The capital of Iceland is a quaint, relaxed place with a small-town feel – and it is easy to explore by foot. Use my free self-guided walking tour of Reykjavik to get a feel for this laid-back city and to see the main Reykjavik attractions.
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Why Visit Reykjavik?
I’ve been to Iceland and visited Reykjavik twice. Full disclosure: in my opinion, Reykjavik is not the most exciting part of Iceland. I’m personally far more drawn to the black sand beaches and glacial lagoons of South Iceland – and all the other spots in Iceland with dramatic landscapes.
However, that doesn’t mean Reykjavik is uninteresting to me – it’s just that I think the Icelandic landscape is that much more interesting.
Reykjavik it’s definitely a unique city with some quaint, colourful buildings and attractive landmarks. It is worth a stop if you’re exploring Iceland or driving the Ring Road and it’s a good place to do some whale-watching if you can’t make it up into North Iceland.
It’s also a useful base from which to explore the Golden Circle, the Reykjanes peninsula (where there have been eruptions in recent years and where the Blue Lagoon is) and also the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Facts about Reykjavik
- The name Reykjavik means ‘smokey bay’ (reykr = ‘smoke’ and vík = ‘bay’) and is thought to have been inspired by what was actually steam, not smoke, rising from hot springs in the region.
- The Old Icelandic Book Of Settlement indicates Reykjavik was the first permanent settlement in Iceland in ~870 AD.
- As capital cities go, it is one of the smaller ones around the world (166th out of 240), with 133k inhabitants. However, given that is a third of the population of Iceland as a whole, you can see how much of a major centre it is in the country.
- Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital with a latitude of 64°08′ N (Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is slightly further north at 64°10′, but Greenland is a constituent country of Denmark, not an independent state).
- Reykjavik’s heating is sourced from geothermal energy derived from the volcanic activity in Iceland (and this is true for 90% of the buildings in Iceland).
- There are no Mcdonald’s restaurants and no Starbucks in Reykjavik, nor in the whole of Iceland! Mcdonald’s left in 2009 after the economic crash and I don’t think Starbucks has ever opened a restaurant there. However, there are plenty of great places to eat and get coffee – I’ll suggest a few in this post.
What’s In This Self-Guided Walking Tour Of Reykjavik
In this walking tour, I’ll share a walking route that will take you to the main sights and attractions in Reykjavik, including:
- The Sun Voyager
- Harpa Concert Hall
- Reykjavik Harbour
- The Rainbow Street
I will also call out some good places to eat in Reykjavik along the way. And I have included a route map at the end, which you can use in Google maps.
How Long Does It Take To Walk Around Reykjavik?
The route I am sharing in this post is 4km (2.5 miles) and would take about an hour to walk without stopping, but obviously, it will take longer because you’ll be stopping, going into some of the places, taking photographs etc. If you give yourself half a day, that’s plenty of time to explore central Reykjavik, including shopping and grabbing something to eat, in my opinion. You’ll need more if you’re doing whale-watching though.
Self-Guided Walking Tour Of Reykjavik – Step By Step
We start this walking tour of Reykjavik at Hallgrímskirkja for two reasons. One, it is one of the most recognisable and prominent landmarks in Reykjavik. And two, it has free parking, which is handy if you are passing through the city by car.
Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland and was built in 1986. It is named for the Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson (the name means Church of Hallgrímur) and the distinctive columnar shapes are inspired by the basalt rock formations found all over Iceland.
Although it is big, it is not actually a cathedral – it’s a Lutheran church (Church of Iceland). Out front, there’s a statue of Leif Erikson, the 11th Century Norse explorer believed to have been born in Iceland.
The church is a working church with regular services but does also open to visitors, so you can pay to go up the 74.5m / 244 ft tower, which has a panoramic view from the top.
From Hallgrímskirkja, head north along Frakkastígur, which will take you downhill towards the sea. Along the way there are several colourful buildings which are typical in Reyjavik; there’s also some street art along here.
If you’re peckish, there are a few good food options on Frakkastígur:
- Víkinga Pylsur is a stand selling an Icelandic favourite: hot dogs, made from lamb and often eaten with mustard
- Grab a bun or a pastry from Brauð & Co, a popular bakery with a colourful shopfront on Frakkastígur.
- Reykjavik Fish is a chain that has a branch on Frakkastígur. The fish & chips are pretty good here (and I say that as a British person)
At the end of Frakkastígur, you’ll come to the Sæbraut road (route 41), across which is a metal sculpture commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of Reykjavik. The Sun Voyager was made by Jón Gunnar and unveiled in 1990. He said it ‘symbolizes the promise of new, undiscovered territory’.
To me, the smooth beams and curves of the ship-like structure conjure up the idea of a timeless or futuristic Viking ship. Its location by the sea is perfect – it invokes a sense of adventure as if it is on its way out on an expedition. Made of aluminium, its smooth surfaces reflect the light beautifully.
There are other sculptures along this shore walk, so you could detour eastwards if you are interested in seeing more of them.
If you’re not making the sculpture detour, once you’ve had your fill of the Sun Voyager, head back into town. You could either walk back up Frakkastígur or take Vatnsstígur instead, but either way, our destination is the main shopping street in Reykjavik, Laugavegur.
On this colourful street with games painted on the tarmac (in summer, it is pedestrianised), you’ll find boutiques, bars and restaurants. This can be a good place to pick up some Icelandic products, if you’re in the market for a traditional knitted jumper, for example. There’s also some good eating to be had here:
- Sandholt is another bakery that has great tarts and cakes. You can sit in here – it’s very pleasant.
- Just around the corner from Laugavegur is a café called Grái kötturinn (The Grey Cat) – they are renowned for an indulgent breakfast & brunch menu, including an American pancakes dish called ‘The Truck’, topped with bacon, eggs AND fried potatoes! I didn’t attempt The Truck, but I did enjoy a hearty breakfast here on my first visit to Iceland. Come hungry.
Harpa Concert Hall
From Laugavegur, take a right on to Ingólfsstræti, then cut across Arnarholl park, in which you’ll find the Founder Statue, a statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, the Norseman who founded Reykjavik.
Beyond this, you’ll see Harpa Concert Hall, a modern cuboid building which houses a concert hall and conference centre. The architecture is modern and angular, but the patterns in the glass reflect the volcanic basalt columns found around Iceland.
If you’re into ballet or theatre, check out what’s on at Harpa during your trip. They also have a well-rated restaurant there, called Hnoss.
If you’re not so much here for high culture and/or you’re interested in anatomy, you might want to check out The Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is just around the corner from Harpa. They claim to have 215 penises from almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland.
From Harpa, head along Geirsgata to the Old Harbour, where there are hardy-looking boats and warehouses. This is where the whale-watching tours depart from – but it’s best to book in advance if this is something that you want to do.
The whale-watching tours often offer a free second trip if you don’t see whales on your first trip. You might not have the time to go out twice, but it’s a statement of their confidence in the visibility of whales. I saw lots of dolphins and several minke whales on my trip – not breaching or flipping their tails or anything dramatic and photogenic, but still, it was wonderful to see them coming up for air. I also just loved being out on the steely cold sea. They will put you in reflective inflatable suits before you go out – just in case you end up overboard!
Whether you go out on the sea or not, you might want to check out Seabaron, a long-standing restaurant at the harbour. It’s a seafood restaurant, but a really old-school one. You queue to order and then take a seat in semi-communal seating; it’s small and cramped but the lobster soup was wonderful! They also serve whale meat, though, which did put me off.
Centre: Ingólfur Square & Austurvöllur
From the harbour, take Tryggvagata into the Central area of Reykjavik, where you’ll find:
- Ingólfur Square, a small public square named for the founder of Reykjavik
- The Settlement Exhibition, an underground excavation of Viking-age buildings and remains
- Austurvöllur – another public square with a statue of Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of the 19th-century movement for independence from Denmark
Skólavörðustígur – AKA The Rainbow Street
Cross Lækjargata and go up Bankastræti until you come to the bottom of Skólavörðustígur, also known as The Rainbow Street due to its colourfully painted tarmac. In good weather, it is, of course, a favourite spot for selfies. Sidebar: for the other famous and photogenic rainbow street in Iceland, you’ll need to go to Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland.
Wander up Skólavörðustígur and check out the shops, including several jewellery stores. Along the way, consider these two eateries
- Kattakaffihúsið is a ‘cat café’ where you can eat vegan cakes as you pet their various feline inhabitants – all rescues who are looking for homes. It is just a block from the Rainbow Street
- Salka Valka is a great restaurant where I had one of my favourite meals in Iceland: Plokkfiskur, a tasty mix of fish, potatoes and white sauce. It might not look like much, but it is delicious! Perfect comfort food on a chilly day.
You can end your self-guided walking tour of Reykjavik back at Hallgrímskirkja, which stands tall at the top of the Rainbow Street.
Map: Self-Guided Walking Tour Reykjavik
Here’s a map showing the walking route and the key stops along this walking tour of Reykjavik.
How To Use This Map: click the tab in the top left-hand corner of the map to view the layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each one. If you click the star next to the title of the map, it will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu, go to ‘Your Places’, then click Maps and you will see this map in your list.
Tips For This Self-Guided Walking Tour Of Reykjavik
- Bring a rain jacket – Weather in Iceland can be changeable and even in summer, it’s not uncommon to have rain. It was pretty drizzly on my first visit to Reykjavik, which was in June
- Get your head around the currency – Iceland uses Krona (ISK), and prices will be in hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands, so it can take a moment to work out what things will cost you in your own currency. Also, be prepared for high prices – to most visitors, Iceland is an expensive place to visit, so check out my tips for exploring Iceland without breaking the bank.
How To Get From Keflavik Airport To Reykjavik
Keflavik Airport is about 50km (30 miles) west of Reykjavik. Use Skyscanner for flight deals.
There are no passenger trains in Iceland, so the only option to get from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik is by road.
If you’re not driving a rental car (and I do think this is the best way to get around Iceland in general), then the cheapest option is a public bus. Bus 55 runs between the airport and the city centre and only costs ISK1,960 (around £12 or US$14), but it is not a fast route: it can easily take an hour and 15 minutes. There’s more information on Straeto.is (NB. You’ll need to enter ‘KEF – Airport’ as the starting point).
Possibly the easiest route is by shuttle bus. Flybus is a bus service that runs between the airport and Reykjavik city centre. It takes about 45 minutes, you can book it online and it costs ISK3,500 (around £20 or US$25). There’s also an option to stop by the Blue Lagoon.
You can also get a taxi, but this would be very expensive – in the region of ISK22,000 (£130 or US$155).
When Is The Best Time Of Year To Visit Iceland
You can visit Iceland all year round, although the weather can be pretty cold outside of the short summer season (June – August), and the days get very short.
The advantages of going in winter (and also Spring and Autumn) are the chance to see the Northern lights. Also, seeing Iceland covered in snow would also be very special.
Both my visits have been in summer because I wanted to see the Icelandic landscape in all its vibrant green finery. Also, the long summer days mean you have plenty of daylight hours in which to explore – which makes up for the higher prices, I think, because you get more exploring done each day. In summer, you also have to worry much less about how the weather will affect the roads and your driving routes.
Where To Stay In Reykjavik
The first time I went to Iceland I stayed in an Airbnb in Reykjavik, which was fine. The second time, I was campervanning around Iceland, so when we stopped in Reykjavik, it was at Reykjavik Campsite, which is a large campsite a little way out of the city centre.
However, we had already driven the entire Ring Road by then, and I was pretty sick of being in the tiny camper van, so for the second night, I booked into the Skuggi Hotel, on Hverfisgata in central Reykjavik. It was so nice! We had a really comfortable room and I slept soooo well! It’s also very conveniently located close to all the places in the city centre, so I do recommend it.
The Final Word
I hope you enjoy exploring Reykjavik!
However, if you are at all interested in the exciting Icelandic landscape, I urge you not to stay only in the vicinity of Reykjavik. The capital city, the Reykjanes peninsular and the Golden Circle are great, but they don’t compare with South Iceland in my opinion.
If you can get as far as Vik, you’ll get to see the wild black sand beaches, volcanic rock formations and also some stunning waterfalls. But ideally, you’ll go as far as southeast Iceland, where glaciers flow down the sides of volcanoes and huge icebergs float in serene glacial lakes. It really is spectacular!