Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Reykjavik. Most travel guides to Iceland rave more about the countryside than the city. They might say, “Reykjavik is okay, but make sure you see the Golden Circle/Blue Lagoon/Giant Fire Trolls That Hide in Volcanoes.” Well, as impressive as those fire trolls are, don’t sleep on spending at least 24 hours in Reykjavik.
Iceland’s capital is full of amazing food, gorgeous architecture, and fascinating history. Plus, it’s so peaceful that the city doesn’t even need a full-time prison. Don’t believe me? Then follow along for our 24 Hours in Reykjavik as I prove it to you.
24 Hours in Reykjavik
Where to Stay
Reykjavik is an extremely expensive city, so it can be hard to find a place to rest your head for your one day in Reykjavik day trip that is both high quality and affordable. That’s why I loved the Brattagata Guesthouse. The owner was very friendly, the room was cozy, the curtains effectively blocked out the constant sunshine, and the breakfast, complete with skyr, was amazing.
24 Hours in Reykjavik
What to Pack
Iceland is not as cold as you might expect, but it can get rainy. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Reykjavik.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out and about without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or UK plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours in Reykjavik
Morning: Reykjavik Food Tour
If I had my druthers, I’d spend every morning in an unfamiliar city on a food tour of said town. You can receive a delicious and informative introduction to a place’s history, culture, and food, all for one low, low price. (OK, this is Iceland, and the prices ain’t low. But everything else applies.)
That’s why I decided to start this 24 Hours in Reykjavik with Wake Up Reykjavik’s Food Tour and learn more about Icelandic cuisine than just fermented shark and skyr. I know Wake Up Reykjavik sounds like a morning show hosted by blonde giants, but though our guide Egill was quite tall, he was not blonde and he had much more to offer than inane banter and weather updates. I shall demonstrate with…
approximately top 5: reykjavik food tour
1) Culture House
Our first stop of the tour was at a restaurant located on the ground floor of the Culture House Museum. This museum contains artifacts and treasures pertaining to the unique culture of Iceland. I thought there was a possibility that it was a house dedicated to yogurt, but I quickly learned that yogurt is a very controversial subject in Reykjavik, and it’s best not to mention it.
The Culture House restaurant makes its fresh baked goods daily, so Egill said there was no way to know exactly what we were going to get. Fortunately we received my favorite kind of breakfast: a homemade chocolate chip cookie served in a wee skillet and topped with cream. Healthy eating is for the weak, says I!
Egill also shared with us some skyr, which is a thick Icelandic milk product that is difficult to describe. You are supposed to serve it with sugar and cream on top because skyr doesn’t have an incredibly strong taste on its own. Someone suggested that it was like Greek yogurt, and Egill immediately burst into tears (metaphorically speaking). If there’s only one takeaway you get from this blog post, let it be this: skyr is not yogurt.
Now that we’ve had our “cultured dairy product”, aka NOT YOGURT, it’s time to torture the lactose intolerant some more with a cheese tasting. The next stop was a cheese store that happened to be closed on the day of the tour. This was not a problem for us because the shopkeeper left the key under the mat for Egill to open the store. Just one of many signs of how safe Reykjavik is. In my hometown of New York City, this would never fly.
We feasted on three kinds of cheese, but my favorite was the blue cheese. I like a cheese that gets all up in your face and sassily snaps its fingers at you. Egill told us that sheep milk is widely available in Iceland, and that lamb is the most popular meat. I guess on such a small country, you need to cultivate a smaller animal. He did say that there is a goat farm in Iceland though. That’s one in the entire country. What did goats ever do to Iceland that caused them to be banished? I bet they kept insisting that skyr was yogurt.
OK, I’m not referring to either the figure from Norse mythology or Tom Hiddleston here. Loki here means Cafe Loki, a famous family run restaurant in Reykjavik. Their specialty is their rye bread, which is a little sweet. The recipe is a family secret, so don’t expect me to share it with you! I don’t go around giving away secrets of nice little Icelandic families. I don’t know what kind of girl you think I am, Internet Stranger!
We got to sample the rye bread in two different ways. The first was the normal way, as the base of miniature open-faced sandwiches. On the right, you can see the “mashed fish” sandwich, and on the left we have a smoked fish sandwich. The mashed fish was smushed up with potatoes, and it tasted delicious. But I feel like we might have to work on your naming a little, Cafe Loki! American kids won’t even eat mashed peas, let alone mashed fish.
Our dessert was the most famous dish at Cafe Loki, the rye bread ice cream. It was sweet without being cloying and very filling. There are very few things in this world more exciting than finding a new flavor of ice cream. And my hat’s off to Iceland because this food tour has offered three different stops and we had dairy at each one. Icelandic people must have amazing teeth and bone density.
4) Hot Dog
The Icelandic people, like seemingly all Nordic people, are deep into hot dogs. I’ve always thought of hot dogs as being native to New York City, even though I know in my heart of hearts that they are Frankfurters and Frankfurt is in Germany. But I must admit that they do hot dogs better in Iceland than they do in NYC.
One reason is that they use lamb meat in the hot dog, which gives a stronger flavor. Another reason is that they top the hot dogs with sweet mustard, apple ketchup, and crispy onions for some fascinating flavor contrasts. It’s a lot better than some sad sauerkraut leaves being dourly ladled on a sausage that has already been sitting in dank water for several weeks.
Egyll said that people in Reykjavik used to put skyr on their hot dogs until they discovered mustard. I’m a pretty adventurous eater, but putting Not Yogurt on a frankfurter is a Bridge Too Far even for me.
5) Fish Soup
As popular as the mighty sheep meat is in Reykjavik, Iceland is still an island and fish is an essential part of the cuisine. For our final stop on the tour, we had a proper sit-down tasting at an elegant cafe. Here we all dined on fresh bread and the famous Icelandic fish soup.
The weather never gets that hot in Iceland, so even on a summer day, a warm, creamy soup is welcome. And since there’s cream in the soup, that makes four out of five tastings that have dairy in them. (And I’m not convinced the sweet mustard on the hot dog doesn’t secretly have skyr in it.) This must make Iceland the Calcium Consuming Champions!
24 Hours in Reykjavik
Afternoon: National Museum of Iceland
Now that we’ve learned about Iceland’s love of dairy, lamb, and NOT YOGURT, it’s time to learn some more about its non-culinary history. There’s no better to do that than at the National Museum of Iceland. Here you can learn of Iceland’s strange and peaceful history through its artifacts and the legends of its people.
You could easily spend all 24 Hours in Reykjavik here, but I imagine that you’re a busy person and don’t want to spend all day reading a blog post on Icelandic history. So I’ll just limit myself to:
three fun facts: icelandic history
1) When did Iceland start Icelanding?
Iceland’s history begins much later than the history of most other European countries. That’s because Iceland was uninhabited until the 9th century BC. It was first discovered by a group of Norwegian Vikings out for a pleasure cruise in eel-infested waters. Therefore, we might safely be able to say that the boat is the most important artifact in Icelandic history.
Iceland remained under Norwegian rule for centuries, but eventually passed over to Denmark when the power of the Danish empire was at its height. (Denmark actually had an empire once. That’s not a joke. They colonized places as far away as the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.) Iceland didn’t gain independence from Denmark until 1918 when the Icelandic people finally got over their fear that the Danes would bombard them with butter cookies and Hans Christian Andersen stories if they ever tried to be autonomous.
2) Symbols of the Republic
Though Iceland became an independent country in 1918, it didn’t become a fully separate Republic from Denmark until 1944. As is the case with many European countries that gained independence in the 20th century, traditional national symbols and customs were enormously important to the movement towards autonomy and self-government.
Above you can see different Icelandic national symbols, such as the flag. You can see the seal with the traditional Icelandic symbols of Bull, Mythological Birds, and Man With Beard and Sandals. But my favorite object in the museum was the traditional Icelandic clothes.
I have so many questions about this outfit. Was it designed to terrify small children? Is it the Slenderman? Is this outfit angry at me for making fun of it, and will it come to my apartment to murder me in my sleep? I’m not going to tell you where I live, Terrifying Icelandic Clothes! And you don’t seem to have fingers, so it’s going to be hard for you to search my address on the Internet!
3) Fending Off English Pirates
Iceland has had a remarkably nonviolent history, and I was told by several guides that Iceland has never had an army. However, Iceland does have a complicated history with one of its closest European neighbors, the United Kingdom. During World War II, when Denmark was occupied by Germany, the English occupied Iceland to protect it from the German Army.
But the real drama between Iceland and the UK seems to stem, as all great conflicts do, from fishing disputes. Apparently some English fisherfolk have been poaching fish on Icelandic waters. So Iceland developed this freaky white harpoon thing you see above as a trap to discourage British poachers.
This is the only weapon Iceland has ever developed. I’ve been to a lot of countries, Iceland, and if your biggest problems are English people sometimes stealing your fish and Slenderman Outfits that might be trying to kill you in your sleep, you are a fortunate nation indeed. I suspect it’s all that sheep milk keeping you peaceful.
24 Hours in Reykjavik
Late Afternoon: Hallgrimskirkja
Hallgrimskirkja is undoubtedly the most famous monument in Reykjavik. You can’t visit the city without stepping inside. Fortunately for us, the church stays open until 8 PM in the summer months. This will allow us to visit on our 24 Hours in Reykjavik after all the other attractions in Reykjavik are closed.
I’ve heard differing opinions about what the wavy exterior of the church is supposed to symbolize. Egill said that it’s supposed to be a waterfall, but the Reykjavik tourism website says it was patterned after hardening lava formations. (I choose to believe it represents a potato chip because I think any church would like to be known as God’s Potato Chip.)
What we all can agree on is that the gentleman immortalized in statue form outside the church is Leifur Eiríksson. It is the official position of the Icelandic government that Eiriksson was the first European to visit the Americas, no matter what the Knights of Columbus have to say about it.
The interior of Hallgrimskirkja has an impressive organ, but otherwise the inside doesn’t match the elaborate interior. Also, I think I deserve credit for typing Hallgrimskirkja so many times in the article. Didn’t use copy/paste even once!
24 Hour Treasure
As beautiful as the exterior of Hallgrimskirkja is, the views from the top of the church are even better. There’s no better place to see the adorable colorful houses of Reykjavik or the surrounding mountains.
If you’re lucky, you can even see the light of heaven coming down to shine on His potato chip.
24 Hours in Reykjavik
Evening: Dinner at Vox
Internet Stranger, you may be wondering how I can possibly have room for dinner after gorging on such a delicious food tour all morning. First off, I am always hungry! It takes a lot of energy to type ridiculous jokes about sentient clothing and dairy products all day. Second, the food tour was enough for breakfast and lunch, but not so much that I wasn’t hungry by the time 7 PM rolled around.
You don’t want to waste even one meal during your 24 Hours in Reykjavik, so I suggest heading to one of Reykjavik’s fine dining destinations, Vox. It’s located in a hotel, which means that unlike many other restaurants in Reykjavik, it’s not closed on Mondays. I got the tasting menu, so that I’d fully be able to share with you…
approximately top 5: vox edition
It’s Iceland, so we need to begin our tasting menu with some small bites of seafood. How does langoustine with apple sound? Langoustine is sometimes called Icelandic lobster and it’s a real local delicacy. The meat is so sweet and juicy! It benefits from the mild zing of the green apple. Langoustine is one of those foods I can never really find in the US that is pretty easy to get in Europe. I suggest snapping as much of it up as you can!
For your second seafood course, enjoy some salmon tartare with capelin roe and lovage. Capelin roe is another Icelandic delicacy. It’s cheaper than caviar but still packs the same salty punch. The citrusy lovage added some acidity to balance out the salt in the dish.
At last the meat arrives! This is a beef tataki with ponzu. In many ways, it was similar to the tataki dish I had eaten at sushi social the previous night. Japanese food seems to be popular in Iceland. It makes sense because both countries consume a lot of seafood, including well. Also I think that Icelandic black costume of my nightmares could really catch on in the next J-horror movie.
Even though Iceland is more known for sheep than beef, they do have special cows for skyr milk and meat that have been developing their unique flavor in Icelandic isolation for centuries. So if you do partake of beef, be sure to snack on these mythical beasts if you have a chance.
We’ve had shellfish and raw fish, now it’s time for smoked fish. This is a smoked haddock served with roe and sourdough bread crumbles. Icelandic bread definitely serves to be more famous than it is. The rye bread is what the country is most famous for because it is traditionally cooked underground by volcano energy. (I think the fire trolls breath on it or something.) But I thought the sourdough bread was equally delicious. Sometimes people act as if there was no good Scandinavian food before the restaurant Noma opened in Copenhagen, but the Nordic people have been champion bakers since Loki was but a gleam in his mother’s eye.
Here we have a teeny snack before the main course arrives. This is scallops served with lumpfish roe and butter. We’ve only had five courses and four have had seafood and three have had fish eggs! The Icelandic people really know how to live, let me tell you!
Finally, the main course arrives! And in Iceland, the main attraction can mean only one thing: bring on the lamb! This tender Icelandic lamb was served with few frills or distractions, to showcase the quality of the meat. You’ve got some asparagus for greens, some mashed potatoes for starch, but other than that, there’s nothing to distract you from the deliciousness that only centuries of sheep inbreeding on an isolated island can provide.
I was shocked to find that the dessert on this Icelandic tasting menu did not include skyr even at all. But at least there was no yogurt, so the Icelandic food gods were not angered. These beauties you see photographed above were Icelandic berries topped with sour cream and spruce ice cream. I’m definitely down with this Scandinavian habit of making desserts out of trees like birch and spruce. Way to take advantage of your local resources! It was the perfect end to my 24 Hours in Reykjavik.
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Reykjavik!
What would you do with 24 hours in Reykjavik? Is that traditional Icelandic outfit going to murder me in my sleep, or is it more likely to go after English poachers? And is it a capital crime in Iceland to call skyr yogurt? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Reykjavik. If you have an extra 24 hours in Reykjavik and want to try another itinerary, click here.