You’ve really got two options: to explore the city of Reykjavik or head out into the wide open spaces which give Iceland its unique majesty.
The most popular day trip is The Golden Circle, including the awesomely beautiful Thingvellir, where Iceland’s first inhabitants held parliament and the tectonic plates are gliding apart, the huge Gullfoss Waterfall and the spouting thermal geysers. There are plenty of daily tours, and if you are there between September and April, you could take a Northern Lights tour.
If you choose to stay in the city there’s also plenty to do. Reykjavik is easily walkable – the population is small, only 150,000, and very welcoming.
Reykjavik is a stylish, artistic city with great cafes and bars and excellent shopping. The low colorful buildings and slight hills mean you regularly get glimpses over the harbor towards wind-stripped islands. The most important things to do in Reykjavik are:
This is the city’s main church and it soars over the town making an excellent landmark. Some people say it looks like a seal with a ball on its nose (but without the ball). It’s undeniably interesting and worth the short walk uphill.
Iceland has shopping malls and a downtown shopping area called Reykjavik 101. The main shopping street – which also has many hostels, hotels, cafes and bars along it – is Laugarvegur. Here and in the surrounding streets you’ll find Icelandic designed clothes, Icelandic hand-knits, secondhand shops and a small supermarket full of Icelandic foods. Down the hill and across Laekjargata street is another part of downtown worth exploring. If you’re in town on a weekend there’s the small but interesting Kolaportid Flea Market nearby facing the harbor.
Go for a walk along the harbor front and discover both new and old Iceland: the very modern new opera house, Harpa, and further around the Old Harbor with its fishing boats and the best lobster soup you will ever taste served in an unpretentious fisherman’s shack: Saegreifinn.
The National Museum and Saga Museum will give you a taste of the Vikings who settled this harsh land and how they lived. Reykjavik Art Museum and the National Gallery of Iceland have several sites. All of the museums show the vibrant cultural life of the country.
You cannot come to Iceland without partaking in its most important ritual: soaking in the thermal waters that fuel the country from deep underground. The best place to go is The Blue Lagoon which is on the road between the city and the airport. Many of the airport buses make a stop here as it’s very popular to soak before heading back onto the plane. The outdoor pool is huge, steamy and very blue. You can have a massage in the water, put a mud mask on while you float and see Viking-like lifeguards appear out of the mist. If you don’t have time for this, head for one of the inner city pools, all of which have outdoor natural hot pools.
It’s only a day but I’m sure it’ll make you want to return for more of Iceland.