view of Reykjavik

How To Spend One Day in Reykjavik, Iceland

October 19, 2019 17 Comments

Reykjavik is booming in popularity these days which is thanks in part to airlines offering cheap layovers between the US and Europe. However, it’s also largely to do with tourists now recognising that there is so much to see and do in this cool, friendly Nordic town. Whether you are planning an Icelandic road-trip or you are on a one day layover, Reykjavik is well worth exploring.

Reykjavik is not a large city and all of the main sights and tourist attractions are all within close proximity to each other which makes it easy to pack a lot into one day. We spent three days in Iceland before continuing on to New York and it was honestly such a magical (but also freezing) experience!

The activities below are not meant to be crammed into one ‘non-stop without breathing’ Icelandic adventure. It’s more of ‘a pick and mix guide’ to help you choose what you’d like to see and do during your time in Reykjavik. Plus, you’ll then have the added advantage of needing to visit again which trust me, you’ll want to do!


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Climb to the Top of Hallgrímskirkja Church

When you arrive in Reykjavik, it is hard not to miss Hallgrímskirkja Church. It is the tallest building in Reykjavik by a mile and it towers over the whole town making it an impressive part of the skyline.

Guðjón Samúelsson is the architect behind the design which was inspired by cooling Icelandic lava. Amazingly, construction began in the 1940’s but the building itself wasn’t completed until over 40 years later. Unfortunately, Guðjón passed away before it was finished.

Hallgrimskirkja Church Reyjkavik

There was huge controversy during the construction as many Icelandic people thought that the building was far too big and ugly. I can’t say I agree as I thought that the building was stunning, especially up close. I highly recommend climbing to the top of the tower where you can get a spectacular view (weather dependent) out over the city which costs 1,000 ISK (€7.20/$8).

view of Reykjavik

Relax in the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Park

Right next to Hallgrímskirkja Church, is a beautiful sculpture garden which holds over 26 pieces of work by Einar Jónsson. While you need to pay to enter the museum, it is completely free to wander around or have a picnic in the gardens. It is a really peaceful place to visit and while you’re wandering, make sure to watch out for the sculpture that looks very much like Hallgrímskirkja. This is the monument to Hallgrímur Pétursson, the Icelandic poet that the church was named after.

Window Shop Along Laugavegur

Laugavegur, known as Reykjavik’s main shopping street, is lined with quaint boutiques, cool cafés and bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s quite easy to spend an hour or two here but if you only have one day in Reykjavik, keep an eye on the time if you plan on checking out more of what Reykjavik has to offer.

We stayed right in the centre of Laugavegur and I really enjoyed window shopping and stopping for a coffee or two on the way to other places we wanted to visit. It is very easy to be enticed into some of the quirky boutiques and end up spending quite a lot of dollar so be warned!

Reykjavik main street

Pro Tip: If you plan on taking some gifts home then I highly recommend buying some lopapeysa (cosy Icelandic woollen jumpers) or beautiful lava rock jewellery. Food gifts are also popular too – Icelandic liquorice, Icelandic salt and the infamous mustard you find on Icelandic hotdogs (so delicious, I promise!)

Explore the Cool Street Art Scene

One thing that really amazed me about Reyjkavik is how colourful it is. The houses are painted in bright colours such as blue, red and yellow and there is also a massive street art scene. I loved turning corners and coming upon a huge, vibrant art mural on the side of a building or a bench painted in bold neon colours. If you only have one day in Reykjavik but want to explore the street art scene more then I highly recommend checking out this self-guided tour by WayfaringViews.

reykjavik street art

Go On A Unique Walking Tour

When visiting a new city, I always like to explore as much as possible on foot. If I’m rushed for time, I’ll check beforehand to see if there are any free or unique walking tours. You can learn so much about a place from a local tour guide and they often have great recommendations on where to eat and drink too.

There are so many cool walking tours in Reykjavik that you can book in advance depending on your interests; from a Game of Thrones tour, Icelandic Beer Tour, Reykjavik Highlights tour, Reykjavik Historical Tour...you get the picture! These are all reasonably priced and come highly recommended!

Laugavegur

If you’re on a budget, there is also a free walking tour, which is what we went on. Our guide, Erik, was absolutely amazing (and hilarious too!) and I learned a lot about the history and politics of Iceland from him. While the tours are technically free, please remember that these guys are volunteers and should definitely be paid well for their service. Also, book as far in advance as possible as they tend to book up quite quickly.

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Amazing places you can't miss in Reykjavik

Be Dazzled By The Harpa Concert Hall

This spectacular modern landmark is such a sight to behold on the Old Harbour in Reykjavik. The construction of the concert hall and conference centre first began in 2007 but it wasn’t fully completed until 2011 due to Iceland’s economic crisis. The design is the work of Ólafur Elíasson – the glass panels glisten with light reflected from the sea and sky and it’s simply stunning to look at.

The Harpa hosts the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera and there are plenty of other events year-round. But even if you can’t or don’t want to see a performance, it’s definitely worth visiting during this one day in Reykjavik itinerary – plus you can also watch a free exhibition ‘Iceland’s Natural Wonders‘ in the Iceland Expo Pavilion.

Harpa concert hall Reyjkavik
Inside the Harpa concert hall Reyjkavik

Enjoy the Views of The Sun Voyager Sunset

If you walk along the waterfront from the right side of the Harpa, you will easily spot the Sun Voyager statue – or Sólfar in Icelandic. It resembles a Viking longboat and was designed by Jón Gunnar Árnason as an ode to the light and the sun. We were lucky that it was a clear day when we visited as we could see the beautiful Mt. Esja across the water.

sun voyager reykjavik

Check out Some Of Reykjaviks Quirky Museums

The Phallological Museum: This museum is definitely ‘out there’, it’s weird but it’s also strangely fun to explore. It is as the name suggests a museum of penises – it began as a project by Sigurður Hjartarson who began collecting as a kid. The museum now includes penises from not only Icelandic animals such as the blue whale but also elephants and even the Icelandic handball team! Open from 10am – 6pm except on Sunday.

Punk Rock Museum: In an underground bathroom, lies Reykjavik’s ode to punk rock. Yes, you did read that right! You can experience how punk rock evolved in Iceland and you may even spot the odd picture of Bjork in there too. It’s open Monday-Friday from 10am – 10pm and Saturday-Sunday from 12pm-10pm.

Where To Eat in Reykjavik

Braud & Co: This place was recommended to us before visiting Reykjavik and as a lover of all things bread, I knew we had to visit. They sell lots of bakery delights from savoury to sweet. I highly recommend the sourdough paired with some Icelandic cheese and coffee.

Reykjavik Chips: This cosy, fast food place is located on Vitastígur, just off the main street. They literally only make one thing – chips (fries) – but man, do they make them good! There are lots of different sauces to choose from and there are vegetarian/vegan friendly options too. I had mine with Icelandic salt while my partner ate his with cocktail sauce. (He ended up eating 3 portions, he loved it so much!)

Svarta Kaffid: This was my absolute favourite place to eat in Reykjavik plus as an added bonus, it was 2 mins from our accommodation (Main street). From the minute you walk into this rustic, low-lit bar, you are hit with the waft of their daily soup offerings (vegetarian and meat) which are served in a bread bowl. They are so filling, comforting and incredibly affordable. It’s an absolute must visit!

Where To Stay In Reykjavik

Iceland is notoriously expensive and I have included some budget tips in my guide here. You might not need accommodation if you are on a layover but if you are spending more than one day in Reykjavik/Iceland, there are accommodation options to suit all styles and budgets. We stayed in 41-A Townhouse which would suit a mid-range budget, friends of ours have stayed there since and loved it! It is right in the centre, it has all the mod-cons and the staff could not have been more helpful. The coffee machine is pretty neat too!

Other Accommodation options include:

Have another couple of days in Iceland? Then why not check out some of the amazing day trips on offer. Whether you are on a layover or in between stops on an Icelandic road trip, no visit to Iceland is complete without a visit to the majestic Blue Lagoon. The lagoon is 20mins away from Keflavík airport or 45 mins away from Reykjavik. You can check out my top tips here to make the most of your time there.


Have you been to Reykjavik? What was your favourite thing to do there?

a view outside

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The Best Things to do in Reykjavik

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17 Comments

  • Jordan October 22, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    I had no idea it was so colourful and had graffiti! It’s been on my travel list for so long, hoping to get there next year! Thanks for a great guide +tips!

    • Ciara October 24, 2019 at 1:32 am

      Me neither until I went there, it’s such a cool, quirky city – hope you get to go soon!

  • Christina Gavrilas-Pearson October 22, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    We loved Reykjavik as well. We only spent a day there before renting a car and driving through Iceland.

    • Ciara October 24, 2019 at 1:31 am

      It’s an amazing city isn’t it! I bet you loved road tripping through Iceland – we plan on doing that soon!

  • Nicola Lavin October 26, 2019 at 11:49 am

    Iceland is my number one bucket list country.

    • Ciara October 26, 2019 at 11:13 pm

      You’ll love it Nicola, I hope you get to visit soon. Thanks for the comment!

  • Natalie October 26, 2019 at 12:31 pm

    I loved Iceland! Reykjavik was so lovely to walk around, I loved the views from the church! Your photos are amazing.

    • Ciara October 26, 2019 at 11:12 pm

      Thanks so much Natalie – it’s such a cool place isn’t it! For such a small city, there’s so much to see and do. Thanks for your comment!

  • Bliss Eatts October 26, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    Rekjavic looks so cool. Great recommendations!

    • Ciara October 26, 2019 at 11:11 pm

      Thanks so much – yeah it is such a cool, eclectic city – I was surprised by so much when I visited.

  • Lenai October 26, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    Pinned for my trip in November. 🙂

    • Ciara October 26, 2019 at 11:11 pm

      I hope you have an amazing time – there is so much to see and do in Reykjavik!

  • Claire October 27, 2019 at 4:04 pm

    Hallgrímskirkja Church is formidable – looks like something out of Game of Thrones! I can’t believe the locals aren’t proud of it, it’s a wild looking building. I love the view too with all the colorful roofs. “Dazzling” is a good word for the concert hall, I’d love to see how it reflects the light on different weather days.

    I didn’t know Iceland had much of a history with punk rock; when I go I’m definitely putting this on the list. I worked in the music industry for many years. Actually I saw Bjork at a warehouse show one time in Brooklyn lol. Not as a performer, I think Prurient was performing; she was in the crowd. But she was still wearing full regalia.

    Was it really crowded with tourists in Reykjavik? I’m worried that it won’t feel very authentic anymore.

  • Dee October 28, 2019 at 3:57 am

    Great post for a one day itinerary especially for those taking advantage of a free layover offered by the airline. Spent 4 days in Iceland 2 years ago but didn’t quite get to everything on your list. I’d love to visit in the summer!

    • Ciara November 10, 2019 at 5:22 pm

      All the more reason to go back 😉 It really is a great layover spot, I fully agree! Thanks for commenting!

  • World of Lina October 29, 2019 at 8:31 pm

    Admittedly I always thought Reykjavik is one of Europe’s less beautiful capital cities but your blog post makes it look so beautiful! I would love to explore it ☺️

    • Ciara November 10, 2019 at 5:21 pm

      Thanks so much, Alina – I was surprised at how much there is to do in Reykjavik too, it’s a city well worth visiting!

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    Welcome to my blog! I'm Ciara, a native of Dublin Ireland. I'm an introverted wanderer who loves to explore this gorgeous planet of ours. I try to live by the motto 'Feel the fear and do it anyway' which has led to some ridiculous mishaps along the way. Join me as I try to complete my never-ending bucket list. Read More

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