The first time I visited Iceland, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the country I was in. Two weeks in one of the most incredible countries in the world was a joy, but there was something about where we started and ended that caught my attention. Reykjavik a small city with a whole lotta heart. Culture and character is bursting at the seams in this wonderful little city. So whether you’re coming back from a tour in Iceland’s interior, find yourself with a long layover through Keflavik International Airport, or if you’re just looking for some ideas on what to do in Reykjavik, here’s how you can spend one day in Reykjavik, Iceland.
The Biggest Small City In The World
With only a quarter million people in Reykjavik, it one of the smallest Capital Cities in the world. But despite it’s small size and population, Reykjavik punches far above it’s weight in culture, character, and style. Regardless of your interests, there is always something to do and something cool to see in this wonderful city.
So let’s say you’ve found yourself in Reykjavik with 12 hours to burn – one full day in the Smokey Bay (literally, rekyt-vik) city. We’re going to go through this article like you’ve arrived in the morning – 9am – and are leaving in the evening – 9pm. I hope you’re ready, because this might be the most packed 12 hours you’ve ever experienced. There is just too much to do and see in Reykjavik, and we unfortunately just can’t see it all. These are my picks for how you should spend your one day in Reykjavik.
You’ve just stepped off the bus at Reykjavik’s main bus terminal, and we’re off to the races. The first place we’re going is Reykjavik Roasters, a short 15 minute walk (or quicker scooter ride) to the Northeast.
I consider myself a coffee aficionado. I didn’t drink coffee until I was 25 years old, and because of that, bad coffee is no bueno. Gas station, mediocre, burned coffee is not something I even want to smell, much less ingest. So when I tell you that Reykjavik Roasters has some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, I’m not exaggerating. Head here first for a complex, tasty, wonderful cup and get some necessary fuel for the rest of the day – you’ll need it!
Next, we need some food. Right across the street from Reykjavik Roasters is Braud & Co, a local Icelandic bakery with the best bread you’ll find in the country. Head there and grab a croissant, Cinnamon Roll, or even a full loaf of Sourdough – it is to die for.
If you’re feeling like we’re being a bit light on food so far, that’s on purpose. Reykjavik has an incredible amount of culture and heart, and that absolutely includes the food. To get through this day without your stomach exploding, we’re going to need to pace ourselves. But if you’re patient, I promise it’s worth it.
Now full of coffee and freshly baked bread, it’s time to see some of the sights. Next, we’re headed to Hallgrímskirkja.
You’ve probably already seen this wonderful building, whether from the window of your bus, or on your way to Reykjavik Roasters. It’s sort of hard to miss, and walking out of Braud & Co, you’re almost certainly looking right at it.
Hallgrímskirkja is Reykjavik’s (and Iceland’s) tallest building. Set at the top of the tallest hill in the general area, this old Norse & Christian church is a force and a landmark. And unless you’re there on a Sunday, it’s open for a tour! Spend some time admiring the outside and inside of this incredible building, read the history, take a tour, etc!
Following the direction that Hallgrímskirkja is pointing takes you to Skólavörðustígur street, one of my favorite places in the city. For the next hour or two, take your time strolling up and down this little road. Go window shopping (and real shopping) at Penninn Eymundsson bookshop, check out the Magic Ice Reykjavik ice sculptures, and give in to your inner child by taking a walk down the Rainbow Road. There are dozens of shops, galleries, and museums to visit on this wonderful little stretch of Iceland!
For lunch, my recommendation is Snaps Bistro. It’s a little upscale and generally to get a table you’ll need to book in advance (but usually you’ll be able to get a spot at the bar with a little wait), but this is my favorite restaurant in Reykjavik. If you’re not feeling something so fancy or you’re in Reykjavik on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday (they don’t open until 4pm those three days), feel free to pick any other place to eat along Skólavörðustígur street! You almost certainly can’t go wrong. If it sounds good, it’ll taste good! If you do end up at Snaps, however, I wholeheartedly recommend the Croque Madame.
A 15 minute walk west takes you to The National Museum of Iceland. Of all of the fantastic museums in Reykjavik, this is probably (it’s so hard to pick!) my favorite. If you are at all interested in history, this is the museum for you. It chronicles the old Norse Vikings from modern day Norway and Denmark making their first landing in Iceland, to the introduction of Christianity and it’s culture-forming effects, to modern Iceland and the revolutionizing of tourism.
This wonderful museum is packed with interesting anecdotes, fascinating stories and films, and an incredible amount of artifacts from each age of Iceland’s history. It is absolutely a must visit place while you’re in Reykjavik.
I hope you didn’t each too much lunch (or you’ve sufficiently digested), because next we’re headed to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur to get one (or a few) of Iceland’s famous hot dogs. I can hear you through the screen already, “Hot dogs? Really, Brax??” Yes, hot dogs. But these, dear reader, are no ordinary hot dogs. Like most meat in Iceland, these are lamb based, and you have to try them. From Bill Clinton to Kim Kardashian to John Green, it is a time honored tradition to get a Bæjarins hot dog while you’re in Reykjavik.
Kolaportið Bazaar or The Penis Museum
A short walk away is a wonderful flea market/bazaar with a whole bunch of independent sellers offering some seriously amazing stuff. You could spend 10 minutes or 5 hours here, completely your choice, but it’s definitely somewhere to take a peek in before we continue! Alternatively, you can head over to the infamous The Icelandic Phallological Museum (yes, it’s literally a Penis Museum) for some actually interesting biology lessons from basically every animal around the world! If you can stop giggling, that is.
Whatever you choose, from there you’ll head to what I believe will be the most transformative experience of your entire day. Aurora Reykjavik is a small building on the northeast point of the city offering exhibits, art, a theater, and even guided tours to see Aurora Borealis – The Northern Lights. If you only have the one day, you won’t have time for a guided tour, but you need, if you do nothing else, to go see the Northern Lights movie and experience the Aurora in VR. I firmly believe everyone needs to see the Aurora at least once in their life, but in the meantime this is a good alternative.
Harpa and The Sun Voyager
Depending on the time of year you’re in Reykjavik, your next stop will be watching sunset at The Sun Voyager. This won’t take long, but it’s a beautiful sculpture on the north coast of Reykjavik and worth visiting. From there, it’s a short walk back to Harpa, the concert hall you passed on your way. If you’re lucky enough to be there during a concert or movie (and it’s not sold out!), definitely head inside and catch a performance. If not, this wonderful feat of architecture is worth experiencing even on the outside.
If you’re looking for dinner, The Ox Restaurant inside Sumac is consistently ranked at the top of places you should go. Unfortunately, it’s expensive, dressy, and you absolutely have to have a reservation. I mention it here because if there’s even a slim chance you can get in, do it. It’s 100% worth it.
Alternatively, there are some less-dressy (and cheaper) options to choose from. Here are my recommendations!
- SKÁL, a characterful restaurant inside Reykjavik’s first Food Hall that boasts fantastic dishes and even better beer.
- Matur og Drykkur, where you can get a whole Cod head and some in house mead. Great for authentic Icelandic food.
- Old Iceland, a family run restaurant that is much more laid back, using local Icelandic produce for their authentic dishes.
If it’s not too early, your final stop of the night will be a rúntur (or Pub Crawl) on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s Main Street. Visit Lebowski, Kaffibarinn, Kaldi, or even Pablo Discobar for a great end to a busy day. If you’re going to spend your night pub crawling and trying out all the amazing drinks Reykjavik has to offer, I’d recommend downloading Appy Hour, available for both Apple or Android. It’s a nifty little app that shows you where and when happy hour starts for each pub and bar, potentially saving you some money.
Conclusion and Honorable Mentions
There is so much to do and see in Reykjavik. We didn’t even get to cover half of what I would recommend to you, and not even 10% of what you could do while you’re here. If you read through the above list and are looking for some more options, here are my honorable mentions.
- Perlan, a futuristic revolving glass dome with a restaurant and cocktail bar. Also very pretty to walk around.
- Laugardalslaug Pool, a public geothermal bath and swimming pool.
- Saga Museum, a museum full of lifelike figures that depict Iceland’s history. You can also wear Viking costumes!
- Hafnarhús Art Museum, a museum almost exclusively about Erró, one of the most prolific contemporary artists to ever live.
Wherever you decide to go and whatever you decide to do, Reykjavik offers a litany of things to do and places to see. You can’t go wrong, wherever you end up. Reykjavik is one of my favorite cities I’ve ever been to and I just can’t wait to go back. If you have suggestions for things I missed or comments on places you’ve been, leave them below! I would love to hear from you. In any case, I hope you have an incredible experience however you spend one day in Reykjavik, Iceland.
As always, thanks for reading.