On a flight from North America to Europe and a layover in Reykjavik? Or maybe you just landed in Iceland ready to discover its spouting geysers, threatening volcanoes and thundering waterfalls? Whatever the reason, you should spend at least one day Reykjavik, one of the smallest European capitals and a tiny city that might hide a lot more than you expect!
The best things to do in Reykjavik in one day
The modern Hallgrimskirkja looks straight out of a futuristic movie! At a nearly 75 m height, this Lutheran church gives you a great vantage point over Reykjavik and is a perfect way to get a first overview of Reykjavik. The steps-like structure of the Hallgrimskirkja is said to have been designed like a typical Icelandic landscape of glaciers, mountains and waterfalls. It took over 40 years to build it and is still the tallest building in Reyjavik!
The entrance to the church is free, but climbing the tower costs 1000 ISK, a small price for a stunning view!
2. Modern street art
Walking along popular Laugavegur street, the main drag of Reykjavik, you’ll come across some extravagant modern wall-murals. They are part of a project called “Wall Poetry” that dates back to 2015 when ten international street artists were invited to Iceland and paired with ten musicians performing at the Icelandic Airwaves music festival. The musicians provided the street artists with a song, poem or book that greatly influenced their music. The street artists turned it into one of the creative wall-murals that you can still witness today.
But not all of it is modern; on Skúlagata street for example, Reykjavik takes you back to its past and present with murals reminding you of the fishing industry of the city.
3. The Sun Voyager
This remarkable steel sculpture on Reykjavik’s waterfront resembles a Viking long-ship and is called ‘Solfar’ or ‘Sun Voyager.’ It is meant to be a “dream boat” and an ode to the sun, symbolizing light and hope.It’s a great place to admire the view across the bay with mount Esja in the distance. The picture below was taken around midnight in June!
4. Harpa Concert Hall
This award-winning cultural centre and concert hall is, together with the Hallgrimskirkja, one of Reykjavik most distinguished landmarks. It is situated at the entrance of the harbour and features stunning views over the bay and the surroundings mountains. The name “Harpa” is an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year and a month in the old Nordic calendar. The first day of that month is celebrated as the first day of summer and marks the beginning of a brighter time where nature comes alive and the colours of the environment sharpen.
Numerous festivals and concerts are held in here, but even if there is nothing that takes your fancy, I strongly urge you to pay Harpa a visit! The kaleidoscope of colours and reflections in the glass panes is a true masterpiece!
5. The vibrant old harbour
The smell of fish and chips, the buzz of the whale watching tours, barracks transformed into restaurants, ice cream parlours and some brilliant museums: the harbour of Reykjavik is a great place to wander around, grab a bite and learn some more about Iceland’s maritime history.
A very popular place for lunch is Saegreifinn, where the lobster soup is the signature dish. Or go for cod, halibut or fish skewers. Everything is very fresh and very reasonably priced.
It is by no means a 5 star restaurant, you are seated at long tables on covered barrels, but the atmosphere is great!
6. Traditional architecture
Walking around the city centre, make sure to take a closer look at one of the many traditional houses in Reykjavik. “The Falcon House” for example is decorated with statues of falcons outside, reminding us of the time when falcons were kept here before being shipped to Europe.
Grjótaþorpið is the oldest neighbourhood in Reykjavík with a collection of 19th century and early 20th century wooden houses. On Aðalstræti you’ll come across the city’s oldest timber house.
7. Tjörnin lake
Lake Tjörnin is a man-made pond in the heart of Reykjavik and a great place for a quiet stroll. You’ll be accompanied by ducks, swans and various other birds. The lake offers some nice views too, the best ones are from the northern side and the south-west corner near the bridge.
8. Cosy cafés
You’ll have done quite a bit of walking by now, so time for a break! If you’re looking for a cosy atmosphere while enjoying your brew, Reykjavik has got you covered! Take “Café Babalú” for example, it’s like you’ve just walked into your grannie’s living room! Popular with locals and expats alike, it can be difficult to find yourself a spot downstairs. But no worries, the upstairs is even cosier and quieter too!
Or how about “Stofan Café”? I spent a big part of the afternoon on one of the cosy sofas in the basement reading “Last Rituals”, a famous Icelandic novel. Cause when in Rome, …. right?
9. (H)Appy Hour
It’s not exactly a secret that alcohol costs a small fortune in Iceland. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have to go dry! Install the free app “Appy Hour” (oh yes, I love the word play just as much as you!) and discover where and when to drink for half price. It lists the times, prices and distances to where you are, how much handier can it be?
If you only have 24h in Reykjavik, then this itinerary will be perfect to discover everything the Icelandic capital has to offer! It’s a small city, but it definitely packs a lot in!
If you are planning on spending longer than one day in Reykjavik, then why not take a few daytrips to discover the true beauty of Iceland!
The only thing I knew about Reykjavik is that it is expensive – thank you for opening my eyes to the rest! I had written it off as somewhere I probably wouldn’t go, but you’ve completely changed my mind – thank you for sharing 🙂
It’s actually less expensive than I thought, but by no means cheap of course 🙂 Hopefully you’ll get to discover Reykjavik soon!
What a great introduction to Reykjavik! You’ve reminded me of things I loved when I visited some years ago and also prompted me to discover new things when I go again in May 🙂