Aim. The purpose of this study was to describe the recreational activities of nursing home residents in relation to their background and physical and cognitive abilities. Method. The sample consisted of Icelandic nursing home residents (N=1825) who were assessed with the RAI instrument in the autumn of 2004. This was a cross-sectional study and descriptive and bivariate statistics were used to analyse the data. Results. 26.1% of the residents were actively involved in the activities of the nursing home. 45.9% spent high or average time in nursing home activities. The most preferred activity setting was the resident’s own room, and the most preferred activities were participating in conversation, listening to radio and music, and watching TV. The results showed that those who needed much help in performing activities of daily living (ADL), and those who were severely cognitively impaired, were less active. Music differed from other activities in that everyone seemed to prefer it regardless of their cognitive impairment, and the help they needed in performing activities of daily living. Conclusions. The findings indicate that nursing home staff needs to pay special attention to how to increase the activity of those who are severely cognitively impaired and those who need more help with activities of daily living. For this group of residents, the emphasis should be on developing recreational activities that are important to them like social interaction, being together, and music. Nursing homes should offer recreational activities systematically and nursing home staff should encourage and organize such activities.