Updated July 17, 2019
Iceland has been near the top of my “Places to Visit” list for some time now. I think it appeals to me because it seems to be full of exciting outdoor adventures: kayaking fjords, hiking volcanic fields, ice climbing, seeing the Northern Lights – everything I could want in an adventure destination. Experiencing all those things might necessitate spending two weeks or more on the island, though, and even visiting during different seasons to get the full experience.
But over the holidays, I had the opportunity to spend just 24 hours in Reykjavik. Why? In addition to becoming a top destination for road trips, waterfall spotting, and Aurora chasing, Iceland is also a popular stopping point to break up trans-Atlantic trips. I was flying from London to Boston, so how could I turn down this perfect opportunity to spend a day in Iceland?
I flew on the now-defunct WOW Air (RIP), but Icelandair will give you a free layover in Reykjavik on flights between the U.S. and Europe. If you have the time, you can extend your stop for up to seven (!) days. Unfortunately, I was nearing the end of my vacation time, so I had just one day in Iceland before I needed to get back to work – but I was determined to make the most of it.
(Pro tip: The Icelandair layover program has gotten a lot of press, but it might actually be cheaper to buy two separate tickets – say, Boston to Reykjavik and then Reykjavik to London. Check all your options before you book!)
One day in Reykjavik is in no way enough time, of course. But even though over a third of Iceland’s population lives in the city, that’s still only about 120,000 people. It’s a very walkable city, and most everything you’ll be interested in seeing can be reached in about 15 minutes. (The times below account for this, and the map at the bottom shows all the locations.)
How to Spend 24 Hours in Reykjavik
So, what can you do with a 24-hour layover in Iceland? My flight landed at 3:00 in the afternoon, so let’s start there…
As soon as you get off the plane, you’ll want to head toward the FlyBus counter in the arrivals area. Especially if you’re visiting Iceland in December like I was, try to make this transfer as quickly as possible. It’s about 30 miles from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik, and you’ll want as much daylight as possible when you get there.
The buses leave every half hour or so, and the trip takes 45 minutes. Tickets cost 3,499 ISK (about $28) each way – your first taste of Iceland’s less-than-bargain prices.
Hopefully you enjoyed the journey through the countryside and the very beginning of your day in Iceland. When the bus arrives in Reykjavik, hop off at BSI, the city’s main bus station.
From there, head straight to the Icelandic Phallological Museum, a museum dedicated to the reproductive organs of Iceland’s wildlife (among other things). This should be on your list of things to do in Reykjavik if for no other reason than that it’s the most unique – and probably the most disturbing – museum I’ve ever visited.
It consists of just one large room with a few small alcoves, all filled with large glass jars containing animal penises, big and small. Some are stuffed, others are submerged in preservatives, all with descriptions explaining the origin of the specimen.
Touring the museum takes about 45 minutes, and I can’t imagine spending much longer there. The gift shop is also worth a look, if only because it has some of the ridiculous novelties you might expect. The cost of admission and a self-guided tour (a binder with descriptions of each penis) is 1,700 ISK ($13.50).
If the idea of visiting a penis museum doesn’t interest you whatsoever (I mean, it’s probably not for everyone), never fear. The city has a number of other museums I would have loved to visit if I’d had time.
The Reykjavik Art Museum, the National Museum of Iceland, and the Einar Jonsson Museum are all considered to be among the best museums of Reykjavik. If you ask me, though, the Icelandic Punk Museum and The Elfschool sound even more intriguing.
If you chose the Phallological Museum, you’ll probably need a drink after seeing its macabre displays, but beer prices in Reykjavik can be high – to the tune of $12 for a good Danish or American brew. That is, unless you go during a happy hour, when you can get deals like two drinks for the price of one.
I tried happy hour at Lebowski Bar, which, as you may have guessed, is modeled after the great American film, The Big Lebowski – complete with white Russians and all. And by “all,” I mean a two-lane bowling alley to enjoy with your beer and nachos. (It wouldn’t be a proper tribute to The Dude without bowling, though, would it?)
When it comes to food, the people of Iceland are known largely for their seafood, and until very recently, fishing was the country’s largest industry. But tourism there has boomed, and consequently, quite a few new restaurants catering to international tastes have popped up.
Glo, for instance, is located right off the main street of Laugavegur and offers a wide array of vegetarian options, including vegetable lasagna, salads, and grain bowls. For a multi-cultural experience, Public House Gastropub is just down the street, serving Japanese-inspired tapas made from Icelandic ingredients. Two other spots that appear on most lists of places to eat in Reykjavik are Café Loki and Matur og Drykkur, both of which offer their own twist on traditional Icelandic dishes.
Possibly the most popular food in Iceland, though? Hot dogs – yes, that’s right. They’re sold everywhere, Icelanders love them, and they’re one of the cheapest things in this pricey country. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is reputed to have the best hot dog in Reykjavik, and the place is practically a national institution; supposedly over seventy percent of Icelanders have eaten there.
If you’re visiting Iceland in the winter, it’ll probably be quite chilly as you step outside after dinner, and you might want a warm, cozy place to spend the rest of the evening. You’ll find both of those things at Kaldi Bar, home to the country’s largest gin and tonic collection. You can’t go wrong at MicroBar either, which was the first dedicated craft beer bar in Iceland.
You might be thinking about heading back to your hotel at this point, but there’s an unusual way to get more out of your short layover in Iceland and save some money: spend the whole night partying! (Well, given the high drink prices, it might be a wash, money-wise.) Many of the bars in Reykjavik are open until 5:00am, after which it’s not long at all until you can head to a café.
Didn’t know Iceland was such a party destination? Neither did I. I don’t know if it’s because of the bitter cold and 19 hours of darkness or in spite of it, but there’s more nightlife in Reykjavik than you’re probably expecting. Just make sure to get a good night’s sleep the night before arriving! (And if you want to actually spend the night sleeping, scroll down to the bottom for information on where to stay.)
The Blue Lagoon is undoubtedly Iceland’s most iconic attraction. The beautiful, almost artificial blue waters appear to be shrouded in clouds as the warm water of its pools condenses in the freezing winter air. But the entrance fee can be pricey, and with 50-minute transfers from the city center, it will certainly cut into a short 24-hour layover in Reykjavik.
If you have your heart set on visiting the Blue Lagoon, though, it’s located by the airport, so consider going right before or after your flight. It can book up in advance, so make sure you reserve a timeslot ahead of time.
Otherwise, to enjoy the relaxing properties of Iceland’s hot springs with fewer crowds, I’d suggest a more local spot. Laugardalslaug is a geothermally-heated outdoor pool and hot tub center frequented by Reykjavikings. You’re not likely to see many tourists here, and admission is only 1,000 ISK ($8), or 1,900 ISK ($15) with swimsuit and towel rental.
Laugardalslaug is just an eight-minute drive (or half-hour walk) east of the city center, and the facilities open at 6:30am (8:00am on weekends). There will be plenty of time to get in some morning exercise AND relaxation without using up too much of your valuable 24 hours in Iceland.
Iceland doesn’t really have the breakfast and brunch frenzy that exists in many American cities, and Icelanders normally opt to have their breakfast at home. Thus, the options for breakfast in Reykjavik might be more limited than you’d expect, especially if you want to eat early.
But Sandholt Bakery is a nice simple option on the main street, opening every day at 6:30am. They have excellent homemade bread with jam that you can pair with some yogurt and coffee for a quick morning meal.
One of the things I like to do whenever I’m in a new city is check out a bookstore. They’re often a comfortable place to unwind if you’re feeling worn out from all your adventures, and you’re likely to find other travelers there. Given that Icelanders are famed for their love of books, it seems like an especially appropriate stop here.
Eymundsson is the oldest and largest bookseller in Iceland, and its downtown location is in a wonderful, multi-story setting in the heart of the city. If you’re feeling a bit homesick, they have access to thousands of newspapers from all over the world and will print you a copy on demand (if you’re the sort who still feels more comfortable reading the physical version of your hometown newspaper). They also sell some handicrafts, in case you won’t be able to get to any of the souvenir shops nearby.
You’ll notice a handful of shops located right near Eymundsson, where you can pick up some souvenirs for yourself or gifts for friends back home. Be sure to keep an eye out for these products:
Hakarl: Hakarl is Iceland’s national food. In case you thought it was going to be something good, harkarl is rotten shark meat with a strong ammonia smell, and Anthony Bourdain described it as the worst food he’s ever eaten. You’ll see signs for it around town. I don’t suggest trying it yourself if you have a weak constitution, but I bought some for a friend back home who will try any food you give him.
Wool: There are tons of wool products to be had: socks, scarves, Christmas tree ornaments. It can be somewhat pricey, but Icelandic wool is world-renowned. Just shop around a bit to get a good price, as many shops sell the same items.
Liqueur: Iceland has some interesting liqueurs, ranging from the caraway-seasoned Brennivin to birch schnapps. You can purchase carry-on-sized bottles around town and at the airport if you don’t have any checked luggage to store it in on the flight home.
Otherwise, as you start heading toward the bus station, check out Hallgrimskirkja Church, the largest church in Iceland and one of its tallest freestanding buildings. Its tower is also the best place to get a view of the city, and entrance will cost you 1,000 ISK (about $8). If you’re visiting on a Thursday, stay for the 30-minute meditation service with pipe organ music at noon.
If you’re ready for a morning pick-me-up by this point, stop at the original location of Reykjavik Roasters around the corner. The beans are roasted on site, and it’s beloved by visitors as well as locals – both of whom often tout it as the best coffee shop in Reykjavik.
If your flight’s at 3:30 like mine was, your 24 hours in Reykjavik is nearly up. But, you don’t want to head to the airport hungry. A quick and rather fun to place to get your lunch is the Chuck Norris Grill. They have fairly good burgers, a variety of hot sauces, and all the ridiculous Chuck Norris jokes your heart desires. Chuck Norris can start a fire by rubbing two ice cubes together, in case you weren’t aware.
To get back to the airport in time, it’s best to get on the bus at about 1:00pm. As before, the ride from the city to Keflavik takes 45 minutes. But once you’re there, it’s a pretty swift journey through customs and security. After you get through security, stop and pick up some Skyr to take on the plane with you. The stuff is delicious, and it’s the perfect snack to eat while you look out the window of the plane and watch Iceland grow tinier beneath you.
More Tips for Spending One Day in Iceland
Luggage Storage: If you’re trying to make the most of a one-day layover in Reykjavik, you probably don’t want to have to lug your bags around the whole time. Fortunately, the BSI bus station has storage lockers available for around $10 per day, depending on the size. They’re accessible 24/7, so you can drop off and pick up your luggage anytime you want.
Reykjavik City Card: Depending on what you plan to do during your layover in Iceland, it could make sense to purchase a City Card. The 24-hour card costs 1,900 ISK ($31), and includes access to several museums and all of the public pools in the city. It also allows for unlimited use of public buses in Reykjavik and provides discounts at a number of restaurants.
Daylight Hours: Unless you’re used to far northern climates, Iceland’s daylight (and lack thereof in the winter) will be a shock. During the summer, when the sun rises at 3:00 in the morning, there’s up to 21 hours of daylight in Reykjavik. Bring your sleep mask and your sunscreen! But when I was there in the winter, it was only light out from around 11:30am to 3:30pm, which is harsh even compared to Boston.
Weather: Iceland’s climate might be similarly surprising, depending on where you’re coming from. The average weather in Reykjavik is damp and cool to cold year-round (think 50s in the summer and 30s in the winter). Pack an umbrella and a jacket, no matter when you visit.
Reykjavik Car Rentals: Because Reykjavik is so walkable and public transport is so convenient, I really didn’t see the need to rent a car. But many visitors prefer to have their own wheels, which would allow you to get out of the city and even drive part of the Golden Circle. I saw a few different rental agencies at the airport, where you can pick up a car. Just know that both car rentals and fuel tend to be very pricey in Iceland, so make sure to weigh how much it’s worth to you.
Places to Stay in Reykjavik
Partying all night long would really maximize your short 24 hours in Iceland, but if you’re looking for a spot to actually lay your head, you’re in luck. The city has tons of great places to stay, and given the high cost of many things there, the accommodations are surprisingly affordable.
Most of the best hotels in Reykjavik all seem to have the clean, crisp IKEA-esque designs you’d expect from a Nordic country. In most cases, that beautiful minimalist aesthetic ends up costing around $100-150 per night in the city center.
If you don’t mind sharing a bathroom or staying outside the center (many budget-friendly options are east of the city), you should be able to find a room for $70-$80. Cheaper still are the hostels, which Reykjavik has quite a few of, with bunks for $20-$25.
I can’t not mention two of the best hostels in Reykjavik, which are among its more unique offerings. The first is Kex Hostel, built in a converted biscuit factory and furnished with rustic chic furniture and amenities. A single room with private bathroom runs about $160, and beds in the dorm go for $35. Even if you don’t stay there, Kex’s bar is an excellent place to hang out and meet other travelers.
The other spot is the Galaxy Pod Hostel, where every bunk is a sleeping pod that looks like something from the future. It’s sort of a middle ground between a dorm and a private room, with a price tag of around $55 to match.
Airbnb is also an option, often giving you access to a kitchen and other amenities, and Reykjavik has a host of places in the $50 range.
However, Iceland is one of many countries in which Airbnb has caused some significant problems. It’s disrupting the local housing market, causing property prices to rise, and affecting locals’ ability to live in their own city. But choosing a room in someone’s home instead of an entire house helps minimize some of these issues, and it also gives you a chance to connect with local people (and is usually cheaper to boot).
Overtourism & Responsible Travel
Airbnb isn’t the only issue, and I can’t talk about Iceland without mentioning some of the broader effects overtourism has had on this tiny island. The entire country has just 350,000 residents, giving it the same population as a small city in the U.S.
Just a decade ago, very few foreigners visited seemingly remote Iceland. Now? The country’s getting seven tourists per year for every resident. And that has brought skyrocketing prices, ecological strain, and heavy congestion in a country that’s otherwise sparsely populated.
Responsible travel is a concern everywhere, but it’s especially vital when visiting a place as overtouristed as Iceland. So, we recommend trying to follow three simple principles during your stopover in Reykjavik.
- Try to support small local businesses.
- Walk or use public transportation whenever possible.
- Do what you can to conserve water and energy.
- Bring reusable items with you, including a water bottle and cloth bag.
In doing so, you’ll minimize your carbon footprint, add less trash to Iceland’s delicate environment, and make a bigger impact with your tourism kronur.
Click here for an interactive version of the map.
From what I saw and everything I’ve heard, Iceland has so much more to offer travelers who have more time to spend there. But, if you’re flying from Europe to the U.S., or vice versa, a long layover in Reykjavik is a great way to spend a day, as there are quite a few unique offerings for the time-constrained traveler.
Having a trip like this was a pretty amazing reminder of how much you can experience in a short period of time, once you commit to exploring.
How would you spend one day in Iceland?
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