One day in Reykjavik: Best things to do in Reykjavik in 24 hours

Going to the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church is one of the main Reykjavik points of interest

Iceland is known for its natural beauty — from the Golden Circle to the South Coast, Blue Lagoon and the Northern Lights. But the gateway to these volcanic landscapes is Reykjavik. And as it turns out, Iceland’s capital is actually pretty cool. It has street art, architecture, cafe culture, world-class museums, viking history, and more. So before you start your Iceland road trip, or if you only have a 24-hour Iceland stopover, don’t miss the chance to spend one day in Reykjavik!

 

If you arrive in Iceland on a flight from North America, chances are you’ll reach Reykjavik between 4 and 6 am. So this Reykjavik itinerary is designed to help you hit the ground running — with plenty of stops for caffeine along the way.

 

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Reykjavik in the past and present

 

Make sure you visit the Harpa Concert Hall during your one day in Reykjavik.
Taking selfies at Harpa Concert Hall is one of the top things to do in Reykjavik.

 

Reykjavik’s history is deeply tied to the Vikings. Today, it’s a diverse “big” city that still has a small-town atmosphere.

 

The first settlers to Iceland arrived in Reykjavik at the end of the 9th century. Vikings from Norway set off across the Norwegian Sea to escape persecution, picking up Celtic slaves in the United Kingdom before reaching the Land of Fire and Ice. They chose Reykjavik as the best place to settle due to the relatively mild climate, available farmland, and wealth of hot springs nearby. This history has been recounted in the Book of Settlements — an 11th (ish)-century text that provides the most detailed accounting of Viking history in Iceland.

 

Reykjavik remained a small town for centuries. The world’s first Parliament was set up just outside the city limits to govern the small population, and the population converted from a pagan religion to Christianity early on.

 

Reykjavik expanded rapidly when it became an important part of Danish trade routes. The country eventually fell under Danish rule before winning its sovereignty and then independence in the early 1900’s.

 

Following independence, Reykjavik grew rapidly and became the city that it is today. It’s now the most northerly capital in the world, and home to fully two-thirds of the Icelandic population. The city is still deeply rooted in its Viking history (as evidenced by the numerous Viking museums), but has evolved into a musical and artistic mecca and one of the cultural highlights of Scandinavia. When you spend 24 hours in Reykjavik, you’ll have the opportunity to explore both the history and the modern culture.

 

The perfect itinerary for one day in Reykjavik, Iceland

 

One day in Reykjavik Iceland is enough to see all the main Reykjavik landmarks.
You can see most of the top sights in Reykjavik in one day.

 

This list of the best things to do in Reykjavik in one day covers all the city’s highlights. You can follow this itinerary at any time of year — I visited Iceland in November and while it was a bit chilly and cloudy, I could spend about 90 minutes outside at a time before getting too cold.

 

Reykjavik is an expensive city — and Iceland as a whole is an expensive country. I stuck to a $100 a day activity budget (including food but not including accommodation). If you’re traveling in Iceland on a tighter budget, skip a couple of the pricier Reykjavik attractions or buy groceries instead of eating out.

 

Breakfast: Sandholt Bakery

 

Sandholt Bakery opens early enough to grab breakfast there before you start your Reykjavik city tour.
If you only have one day in Iceland, start it with breakfast at Sandholt Bakery.

 

You’ve just gotten off an international flight. It’s 5:30 am. If you’re visiting Iceland in winter, it’s still pitch-black outside — the sun won’t be up for over four hours. In contrast, if you’re visiting in summer, it’s already bright outside.

 

Your first step is to get to the Reykjavik city center. Hop on the Reykjavik Excursions direct bus to the central BSI Bus Terminal. Once you arrive, drop off your luggage — either at your hotel or in a locker at the bus terminal. Then, your first order of business during your one day in Reykjavik is breakfast and coffee. Sandholt Bakery has you covered.

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Unlike most breakfast places you’ll find when you visit Reykjavik, Sandholt Bakery opens at 7 am — perfect for when you arrive early. It’s centrally located. It has plenty of cozy, appealing seating space. And the pastries and coffee are to-die-for.

 

This isn’t Reykjavik’s cheapest bakery, but it’s so worth a small splurge. I ordered a croissant with butter and jam and an espresso, and it cost me about 850 krona — just over $6. They also offer full breakfast meals, which are pricier but looked delicious.

 

Visit the Viking Longhouse

 

The Settlement Museum is one of the most important things to see in Reykjavik
The Settlement Museum is one of the best things to do in Reykjavik.

 

The Settlement Exhibition is the one can’t-miss attraction when you have one day in Reykjavik. It displays a preserved Viking longhouse that archaeologists discovered in the early 2000’s.

 

The museum features interactive, multimedia explanations of the longhouse itself and how it fit into Viking culture. You can see each layer of construction and get a sense for how people lived when Reykjavik was first settled. In addition, it displays artifacts such as pottery, hunting tools, and jewelry from the Viking age.

 

Don’t miss the extensive outline of Reykjavik’s history on the computers in the back corner. You’ll learn the complete timeline of Viking settlement in Iceland and the country’s conversion to Christianity and conquest by Denmark. It’s a fascinating insight into the country’s cultural roots.

 

Allow an hour to peruse the Settlement Exhibition. Admission is 1,650 krona. The museum has lockers where you can leave your coat or other bulky things you don’t want to carry around.

 

See Reykjavik from above by taking the elevator to the top of Hallgrímskirkja

 

All Reykjavik day tours must include a trip up to the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church.
One of the main Reykjavik points of interest is this iconic church.

 

One of the top things to see in Reykjavik is its most iconic structure and Iceland’s largest church, Hallgrímskirkja. You can’t miss seeing it from all over the city center. But the best way to experience it is by taking the elevator to the top for incredible views over the city center and the harbor.

 

Before going inside, snap a few photos of the exterior. It was considered a wildly controversial design when Hallgrímskirkja was first constructed, in the mid-20th century. But today it blends in with Reykjavik’s quirky architectural style.

 

The interior doesn’t have much to see — don’t spend much time here when you only have one day in Reykjavik. Instead, head straight for the line for the elevator (buy your ticket in the gift shop first). Even if the line looks long, it moves quickly.

 

The rickety elevator takes you most of the way to the top of the steeple, but you have to climb stairs for the last bit. The top is enclosed but the windows are open, and it can get very windy — be sure to bring gloves and a hat!

 

You’ll be treated to the best view in the city, from where you can see all of the colorful houses that make up the downtown area. Each window has a small wooden step in front of it to make sure even shorter folks can get great photos. It’s easy to see why this is one of the top things to do in Reykjavik.

 

Visiting Hallgrímskirkja is free if you don’t go to the top. An elevator ticket costs 1,000 krona. Normally I hate paying just for good views, but this one really is worth it!

 

Lunch: Cafe Babalu

 

Not sure what to do in Reykjavik? Contemplate your plan over a coffee and cake at Cafe Babalu.
Cafe Babalu is a great place to refuel and drink bottomless coffee on your Iceland stopover.

 

By now, you’re probably getting pretty hungry. And you might need some more caffeine to power through the rest of your one day in Reykjavik. So the perfect lunch stop is the quirky, fun Cafe Babalu.

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Cafe Babalu is just a few steps away from Hallgrímskirkja. But despite the central location, it’s loved by both locals and tourists.

 

The highlight of the cafe is its quirky decor. It has couches at simply beg for lounging. The bathroom looks like it came from a Star Wars movie set (with the world’s greatest hand dryer).

 

But it’s not just the atmosphere that makes Cafe Babalu the best lunch stop on this one day Reykjavik itinerary. The food is good too! The menu is small, but the grilled cheese sandwiches, soups, lasagna, and cakes are all good choices. Most of the menu is veggie-friendly. And — even better — if you order coffee, you get unlimited free refills. This is a lifesaver when you’re coming off a red-eye flight.

 

Expect to spend about 1,000 krona on a meal at Cafe Babalu. It’s a bit cheaper if you only come for coffee and cake. Either way, it’s an essential Reykjavik travel experience.

 

Walk around the Old Town and the Old Harbor

 

All Reykjavik tours should include a stop at the Sun Voyager.
The Sun Voyager statue is one of the most important Reykjavik attractions.

 

After a hearty lunch, it’s time to get some exercise. What better way to do that than wandering around the historic parts of Reykjavik?

 

The two main historical areas are the Old Town (centered around the Laugavegur main shopping street) and the Old Harbor. You could spend hours walking and taking photos of the cute and colorful houses. Street art is also very popular in this area.

 

Notable sights near the Old Harbor include the Parliament, City Hall, and the lake. Additionally, don’t miss a visit to the Harpa Concert Hall — that iconic building on the waterfront that lights up at night. You can go inside for free and walk up the stairs to get different perspectives on the unique design.

 

If you have time, you could walk all the way down to the galleries at Kling and Bang. This is one of Reykjavik’s hippest art spaces, and it’s totally free for visitors. It’s about a 30-minute walk from the Old Harbor, and you’ll need half an hour to an hour to explore.

 

On your way back, stop by one of the most famous Reykjavik points of interest: the Sun Voyager sculpture along the waterfront. Designed to look like a Viking ship, you can capture gorgeous photos of the mountains surrounding the harbor with the sculpture in the foreground. The best time to visit is around sunset (which, remember, can be as early as 4 pm in winter).

 

If you want to see the historical districts with a guide, consider this Reykjavik walking tour. I didn’t personally try it, but everyone I spoke with who did raved about it. It’s run by a local blogger.

 

Check out one of Reykjavik’s top museums

 

Not sure what to see in Reykjavik? Check out some of the art museums as a starting point.
Reykjavik is known for its art — both what you see on the street and what you find in museums.

 

Even with only one day in Reykjavik, it’s worth trying to squeeze in a visit to one of the city’s best art or cultural museums.

 

My top choice is the Reykjavik Art Museum. With two locations spread across the city included in the ticket price, you could spend hours perusing the rotating exhibitions of historical and modern artwork. The downtown location features edgy modern and political art, including multimedia works and a display of Icelandic local Erro’s comic-book-inspired paintings. The space is huge and you need at least an hour to see everything. The other location in a park to the west of the city center is more traditional and smaller, but still worth a visit. Admission is 1,650 krona, and if you plan to visit both locations, make sure you hold onto your ticket.

 

Alternatively, check out the National Museum for more insight into Reykjavik’s history and culture. I didn’t personally visit, but the museum gets rave reviews. Admission is 2,000 krona and gets you into the Culture House as well.

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Other popular museums when you visit Reykjavik include the Iceland Phallological Museum (yes, really), the National Gallery, and the Saga Museum, where you can dress up like a viking.

 

Dinner: Icelandic Street Food

 

Icelandic Street Food is the best place in town to try lamb soup.
One of the top things to do in Reykjavik is sample Icelandic cuisine.

 

The perfect way to end your one day in Reykjavik is by sampling some traditional Icelandic cuisine. By far the best value for money you can find in the city is Icelandic Street food.

 

This tiny restaurant right downtown serves two kinds of soup — lamb and seafood — with your choice of sourdough bread on the side, in a bread bowl, or without bread. I highly recommend the lamb soup with bread on the side, especially if you’re jetlagged and don’t want a huge meal. (Don’t skip the bread altogether — it’s soooo delish.)

 

You can get unlimited refills of the soup (extra bread costs more). You also get free, unlimited dessert, which usually features the owner’s grandmother’s famous Happy Marriage Cake. Expect to spend about 1,400 krona on a meal here, and arrive early to get a seat.

 

If you’re looking for a cheaper meal, try Bæjarins Beztu for classic Icelandic hot dogs (with sweet mustard and mayo). You can get two hot dogs and a soda for under 1,000 krona. Eating a hot dog makes every list of the top things to do in Reykjavik, but the food at Icelandic Street Food is better, so this is only a good choice if you’re on a very tight budget.

 

Vegetarians may need to skip the Icelandic cuisine altogether — it’s not exactly a veggie-friendly country — and head to Noodle Station, the classic noodle soup shop. A bowl of delicious veggie noodle soup runs 850 krona.

 

Where to stay during your one day in Reykjavik

 

Budget Reykjavik hotels can be found in good locations in off season.
Baldursbra Guesthouse is a great accommodation choice in a cute downtown neighborhood.

 

It’s no secret — you’re going to have to shell out some serious cash for accommodation when you visit Reykjavik. But if you book in advance and avoid the most touristic times of year (i.e. July), you can still find a good deal.

 

I highly recommend Baldursbra Guesthouse for budget travelers who don’t want to stay in a hostel. This family-run spot has just a few rooms, some of which are teeny-tiny and have shared bathrooms. But it’s clean, friendly, and centrally located to all the Reykjavik attractions. Rooms start at $75 a night, and include an elaborate, filling breakfast with decent coffee (this alone will save you $10-$15 a day). The only downside is you don’t get a kitchen, so you have to eat out for lunch and dinner.

 

The hostel crowd loves Loft HI Hostel and Reykjavik Downtown. The biggest downside is you’ll still pay almost $50 a night for a dorm bed, so it’s not actually much cheaper than hotels. But you do get your own kitchen, which can save you a lot of money on meals out.

 

AirBnB is another popular option when visiting Reykjavik. Unfortunately, the explosion of AirBnB rentals have prompted a housing crisis for locals. I strongly recommend against using AirBnB for this reason. AirBnBs also tend to be far from the main things to see in Reykjavik.

 

Overall, spending one day in Reykjavik is the perfect way to start your Iceland vacation. Whether you only have a short Iceland stopover, or you plan to drive all the way around the Ring Road, don’t miss out on the capital city. You can pack all the main sights into the day you arrive in Iceland by following this Reykjavik itinerary. If you try it, let me know how you like it — leave a comment below!

 

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Visiting Iceland? Don't miss out on spending one day in Reykjavik, the capital. Great museums, cafe culture, music and art -- there are plenty of things to do in Reykjavik on an Iceland stopover #iceland #travel

 

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Harold Rhenisch
4 years ago

If you have one day in Iceland, why not skip Reykjavik? If you must stay in Reykjavik, visit the art galleries. They are political and social spaces. You will see the whole city in the process, away from most of the tourist streets, where you will find few Icelanders, anyway. One of the great little galleries is the Hallgrimskirkja itself. Plan your tour to land you at Kjarvalstadir for lunch. The Icelanders do. Do it that way, too!

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