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 great place for whale watching and seeing the Northern Lights.
If you're planning an adventure to Iceland, 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 SEE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
THINGS TO DO
Visit a museum
There are quite a few museums in Reykjavik, including ones dedicated to art, history, and culture. There are a few really unique ones, too, like the Northern Lights Center and the Phallological Museum (which, yes, is a museum full of penises).
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.
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.
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 high-end rotating restaurant. 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.
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.)
WHERE TO EAT
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.
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.
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.
Reykjavik Roasters – Lastly, 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.
WHERE TO STAY
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.
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.
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:
- Soak at the Blue Lagoon.
- Tour the famous Golden Circle to see waterfalls, geysers, and more.
- Snorkel between tectonic plates at Silfra.
- Drive around the stunning Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
- Ride an adorable Icelandic horse.
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.
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Have you been to Reykjavik? If so, what was your favorite part of the city?