you.

A Guide to Reykjavik’s Old Harbor: Your Gateway to Adventures

History of Reykjavik’s Old Harbor

Reykjavik’s Old Harbor reflects Iceland’s strong connection to the sea and its important role in the country’s history. Exploring its past reveals how this historic port was built, its importance in fishing, and its lasting impact on Icelandic history.

How Reykjavik’s Old Harbor was Established

Reykjavik’s Old Harbor was formed as a natural harbor, strategically located near Engey and Örfirisey islands, fostering the city’s development. The Engey and Örfirisey islands are situated near Reykjavik, as a part of the Faxaflói Bay, which lies to the northwest of Reykjavik. 

The Old Harbour’s Construction began on March 8, 1913, and by November 16, 1917, it officially opened. The Grandi Isthmus saw expansions, transforming the harbor from an export point to a bustling hub of commerce and culture in Iceland’s capital city.

A glance at the Old Harbor of Reykjavik. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

The Icelandic Trawling Industry

You’ll find that the Old Harbor’s timeline is intertwined with the Icelandic trawling industry. The harbor became the hub for the nation’s expanding fishing fleet, with numerous trawlers and fishing vessels lining its docks. 

Notably, during the early to mid-20th century, the rise of trawling technology saw Reykjavik’s Old Harbor flourish as a center for fish processing and distribution, bolstering Iceland’s economy.

Why the Old Harbour is So Importan

Thinking about the Old Harbor’s significance reveals its impact on Icelandic history. It acted as a vital means to sustain Iceland’s people, with notable figures like Ingólfur Arnarson possibly linked to its location. 

Beyond commerce, the harbor stands as a cultural hub, honoring Iceland’s bond with the sea. Exploring its docks, every ship contributes to the ongoing tale of Reykjavik’s Old Harbor, a story in which you now play a part.

Boats at the Old Harbor of Reykjavik. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

Reykjavik Old Harbour’s Today

Reykjavik’s Old Harbor today is like a beautiful painting of the sea, backdropped by the Esjan mountain and Harpa concert hall. Colorful boats line the lively docks, creating a mix of old and new. There are bustling markets, delicious food, and happy people enjoying the scene. Every wave tells a story of how this place is a special part of Reykjavik, connecting the city to the sea in a timeless way.

The Old Harbor of Reykjavik offers a wealth of activities. You can explore the lively surroundings and enjoy various attractions right at the harbor. From strolling along the docks to indulging in local cuisine, whale-watching excursions, and cultural events, there’s always something exciting to experience near and at the Old Harbor.

The present day of Reykjavik’s Old Harbor. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

The Old Harbor As A Cruise Ship Port in Reykjavik

Reykjavik’s Old Harbor stands out as a prominent cruise ship port, adding to the city’s maritime allure. Serving as a welcoming entry point for cruise liners, it serves as a gateway for visitors to delve into Reykjavik’s cultural attractions, museums, and local cuisine. With a strategic location, it seamlessly blends maritime and cultural experiences for those arriving by sea.

To explore Reykjavik and Iceland more profoundly, consider joining a shore excursion tailored to fit the docking schedule, offering a perfect opportunity to discover Iceland beyond its capital city.

You can go on a Golden Circle day tour, or sign up for a volcano hike to explore the wonder of Reykjanes Peninsula, or go further to explore South Iceland to see waterfalls, black sand beach, and glaciers.

Getting off the cruise ship to join a shore excursion in Reykjavik and beyond. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

What To Do At Reykjavik’s Old Harbor

Whale and Puffin Watching

Reykjavik’s Old Harbor is a gateway to the fascinating world of Icelandic marine life. Whether you seek the thrill of spotting massive whales or the delight of watching puffins, your adventure starts here.

From Reykjavik’s Old Harbor, you’ll find yourself amidst whale watching tours that promise sightings of the awe-inspiring humpback whales. These giants of the ocean are a common highlight, but they’re not the only cetaceans on display. Between May and mid-August, tours also offer the chance to witness puffins in their natural habitat, making for an unforgettable dual wildlife experience.

Your wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the large and charismatic mammals. Along with the celebrated humpback whales, the waters near Reykjavik are home to a variety of marine species. Keep your eyes peeled for the agile minke whales as well as the social white-beaked dolphins that often grace visitors with their presence. Each species offers a window into the rich biodiversity of Iceland’s aquatic ecosystems.

Puffin watching boat adventure from Reykjavik.

Northern Lights Boat Cruise and Sea Angling

To make the most of your time in Iceland, embracing diverse activities and witnessing the best of the land of fire and ice, you can consider the Northern Lights boat cruise from the Old Harbor. Exclusive to August through April, during Iceland’s Northern Lights season when nights are sufficiently dark for the aurora to shine.

If you enjoy fishing, embark on a sea angling adventure for an authentic Icelandic experience. With Mt. Esja provides a stunning backdrop throughout the journey to the sea, you might even catch sight of puffins during summer, easily identifiable by their distinctive flight patterns.

Northern Lights boat cruise from Reykjavik Old Harbor.

Restaurants and Culinary Experience

In the heart of Reykjavik, the Old Harbour area beckons with its revitalized waterfront, offering you a range of dining and shopping experiences set against a backdrop of maritime charm. As you explore this vibrant quarter of the city, you’ll find the essence of Icelandic culture distilled into every facet of your leisurely pursuits.

Savor the flavors of Icelandic culinary culture at the Old Harbour Reykjavik, where seafood takes center stage. Select eateries showcase freshly caught fish, allowing you to indulge in dishes where the taste of the ocean is paramount. From fine dining to cozy cafés, the culinary scene here reflects Iceland’s rich gastronomic heritage.

Along the harbor line of Reykjavik there is so much to explore. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

Shops and Boutiques

Discover a varied collection of small shops at every turn. Whether you’re in search of authentic Icelandic sweaters, unique souvenirs, or handcrafted goods, the retail spaces around the Old Harbour offer a shopping experience that’s replete with local character and charm.

Kolaportid Flea Market is the main one close to the harbor. It invites exploration with its diverse stalls, offering everything from Icelandic souvenirs to handmade crafts. It’s a popular spot for cultural shopping in Reykjavik that is worth experiencing.

Walking nearby the Old Harbor of Reykjavik. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

Public Spaces and Strolling Areas

Reykjavik’s Old Harbor is the perfect place to take your mind off and just to immerse yourself in the beautiful Atlantic breeze. You can relax while walking along scenic paths with water views. Find seating spots to watch boats or enjoy a sunny day by the sea. Experience a tranquil blend of daily life and leisure while you are in Iceland.

The Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center dominates your view with its iconic architecture in Reykjavik. Its striking design and cultural significance make it a must-visit landmark on your journey. It’s also a hub for cultural events. Attending a variety of performances ranging from opera to pop concerts and experiencing the vibrant culture at one of the city’s most iconic venues is highly recommended.

Harpa, seen from Reykjavik Old Harbor. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

What To See Around Reykjavik’s Old Harbor

Explore the captivating surroundings of Reykjavik’s Old Harbor! With museums, interactive exhibits, and immersive shows, along with a mix of natural and cultural attractions near the heart of Reykjavik, plan a day filled with Reykajvik’s charm.

Museums and Exhibitions

As you explore Reykjavik Old Harbor, you’ll find a wealth of cultural attractions and educational experiences. From maritime history to the performing arts, there’s something to stimulate every mind.

Reykjavik Maritime Museum – Your journey through the Old Harbor must include a visit to this museum. Housed in a former fish factory, the museum displays the maritime history that is essential to understanding Iceland’s culture. You’ll encounter exhibits detailing the life of Icelandic fishers and the evolution of the fishing industry.

Reykjavik Maritime Museum. [Photo credit ©Mosbatho under CC BY 4.0]

Whales of Iceland Exhibition – Step into a space where the giants of the ocean are brought to life. The Whales of Iceland exhibition boasts full-scale models and an immersive environment, offering you a spectacular learning experience.

Whale of Iceland Exhibition in Reykjavik

LAVA ShowExplore the LAVA SHOW near Reykjavik’s Old Harbor for an intriguing encounter with molten lava and volcanic forces. Situated close to the Old Harbor, this unique experience adds an interesting dimension to your exploration of the area’s cultural and geological wonders. You will witness the natural power in a relaxed setting, just a short distance from the historic harbor.

LAVA show presents you a unique experience you will never forget.

FlyOver IcelandLocated close to Reykjavik’s Old Harbor. FlyOver Iceland takes you on an immersive journey over many spectacular natural highlights of Iceland. Delve into the beauty of the surroundings at your own pace, adding an intriguing layer to your exploration of the area’s cultural and scenic delights, all conveniently near the historic harbor.

Filming FlyOver Iceland around the island.

Spectacular Seaside and Mountain Views

Reykjavik’s Old Harbor offers you a picturesque mix of marine and mountainous landscapes. Here, you can take in the serene beauty of the sea alongside the grandeur of volcanic and mountain vistas.

Gaze across the harbor and witness the majestic Mount Esja, a towering presence that frames the skyline. This beautiful and accessible mountain provides a stunning backdrop for all your Old Harbor activities. Whether shrouded in morning mist or glowing in the sunset, Mount Esja is a favorite amongst photographers and nature lovers alike.

The Old Harbor itself is a tranquil setting where the sea gently laps against the docks. As you stroll along the waterfront, you’re greeted with expansive views of the North Atlantic Ocean. Keep your eyes on the horizon and you might spot a whale breaching the surface. The area’s development has thoughtfully preserved the natural water scenes, offering you uninterrupted views of the captivating maritime scenery.

Out to the sea with Mt. Esjan being the backdrop. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

Seasonal Events and Activities Around the Harbor

Throughout the year, Reykjavik Old Harbor offers a compelling blend of events and activities, each season imbuing the harbor with a distinct charm. Whether you’re basking in the midnight sun or gazing at the Northern Lights, there’s always something to draw you to this historic waterfront.

Summer Festivities

During the summer, you can stroll along the Old Harbor under the glow of the midnight sun. Here, the vibrant Summer Festivities flourish with:

The highlight of Reykjavik’s Culture Night ends with a splendid fireworks display off the Old Harbor of Reykjavik. Be sure to be there when you are in Iceland in August.

Fireworks from the Old Harbor ends Reykjavik Culture Night every year. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

The Fishermen’s Day in Reykjavik, held annually in late June, celebrates Iceland’s maritime heritage with vibrant festivities, showcasing traditional seafaring culture, music, and culinary delights from the sea.

The glorious rescue team of Iceland is putting on a helmet on a child on Fishermen’s Day. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]
Winter Attractions

As night falls early, winter at the harbor is illuminated by the stunning Northern Lights. In this season, you’ll experience:

  • Special Northern Lights tours, launching from the Old Harbor’s docks. 
  • Christmas markets that bring festive cheer with hand-knitted Icelandic sweaters and unique gifts.
  • Warm and cozy cafes, where you can enjoy a hot beverage while watching boats illuminated by the aurora.

Remember to dress warmly and check the weather forecast for the best nights to catch the Northern Lights.

Reykjavik’s Christmas Market close to the Old Harbor. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

The Old Harbor’s Role In Iceland’s Economy

Reykjavik Old Harbor stands as a pivotal center, driving Iceland’s economy through its integral sectors. The fishing industry, deeply rooted in tradition, relies on advanced boats at the harbor, practicing sustainable methods. Cod, haddock, and mackerel are key catches. 

The vibrant tourism and recreation sector offer whale watching and cultural experiences, completing the harbor’s role in the economic and cultural vitality of Reykjavik.

A traditional wooden sailing boat docked at Reykjavik’s Old Harbor. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

Frequently Asked Questions About The Old Harbor

Explore the offerings around the Old Harbor, from places to stay to outdoor sights, as well as the cultural heritage reflected in the harborside sculptures and monuments.

What accommodations are available near the Old Harbor in Reykjavik?

You’ll find a range of options from boutique hotels to cozy apartments close to the Old Harbor. Opt for sea view rooms for a complete harbor-side experience.

Is there a scenic route for a walk near the harbor area in Reykjavik?

Yes, there’s a picturesque walkway along the harbor that offers stunning views of the sea and Mt. Esja. This route is perfect for an evening stroll or a brisk morning walk.

Which notable sculptures and monuments can be found at Reykjavik’s harbor?

At the harbor, you can admire the Sun Voyager sculpture, representing a Viking ship, and the Rainbow, a symbol of hope. Each piece tells a part of Reykjavik’s rich history.

Tiny lighthouse at Reykjavik’s Old Harbor. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]
About the author
A journalist and photographer, Yanshu is driven by a deep passion for Iceland. She's on a mission to share her love for authentic travel experiences and exciting adventures with fellow explorers. Armed with her camera, she sets off on hikes, delving into Iceland's intricacies while mastering the art of Icelandic language whenever possible.

You might like these articles