Imagine a city located a meager two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, characterized by a labyrinth of colourful rooftops, unique architecture, fascinating artwork, and eccentric museums. Imagine that this same urban landscape being surrounded by spouting geysers and geothermal springs, snow-capped volcanic mountains, and omnipresent cultural reminders of a past reaching as far back as AD 870. This sounds a bit like a fantasy location, but Reykjavík does indeed exist, and it is one of the cleanest, safest, most environmentally friendly cities in the world.
Often considered Iceland’s cultural and economic “heart,” Reykjavík is home to about 200,000 people and thus avoids being a noisy, lightning-paced metropolis. You won’t be subjected to the towering skyscrapers and dangerous traffic jams characteristic of many other global metropolitan areas. Instead, Reykjavík is moderately sized and full of individualism and high energy. It is the nucleus of Iceland’s vibrant and unique artistic, literary, culinary, and historic culture – in fact, about 60% of Iceland’s population is actually located in the central city!
In Reykjavík, there is something for everyone – literally. You’ll find attractions here you won’t find anywhere else on the planet. You might be a student fascinated by Viking history, an avid birdwatcher, a coffee connoisseur, a hiker, a fan of theater and opera, or anything in between, but no matter your preference, Reykjavík has the potential to offer you the forty-eight hours of a lifetime.
The first thing to do upon arrival, of course, is to check-in to your selected accommodations. Reykjavík has become quite the popular locale for travelers over the past couple of years, and there is an innumerable and varied amount of luxury hotels, quaint bed-and-breakfasts, inns, and hostels available for tourists. Below is just a handful that we highly recommend looking into before embarking on your two-day adventure:
Reykjavík’s Finest Apartments: Topping TripAdvisor’s list of best luxury hotels in Iceland, Black Pearl opened in 2013 and has received consistent accolades from both business and private guests in Reykjavík. It is located just off of Reykjavík’s Old Harbour, but is characterized by distinctly contemporary architecture. The facilities are referred to as suites or “luxury apartments,” given that they come equipped with stylish furnishings, marble floors with internal heating, and a fully-functional kitchen with built-in appliances. Black Pearl is ideally located, just a stone’s throw from the Harpa Music Hall and Conference Center, The Volcano House, Hallgrímskirkja church, and the Reykjavík Art Museum (all of which will be listed on your upcoming 48-hour itinerary). Furthermore, if you don’t feel like cooking in your facility kitchens, there is an abundance of popular nautical-themed restaurants just outside the building, including Lækjarbrekka and Fish Company.
Alda Hotel is a modern, Nordic-chic luxury hotel and it is outfitted with brand new facilities, as it only just opened in 2014. Already, Alda has established a reputation for itself as one of Reykjavík’s premier hotels. This is another ideally located venue – it is situated at the eastern end of Reykjavík’s primary shopping and nightlife district, Laugavegur, and many of the hotel’s rooms enjoy panoramic views of beautiful Faxaflói Bay. Given the hotel’s young age, it comes as no surprise that Alda is a high-tech wonder – staff offers the option of lending a smartphone to guests at check-in equipped with apps designed to guide you through the city. You can even make free local calls!
If you have come to Rekjavík in pursuit of Iceland’s fascinating, eccentric arts and culture scene, you can easily integrate it into your accommodations experience with Hotel Holt. This hotel is family-run and contains the largest privately owned art collection on the entire island; during your stay, you can peruse more than 400 installations, sculptures, and paintings created by well-known Icelandic artists. Located on a quaint residential street, Hotel Holt is ideal for art enthusiasts as well as those who want an old-fashioned relaxing stay in a comfortable yet lavish hotel. The décor of the building has a decadent yet warm and intimate feeling, and many a review has touted Hotel Holt as an “old-school gem” in Reykjavík.
Not all guests want to situate themselves in the central hustle and bustle of an urban area – if you want to enjoy the metropolitan vibrancy of Reykjavík by day but enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere at your accommodations, Rekjavík Marina might be your best choice. This renowned hotel is located by Rekjavík’s Old Harbour, and you can observe whale-watching and puffin-watching boats depart from your window unless you’re already on one of those vessels yourself! You can also enjoy freshly made, toasty coffee and live music at the hotel’s friendly, charming restaurant Slippbarinn. This hotel has made it on many a Top 10 list for accommodations in Reykjavík thanks to its charming nautical theme and famously fun, bright, and friendly atmosphere.
Once you have selected your accommodations, we recommend that you begin your 48 hours in Iceland’s capital city by plunging directly into Reykjavík’s roots. There is something thoroughly gratifying about knowing a region’s heart and history, and Reykjavík provides many opportunities for travelers to become fully immersed in its unique, expansive story. The first thing you might consider doing is traveling back in time to Reykjavík’s earliest years at the Árbær Open Air Museum.
Árbær Open Air Museum
Reykjavík is very much in touch with its own fascinating history, and it is committed to providing a tangible sense of its own cultural identity for tourists and Icelanders alike. One of the best known ways it has done so is through the very hands-on, interactive Árbær Open Air Museum, which offers unique insight into how the city transformed from a an amalgamation of scattered farms to a vibrant island capital.
The Árbær Open Air Museum is comprised of a series of more than twenty pre-modern Icelandic village “homes,” each of which constitutes an individual exhibition. Staff dives right into character and dons period costumes alongside free-ranging cattle and sheep. If you’re bringing children on your trip, there is even a fun playground for the little ones to enjoy! This unique museum is well-known for its ability to both educate and entertain.
Reykjadalur Hot Springs
Since you’ve spent the morning rollicking through Árbær’s green pastures, you might want to think about taking a dip in one of Iceland’s world-famous geothermal springs and grabbing a bite to eat before diving back into central city culture.
The Blue Lagoon is arguably the most famous geothermal hot spring in Iceland. However, Rekjadalur, which literally translates into “Steam Valley,” is just as worthwhile to visit and bathe in the steamy springs and luxurious mud pools. About twenty minutes (by vehicle) out of central Reykjavík is reputedly the most beautiful hiking area around the greenhouse village of Hveragerði. You can traverse the stunning greenery, rugged mountains, and verdant trails just outside of Rekjavík on a 3 km long hike and then soothe your muscles in the region’s steamy waters.
You’ll likely be hungry after your hike, and fortunately there is a local restaurant called Dalakaffi popular with hikers and bathers. It is known for its friendly, welcoming atmosphere and authentic café bistro cuisine. You might even see an adorable Icelandic horse trot by as you’re enjoying your lunch!
The National Museum of Iceland
After you’ve finished your lunch, head back into central Reykjavík and enjoy the city’s premier museum. The iconic National Museum of Iceland was established on February 24, 1863 under the guidance of Chief Curator Jón Árnason, and represents the first culturally and nationally Icelandic institution to put Icelandic heritage on display. Prior to its genesis, Icelandic art and material culture was only displayed in Danish museums.
After extensive remodeling and refurbishing, The National Museum of Iceland closed and reopened its doors in the year 2004 to meet the technological demands of the modern era. Its collections are massive and varied these days, and include objects related to archaeology, art history, cultural ethnology, and architectural history. The museum also boasts the largest public collections of Icelandic photographs and prints in the country. It has conducted many important archaeological projects, including emergency rescue excavations at the Bessastadir farm mound at the presidential residence. The museum also played an instrumental role in preparing for Þingvellir to be listed on as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Volcano House
It wouldn’t be a trip to Iceland without exploring the island’s fiery geology. With 200 volcanoes divided into 30 interconnected volcanic systems, and an eruption occurring every 4-5 years or so, Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places on planet Earth. Obviously there are many volcanoes you can visit across the island – and one you can even enter (with guidance and professional support, of course) – but before you start lava caving across the country, take advantage of the fascinating and edifying resources provided in Reykjavík’s renowned Volcano House.
The Volcano House is a cylindrical paradise for anyone fascinated by geology and Earth’s seismic activity – and if you don’t start your visit particularly interested in these topics, you will probably leave with a new appreciation for them! It is a rather young institution and was developed in 2011 in response to the massive eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Since its genesis is so current, The Volcano House is very high-tech and visually stimulating. Part of its geology exhibition is hands-on, meaning visitors can actually touch the amalgams of solidified lava, pumice, and ash from volcanoes across Iceland. In fact, you can even grasp a handful of ash from the powerful 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull! There are also rare materials on display, such as the Iceland Spar, or “sunstone,” a crystal used by ancient Vikings for identifying the sun’s location on cloudy days.
We recommend that, after hitting some exciting hotbeds of activity and familiarizing yourself with the central city of Reykjavík, you take a breather and enjoy the tranquility of the area’s quaint coastal paths. Elegantly framed by the stately Reykjavík City Hall and a number of vibrantly colourful houses, Tjörnin is a natural pond that serves as a home for an impressive quantity of ducks, swans, and geese. Thanks to the geothermal warmth omitted by the lagoon, these birds actually enjoy gliding through the pond all throughout winter! This pond is a very popular place for families to stop by and offer breadcrumbs to the unusually friendly, happy birdlife.
Harpa Music Hall and Conference Centre
Complete your first evening in Reykjavík with a decadent musical and dining experience. Designed by the Danish architectural firm Henning Laren Architects, Harpa is a fascinating display of geometric steel architecture complemented by delicate, colourful glass shapes. One of Reykjavík’s most distinguished and elegant landmarks, Harpa offers stunning views of the North Atlantic Ocean from the outside and exhibits some of the best artists in Northern Europe on the inside.
A tremendous amount of musical festivals have been housed inside of Harpa, including Sónar Reykjavik, Reykjavík Arts Festival, Reykjavík Jazz Festival, and Harpa International Music Academy. The building calls itself home for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Icelandic Opera, both of which hold performances attended by over 4 million people since 2011. Harpa offers its guests two possibilities for elegant dining experiences. There are two restaurants inside; Smurstöðin on the 1st floor and Kolabraut on the 4th floor.
If you’ve selected Saturday and Sunday for your two-day trip to Reykjavík, you will definitely want to visit the city’s most famous church grounds on Sunday morning. You certainly don’t have to be religious to appreciate the towering architectural marvel that is Hallgrímskirkja Church! In fact, this building is considered Reykjavík’s main landmark and its tower is visible from almost any point in the central cityscape. With its striking, lofty central structure, elegant stained glass windows, and tiered, sloping edges, Hallgrímskirkja Church is a prime example of matchless, uniquely Icelandic architecture.
Designed by State Architect Guðjón Samuel in 1937, the Lutheran structure was in fact inspired by the island’s natural, undulating basalt rock formations. Within the building is a colossal pipe organ designed by German instrumentalist Johannes Klais of Bonn – the dramatic piece weighs an incredible 25 tons!
If you have any interest in the connection between Iceland and the United States, take a close look at the statue erected just in front of the church. It is suspected that the individual memorialized in front of Hallgrímskirkja Church, Leif Eiriksson, was the true first European to discover the Americas. He likely visited the present-day United States approximately 500 years before Christopher Columbus! This likeness of him was presented to Iceland from the United States at the 1930 lþingi Millennial Festival in celebration of the 1,000th anniversary of the creation of Iceland’s first parliament at Þingvellir (930 AD).
If you’re a fan of history, architecture, and/or connected to religious culture, Hallgrímskirkja Church is a must-see.
Whales of Iceland
Not too far from Hallgrímskirkja is Whales of Iceland, which is a fascinating exhibition. It found its genesis in 2014, after Icelandic scientists submitted detailed anatomical models of the 23 species of whales found in island waters to China. Chinese engineers then shipped a series of meticulously crafted whale replica parts to be assembled onsite in Iceland. Now, Whales of Iceland puts up on display a series of whale models that are crafted in extraordinary detail and based on the real mammals swimming offshore; for example, the scars and scrapes you might observe on their sperm whale model match exactly the markings on the actual creature.
Whales of Iceland staff and the Marine Research Institute of Iceland have conducted extensive research into the movement, migration, and anatomy of whales over the past few years, and have channeled their findings into a fascinating multi-user installation that lets guests observe the behavioral patterns of individual whales! For example, a user can select a humpback whale and learn about its biological aspects, as well as trace the whale’s migration route via an animated illustration guide. You can even download an App for free and enjoy the guidance of Whales of Iceland biologist Ástrún Eva Sívertsen as you peruse the stunning building.
The Living Art Museum (Nýló)
Governmentally operated by the City of Reykjavík, the Reykjavík Art museum boasts the title of largest art museum in Iceland and is certainly worth a thorough visit. However, The Living Art Museum is ideal for art enthusiasts who are interested in witnessing Icelandic artistic culture from the intimate perspective of a decidedly non-political institution.
The unquestionably unique Living Art Museum is an artist-run non-profit museum, but it also serves as a venue for events, exhibitions, performances, research, and conferences. It was founded by 27 Icelanders in 1978 in response to Icelandic art authorities’ perceived disrespect for new, contemporary art styles. The museum is committed to engaging the public in artistic dialogue and maintaining a thriving arts culture locally and internationally. Here you will enjoy an extensive collection of Icelandic contemporary artworks, as well as a variety of performances, film screenings, live music, lectures and symposiums, and much more.
Solfar Sun Voyager
Take a quick break from your museum jaunts in the middle of the day to enjoy Reykjavík’s tranquil seaside once more. Reykjavík’s Old Harbour is a popular location for joggers, cyclists, and walkers to traverse and admire the striking coastal scenery. The spot most-frequented, however, is the location of Jon Gunnar Arnason’s gargantuan steel sculpture, Sun Voyager. The structure vaguely resembles a Viking ship, but instead was crafted as en ethereal “dream boat,” as well as an ode to the power of the sun. Conveniently, Sun Voyager is located near Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s thriving shopping and dining district. Whether you want seafood or a quick bite at a café, take a brief walk down the street in the region and you’ll surely stumble upon something you like for lunch.
Bridge Between Continents
When in Iceland, you can observe stunning topographical features you won’t be privy to anywhere else on the globe. More than worth a visit is the renowned Bridge Between Continents, which is the location of the major plate boundary between Europe and North America on the Reykanes Peninsula.
Rugged and laden with solidified magma, the Reykjanes Peninsula is situated on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are continuously drifting farther and farther from one another. As the plates pull apart incrementally, fissures and fractures develop on Earth’s surface. Here at the Bridge Between Continents, there is a small footbridge settled over one of these plummeting fissures – you can clearly see the stressors left over from the diverging plates. Aside from being fascinating geographically, the bridge has some sentimental value as well; it was built representing the inexorable connection between Europe and North America.
There is also a series of interesting museums on the Reykjanes Peninsula if you’re interested in spending a little more time there, including:
- The Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘n’ Roll
- Folk Museum in Garður and Lighthouses
- Viking World
- Kvikan House of Culture and Natural Resources
- Reykjanes Art Museum
- Grímur Karlsson Boat Museum
- Duus Safnahús Cultural Center
Believe it or not, there are more museums on the peninsula where those came from. Visit to find more points of possible interests.
The Blue Lagoon
Let’s wrap up your second day in Reykjavík with a visit to one of the most sought-out attractions in all of Iceland. The Blue Lagoon gets its title from the startling, opaque cerulean hue that characterizes these geothermal waters. The Blue Lagoon is not merely a place for spa-goers to soak and relax; its properties help generate electricity and provide hot water for local communities.
Originating 2,000 meters beneath the surface of the Earth, the Blue Lagoon’s ethereal waters emerge from the subterranean mergence of freshwater and seawater. The Svartsengi power plant draws from the extreme temperatures omitted from the depths of the earth to channel energy and provide warm water for both Icelanders and tourists to enjoy.
This water is extraordinarily pure and wonderful for the skin. All 9 million litres of water in the Lagoon are self-cleansing; in other words, The Blue Lagoon cleans itself every 40 hours. It takes care of your hygiene as well as its own!
When visiting The Blue Lagoon, you can indulge in its various spa amenities, including the skin-softening silica mud mask and sauna rooms. Also make sure you utilize the relaxation areas provided for hydration breaks!
Finally, treat yourself to a wonderful dinner at Reykjavík’s Pearl, or “The Pearl,” both a must-see and a must-dine. The restaurant’s distinctive dome-shaped glass structure was designed by Ingimundur Sveinsson and runs off the support of six 4 million litre hot water tanks! Within the dome is a world-famous revolving restaurant, offering diners a truly unique experience, in addition to a charming café that leads to a panoramic observation deck. You might even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights up there after dinner!
- 1 Black Pearl
- 2 Alda Hotel
- 3 Hotel Holt
- 4 Reykjavik Marina
- 5 Day 1
- 6 Árbær Open Air Museum
- 7 Reykjadalur Hot Springs
- 8 The National Museum of Iceland
- 9 The Volcano House
- 10 Tjörnin
- 11 Harpa Music Hall and Conference Centre
- 12 Day 2
- 13 Hallgrímskirkja Church
- 14 Whales of Iceland
- 15 The Living Art Museum (Nýló)
- 16 Solfar Sun Voyager
- 17 Bridge Between Continents
- 18 The Blue Lagoon
- 19 The Pearl