Reykjavik’s friendly people and cool vibe are just a few reasons why Europe’s northernmost capital city is one of my favourite destinations. And as this is a very walkable city, you can explore it with relative ease, even if you only have one day in Reykjavik.
Hit the ground running with my 1-day Reykjavik itinerary which includes a self-guided walking tour. This covers around five miles and I’ve included a map to help you on your way.
If you have more time in Iceland’s capital, I have suggested bonus things to do and you’ll also find tips on where to stay and how to get around.
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TOP 5 THINGS TO DO
- Climb Hallgrímskirja’s tower
- Stroll around Old West Side
- Visit Harpa
- Watch the sun set at Sólfar
- Check out the street art on Laugavegur
RECOMMENDED REYKJAVIK SELF-GUIDED TOUR: 3 miles (5 km)
BEST WAY TO GET AROUND REYKJAVIK: On foot
Daytime in Reykjavik: Self-Guided Walking Tour
This self-guided walking tour of Reykjavik provides a framework on which to hang your day. Walking between these sights covers a distance of approximately 3 miles (5 km). Without stops, this will take you just over an hour to walk.
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 my Reykjavik walking tour map to get you on your way. For a live map with directions, click here or on the image itself.
Our 1-day Reykjavik itinerary starts with its most iconic sight, Hallgrímskirja. Consecrated in 1986, this Lutheran church was built over 40 years and dominates the city’s low-lying skyline.
Its architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, took inspiration from two Manhattan Art-Deco masterpieces: the 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.
Before entering 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. Once inside 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. From the lofty position of the tower, 73 meters above the ground, you are treated to 360-degree views of Reykjavik.
Tjörnin Pond & City Hall
Although City Hall is not the most beautiful building in Reykjavik, it is well worth visiting 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.
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.
Tjörnin Pond, outside City Hall, is 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.
OLD WEST SIDE
Leafy and quiet Old West Side was once home to Reykjavik’s sailors. It is known for its picturesque houses and gardens.
Most Icelanders will have an opinion about 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 Euros.
Conceived as a concert venue with retail space, a hotel and luxury apartments, it languished in construction purgatory. 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, becoming a potent symbol of Iceland’s economic recovery.
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 to take in panoramic views over Reykjavik harbour.
Sólfar – “Sun Voyager”
The “Sun Voyager”, the next stop on our Reykjavik self-guided walking tour, is a five-minute walk along the harbour from Harpa.
Created by the artist Jón Gunnar Áranson (1931 – 89), Sólfar 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 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 for some of Reykjavik’s best street art.
A fitting place to end your day in Reykjavik. All that remains is to sit down with a refreshing glass of Icelandic craft beer. Skál!
Nighttime in Reykjavik: Northern Lights Tours
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.
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
More Than One Day in Reykjavik?
Here are a few options If you have more time in Reykjavik.
VISIT A MUSEUM
Reykjavik has a number of popular museums, including the National Museum of Iceland which charts the country’s history and culture. Reykjavik Art Museum focuses on modern and contemporary art and sculpture, and The Settlement Exhibition allows an insight into early Icelandic life.
However, based on reports from other travellers, I would skip the Saga Museum, Whales of Iceland and the Icelandic Phallological Museum, a vast collection of pickled penises!
Go on a whale watching or puffin tour
Whale-watching and puffin tours set off from Reykjavik’s Old Harbour.
Iceland is home to over half of the world’s Atlantic puffin population. The best time to see puffins is between May and August; for whale watching it’s from April to late September / early October.
Visit the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is a hugely popular excursion from Reykjavik. As it’s close to the airport, some people visit as a side trip before or after their flight.
I felt that it was a tourist trap but it was an experience like no other.
Take a tour of the Golden Circle
I took this day tour of the Golden Circle, a 300 km circular route that loops from Reykjavik into central Iceland. It’s a fabulous way to explore Iceland’s otherworldly landscape.
What is the Best Month to Visit Reykyavik?
The time of year that you visit Iceland may largely depend on the number of daylight hours with which you feel comfortable, 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.
Getting to Reykjavik and Getting Around
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
As Reykjavik is so compact, the best way of getting around is on foot. 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, 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 late at 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 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.
>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK PRICES
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.
>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK PRICES
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.
>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK PRICES
Solo Travel in Reykjavik
It is not only one of the best destinations in Europe if you are travelling alone, but it is also one of the best countries in the world for solo travellers. This applies even if you are on your first solo vacation.
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.
Thank you for reading my guide to spending 24 hours in Reykjavik
One day is enough to see its main sights with time left to enjoy its bar and restaurants (and maybe take a Northern Lights tour). To explore its museums and other cultural attractions, spend at least two days in 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.
Fnally, don’t forget your refillable water bottle. Icelandic water is pure and delicious straight out of the tap. Just let the water run for a minute before filling your bottle.
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on social media.