Reykjavik is a vibrant city known for its picturesque landscape and offering an exciting range of activities, as well as trips to the dreamy Blue Lagoon or the thrilling Golden Circle. Small yet bustling, the city boasts a rich culture that can happily be experienced over a weekend.
The land of fire and ice has seen a surge in visitors since Game of Thrones shone a spotlight on the island’s breathtaking beauty and exciting attractions. Find out how to best explore the vibrant city with this 48-hour guide.
Morning: a walking tour of Reykjavik’s harbour sights
One of the best things about Reykjavik is its size. With an easily accessible metro system, you can navigate the city by using public transport, or better yet, on foot. In fact, you can walk across the city centre in less than 30 minutes, taking in many attractions along the way.
While Reykjavik is an easy city to navigate, visitors also have the option to take in all of the sights by taking a walking tour with a private guide. Reykjavik’s leading tour operator, CityWalk, runs a free daily two-hour tour that stops at historical and cultural sites.
Védís Gudmundsdottir, from Visit Reykjavik, recommends buying a 48-hour City Card that gives you access to galleries, museums, attractions and public transport, as well as offering discounts for restaurants and tours. “It’s an easy, affordable and eco-friendly way to enjoy Reykjavik,” she says.
Start your day on the waterfront at the Sun Voyager, a contemporary sculpture created by Jón Gunnar Árnason to celebrate 200 years of Reykjavik. To get the most scenic shots of the area, go at sunrise or sunshine to catch the colourful sky. After soaking in the views, make your way toward Harpa Concert Hall, reached by taking a five-minute walk along the water’s edge. The multicoloured honeycomb of glass is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and is one of Reykjavik’s most popular tourist attractions. Wander the vast halls and enjoy the views from each geometric window before ending your visit by watching the laugh-out-loud one-man show How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes.
Once hunger kicks in, stop by Le Kock, a cool eatery in the Old West Side with an ever-changing menu. Situated a few minutes from Harpa, the restaurant and bar serve quality street food like burgers, buffalo chicken and doughnuts in a large but welcoming space run by three chefs.
Afternoon: exploring art and architecture
After finishing your meal, admire Reykjavik’s art and architecture by taking a stroll around town, where you’ll pass by many of the city’s colourful houses. Continue towards the majestic Hallgrimskirkja church. As one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, it offers panoramic views of Reykjavik, from the astonishing mountains to the ocean stretching to Greenland. You can spot the church from practically anywhere in the city, but the towering concrete spire also has a remarkable interior that is worth seeing. Bear in mind that as Reykjavik’s main landmark, the church does tend to get crowded.
After praising the church’s impressive architecture, take a short walk through the shopping district to reach Tjörnin lake in the heart of the city, with the National Gallery of Iceland on its banks. The Museum of Art hosts a collection of traditional Icelandic art, making it an ideal place to learn about the artistry that has shaped the volcanic island. If you prefer learning about the country’s history, head over to The National Museum of Iceland, where you can enjoy the sculpture garden before immersing yourself in exhibits that take you through the settlement of the island and the Viking era.
Night: all kinds of food for all kinds of people
Reykjavik is an expensive city and eating out can be pricy, but there are ways to save money. Situated on the city’s main shopping street, Laugavegur, Hlemmur Mathöll is a gourmet food hall that serves international dishes and has the motto, ‘all kinds of food for all kinds of people’. The food court serves everything from Los Angeles-styled tacos and authentic Vietnamese food to traditional Icelandic dishes.
Morning: get outside the city
Take a drive out to Nautholsvik geothermal beach, an artificial lagoon where the ice-cold sea meets the hot, bubbling geothermal water. Opened in 2000, the beach is easily accessible, situated only five minutes from downtown Reykjavik. Stroll along the promenade and paddle in the water before warming up with a coffee at Bragginn Bar & Bistro, a quirky spot inside a converted aircraft building.
Just inland is Perlan, an iconic landmark in Reykjavik sitting on the top of Öskjuhlíð hill. As well as offering panoramic views of the city, the museum teaches visitors about Icelandic history, culture and landscape through interactive exhibitions, a planetarium show and an artificial ice cave. Finish off your visit with a tasty lunch at Út í Bláinn, the bistro restaurant on the top floor.
Afternoon: get toasty in the thermal baths
Many tourists associate Reykjavik with the Blue Lagoon, the popular but pricey geothermal spa. However, the city is filled with thermal baths that are all easily accessible and more affordable. “I’d recommend Vesturbaejarlaug thermal pool, which is a great place to relax,” Gudmundsdottir says. “Or you could try Sundhöllin – ‘the swimming palace’ – located just behind Hallgrimskirkja. This is the oldest public thermal pool in Reykjavik.”
Night: Northern Lights hunting
Head to the local shops and pack up a picnic to take out Northern Lights hunting. While you can sign up to take part in a tour, it’s also possible to head out on your own to enjoy the beautiful aurora displays. “Take a bus to Grótta Lighthouse to take in the fresh air, stunning ocean views and – if you’re lucky – the Northern Lights,” Gudmundsdottir says.
If you have a hire car, drive out to Þingvellir National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage Site located 40 minutes away from the city, to spot the Aurora Borealis in a private and secluded location away from the tours. However, keep in mind that seeing the Northern Lights is only possible during the winter months and is entirely weather-dependent.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Vala Árnadóttir.