How to spend one day in Reykjavik, Iceland – discover quirky design, street art, museums and modern architecture in the Icelandic capital with this guide to things to do in Reykjavik in just 24 hours.
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In the 15 years since I first visited Iceland, the country’s popularity has exploded, with its spectacular landscapes and fascinating culture taking it from hidden gem to hotspot – helped by its handy position on flight routes between Europe and North America.
Whether you’re planning an epic adventure or just stopping over for a day or two, you’re likely to be passing through Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. Which is a great excuse to spend some time in this cool and compact Nordic city, with its mix of small-town friendliness and quirky design, Viking history and striking contemporary architecture.
This itinerary shows you how to spend one day in Reykjavik, covering its top landmarks and the vibrant food, drink and shopping scene that’s made the city so popular.
How to spend one day in Reykjavik
Climb to the top of Hallgrímskirkja
Reykjavik’s not a high-rise city, but there’s one building that towers over the rest – Hallgrímskirkja. At 74.5 metres high, this dramatic looking church is the second-tallest building in Iceland and one of the most popular things to do in Reykjavik. The unusual design was created by Icelandic state architect Guðjón Samúelsson in the 1940s.
It was built from white concrete and inspired by Iceland’s geology, with columns on each side based on the rock formations you get when lava cools. The design was controversial at the time and it took 38 years to complete, so Samúelsson never got to see it finished.
The church is free to visit as long as there isn’t a service taking place. It’s fairly minimalist on the inside, but for ISK 1300 (€9/£7.50/$10) you can take the compact lift up to the top of the tower for great views over Reykjavik’s brightly coloured rooftops.
Hallgrímskirkja is open from 9am from May–August and from 10am the rest of the year. So if you have some free time before visiting, start your day in Reykjavik with a coffee or breakfast at nearby Cafe Babalú, a couple of minutes’ walk away on Skólavörðustígur. This warm and cosy café does a great breakfast crêpe or grilled cheese sandwich.
Spot street art
Icelanders are known for their creativity, and Reykjavik has a big focus on design. Many buildings in the city are built of concrete so have become a blank canvas for street art. You’ll find artworks all around the city – from tiny hidden sketches to colourful murals which cover the whole side of a building, often commissioned by the buildings’ owners.
Reykjavik’s street art boomed after 2015 thanks to a project called Wall Poetry, which was a collaboration between the Icelandic Airwaves music festival and Urban Nation from Berlin. It connected artists and musicians to create wall art inspired by music.
You can see a big concentration of murals from the project around Laugavegur, Grettisgata and Skólavörðustígur streets. Skólavörðustígur is also the ‘Rainbow Street’, where the road has been painted in bright rainbow stripes to celebrate Reykjavik Pride.
Stroll and shop the old town
The old town of Reykjavik is just north of Hallgrímskirkja and is a bright and busy area that’s great for shopping, with not many chains and lots of unique boutiques. Laugavegur is the city’s oldest shopping street – its name translates as ‘the Water Road’ as it was originally the route women would take to wash their laundry in hot springs.
It’s still a popular shopping spot, with everything from vintage finds to modern concept stores. Look out for Hús Máls og Menningar for books, Aftur Clothing for eco-friendly designs, Lucky Records for music and Spúútnik for second-hand clothes.
Top gifts to take home include lopapeysa (cosy woollen jumpers), chocolate-covered liquorice, lava rock jewellery, sea salt and the tasty mustard used in Icelandic hotdogs.
On the subject of which – if you get hungry, grab a hotdog to take away. Iceland’s hotdogs are an institution and come served with fried and raw onions, mustard, ketchup and remoulade. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is Reykjavik’s most famous hotdog stand and has been in operation since 1937 – you can find it on Tryggvagata on the way to our next stop.
Visit Harpa Concert Hall
More geological inspiration is on show at Reykjavik’s modern Harpa Concert Hall. This dramatic building on the city waterfront opened in 2011 and is is made up of three-dimensional glass panels which use the same hexagonal shape as Iceland’s basalt rocks.
It sparkles with light reflected from the sea and sky by day, and is lit by colourful lights by night. The concert hall is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra but even if you can’t get to a performance it’s worth wandering around and checking out the architecture.
If you want to find out more about the building, you can take a guided tour – they’re available at 11am and 1pm but not every day so check their website. Tours take 45 minutes to an hour and cost ISK 4900 (€33/£29/$37). Otherwise you can admire the views of the harbour and Mount Esja from the top floor or visit one of the restaurants.
Explore Reykjavik’s museums
Reykjavik has a diverse selection of museums, covering everything from geology to genitalia! So choose one or two to explore to finish off your afternoon.
The National Museum of Iceland takes you through the country’s history and culture. Reykjavik Maritime Museum focuses on the Icelandic people’s relationship with the sea. The Saga Museum explores Icelandic stories and folklore. And Whales of Iceland* is dedicated to the 23 species of whale living in the waters surrounding the country.
Alternatively, the new, state-of-the-art FlyOver Iceland* attraction lets you see the island’s natural beauty from a bird’s eye view, on a ride that feels like you’re flying. Or for something a bit different, the Icelandic Phallological Museum is dedicated to the penis, featuring a diverse collection of specimens from creatures large and small.
Or you could head out of the city centre to Perlan Wonders of Iceland,* an interactive museum of geology, which features a planetarium with a Northern Lights show and a real ice tunnel. It’s located on top of a hill a couple of miles outside the centre of Reykjavik so is easiest to get to if you have a hire car – or otherwise you could take a taxi.
Watch sunset at the Sun Voyager
The waterfront Sun Voyager – or Sólfar in Icelandic – statue was designed by sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason as a dream boat, an ode to sun and light (though there’s a certain resemblance to a Viking longboat too). It’s made of stainless steel on a base of polished granite, and on a clear day you get a backdrop of Mount Esja across the bay.
It’s striking at any time of day. But if you get there just before sunset it makes a great silhouette against the changing colours of the sky. Sunset times vary hugely throughout the year in Iceland though – from around 4pm in January to midnight in July – so you’ll need to adjust your itinerary depending on what time of year you’re visiting.
Eat and drink
Finally, finish off your one day in Reykjavik itinerary with dinner and drinks. Reykjavik isn’t the most obvious place you’d expect to find a bar that’s dedicated to cult Coen Brother film The Big Lebowski, but that’s exactly what you’ve got at Lebowski Bar.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know there’s only really one drink you can order – a White Russians (made with vodka, coffee liqueur and cream). The menu features a whole selection of variations on the classic White Russian as well as plenty of other cocktails.
Then head to the harbour for dinner. Icelandic cuisine focuses heavily on fish, taking full advantage of the cod, haddock, herring and salmon which are found in the island’s rivers and seas. Saegreifinn (Sea Baron) restaurant is famous for its rich, sweet lobster soup, served in a cosy restaurant where diners share tables and sit on fish barrels.
Map of things to do in Reykjavik
More time in Reykjavik?
If you’ve got another day in Iceland, then there are lots of great day trips from Reykjavik. One of the top things to do is to soak in the steaming blue waters of a geothermal pool. Best known is the Blue Lagoon, which is 45 minutes from Reykjavik, but there’s also the newer Sky Lagoon which is only 10 minutes from the city centre on the oceanfront.
If you don’t have your own transport you can book combined tickets which include bus transfers to either the Blue Lagoon* or Sky Lagoon*. The Blue Lagoon’s location close to Keflavik Airport also makes its a popular stop on the way to or from the airport.
Further afield there are the stunning landscapes of Þingvellir National Park, with plenty of walking routes, as well as snorkelling at Silfra in the freezing waters between two tectonic plates if you’re feeling brave. The Golden Circle* is a popular day trip which covers 300km and takes in Þingvellir, Gullfoss waterfall and the original erupting Geyser.
When to visit Reykjavik
Despite its name, Iceland has a cool, temperate maritime climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, which keeps temperatures fairly mild in winter. But expect four seasons in one day whenever you visit, and pack for showers and a range of temperatures.
July and August in Reykjavik see average high temperatures of 14ºC (57ºF) and the lowest rainfall levels. Days are at their longest, with the sun setting around midnight and rising again at 4am around the longest day. Summer is Iceland’s busiest time though so expect crowds and more expensive accommodation – book well ahead if possible.
Spring and autumn are showery with temperatures around 7–10ºC (45–50ºF). But you have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights in March and September when geomagnetic activity peaks around the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Snow is possible in Reykjavik from October to April. Winter can be cold and dark, with average daytime highs of 2ºC (36ºF) and nighttime lows of -2ºC (28ºF) in January, when the sun rises at 11am and sets at 4pm. But it’s quiet and a cheaper time to visit.
How to get to Reykjavik
International flights arrive into Reykjavik’s Keflavik Airport, 50km west of the city on the Reykjanes Peninsula (Reykjavik Airport in the city centre only has domestic flights).
To reach the city centre you can take a shuttle bus, public bus or taxi. Flybus* and Airport Direct* buses run from the airport to Reykjavik bus terminal, or you can pay extra to be dropped off at your hotel or nearest bus stop. Buses take 45 minutes and meet arriving flights so you don’t have to wait long, and tickets can be used for any departure.
A cheaper option is the no 55 public bus, which takes just over an hour but only runs once an hour. Taxis are the most expensive option at around €200 – better value for groups is a private transfer* for €155 which can carry up to four people.
Where to stay in Reykjavik
The Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina* is located in a historic harbour building, 10 minutes’ walk to the city centre. It’s bright and modern with quirky coastal decor touches, like knot-print wallpaper and vintage ship photos, and some rooms have harbour views. There’s also the Slippbarinn cocktail bar and restaurant, a gym and a mini cinema.
Or the Kex Hostel* is a good budget option in a former biscuit factory on the waterfront close to Laugavegur. It’s a friendly, social place with a mix of dorms and private rooms with shared/en suite bathrooms, and has a bar, restaurant, laundry and guest kitchen.