While Reykjavik may be one of Europe’s smaller capital cities, what it lacks in size it makes up for in breathtaking views, quirky architecture, and a charming and eminently walkable city centre. If you have a limited amount of time to explore, check out our 36 hour Reykjavik guide.
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When to Visit Reykjavik
We are firm believers that you can travel to Reykjavik (and Iceland in general) year-round. A lot of people will tell you that Iceland is a desolate and unnavigable lava field in the wintertime, and that you’ll be blown off a cliff or be miserably cold the whole time you’re there. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, the wintertime is a delightful time for a visit, and it’s definitely possible to drive the full Ring Road (minus the Westfjords region) in the winter like we did. We definitely recommend visiting in winter due to the gorgeous snowfalls, sparkly snow-capped mountain vistas, and lack of other tourists and travels.
If you wear lots of layers to protect yourself from the wind, and add on a scarf and hat to keep your neck and ears covered, you’ll be as good as gold. The cold is comparable to mainland Europe or the U.S. in winter, not much colder at all, despite what you may think!
While we’re on the subject, another myth-buster about Reykjavik in winter; many claim that it’s too dark to visit, thinking that it’s dark all day like some parts of Alaska, but this really isn’t true either. While the sun is certainly high in the sky for less time than locations geographically south of Iceland, the spectacular sunrises and sunsets provide for enough daylight to get everything done in a day that you’d like to. Additionally, the period immediately preceding sunrise and just after sunset is a photographer’s dream: perfect lighting for photos and a gorgeous, ethereal glow that you’ll never forget.
If you decide to visit in summertime, keep in mind that Reykjavik has become quite popular with tourists in the last few years, and the summertime is certainly the busiest time to visit. Accommodation and tours are likely to cost a bit more in the summer, and there will likely be more people visiting the main attractions. If you plan and book ahead and wake up early in the morning, you should be just fine.
If you’re looking for a bit of both worlds – less snowy than winter, less busy than summer – consider shoulder-season travel. While spring and fall are perhaps a bit wetter and muddier, you’ll score great deals on air travel to the country and hotels as well as enjoying the main attractions with fewer crowds.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
Stay at Hlemmer Square Hotel for it’s location next to the very cool Hlemmer Square food hall, the laid-back vibe and choice of room or dorms. A great alternative to the Kex Hostel, it’s a 15 minute walk from down town and buses run all over the city from just outside the hotel.
For a more central location, Freyja Guesthouse and Suites is located in the city centre. They offer an included breakfast (always a plus) as well as free bikes, an excellent way to explore the city. Freyja is located right next to the Hallgrímskirkja Church, a must-see while you’re in town. Ultimately, the location here can’t be beat and is perfect for a Reykjavik weekend trip.
What to See + Do in 36 Hours in Reykjavik
Visit Hallgrímskirkja Church
When you’re first starting your day in Reykjavik, check out the Hallgrímskirkja Church, an imposing structure commissioned in 1937 with a large statue of explorer Leif Erikson in front. Right by the church is the Einar Jonsson Sculpture Park, which is free and worth a quick visit.
Wander Laugavegur Street
Next, spend some time meandering around Laugavegur Street: the ‘Main Street’ of Reykjavik, where you can stock up on traditional Icelandic souvenirs or a a quick snack as well popping into the Visitor Centre for a quick visit.
Day One - Afternoon
Take a Walking Tour
Joining a walking tour is an easy way to visit all of Reykjavik’s main must see attractions in an afternoon (or morning depending on your schedule). A walking tour is an excellent way to ensure you don’t miss anything if you only have a day or so in the city, and it is frankly an absolute godsend to not have to navigate around by yourself if you’ve just gotten off a plane and are feeling a bit jet lagged! Most of the walking tours in Reykjavik will cover the following sights;
- Austurvöllur Main Square & Alþingi Icelandic Parliament Building & Culture House
- Arnarhóll Public Park
- Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, one of the oldest schools in Iceland
- Harpa Concert Hall
- Historic district of Grjótaþorpið
- The Hallgrímskirkja Church again (but visit it first as not all tours will cover it)
- Tjörnin Pond, an amazing geothermal pond in the middle of the city
- Reykjavik City Hall
Check Out the Old Harbour
After your tour ends, walk over to the waterfront to visit the Old Harbour. It’s a beautiful spot to walk around, with views of the water and surrounding mountains. Don’t miss the intriguing Solfar Sun Voyager sculpture.
Visit the Phallological Museum
If you’re feeling up to it, Reykjavik has a very… interesting Phallological Museum. While this certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it is worth visiting if you want to see some specimens or perhaps have a good laugh.
Day One - Evening
Go for a Dip at Laugardalslaug
In the evening, an excellent local place to check out is Reykjavik’s largest local swimming pool. It’s called Laugardalslaug, and is a totally off-the-beaten-path destination for most tourists but something we really recommend.
It was filled with locals and families, and felt much more authentically Icelandic than other geothermal pool and spa options we had seen (especially the Blue Lagoon!) Everywhere you look, normal Icelanders were spending their evening soaking in the steam, exercising, and hanging out with their friends. Laugardalslaug has a large outdoor pool (with heated water), several hot and cold tubs, as well as facilities for kids. If you go, you will perhaps be the only tourists there.
Remember that in order to enter most baths in Iceland, you must strip totally naked in the locker room and rinse off, and then change into your swimsuit and proceed outside. While this may seem odd to some visitors, it is an iron-clad rule to avoid bringing germs from outside into the pools. One last tip: bring your own towel to save money on the rental.
Hunt the Northern Lights
Although by no means guaranteed (see our top tips below), a chance to see the incredible aurora borealis is not to be missed. If you are visiting September through to March, this is the best time for the lights to show themselves.
Day Two - Morning
Explore the Golden Circle
Take a Golden Circle Tour
We really recommend a visit to the three sites that comprise what is known as Iceland’s ‘Golden Circle’. Join one of many tour buses that will depart from your accommodation or the city centre or do road trip the route yourself in a hire car. Car rental from the airport or the city centre is easy, you hotel will be able to help you arrange this, or you can book online before arrival.
Self Drive Iceland's Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is very close to Reykjavik and driving the whole 230km route is around a three hour round trip, but factor in however much time you’d like to stop for photos and exploring.
If you’re driving, just hop onto the Ring Road, which takes you first past the Reykjavik waterfront, and then out to the three stops on the Golden Circle, via Þingvallavegur. Again, it is a short drive away from Reykjavik, and should only take about 40 minutes to get to the first stop: Þingvellir National Park and the Continental Divide.
Þingvellir National Park
Located right in Þingvellir National Park, you can walk through the middle of the large area where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates have been splitting apart over the course of the centuries. This is one of the coolest things to do while you’re visiting the Golden Circle. However, don’t miss the other attractions in the national park where the divide is located, Þingvellir. It’s home to Iceland’s first Parliament, where chieftains formed the first laws and court proceedings at what is known as the Lögberg, and has lots of trails and beautiful nature to explore if you have the time.
Geysers of Haukadalur Valley
The next stop, about 60 kilometers from Þingvellir, is the two geysers at Haukadalur. These geysers are especially neat because they erupt very regularly, so you don’t have to wait too long to see them, and will definitely see at least one eruption while you’re there. Strokkur is the larger of the two. Note: Make sure you stay behind the guide ropes, as the water is tremendously hot. Lastly, a fun fact: the English word for geyser comes from the Icelandic “Geysir!” This is definitely a quick stop– after you see them erupt once or twice, you can be on your way to the third stop, which is only about 10 kilometers away.
The last stop on the Golden Circle is the Gullfoss waterfall, a massive waterfall and one of Iceland’s finest, in our opinion. The waterfall, located at the end of the Hvítá River, is absolutely gigantic, and sprouts beautiful rainbows and light prisms from every angle. There are vistas galore here. A concrete path makes it easy to see the waterfall at various points, though there are clearly marked signs and ropes warning you where you should stop, as it can be very windy and slippery the closer you get to the edge. Note: we were fairly dismayed at the amount of tour groups going over the ropes to get closer, despite signs warning that the snow tends to avalanche there.
After you’ve finished seeing Gullfoss, it’s about an hour and a half drive back to Reykjavik to complete the circle. All in all, this can easily be done in 3-4 hours or stretched into a full day, depending how much time you have. If you have anywhere in the vicinity of a half-day, you should absolutely check it out.
Where to Eat in Reykjavik
Due to its isolated location and harsh climate (not exactly ideal for growing fresh fruits and veggies), Iceland isn’t necessarily known all over the world for its culinary prowess. However, its foodie scene is definitely growing, and there is no shortage of neat places to check out for a bite to eat – whether a snack or a meal – in town.
If you’re seeking traditional Icelandic food, such as fermented shark, lamb brains, seafood of all varieties, or horse steaks, one option is to order a tasting menu at a traditional fine dining establishment, such as Þrír Frakkar or Nostra. However, these places are definitely on the pricier end of the spectrum, so another option is to go on a Reykjavik food tour or visit the new food hall in Reykjavik, Hlemmur-Mathöll, next to the Hlemmur Square Hotel.
If you’re in the mood for something quicker and/or cheaper, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur has been in the hot dog business for over 60 years, and it shows. The hot dogs are made from a blend of beef, lamb, and pork meat, and topped with onions (crunchy-fried or raw) and mustard. It is definitely a no-frills establishment, and more of a food stand than a restaurant, but don’t let that fool you. Hot dogs are an Icelandic staple, and you’re likely to see lots of locals frequenting this stand too, it’s not just for tourists. Fun fact: they have a picture of Bill Clinton enjoying one of their hot dogs on the wall!
If you’re leaning more towards a snack, or perhaps breakfast, check out Brauð & Co for their mouth-watering kanilsnúðar, which are similar to cinnamon rolls.
Lastly, it merits mentioning that Iceland has a few chain grocery stores where you can pick up anything you may need. We especially recommend Bonus, where you can buy Skyr.is, the original brand of skyr yogurt, and its blueberry, strawberry, and pear flavours. You absolutely cannot leave Reykjavik without trying skyr! It’s best described as a thick yogurt, but it’s strained several times to make it low-fat. It’s creamy, filling, and delicious, and one of the tastiest things you’ll have in Iceland and much better for you than ice cream!
There’s a Bonus right on Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik, which is ideal for picking up staples such as fresh Icelandic salmon and another grocery store called Netto not too far away as well.
Our Top Five Reykjavik Travel Tips
- Plan to visit Hallgrímskirkja Church as soon as it opens at 9:30. When we visited (January), we arrived right when it opened and were the only people there, so we got to go up to the top and see the sweeping vistas of sleepy Reykjavik just waking up for the day by ourselves. You should definitely beat the crowds and watch the sunrise here!
- If you are able to visit the Golden Circle and decide to do a DIY day trip, we recommend leaving as early as you can in order to get a head-start on the other tourists and especially the huge bus tours. The Golden Circle is easily the most touristy thing to do in Iceland, and traditionally the first stop on Iceland’s Ring Road, so it’s very busy! Especially at the Continental Divide (Stop #1) your photos will come out so much better if there aren’t crowds of people in them. On that note, if you are renting a car, make sure you add on a GPS rental. You will need it. We almost declined, thinking we could save the money and use a paper map, but we found Icelandic signs incomprehensible and would have been very stressed out without it, especially at night.
- This is a controversial tip, but unless your heart is really set on it, you can likely skip the Blue Lagoon. We feel it caters way too much to tourists, and the price point for entry is absolutely eye-popping compared to every other thermal bath in Iceland. Like we said above, we really loved the “local vibe” of the Reykjavik pool complex Laugardalslaug, and there are dozens of geothermal baths in Iceland if that’s something you’d like to do. Ultimately, the choice is yours – the Blue Lagoon has been popular with travel bloggers for years on social media, but, similarly to Szechenyi Baths in Budapest, we think the off-the-beaten-path baths are best.
- It is not guaranteed that you will see the Northern Lights while you are in Iceland. This is another myth-buster that we wish we had known before we visited. Anyone who tells you “you’ll definitely see them! It’s easy!” is lying to you. Even in winter, which is the best/easiest time to see them, it’s a total toss-up and depends completely on things out of your control, like the weather and especially the cloud coverage.
- If you decide to partake in Reykjavik’s excellent nightlife, make sure you designate one person as a designated driver, who agrees not to drink even a drop of alcohol for the duration of your evening out. Unlike other places, Iceland has a zero-tolerance drinking and driving policy – if you’ve had even a single sip of alcohol, you aren’t allowed to operate a vehicle. The Icelandic police very regularly breathalyse people and take drink driving very seriously. It’s not a fun way to end your evening, so beware!
Tegan and Alex of Why Not Walk are travel, hiking, and biking enthusiasts currently based in Boston, USA. There is nothing they love more than exploring new places by walking, and they have visited over 30 countries together since they met in 2015. Their love for “walking the world” led them to found Why Not Walk, a travel guides site. Follow them on Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest to start planning your next adventure.