Iceland Travel: How to Spend One Day in Reykjavik

I'm so happy to be sharing another fantastic guest post today, and especially one about how to spend one day in Reykjavik. I have a special relationship with Iceland as my partner's mother lives there (she's married to an Icelander) but they actually live on the opposite side of the island so my time in Reykjavik has always been limited. In fact, I only really spent one day in Reykavik on my last visit and while we still saw and did a lot, it was the middle of winter at the time so there was quite a lot of huddling in coffee shops to warm up. That's why I'm really glad Monique from My Perfect Itinerary is here to share more of the great things you can do in Reykjavik in 24 hours when the weather is a little kinder. PS If you are going to stay in Reykjavik overnight and you're on a budget I can highly recommend Bus Hostel, and you can also rent cars from their neighbours SAD Cars.

Let's find out shall we? Over to Monique!

DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links to products, places and services I recommend for you and your family. I make a small commission off any purchases made but they don't cost you anything extra, and often I do a lot of research to find you the best possible deal in the link - yay!

The Best Way to Spend One Day in Reykjavik

Iceland is one of those places that will make your jaw-drop a million times in one day. They have quirky culture, unique viking history, and landscapes that you thought only existed in movies. 

Iceland tourism has boomed in past years and thanks to the long layovers (24 hours or more) available from IcelandAir when you fly from the USA to Europe there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy a day in Reykjavik, and possibly beyond. Even though I definitely recommend spending more than 24 hours in Reykjavik, if that's all you have then this post will help you choose the best things to do. I also hope it gives you a taste of how stunning Iceland is so you will want to come back to see more of Iceland next time! If you are already thinking about spending more time in Iceland, click here for more guides!

So, Where Exactly is Reykjavik?

Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is located on the southwest coast of Iceland, roughly 45 minutes from Keflavik International Airport. It is the country's largest city and is home to all the shops, best restaurants, events, universities and more. 

To get to Reykjavik, you will either need to rent a car at the airport or take a taxi/shuttle into town. If you are staying at a hotel, call the front desk to see if they offer an airport shuttle! 

Driving in Iceland is a breeze (in the summer months) because the roads are well kept and there’s literally only one road, AKA impossible to get lost! I have a full guide on tips for driving in Iceland, you can read all about it here!

The Best Way to Get Around Reykjavik in One Day

By most people's standards, Reykjavik is EXTREMELY small (it's home to approximately 122,000 people) and you can easily get around on foot. If you plan to do day trips to the Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle or Vik, you will need to rent a car or sign up for a tour. There are endless tour options that will pick you up from your hotel and take you to the famous sites. 

With that in mind, if you know you want to spend the whole of your one day in Reykjavik on a tour of the Golden Circle, then get your tour booked now. Here is a great day tour for the Golden Circle, there are even options to go whale watching, and this is a day tour of Southern Iceland including some of the most famous waterfalls which all leave from and return to Reykjavik. I write a bit more about it below, but yes, you can also do a quick trip to the Blue Lagoon as part of your one day in Reykjavik or you can fill 10 out of your 24 hours in Reykjavik with a 10 hour epic excursion to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and its famous Kirkjufell peak or Arrowhead Mountain if you're a fan of Game of Thrones.

But let's get back to Reykjavik! To help you get your bearings, you should know that most of the restaurants, bars and shops will be located along the main street, Laugavegur. If you are staying on or near this street, everything should be accessible by foot and shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes to walk to your destination.

It is very cold in Iceland, even in the summer months. I travelled to Iceland in June and was still wearing large coats, beanies and mittens my entire trip (I am from Las Vegas, so take that with a grain of salt). The closer you are to the main road, the less you will have to walk and freeze your booty off! 

FRANKIE TIP: I also travelled to Iceland in June and found it chilly enough for a hat and scarf at times!

Best Time to Visit Reykjavik... and Iceland

There is really no wrong time to travel to Iceland, it will depend on the type of vacation you want to do! In the winter, you will get to see the northern lights, something that can only be seen in a few places around the world. The only downside is, it will be very cold, the daylight is short and driving conditions are more challenging. 

In the summer months, you will get tolerable weather (it will still be cold, but bearable), great driving conditions, and almost 24 hours of daylight! 

The Perfect 24 Hours in Reykjavik

Below I'm going to share how we spent one day in Reykjavik and how that was more than enough to see some of the key sights and to also enjoy some great places for food and drink!

Our Morning in Reykjavik

Start your day off with breakfast at the best coffee shop in town, Café Babalú! This colorful, two story cafe is situated in the center of town. I’m not sure if it was the warm coffee, friendly staff, or mix-matched furniture, but this cafe had such a homey feel to it! Sit upstairs near their postcard wall and enjoy reading the notes from people all over the world. Don’t forget to send a postcard to Cafe Babalu when you get home so you get a place on the wall too!

FRANKIE TIP: We found a yummy breakfast spot in Sandholt Bakery which will also give you enough fuel for a good start to your day in Reykjavik! And we also loved the coffee and cosy atmosphere at Reykjavik Roasters.

After you are fully caffeinated and ready to fight your jet-lag, take a stroll to the waterfront to check out the Sun Voyager Sculpture. This large, steel sculpture is located at one of the most picturesque spots in Reykjavik. Don’t forget your camera to photograph the scenic waterfront!

Close to the Sun Voyager, you can see the beautiful Harpa Concert Hall. This unique architecture is so beautiful at any time of the day. For free, you can head inside the concert hall to see the bay through the honeycomb glass windows! 

Before lunch, head to one of the many FREE museums in Reykjavik. There are many in town that are walking distance and will give you some more insight on their unique, viking history! I went to The Culture House because it was the perfect break from the cold, being in between the waterfront and Laugavegur Street. 

Our Afternoon in Reykjavik

Time for some lunch! I wasn’t the biggest fan of the food in Iceland. Not because the food was necessarily bad, but let’s just say it isn’t a big “foodie” destination like France or Italy. Some popular food items I noticed in Iceland were lamb stew, pizza with cream cheese on it (kind of weird, not going to lie to you!), some strange fish dishes, and A LOT of hot dog stands! Out of all the things I tried, the lamb stew and hot dogs were very yummy! You could also find out more about Icelandic food on a food tour, be sure to go hungry!

Now that Iceland has become such a popular travel destination, there are new restaurants popping up all over the place, covering every type of food you could want! For lunch, I would walk along Laugavegur Street and just pick a place that looks welcoming to you! 

After lunch, walk north towards Hallgrímskirkja church. This beautiful architecture will stand out like a sore thumb in this low-rise and colorful city. You can enter the church for free and walk around the small grounds to soak in all the beautiful angles! 

FRANKIE TIP: If you want to go up the church tower, you will need to pay for that but the views really are worth it as you can see the whole of Reykjavik and the surrounding water and mountains in the distance. see more of my photos of the view and the inside of Hallgrímskirkja cathedral here.

From the church, head south down Laugavegur & neighboring streets to go souvenir shopping in all the viking stores. One of my favorite memories from Iceland was trying on fuzzy viking hats, window shopping all the cute winter clothes I would never have a chance to wear being from Las Vegas, and laughing at all the quirky souvenirs!

Alternatively, if you wanted to find out more about the history of the city you could do this walking tour led by a knowledgeable local.

The Best Way to End a Day in Reykjavik

At last, the BEST time of the day…. Happy hour time! Happy hour is a popular thing in Iceland and you will see all the restaurants and bars marketing with signs outfront. Some of my favorite happy hours spots are:

  • Lebowski Bar: Happy hour daily from 4pm-7pm. If there are any sporting events on, this bar will be packed! 

  • Grillmarkaðurinn: Happy hour daily from 5-6pm. This uniquely designed cocktail bar is located in a prime location, southern Laugavegur Street near the square (where most events take place). 

  • Slippbarinn: Happy hour daily from 3-6pm. Located in Reykjavik Old Harbor, Slippbarinn has a long list of cocktails that are all included on happy hour (not just well drinks)!

    Below is some information about travelling to Reykjavik at the right time to see the Northern Lights, i.e. in winter. For those of you traveling to Iceland in the summer months, bar hopping will be your best option! The sun only sets for a few hours a day during the summer months, so you will be out at a bar thinking its 2pm when it’s really the middle of the night! 

    Another option for your evening in Iceland is to see if there are events in the Ingólfur Square. This is the area where they play large sporting events on a projector screen, host concerts, or decorate for the holidays.

    When I travelled to Iceland in June, it was the first time ever that their soccer team played in the World Cup. It seemed like the entire population of Iceland was in the square watching the game on the big screen! 


Seeing the Northern Lights from Reykjavik

If your 24 hours in Reykjavik includes a night then you may want to investigate seeing the natural phenomenon that is the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights as Iceland is one of the few places you have a good chance of seeing them, especially if you're visiting Reykjavik at the right time, which is in the darkest winter months, so from late September to March.

There are lots of tours you can do from Reykjavik when they will pick you up form a central location in the city and then take out away from the artificial lights of the city to find a good spot in the countryside where you have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Tours start at around $70 (USD) per person depending on the season and they will be around 3-4 hours long because of the driving they need to do. Needless to say, you should wear warm clothing for this tour, and for visiting Iceland in winter (and even summer!) generally.

Here are some of the tours available for seeing the Northern Lights from Reykjavik: A three-hour trip with option to go again if unsuccessful seeing the lights and a bus tour that will give you hot cocoa to keep you warm while you look!

Some More Reykjavik and Iceland Things to do

If you have more time in Iceland, here are some bonus recommendations I'd like to give you.

  1. Iceland’s most famous attraction, The Blue Lagoon, is located only 45 minutes outside of the city. There are many tour companies that will pick you up from your hotel (or even straight from the airport) and take you to the Blue Lagoon for a spa day. Or you can do any number of day trip tours that include a visit to the Blue Lagoon. I really like the look of this Jeep tour of the Reykjanes peninsula that ends with a soak in the hot waters of the Blue Lagoon, or this fantastically comprehensive tour of the Golden Circle including the Kerid Crater and Blue Lagoon.

  2. Golden Circle is a driving route that takes you through some of most people sights in Iceland. On this scenic drive, you will see the mighty and powerful waterfall, Gulfoss, Seljallandsfoss, Þingvellir National Park, Strokkur geyser and more! This drive is very close to Reykjavik and can easily be done in one day. This Golden Circle tour comes highly recommended and is currently on discount.

  3. Does snorkeling in crystal clear glacier water sound fun to you!? Silfra Fissure snorkeling or scuba diving is a challenging excursion to add to your Iceland adventure. Located in Þingvellir National Park, you can sign up for a tour to swim between two tectonic plates. 

  4. Chase some waterfalls! Iceland is known to have some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, and it doesn’t take a long drive to find some. Less than 30 minutes outside of the city, you can do a short hike to Helgufoss waterfall!

I include all these bonus excursions and more on my 6 day Iceland Road trip! And you can also book longer tours of the region and the whole country, like 

That’s a wrap! Even though I have travelled to many other countries, Iceland is honestly still my all time favorite. The dramatic landscapes can’t compare to any other country in the world. I encourage you to not only spend a day in Reykjavik but more time exploring the countryside too!

About the Author, Monique

Monique is a Las Vegas native who doubles as an HR Manager & travel junkie (contradictory, I know). Her love for travel has taken her all over the world at only 22 & she strives to share her travel knowledge to inspire YOU to see this beautiful world we live in! When she is not traveling, she is watching Gilmore Girls for the 13th time, making itineraries she has no immediate plan to use, and drinking wine while writing for her travel blog, My Perfect Itinerary. You can follow along on her journey on Instagram & Pinterest!

Thanks Monique! If you'd like to write a guest post for As the Bird flies, here are my guidelines and how you can get in touch.

And if you'd like to read more about Iceland travel you may like these posts on this blog: How to See Puffins in Iceland (on Westman Islands)Our Winter's Day Stroll Around Reykjavik / Review of Bus Hostel ReykjavikExploring East Iceland / Visiting the Westman Islands / My First Impressions of Iceland / A Photo Walk Around Reykjavik on Iceland National Day / Photos of Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral / Photos of Selljallandsfoss Waterfall

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Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before putting down some roots with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her son around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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