Iceland might not be the first location that springs to mind when you think of dream destinations for a romantic getaway, but it should be. Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland.
Reykjavík is a vibrant and unique destination to spend a few days in. Despite its small size, the city is filled with artistic and cultural attractions. From quirky art and museums to high-end fashion and Michelin-star restaurants, Reykjavík has something for everyone.
Iceland is known for its geothermal heating and stunning natural landscapes, including glaciers, geysers, and volcanoes. Reykjavík is your gateway to the black sand beaches and awe-inspiring waterfalls so many come to see. But don’t think of Reykjavík as somewhere to pass through – with its friendly and happy residents, the city embodies a special kind of magic and deserves a little time. It is a place where you can immerse yourself in both the midnight sun and the Northern Lights. Spending at least 48 hours in Reykjavík will allow you to begin exploring all this land of fire and ice offers.
Related article: Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland & Norway
A brief look at Reykjavik’s history:
Reykjavik has a rich history and cultural heritage. The city was settled by Viking settlers from Norway in the 9th century, making it one of the last places on Earth to be inhabited. Norwegian traditions predominantly influence the culture in Reykjavik. Originally a Catholic city under the Danish crown, Reykjavik underwent the Icelandic Reformation in 1550 and switched to Lutheranism. In addition to the mainstream faiths, there are also alternative religions practised, such as Ásatrúarfélagið, a heathenry movement that emerged in the 1970s, and Zuism, a modern Sumerian religion founded in the 2010s. Reykjavik is home to approximately 123,000 residents, while the entire nation has a population of around 366,000.
Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík.
Morning: explore the city with a free walking tour
Downtown Reykjavik is a highly walkable area, making it a convenient place to stay and explore. To get acquainted with downtown Reykjavik and its history, a free walking tour with CityWalk Reykjavik is a great starting point. The knowledgeable and charming guides provide insights into the history of Iceland, the evolution of Reykjavík as a town, and Icelandic culture in an informative and entertaining way. This walking tour operates on a “pay what you want” basis, allowing participants to set the price of the tour afterwards.
On your walking tour, you’ll visit Hallgrímskirkja Church, the largest church in Iceland – its unique architecture makes it easily recognisable from anywhere in the city. The church is designed to resemble a mountain with jagged edges, giving it a distinct and striking appearance. Visitors can take an elevator to the bell tower for breathtaking panoramic views of the city and, on clear days, even catch a glimpse of the Snaefellsjokull glacier-capped volcano.
Additionally, the church is located on Skolavordustigur Street, famous for its Rainbow Road. This colourful street art installation was painted initially for Pride month but has now become a popular spot for tourists to take photos.
Afternoon: lakes, cultural sites, food halls,… and more!
After you finish your free walking tour of downtown Reykjavík and have seen the main attractions downtown there may be some sites you want to go back to and spend more time at.
Should you be ready to move on, the tour would have finished at City Hall, and from there, you can take a leisurely walk through the bustling shopping district to reach Tjörnin Lake, located in the heart of the city and offering plenty of options for your afternoon.
Tjörninis a beautiful lake that offers various activities throughout the year. In the winter, the lake freezes over, providing a unique opportunity for ice skating. However, the Icelandic authorities ensure that a portion of the lake remains unfrozen to preserve bird habitat.
The shores of Lake Tjörnin are also home to several popular tourist attractions – some of which you would have covered on your free walking tour. On the northern bank, you can find important government buildings such as the Icelandic Parliament and Reykjavik City Hall, which feature a fascinating 3D map of Iceland. On the eastern bank, you’ll discover the striking Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík, a Lutheran Free Church, and the National Gallery of Iceland, housing a significant collection of Icelandic artwork. To the southwest of Tjörnin is a tranquil park adorned with sculptures created by Icelandic women sculptors and the National Museum of Iceland, a must-visit destination in Reykjavik. So, as you can see, you can easily spend the afternoon in this part of town – map out an itinerary that suits you!
If you are in the city on the weekend, the flea market, popular among Icelanders and tourists, offers a variety of goods, including clothes, toys, souvenirs, vinyl, and food. It’s situated by the harbour and is only open on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am to 5 pm.
Be sure to head to the newly developed area of the old harbour and visit the Hafnartorg Gallery, a stylish and vibrant destination for shopping, dining, and cultural experiences. With over 30 stores and restaurants within the fabulous food hall, visitors can enjoy a blend of international brands, unique local designs, and cuisine. Situated between Arnarhóll and the Kolapórtið flea market, the Hafnartorg Gallery perfectly complements the surrounding area with its stylish decor and diverse range of shops and restaurants.
Eat & Drink Reykjavik
You’ll be wanting to eat out tonight no doubt, but it’s important to note that many restaurants in Reykjavik, even in winter, require reservations due to high demand so plan ahead. Whether you’re seeking fine dining, affordable meals, or a casual spot after a day of exploring, there are numerous options. Here are a few worth exploring:
If you’re craving locally caught fish, Fiskfélagið is the place to go. Their sushi platter and catch of the day are highly recommended. They also offer langoustines, scallops, Arctic char, and vegan options.
If a casual dining experience is more what you’re after. Head to Sæta Svínið, which means ‘Sweet Pig’. This friendly gastropub offers curated and high-quality food in a traditional Icelandic house near Ingólfur Square.
Another option is Messinn, a small and cozy restaurant specialising in local seafood. Their fish pans, which feature freshly cooked fish served with potatoes and vegetables in a hot pan, are particularly popular.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is the place to go for a quick and tasty meal. Translating to ‘the best hotdogs in town’, this historic hotdog stand has been serving delicious hotdogs since 1937. It has expanded to 7 outlets across the city due to its popularity among locals and visitors
Day two – Iceland’s incredible nature
A visit to the Blue Lagoon should be one of the first things on your list when you arrive in Iceland. This is a giant outdoor geothermal spa, which is a perfect shade of milky blue. A combination of minerals, silica and healthy algae keep the waters pristine and gift the lagoon its unique colour.
A perfect place for some honeymoon relaxation, treat yourselves to couples spa treatments. You can even receive spa treatments and massages floating on the water on a mattress in the lagoon – so you never miss a chance to enjoy the natural surrounds and breathe in the unspoilt air. Take the opportunity to relax, indulge in facemasks, and capture memorable selfies. Afterward, complete your visit with a delightful lunch at the renowned Lava Restaurant, located within the Blue Lagoon.
While in summer the lagoon is surrounded by rolling green hills, in winter these turn white with snow, creating a magical atmosphere combined with steam rising from the waters.
To fully enjoy the serene and uncrowded atmosphere, it is recommended to visit the Blue Lagoon in the morning.
Afternoon – more wild adventures
If you’re an active couple, head for the hills. Iceland has a beautiful, dramatic landscape, with rising volcanos, deep valleys, waterfalls and meadows – all you can imagine from a fairy tale and more. You can embark upon self-guided walks, perfect for those seeking an intimate experience, or join a guided hike.
Those seeking a truly unique adventure might want to explore the scenery together on horseback. Trot gently over volcanic rocks, gallop around mountains and untouched wilderness all from the back of a steed as the wind blows through your hair.
Yet another amazing option is Whale Watching! Reykjavik offers year-round whale watching opportunities, with the best time to see a larger number of minke and humpback whales being from May to September. Whale Safari offers a Classic Whale Watching Tour that leaves six times a day, and if you’re there between May to August, you might even spot adorable puffins.
Evening – so many choices!
One of Iceland’s most spectacular attractions is the Northern Lights phenomenon, also known as Aurora Borealis. This is when the sky lights up in an array of colours, though most often a shade of green, as electronically charged particles from the sun collide with the upper atmosphere.
There is no experience in the world quite like sitting with a loved one and witnessing this jaw-dropping event. To see the Northern Lights, your best bet is to head to Iceland in winter when the nights are long and clear. Local tour providers can take you to the best lookout spots slightly outside the city, where you can cuddle up and wait for this masterpiece of nature to appear.
In central Reykjavik the night life is vibrant. There is a huge variety of bars, clubs and pubs so whether you’re after an all-out rave or a more serene glass of wine, there’s something for everybody.
Enjoy a romantic, candlelit meal looking out to the water and see if the Icelandic party mood sweeps you off your feet to dance the night away.
When your feet tire, remember there is a heavenly bed waiting for you at one of the city’s beautiful luxury resorts.
If you have more time, and looking to escape the city and explore the natural wonders of Iceland, the Golden Circle is a must-visit. This popular tourist route can be done in a day trip from Reykjavik and includes three main attractions. One of these is the stunning Gulfoss waterfall, known for its double cascade and powerful flow in the summer months. During the winter, the falls freeze over, creating a breathtaking icy landscape. If you’re a fan of Echo and The Bunnymen, you may even recognise the frozen falls from the cover of their Porcupine LP. Read Matt Brace’s guide to the incredible sights waiting for you in Iceland’s Golden Circle.
FAST FACTS (INCLUDING A FEW SURPRISING ONES!)
- Despite its chilly temperatures, the city offers a warm and welcoming atmosphere. With an average temperature of 31°F in January and 58°F in July, visitors can experience the beauty of the midnight sun in the summer and the mesmerising aurora borealis in the winter.
- Reykjavik made history in 2011 by becoming the first non-native-English city recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature. This prestigious designation was given to Reykjavik in recognition of its rich literary history, which includes the renowned Norse sagas. Additionally, the city was acknowledged for its ongoing commitment to promoting and celebrating literature in contemporary society.
- Iceland is known for its volcanic activity, and the country harnesses the power of geothermal energy to meet a significant portion of its hot water and heating needs. This renewable energy source provides around 90% Iceland’s requirements and creates popular hot pools like the Blue Lagoon.
- It’s never been hotter than 80 degrees. Despite the effects of climate change leading to rising temperatures in Iceland, particularly during the winter season, Reykjavik still maintains its reputation as one of the cloudiest and coolest capital cities globally. In fact, the highest recorded temperature in Reykjavik stands at just 78.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which occurred in July 2008.
- You won’t find any McDonald’s, Starbucks, casinos, or army in Iceland. However, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and TGIF’s have managed to maintain a presence.