Iceland is the perfect layover destination.
With a number of reasonably priced flights connecting in Reykjavik and heading on to Europe, it makes it easy for people to make a long stopover and experience some of the country. I’ve been asked by a few people what they can do in Reykjavik if they only have a day or even just a few hours.
Here’s a quick guide to a few things you can – and should – squeeze into your layover in Reykjavik:
Visit the Harpa
Located on Reykjavik’s waterfront, the Harpa is the city’s concert hall and conference center. The beautiful, modern facade was designed by famous artist Olafur Eliasson, and is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera. If you have time, you can catch a concert. If not, it’s fun to walk through this intricately designed building – it’s seriously a photographer’s dream with the reflection, repetition and leading lines everywhere.
Stop at the Hallgrímskirkja Church
This is the largest church in Iceland, standing 240 feet (74 meters). It was built to resemble a volcanic eruption, fitting to the environment of the country. The decor inside is pretty simple, but still beautiful. The organ features 5,275 pipes, and is certainly worth checking out. For a great view of the city, you can take the elevator up the tower and snap a few photos.
Check out the National Museum of Iceland
If you’re into history, then the National Museum of Iceland is a must. The museum documents Iceland’s history and culture from settlement to present day. Learn all about the Vikings, medieval customs and modern Iceland. I recommend the audio tour if you want to get the most out of the experience. It does take a couple hours to get through everything, so prepare for that.
Walk the Waterfront
Take a stroll along Reykjavik’s waterfront, and you’ll see a lot. Take in the historic midtown and harbor, the site of the first Viking settlement. Check out the statue of Jon Sigurosson, which faces the Parliament House; and visit the Saga Museum, filled with characters from Icelandic sagas. Make your way east along the waterfront path, through adorable shops and restaurants and past the stunning Harpa. The path continues along the water, leading to some peaceful gardens and parks. Take a picture of the Solar Voyager sculpture, which honors Viking travels. Stop by the Hofoi House, a simple, whitewashed house where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War in 1986.
View the Street Art
Reykjavik is filled with street art. You can find beautiful works on buildings all over the city. Some of the art changes on a regular basis, while others have been around for a few years. It’s fun to discover all the different creations as you wander through Reykjavik.
Eat Some Seafood
Iceland is known for its fresh seafood, and there are a number of great places to try some. I highly recommend Reykjavik Fish Restaurant, located near historic midtown. It’s a super casual eatery, where you order at the counter from a menu written on a chalkboard, and find a seat in the comfortable dining area. The fish and chips is the most popular option, but you can also try traditional Icelandic fish stew, called Plokkari, with brown bread and butter. It is a little pricey, but the portions are large, so you can easily share.
Relax in the Blue Lagoon
Located right next to the airport, the Blue Lagoon is the perfect place to finish your visit in Reykjavik. Soak in the calm, geothermal waters of the lagoon, treat your skin to a silica or algae mask, and enjoy a drink from the swim up bar. You can reserve your spot ahead of time, making it easy to coordinate with your flight times. There’s even a place to store all your luggage so you don’t have to lug it with you. (Special note to all the ladies out there: The minerals in the water can damage your hair. There is a special conditioner in the locker rooms that you should put in your hair before entering the water. However, I highly recommend putting your hair up and keeping it out of the water as much as possible. Trust me, I learned the hard way.)
24 or 48 Hours in Reykjavik: For those who have a little more time in the area, here are a few more attractions to see and things to do.
Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park: A national shrine of Iceland, this park holds historical significance as the oldest existingg parliament in the world first assembled there in 930 AD. It’s also admired for its natural beauty and geological features. Almannagjá is a beautiful canyon formed between the North American and European tectonic plates as they pull apart.
Gullfoss Waterfall: A powerful, two-tier waterfall set in a deep canyon just east of Þingvellir. The name means Golden Falls, and the moment you see it, you’ll understand why it was called this. Clouds of mist and perpetual rainbows give this place a magical essence.
Glymur, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss: The three waterfalls are spread out around the western and southern portion of Iceland. Glymur is one of the tallest waterfalls in Iceland, and offers adventure seekers a great hike to reach the best spots to view the beautiful cascading water that drops down from the plateau above. Seljalandsfoss drops into a beautiful green meadow, and features a drenched path that leads you behind the falls – definitely worth getting a little wet for. (Nearby there are a few other smaller waterfalls to discover.) Skogafoss is a few miles east from Seljalandsfoss along the Ring Road. Head straight for the falls and get a photo amidst the clouds of spray. Or you can climb the stairs next to the falls for view from above and a glimpse of the Southern coast.
Visit Off Shore Islands: There are a couple small islands close to Reykjavik that you can check out on your layover. Lundey, meaning “Puffin Island,” is the closest spot to the city where you can see the birds during their nesting period between April and August (we went in September and didn’t get to see them). You can’t actually step into the island, but you can take a boat tour around it.
Take a Hike: If you’re the active type, there are plenty of great spots close to Reykjavik where you can enjoy a hike and take in some of the Iceland scenery. Hveragerði is a short drive from the capital and has a great half day hike through steamy hills filled with hot springs.
I could go on, but I’ll spare you the long-winded post and let you experience it for yourself!