Iceland’s 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 visit for just one day. On flights between Europe and the U.S., Icelandair and WOW Air both offer deals that can give you a layover in Reykjavik without raising the cost of your fare by much.Long layover in Iceland? Here's an hour-by-hour guide to make the most of your time there. Click To Tweet
Just over a third of Iceland’s population lives in the Reykjavik area, but 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.)
So, what can you do with a 24-hour excursion in Reykjavik? My flight landed at 3 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 in the winter, try to make this transfer as quickly as possible; it’s an hour-long ride to city, and you’ll want as much daylight as possible when you get there. The buses leave every half hour or so and cost about $17 each way.
Hop off at BSI, the city’s main bus station, and 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 Reykjavik bucket list 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.
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 $9–cash only. Touring the museum takes about 45 minutes, and I can’t imagine spending much longer there.
You’ll probably need a drink after seeing the macabre display at the museum, but drinking in Iceland can get very expensive–to the tune of $9 for a good Danish or American beer. That is, unless you head to a bar for happy hour, when you can get 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 mostly known for their meat and 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.
If you visit Reykjavik 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 evening. You’ll find both those things in Café Rosenburg, along with some excellent jazz. The food can be a little bit pricey for what you get, but it’s worth it to stop by for the live music and maybe a cocktail or two.
Iceland has so many great hotel options, all of which seem to have the clean, crisp Ikea designs you’d expect from a Nordic country. In most cases, that beautiful minimalist design ends up costing around $100-150 per night in the city center. One of Reykjavik’s more exceptional and unique offerings is the Kex Hostel, built in a converted biscuit factory and furnished with rustic chic furniture and amenities. A single room with private bathroom runs about $150, and beds in a 16-person dorm go for $30 in low season. Kex’s common rooms are an excellent place to hang out and meet other travelers–of which there is a growing number these days.
Airbnb is also an option, often giving you access to a kitchen, and Reykjavik has a host of options for $30-$40 per night. However, given the high quality of accommodations like Kex Hostel, this may be a destination where Airbnb is not the best choice (if you’re willing to share a dorm room). The competition between hotels in the city seems lively enough to bring down the prices to somewhat reasonable levels.
However, the city also offers an unusual way to save some money: spending the whole night partying. Many of the bars in Reykjavik are open until 5am, after which it’s not long at all until you can head to a café. Didn’t know it was such a party destination? Neither did I. Perhaps it’s the bitter cold, or the 19 hours of darkness, but Iceland has more nightlife than you’re probably expecting. Just make sure to get a good night’s sleep the night before arriving!
The Blue Lagoon is undoubtedly the most iconic example of Iceland’s hot springs. 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 it costs over $45 to enter, and with 50-minute transfers from the Reykjavik bus station, taking a trip there will certainly cut into a short 24-hour stay on the island. If you want to enjoy the relaxing properties of Iceland’s hot springs, I’d suggest a more local activity.
The Laugardalslaug is a geothermally-heated outdoor pool and hot tub center frequented by Reykjavik locals. You’re not likely to see many tourists here. It’s just an eight-minute drive (or half-hour walk) from the main road, and the facilities open at 6:30am, so there’s plenty of time to get in some morning exercise AND relaxation without using up too much of your valuable layover. Entrance is $7, or $12 with swimsuit and towel rental.
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 there are fewer places to eat breakfast than you might expect, especially if you want to eat early. But, Sandholt Bakery is a nice, simple option located on the main street, and it opens at 6:30am. They have excellent homemade bread with jam that you can pair with some yogurt and coffee for a satisfying 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. Eymundsson is the oldest bookseller in Iceland, and it’s located 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, if 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 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 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 a bit 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 liqueur, 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.
As you start heading toward the bus station, check out the Hallgrimskirkja Church, the largest church in Iceland and one of its largest freestanding buildings. The tower is also the best place to get a view of the city, and entrance will cost you about $7. If you’re visiting on a Thursday, stay for the 30-minute meditation service with pipe organ music at noon.
If your flight’s at 3:30 like mine was, you don’t have a whole lot of time left in Iceland at this point. 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 to the airport in time, it’s best to get on the bus at about 1:00. As before, the ride from the city to the airport is about an hour. 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 as a snack on the plane with you; the stuff is delicious.
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 short layover in Reykjavík 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.