Reykjavik is not a big city, but it also doesn’t feel small. It’s cozy, but big enough to accommodate a variety of tastes. It’s a great place to relax for a few days before venturing out into the great big unknown of the Icelandic wilderness. When I was recently in Iceland, I spent two nights in Reykjavik, which seemed like the perfect amount of time to experience its pleasures. In the interest of helping other travellers that are curious about the Icelandic capital and what you can do there, I’ve shared a sample two day itinerary based off my own experiences. Feel free to take or leave my suggestions, as Reykjavik is a comfortable place to follow your fancy and accommodates a wide variety of tastes.
Day One – Icelandic Food and Culture
Connect to Reykjavik
If you’re coming from North America, odds are your flight will arrive at Keflavik International Airport in the morning. After collecting your luggage and picking up your rental car, you’ll drive along Highway 41 to Reykjavik, the capital. You may take a few hours to stop off at the Blue Lagoon for a refresher after the overnight flight. Depending on whether you head to the Blue Lagoon, you’ll arrive in Reykjavik in mid-morning or early afternoon. If you arrive mid-morning, park at your hotel and drop off your bags before setting out on foot to get your bearings in the city.
Stroll the City Centre
The unofficial centre of the city is Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in the country and the highest point in the city. It’s a good starting point for exploring the city. Head inside and admire the main sanctuary before you pay the small fee to ride the elevator to the top observation deck in the bell tower. Enjoy the spectacular views of Reykjavik in all four directions and take some photos from high above. Descend and head out front to see the statue of Leif Eriksson, who landed in Newfoundland centuries before Christopher Columbus reached the West Indies.
You can then head down Skolavordustigur, straight in front of Hallgrimskirkja, or wind right along Frakkastigur. Both streets will take you to Laugavegur, the main pedestrian avenue in the city. Once you reach Laugavegur, spend some time window shopping and enjoying the easygoing atmosphere and charming buildings. If it’s chilly out, pony up for a lovely Icelandic wool sweater. Continue walking west along the avenue until you reach Laekjargata, another of the main avenues in the city. If you head north along Laekjargata, you’ll reach the water and the Harpa Concert Hall, the beautiful glass structure that’s one of the city’s most iconic sites. If you continue along the water going east, you’ll reach the Sun Voyager, a post-modern steel sculpture of a boat that’s another famous sight. If you continue west past Laekjargata, you’ll reach the Althingi, the Icelandic Parliament Building. You’ll also find several museums and historic attractions among the many restaurants and shops.
Take advantage of Happy Hour
After some shopping and strolling, and maybe a stop in one of the historical exhibits in the downtown, it’ll be time for a snack and drink. Since Iceland has notoriously-expensive alcohol prices, it’s best to take advantage of Happy Hour prices if you want to drink while travelling. It also gives you a good chance to try some of the burgeoning microbrews that have taken over the capital. Park yourself in a joint like the Session Craft Bar, Bravo, or Kaffibarinn and try some local pints and bond with some new friends as the sun goes down.
Dine at one of Reykjavik’s celebrated seafood restaurants
Time for dinner. Reykjavik is justifiably famous for its seafood, with fresh fish and shellfish that’s among the best quality in the world. Pick a local favourite (call ahead if you’re worried about reservations) and get ready to savour the fruit of the sea. Messinn on the west side of Laekjargata, just across from the Reykjavik Junior College, is a great option. Its tasteful wooden décor recalls the interior of a ship. The restaurant is famous for its skillet fish dishes, where your choice of fish is fried and served inside a massive cast-iron skillet along with buttery potatoes and salad. If you want a more casual option, look to Icelandic Street Food just next door, where you can sample a large variety of Icelandic snacks and savoury treats. The owner’s grandmother does much of the cooking, so it’s like you’ve showed up at someone’s home for dinner.
Continue the night at a popular club or bar
If it’s the weekend, you can’t call it quits after dinner. Head out for the night to experience a taste of Reykjavik’s famous nightlife. If you’re like me, you may want to stop by the kitschy and bizarre Lebowski Bar, which takes its inspiration from the Coen Brothers’ famous stoner comedy, The Big Lebowski, starring Jeff Bridges as the Dude. The menu mostly consists of variations on the Dude’s favourite cocktail: the White Russian. Just be aware that the drinks are overpriced. Other bars may prove more appealing to other travellers. Once you get deep into the night, head to one of the famous nightclubs like Kiki or Paloma.
After dancing into the early morning, head back downtown to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur to enjoy Iceland’s favourite snack: the hotdog. This famous stand on Tryggvagata has served presidents and prime ministers alike and offers up delicious and affordable Icelandic hot dogs, which are a combination of pork, beef, and lamb, and served with a mix of raw and fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard, and remoulade.
Day Two – History and Nature
Start with a museum
If you did the night before like a proper Icelander, you’ll have had to sleep in a bit to be fully rested. But you’re in luck as most museums don’t open early in Reykjavik. After 10am, head over to one of the main museums or galleries, such as the Settlement Exhibition, Reykjavik Art Gallery, or the National Museum. The National Museum is particularly impressive. Its main exhibition traces the settlement of Iceland and its growth over the centuries when the country was under Danish rule. You’ll find artifacts from the time period, clear, concise descriptions of the history, and interactive videos and smartphone apps to help you engage further.
Go whale watching or visit the Perlan
After a lunch at one of the many cafes around town, head down to the harbour to join a whale watching excursion onto the water. Although other parts of Iceland are better known for their whale watching, particularly Husavik and Stykkisholmur, you can still spot whales and dolphins in the waters north of the city. Most whale watching tours take around three hours. There’s no guarantee you’ll actually see whales (I only saw dolphins during my trip), but the trip itself is worth it for views of the water, the feeling of the sea breeze on your face, and the opportunity to share the waters with the occasional dolphins and diving sea petrels. Alternatively, if you don’t want to head onto the water or the weather is too cold, head to the Perlan, the massive glass-domed building that sits on a hill to the south of the city centre. The Perlan houses the Wonders of Iceland exhibition that transforms water tanks into showcases on Icelandic nature.
Dinner and a sauna
After your whale watching tour or trip to the Perlan, head back downtown and visit another of the charming restaurants near the main shopping avenue. Opt for some of the ubiquitous and high-quality fish and chips restaurants, head to the Old Harbour to dine on lobster soup at Saegreifinn, or try to get a table at Dill, the most-celebrated restaurant in the country. It’s the only Icelandic joint with a Michelin star.
After dinner, instead of hitting up the bars again, engage in one of Iceland’s most enjoyable traditions: the sauna. If you’re lucky enough to stay at a hotel with a nice sauna, enjoy your privacy. Otherwise, do as the locals do and head to one of the public saunas. Sundhollin, just off Snorrabraut on Bergthorugata, is one of the oldest public baths in the city and a great place to relax for a few hours. For around 10 EUR you’ll get access to the variety of baths, hot tubs, and saunas inside the facility. There is an indoor lane swimming pool, an outdoor, heated lane swimming pool, two heated lounge pools, and a sauna. There are also rooftop hot tubs that are closed down when the weather gets colder. If you’re feeling very bold, there’s also a cold soak tub that hovers around near-freezing temperatures. If you’re like me, opt for the lounge pool and while away the evening enjoying the warm waters and the views of the sky. It’s the perfect way to cap off a quick two days in Reykjavik.