24 Hours in...Reykjavik

Glaciers, hot springs and Nordic fare

Iceland isn’t called the “land of fire and ice” for nothing. Full of hot springs, erupting geysers (and occasionally erupting volcanoes), waterfalls, glaciers, and the Northern Lights, it’s a country of surreal landscapes, staggering beauty, and endless adventures – many of which are close to the capital city, Reykjavik.

Only there for a quick stopover? This guide to 24 Hours in Reykjavik packs in a bit of everything. Be sure to pack for cold weather, even in the summer. 

Wake Up at Kex Hostel

Housed in an old biscuit factory in the heart of compact downtown Reykjavik (called the 101 by locals, in reference to the postcode), Kex Hostel offers private and shared rooms in a lively atmosphere. There’s self-service laundry, a gym, an outdoor patio, guest kitchens, bikes for rent, and an on-site gastropub so good it attracts locals as well as guests. While rooms are stylishly austere in an oh-so-Nordic way, communal spaces are warm and inviting.

Address: Skúlagata 28, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland 

Snorkel in the clearest water in the world

At Þingvellir National Park (famous in its own right as the site of the world’s first Parliament) you can dive or snorkel above the Silfra fissure that descends hundreds of feet towards the center of the earth.  The water that fills the rift flows down from glaciers and is filtered via lava rocks, making it some of the clearest in the world; all year round, the temperature is a brisk 35°F, (a wetsuit will be your best friend).

Try Iceland’s favorite food

Forget what you might have heard about rotten shark and boiled lamb’s head (apologies if this is the first time you’ve heard this). The most quintessential Icelandic food is actually the hot dog. But this is no ordinary frank. Icelandic hot dogs are made of lamb and if you order one with everything (“ein með öllu”) you’ll get it topped with sweet brown mustard, raw and fried onions, remoulade, and ketchup. At around 300 ISK or $2.50 each they’re one of the cheapest meals in Iceland, and certainly the most popular. You can find them at any gas station or convenience store, but locals swear the best is from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which has served dogs to both Bill Clinton and members of Metallica in its 78 year history.

Go for a ride

Approximately 11 percent of Iceland’s landmass is covered by glaciers. See one of them in style on a snowmobile excursion. Four-hour adventures on the Langjökull glacier include one hour of adrenaline-filled riding (plus travel time to and from the city).

For horsepower of a more literal kind, take a ride on an Icelandic horse. Descended from horses first brought over by Vikings, Icelandic horses are short, stocky, and – in winter – adorably furry. They also have a special smooth, fast gait called the tölt, which makes a ride on an Icelandic horse unlike any other in the world.

See a show at Harpa

Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall – a steel-frame building with geometric glass panels of different colors – isn’t just an amazing piece of architecture on the harborfront. It’s a center for performing arts ranging from opera and classical music to comedy shows and pop bands.

Address: Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland

Sample New Nordic Cuisine

There was a time in Iceland’s not-so-distant past when the country’s version of cuisine was lamb stew and fish hash. Now many of Reykjavik’s restaurants are considered some of the best in Europe. At Dill, the focus is on New Nordic cuisine, using locally sourced, traditionally Icelandic ingredients combined with molecular gastronomy and haute cuisine techniques. Think: salted cod with seafood foam and reindeer sausage. It’s pricey (and maybe a tad unfamiliar), but trust us, it’s worth it. The tasting menu is available in three, five, and seven courses and changes often.

Address: Hverfisgata 12, Reykjavík, Iceland

Sip some Icelandic brews

Reykjavik has an inordinate amount of bars for a city its size. On weekdays, the scene is relatively quiet, but on weekends the city center comes alive. Locals don’t head out until after midnight, and most stay out until 4 or 5am. Who needs sleep, anyway?

There are live music clubs, dance clubs, whiskey bars, even a Big Lebowski-themed bar. For the country’s best craft beer, head to Kaldi Bar, an intimate pub with a rotating selection of draft and bottled beer, plenty of cozy nook seating, and great happy hour specials.

Address: Laugavegur 20b, 101, Reykjavík - Iceland

Chase the Northern Lights

Everyone who visits Iceland between September and March likely shares one to-do item: seeing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. A sighting is never a guarantee and requires the perfect combination of a clear night and solar activity (check the forecast) but if you get lucky, you’ll be treated to one of the most spectacular shows of your life.

You need to get out of the city to have a chance at a viewing; many companies offer tours, or you can combine an Aurora hunt with a hot spring soak. The Secret Lagoon, a hot spring 30 minutes from the city, is a quieter, smaller, and more natural version of the famous Blue Lagoon. During a night time soak, swimmers are given special caps and leg supports to help them float so they can lay back, relax, and hopefully, enjoy nature’s most beautiful show.

Address:  Hvammsvegur - 845 Flúðir - South Iceland

On the road soon? We’ve got more travel guides. Check out our 24 Hours in Boston for more good food, drinks and sights.