48 hours in Reykjavík

City Guide: 48 hours in Reykjavík

Reykjavík is the world’s quaint northernmost capital. Its name translates to “smoky bay” and was named so by the first settlers because of the many columns of steam that rose from the hot springs in the area. Nowadays, downtown Reykjavík is vibrant, pedestrian-friendly, and has a “cosmopolitan meets cosy” community vibe. 
Reykjavík is the starting point for most Icelandic adventures. So, what is there to do in Reykjavík?

Day One

Hit the pavement and explore the main streets of the downtown area. Most of the town can be covered in less than a day – it’s that small! Pass by the many colourful houses and vivid murals. Reykjavík has a reputation as one of the world's capitals of street art. Central Reykjavík is perfect for wanderers and daydreamers.

Hallgrimskirkja Church is one of the most recognised structures in Reykjavík and is the city’s tallest building   with a height of 74.5m. The Lutheran parish church has a unique facade that resembles towering basalt columns, mountains and glaciers. There is a small entry fee to take an elevator to the top, where you will have panoramic views of the entire city. 

Solfar, or the Sun Voyager, is another iconic site of the Reykjavík seaside. The Sun Voyager sculpture is often misrepresented as a Viking boat, but it’s actually a symbol of hope and an ode to the sun. 

Speaking of Vikings, just a short time is needed in the capital before it is clear that this little island was once home to the ancient warriors of the high seas. There is no shortage of Viking-themed souvenirs and even a local beer is named after them. If you would like to learn more about Viking culture, the Settlement Exhibition and the Saga Museum are dedicated to just that.

If you have time, finish your day by hopping on a boat tour to try to spot the local whales and puffins in their natural habitat.

Day Two

Hringvegurinn is the national road that connects Reykjavík to the more remote areas (1,332km total distance). Tackling this route in one day is not possible, so check out the just as popular Golden Circle route. There are endless options for organised tours or you can self-drive if you’d like more flexibility.

So, what is the Golden Circle? The short answer is that it's a popular route between three of Iceland’s remarkable natural attractions – National Park Thingvellir, Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall. The distance is just under 230km roundtrip. The scenery is awe-inspiring and you may have some bonus sightings along the way, including Icelandic horses. Plus, if you’re visiting during summer, it doesn’t get dark at night, so you can visit the locations under the midnight sun if you wish.

Geysir is the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur and home to many hot springs. The Strokkur geyser, spouts every five minutes or so and is a spectacular sight.

Gullfoss Waterfall is the most famous waterfall in Iceland. When up close, you can feel the might of the glacial water. 

Thingvellir National Park and Öxarárfoss waterfall holds great historical importance and remarkable geological features. Tectonic plates meet here and Althingi (the Icelandic parliament) was formed on these rocks in 930 AD, making it the oldest parliamentary site in the world. There’s a beautiful waterfall nearby as well. Öxarárfoss and Thingvellir are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and were also the stomping ground of the White Walkers and the trail of the Wildings from North of the Wall in Game of Thrones.

After a day exploring on foot, you might feel like a nice soak in the geothermal waters, so head to Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths. The waters here are said to have healing properties. After unwinding, stop by their geothermal bakery to watch bread baking in the bubbling ground (and devouring after).

Northern Lights

Iceland is an ideal locations to view the Northern Lights. Centuries ago, Vikings thought these dancing lights were the glinting armour of the Valkyries, legendary women who chose who would live and die in battle and then delivered the dead to the afterlife.

To witness the aurora borealis in Iceland requires patience and luck. They are usually visible between September and April, the night must be dark (no full moon). They may be visible from downtown Reykjavík, but the best visibility within the city limits is away from the street lights by the sea at Seltjarnarnes. Of course, heading away from any city or town will maximise your chances of seeing them.
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