Updated on December 21st, 2021
Iceland is a magical place filled with volatile volcanoes, spectacular glaciers, epic waterfalls, unique horses, rejuvenating natural spas and incredible people. It is much more than its capital city. However, if you have limited time or resources, then Reykjavik is the ideal place to base yourself to get a taste of all that Iceland has to offer. So, if you only have 3 days in Reykjavik, read on to find out the best way to spend them!”
For anyone visiting Iceland, Reykjavik will be the first port of call. For many, it may be the base for their whole time & it is the perfect place to get a flavour of what this fascinating country has to offer. After discovering the wonders of North Iceland on an amazing yoga retreat, I then hired a car to explore the natural beauty of the south coast, as well as spend some time in its capital city.
As a result, I have compiled this guide to the best things to do with 3 days in Reykjavik. The aim is for you to see some of the best that this spectacular country has to offer if you only have limited time. And trust me, if it does nothing else, it will make you want to return to see more!
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Getting there & around
To begin your 3 days in Reykjavik, you will be flying into Keflavik International Airport. Taxis, as with everything in Iceland, are expensive. Therefore, your best option is to take a shuttle bus transfer from the airport into the city. There are plenty to choose from & they can drop & pick you up outside your hotel, or at least very close to it. However, plan for the journey to be at least 2 hours.
I have included many options for tours in this part of Iceland (trust me, you will have plenty of choice!), but you may prefer to drive yourself. I hired a car for 3 days to explore the south coast alone & I loved it. A road trip allows for greater flexibility but if you have limited time, then you can’t beat taking a tour so you can relax & enjoy the journey. Bear in mind that these 3 days in Reykjavik will be busy, so choosing to conserve your energy rather than taking on some of these long drives could be the best option.
In addition, you get the benefit of knowledge from your guide along the way with all their interesting facts & insight into Icelandic culture.”
3 Days in Reykjavik – Your Perfect Iceland itinerary
With limited time, it is a good idea to have a few things booked before you arrive. To see the best of Iceland, is to get out of the city but there is plenty to see before you go. Here are my highlights for you to choose from:
Free Walking Tour
In any city, my first port of call is to find a free walking tour. For Reykjavik, it was an invaluable way to start understanding the culture & history of Iceland. In terms of big sights, I’ll be honest, there weren’t loads. Even my favourites (Hallgrímskikja & the Sun Voyager) were not included! But for the sheer volume of information on the history, geology & people of the country it was the perfect start. I went with citywalk.is & couldn’t recommend them highly enough.
This is an unmissable landmark & visible for 20km but actually not the cathedral. Hallgrímskirkja should definitely be on your itinerary for 3 days in Reykjavik. Architecturally, the outside columns are based on the hexagonal volcanic basalt rock which is prevalent throughout the country. The interior is quite plain by comparison with the centrepiece being the impressive 5275-pipe organ.
Don’t miss the chance to take the lift up the tower for great views & another perspective on the city.”
Discover Iceland’s history
If the history of Iceland & its Viking past interests you, then there are some excellent museums to explore. I went to the Settlement Exhibition which is a museum created around a Viking longhouse that was discovered here during building work in 2001. It is a great combination of multimedia exhibits to help you imagine the lives of the early settlers. If you get there at 11am you can join a guided tour (June to August). Alternatively, check out the National Museum of Iceland which contains artefacts from the Vikings to the modern age. It is apparently a superb museum for understanding the history & culture of the country.
If you are looking for pretty much everything, all under one roof then head to Perlan! It is easily identifiable with its huge, mirrored dome on the roof. Inside it contains a Nature Exploratorium celebrating the wonders of the natural world in interactive & audiovisual styles. It includes an ice cave, a life-sized augmented reality bird cliff, shows on volcanoes & a planetarium which displays the northern lights in all its technicolour glory. In addition, there is an observation deck with magnificent views & numerous walking & cycle tracks in the surrounding area. What’s more, you can get a free shuttle bus there from outside Harpa. Speaking of which…
On the water’s edge sits Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall. It is a stunning building made to represent Iceland. The angles are the volcanic basalt rock, the many panes of glass which glisten in the sunlight are the scales of the fish & its green colour, the northern lights. You can head inside where it is equally as alluring, take a guided tour or even see a performance (check out what’s on HERE).
Each window also has an LED light inside (714 in total) which create impressive light shows if you visit at night.”
The Old Harbour is well worth a visit for many reasons. The views of the fishing boats, glittering Harpa concert hall & snow-capped mountains beyond are reason enough. However, here you will also find museums, an excellent exhibit on the Northern Lights & a great selection of restaurants. It is also the place to come for whale or puffin watching tours (more on that later).
Although it barely gets a mention in a lot of the guidebooks (or the walking tour for that matter), one of my favourite sites in Reykjavik was the Sun Voyager sculpture. The sculpture (also called Solfar) sits on the waterfront & was the creation of Icelandic artist Jon Gunnar Arnason. It apparently represents the “bones” of a Viking ship. The sculptor intended it to convey the “promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.”
Maybe it was this that made the artwork resonate so strongly with me, as Iceland was my first trip away post lockdown. Or maybe it was the fact that every time I visited, the sun appeared!”
Also referred to as The Pond, this lake in the city is a hive of activity, especially for the local birdlife. There are sculpture parks to explore, cycle & running tracks to discover & if you are here in winter, you could even get to ice skate on the frozen lake!
And finally in the city itself, what about something completely different…
Icelandic Phallological Museum
If the geographical wonders of this stunning country aren’t enough to excite you, then maybe you would enjoy a museum dedicated to celebrating the penis! Here you get to see the members of 286 different species of Icelandic mammals. I am told it is well done but must admit that my priorities were elsewhere!
Hopefully, that is enough to give you a flavour of the capital city & an understanding of Icelandic culture & history. The next day is all about getting out of the city to explore the magnificent landscapes.
The unmissable Golden Circle is the most popular tour in Iceland for good reason. After all, where else can you walk the land between two continents, snorkel in glacial waters, get soaked in spray from an epic waterfall and watch a geyser explode every 5 minutes? And all in one day and within easy reach of the city? As the 2nd of our 3 days in Reykjavik, this one is hard to beat.
I have a whole blog post on the amazing wonders of a day on the Golden Circle & there are lots of different tours available should you wish to take one. They include all sorts of add-ons & variations on the mind-blowing sights along the route. However, all will include a visit to Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall & the Geysir Geothermal Area.
Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site & THE most important place in Iceland. The Park has huge historical significance as the location of the first-ever parliament (not just in Iceland…in the world). It also marks the point where two mighty tectonic plates meet. Here you can walk in No-man’s-land through the gap where the North American & Eurasian plates are pulling apart.
One of the best activities I did in Iceland was to snorkel in the freezing glacial waters between the 2 plates. If this appeals to you then do not miss my guide on everything you need to know about snorkelling in the Silfra Fissure.”
To learn more about the impact all this geological activity has on the landscapes of Iceland, check out my post on the Mývatn Geothermal Area in North Iceland.
Gullfoss thunders down the canyon, falling 32 metres en route. However, it is less about the height, more the sheer volume of water which is mesmerising. It’s hard to believe how this much water can be flowing anywhere this consistently. Gullfoss is one of the most spectacular waterfalls I have ever visited, & I’ve seen a few epic ones in my time (Niagara, Victoria & Iguazu Falls to name a few).
Geysir Geothermal Area
All geysers in the world were named after the explosive water spring here, which ironically is currently inactive. Its neighbour Strokkur on the other hand is a very regular contributor to the landscape. Strokkur sends its explosive plume of hot water up to 30 metres into the air, roughly every 5-10 minutes. In addition, you’ll find several bright blue steaming & bubbling pools to discover in this mind-boggling area.
There has been an obvious omission to this list so far & that is the place named one of the 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic in 2012, the infamous Blue Lagoon. It sits so close to Reykjavik, that a soak in its opaque aqua waters would be the perfect end to any day or the ideal stopover en route to & from the airport. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it here on my trip as I ran out of time but having sampled the waters of the “Blue Lagoon of the North”, I will definitely be paying a visit when I return.
The water here is rich in silica mud, mineral salts & blue-green algae resulting in your skin being left glowing & soft.”
The final one of your 3 days in Reykjavik offers up numerous choices, depending on what suits your needs best:
South Coast Tour
If you fancy another tour around more stunning landscapes, then I thoroughly recommend a tour along the south coast of Iceland. For your efforts, you will be rewarded with some spectacular waterfalls in the form of Seljalandsfoss & Skógarfoss. Additionally, you can marvel at the black sand beach (Reynisfjara) with its amazing basalt columns & fascinating Sólheimajökull Glacier. You could add on a glacier hike to this for a truly mind-blowing experience. I certainly will never forget my hike on the glacier which you can read all about in my post about one of the best activities in South Iceland.
Fagradalsfjall Active Volcano Hike
One activity I regret not taking on is this hike to see Iceland’s newest volcano. After all, it’s not every day you get to see an actual volcano erupting (not when you live in the UK anyway).
If you’re lucky you will see the orange lava spewing from the earth. If it’s raining, you may just be met with very low visibility & not see anything. But you don’t know until you go!”
And for lovers of the local wildlife, there’s always whale & puffin watching, or a chance to practice your horsemanship. The Icelandic horses are unique in the world as they have a couple of special gaits. They are so used to the rough terrain that they can trot over it & stay stable. They say that you can hold a glass of beer in one hand while the horse trots & not spill a drop. Why not test it for yourself?
I was given some great advice when I first arrived in Reykjavik. The best things to choose from any menu are either “fish of the day” or lamb. The fish will be the freshest you will eat anywhere & the lamb will have had a happy & ultra-free-range life.
I adopted this mantra throughout my stay in Iceland, mainly with the fish (I was never disappointed) & the few times I ate lamb, it was exceptional!”
I ate mainly around the Old Harbour (after all where will you find fish fresher?). For good value, canteen-style eating, try Grandi Mathöll. It is the old fish factory, now converted into a food hall. I had a delicious first lunch at Garlic there. Another cheap option is the institution that is Sægreifinn. It is most famous for lobster soup & also has a selection of fresh fish skewers which you can choose from to have grilled. It is down-to-earth but don’t necessarily expect service with a smile! For something with a more traditional sit-down restaurant feel, I really enjoyed my dinner at Coocoo’s Nest, just make sure to make a reservation as it can be a popular spot.
Finally, I didn’t try one but the oldest & most popular restaurant in Reykjavik is the hotdog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. They serve only lamb hotdogs & I assume they are good as it was never without a queue when I passed.
Where to stay
I ended up staying at two different hotels for my trip to Reykjavik. I enjoyed my time at the CenterHotel Plaza & the Apotek Hotel by Keahotels. Both are very centrally located. To find your perfect room for the night, check out the search box below.
So, there you have it, my guide to spending your perfect 3 days in Reykjavik. I have no doubt it will be a packed agenda, but I’m also sure that Iceland will just leave you the same way it did me, longing to return to see more!
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