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Free walking tour of Reykjavik by City Walk: A review

I highly recommend taking a walking tour when you first arrive in any new city or country. It helps give you the general overview in terms of history as well as an idea of the layout of the most visit-worthy parts of the city. Following my own advice, on our first day in Reykjavik we – my husband Albert and I – took the “free” walking tour offered by City Walk Reykjavik.

A blockish grey building, probably offices or a school, but right along the edge of the roof are a series of statues of men. All are full-body, white and stand facing out to the street. Each is posed slightly differently. Spotted during our free walking tour of Reykjavik.
Statues on top of a building in Reykjavik.

The advantage of a “free” tour is that you can decide for yourself how much you pay. As I had hoped, the tour turned out to be a great introduction to Iceland’s history – not only Reykjavik’s – which served us well for the rest of our three-week trip.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of the links, I will receive a small commission. This will not affect your price.

City Walk Reykjavik did not sponsor me in any way and the guide did not know I would write about it.


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History of Reykjavik and Iceland

We started in a little park in front of Reykjavik’s Parliament building under a misty rain, where our guide, Erik, gave us a general overview of the history.

While Vikings first came to Iceland and, in particular, Reykjavik, in the 9th century, Reykjavik didn’t really become an urban center until the 19th century. Ruled by Denmark starting in the 18th century, it was very much influenced in terms of industry, trade and culture by the Danes. When Iceland gained home rule in 1904 and then became a nation under the Danish crown, Reykjavik was the obvious capital city.

Erik’s story about World War II surprised me: I never knew that the British and then the Americans had actually occupied and ruled Iceland during the war. The transfer of power happened peacefully, however; it sounds like the Icelanders understood the importance of its location in cross-Atlantic shipping. Iceland didn’t become truly independent until 1944, when it declared itself a republic, but they allowed the Americans to stay until the war’s end.

A white two-story building with a grey roof, seen from an angle to the side. It has a simple front with a door in the center and two rows of plain windows. In front, near the camera, is a statue on a pedestal of a man holding a document out with one hand.
The Prime Minister’s house.

We learned more about the Vikings who settled Iceland later in our trip at the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik and the Settlement Center outside of the city. We learned about Iceland’s role in the World War II when we visited the Icelandic Wartime Museum in western Iceland. You can read about these and what else there is to see in Iceland in 3-week Iceland itinerary: the best Iceland road trip. In any case, the walking tour gave us a shorter, easy-to-follow overview of the history.

If you haven’t booked your accommodations in Reykjavik yet, do it here through clicking on the map below:

Learning about Reykjavik

On the tour, I particularly liked the old part of Reykjavik, where some houses date to the 19th century. Not surprisingly, they reminded me of wooden houses I saw in Denmark. I found it hard to even tell which were older, though, since many have an outer shell of corrugated iron.  Erik told me that all of the older ones are made of wood, but that the corrugated metal we see has been added to protect the wood.

The how is two storeys with an additional small window under the peak of the roof. It is painted bright red with white trim.
A house from the mid-19th century in Reykjavik.

Erik told us an interesting thing about how Reykjavik is heated. I knew vaguely that Reykjavik has geothermal energy. I didn’t know that geothermal energy provides hot water and heat to every home in Reykjavik. It comes out of the ground at about 75°C, so even if it cools on the way to the houses, heating costs are extremely low. According to Erik, many people will heat their homes very warm, even in the middle of winter, and leave windows wide open.

This abundance goes so far that in parts of the city the hot-water pipes have been laid under the streets. That means that, unless the snow falls particularly heavily and fast, the heat from the pipes keeps the roads clear! Isn’t that clever?

This photo is a close-up of one window in a mustard-yellow house. the window panes are edged in white and the frame around the window is brown. In front is a tall bush partly next to and partly in front of the wondow. It is covered with pink flowers.
Another house in the old part of Reykjavik, covered with corrugated metal.

It also explains why the hot water that you run from the tap in Reykjavik – and many other parts of the country – smells of sulphur. I guess people get used to the smell. Fortunately, the cold water from the tap does not smell or taste sulphurous.

Highlights of the free walking tour of Reykjavik

Hallgrimskirkja is probably the most well-known building in Reykjavik. On the tour we saw it from a distance, at the end of a street called Skólavörðustígur. The street was painted in rainbow colors in 2015 for that year’s Reykjavik Pride. It was so popular that the city council decided to allow the street to stay rainbow-colored permanently.

Looking up a road that slopes upward. At the end, in the distance, the rocket-ship-shaped white concrete church. The road has no cars on it and the pavement is painted in rainbow colors from left to right: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. A man walks a dog halfway up the road. The sides are lined with small trees and large planters filled with flowers, in front of rows of shops.
Skólavörðustígur looking up toward Hallgrimskirkja.

Anyway, Hallgrimskirkja’s shape was not intended to look like a rocket ship – but it does. Rather, it mirrors the Icelandic landscape, particularly its basalt columns and waterfalls.

Surprisingly, that enormous church is not the country’s cathedral. The more modest church from 1796 in the middle of town – where our tour started – is actually the cathedral.

The church is white and a simple design: a peaked roof down the center and a square short tower at one end. The entrance extends outward and is smaller, so the peak of its roof is lower.
Reykjavik Cathedral ( Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland).

Our guide also told us about events in Iceland’s history that helped to show how precarious life used to be in Iceland. Mostly this concerned volcanic eruptions or plagues wiping out large segments of an already fairly small population.

Iceland’s population today is only about 350,000, and more than half of those live in the region around Reykjavik. Erik told us about the genealogical and DNA records kept on Iceland’s population. Having such records, he explained, had helped the country keep Covid-19 infections down through effective contact tracing.

The tour passed political sites including the Parliament Building and the Prime Minister’s house, where we heard an overview of how Iceland’s government works.

A dark brown stone building with two rows of windows across the front. The windows are all arched at the top. In the center of the facade is the entrance door, with a small balcony above it.
The Parliament Building.

We stopped in Anarholl Park, with its Einar Jonsson sculpture depicting one of the first Viking settlers.

A stylized viking in bronze, holding a spear in one hand and wearing a pointed helmet. In front of him is a stylized dragon head, representing the prow of a Viking ship.
Statue in Anarholl Park.

From the park, Erik pointed out the Harpa Building, a stunning modern glass concert hall.

The building is simple cubes, one large, one smaller, all covered with greenish glass.
Harpa Building.

Walking along Tjornin Pond would have been pleasant if it hadn’t been such a grey, misty day. The walk took us past a piece of street art that I loved, though: a statue called “The Unknown Bureaucrat” by Magnus Tomasson. There’s quite a bit of great street art in Reykjavik, so keep your eyes open.

The bottom half of the statue is bronze and looks like the bottom half of a man wearing business clothes: neat trousers, work shoes, and in one hand, a briefcase. The top half is a huge stone: granite, I think, and just a rough, natural shape.
The Unknown Bureaucrat, by Magnus Tomasson.

Erik ended our tour at Reykjavik City Hall, a rather ugly concrete building. Inside, though, is a huge 3-D map of Iceland. This served to make clear various events he had mentioned earlier in the tour, including volcanic eruptions and just where those eruptions occurred. Albert and I were able to trace the ring road around the island, past the glacier-covered mountains, in anticipation of our planned road trip.

Erik stayed relaxed and extremely patient despite the sheer number of questions we and the other participants threw at him. I didn’t keep track, but I think we went over the advertised length of the tour: two hours.

“Free” vs. paid walking tours

The gimmick with a “free” walking tour like City Walk Reykjavik is the expectation that you will give a good tip to pay the guide. The thing is, if it’s a good tour, as this was, you want to tip a lot. It doesn’t necessarily end up any cheaper than a tour with a set price.

There are plenty of other walking tours of Reykjavik available: short tours, whole day tours, theme tours of various sorts (food, drink, elves and trolls, whales, etc.). Here is a link to a bunch of them. And here’s a self-guided walking tour if you prefer to do it on your own.

Have you ever tried a free walking tour? What did you think? Or do you prefer to book a paid one? Leave a comment below!

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Text: rachelsruminations.com / Free walking tour of Reykjavik / A review
Images: left top the statue of a viking, right top the view up the rainbow road toward Hallgrimskirkja, left bottom the statue of the unknown bureaucrat, bottom right a red house in old Reykjavik.


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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I have followed free walking tours in many European cities (London, Madrid, Rome, Bucharest, Naples, Copenhagen, Krakow, Pamplona etc).
The most of them are excellent!!
I recommend them!!