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.
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.
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.
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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