Iceland’s capital city was one of the first in Europe to lift all Covid restrictions. Locals are now free to eat, drink and spend their weekends as they wish without masks or social distancing. This makes it a great option for travellers from abroad looking for a quick getaway, but just how much can you squeeze in to a few days in Reykjavik?
Iceland might appear to be a remote destination in the Atlantic Ocean, but for Brits the country is only a three-hour flight from most UK airports. It was one of the first countries to make the UK government green list, and remains one of the safest places to visit in the world. With some careful planning – and a tight itinerary – you can enjoy the delights of Reykjavik with a few hand-picked activities in the rugged wilderness out of town.
How to get to Iceland
Play, a new airline that started operating in the summer of 2021, has direct flights to and from Reykjavik’s main airport from several European destinations. Some, like Stansted just outside London, are more geared towards incoming travellers, whereas others like Alicante and Gran Canaria are purposefully aimed at Icelandic locals and their desire for sunny getaways. It’s an odd mix, but Play has tapped into what works for the domestic market and offers budget return flights for a perfect weekend break.
The main airport, Keflavík, is about 45 minutes from the centre of Reykjavik. There is a smaller airport actually in Reykjavik itself, but only a handful of flights operate from here. If you have longer to spend on the island you can head to Akureyri in the north, but this is an area that is best explored at a leisurely pace.
Where to stay in Reykjavik
The latest addition to the hotel scene in Downtown Reykjavik is the EDITION. The cool interiors of the well established brand fit in perfectly in the Icelandic capital and you can enjoy a wide variety of amenities here already. The main restaurant is a popular destination for locals who aren’t even staying at the hotel and in the summer a rooftop bar will give you unbeatable views of the harbour. With a sauna and hammam also on the way, this is one of the most stylish stays in an already stylish city.
We’ve gone for a variety of places to stay but have not veered too far from the geographical centre of the city. The Sand Hotel gives you everything you need in one perfectly formed package; Laugarvegur is the street to be seen on and if you want some evening entertainment then just step outside of the lobby and straight into one of the many bars on the doorstep.
Contemporary and cool, this edgy hotel is on the luxury end of the market but has a location to match the asking price. You are right in the heart of Reykjavík’s buzziest street and a night here will save you time as the shops are right outside your door. The other bonus is the restaurant on the ground floor, but more on that later.
Another downtown hotel, the wide variety of rooms here, from cosy single beds to larger family suites, makes the Kvosin stand out from the others on this list. There’s a great rooftop to take in the views of the harbour and if you’re in town for a business conference chances are you’ll end up staying here (or close by).
If you’re a fan of all things Nordic and cool, then this is the place for you. A trendy spot with even trendier rooms, this hotel is the one we’d pick if we were on a budget and looking for a short stay with no fuss. The bright interiors will also lighten the mood if you end up visiting in the winter months.
You won’t see much of Iceland’s past in modern Reykjavík but this hotel does its level best to give you a glimpse into what the city was like centuries ago. It’s a modern building that sits in the old part of town, but it has been designed around a grand department store that operated in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you do end up spending more time resting in your hotel than outside exploring, then this is hard to beat as a base.
What to do in Reykjavik
Expect long queues at Iceland’s best-known bakery. The intoxicating smell of freshly cooked pastries waft down the street as you approach this popular hangout, and if you’re staying at the Sand Hotel the good news is that you’re adjacent to this place. Coffee is taken very seriously in Iceland, so you know you’ll be in for a proper cup of morning joe here.
It’s hard to miss this towering structure when in Reykjavik. This church has a unique design and is at the end of another popular street just off Laugavegur. The walk up to the church is where you’ll find the Instagram-friendly rainbow street and there are also plenty of fashionable boutiques here if you want to buy local. The church itself is a great spot to take pictures, too.
If you ask any local foodie where to go for a great meal in Reykjavik, this modern Middle Eastern restaurant will be a top recommendation. If there aren’t any free tables (don’t be surprised if it is fully booked in the evenings), ask for a seat at the bar. The helpful staff will be able to serve you food and offer some local cocktails at very decent prices.
Reykjavik has many things going for it, but you might feel a little short-changed if you’re expecting to find historic traces of Iceland from the past. There aren’t many farms and certainly no grass covered dwellings – known as turf houses – in the city. Your best bet on a short trip is a morning at Árbæjarsafn; this open air museum is a 10-minute drive from the centre, and offers visitors the chance to see a traditional side of Iceland.
The best day trips from the city
If time is of the essence, there are a couple of essential experiences that you’ll want to include on your trip to Iceland. The northern lights are free (yay!) but not always viewable, so the other top pick is a soothing dip in a lagoon. There are natural spas that are used by experienced locals, but for first-time visitors – and those after the ultimate selfie – you’ll want to go to one of these.
A fair distance from Reykjavik, this natural geothermal lagoon was discovered by accident but has since gone on to become one of the top tourist attractions in the country. Its gentle waters are said to possess all manner of healing minerals while the environment helps your mind and soul. This is a great option if you’re spending a few days in Iceland as there is also an onsite spa hotel, but if you’re pressed for time there is now another alternative.
The newest geothermal spa in Iceland, and probably the most impressive, sprawls across 5,000sqm (53,820sqft) in Kópavogura town. The natural hot lagoons (which can reach 40C/104F) are subtly separated from the Atlantic Ocean by infinity edges, making you feel as if you’re bathing in its vast waters, all the while looking at a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano and the odd friendly seal. You’ll also find cold plunge pools, a sauna, changing rooms, a cafe, bar and turf house here. The real benefit is its proximity to central Reykjavik; you can have breakfast in your hotel, take the plunge here straight after and be back in your room before lunchtime.
Iceland first came to major international attention for travellers when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010. Such events are actually quite common here, but the ash cloud from this particular eruption had a significant impact on international air travel. With thousands of flights grounded, people began to research what was causing the disruption and discovered Iceland and its many natural wonders. The country once again hit headlines when a smaller volcano erupted in 2021; this time the lava flows were only 30km (18mi) from Reykjavik. The previously barren land in the Fagradalsfjall area has now become a major tourist hotspot and you can squeeze in a trip here on a weekend visit.
If you’re looking for a longer trip that lets you experience the rest of the country, we’ve added an adventurous five-day Icelandic itinerary to our TRIPS by Culture Trip line-up.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
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