Rather like with Tel Aviv, I hadn’t really planned to spend time in Reykjavik beyond just using it for a base to sleep on our last night in Iceland. Sure, I’d maybe hit a couple sites, see the famous church and the Sun Voyager statue, have a drink, and call it a night.
But rather like with Tel Aviv, I found myself totally charmed by Reykjavik’s energy, quirkiness, color, and people. I expected a tourist mecca, but didn’t feel that at all.
That’s not to say we spent gobs of time there. We got in mid-afternoon and then flew out first thing the next morning, but since the northern-most capital in the world is so small (almost half of Iceland’s total population of 350,000 but that’s still small), you can cover tons of ground in a very short time.
What to do in Reykjavik with less than a day
First stop: Hallgrímskirkja
Well, we would have made it there eventually anyway, but the famous church happened to be right across the street from our hotel (Guesthouse Sunna, which was fabulously located and lovely).
One of the most iconic sights in the city, the tower can be seen from almost anywhere in Reykjavik. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not Reykjavik’s cathedral, but is instead a regular church. A statue of Leifur Erickson, the first European explorer to discover America, stands guard out front.
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The church’s unique, stark look is meant to evoke the famous rock shapes when lava cools into basalt rock, found in several spots all over the country (more on that in future posts!). c is an absolute can’t-miss, and make sure to check opening hours as well as any special events at the official website.
If you can’t tell, I was obsessed with taking pictures of the church!
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I was similarly obsessed with this liege waffle stand right next to the church…we hadn’t eaten in forever, so I had to scarf a cinnamon and whipped cream waffle. Liege waffles are a street food treat of Belgian origin, using a yeast-based dough with pearl sugar on the outside. They are nommy. ‘Nuff said.
You can also pay (a fairly steep price) to climb the church’s tower, one of the best views in the city. But if you have the time, you can also take a cab to Perlan (just outside the city) for an amazing and free view instead.
Keep up the carb loading at Braud & Co
Guys, Reykjavik’s pastry game was ON POINT. It’s like…the best of Sweden and Norway’s pastries but better? They share DNA, for sure…lots of delicious cinnamon-based treats, nothing crazy sweet or rich, but all very satisfying (this blog gives a little background on some of the most popular Icelandic baked goods).
We made a few stops at Braud & Co in the very short time we were there, which had been recommended by a friend, and it was totally great. AND they put out their leftover pastries in a little cart after closing, so anyone can grab them and they don’t go to waste.
Pro tip: Reykjavik Roasters is just up the street and has much better coffee, so grab your caffeine fix there!
Head down to the waterfront & the Sun Voyager statue
After our coffee and pastry stop, we kept heading downhill until we hit the water, admiring the peaceful and moody Reykjavik waterfront. All you do then is hang a left and you can’t miss the Insta-famous Sun Voyager statue (Sólfar in Icelandic).
Even without much actual sun, this statue is so cool. While it wasn’t intended to be a Viking ship, it’s hard not to see that. Instead, the statue was meant a little more abstractly as a dream boat or ode to the sun, containing “the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom”. You can read more about it here. It’s often thronged by crowds and we had to be a little patient to get good pics without tons of people, but it wasn’t too hard.
Just past the Sun Voyager you’ll see the famous Harpa concert hall. It also has a really visually-interesting design, and I bet it would be stunning at sunrise or sunset. You can go inside too if you want, but we didn’t take the time.
Enjoy Reykjavik’s street art scene
If you ask me, Reykjavik has more street art per capita than pretty much any city (note: no idea if that’s actually true). It’s almost as though the country feels the need to cram as much color into their everyday lives to make up for all the snow and ice that two-thirds of the year brings. We didn’t do a street art tour or anything, but I enjoyed just seeing things naturally as we walked around the city…it’s everywhere! You can read more about the street art scene here if you’re interested.
Even local shops and a wall at the airport got into fun art.
Wander along the main shopping streets and soak in the colors
As you walk back up the hill from the waterfront, there are a few main drags running parallel to the waterfront that you definitely should take a walk down. Laugavegur is the main shopping artery, full of clothing and souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and some unique museums (Reykjavik is REALLY into quirky museums). I fell in love with the tulip lamp posts, baskets of flowers, and colorful painted streets and buildings.
Make sure to get a taste of history
As you get toward the end of Laugavegur, you’ll see more official-looking buildings and a park/square. The city hall is over here, on the water, as well as the Parliament building and Reykjavik Cathedral, called Dómkirkjan (dating back to the late 1700s).
Iceland boasts the oldest parliament in the world, founded in 930 AD in what’s now Þingvellir National Park (anglicized Thingvellir, the word literally means “field of parliament”). The actual Parliament now resides in Reykjavik and goes by the name Alþingishúsið.
There was a wedding happening at Dómkirkjan when we were walking by, which was cool to see. It’s still very much a functioning church, the parish church for the old city.
Get some noms along the main drag
Since we knew we wanted to get out and see some live music and bar hop a little that night, we felt it was time to go ahead and get dinner (and let’s face it, I’m always hungry). We walked up and down Laugavegur a bit and eventually settled on Scandinavian, where we got some delicious mushroom soup, fish & chips, and noshed on some bread with some of Iceland’s famous butter. Iceland’s dairy is amazing, my friend Vanessa kept raving about their milk and anything containing their milk the entire trip.
The first and second of…several super high-gravity beers for me that night, which may or may not have been my best call ever. Iceland’s stouts and porters are awesome though, and I couldn’t resist.
Sample Reykjavik’s famous nightlife
Our first stop of the night was Kaffibarinn, a staple on the Reykjavik nightlife scene (and even credited by some FOR today’s nightlife scene). It’s interesting because all the descriptions I read about it after our visit talk about sweaty dancing bodies, hip music, etc….maybe we were there too early, but it was a lot more chill when we went after dinner. We were probably there from like 8:00-9:30 on a Saturday night?
We just pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered some more high-gravity stouts and watched a crowd of tourists and quite a few locals mingle. It is (as its name suggests) a coffee bar in the afternoon, so that’s another way you could experience it.
When we emerged from Kaffibarinn it was probably around 9:30 and due to the Midnight Sun the sky was still bright. It started to get disconcerting after a while.
Seek out some live music
In general I love seeing live music, particularly in small settings, and since Reykjavik’s bar scene is so famous and the night eternal due to the Midnight Sun, I really wanted to find some local live music. We’d asked around and been told that the English pub, Irish pub, and American pub were pretty reliable bets, but it happened to be during the last few rounds of the World Cup so a lot of pubs were playing the matches on TV…different crowd than we were looking for.
So we started wandering up the main drag and all of the sudden I heard a gorgeous gravelly voice singing “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and like a moth to a flame I literally veered left and into the b5 bar.
It had a nice chill vibe this time of night, and we grabbed drinks from the bar and then settled in to listen to Rúnar Eff and his friend play soulful acoustic covers and an original or two. I loved his voice, and his friend’s guitar playing was pretty great too. He came over and gave my friend and I copies of his second CD, which I’ve listened to while road tripping lately and really enjoy it! I’ve looked him up on Spotify since getting back, you should too!
After they finished their set, we decided to move on and try another place. We ended up at The Drunk Rabbit (a.k.a. the Irish pub). The World Cup matches had finished for the night and they had a musician playing as well so we got a bit more live music and some more high-gravity stouts, and just people-watched and drank and soaked up the more traditional pub atmosphere.
The high-gravity beers (all…5 of them?) were not my best idea ever but totally worth it because they were so delicious.
Finally around 12:30am we decided to head back to our hotel since we had to catch a flight the next morning. As we hauled ourselves up the hill in still-light middle of the night, it was odd and delightful and…well, just odd. I mean, your body clock must be super messed up living this all the time!
So if it’s not clear, I totally fell in love with Reykjavik, even though we spent like 10 hours awake total in it. But they were an epic 10 hours and I think we did justice to the city 🙂
A first-timer’s guide to Reykjavik
- Where to stay: Guesthouse Sunna; clean, comfy, affordable. Like most places in Iceland it was a shared bathroom but there was a sink in the room which helped things, and it was a little less…rustic than some other places.
- What to see: Hallgrimskirka, Sólfar (the Sun Voyager statue), the parliament, Dómkirkjan cathedral, Harpa concert hall, Laugavegur street
- Where to eat: Braud & Co (pastries!), Reykjavik Roasters (coffee!), Scandinavian; The Fish Market and Cafe Loki are two others that we planned to eat at but didn’t have time. Also catch the liege waffle stand next to Hallgrimskirka.
- Where to nightlife (if you’re not a massive party-er): Kaffibarinn, b5 if they have live music on, The Drunk Rabbit, check out the American and English pubs too
Other one-day city adventures you might like:
- 24 Hours in Dublin
- A First-Timer’s Guide to Istanbul
- (Less Than) 24 Hours in Lucerne, Switzerland
- A 24-Hour Immersion in Jerusalem
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