How to make the most of your short visit to Reykjavik, Iceland

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How to make the most of your short visit to Reykjavik, Iceland

If a brief trip north to Iceland is on your travel itinerary, then you will be asking yourself how to make the most of your short visit to Reykjavik. In this blog, we show you how to make the most of just a few hours around this capital city and get just a flavour of its best bits.

A view of Reykjavik from the FossHotel

About Iceland

Before we launch into a short visit to Reykjavik, let me set the scene for your visit to Iceland. You are in for a treat. This Nordic land of fire and ice is found just south of the Arctic Circle around 65º latitude and is defined by its dramatic landscape. Iceland is one of the best places in the world where you can see, feel and hear Mother Nature. The inner workings of the core of our planet pops up in Iceland to communicate with us mere mortals in the most powerful, beautiful and often destructive ways imaginable.

Whether it is the iconic Northern Lights during winter that you crave, the summer’s Midnight Sun or you just want to experience raw nature in its most authentic guise, then even a short visit to Iceland is a must.

My first visit was for four days, with my bestie to celebrate her 50th Birthday in February 2024 and I loved it so much that I convinced Myles to come over to use up our Schengen days. This place almost defies adjectives, it is so special. And the fact that you can get so up close and personal to the fibres that make up our planet is beyond incredible.

The island however is big! Make no mistake, a four day visit is only going to scratch the surface of this phenomenal island. However, It will give you with a taster that I promise will leave you wanting more, and more and more. If you’re looking for some inspiration for your short visit, then you might like to check out our eBook that gives you a flavour of what is to come. Click here to download your free eBook.

A short visit to Reykjavik

If like us, you’re not hugely keen on cities, let alone capitals, then we think you will be pleasantly surprised by the compact and bijou vibe of Reykjavik. Classed as the world’s most northerly capital, Reykjavik is perfect for a short visit as part of an Icelandic road-trip. Unlike many other of the world’s capitals, you do not need days to feel its essence.

Despite 2/3rds of the island’s population living in the capital, it really doesn’t feel that way. There’s no sirens, no honking horns and few traffic jams. We have been here in February and May and although the spring does bring more people, it is still relatively low key when it comes to crowds. Cruises also stop here for a few days, allowing passengers to enjoy the various day trips available, although still there is no claustrophobic hoards around the capital’s streets. The tranquility will surprise you – well it certainly surprised us.

You may also find that your first Reykjavik impressions, like ours, are square, dark and lacking character. Although as you meander through the city and get to know its street art, colonial buildings, random greenhouse refuges and lake, you slowly get drawn into its endearing nature. Reykjavik definitely needs curiosity and just a little bit of time to get to know its quirks and charms.

Here are our suggestions to get your Reykjavik fix.

  • Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. (64.1420221, -21.9267965)

    This iconic church is a landmark building seen from miles around the city. It was constructed in 1986 and is named after a cleric and poet; Hallsgrímur Petursson. The fallic design, the bell tower of which reaches a whopping 74.5m tall, making Hallgrimskirkja the tallest church in Iceland and one of the tallest buildings on the island. It has become a symbol of Iceland’s identity and it is definitely one for the list. Whether churches are your thing or not, matters not a jot. You come here for more than the spiritual cleansing. You come here for the organ and the 360º views from the Bell Tower.

    For 1400ISK per person, (which equates to around £8) you get access to the lift and observation platform. Whilst the lift does mean you don’t have to scale hundreds of steps, sadly there are 34 steps to navigate once out of the lift. So if you have mobility issues, you may only reach the first level, which is still pretty impressive. However, if you can climb the remaining stairs, you will be rewarded with small boxes that allow you to look through the windows across the city-scape. Just be mindful that the church bells, located up in the tower chime every 15 minutes – and they are loud!

    Visible is the Rainbow Street to the west, the natural history museum of Perlan and the mountains of Akranes peninsula. It is from this vantage point, that you suddenly get a new-found perspective of the capital. The character emerges, the church spires rise up and the colourful rooftops create a kaleidoscopic bird’s eye view. It is one of my top highlights of our short trip to Reykjavik.

    If you are curious, and aren’t all travellers? Then you must take a peek into the inner sanctum of the cathedral. It is free to enter. Inside you will be impressed by the architecture, its clean lines of the ceiling that reach for the gods. Unlike most ancient churches, that we have visited, Hallgrimskirkja is strikingly plain. It takes on a very minimalistic and typically Scandinavian style to it. Whether that is a cultural design, or perhaps influenced by its Lutheran roots we’re not sure, although it does hit you firmly between the eyes. The other inspiring feature that you cannot ignore is the imposing 15m tall organ. With its 5275 pipes this is the largest musical instrument in Iceland. I can only begin to imagine what the acoustics are like when that fella is bellowing out its tunes.

    Outside the cathedral, you will also find Leif Eriksson. He was an 11th century explorer and is thought to have been the first European to step foot on North America. Almost half a century before Christopher Columbus! And he was never credited with it. Still the monument to his efforts perhaps goes some way to appeasing his memory.

  • Rainbow Street (64.145684, -21-932080)

    Walking west from the cathedral, past Leif’s monument, you will, after about 10 minutes, come to the Pride of Reykjavik, Rainbow Street. It embodies the spirit of inclusivity in the capital and around the Island and was made a permanent feature in 2019. If you take a look backwards up the hill, the shot of the iconic cathedral and the street, is a pretty impressive shot. And of course, the streets of the old town here are full of colonial charm and it is one of the areas to just wonder and take a breath or two.
Rainbow Street Reykjavik.
  • Take a break at Baka Baka café and restaurant (64.146961, -21.935665)

    This is just the best place to put up your feet and indulge in a fabulous coffee, and more importantly, one of their delicious home-baked cakes. The cinnamon rolls are absolutely to die for. As you walk in this quaint, black building, it is as though you are transported to the 19th century and you imagine ladies coming to serve you in pristine white frilly pinafores and white caps. Alas the young crew who run the place, bring you back to the here and now, although the characterful vibe is everywhere to be seen. This place is always full and is a high-star rated café on Google. We highly recommend it as a place to rest your weary feet.

  • Harpa Building – Concert Hall and the Saga VR experience (64.150387, -21.93095)

    If you have a rainy day, then en route to the shore-front promenade, you could always see if there’s anything on at the modern Harpa concert hall and conference centre. Built in 2011, this is a pretty impressive structure, which you could just watch as reflections of driving cars and people create waves on the windows. Although more importantly, inside this building is the VR Experience. Just on the right hand side of the entrance door, you will find this unassuming room with half a dozen VR pods. For a luxurious 12 minutes, you will taken around the Island in an experience, that if you only have a short time, will give you a full blown perspective of this jewel in the crown island. It costs 3,500ISK which is about £18 pp. We really enjoyed this experience and really filled in a few gaps that we had from our four day visit. From what I’ve read in reviews about the FlyIceland alternative, this is far better value.
Saga VR experience in Reykjavik

  • The Sun Voyager structure (64.147582, -21.922552)

    As you continue your walk along the seafront Promenade, you will get a close up view of the city’s few towering office buildings. They might look invasive from this angle, although these are really the only buildings to speak of that share any resemblance to a capital commercial district. Diverting your eyes, you will instead be able to marvel at the views across the mountain, which seem far more appealing. Then the statue of a Viking boat – the Sun Voyager, will come into view, giving you sense of Iceland’s heritage. Created in 1990, it is just another one of those iconic photo shots that you must take home with you.

Sun Voyager, Reykjavik

  • Reykjavik’s Street Art (a variety of locations around the city)

    I’m not a lover of graffiti, although when you see street art, there is, for me, a real appreciation of the artists talent. Reykjavik has a whole heap of beautiful images on the sides of random houses and each time I visit, I find something new to marvel at. Here are a few of my favourites.

  • Höfði House and Berlin Wall remains (64.146535, -21.906449)

    And last and by no means least, you cannot miss the most famous house in Reykjavik. The Höfði house looks slightly out of place amongst the towering commercial giants of the business sector. Although it stands assertively without imposition, reminding us about the importance of peace in how the world can live in harmony. Amongst its historical roots, this house was the centre-piece for talks between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986, which began the peace process and, three years later, saw the tumbling of the Berlin Wall. You can find a remanent of the wall just in front of the house towards the upper road.

Höfði House, Reykjavik
Reykjavik skyline

What to do outside of Reykjavik

Of course, Reykjavik as a city to explore, is just one option. For more alternatives that are close by, then you might enjoy these other activities which are within easy reach of the capital either walking or taking a short bus ride.

  1. Take a Whale Watching Tour or Jet Road. You can find these the other side of the Harpa Concert Hall.
  2. You could take a 20 minute bus ride to the Sky Lagoon for a couple of hours of RnR.
  3. Or if you have a spare day or two, then you have the Full Day Tours that take you on the Golden Circle Tour or Southern Coast. All these are brilliant excursions to fill your short visit to Reykjavik.

How to travel to Iceland

Getting to Iceland is easy from the UK via Manchester, LHR or Edinburgh. EasyJet, IcelandAir and BA all fly to the island. The flight time from LHR is just 2hrs 20 minutes and we highly recommend IcelandAir.

The other alternative of course is to bring your camper or motorhome to the Island. This is a less easy route, although of course you do have your own accommodation with you. I would only recommend this option during the late spring and summer seasons – perhaps early autumn. The route is via Hirtshalls in Denmark and there is a 3 day crossing that stops at the Faroe Isles before arriving in Iceland.

Hiring a car is more than doable here, and with great roads that are so quiet, getting around is a breeze. Again, I would only recommend that outside of the winter season and if you are here for a little longer than a few days. Otherwise there are buses that run from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik or private taxis. And then pick up a day tour to see some of the wonderful and wonderous sights that will have you hooked. We recommend Nice Travel tours (and if you can get a tour with Filip, you’ll not be disappointed – he is by far the best tour guide we have ever experienced.

Flying to Reykjavik

Where to stay in Reykjavik

We have stayed in two locations for our trips to the capital city. The first is the larger and more formal Foss Hotel. Or for a more informal option, right across the road is the Storm Hotel, which is fabulous. Of course there are other options if you check on Alternatively, why not take the pressure off your travel itinerary and use a specialist who will create a perfect itinerary for you and ensure that you make the most of your story trip to Reykjavik and Iceland. Our agents of choice are Discover the World who have been fabulous in putting together our 25 day road-trip and I would not hesitate to both recommend them and use them again.

If you are travelling by motorhome or hiring a motorhome when you get here, then there is a campsite close to Reykjavik or one about 40 minutes outside of the city. Just bear in mind that parking for motorhome is not easy, as with any city. So perhaps find a shuttle bus or taxi so you don’t have to worry about security or availability.

So, there we have it. How to make the most of a short trip to Reykjavik. It is a city that grows on you, that seeps into your soul and leaves you feeling like you’ve made a new friend. I don’t like many cities because of their formality, enormity and claustrophobic feel. Although Reykjavik surprised me and always leaves me want to see just a little bit more. Don’t forget to check out the eBook on a 4 Day Introduction to Iceland, for more information on your trip to this land of fire and ice. We hope you love it as much as we did.

Colonial house in Reykjavik

Published: May 25, 2024
Category: Iceland | Travel


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