Maybe it’s because I grew up in a small town in the Arctic, but there was something about Reykjavik in winter that resonated with me immediately. The long, dark, and harsh winters aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. But, the people that choose to live in places like Reykjavik know how to survive winter with cozy ambiance, brightly-colored houses, and cute cafes. Even though Ganesh and I only used Reykjavik as a launching point for our week-long winter road trip around Iceland in a campervan, I fell in love with the city.
As amazing as Reykjavik is, and I encourage you to spend more than 24 hours here if you can, many people head to Iceland for the awe-inspiring landscapes outside the city. Therefore it is not uncommon to want to see the very best of the city on your way to or from the airport or while gearing up for a road trip or excursion with a tour company around the country. With so much culture and life packed into this relatively small city and shorter days in the winter, it can be overwhelming to choose what to do during your 24 hours in Reykjavik.
One of the most challenging things about planning a 24-hour itinerary in Reykjavik is planning around the time of year visiting. In the summer, you have nearly 20 hours of daylight to enjoy the city, yet you’re restricted by only five hours in the winter. I visited in the winter, so this guide is optimized for spending 24 hours in Reykjavik in winter. It focuses on finding some great coffee shops, design stores, and pubs and seeing some highlights during the short winter days. However, in the summer, take your time and enjoy the city at a more leisurely pace, while in the winter, make use of the daylight and plan carefully. Reykjavik is best visited on weekends in winter, as some shops might be closed on quieter weeknights. If you can start or end your trip to Iceland on the weekend, I recommend doing so!
How to Get to Reykjavik
We had a flight that landed at 5 am, at KEF international airport. This gave us plenty of time to explore the city before heading out the following day. If you have a later flight that arrives in the afternoon or evening, I suggest giving yourself a full day in the city however you can to appreciate the best of the city.
The drive from KEF airport takes anywhere between 45 minutes to over an hour, depending on your method of transportation. Since we reserved a campervan with Kuku Campers, they offered a transfer service from the airport to their location near the city center. We really enjoyed the drive in a small shared minibus as we got to chat with our local driver.
Updated 2023: the rental company we used, Kuku Campers, is now located at the airport. So, if you’re following my recommendation to rent a 4×4 campervan with them, you can pick up your vehicle at the airport and head off. This is an excellent option as you don’t have to book additional airport transit.
Your other options are the budget-friendly fly bus, a rental car (I recommend getting an AWD or 4×4), a shared mini bus, or a taxi.
All transit options should be booked in advance to guarantee a reliable ride out of the airport.
Thinking of the Blue Lagoon?
We didn’t visit the Blue Lagoon while in Iceland. Gasp, I know! We found some of the other natural hot springs, like Secret Lagoon, to be more appealing. We prioritize smaller and more local hot spring experiences on our road trips. I know it is a popular place for tourists and on many people’s bucket lists. So, if you do plan on visiting, now is your chance. It is only 20 minutes from the airport and 50 minutes from downtown Reykjavik, so it makes sense to visit on your way to or from the airport. You can take the Destination Blue Lagoon Bus or book a taxi from the airport. The Lagoon opens pretty early, so it is even an option for those people with flights that arrive in the morning.
The Highlights of Reykjavik in 24 hours
Morning in Reykjavik
Coffee and Breakfast
You won’t find a single Starbucks anywhere in Iceland, but don’t get your pants in a bunch, as there are plenty of local coffee shops in the city to help you fuel your day.
Mokka-Kaffi is the first coffee shop to open in Reykjavik. Since they served their first cup of coffee in 1958, they have become an iconic staple in Iceland’s coffee world scene. Mokka is a small intimate spot, so seating is limited. I would suggest this as a quick stop to grab a coffee to-go.
Another popular option and growing in popularity around Iceland is Kaffitar. Thankfully this cozy spot was right near our accommodation, so we grabbed a few cups during our time in Reykjavik. The inviting environment is a good spot to relax or plan out your day.
If you need more than coffee to fuel your day, we ate at Laundromat Cafe. The cafe is funky and has all the important breakfast staples you need to file your day. It is also in a great location to start your walk along the waterfront and harbor.
Walk the Waterfront
If you head straight over from the Laundromat Cafe to the harbor, you may see fishing boats coming in with their early catch. There are also often military boats tucked away in the harbor that is interesting to observe. It might be hard not to get distracted by the geometric shimmering fish scales in the corner of your eye, which would be the loverly Harpa or convention center and music hall. This architectural masterpiece is great for photos. It is free to enter, and we enjoyed admiring the Nordic architecture from the inside out.
Continue along the waterfront until you find the Solfar Sculpture, the skeletal tribute to the Viking ships of long ago. With the mountains in the distance and the water glittering before the bow, this is an excellent stop for a photo.
There is not much past this sculpture, but if you still want to walk, you can continue down to the Hofdi. The house is notably one of the most stunning houses in the city. It was where the treaty to end the Cold War was signed and still stands as an important part of the country’s government. While not open to the public, you’re free to wander the outside premises.
Afternoon in Reykjavik
Cutting back into the city center, you might notice all the exciting shops are starting to open. Shopping in Reykjavik is unlike anywhere else in the world. You won’t find many designer name brands, like in most cities. Instead, you’ll find Geysir, which has some of the most stunning Icelandic high-end fashion. The great thing about most shops downtown is that most of the products are handmade in Iceland.
Icewear is a wool store that started as a small wool knitting factory in the 1970s. It has grown to be one of Iceland’s biggest wool producers. Their products are made using local Icelandic wool and feature some iconic Nordic patterns but with an Icelandic twist. It is well worth stopping into one of their larger stores to buy a lopapeysa, wool sweater, socks, or mittens to keep you warm during your stay in Iceland.
Other than that, the best shopping is whatever catches your interest. There’s great jewelry made from volcanic rock, sweaters knitted from Icelandic sheep wool, and unique art. I bought a cozy sweater and a lovely necklace made from volcanic rock from a nearby volcanic eruption. Most of the shopping can be found on Skólavörðustígur Street, Laugavegur Street, and Bankastræti Street.
When it’s time for lunch, I have two recommendations on either end of the shopping district. On the East Side, near the cathedral, you have Cafe Loki. Here you will find unique traditional items on the menu. Another popular location for lunch is hot dogs. Yes, hotdogs! If there are two things Icelandic people love, it’s hot dogs and ice cream. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur or “Best Hot Dogs in Town,” is back toward the harbor on the west side. Many claim a trip to Reykjavik is not complete until you try one of these dogs. Made mostly with local organic lamb, order yours “ein með öllu” (with everything).
Update 2023: I visited Iceland 7 years ago, just as I was transitioning to a vegetarian. If I were to return, I wouldn’t visit either of these places. Instead, I would go for one of the vegetarian or vegan-friendly spots like Garðurinn or Mama Reykjavik near the cathedral or any of the little grab-and-go restaurants by the harbor that aren’t the famous hot dog stand.
Check-In – Where to Stay in Reykjavik
It should be time to check-in time at most hostels and hotels. We stayed at the Loft Hostel. It was honestly the first time I stayed in a hostel a long time. I was a bit unsure if it was the right fit. But, with the prices in Iceland, it was an excellent choice for our budget. The best part is they offer private rooms, so we had our own space, but it came with a hostel’s social perks.
Sightseeing and Museums
Reykjavik’s cultural hub is around Tjörnin, a scenic lake. Around the Lake is a lovely park called Hljómskála. We spent quite a bit walking through the park, watching the birds, stopping to look at City Hall, and visiting a few museums. Your options for museums are The National Gallery for art, the Saga Museum for history, and the Aurora Reykjavik, for the Northern Lights. You might be able to squeeze two in depending on the amount of time you have left in your day.
There are several tourist information centers in the area as well. If you need any last-minute bookings for Auroro tours, Golden Circle tours, or glacier hikes, you can do that at one of these centers.
Now, around dusk, is the time to head back up to Hallgrimskirkja. The best part of Hallgrimskirkja is not the interior but the outside and the view from the top. I saved this for dusk, as the lighting in the Arctic is just stunning. The gift store inside sells tickets for $9. Be prepared for long lines as the elevator only allows for six people at a time, and the stairs are closed unless for an emergency. Once at the top, it can be a fight for a view as there are only a few peepholes, but the view is worth it, and the photo opportunities of the city are stellar.
Evening in Reykjavik
Both restaurants I am recommending for dinner are high-end. It’s my philosophy to treat yourself in Reykjavik as the food is unlike anywhere else, and for the rest of the trip, we were eating stove-top campervan food. We ate at Sushi Samba, which had amazing sushi. When we finished our road trip and returned to the city for a few hours, we ate at Sjavargrillid – Seafood Grille. Sjabargrillid was a multi-course restaurant eating Icelandic fusion.
Update 2023: Again, both restaurants I recommend are seafood heavy. Sjavargrillid does have a few vegetarian options. If I were to return as a vegetarian, I would make reservations at BRÚT Restaurant, a fine dining establishment with several vegetarian options.
After dinner, get ready to party! Reykjavik has a nightlife scene that puts it on the map. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or winter; the streets on the weekend are flooded until the early hours. You might hear the word runtúr, which means a pub crawl, but don’t be fooled. This term is used mostly amongst younger generations, meaning a pub crawl in the loosest form. Pick a bar and go where ever the crowd takes you from bar to bar. The streets of the nightlife are the same as the shopping areas. We started at Einstöck bar for a pint of local beer. Afterward, we stopped at Kaffibarinn, a cozy local pub, for a few rounds.
You can also buy yourself some local Icelandic Schnapps made with Icelandic moss and take it back to Loft Hostel for a chill night with some local spirits to warm you up!
If you have an early morning of excursions or a flight out in the morning, don’t party too hard, but be careful you may not even get a good night’s sleep with the racket going on outside. We have an early day at the Golden Circle for those continuing on my 5-day winter itinerary of Iceland (update coming soon).
Discuss and Share
I hope you have an amazing 24 hours in Reykjavik. This is such a fun city to explore, and even with only 5 hours of daylight, you can still pack in a lot of activities. While you can certainly spend more than 24 hours in this beautiful city, it is common to pass through, using it as a launching point for a road trip around the country.