Iceland – with so many cheap flights between Europe & North America that stop here, it’s a place that’s hard not to add to your adventure abroad.
With limited time to explore, is it worth the extra dollar to extend your trip to spend a couple of days in this Nordic country? Absolutely!
If there’s one place in Iceland to start with, it most certainly is its capital city, Reykjavik. There is something for everyone here in Reykjavik no matter what time of the year you visit. There is lots to explore in the city, and even more when you take day trips from Reykjavik. If you only have 48 hours in Reykjavik, you can jam pack your itinerary as much or as little as you like.
This post will share the best things to do in Reykjavik if you only have 48 hours, as well as the best places to stay to make the most of your short visit in Reykjavik, Iceland.
- Getting from Reykjavik airport to Reykjavik centre
- Best places to stay in Reykjavik, Iceland
- What to do in Reykjavik, Iceland if you have only 48 hours
- 48 hours in Reykajavik – Day 1
- 48 hours in Reykajavik – Day 2
- The Golden Circle
- Strokkur Geyser
- Gullfoss Waterfall
- Thingvellir National Park
- Wind down and dine
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Getting from Reykjavik airport to Reykjavik centre
There’s very little point in hiring a car if you’re only staying in and around Reykjavik, so the best way to get to the city from arrival is via Flybus.
A return ticket to the city centre will set you back around USD45. However, the benefit of going with Flybus is that they go via the Blue Lagoon so you can take in the gorgeous views along the way.
Best places to stay in Reykjavik, Iceland
With such a short time here, there’s no point trying to venture any further than Reykjavik. You’ll find there are apartments, hotels, hostels and services such as Airbnb up for grabs so have a hunt to find the best option for you.
Keep in mind, Iceland is one of the most expensive countries in the world for tourism, so perhaps only having 48 hours in Reykjavik is a good thing if your travel money is tight!
A rough budget guide would be USD40/night/person in a hostel dorm or USD120/night in a hotel room for two.
Best hotels in Reykjavik, Iceland
Hotel Borg by Keahotels (from €146)
Hotel Borg overlooks the beautiful square of Austurvöllur, in the heart of Reykjavík, across from Althingi, the Icelandic parliament and the cathedral. It is convenient to get to restaurants and shops and the old harbour.
Centerhotel Arnarhvoll (from €134)
In the city centre, Centerhotel Arnarhvoll is close to shopping and nightlife. Situated on a quiet street you can be sure to enjoy the quiet nights. It also has a sky bar at the top with awesome views of the harbour. Be sure to make use of their whirlpool and sauna while you’re here!
Hotel Reykjavik Centrum (from €127)
Standing on one of Reykjavik’s oldest streets, Aðalstræti, Hotel Reykjavik Centrum is a prime location for walking to the harbour, restaurants, grocery and shops. Its bright and modern furnishings makes it one of the best hotels in Reykjavik to stay. Try the famous hot dog stand right by it if you stay here!
Cheap hotels in Reykjavik, Iceland
Lækur Hostel (from €19)
Lækur Hostel is one of the cheapest hostels in Reykjavik you can find. As an IKEA-furnished hostel, the common areas are warm and spacious, with the bathrooms and showers clean and private. The only caveat is that it might be a bit of a walk to the city centre, but with a price point like that, it’s easily one of the best places to stay in Reykjavik.
Hlemmur Square (from €17)
If you’re looking for cheap hotels in Reykjavik, Hlemmur Square is a popular choice as it’s close the station and city centre. They also offer same gender dorms so you can count on it being a safe hotel in Reykjavik.
What to do in Reykjavik, Iceland if you have only 48 hours
48 hours in Reykajavik – Day 1
The Blue Lagoon
Now there are a huge amount of hot springs you can visit in Iceland, and a ton of them are in Reykjavik. However, if you have limited time in Iceland, you’re not going to want to waste time trying to find the best, secret or cheaper hot spring spots when the very bus you’re on from the airport stops here.
With a luggage store for your bag at the Blue Lagoon, you can dump your bag and head on into the changing rooms.
Alternatively, you can book a return transfer from Reykjavik city centre to the Blue Lagoon.
The main thing to note is that pre-booking is almost essential. As mentioned, almost every bus from the airport stops here so as you can imagine, nearly everyone on your flight will be coming here.
You get a two-hour slot here so make the most of it, and make sure you pick the trip package that suits you best.
If you’re coming from the US or Canada, you’ll likely find that this is the smallest city you’ve ever been to.
Iceland doesn’t have a giant population, and its main industry is tourism which is great for you! The local people adore sharing their love of home with foreigners, so make sure you hop onto one of the many free walking tours departing from the centre daily.
I used CityWalk and found our guide to be unbelievably informative and helpful. It’s around two hours and held entirely outdoors, so make sure you wrap yourself up warmly as Iceland is cold even in summer.
You can also opt for a private VIP tour with CityWalk, or a local pub crawl. These options are chargeable.
Still have some time this afternoon? Why not check out the world famous penis museum, the Icelandic Phallological Museum…
Northern Lights tour
The only way to end any day in Iceland would be on a Northern Lights tour. This is something that runs most of the year.
However, keep in mind that Iceland experiences the midnight sun in the months of May to July so the chances of seeing the Northern Lights then are low. For these months, I’d suggest joining one of the midnight hikes instead.
The Northern Lights, or Aurelia Borealis, is formed due to particles hitting our planets electromagnetic field, and that (along with a load of science jargon I just cannot understand) causes the stunning colours we see in the night sky above us.
While science explains it and tells us exactly what it is, only when you see it in person does it truly feel like magic. The colours literally dance across the sky before your eyes. In my opinion, you cannot visit Iceland without attempting to see it!
TIP: Catch it as early on your Iceland trip as possible!
The reason I suggest going on the first night is because it’s a natural phenomenon. This means you’re not guaranteed to see it. The world can do whatever it wants so unfortunately, we can’t snap our fingers and get the sky to dance at will. If you sign up for a tour on the first night and you fail to catch it, tour operators will allow you to go again for free the following day. Seize this chance and catch it as early as you can!
48 hours in Reykajavik – Day 2
The Golden Circle
Your second, and final day of your 48 hours in Iceland is best spent exploring the Golden Circle. These is a collection of key geological sites all within the driving range of the city. You can do this by either hiring a car or go on a day tour with a number of operators.
I strongly discourage hiring a car in winter here unless you are very experienced with driving in icy & snowy conditions. It is around a 300km loop, so if you do decide to drive, keep durations in mind as well.
Your first stop will be to Haukadalur to witness the Strokkur Geyser. This is a seriously active geological area showing you why Iceland has been known as the land of fire & ice.
Just the walk to the geyser site itself will amaze you with its bubbling water and streams going past at 80-90ºC – it’s hot & steaming like a kettle!
For the main event, you will have to wait, however not for long (thank goodness because if you’re there in the winter you will be absolutely freezing despite all the scorching geysers around you). The geyser shoots boiling water upwards to 40m high every 7 to 15 minutes. It’s like a tunnel of steam!
After having your breath taken away with Strokkur, it’s time to quickly move on to your next stop along the Golden Circle (remember, you have less than 24 hours left at this point).
Having seen water fly upwards, it’s now time for the more conventional water feature with gravity pulling it downwards – yup, it’s a waterfall. Gullfoss Falls – or Golden Falls in its most direct translation – is one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe.
You can get pretty close to it l to really feel the power, and that icy cold spray as it comes down.
A ‘must stop’ for a selfie spot! A word for the wise – wear some seriously grippy shoes here as it’s beyond slippery meandering down to some of the viewpoints from the car park.
Thingvellir National Park
Having to rush before the sun sets, the last stop on your route is to my favourite – Þingvellir National Park (or Thingvellir National Park).
This is the most incredible place if you have any interest in geology at all, as this is a rift valley. A rift valley is where two tectonic plates are pulling apart, and this is significant as science generally recognises that the biggest tectonic plates are how our continents are separate.
As in, there is a European tectonic plate, an African tectonic plate and so on. As you can imagine, it’s much more complicated than that, but this is a travel blog not a scientific journal so I will keep it at that.
Thingvellir National Park is one of two places in the world you can actually see the point where two of these plates are pulling apart. Essentially, you can be in two places at once!
While you can’t stand and touch both continents at once, you can dive down to do this and literally swim between the two places. If you swim down deep enough, you can touch both the North American plate and the Eurasian plate at the same time. Now, to be in two scientific places at once, surely is one hell of a life goal?
For those not willing to turn into an icicle while swimming this stretch, you can spend some time walking around and learning why this area is of such historical and cultural importance to the Icelandic people as well.
Here, they have history dating back hundreds of years all the way to 930AD – that’s older than a lot of countries! Now a UNESCO heritage site, this isn’t somewhere you’ll want to miss.
Wind down and dine
If you try to jam anymore into your itinerary you might finish your quick stop over here exhausted, so if you managed to see the Northern Lights last night you’ve got a free evening.
One of the best restaurants in Reykjavik I found to eat was the Laundromat which offers very chill dining.
As mentioned before, everything here will be a little more expensive than home, but for Iceland, it’s of decent value.
For the more daring connoisseur, you can try some traditional Icelandic dishes such as Hangikjöt (Smoked Lamb) or “Ein með öllu” – the iconic Icelandic hot dog. Or, if you seriously like getting involved, there’s cured shark or boiled sheep head… I’ll leave the tastings of those to you and you can tell me how it goes!
As you can imagine, there is SO much more to do in Iceland beyond Reykjavik. However, this is the perfect snapshot of things to do in Reykjavik should you only have a little stopover in Iceland.
Make sure you grab your return ticket to the airport on the Flybus, and if you arrived on a late night flight, you can always visit the Blue Lagoon on your way back to the airport instead of into town.