To start this guide, I will stress this itinerary is best for those with 48 hours in Reykjavik – not 48 hours in Iceland. We paired two full days in Reykjavik with three outside of the city. If you only have two (or three) days in Iceland, you will probably focus your planning on day (and nightly Northern Lights) trips from Reykjavik. If you do have more than a few days in Iceland, I’d suggest 48 hours in Reykjavik!
We traveled to Iceland in the middle of February and it’s a great time to go — the flights are cheap, the days are slightly longer than in the dead of winter and, of course, it’s Northern Lights season. The cheap flights, however, came with the classic 4AM arrival in Reykjavik and while planning the trip, I spent a significant amount of time deciding how we’d get through that first day.
4AM : Arrival in Reykjavik
We decided to head straight from the airport to the Blue Lagoon and definitely think this is the best way to start a trip. The Blue Lagoon is in between Reykjavik and the airport in Keflavik, which is why most people suggest visiting on your way in or out of the country. After landing, going through customs and collecting our bags, we had two hours to kill at the airport as the Blue Lagoon doesn’t open until 8. Honestly, this was not a hard task as Keflavik is one of the nicest airports I’ve been to. We used the time to buy a converter (embarrassed to admit we somehow forgot one…), use the ATM (not that cash is necessary anywhere in Iceland), and grab a smoothie from the Scandinavian classic — Joe & the Juice.
8AM : Recharging at the Blue Lagoon
There are people who plan stopovers in Iceland just to visit the Blue Lagoon. It’s definitely one of the most popular attractions in Iceland and we were pretty excited to go. We took FlyBus from the airport to the Blue Lagoon and the first bus left at 7:30, arriving just in time for the opening at 8. We arrived and checked our bags at the super convenient bag check area for ~$5 (the only thing in Iceland for $5) and proceeded to check-in! It is absolutely vital to book your tickets for the Blue Lagoon in advance. We watched far too many people get turned away at the door as tickets were completely sold out. We booked the Comfort package, which comes with admission, a towel, one drink, and two different masks in the pools. I wouldn’t stress much over which package to get — unless you’re spending the entire day at the lagoon/spa, you probably only need a towel. All of the robes and slippers end up in a pile at the entrance and I can’t imagine anyone remembers which are their own. And if you can even bring your own towel, the Standard package will cut it.
It’s amazing how high tech and efficient a geothermal spa can be. The Blue Lagoon has logistics figured out very well — once you check in, you proceed to the locker room and use the fancy wristband to unlock a locker. And yes, the rumors are true, you must rinse off naked before entering the lagoon. I must say, this really isn’t as odd as it sounds as the showers have doors and you can re-dress before exiting your shower.
We spent ~3 hours in the pools, trying the different masks, and enjoying the delicious skyr smoothies at the swim-up bar. It was extremely relaxing and rejuvenating and made us forget we had just spent 6 hours on Wow Airlines flight. In planning the visit, we thought we might see the sunrise from the lagoon, but sadly, it was completely foggy the entire time. We couldn’t even see from one end of the lagoon to the other! We would’ve loved to see the full view of the lagoon on a clear day, but going to Iceland also means expecting the unexpected conditions.
We caught the FlyBus to Reykjavik at 12:15 (they ran once an hour) and headed to our AirBnB to check in. FlyBus was great as it dropped each of us off right by our respective hotels. Lodging in Reykjavik is pretty expensive and AirBnB was a great alternative! Our place was pretty basic and slightly on the outskirts of the main area, but everything was still withing walking distance! If you’ve never used AirBnB, I’d 100% recommend trying it and you can get $40 off your first stay!
2PM : A First Taste of Iceland
We scheduled a walking tour for the afternoon so we wouldn’t have any time to relax and accidentally fall asleep! But before meeting up with the tour, we stopped at Baejarins Bextu Pylsur aka the Best Hot Dogs in Town! This is an extremely unassuming cart off the main street in Reykjavik that everyone from Bill Clinton to Anthony Bourdain has visited. Hot dogs are the unofficial national food of Iceland (if you’d like to try the official national food of fermented shark, you’re on your own). They’re made differently from American hot dogs (lamb, pork, and beef), so it’s worth trying even if you’re not a hot dog fan. If you order with “The Works” it will come with raw and fried onion, ketchup, remoulade, and sweet mustard. I’d definitely recommend a stop here, not only to test out the hype, but also because it’s an extremely cheap lunch option! This is just one of hundreds of places to get a hotdog in Reykjavik and if you feel so inclined, you can visit a few others to determine whether this one really is best.
3PM : Getting our Bearings
I always like to start my visit in a new city with a walking (or biking!) tour to get acquainted with the streets and learn a bit of history. We signed up for a two-hour walking tour with CityWalk. The tour was free and leaves the “price” up to individuals following the tour. Needless to say, these tours run on donations, and I never walk away without paying the guide, but I was pleasantly surprised how little pressure CityWalk applied on the group at the end of the tour. I have been on some “free” tours that hound people at the end to ensure they pay enough — not CityWalk!
Tours like these are also a great way to get recommendations from a local and wow – CityWalk really delivered on this aspect! After the tour, they sent us an email with enough recommendations to fill 48 days in Reykjavik. Even though it was February, the weather in Iceland was bearable for a two-hour walking tour. The tour also conveniently ended at Tjornin Pond which was beautiful at sunset! If you’re up for it, you can take a walk around the pond too!
6PM : Warming up with Soup
Following the tour, we decided to grab an early dinner and nothing sounded better than soup. We headed to Svarta Kaffid, a small, casual spot with soup in bread bowls! They only have two soups every night – one vegetarian option and one meat option. The specials change every day, but we were lucky enough to stop by on a night they were serving a delicious creamy lamb soup. If you’re feeling adventurous, reindeer soup is also on the list of rotating options. This is also a great place to stop in the middle of a cold day of sightseeing to share a soup (or have a hearty snack).
If it isn’t your first night in Iceland or you’re looking for a sit-down dinner, we also ate at Pizza with No Name while in Reykjavik. This is an intimate, cozy, and delicious restaurant. Just thinking about it makes me want the potato truffle pizza and a beer again!
Picking out restaurants is one of my favorite parts of travelling. I love trying ALL the local specialties, even if that means having 5 meals a day. But, I must caveat that I approached Iceland a bit differently. I’m not a HUGE fish lover, and I definitely didn’t feel inclined to pay $50+ for a fish dinner at one of Reykjavik’s top restaurants. Both Svarta Kaffid and Pizza with No Name are great restaurants that serve more traditional options (with Icelandic influences) and for prices that won’t make you question if you have the right exchange rate.
I’ll admit it, we went to bed by 8pm on our first night in Reykjavik, but if you’re up for more than we were, the CityWalk team also does a Pub Crawl Tour which we heard great things about! Depending on your schedule, you may want to book a Northern Lights tour for your first night in Reykjavik. It’s advisable to book a tour for your first night, because the tour companies will bring you out multiple times, until you get a sighting. We were optimistic we would be able to see the Lights during our stay outside of Reykjavik and decided not to pay for an additional tour in Reykjavik. However, I’d suggest monitoring the forecasts once you arrive – if your first or second night in Reykjavik is looking good for viewing, it’s worth taking advantage of that and joining a tour!
9AM : Breakfast at Bergsson Mathus
We woke up and headed for a delicious breakfast plate at Bergsson Mathus. The plate was a smorgasbord of toast, yogurt, cheese, fruit, an egg, and even bacon – reminiscent of breakfasts found across Scandinavia! If you prefer a lighter breakfast, head to Bonus or another grocery store and pick up some skyr, aka Iceland’s famous yogurt. It’s not technically yogurt, but that’s the closest thing we have. I wish they sold more skyr in the US because I would choose it over yogurt every time. We probably had at least one every day in Iceland and bought 4 in the airport with our leftover kronas…
11AM : Panoramic views atop Hallgrimskirkja
After breakfast, we walked to Hallgrimskirkja, the church whose tower you’ve undoubtedly seen while walking around Reykjavik. For ~$8, you can take the elevator to the top of the tower and experience a full 360 degree view of the city! The views are great, and it’s definitely worth seeing all the colorful city buildings with the mountains in the distance!
12PM : Stop in a Puffin Store or two
The two main shopping streets in Reykjavik are Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur. From Hallgrimskirkja, you can walk straight down Skolavordustigur. Along the way, you can stop in the many charming boutiques, design stores, and “puffin shops” – the local nickname for tourist shops selling souvenirs, wool sweaters, and various puffin items. When you come to the end of Skolavordustigur, the street meets Laugavegur where you can turn right and head up another row of stores. If you’re looking for caffeine, Kaffitar is near the intersection of these two streets and became our go-to spot!
Whether you’ve worked up an appetite or are only up for a quick pastry, stop at Sandholdt Bakery on Laugavegur. I was told their pastries rival those in Paris and their sandwiches are also delicious!
3PM : Thermal pools pt. 2
After spending a few hours walking around Reykjavik, we decided to spend the later part of the afternoon like the locals do – at a public pool. There are lots of options in the vicinity, varying in size and style. We headed to Laugardalslaug, the largest of the pools (and probably the most recommended). It’s a pretty impressive facility with waterslides and an Olympic size pool, but in the middle of February all that mattered were the numerous geothermal tubs. Admission is only about ~$10 (for the day), plus a few dollars if you also need a towel. Laugardalslaug is a bit outside of the city center, but it is easily accessible on the #14 bus which can be caught from Laekjartorg, one of the main squares in the center of the city. If you’re looking for a smaller pool try Vesturbaejarlaug and if you’re looking for one where you’ll be the only tourist, try Aebaejarlaug.
7PM : Crazy Icelandic Bingo
We ate our final meal in Reykjavik at Saeta Svinid Gastropub, but it was much more than just dinner. When looking into the restaurant, I learned they host bingo every Sunday night with “Iceland’s most famous fortune teller, astronomer, and head queen.” Our last night in Reykjavik happened to be on a Sunday and, to me, this seemed like a sign that we had to try the bingo. The “party bingo” was 75% party and 25% bingo and we had an absolute blast. We were the only non-Icelanders in the cellar of Saeta Svinid, but embraced the craziness and the language barrier. Now, this is not for you if you’d consider yourself a competitive bingo player as she only remembered to call out half the numbers in English, but we still enjoyed dancing to YMCA on the chairs. It was a night we will not soon forget! If you’re not in Reykjavik on a Sunday, Saeta Svinid is still worth a visit for its food – a great mix of classics with Icelandic influences. It was the most expensive meal we had in Reykjavik, but still on the cheaper side for the city!
To Reykjavik & Beyond
The next morning we left Reykjavik for a 3-day, 2-night excursion with Goecco. It was great to have Reykjavik as a home base for two days, but we were also excited to explore much of Iceland’s natural beauty. This tour was perfect because it virtually combined 5 tours into one! We visited the Golden Circle, South Shore, and the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where we walked on the glacier to find an ice cave! We spent the two nights at a cozy house outside of Reykjavik where we had perfect skies to scope out the Northern Lights — another positive of spending a few nights outside of the city!