Reykjavik in a Day
Your trip should be taken at a slower pace, allowing more time to absorb the city's atmosphere
The first thing you should bear in mind when planning a day in Reykjavik is its size; although 275 km2 seems large enough on paper, it pales in comparison to a city like London, which swells to over 1,500 km2. Into this space it packs about 120,000 people, a little over a third of Iceland’s entire population, yet this is significantly less than any of London’s 32 boroughs (apart from the 2.9 km2 City of London), not to mention most other capital cities in Europe.
From a tourist’s perspective, it means there aren’t as many things to do in Reykjavik as one might ordinarily expect, and that your trip should therefore be taken at a slower pace, allowing more time to absorb the city’s atmosphere. Indeed, this is a metropolis to be experienced rather than stared at, and many of its main activities revolve around the local people who give it such a distinct character, rather than buildings and sights which comprise its physical presence.
08:00 – Walk along the waterfront
Work up an early-morning appetite with a stroll along Reykjavik’s waterfront. The harbour itself is a fascinating area that presents countless photo opportunities, and if you’re early enough, you might even catch a few boats returning from a fishing trip with a fresh haul. The biggest attraction here, however, is Harpa
, Reykjavik’s stunning new concert hall which dominates the skyline with its dramatic angularity and fish scale façade. Don’t miss the Solfar sculpture either, which is the skeletal boat that graces many of the country’s postcards.
There are lots of excellent cafes dotted around Reykjavik, but this is one of the best. Its conception can be traced across the North Sea to Denmark, where the quirky idea of combining a launderette with a bistro proved a storming success. Even if you don’t need to do any washing while you’re in Iceland, this is an excellent place to glimpse the country’s innate sense of style and ingenuity, and to indulge in one of its greatest obsessions: coffee.
10:00 – Walk along Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur
Downtown Reykjavik focuses upon two streets – Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur – which sprout from the waterfront and lead further inland. It is along these avenues that you will find the most stuff to do in the city, and you should consequently use them as your point of reference when ascertaining bearings. Both arteries are lined with shops
which ensure the area never lacks bustle, whether day or night, and although prices are often prohibitively high, they offer a fascinating insight into Icelandic style and design.
If you’d prefer a more visible landmark to orientate yourself around, simply look to the space-age construction that protrudes from the apogee of Skólavörðustígur, which is recognisable from anywhere in the city. Hallgrímskirkja is a cathedral like no other, a pixelated rocket frozen mid-launch that is as unusual as Barcelona’s Sagrada Família and as stylish as Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and has consequently become one of the most famous attractions in Reykjavik, equally as inspiring from outside as it is from within.
The peak of the Hallgrímskirkja’s tower affords a stunning panorama that takes in the whole city, which, on a clear day, stretches beyond Reykjavik’s edge and out to the bordering mountains. Getting to the top is easy (there’s a lift), though it’s worth bringing a map to get the fullest appreciation for Reykjavik’s topography, and warm clothing if conditions are particularly adverse, as the viewing area is almost completely exposed to external elements.
13:00 – Lunch at Bæjarins Bestu Pylsur
It may not look like much, but Bæjarins Bestu Pylsur is one of the most celebrated places in Iceland to grab a bite to eat, counting celebrities such as Bill Clinton among its clientele. Translating literally as The Best Hotdog in Town, it won’t take you long to decide what to order here – just ask for eina með öllu, meaning ‘the works’, and you’ll find out what all the fuss is about. Queues are standard, such is the joint’s popularity, but they soon shift.
14:00 – Visit a museum
Iceland has a rich and fascinating history, both geographically and culturally, all of which is recorded in a number of excellent museums spread throughout Reykjavik. One of the most popular is the Saga Museum
, which brings the nation’s Sagas to life in the manner of Madame Tussauds, but equally worthy of a visit are The Settlement Exhibition
and the National Museum of Iceland
. There’s also an excellent 3D map of the whole island located in the city hall, which is an excellent way to gain a fuller understanding of Iceland’s geographical complexion.
16:00 – Soak in a hot tub
To experience what it truly means to live like a local in Reykjavik, head to one of the city’s swimming pools
. A combination of rich geothermal reserves and obscene alcohol prices has led to residents gathering at swimming baths rather than bars to socialise and relax, and it’s not unusual to find Icelanders of all ages going for a quick soak before, after and even during their working day.
There are plenty of pools to choose from, including Laugardalslaug
, all of which present an excellent opportunity to meet the people who call Reykjavik home and to absorb the warm ethos that pervades the entire island. Alternatively, jump on a bus and head for the Blue Lagoon
, a journey that will take around 40 minutes. Wherever you decided to go, just don’t forget to leave your modesty back at the hotel
19:00 – Dinner at 3 Frakkar
There’s an astonishing range of restaurants in Reykjavik
, covering just about every cuisine imaginable, but if you want to sample the food Iceland does best, make a reservation at 3 Frakker. This eatery is often missed by tourists thanks to its modest façade, but anyone who resides in the city will tell you that there are few better places to gorge on seafood that’s been plucked straight out of the water that laps upon the island’s shores. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try a little shark, or if you prefer food that’s actually edible, go for the halibut and lobster or pan-fried monkfish.
21:00 – Do the Rúntur
is legendary, so much so that it’s largely responsible for putting the city on the map. The runtúr is a pub crawl that takes in the city’s best drinking holes, although it doesn’t actually follow a strict route. Instead, Icelanders gravitate towards Laugavegur, where they move from bar to bar until deciding it’s time to go home. As you’d expect, the street is particularly lively on Friday and Saturday nights, though there’s plenty going on throughout the week.