Reykjavík is positively thrumming with live music, cozy cafés and enriching museums, and is the perfect gateway to the countryside.
Whether you’re drawn to Iceland for its stunning waterfalls or simply to witness the midnight sun, don’t forget Reykjavík—the capital city and a crucial stop on any visit to Iceland. Reykjavík is positively thrumming with live music, cozy cafés and enriching museums, and is the perfect gateway to the countryside. There’s no doubt that the city is a gem all on its own.
Below, I take you on a tour of Reykjavík in a day, including some of the best coffee, sightseeing and nightlife the city has to offer. Whether you’re here on a stopover or are spending a few days relaxing before hitting the Ring Road, the world’s northernmost capital is the place to be.
Ready for a rollicking adventure? Let’s hit the town.
7:00 am: Early birds get the snúður
You’ve just arrived from your red-eye flight. You’re bleary-eyed. You’re tired. You would really like to crawl in bed. But you’re in Iceland for the first time, so seize the moment! Icelanders aren’t known for waking early, so if you go for an early stroll you may have the whole city to yourself.
If you’re hungry or in desperate need of coffee, then Sandholt is your go-to spot. Not only is it one of the few cafés open first thing in the morning, but it’s one of Reykjavík’s finest. They make a killer flat white and their pancakes with bacon can fill you up for the whole morning. But if you’re really wanting to dine Iceland-style, try the snúður. It’s essentially a frosted cinnamon roll. If you like sweets, you’ll be coming back for more.
9:00 am: Strollin’ all day long
Energized from your copious amounts of caffeine and sugar, you’re ready to get out and about (and possibly burn off a few of those calories). Taking a waterfront walk is a must: you’ll pass by the city’s colorful houses and get a view of the snow-capped mountains across the bay. Dress warmly! The wind can be powerful down by the sea.
While you’re down here, check out the Sun Voyager. It’s a vast sculpture right on the water that at once recalls a Viking longship (or perhaps a funny Nordic scorpion).
11:00 am: Viking hour
Have you ever wanted to know what it would be like to have an archaeological exhibit right under your feet? Several years ago, construction workers were digging for a new hotel when they unearthed the remains of a Viking longhouse from the 9th century, right when the country was being settled. That site has now been converted into a museum (with the hotel above). For a dose of ancient Iceland, don’t miss 871, also called the Settlement Exhibition.
1:00 pm: Pile on the Plokkfiskur
Hungry? There are some lovely lunch spots on Skólavörðustígur, a terrifically unpronounceable street leading up to the tall, iconic church. On weekdays, Ostabúðin has a scrumptious lunch special. Or you can try Fish & More—which, as the name implies, has a rather simple menu. Try the plokkfiskur, a traditional dish of mashed fish and potatoes.
3:00 pm: Time for a Soak
Dedicate your afternoon to a hot tub. What? You didn’t expect an outdoor jacuzzi scene on this tiny North Atlantic island? Swimming and soaking is a huge part of the culture here: locals go to the pools rain or shine, snow or storm. The main pools in Reykjavík are called Sundhöll and Laugardalslaug right next to the Reykjavik City HI Hostel.
5:00 pm: Always more to see
After the pool, the city is your oyster. Take an elevator ride to the top of Hallgrímskirkja, the vast grey church, for a 360-degree view of the city. Next door, amble through the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Garden. For a taste of local art, check out Hafnarhús/the Reykjavík Art Museum. Or, for a literary angle on the city, take a free walking tour offered by the Reykjavík City Library.
If you’d rather keep to the quieter side, a walk around the lake in the center of town is a nice way to relax and rejuvenate.
7:00 pm: Tunes and Tequila
Some people would argue that Reykjavík only comes to life at night. Stay out after dinner to catch to catch a quirky synth-folk show at Mengi, or try an orchestral performance at Harpa, the city’s glittering concert hall by the harbor. You can always grab a craft brew at Kaldi Bar or at Loft Hostel while you wait for your show to begin.
If late-night parties are more your scene, you can dance in Reykjavík all night long! Check out Kiki or Pablo Discobar if you want to strut your stuff, or Kaffibarinn for late-night beers.
No matter what, by the time you do bed down, you’ll have lived life to the fullest in the sleekest, hippest city that borders the Arctic Circle.
You should check this out as well: A Two Day Guide to Cheap Eats in Reykjavik