What you need to know about Reykjavik

Two Things You Should Know About Reykjavik

In Europe, Iceland by JurgaTHIS POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS

There is one thing I wish I had known before we travelled to Iceland years ago. What travel agents don’t tell you and first-time travellers to Iceland don’t know is that Reykjavik isn’t such an extremely interesting city after all. It’s a nice town to walk around and it has good atmosphere in the evenings, but you can see the best of it in half a day. Reyjavik is a good base for some excursions, but you shouldn’t count on seeing the best of Iceland from Reykjavik.

This is what you need to know about Reykjavik:

1. You don’t need much time to visit Reykjavik

If you are preparing your trip to Iceland, you will certainly plan some time in Reykjavik. Maybe you have read about how strikingly cosmopolitan the city is and how it’s famous for its nightlife, excellent museums, and funky bars and cafes. Well, it’s partially true, but… I am talking as a tourist now, and from a touristic point of view you don’t need more than half a day to a day to see the best of Reykjavik.

The centre of the world’s most northerly capital city is very compact and you can see all there is to see in a day. Half a day is enough if you are not planning to visit any museums.

Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja church

 

There are basically two main streets worth visiting in downtown Reykjavik where most shops, restaurants, and cafes are located: Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur.

Start your day with a stroll around the city centre, check out some shops, visit the Hallgrímskirkja church where you can go all the way to the top for the views. Stop by for a coffee at one of the many cafes or head to the Reykjavik lake and feed the ducks. Walk towards the waterside where you can visit Harpa – the recently built Reykjavik concert hall – and don’t forget to take a picture of the Sun Voyager – the steel boat sculpture beside the sea. That’s pretty much it.

There are many nice restaurants to go to for dinner, but it can get very busy in the weekends, so make reservations or go early to avoid disappointment.

Birds in Tjörnin lake (REYKJAVÍKURTJÖRN), downtown Reykjavik Iceland

Birds in Tjörnin lake, Reykjavik

 

I’ve been to Reykjavik twice, and the first time we really had difficulties to fill a day and a half we had there. So the second time we limited our time in Reykjavik to half a day and spent the afternoon at the Blue Lagoon.

If you are planning your visit to Iceland, at least now you know what to expect. I would not stay in Reykjavik any longer than necessary – there are so many truly beautiful unique places in Iceland, you can use your time better than that.

Harpa concert hall and conference centre in Reykjavík, Iceland

Harpa concert hall and conference centre

 

2. Iceland is not a short stopover destination and you cannot see the best of Iceland from Reykjavik

Some people choose Reykjavik as their base for the visit to Iceland. While you can do a lot of excursions and day trips from Reykjavik, only some of them are really doable as a day trip.

You can go on a whale watching tour, horse riding, maybe even book a Northern Lights tour in winter, and the Blue Lagoon is just a short drive away. But if you book any longer trips you will be spending more time on a bus than exploring.

The brochures won’t tell you this, and the tour operators will of course promise you that they will show you Iceland in a day. There are even day tours from Reykjavik all the way to the glacier lagoon of Jokulsarlon. That’s about 5 hours drive one-way without any stops. You would be passing all those amazing places along the Southern Coast and not seeing any of them…

If you already take time and trouble and travel all the way to Iceland, do yourself a favour and get out of the city so that you can explore at least some of this beautiful country. Even if you only have a few days in Iceland, don’t spend them all in Reykjavik. Here you can find some Iceland itinerary suggestions for trips from just one day to two weeks.

That being said, if you are visiting Iceland in winter and don’t feel like driving, organised tours and winter day trips from Reykjavik is a good option to consider. It gives you a possibility to see Iceland beyond Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon. Winter is the only time when I would consider staying in Reykjavik and doing day trips.

Make sure to also check our complete accommodation guide for Reykjavik and Iceland Ring Road.

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Two things you should know before you travel to Reykjavik Iceland

Read more:
When to Go to Iceland: Summer vs. Winter
Iceland Packing Essentials: Bring a Winter Jacket and a Swimsuit
My Top-10 Places Not To Be Missed in Iceland

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Comments

  1. Hi Jurga,
    I am planning a trip for seven days and planning not to stay Reykjavik, We are a family of 4 with two preteen kids. Should we go for guided tours for all ? Could you please let me know which are the guided tour we must do so we are not wasting time. I am planning to visit in mid August.
    Thanks
    Ria

    1. Author

      Hi Ria, if you have 7 days in Iceland and are traveling in summer, then you best rent a car and explore on your own. Check this for Iceland itinerary suggestions.
      Some tours are well worth doing, e.g. glacier hiking, whale watching, puffin tours, silfra snorkeling, etc. Here you can find our suggested Iceland tours.
      One thing to keep in mind is that if you haven’t booked your accommodations yet, then you really better hurry. I’m afraid it will not be very easy to find a lot of affordable accommodations on such a short notice. Here you can find some suggestions on where to stay in Iceland. I’d just try using Booking.com and their extremely handy map function and see what’s still available for your dates.
      Iceland is very popular at the moment and definitely in summer. So make sure you book everything (car rental, accommodations, tickets to places like the Blue Lagoon, tours, etc.) asap.
      Enjoy you trip!
      P.S. If you are looking for more specific recommendations, feel free to join our Iceland and Scandinavia travel Facebook group – many people ask and answer questions there and share their travel experiences and tips.

  2. Hi Jurga! We are going to Iceland for seven days in August and have booked an Airbnb apartment for a week in Reykjavik. We will have our two young children with us- 18 months and 3.5 years old. Based on a few articles I’ve read here it sounds like we should rent a car? And explore as much as we can while getting back to the city by 7 pm to put the kids to bed. Any itinerary suggestions for seven days from Reykjavik with little ones? Thanks so much!!

    1. Author

      Hi Jenny, yes, definitely rent a car (check here for the best deals). You can’t do much without a car in Iceland and guided tours will cost you a lot and aren’t ideal with kids.
      As you can probably already tell from this article, staying in Reykjavik is actually not ideal at all if you have more than 2-3 days in Iceland. Much too much driving up and down and definitely if you want to be back at your accommodation to put the kids to bed on time. If you can, I’d try to change accommodation and stay somewhere along the South coast for at least a few nights. It will allow you to see more beautiful places and drive less.
      Check this itinerary for some ideas of the places not to miss in the South. It’s meant for winter when the days are short, but obviously you can do most of it in summer in even less time. Use Google Maps to check driving distances and times.
      Another place that you can do from Reykjavik is Snaefellsnes Peninsula, but again, it’s a long drive just to get there; you won’t have much time to do sightseeing if you have to be back in Reykjavik so early…
      One thing that can be really nice to do with kids in Iceland is going to the thermal pools. Blue Lagoon is obviously the most known (and super expensive). Cheaper and less busy options include a swimming pool of Hveragerdi, Secret Lagoon, and Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths.
      Sorry, I can’t help you much more. I’m sure there are some playgrounds and other kid-friendly things to do in and around Reykjavik, but taking into account the cost of traveling to Iceland, I’d try to see as much of the country as you can, even if it means more driving.
      Have a nice trip! PS I run two travel groups on Facebook where you can maybe get some answers to your questions – one is specifically for Iceland and Nordic travel and the other one is for (adventure) family travel. Feel free to join if interested.

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