If you’re in Iceland for the adventure and otherworldly landscapes, then you might have only a day to explore its surprisingly urban capital city. That’s fine! We flew into Reykjavik around 6:30 on a Saturday morning and left on our clockwise Ring Road journey early on Sunday. It’s a small city and easily doable in a day.
Rent a car
You won’t need a car within Reykjavik (although we loved having one for getting to/from our Airbnb a couple miles outside of downtown), but the fastest way to get there from the airport is by driving yourself. Our trip was in October, which meant that the bus schedules were more limited than during the busy summer months. Plus, the city center is a surprisingly long drive from the airport–about 45 minutes. We were parking in downtown Reykjavik within a couple hours of our plane landing, even though we did a bit of shopping in the duty-free and then couldn’t find our rental service representative.
Once you get into the city, many of the things you’ll want to see are in a compact area, close to the waterfront and easily walkable. Of course, with all the time you’ll spend out in the elements, a good coat is absolutely necessary. Preferably waterproof and with some insulation, like down or Primaloft.
What to do, eat and see in Reykjavik
Our first stop was a very important one: breakfast. We hit up Laugavegur, the main shopping thoroughfare for a stop at Bakarí Sandholt, open and sheltering the only other early risers in town. Really–it seems that no one in Reykjavik, besides the tourists, hits the streets before noon on a weekend. Bakarí Sandholt had solid coffee and breakfast sandwiches, plus some really delicious pastries. Your first meal in Iceland, if you’re coming from the US, is likely to be a rude awakening, if only because of the cost. Food is expensive in Iceland. Get used to it. Unless you want to eat hot dogs every day (which is a totally valid thing to do in Iceland, hot dogs are like the national cuisine), you’ll be shelling out some dough. Our Sunday breakfast was at Bergsson Mathus; please eat here and get the Swiss Mocha while you’re at it. Our good friend Draper gets a mocha everywhere he goes, and he declared this the best he’s ever had. It’s super sweet, rich, and has actual pieces of chocolate on top. The food was also really, really good but I can’t remember what I got, mainly because that damn mocha is all I can see when I picture this place.
A short walk uphill from Laugavegur and Bakarí Sandholt is Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest church. If you’ve done any Iceland research, you’ve likely seen its picture–it’s the tall, white, pointy building and if you haven’t seen it already, it’ll be the first thing you notice when you get to Reykjavik. It’s worth a visit; the morning light streaming in from the eastern windows is gorgeous and you’re going to want to see the massive pipe organ. Even right after breakfast, you probably won’t be the only tourist in here snapping pictures. It’s said that the view from the top is the best view of Reykjavik; we didn’t do it because it costs ISK 600 (about $5 at time of writing) and the view from down on the ground outside is pretty good too.
The one tourist experience you NEED to have in Reykjavik
If you wander down the street that extends straight out from Hallgrímskirkja’s front door, you can fairly easily find your way down to the waterfront, where you can see the Harpa Concert Hall, a beautiful, modern glass cube. Keep heading west and you’ll hit the flea market. This is worth a visit for one reason alone: here you can taste rotted shark for free! Yes, eating shark meat that has been buried underground for three months and then hung to dry for a few more months, called hákarl, is a desirable Icelandic experience. Inside the flea market is an area with food stalls; the signs for shark should be hard to miss. While our shark morsels were being prepared, a crowd of Icelanders gathered round, presumably because they enjoy watching Americans making fools of themselves and/or gagging on decayed meat (I’m starting to wonder if this is not a traditional Icelandic delicacy, just something they make tourists eat for a laugh). I made the mistake of sniffing my piece and everybody immediately started gesturing and broke into a chorus of “Don’t do that!” Yes, it smells terrible. Just pinch your nose and swallow it; the boys didn’t smell theirs and they said it wasn’t half bad.
Iceland’s favorite food: the hot dog
If your appetite hasn’t been ruined forever by that tasty morsel, maybe you’re ready to wash the flavor out of your mouth with some lunch. Reykavik’s favorite spot, day or night, is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a hot dog stand right outside the flea market. These hot dogs are made with pork, beef and lamb, and they come with toppings like fried and raw onions, remoulade (a mayonnaise-based condiment) and sweet mustard. For the true Icelandic experience, order it with everything. If hot dogs aren’t usually your thing, take this into consideration–if Bæjarins Beztu is good enough for Bill Clinton and Anthony Bourdain (who’ve both eaten there), maybe it’s good enough for you.
If you’re fueled up and ready to hit the streets again, there’s a couple museums that are well worth your time. Reykjavik 871 +/- 2 Settlement Museum will teach you about the city’s first settlers, in great detail and with some amazing visual aids, including the ruins of the oldest known dwelling in the area, dressed up with visual effects and sound. It’s hard to describe, but way cooler than a regular museum diorama. The Iceland of the 800s may be difficult to imagine when you’re wandering modern downtown Reykjavik, but this museum really shows you what life was like then. We found our way into the Reykjavik Museum of Photography mostly because we were cold and tired, and the museum was open, free, and warm. However, the photos were beautiful and ranged in date from the 1870s to today; it was a great peek into historic Iceland along with some stunning landscapes. The Guardian called this one of the ten best free museums in Europe.
Tjörnin, Hljómskálagarður and Ráðhúsið
Those are three very Icelandic words, aren’t they? Here’s a translation: pretty lake, a park and City Hall–you can walk a loop around all three in about a half hour, even if you’re taking your time. There’s lots to see in the park itself, plus great views of Hallgrìmskirkja.
We come from Colorado, land of the microbrew, and damned if we weren’t going to drink the best beer in Iceland while we were there. Micro Bar is the place to go if you’re a beer snob like us. They even had O’Dells, a favorite hometown beer of mine (yeah Fort Collins!), although I branched out and had something a little more exotic–I don’t remember what it was, but any beer fan is sure to find something they like here. They have happy hour from 5pm to 8pm, with beers for 500 or 600 ISK ($4.40-5.27 USD).
Dinner at a Laundromat
The Laundromat Cafe is a homey, welcoming coffee shop/restaurant with a functioning laundromat in the basement. They also have two locations in Copenhagen. Our waitress was super friendly and the menu, a happy middle ground between comfort food and health food, was really good after a day of walking out in the wind and cold. Bibliophiles take note: the 6000 books displayed around the bar are all for sale, so bring some extra cash (the Eymundsson bookstore down the street is worth a stop too–it’s an Icelandic chain with lots of cool history books, photo books, and story books about Iceland, many in English)!
If it’s a Friday or Saturday, by 8 or 9 pm the sidewalks will begin filling with people. Weekend nights in Reykjavik are apparently the stuff of legend; we wouldn’t know because we went back to our Airbnb and crashed early! Info Iceland has some good tips for hitting the bars and clubs.
All in all, you can’t go wrong in Reykjavik.
The people are friendly, the buildings are colorful, street art is everywhere…all in all, Reykjavik is a really happy place. You could just wander for hours, stopping in at places that catch your eye. If you’re going during the colder season (October-May), I’d recommend having a general idea of what you want to do, so that you don’t spend too much time getting lost out in the elements. The wind (and rain) can get exhausting after a few hours, especially if you’ve flown in on a red-eye.