Self-guided walking tour of Reykjavik
A self-guided walking tour in Reykjavik is one of the best ways to learn more about this great city. It’s perfectly accessible on foot and some of the best things to do in Reykjavik are found all within an easy to walk area. This walking guide can be done in any direction and doesn’t need to be done all at once. It can be broken down into smaller areas, meaning you can make the most of what you find, whilst stopping for a drink or an Icelandic hotdog!
The growth in Iceland’s visitor numbers has been growing at an exponential rate. Before the turn of the century, visitors to Iceland never reached 100,000 per annum. Shortly thereafter, various areas in Iceland were used as backdrops for movie scenes and rock music videos. The world became alive to the beauty of this country, and visitor numbers started to grow. In 2008, Iceland suffered a significant blow to its economy with a credit card crash, and the country started to look further afield in its strategic recovery.
In 2010, Iceland made global headlines when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, causing disruption to travel plans for weeks on end. Incentives were offered to airlines to bring the people back to Iceland. All of this has contributed to a newfound love for Iceland that has not abated.
A glance at the passenger projections graph from the Visit Iceland tourism website shows an almost vertical rise from around 2010 when just under 500,000 people flew into Keflavik Airport. Given back in the late ’90s these numbers were below 100,000, this was already showing a sizeable improvement. In 2016, 1.767m people came to visit Iceland, 39% more than the previous year. That number is expected to go north of 2 million visitors in 2017.
Reykjavik – Iceland’s capital city
The majority of visitors to Iceland enter by air, through Keflavik Airport, located approximately 38km from the centre of Reykjavik. As the capital of Iceland, most of Reykjavik’s visitors would find themselves here at some point during their stay. For many, Reykjavik is as far as they get, popping over from other European destinations for a long weekend. Others, particularly those flying with Iceland Air, use Reykjavik as part of their journey stopover.
Looking to save money in Iceland? Read these tips for saving money in Iceland.
Self-guided walking tour Reykjavik
Reykjavik is a city well worth stopping for, but I don’t believe it needs more than several days. Whilst noticeably different from many of the world’s big cities, there’s so much diverse and incredible beauty on offer in the rest of Iceland to encourage you to get out from Reykjavik, if only for a few more days.
In a city that can take a toll on your wallet, a self-guided tour offers the perfect solution. Reykjavik is an easy city to walk, and you can do it at a pace that is entirely your own.
We took a full day and a half to explore all of these sights and areas below, stopping in at many of the cafes, food stores and coffee shops along the way.
If walking around Reykjavik on your own is not something that suits you, there are plenty of tours available where a guide can talk you through all the key sights, like this private walking tour of Reykjavik.
Best things to see in Reykjavik on a walking tour
This famous landmark caught my attention long before I realised what it was. As we arrived into Reykjavik in the early hours of the morning the eerie yellow lights shone brightly from the top and resembled a face. In the daytime, it can be seen from almost all over Reykjavik.
Like much of the architecture in Iceland, it can be mistaken for being uninspiring. But, it can’t be compared to the centuries-old beauty of many of the European Old Towns. In a country as remote as Iceland, building materials are harder to source and the structures, therefore, take on a different form.
The beauty lies in the colour and in the inspiration behind the designs. The building of this church commenced in 1945 and was completed in 1986. It stands at an impressive 74.5 metres. The design was said to represent the basalt rock columns that can be found along some of the beaches here.
It’s always great to be able to get up high in a new city to get some perspective. From here a wonderful view is possible over the city and the water, across to the mountains. On a clear day, the view of the coloured rooftops below is spectacular.
Tickets can be purchased to access the elevator that takes you to the top for this amazing view. For accurate ticket pricing and opening times, click here.
Einar Jonsson Sculpture Park
If you are visiting the Hallsgrimskirkja Church, then you should also pop by the Einar Jonsson Sculpture Park. Located close-by, there is a great selection of artwork by this well-known Icelandic artist and sculptor. The gardens are free to walk around and admire the sculptures. The museum attracts a fee.
Visit the Phallological Museum
This one is weird and outside of Amsterdam, I’m not sure anything else exists quite like it. It is a museum located along Laugavegur dedicated to the penis. Even if it’s not your thing, keep an eye out as it will most likely be something that jumps into your vision as you walk along Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street.
Visit historically significant buildings
The Parliament Building
The Althingishus (Parliament House) was constructed in 1881. It is now one of the oldest stone buildings in Iceland. Its main function today is as the place where the 63 elected members of Parliament discuss and pass legislation.
Built in 1906, the Culture House reminds me of a small European palace. It originally was the home of the National Library and archives but is now actively used for a variety of exhibitions by the museums and the National Gallery.
Nearby, Anarholl Park is worth a stroll through, even if it is to just get a better view of the water from up on the hill.
This is the oldest junior college in Reykjavik. Dating back to 1056, it’s also one of the oldest schools in all of Iceland. Most of the country’s politicians have been educated here, including all but four of the nation’s prime ministers.
Stjornarradid Government House
This seemingly plain building is the office of the Prime Minister of Iceland. It was interesting to see the lack of security surrounding it.
The cross streets provide views to the water
As you walk along any of the streets that run parallel to the water, a quick glance down a side street will almost assure you of a view. Sometimes, depending on where you are, the view will also take in the mountains.
Admire the impressive street art
Street art is everywhere in the world and Reykjavik is no exception. Here, it’s not located in one area, nor is it hidden. Strolling around the streets will produce countless examples of great street art, my favourites of which are the ones that cover an entire side of a building.
Walk Laugavegur Street
Street art and plenty of brightly coloured corrugated iron and painted shop fronts ensure there is colour aplenty in the streets. Laugavegur Street is full of funky coffee shops, cafes, bars and juice bars. It’s also the place for some good shopping, especially Arctic winter clothing, fashion and souvenirs.
Walk along the waterfront
Prepare for the wind if you venture down to the waterfront. Not far out of the main street you’ll find this expanse of water with a promenade along which you can walk or ride. Down here, I got my first real insight into what Iceland was possibly going to be like. Mountains, close enough that you feel you could touch them and still covered in white snowy caps, even though summertime was almost here. Rolling green hills, with houses dotted sporadically across them, and the wind….oh the wind, how it blows in Iceland.
Stop at the Solfar Sun Voyager Sculpture
The Solfar Sun Voyager sculpture is a striking sculpture down here and one of the most photographed too. For good reason, given the connection to Vikings here, most people, including myself believed this to be a representation of a Viking ship. Designed by Jón Gunnar Arnáson, another famous Icelandic sculptor, it is, in fact, a dreamboat and is seen as a symbol of hope and light.
See what’s on at Harpa
Harpa is the fantastic looking glass building on the waterfront. As the Concert and Conference Centre, it’s an ongoing hub for events and functions.
It’s an impressive looking building built from glass and once again representing the basalt rock columns found throughout Iceland. At night, the glass provides the perfect backdrop for a light show. We weren’t able to witness this as there quite simply wasn’t enough darkness!
Inside there are also large open spaces, where people sit on chairs or even the stairs to read or quietly reflect. It’s free to get inside and hang out but many of the events are usually ticketed and therefore there is a cost attached. There’s also a souvenir shop and cafe inside.
Visit the Old Harbour
At the end of the waterfront promenade is the Old Harbour. It mightn’t look like much, but I can forecast that this area will become quite a hub for foodies in the coming years. Already there are signs of a burgeoning food and providores area down here and there are some amazing restaurants too.
Bringing in fish fresh from the trawlers, many of these restaurants also offer stunning views as well as great food. It is also the area where most of the whale watching and puffin tours are and is home to the Maritime Museum as well.
Sit and relax by Tjornin Pond
Tjornin Pond is a tranquil area right near the City Hall and the beautiful church of Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík (see image below). It’s typical of the Icelandic churches around the countryside, all white with coloured roofing.
The lake is alive with swans, ducks and a variety of other birds and is also the perfect spot for a walk or run.
Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík Church
Across from the lake is the Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík, an independent church established in 1899. It is essentially a “free church” which no denomination and was created in opposition to other operating doctrines at the time.
National Gallery of Iceland
Right next door to the Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík Church is the National Gallery of Iceland. Iceland celebrates its history of amazing artists and sculptors here, with a focus on 19th and 20th-century art. There are regular exhibitions here
Opening hours and entry prices can be found here.
City Hall Building
The City Hall building on the edge of the lake is probably close to the ugliest building in Reykjavik. I couldn’t get any inspiration from the outside, but with the Office of Tourism on the inside, there’s plenty of inspiration to be found there.
Explore the back streets on a walking tour of Reykjavik
Like any city, there’s often so much to find if you have the time to just get lost in the back streets. We found some interesting cafes, quirky little gardens, hidden laneways and plenty of colour.
In the backstreets, you’ll also find Braud & Co, the best bakery in Reykjavik. They have amazing sourdough and pastries but get here early as once it’s all sold out, there is no more!
How long does it take to do a walking tour of Reykjavik?
This type of walk can be done as slowly or as quickly as your itinerary allows. The Reykjavik walking tour maps below give a general indication of the route we walked, starting from our apartment. It can certainly be done in one day. We took a little longer as we had plenty of stops along the way to look at the buildings more closely, to take time out along the water and to eat and drink of course. Overall, Reykjavik is a very walkable city. Reykjavik is also a very safe city to walk around on your own and at night. Like the rest of Iceland.
This route took us into some of the back streets so that we could get a feel for more of the local life, away from the business of the main streets.
How to get to Reykjavik
Reykjavik by air
Getting to Reykjavik by air is the easiest way with many full service and budget airlines stopping here. Iceland Air is the national carrier and flies from many European destinations as well as the USA. We flew Iceland Air from London Heathrow. Whilst we paid full fare prices, the in-cabin service and size of seats more closely resemble a budget offering. For a list of airlines that fly to Keflavik Airport, click here.
Keflavik Airport is located just under 50 kilometres west of Reykjavik.
Tip: Buy your duty-free alcohol here if you have a chance as it will be cheaper than what you can get in Reykjavik. Remember, everything is expensive in Iceland.
Getting into Reykjavik
Reykjavik by bus
The Flybus operates from Keflavik Airport and is the most convenient and cost-effective way to transit into Reykjavik. The trip takes around 50 minutes to an hour. The service is regular with a Flybus there for every international flight that arrives at this airport. The main destination is the BSI bus terminal but for an extra fee, the bus has drops offs at some city hotels.
Flybus also runs to the Blue Lagoon.
The Airport Express travels from Laekjartorg Square in the centre of Reykjavik to the airport. Hotel pickup and drop-offs can also be made. The Airport Express also heads north, with the main stop in Akureyri.
There are also door to door shuttle buses that run specific routes between hotels.
Alternatively, private transfers may also be booked to take you directly into the city.
Note: Book online using any of the links above.
Reykjavik by car
Rental cars can also be hired from Keflavik Airport for driving in and around Reykjavik or for a larger road trip. You won’t actually need a car if you are just planning on staying in Reykjavik.
Reykjavik by ferry
A car ferry operates on a weekly basis from Denmark through to Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland.
Where to stay in Reykjavik
Depending on your budget there are a variety of hotels, hostels and apartments to stay at.
City Town Apartments
We stayed at the City Town Apartments at the end of Laugavegur Street which was an excellent choice and we would happily stay here again.
- Centrally located and close to all the major things to see and do in Reykjavik
- Large apartment with one bedroom + sofa
- Excellent bathroom
- Fully self-contained with large kitchen and dining space
- Washing machine and dryer
- Netflix and wifi
- Private balcony
- Free private parking
- Flybus has a drop off from Keflavik Airport closeby
- Excellent host who communicates well
You can book directly on Booking.com
Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel
- Close to Reykjavik Harbour
- Flatscreen TV, wifi, gym
- Close to Harpa, the promenade and the main street Laugavegur
- Onsite restaurant and bar
Reykjavik day trips
Planning on staying a few days in Reykjavik?
Whilst Reykjavik is a perfect city for a short stopover, it also makes a great starting point for day trips into other areas of Iceland or a larger road trip. Having been to all of these areas, we agree that they are some of the best day trips and guided tours from Reykjavik.
- Full day tour starting and ending in Reykjavik
- Visit Europe’s largest glacial lagoon
- See the incredible Diamond Beach
- South coast route with dramatic coastline including the black beach
- Séljalandsdoss waterfall
- Full day tour starting and ending in Reykjavik
- Thingvellir National Park
- See the merging of two tectonic plates (and continents)
- Haukadalur Valley geysers
- Lugarvatn’s hot springs
- Visit the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall
- Private tour and guide
Iceland Travel Resources
More Iceland reading
Reykjavik is a great place to start off a trip around Iceland. We travelled around the entire country in a campervan via the Ring Road. Following is the complete set of our Iceland articles that you might like to read and use for your Iceland travel planning.
- 8 day Iceland itinerary: a self-guided drive of Iceland’s Ring Road
- Driving the Iceland Ring Road? How to get the best campervan rental in Iceland
- Golden Circle Iceland self-drive: Why you shouldn’t miss the Golden Circle
- Iceland South Coast self-drive: Seljalandsfoss to Jokulsarlon
- East fjords Iceland: driving the Ring Road from Jökulsárlón to Seyðisfjörður
- North Iceland highlights; The natural wonders of Dettifoss Falls and Lake Mývatn
- Where to see seals in Iceland plus other great places on the north-west coast
- Why you should see more than the Golden Circle in Iceland’s south-west
- Visit Akureyri: Self-guided walking tours Akureyri
- Where to see seals in Iceland plus other great places on the north-west coast