Reykjavik is a charming, easily walkable little city, with plenty of walking tour options to suit a range of interests. It’s also a great place to wander on your own, with or without a plan.
Recap: In October 2016, I organized a 10-day trip to Iceland with my women’s hockey team. The first half was a road trip around southern Iceland. We spent the remainder exploring Reykjavik and playing in a tournament. Today’s post focuses on my on foot in Reykjavik. Be sure to check out Part 1: In Love with Iceland, Part 2: Iceland Favorites: Þórsmörk and Jökulsárlón, Part 3: Iceland Travel Tips, and Part 4: Skal! Sampling Iceland’s Craft Beer of the series as well!
When in Reykjavik…
After our road trip, my teammates and I returned to Reykjavik for the hockey tournament. Our game schedule gave us lots of flexibility for independent sightseeing. Many of my friends chose additional day trips such as snorkeling at Silfra or horseback riding.
Personally I had a bit of road trip fatigue, so I opted to explore Reykjavik on foot. Reykjavik is a charming, easily walkable little city, with plenty of walking tour options to suit a range of interests.
To get the lay of the land, meet some new people, and, above all, have an excuse to walk around eating for four hours, I started with the Reykjavik Food Walk. Then I spent the rest of the time wandering around unguided, either alone or with some friends.
Wandering Reykjavik reveals a multitude of colorful little details that demand a closer look.
Wandering The Streets of Reykjavik
As you walk around Reykjavik, you’ll encounter icons like the starkly beautiful Hallgrímskirkja, the dreamlike ship of the Sólfar (Sun Voyager) scuplture, and the slick, modern glass concert hall Harpa. However, there’s a lot more to discover than the best-known landmarks. Wandering Reykjavik reveals a multitude of colorful little details that demand a closer look.
Given all the gray weather we’d been experiencing, my eyes craved color. I spent a lot of time photographing the houses, murals, and even the plant life, which provided a cheerful contrast to the backdrop of the gray skies.
Some of the most striking sights in Reykjavik are the large murals that adorn many of the buildings. The city is a veritable outdoor museum, with paintings on houses, garages, commercial buildings, construction sites, and crumbling vacant buildings. The quality of the work varies, but as enforcement of anti-graffiti laws has tightened, most murals are now done by professional artists given permission by building owners or commissioned by businesses and organizations such as the Iceland Airwaves music festival. Many are in prominent locations, but go on your own treasure hunt to find the ones hidden down side streets and in residential areas.
Reykjavik’s street art also operates on a much smaller scale. During the food walk, my guide pointed out some little action figures that an artist has been gluing to the tops of street signs all around the city. Most are little soldiers, but there are also some toy vehicles and cartoon characters. After that, I couldn’t help looking for them everywhere I went. It’s not clear if anyone knows exactly who has been doing this, but they are definitely creating an opportunity for a fun scavenger hunt.
Hotdogs are the most famous of Reykjavik’s street foods, specifically the lamb hotdogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. I set aside my fear of condiments and tried the fully loaded dog with mustard, mayonnaise, apple-sweetened ketchup, and two varieties of onion; I survived and went back to the stand at least 2 more times during my stay.
However, if lamb dogs aren’t your thing, the street food scene offers lots of other options. Though several stands sell variants on the sausage, you can also get soup, tacos, donuts, fish & chips, waffles, and probably some other things I’m missing.
“Whimsical” is a great word to describe the overall feel of Reykjavik’s buildings, especially the houses and small shops. The city’s buildings are actually quite varied in style, however, ranging from cozy and quaint (many houses), to modern and slick (like Harpa), to blocky and utilitarian (commercial buildings). Most interesting to me were the brightly painted, cottage-like houses clad in corrugated metal. The juxtaposition of the bright colors and delicate trim on such an industrial material was quite captivating.
If you’re a cat person, Reykjavik is a good place for you. On my walks, I encountered several friendly, free-roaming cats wearing quite stylish collars. I caught one kitty staking out a bird feeder in front of a particularly cute seafoam green house. Caught in the act, she (?) descended from the tree and hopped up on the fence to say “meow.”
On our last day, my friend and I, wandering aimlessly once again, were drawn in to the Holavallagarður Cemetery and spent a good 20 minutes exploring this strange little garden. Eerie, yet somehow also charming, twisted moss-covered trees grow in the middle of burial plots and moss and lichens creep over the headstones, some dating back to the early-to-mid 1800s.
A few other things to check out
To be completely transparent, I didn’t discover these last two things just by wandering around, but they’re worth a stop during your explorations.
Reykjavik Flea Market
I’d read mixed reviews about the flea market, but we decided to check it out anyway. We’d heard it was one of the better places to get Icelandic wool sweaters, possibly knit by a real Icelandic Grandma, rather a machine, like most of ones in the tourist shops.
The market offers a mix of Icelandic products (e.g., knitwear, lava rock jewelry, silver) and secondhand goods. The food section at the back offers freshly baked breads, giftable Icelandic foods, and oddly (?) a section of imported Asian goodies.
Many of the packaged foods can also be found at souvenir shops, but at least shopping in a flea market feels a little less touristy. And one of my friends did, in fact, buy a hand-knit sweater directly from the woman who made it.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
Perhaps unfairly, I didn’t check out any of Reykjavik’s other museums, but we did visit this one as a sort of team outing. It’s a museum solely dedicated to – I’m just going to say it – penises. They have literally hundreds of preserved specimens.
The people watching was as much fun as the exhibits were. Groups of guys walked in, nudged each other, pointed at something, chuckled nervously. Other visitors attempted poses of of scholarly interest. The museum clearly doesn’t take itself seriously enough to ruin the fun. It’s about as well done as one could expect, given the subject matter, with a mix of legit science and middle-school humor.
And now, since every other sentence I’ve started to write seems to devolve into some sort of juvenile innuendo, I’m just going to leave you with the link so you can check it out for yourself.
What were your favorite things in Reykjavik? If you haven’t been yet, what are you most excited to see there?
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Be sure to check out Part 1: In Love with Iceland, Part 2: Iceland Favorites: Þórsmörk and Jökulsárlón, Part 3: Iceland Travel Tips, and Part 4: Skal! Sampling Iceland’s Craft Beer of the In Love with Iceland series as well!