Reykjavík is not particularly pedestrian-friendly beyond the downtown area (aka 101). Most Icelanders get around by car, and though there is a bus system, it isn’t terribly extensive. For this reason, a one-day walking tour of the city is best experienced within the 101 area, where you can get a little bit of nature and have a whole lot of fun without needing to decipher bus routes or having to hitchhike.
Reykjavík is an eclectic, colorful city with a downtown area that is the perfect size for a walking tour; you’ll be able to see everything that you’d want to in just a day.
Starting point: Hallgrímskirkja Church
Visible from almost any point in the city, the iconic Hallgrimskirkja church sits at the top of Skolavordustigur Street and is a perfect place to start your walking tour. Check out the interior first, as it was designed to resemble the basalt lava flows found in Iceland’s natural landscape. Afterwards, be sure to take an elevator ride up 240 feet to the top — the views from there are spectacular. There is a small fee to access the tower, but this is well worth it to see the city’s multicolored buildings, mountains, and even the Snaefellsjokull glacier on a clear day.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to catch an outdoor choir. If it’s a windy day, you’re in for an extra treat — there’s something about the sound of singing in the wind that conjures a very magical atmosphere. There are benches surrounding the church, so have a seat, take a rest, and soak up the ambiance.
Lunch and a swim
Once you’ve had a chance to view Reykjavík from above, you’re ready to dive in (literally). Sundhöllin is Reykjavík’s oldest pool (built in 1937), and after nearly a two-year closure, Sundhöllin has just reopened in newly-renovated splendor. Head on over, take a breather in one of its steam rooms, and relax in the bubbly, warm waters of its geothermally-heated hot tubs.
After swimming, head towards Laugavegur street — downtown Reykjavík’s main drag — and indulge in one of its many eateries. Iceland is home to some very unusual foods and the city is doing a fabulous job cultivating their unique culinary heritage. Check out Matur og drykkur — their food reflects the best of Icelandic cuisine and they also make some of the tastiest lamb I’ve ever had. Messinn is another great option; they serve classic Icelandic seafood dishes. The interior of Messinn is wonderfully cozy and makes for a great retreat after a day exploring. Be sure not to miss Joylato, an ice cream shop that makes the ice cream from scratch in front of you with liquid nitrogen that flash freezes the mixture in seconds. Remember, it’s never too cold for Icelanders to enjoy ice cream!
From there, wander along the streets of Grjótaþorpið, Reykjavík’s oldest neighborhood. This slice of the city has a very relaxed atmosphere of beautiful old houses and cobbled streets. One of the great things about downtown Reykjavík is that everything is located within a small area, so once you’ve had your fill of Grjótaþorpið, you’re just a stone’s throw away to another charming area of Reykjavík — Tjörnin Lake. Wander along the sidewalks that surround the water and, if you visit in winter, bring your ice skates (you won’t be able to find a place to rent a pair in the city).
Dinner and the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, best visible from October to April, can often illuminate the otherwise dark sky in brilliant shades of green and pink. To get the best view of them, head down to Reykjavík’s scenic waterfront, where you can also check out the Harpa Concert Hall — a distinctive, colored-glass facade that was also inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland — and the massive, picturesque Sun Voyager sculpture that resembles a Viking ship.
For dinner, turn around and head back towards the city center. Stop at one of the food trucks in the promenade. The choices are plenty, ranging from Mexican to Indian to Italian, and can be the perfect fuel for a night on the town. The Bao Bun food truck has some amazing Chinese food (and sweet potato fries!) and Lobster Hut serves delicious lobster sandwiches. Reykjavík’s nightlife is hugely energetic and owes itself to Icelanders’ laid-back, fun-loving mentality. A trip to Iceland would not be complete without experiencing it. Just keep in mind that Icelanders usually don’t show up to bars or clubs until after midnight. The English Pub has live music most weekends. Skúli Craft Bar has an amazing selection of craft beers.
In many ways, downtown Reykjavík is the heartbeat of the city. It is the landing spot for tourists, home to a rich history, and a thriving cultural hub. One can easily get a feel of the place in a day or two, and would rarely need more time than that to explore the city. Though as great as Reykjavík is, it is Iceland’s countryside that really wows — so be sure to leave some time for that!