They call Iceland the land of fire and ice and it’s true Iceland full of these dichotomies. Ancient traditions run deep but the music scene is utterly cutting edge and although the capital seems sleepy by day, at night partying can go on all night! So what do you do with your time in Iceland? What if it is only a long weekend or just an Iceland stopover en route to somewhere else? What should you see in Iceland, what should you eat and just where is the best happy hour in Reykjavik!? This short guide is all about how to make the most of your 4 days in Iceland.
Don’t worry if you’ve stumbled upon this 4 day Iceland itinerary with a slightly different length of Iceland trip, just mix and match the days to suit your time.
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Reykjavik (pronounced Ray-keeya-vick) is Iceland’s enigmatic capital city. It is Europe’s most northerly capital and home to just over 130,000 people. Consequently, it is rather a low rise city, strangely cosy and distinctly walkable.
We recommend basing yourself in Reykjavik as your time is short. In Reykjavik, there is plenty of opportunity for great meals and accommodation, and there are so many options for organising day trips that originate in the city. Plus, all of these options mean you can afford to visit Reykjavik, even on a tight budget.
Day One – Exploring Reykjavik in One Day
Standing tall above the city, being a height of 74.5 metres and perched on a hill, Hallgrímskirkja Church is an icon of Reykjavik. It is not all that old, building only finished in 1986 but building work had been going since the 1940s. Sadly, the original architect, Architect Guðjón Samúelsson passed away before he had a chance to finish the whole design. He took inspiration from the unique landscapes and rock formations of Iceland.
The most recognisable part of the church is the sloping facade constructed from concrete and coated in white granite. At its apex is the tower, a highlight of your visit. Although it is free to enter the main church, it is 1000ISK to head up the tower. It is absolutely worth it though, as the views over Reykjavik are unparalleled.
As a rule, these are the churches opening hours (the tower closes half an hour before the church)
- October – April: 09:00 – 17:00.
- May – September: 09:00 – 21:00.
- On Sunday, the tower is shut during mass, roughly 10:30 – 12:15
Leif Erikson Statue
This striking statue of Leif Erikson depicts his first steps into North America. Eiriksson is the first known European to explore the continent, almost 500 years before Colombus. This statue was actually given to Iceland by the USA in 1930 to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of Iceland’s parliament, the Althingi.
Laugavegur – Strolling, Shopping, and Street Art
Reykjavik’s main shopping street is lined with boutiques, hotels, bars and restaurants. Take a walk down its slopping pavements, for a spot of window shopping. Amazingly, these pavements are always ice-free as pipes filled with geothermally heated water run beneath.
From traditional crafts like the world-renowned woollen lopapeysa (jumpers) to shops full of minimalist Scandi furniture and emerging designer boutiques, you could easily spend a few thousand pounds here in a matter of minutes.
For something a little more budget-friendly, along the way, keep your eyes out for street art. Reykjavik has some public art spaces and pieces here are usually bold and bright. There are also plenty of permanent statues, like the infamous Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat. This artwork is a love song to the faceless civil servants who quietly go about their business of keep government cogs whirring.
Tjornin is more of a lake than a pond in our opinion as walking around it takes about 45 minutes. Happily, for those trying to see Reykjavik in one day, the pedestrian bridge across it divides this expanse of water in two and allows you to cross it quickly.
It is home to a cluster of ducks, geese and swans, as well as around 35 other avian visitors. During winter, when the lake turns to ice, the city pumps warmer water into one corner to allow these lucky birds to stay here happily.
Radhus (City Hall)
The bridge across “The Pond” runs into the modern City Hall. There isn’t a great deal to see in here but pop down one floor and you will be rewarded with a huge 3D map of Iceland. Remember to look out for Gullfoss and Thingvellir National Park as you will be seeing them in real life on day two.
Domkirkja – Reykjavik Cathedral
This small but charming cathedral looks quite modern but was built in the late 1700s. Despite its almost modest demeanour, it is rather important with mass broadcast here on Christmas Eve and a special service held here for each sitting parliament. Inside, glimmers of gold and a rather more ornate pulpit and altar reveal its grandeur.
Alþingi – Iceland’s Parliament
Back in 930AD, a meeting of the world’s newest parliament met in Iceland. Fast forward a fair while and the Alþingi is now the world’ oldest existing democracy. Although originally held in Þingvellir (the national park you’ll see on the Golden Circle tour) the parliament moved to central Reykjavik in 1844 after a 44 year hiatus. It has been in this building ever since.
Jón Sigurðsson Statue
Opposite the Alþingi, the bronze Jón Sigurðsson Statue stands like a proud peacock. This is one of Iceland’s national heroes as he fought hard for the first steps towards Iceland’s independence from Denmark in the 1800s. Unfortunately, he did not see the result of all his work, passing away 65 years before they achieved full autonomy. (You’ll also find him on your 500ISK notes)
Saunter Through Ingólfur Square
In the midst of some of Reykjavik’s oldest wooden buildings, there is a strange blend of the old and new here. On warm days, the scrape of skateboards clatters over the concrete square and in winter, it replaced by the scratch of skates on the temporary ice rink.
The square is surrounded by shops and restaurants, making it a great place to stop for some lunch. At one end, in the middle of the pavement, you’ll find one of Rekyavikks iconic hot dog stands, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. In a city of expensive meals, this is the quickest and cheapest option for a lunch/snack.
Head to Harpa
Probably the second most famous building in Reykjavik was hated by many when it was first opened in 2011. The huge concert hall and event space blocked a large section of view out to the harbour and it’s ultramodern black and glass didn’t match the surrounding low rise colourful building. However, since then it has grown to become a firm favourite.
It is free to pop in and take in the immense foyer. Designer Olafur Eliasson, modelled the windows and mirrored ceiling in the foyer on the volcanic basalt rocks seen across the country. If you can find your way to the bar, set on descending steps next to the windows, you’ll have a great view back into town. It is worth remembering that it is 2 for 1 for drinks between 17:00 – 19:00.
Sólfar (Sun Voyager)
A short walk along the seafront you will come across the metal skeleton of a Viking vessel. The Sun Voyager is a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason representing the spirit of freedom and a sense of moving forward. It is a popular photo spot, and it seems that it makes a good climbing frame too!
Finish the Day at Lounging at Laugardalslaug
Reykjavik’s favourite outdoor swimming pool is a bargain at around 1000ISK making it an excellent way to “take the waters”. As well as the 50m swimming pool, you will find a series of small pools of different temperatures ranging from lukewarm to really, rather hot. If you are after a thrill, there is a fun water slide. It is slightly odd to have the water warm and the air cold…the opposite of most waterpark experiences. The pools close at 22:00 so it is a nice evening activity.
Hunt the Northern Lights
Finding the Northern Lights in Iceland is one of the top activities (only open to you during the darker winter months). If you are spending 4 days in Iceland in winter, then you have 3 nights to hunt the Aurora Borealis. We recommend using one of the big companies such as Reykjavik Excursions as they offer free tours on subsequent nights if you don’t manage to see the lights. We know you may be tired but it is possible to nap on the bus.
Day Two – The Golden Circle
This classic one day tour is an absolute must for your Iceland trip. Iceland’s landscape is created and shaped by volcanic action. In fact, there are still 30 active volcano systems on the island, with 8% of Iceland’s landmass taken up by largest one, Vatnajokull! We all had a little taste of how intense these volcanic features can be in 2012 when the Eyjafjallajökull eruption caused HUGE disruption to air travel.
Happily, seismic activity also creates some interesting and dramatic landscapes. The golden circle tour shows you the most fantastic natural sight within reach of Reykjavik.
Þingvellir National Park
Pronounced Thing-vell-ear, this national park was the seat of Iceland’s parliament from its inception to the 1800s. These days, the politicians have left but that just means this gorgeous slice of land for the wider public…and slice is the word. Iceland is split across the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As they have moved away from each other, Silfra rift has been formed.
Much of the rock in the park is the iconic volcanic basalt. As you walk through, keep an eye out for the distinctive straight lines and corners of dark grey or black rock. Oh, and your guide may even point out the faces of the trolls that live here!
Iceland is blessed with many beautiful waterfalls. Exploring the island means happy waterfall hopping. Undoubtedly the most famous is Gullfoss. Here, water crashes down a steep drop into the deep valley it has carved. The slim gap heightens the noise and sends clouds of spray back up into the sun. Year-round, you may be lucky enough to see a rainbow glistening in the spritz. In winter, as the temperature drops, the constant sprinkle settles on the ground, creating a pretty (and pretty slippery) shelf of icy rock.
Have you heard of geysers? In some patches of earth, lava runs closer to the surface, creating hot spots. When these interact with bodies of water, the heat boils the water until the pressure is too much shooting hot water and steam into the air. They are always exciting and The Great Geysir is no exception, Being the first recorded in writing, it is the namesake for all those that came after. At Geysir, you will get to watch Strokkur which can go off up to every 10 minutes or so and erupt up to 20 metres into the air. In winter, it is astonishing how quickly the water cools!
Tours of the Golden Circle
There are many, many, many companies that offer Golden Circle Tours.
Reykjavik Excursions – Golden Circle Direct
Reykjavik runs reliable tours on large coaches. This is great if you just want to see the sight without too much small talk. Tour guides give commentary over the coaches PA system allowing you to gaze at the gorgeous scenery and take it all in. Coaches have free wifi so you can browse the net or update your Instagram stories between stops. Plus, if you get car sick, a big coach is your best bet.
Sterna Travel – Golden Circle and Secret Lagoon
This is a much smaller tour, with a maximum of 19 guests. They will even run it if you the only ones booked. Along with the three main sights, the advantage of this tour is the flexibility to explore some additional places. To start the day, they take you to a geothermal power plant. With 85% of the home is Iceland relying on this geothermal power for heating and electricity, it is quite cool to learn all about how it all works.
You will also have a chance to see some more nature. They can offer a stop to see another gorgeous waterfall or a small crater lake. Tour guides have even been known to make a quick pitstop at the roadside for guests to meet Icelandic horses or sheep, depending upon their preferences.
Day Three – Find Your Niche
Let’s call day three your “free time”. There is tons to do in and around Reykjavik, and loads of different interests to indulge in. Below, we have listed some of our favourites
Whale-Watching in Reykjavik Harbour
Iceland is one of Europe’s premier whale-watching destinations. Vast amounts of fish and krill attract all kinds of giant mammals to the waters around the island. Amazingly for us, that even includes the waters near Reykjavik. There are several companies offering whale watching tours. so you stand a good chance of finding a spot and once you are on the boat, finding some whales. From the abundant minke whales to the stars like the humpbacks and orcas, there are 23 species to spot.
Snorkelling or Diving the Silfra Rift
Swimming between two tectonic plates is a once in a lifetime opportunity but that is exactly what is on offer at Þingvellir National Park. The water here is so clear, being glacier water filtered through the surrounding rock, that visibility can be up 120m. That is some of the clearest water in the world! Swimmers are given dry suits to wear to ensure they don’t get too cold. and some operators offer to pick up and drop off directly from Reykjavik.
This is not one for the prudish amongst you. The world’s largest phallological museum (but its not the size that counts) is dedicated to one thing, the male reproductive organ. They currently only have the one human example but despite that, there is a fascinating collection of phalluses from over 100 species alongside hilarious willy-shaped curios.
From hiking to quad bikes and even cave exploration, there are ample chances to get up and close to glaciers. Specialist equipment like crampons and walking poles are available if any tough climbing is required. On this tour from Reykjavik, you will even get to stop at two of Iceland’s gorgeous waterfalls en route
The Settlement Museum
Descend the stairs into this museum. Once you are down in the space you will see why it is underground. In the middle of the exhibition space is an archaeological dig of a Viking longhouse from just over 1000 years ago. Around the walls, you will discover artefacts and stories from the very earliest years of Iceland’s settling.
Puffins are obscenely cute. Fact! Between May and August can jump aboard a sightseeing boat and head out to see these adorable stripe-beaked critters on a puffin watching cruise. Use the provided binoculars to spot a myriad of other seabirds that swirl and float around the nesting island.
Amongst a land of unique landscapes, the black sand beach, Reynisfjara, is one of the most famous. The volcanic sand creates a striking difference from the soft, white beaches sought out by many travellers. Sunbathing on this windswept sweep of sable sand isn’t easy, but it does take the breath away. Tours that head down here are long days and include stops along the way to other gorgeous waterfalls and natural sights.
Perlan Museum – The Wonders of Iceland
Previously a slightly confused shopping centre and food court this distinctive building has recently had a facelift. The name Perlan is in honour of the dome which shines bright at night. In English, it is called The Pearl. Look out for it when you climb the Hallgrimskirkja tower.
Perlan Museum has revived this interesting building and turned it into a genuinely enjoyable set of exhibitions. If you are tired, with small children or just want to be around to try more of the ideas above, then this will allow you to try out some of Iceland’s natural experiences. Inside, visitors can wander through an ice cave, learn all about volcanoes, and even enjoy a special northern lights light show int he planetarium. Outside, take in the view from the deck.
Day Four – A Farewell Dip
The Blue Lagoon
There are those that don’t rate The Blue Lagoon. Quite expensive, pretty busy and actually manmade, it can feel a little commercial. However, none of that matters when you slip into the hot, opaque water. From afar the water looks a baby blue colour but this is due to the sun reflecting on the suspended silica, but close up, it is more like a Cleopatra milk bath.
Once in the water, guests float happily around, merrily scoop the white silica and algae infused mud all over themselves as a mask and let their muscles relax. the water is always around 38°C so it perfectly comfortable.
A Few Tips for Visiting The Blue Lagoon:
- Purchase your tickets online in advance. You cannot just pay on the door. The cheapest option includes a drink, towel rental and a mud mask.
- Bathers are asked to wash thoroughly before entering the water, and there are some giggle-enducing cartoon posters for guidance.
- The water is not good for your hair so pop it up in a bun or something similar. Some people put some leave-in conditioner in their hair but its not advised as you are meant to be free from chemicals.There is free shampoo and conditioner in the showers so just give it plenty of conditioing afterwards. You can blow dry your hair but just give it a rough dry to stop it getting too dry.
- The water can also adversly affect yur jewellery and contact lenses so dig your glasses out and go ringless.
- On entry you are given a wristband. These operate the lockers in the changing rooms and monitor any extra spending done in the resort on drink sat the bar, food in the restaurant or treatments in the spa. You will be asked to pay those charges on the way out.
- You can drink the tap water here so don’t feel pressured to buy expensive cold drinks.
- Reykjavik Excursions offers a stop off at The Blue Lagoon en route to Keflavik Airport. This allows you to make this part of your journey before your flight. It saves bus/taxi fare and time! If you choose to do this, remember that your swimwear will be wet so either bring a set you dont mind thrwoing away or a ziplock plastic bag that will stop the rest of your luggage getting soggy. Lockers are large enough for hand luggage and you can store larger bags for a fee.
Getting to Iceland
Iceland is a short flight from both the UK and USA, making it a fun and alternative city break for both nations. The UK market fairs slightly better on the jetlag front as Reykjavik is set to Greenwich Mean Time which is 5 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
The Iceland Stopover
We mention Iceland as a stopover destination as Icelandair offer a crazy stopover option for trans-Atlantic flights. Your free stopover in Iceland can be from 1-7 days, so it is a great addition to an existing holiday trip, or a nice layover to add on to the end of a work trip…just a thought.
How to Get From Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik
The easiest way to get into Reykjavik is Flybus, part of the Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line family. Buses leave around 40 minutes after flights land, giving people time to clear custms and embark. The bus takes around 45 minutes to get to Reykjavik where guests transfer from the large coach to smallet minbuses to be dropped off right at their hotels. This is an excellent option if you aren’t planning to drive at all, or if you are suffering jetlag. remember to book online in advance to make sure you have a seat. The ticket is around 3,200ISK.
Taking a taxi in Iceland is not a cheap option. As the distance bwteen Keflavik and Reykjavik is large, you can expect to pay upwards of 28,000ISK depending on where you are staying in Reykjavik.
Driving between Keflavik and Reykjavik is easy. The road suraface is great and signs are clear. Bear in mind that:
- Iceland drives on the right
- Seatbelts MUST be worn
- Children under 12 are not allowed to sit in the front
- Using your phone whilst driving is illegal
Where to Stay in Reykjavik
On a Budget
Reykjavik City HI Hostel
Reykjavik City HI Hostel is a proper, old-fashioned youth hostel. Dorms are tight but bathrooms are clean and the doubles are a fine size. The hostel has great facilities for budget travellers like a laundry room and kitchen. Plus, the large garden in the back is lovely for a mid-summer laze.
The location is a little out of town, about 20 minutes from central Reykjavik. It is right by the Laugardalslaug pool, football stadium and site of the Secret Solstice festival that takes place in June.
KEX is marked as one of our favourite hostels around the world. The rooms were cool and industrial whilst also being warm enough to seem cosy. Budget doubles share bathrooms with the dorms at the end of the hall. Recent reviews have mentioned the cleanliness and we hope they are working on it. Private rooms are filled with cool retro furniture and have gorgeous private bathrooms. Breakfasts at KEX are particularly good and the bar is a destination in itself in the evening, attracting local trendies.
Splash the Cash
The city’s first luxury hotel is still one of its greatest. The location is just steps from parliament and is almost a tourist sight in its own right. Throughout Hotel Borg there are some gorgeous art deco details and this includes the unstated and classy Nora Bar. Guests are welcome to use the full spa and gym…so you may need to add another day to your 4 day Reykjavik itinerary!
The facade of Kvosin Hotel is a gloriously Icelandic mansion. Inside, tooms in this hotel are clean and cosy, like a minimalist modern barn conversion. The different tiling from the bathrooms to the reception is contemporary and stylish. The is close to Tjorlin lake. Even in this high-end accommodation, rooms have a little kitchenette allowing guests to prepare their own meals or hot drinks. However, the hotel is more than happy to provide your groceries for your arrival. You don’t get that in a hostel!
Where to Eat in Reykjavik
Eating out in Reykjavik is an expensive business. For those on a really tight budget, self-catering is the best option. Supermarkets can be found in central Reykjavik. However, if you hate washing up or fancy trying something new, here are some good options:
On a Budget
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Translating to “best hotdogs in town”, this is the cheapest meal going outside of the supermarkets. This family-run business has been operating since 1937, serving lamb-based sausages )with a little beef and pork thrown in for good measure). The traditional way to eat one Is, “One with everything”. This gets you a hotdog on a bun with ketchup, mustard, remoulade and both cooked and raw onions.
Sægreifinn (The Sea Baron)
The Sea Baron makes a big claim, to serve, “The best lobster soup in the world”. Now, we haven’t tried them but this one is pretty great and surprisingly good value. Alongside those steaming bowls of creamy lobster soup are simple skewers of fish and vegetables that are chargrilled perfectly.
There aren’t loads of great places in Reykjavik for breakfast, but Babalu Cafe is an exception to that rule. Carb-filled goodies are baked fresh daily and served in an eclectic, cosy cafe. If you come later in the day, you can indulge in some genuine NY cheesecake (the owner is from the USA) and a glass of wine. Happy hour runs from 19:00 – 21:00. Be sure to use the Star Wars themed toilet.
There are those that come to Þrír Frakkar so they can tell their friends they tried the infamous fermented shark. For those in the know, all their dinner efforts are aimed squarely at the beautifully cooked hunks of cod, halibut and plenty of other seafood dishes. Finished dinner with a Skyr brulee. The blend of exceedingly creamy yoghurt and the crisp caramelised top is a light but indulgent finale.
Splash the Cash
Matur og Drykkur
Matur og Drykkur (Food & Drink) is ideal for trying some of Iceland’s traditional cuisine but brought bang up to date. At 11,900ISK, the six-course tasting menu isn’t cheap but it is wonderful. The restaurant is only open Thursday – Sunday for dinner so booking is highly recommended.
Where to Drink in Reykjavik
Alcohol is pricy in Iceland as it is all imported and then taxed heavily. The cheapest option is to bring your own or buy some in duty-free before you leave Keflavik Airport.
Drinking in bars is not cheap but you can save some cash by hitting happy hour! Bear in mind that on weekend evenings, locals don’t venture into town until late and stay out until 04:00 or 05:00. If you start at a 19:00 happy hour, you may flag quite a bit earlier than that. Most bars are strung along Laugavegur, don’t have a cover charge, enjoy a relaxed dress code so a bar crawl is a great way to spend your night out.
The Labowski Bar
Munching on a burger, sipping on a milkshake, listening to classic rock and roll and surrounded by Americana, it is easy to forget that you are in Reykjavik in this bar/diner. It is especially hard after trying each one of the White Russian variations on offer at Lebowski Bar. Happy hour is from 16;00 – 19:00 and covers a selection of beers and wine.
Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed, the whole place meticulously themed on the famous film.
The longest “happy hour” in Reykjavik must be at Bravo. Offers run from 12:00 – 20:00 and probably really contribute to the friendly atmosphere here. With a view out to Laugavegur, it is a wonderful place for a little people watching by day and the live DJs at the weekend make it a fun place to dance at night.
This cool restaurant and cocktail bar offers really interesting drink options like “Resistance is Futile”, a blend of Yucatan flavours including rum, mezcal, lime, agave and chocolate. Not only does Slippbarinn have a happy hour from 15:00 – 18:00, but a very late happy hour from 22:00 – 23:30. Its proximity to Hrapa would make this an excellent spot for a post-show nightcap.
At first glance, it seems that Iceland keeps its cards close to its chest. However, even with only 4 days in Iceland, you may start to reveal Reykjavik’s hand. Whether you meet some friendly locals over a happy hour beverage, fall in love with the stunning natural landmarks or spend a small fortune on food to feed the waterbirds at Tjornin Pond, you’ll leave singing Iceland’s praises!