The secret is out….well and truly
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 new found 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 90’s 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 – a good base
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.
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.
Get a view from the top of Hallsgrimskirkja Church
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 roof tops below is spectacular.
Tickets can be purchased to access the elevator that takes you to the top for this amazing view. Tickets cost 800 ISK, around AUD$9.30 per adult and US$7.50.
Visit the buildings that are historically significant to Reykjavik
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 there is a beautiful park which is worth strolling through.
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.
Take in everything along Laugavegur, the main 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 summer time was almost here. Rolling green hills, with houses dotted sporadically across them, and the wind….oh the wind, how it blows in Iceland.
The Solfar Sun Voyager 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. It is, in fact, a dream boat 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 hangout 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.
The City Hall 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
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.
How long does it take?
This type of walk can be done as slowly or as quickly as your itinerary allows. The 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.
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.
Getting to Reykjavik
Getting to Reykjavik by air is the easiest way with many full fare and budget airlines stopping here. Iceland Air is the national carrier and flies from many European destinations and also fly regularly to 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 resembles a budget offering. For a list of airlines that fly to Keflavik Airport, click here.
The Flybus operates from Keflavik Airport and is the most convenient and cost-effective way to transit into Reykjavik.
Alternatively, private transfers may also be booked to take you directly into the city.
A car ferry operates on a weekly basis from Denmark through to Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland.
Where to stay
Depending on your budget there are a variety of hotels, hostels, apartments and Airbnb to stay at. We stayed at the City Town Apartments at the end of Laugavegur Street which was very central.
Spending more time in Reykjavik? Use these guides for further information