Iceland Stopover: What to Do with 2 Days in Reykjavik

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At first glance, Reykjavik doesn't look all that impressive on paper. It's a small city, only covering about 100 square miles with a population of just over 120,000.

But, if you look closer, Iceland's capital is actually fascinating.

First of all, Reykjavik's location at 64°08′ N makes it the northernmost capital city in the world. It has long, dark nights in the winter, and enjoys the Midnight Sun in the summer. And, even though it's small, nearly 80% of Iceland's entire population lives within an hour of the city – meaning it's quite a bit more cosmopolitan than you might originally think.

Reykjavik is known for its colorful buildings, its lively nightlife scene, and its love for festivals. It's also a very popular city for long weekend getaways, including Iceland stopovers, which are popular for people traveling between the US and Europe.

Reykjavik, Iceland

If you're planning an adventure to Iceland (or especially an Iceland stopover), you definitely don't want to skip Reykjavik in favor of Iceland's more sparsely-populated landscapes. I mean, those are awesome, too, but Reykjavik also deserves some of your undivided attention.

The good news about Reykjavik is that, since the city is so small, you can easily take in all the highlights in just a couple of days. Here are all the things you'll want to make sure to do with 48 hours in Reykjavik.

Things to do in Reykjavik in 2 days

THINGS TO SEE IN REYKJAVIK

Downtown Reykjavik

Reykjavik's downtown center is small, and therefore easily explored on foot. Laugavegur is the city's main shopping street, and you'll also want to check out the trendy Skólavörðustígur, which leads up to Hallgrimskirkja church.

Both streets are lined with plenty of shops and restaurants, and also keep your eye out for some of the city's cool street art.

Brauð & Co. in Reykjavik

Street art in Reykjavik
Reykjavik has great street art!

Harpa

Down near the waterfront you'll find an unmissable building constructed of glass and steel. This is the Harpa, Reykjavik's concert hall and conference center.

Ask any Icelander about this building, and they will certainly have an opinion – construction started before Iceland's financial crash in 2008, and it was abandoned for a while until the government decided to pump way more money than intended into finishing it.

Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik, Iceland

Even though it's a slightly controversial building in Reykjavik, it certainly is eye-catching. Be sure to pop inside during the day to see how the sunlight plays through the glass-paned windows.

Inside the Harpa opera house in Reykjavik
Inside the Harpa

You can also look into catching a show or concert here – but don't bother with the 360-degree movie in the basement; it's really not worth it!

Sun Voyager

A walk along the waterfront in Reykjavik is also a must, and if you do this you'll eventually come up a sculpture that looks kind of like a skeletal ship. This is the Sun Voyager, a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason that won a contest to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavik.

Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik

Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik

Tjörnin pond

You'll also want to see the large pond outside Reykjavik City Hall. It's a very pretty place to take a walk, and you'll always find people feeding the ducks and swans, too. (If the pond is partially frozen, don't feel bad laughing at the swans trying to waddle across it. Because yes, it's hilarious.)

Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland
It's pretty at night, too!

THINGS TO DO IN REYKJAVIK

Visit a museum

There are quite a few museums in Reykjavik, including ones dedicated to art, history, and culture.

The top museums I'd recommend include:

  • The Saga Museum – Covers Icelandic history starting with the Vikings
  • Reykjavik Maritime Museum – Detailing Iceland's long seafaring history
  • Settlement Exhibition – An underground museum with a preserved Viking longhouse
  • Perlan Museum – Currently open are exhibits on Iceland's natural history, glaciers, and a man-made ice cave
  • Icelandic Phallological Museum – Yup, it's a penis museum
Perlan Museum
The interactive wall at the Perlan Museum

Go to the top of Hallgrimskirkja

Hallgrimskirkja is a large Lutheran church in the center of Reykjavik. You absolutely cannot miss it, thanks to both its height and unique design. The outside of the church is designed to resemble the basalt columns formed by lava flows that you can find all over Iceland.

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

Along with checking out the church and statue of Leifur Eiríksson (the Viking explorer who was probably one of the first Europeans to set foot on North American soil), be sure to go in the church and ride the elevator up to the bell tower, too. The tower gives you what is possibly the best view out over Reykjavik.

View from Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland
The view from Hallgrimskirkja

Take a dip

Iceland is know for its geothermal activity and hot springs, and you won't want to miss out on experiencing them in Reykjavik. Even though the Blue Lagoon is the most famous thermal spa in Iceland, there are actually a large number of public pools and spas right in Reykjavik. The largest is Laugardalslaug, east of the city center.

Visit The Pearl

This one is super unique. The Pearl is home to a viewing platform, cafeteria, and museum. It's built atop five hot water storange tanks, making it look kind of like a spaceship. I wouldn't recommend the expensive restaurant here, but I DO recommend bringing a zoom lens to capture more great views out over Reykjavik.

Reykjavik, Iceland
Reykjavik in winter

I also recommend visiting the Perlan Museum, which opened in 2017. It's a place where you can easily spend a few hours overall!

Watch for whales

Reykjavik is known for its whale watching – many species of whales can often be found in Iceland's waters, including minke and humpbacks. While you're out, you may also see puffins, dolphins, and other marine wildlife. (Note: whale watching is best from May to September – check out this tour.)

WHERE TO EAT IN REYKJAVIK

Brauð & Co. – Pick up a morning pastry here; their cinnamon rolls are especially tasty.

Reykjavik Roasters – If it's a good cup of coffee you're after, get yourself to Reykjavik Roasters, often listed as the best coffee spot in the city. The atmosphere in this tiny cafe is incredibly friendly, and the coffee is, in fact, delicious.

Kattakaffihúsið – Iceland's first cat cafe is now open in Reykjavik! This fun and funky space is home to 3 cats, along with good coffee and baked goods.

Kattakaffihúsið cat cafe in Reykjavik
Reykjavik cat cafe

The Laundromat Cafe – Want a meal? A drink? A place to work and/or do your laundry? You can have it all at the Laundromat Cafe. The cafe is super funky inside, with a bar lined with books and walls covered in old maps. it serves up food at decent prices, too.

Svarta Kaffið – Who doesn't love soup in a bread bowl? Svarta Kaffið on Reykjavik's main shopping street serves up fresh soup in breadbowls, beer, and not much else. (But, really, what more do you need?)

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – The name of this little food cart down by the harbor literally translates to “the best hot dog in town.” And they aren't lying. Operating since 1937, this hot dog stand has also been named the best hot dog stand in all of Europe. This is also one of the most affordable places to eat in Reykjavik.

Snaps Bistro – Serving up a good weekend brunch as well as seafood dishes that won't break the bank, Snaps is a trendy spot connected to Hótel Óðinsvé. This is also a good spot to go for Icelandic mussels!

Snaps Bistro in Reykjavik
Snaps looks like a greenhouse inside

The Sea Baron – If you love seafood as much as I do, head to the Sea Baron (or Saegreifinn) in Reykjavik's Old Harbor. They are known for their delicious lobster soup, and also grill up fresh seafood kebabs.

Messinn – Another great seafood spot in Reykjavik is Messinn, an upscale and newer restaurant. Their Arctic Char is out of this world, as is their rye bread.

Tapas Barinn – On my first visit to Iceland in 2012, I went to Tapas Barinn and did their “Icelandic Gourmet Feast” tasting menu. The food – served in Spanish tapas style – was delicious, and the tasting menu was a cool way to get to know the food of Iceland.

Cafe Loki – Serving up all sorts of traditional Icelandic food, you should go to Cafe Loki just for the rye bread ice cream. Trust me: it's amazing!

Interested to try out a lot of Reykjavik's best food in one go? Sign up for a Reykjavik food tour!

WHERE TO STAY IN REYKJAVIK

There are a ton of hotel options in Reykjavik, but pay attention to location when you're making a booking. Some of the big-name chain hotels (like Hilton) and the hotels that will offer some of the best rates are actually located quite far from the city center. So unless you want to walk 30+ minutes or call a cab to take you downtown, be sure to book something more central.

My pick is the Rey Apartments.

Rey Apartments in Reykjavik

The Rey Apartments are located on Grettisgata, just one street up from Laugavegur. You're two minutes from Hallgrimskirkja, and a little more than 10 minutes to the waterfront or Tjörnin pond. Thanks to the central location, every tour operator in Reykjavik will pick you up right outside for any tours you book.

The bonus here is also the fact that these are apartments – even the studios come with a small kitchen, meaning you can stop at a grocery store to grab breakfast food and snacks, saving you a bit of money on meals.

I was a big fan of this location, the service, and the price.

Read reviews of the Rey ApartmentsBook your own stay at the Rey Apartments here!

WHAT ELSE IS NEARBY?

Most of the major attractions in Iceland are within a couple hours' drive of Reykjavik. From the city, you can easily do things like:

Sunrise at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland
The Blue Lagoon

But don't forget to set aside time just for Reykjavik. It's such a cool city, and is definitely worth at least a day or two of your trip to Iceland.

READ NEXT: Packing for a Trip to Iceland in Winter

Have you been to Reykjavik? If so, what was your favorite part of the city?

 

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Things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland
What to do with 2 days in Reykjavik

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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42 Comments on “Iceland Stopover: What to Do with 2 Days in Reykjavik

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  1. I had a terrific time in Reykjavik. The soup in a bread bowl at Svarta Kaffið was perfect on a chilly day. Although the Blue Lagoon promised to be a tourist trap, I was surprised and pleased to find lots of Icelandic people enjoying it, too.

      We went to Svarta Kaffið after snorkeling at Silfra (in November), and that soup was so. damn. good.

      And I agree about the Blue Lagoon! Yes it’s touristy. But I actually really enjoyed it!

    I’m trying to choose between Iceland and Norway for a holiday in early 2017. I think you may have swayed my decision in favour of Iceland 🙂

      Iceland is definitely awesome! (Though, I may change your mind again next month when I go to Norway in winter! 😉 )

        I think Iceland has the edge this time – I’ve always wanted to go, and since becoming single I’ve started visiting the places at the top of my list (my ex was always telling me that foreign holidays were too expensive!) I would be going alone and am a nervous driver, so I really like the idea of staying in Reykjavik and doing lots of trips from there 🙂

          Iceland is great for solo travelers, mostly because it’s so easy to see a LOT on day trips from Reykjavik. 🙂

          Iceland is well known for allowing long layovers. You may be able to get a flight to Norway but also layover in Iceland for 2-3 days, depending on how much vacation time you’re taking.

          I’m going to Iceland the middle of February and have noticed there are a lot of ride sharing websites, as well. If you don’t want to drive, you may be able to meet someone willing to share their car and drive for the day so they can save money on the rental. (P.S. Iceland is one (if the THE) of the safest countries in the world.

            Yup, IcelandAir is awesome about allowing you to build in a layover of up to a week if you want on your way to/from Europe.

    I spent very little time in Reykjavik when I was in Iceland two years ago, but I definitely want to rectify that when I visit the next time – it’s incredible how much there is to do considering it’s such a small place!

      Exactly! I think plenty of people assume that it’s “just another city” and that, since it’s so small, there’s probably not much to do there anyway. But it’s definitely worth setting aside some time so you can explore it properly!

    Wow, what a detailed post! I have bookmarked it for when I visit Iceland, hopefully this year…

      Great! Hopefully it’ll come in handy!

    Another great post, Amanda! This will be so helpful when I begin planning my trip to Iceland this May! Would you recommend your Winter packing list to be the same for spring time? Or slight variations?

      I haven’t been to Iceland in May, however it probably won’t be as cold as in the winter. You will still want waterproof layers and good hiking boots, but you can probably leave the winter coat and snow pants at home.

    I’m hoping to go to Reykjavik in July – thanks for the inspiration!

      Happy to provide it! Reykjavik really is an awesome little city.

    Would you say that Reykjavik is pretty easy to navigate if you don’t speak the language?

      Definitely! Most Icelanders speak great English, and you should be able to get a map at your accommodation. The city center is also really small, so you could easily just wander and stumble upon most of the main sights!

    If you’re looking for dorm accommodation, I can personally recommend Kex Hostel. It’s a good location, there are a TON of solo travelers to share a meal with, it’s big so any outside-of-Reykjavik tours can easily find it to pick you up, and there is a popular bar at the hostel. I ended up accompanying two other solo ladies to an Icelandic punk show one night – tons of fun!

      Great suggestion! I’m personally a bit beyond hostels myself, but I’ve heard great things about KEX!

    I haven’t been there yet…ohhhh…so many amazing places to travel to! Awesome guide! :))

      Yes, so many places on the must-see list!

    Great post! I’ll bookmark it for when I’m planning my trip to Iceland!

      Awesome! Hopefully you’ll find it helpful!

    It’s funny how our travel interests change. I was in Reykjavik in 2012 and found it just ok. Now I’m dying to go back as it sounds so cool and my kind of place, with the street art and all the quirkiness around! Thanks to you I’m going to look for some flights there right away! 😉

      I suppose it makes sense, though. I mean, my tastes in everything from clothing to music have changed in the last 10 years – why not my travel interests, too? I definitely think you would like Reykjavik more now. It really is a very cool city!

    I think that my eyes would go mad in the Harpa. I imagine that on certain times in a day it’s quite tricky to stay in the building.

      It’s not really too bad – quite a lot like being outside, to be honest!

    And, even though it’s small, nearly 80% of Iceland’s entire population lives within an hour of the city – meaning it’s quite a bit more cosmopolitan than you might originally think. Where such information?

      Straight from Iceland (from multiple tour guides)! Makes sense, though – more than half the country’s population lives IN Reykjavik.

    This will be a great help when we visit Iceland next year!!! Thanks for all the tips!

    All looks great–exciting. We are headed there end of November. Any good references for weather for when we are there? I do see a link for packing but not sure what time of year that is for. Thanks for the great ideas on Reykjavik.

    Sweet! I just booked a one-night stopover in Reykjavik coming home from Zurich this summer. Holy sticker shock on hotels, though! Definitely bookmarking this for my visit, thanks!

      Well, Iceland might not be quite as expensive as Norway or Switzerland, but it certainly isn’t cheap! 😉 Hope you have a great time, though! It’s the perfect city for a short stopover.

    Another vote for Svarta Kaffið! Although it’s pretty small, so if you go at peak time you may have to queue (when I went last week, I left to find people queuing all down the steps).

    I also really liked Icelandic Fish & Chips (but if you’re British, please don’t go there and complain that it’s not like the fish & chips at home, like I heard some of my fellow Brits doing!)

      I can imagine that the soup place is popular – it was awesome!

    Amanda, we used this post as our primary guidebook to Iceland and we had a blast! We even went out of our way to find the trolls you pictured. Thanks so much for writing this and we’ll be looking to you for more guides in the future.

      That’s so great to hear – I’m so happy you found it helpful!

    Hey guys I’m planning a trip to Iceland in December and I was wondering if anyone recommended doing the airbnb?

      I haven’t personally used Airbnb in Iceland, but I’ve used it in many other countries and generally really like it! It’s a good way to have a “home away from home.” Though, I don’t know how many options there are outside of Reykjavik. The apartments I recommend in this post are very Airbnb-like, too.

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