Reykjavik is now one of my favorite cities, but let’s be honest, the real reason most of us head to Iceland is for the expansive landscape outside the city. So, it’s common for Reykjavik to be a one or two day launching point for access to airport and excursions around the country. With so much culture and life packed into the small city it can be a bit overwhelming choosing what to do during your time here, but seeing all the highlights of Reykjavik, Iceland in 24 hours is easy to do.
One of the most difficult things about planning a 24 hour day tour in Reykjavik is planning around the time of year visiting. In the summer you have nearly 20 hours of daylight to enjoy the city, yet in the winter you’re restricted by only five hours of daylight. I visited in the Winter, so this guide is optimized for spending 24 hours in Reykjavik in winter finding some great coffee shops, design stores, pubs, and seeing some highlights during the short winter days. So, in the summer, take your time and enjoy the city at a more leisurely pace, while in the winter make use of the daylight and plan carefully. Reykjavik is best visited on weekends, so if you can start or end your trip to Iceland on a weekend I recommend doing so!
The highlights of Reykjavik in 24 hours
If you had an early flight into KEF, plan for about a 45 min drive into Reykjavik. Whatever hotel or hostel you’re staying at should be able to hold your luggage. Make sure you have a transportation booked upon your arrival. I suggest renting a car or camper, which can be picked up and booked from the airport. Here’s my recommendation for KuKu Campers They will pick you up from the airport, and I suggest booking for the day you arrive, so you’re ready to go the next day.
Coffee and Breakfast
You won’t find a Starbucks anywhere on the Island, but don’t get your yoga pants in a bunch, as there are plenty of amazing coffee spots in the city to get your day started.
Mokka-Kaffi is the island’s first coffee shop. It served its first cup of coffee in 1958 and since then it has become an iconic staple in Iceland’s coffee world. Seating is limited and it is quite tiny, so it’s better to get your coffee to go. Another popular option and growing in popularity around Iceland is Kaffitar. This is where I went in the mornings to grab a cup of coffee. More of an inviting sit down environment it’s a good place to rest or plan your day.
If you need more than coffee to fuel your day, head to the Laundromat Cafe which has many hearty options and is a great starting point to walk along the waterfront and harbor.
Walk the Waterfront
If you head straight over from the Laundromat Cafe to the harbor you may see fishing boats coming in with their early catch. There’s also often military boats nestled in the harbor that are fun to look at. It might be hard to not get distracted by the geometric shimmering fish scales in the corner of your eye, which would be the loverly Harpa, or convention center and music hall. This architectural masterpiece offers great photos from the outside and inside as you’re free to roam around.
Continue along the waterfront until you find the Solfar Sculpture, which is the skeletal tribute to the viking ships of long ago. With the mountains in the distance and the water glittering before the bow this is a great stop for a photo opportunity. There is not much past this sculpture, but if you’re still wanting to walk you can continue down to the Hofdi. The house is notably one of the most stunning houses in the city. It was the place where the treaty to end the Cold War was signed and still stands as important part of the country’s government. While not open to the public, you’re free to wander the outside premises.
Cutting back into the city center you might notice all the exciting shops are starting to open. Shopping in Reykjavik is unlike anywhere else in the world. You won’t find Chanel or Armani, like most cities. Instead you’ll find Geysir</ which has some of the most stunning Icelandic high end fashion. The great thing about most of the shops downtown is most the product is all handmade in Iceland. There’s even some stores owned by Icewear, where you can take a tour as they have a factory in store and you can watch Icelandic crafters make your clothing! Other than Geysir shopping is best done at whatever pace you like and whatever shop takes your fancy. There’s great jewelry made from volcanic rock, sweaters knitted from Icelandic sheep wool and really unique art. Most of the shopping can be found on Skólavörðustígur Street, Laugavegur Street and Bankastræti Street.
When it’s time for lunch I have two recommendations on either end of the shopping district. On the East Side, near the cathedral you have Cafe Loki. Here you will find unique items on the menu such as shark, sheephead jelly and other rarities. Another popular location for lunch is hot dogs? Yes, hotdogs! If there’s two things Icelandic people love it’s hot dogs and icecream. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur or, “Best Hot Dogs in Town” is back toward the harbor on the west side. Many claim a trip to Reykjavik is not complete until you try one of these dogs. Made mostly with local organic lamb order yours “ein með öllu” (with everything) and you’re in for a treat.
**It should be check in time at most hostels and hotels. Check out Loft Hostel for a fun, affordable place to stay in the city. Loft Hostel***
Sightseeing and Museums
City Hall rests on a lake in the middle of the city. The lake is enjoyable to walk around and catch many local birds nesting near the shores. Parliament Building is also near this area. Your options for museums are Saga Museum , Aurora Reykjavik and Volcano House, depending on if your interest is history (Saga), the northern lights or geology. You may be able to squeeze two in depending on the amount of time you have left in your day.
There are several information centers in the area as well. If you need any last minute booking for horseback tours, Golden Circle tours or glacier hikes, you can do that at one of these centers.
Now, around dusk is the time to head back up to Hallgrimskirkja. The best part of Hallgrimskirkja is not the interior, but the outside and the view from the top. The gift store sells tickets for $9 and you must go inside the purchase them. Be prepared for long lines and the elevator only allows for 6 people at a time and the stairs are closed, unless for emergency. You’ll be waiting at the bottom and the top of the elevator. Once at the top it can be fight for a view as there are only a few peep holes, but the view is worth it and the photo opportunities of the city are stellar.
Both restaurants I am recommending for dinner are high end. It’s my philosophy to treat yourself in Reykjavik as the food is unlike anywhere else and for the rest of the trip you might be eating bagged lunches and pre-made sandwiches.
Read about my top favorites Sjavargrillid – Seafood Grille and Sushi Samba here.
After dinner get ready to party! Reykjavik has a nightlife that put it on the map. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or winter the streets on a weekend are flooded until 5 or 6am with rowdy party goers. You might hear the word runtúr, which means a pub crawl, but don’t be fooled. This term is used mostly amongst younger generations and it means a pub crawl in the loosest form. Basically pick a bar and go where ever the crowd takes you from bar to bar. The streets of the nightlife are the same as the shopping areas. One of my favorite places to start the night and perhaps finish it is Kaffibarinn. From there let the night take you where you fancy up and down Laugavegur.
If you have an early morning of excursions or a flight out in the morning, don’t party too hard, but be careful you may not even get a good night sleep with the racket going on outside. For those continuing on my 5 day tour, we have an early day at the Golden Circke
For more details on this day tour of Reykjavik, check out my google map, created just for you.