One Day in Reykjavik, Iceland: The Best Self-Guided Walking Tour

“Have you ever seen Björk?” asked a member of our Reykjavik walking tour group.

“Of course,” shrugged Erik, our guide. “In a city of 220,000 people, it’s easy. I also frequently bump into my father, my ex-girlfriend, another ex-girlfriend …”

Reykjavik, Europe’s northernmost capital city, is small but perfectly formed. Home to two-thirds of Iceland’s population of 350,000, it is also a great base from which to explore southern Iceland, including the famed Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon.

Its compact size, friendly people and cool vibe mean that you can explore and get to know it with relative ease. And as most of Reykjavik’s attractions are close to one another, it is simple to explore on a walking tour. 

What’s more, a Reykjavik self-guided walking tour is free, which helps you to cut the cost of your Iceland trip.

Do you have only one day in Reykjavik? No problem. Here’s the pick of the best things to see.

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Is One Day Enough for Reykjavik?

By spending a day in Reykjavik you will be able to see its main sights with time left to enjoy its bar and restaurants. This is a compact city, it’s easy to get around and its main sights are close to one another.

The Best Things to See in One Day in Reykjavik, Iceland

This self-guided walking tour provides an itinerary for you to discover the city’s highlights, focusing on its major landmarks. Walking between these sights covers a distance of approximately 4 km.

However, time permitting, I encourage you to go off-piste to discover other corners of the city. As central Reykjavik is not large, this is feasible in one day.

Here’s a self-guided Reykjavik walking tour map to help you on your way.

map of the best things to see in reykjavik in one day
Reykjavik self-guided walking tour map (click on image for interactive map) Map Data @ 2020 Google

Hallgrímskirja

Let’s start our day in Reykjavik with the city’s most iconic sight, Hallgrímskirja, which dominates its low-lying skyline.

Built over a period of 40 years, this Lutheran church was consecrated in 1986. Its architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, drew his inspiration from two Manhattan Art-Deco masterpieces: Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. But he also paid homage to the Icelandic landscape, inspired by the shapes created when lava cools into basalt rock.

modern chech front in reykjavik against setting sun
Hallgrimskirkja

Upon entering Hallgrímskirja’s coolly sparse interior, turn around and look up at the enormous pipe organ designed by Johannes Klais of Bonn.

Don’t miss taking the lift to the observation deck at the top of Hallgrímskirja. With its tower standing 73 meters high – the tallest church in Iceland – you will get fantastic 360-degree views of Reykjavik.

Outside the church, take a moment to look at the statue of Leifur Eiriksson, a Viking explorer and the first known European to set foot in America.

VISITING HALLSGRÍMSKIRJA
  • Hallgrímskirja is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is free.
  • Entrance to the tower, which closes 15 minutes before the church shuts its doors, costs ISK 1000. On Sundays, the tower is closed from 10:30 am – 12 pm.
  • To get a good photograph of Hallgrímskirja, I recommend arriving before it opens in the morning when there are fewer people and the light is kind.

Tjörnin Pond & City Hall

The next stop on your Reykjavik itinerary is City Hall.

Whilst City Hall may not win an award for being the most beautiful building in Reykjavik, it is well worth a visit to view the topographical model of Iceland displayed on its ground floor. I found this useful when I visited the Golden Circle the following day.

Topographical model of Iceland, Reykjavik City Hall
Topographical model of Iceland, Reykjavik City Hall

The “blockhead statue” facing City Hall represents a faceless bureaucrat on his way to work. Sculpted by Magnús Tómasson in 1994, it is unclear if it was intended to be a tribute or a satire. You decide.

Blockhead statue Reykjavik
“Blockhead” statue, Reykjavik

Outside City hall is Tjörnin Pond, home to Reykjavik’s population of vocal ducks, geese and swans. In the midst of winter, the pond completely freezes over and becomes an icy playground for the city’s inhabitants.

But don’t worry about our feathered friends. During these cold months, warm water is pumped into a corner of Tjörnin Pond, creating a bird jacuzzi to keep them toasty.

Grjóti village

Those colourful buildings that you are able to see from Hallgrímskirja’s tower are clustered around Grjóti village (Grjótaþorpið), the oldest neighbourhood in Reykjavik.

brightly coloured houses on street in Grjóti village included on 1-day Reykjavik itinerary
Grjóti village, Reykjavik

Harpa

Most Icelanders will have a view on Harpa, Reykjavik’s harbourside concert hall. Built amidst the turmoil of Iceland’s crippling economic recession, many were outraged at its cost, put at 164 million Euro.

geometric shape of glass amd steel building of harpa in reykjavik
Harpa

Conceived as a concert venue with retail space, a hotel and luxury apartments, it was left to languish in construction purgatory until Iceland’s economic recovery. In 2009, the Government bailed it out, resulting in an uproar from its citizens.

And it was not only Icelanders who were outraged.

On completion, Harpa did not meet the vision of its creator, Olafur Eliasson. It had become, in his words, “a conference centre with some music on the side.”

Ten years later, views have softened and even reversed. Harpa is lauded for its design and for its acoustics, and it has become a potent symbol of Iceland’s economic recovery.

It is stunning both inside and out.

But don’t just admire it from the outside. Take the lift to the 5th floor to fully appreciate its honeycombed glass walls and ceiling, and for great views over Reykjavik harbour.

Sólfar – “Sun Voyager”

The “Sun Voyager”, the next stop on our Reykjavik self-guided walking tour, is five minutes walk along the harbour from Harpa.

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Sólfar – “Sun Voyager”

Created by the artist Jón Gunnar Áranson (1931 – 89), it represents a Viking longship. According to its creator, it was meant to represent a dream vessel floating off to a new beginning towards the setting sun.

Downtown Reykjavik, Laugavegur & street art

The final item on your 1-day Reykjavik itinerary is the city’s downtown area.

The closest that Reykjavik gets to a downtown area is Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping street, and Skólavörðustígur, which leads up to Hallgrimskirkja.

Amongst this area’s shops, bars and restaurants, keep your eyes peeled out for some of Reykjavik’s best street art.

reykjavik street art
Reykjavik street art

A fitting place to end one day in Reykjavik. All that remains is to sit down with a refreshing glass of Icelandic craft beer. Skál!

Northern Lights Tours from Reykjavik

Many people use Reykjavik as a base for excursions to see the elusive Northern Lights.

As the notoriously fickle aurora borealis is reluctant to come out to play if skies are cloudy, check the Northern Lights forecast to assess your chances of seeing this spectacle. If you don’t see the Northern Lights on your tour, many operators will offer you a second chance to see them.  

Here are a few Northern Lights tours that get good reviews from other travellers. If you can, splash out on a small group tour. This will not only be a more intimate experience, but it will also offer more flexibility to chase the lights.

streaks of green lights across dark sky which are the northern lights

Northern Lights Bus Tour from Reykjavik

A four-hour bus tour to search for the Northern Lights. You will be invited to join another Northern Lights tour free of charge if the lights don’t come out to play.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK THIS TOUR

Small-Group Premium Northern Lights Tour

Benefit from a small group size and included refreshments. Again, you will be able to schedule another Northern Lights tour free of charge if the lights don’t appear.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK THIS TOUR

If You Have More Than One Day in Reykjavik

If you have more than one day in Reykjavik, consider the following things to do:

Visit Rejkjavik’s Museums

National Museum of Iceland

Through its display of artefacts from settlement to the modern age, Iceland’s national museum tells the story of the country’s history and culture.

Reykjavik Art Museum

Split over three sites, this focuses on modern and contemporary art and sculpture.

The Settlement Exhibition

Based on the remains of a 10th-century Viking longhouse, this high-tech exhibition allows an insight into early Icelandic life.

However, based on reports from other travellers, I would skip the Saga MuseumWhales of Iceland and the Icelandic Phallological Museum, a vast collection of pickled penises!

Whale watching and puffin tours from Reykjavik’s Old Harbour

Challenging weather whilst I was in Reykjavik wasn’t conducive to a gentle stroll around this area. However, this is where to head for whale watching and puffin tours.

The old harbour also has many eateries.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR WHALE WATCHING TOUR OR HERE FOR YOUR PUFFIN TOUR

Visit the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is a hugely popular excursion from Reykjavik (as it’s close to the airport some people take a side trip there before or after their flight).

It may be a complete tourist trap but it is also an experience like no other.

READ THIS NEXT: Blue Lagoon, Iceland: Is It Worth It?

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Take a tour of the Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a 300 km circular route that loops from Reykjavik into central Iceland. It’s a fabulous way to explore Iceland’s otherworldly landscape as an easy day trip from Reykjavik.

It truly is the Land of Ice and Fire.

READ THIS NEXT: Iceland’s Golden Circle: A Day Trip from Reykjavik

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Geysir, one of the Iceland Golden Circle stops

Plan Your Day in Reykjavik

What is the best month to go to Iceland?

The time of year that you visit Iceland may largely depend on the number of daylight hours that you feel comfortable with, and whether you want to see the Northern Lights.

Feb/March or Oct/Nov are good months to visit Reykjavik. There are enough daylight hours to allow you to sightsee, but you will also be able to see the Northern Lights if they decide to come out to play.

Iceland’s average temperatures are higher than you might expect, thanks to the moderating effect of the Gulf Stream. Reykjavik’s average winter temperature is 0 degrees; in summer this reaches a giddying 12 degrees.

A bigger consideration is the number of daylight hours. In midwinter, the sun doesn’t rise until 11.45 am, setting again at 2.45 pm. Whilst this might be optimal for Northern Lights chasing, it limits daytime activities.

When I visited Reykjavik in March, there were around 11 hours of daylight.

In mid-summer, there is pretty much 24-hour light, with the sun setting at midnight, and twilight persisting until it rises again at 3 am.

How to get to Reykjavik from Keflavik Airport

Keflavik Airport, Reykjavik’s international airport, is 50 km southwest of the city.

If you don’t have a rental car you will need to take a taxi or use the efficient airport transfer bus.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR AIRPORT SHUTTLE TRANSFER

How to get around Reykjavik

Your best is on foot. Reykjavik is so compact.

There is the inevitable hop-on-hop-off bus but you will not need this to visit the attractions listed in this post.

Where to stay in Reykjavik

If you want to be in the thick of things, then the downtown area of Reykjavik, close to the Laugavegur shopping street, is your best bet. Here you will find most of the museums, restaurants and bars.

However, if you are a light sleeper be aware that there is a high concentration of bars that stay open until late in the weekend. But if you are also out burning the midnight oil, this won’t make any difference!

Mid-range

Hotel Frön

I stayed at this decent 3-star hotel on Laugavegur which is perfect if you are visiting Iceland on a budget but are looking for a bit of comfort. A big bonus was the free breakfast. Recommended.

BOOK A ROOM | READ REVIEWS

Here are some alternatives that I have found that may suit other budgets:

Splurge

Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center

In an unbeatable location, a 2-minute walk from Laugavegur Shopping Street and 500 meters from Harpa Concert & Conference Center, this stylish 4-star hotel features a fitness centre and a bar.

BOOK A ROOM | READ REVIEWS

Budget

Freyja Guesthouse and Suites

To reduce your Iceland trip costs, take a look at this property, a 3-minute walk from Hallgrímskirkja Church. It has excellent online reviews and is a bargain by Icelandic standards.

BOOK A ROOM | READ REVIEWS

–> None of these choices take your fancy? Then check out other great accommodation options in Reykjavik.

Where to eat in Reykjavik

I can wholeheartedly recommend these two restaurants:

  • Messinn – Laekjargata 6b. For fish dishes that melt in your mouth and service with a smile.
  • Ostabudin – Skólavörðustígur 8. For Icelandic lamb cooked to perfection.

Book ahead for both.

What to pack for your visit to Reykjavik

Pack warm clothing at whatever time of year you are visiting Reykjavik. This means a hat, scarf, gloves, lots of layers and a warm, preferably windproof, coat.

Don’t forget your refillable water bottle.

There is no need to buy bottled water when you are in Iceland. Icelandic water is pure and delicious straight out of the tap. Just let the water run for a minute before filling your bottle.

Visiting Reykjavik as a Solo Traveller

Iceland is not only one of the best destinations in Europe if you are travelling alone. It is also one of the best countries in the world for solo travellers.

Safety is a concern of many solo travellers, especially solo female travellers. The crime rate in Iceland approaches zero and there is little chance you will be robbed, attacked or harassed.

It is a staggeringly beautiful country and small enough to be manageable. Reykjavik is an excellent base to tour the Golden Circle and to visit the Blue Lagoon.

And you need not fear solo travel loneliness. With Reykjavik’s lively bar scene and abundance of organised outdoor activities, meeting other travellers is easy.

READ THIS NEXT: Iceland Solo Travel: Itinerary, Trip Costs & Essential Tips