You know you have arrived at a great country when it is close to -10°C, snowing heavily, and you’re waiting to cross a dual carriage way. Then a lone car, travelling 60mph+, stops completely to let you cross. Iceland is one of our favorite places on earth and it’s capital city is very special to us. We started our round the world adventure in Reykjavik after dreaming about visiting for years. Although we were a little extravagant with our budget on the first few days, hunting for Northern Lights and black sand beaches, we learned there were many free things to do in Reykjavik, you just have to look for them.
Located on the coastal edge of the North Atlantic Ocean, just outside of Reykjavik’s city center, the Sun Voyager is a famous sculpture made by Jón Gunnar Árnason. The model was designed to represent a ‘dream boat’ close to the sea offering a prosperous journey, and hope and freedom to all. Jón Gunnar believed Icelanders originated from Mongolia and settled on the land after a brave voyage carried out by the strongest warriors who were chasing the rising sun.
He also believed the settlers created huge boats and ships to head west into the setting sun. The sculpture represents the promise of new and undiscovered territories. Jón Gunnar became terminally ill a year prior to the placement of the sculpture, and he died in 1989, never seeing the final placement of the sculpture.
Lake Tjornin is Reykjavik’s go to place for relaxation and wildlife where locals and tourists stop to feed the wide variety of birds. The mass feeding of the birds in this small mountain lake has led to some referring to Lake Tjornin as ‘The biggest bowl of bread soup in the world’. The City Council have since asked people to refrain from feeding the birds due to an increase in seagulls who offer danger to new-born ducklings.
The lake is situated right beside Reykjavik City Hall, which is also free to visit. Pop by to see the topographic model of Iceland and its many volcanoes.
Tjornin lake is home to over 50 species of bird, and we had lots of fun trying to spot them. We were lucky enough to experience the lake as it was completely frozen over forcing the birds to congregate closer to pedestrians and we had a great view.
Watch the birds scramble for a feed as loaves upon loaves of bread are thrown into the lake all year round.
Lake Tjornin is the perfect retreat after a day of city exploring. Quirky statues can be seen such as the unexplained ‘Unknown Bureaucrat’!
We took the opportunity to walk across the lake after being assured by our Reykjavik Walking Tour guide that it is completely safe. This allowed us to walk on the central island, normally only accessible by boat.
Trojan Lake is particularly beautiful at sunset as the birds head off to bed.
The Hallgrímskirkja Church is Iceland’s largest church and an iconic landmark of Rekjavik. It is situated in a beautiful part of town surrounded by picturesque residential areas and warm cafes.
The architectural design of the church is said to represent the basalt lava flows that are unique geological features found across the country. The tower of the church stands at 73 metres (244 ft) offering the best views of Reykjavik from the observation tower. One of the highlights of our time in Reykjavik was the time the spent in the tower, behind the clock face. As soon as we arrived at the tower in the church’s elevator, a blizzard came from nowhere and snow poured into the observation deck.
It reminded us of a scene from the film Hugo, where a young boy lived behind the face of a clock in a Paris train station back in the 1930s.It was quite something to be able to look out of the clock face onto the most spectacular views of Reykjavik and beyond.
It took 41 years to build the Hallgrímskirkja Church, from 1945 to 1986. The tower was the first installment followed by the crypt and the steeple. The church is home to a 15m tall, 25 tonne beautiful church organ that can be seen for free on the ground floor.
The USA donated a statue of Leifur Eiriksson to Iceland which stands directly outside of the church. Eiriksson was allegedly the first European to discover America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The statue commemorates the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament at Þingvellir.
Scenes of winter make the Hallgrimskirkja a perfect shot for the front of a Christmas card.
Translating to ‘The Pearl’, the Perlan was the most pleasant surprise during our time in Reykjavik. Not only does the Perlan offer a luxury dining experience within it’s perfectly situated dome, there is also 360 panoramic viewing platform and an indoor geyser!
The Perlan is situated on a hill known as Öskjuhlíð where hot water storage tanks had been in place for several decades. The tanks were updated in 1991 and a hemispherical structure was placed on top, and the Perlan was born. The location is a little out of the city centre but it is definitely worth the trip for some of the greatest views. The Perlan have provided 6 telescopes complete with audio guides in multiple languages on the observation deck.
Exploring the panoramic observation deck circulates outside the building’s dome on the fourth floor. The deck will give you some of the greatest views of Reykjavik and the mighty snow-clad mountains that dominate the background.
We joined forces with Martin from City Walk Iceland who took us across the city on a free guided tour. This was by far the best thing we did in the city, it gave us a great insight into Iceland’s history, politics, gastronomy, the education system, famous landmarks and overall culture. The city walk starts in Austurvöllur – the parliament square – where they run two tours per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Our tour started at the statue of Skúli Magnússon, ‘the father of Reykjavik’, a man who established a number of industries that would be run by Iceland. He opened mills, tanneries and increased the skills of the Icelandic people by bringing in resources from other parts of the world.
The tour brings you to all sorts of hidden areas within Reykjavik, one of our highlights was visiting a high school just off the main shopping street, Laugavegur. We were told about Iceland’s education system and how it is mandatory between the ages of 6-16, a standard practice for Nordic countries.
One of the more noticeable features of the school was the car park and how many cars strategically cram into such a small space every day!
Another tour highlight was being taken to the Ingólfr Arnarson monument which sits on a small hill by Laugavegur. The statue was erected to commemorate Arnarson and his wife as the first permanent settlers of Iceland. According to the Book of Settlements, Arnarson named Reykjavik, which translates to ‘The Smoke Cove’, inspired by the steam from the surrounding hot springs. Revelers of Reykjavik’s annual gay pride celebrations took it upon themselves to ‘decorate’ the monument with lipstick which is still there today! During Reykjavik’s gay pride, which is held in August every year, the mayor led the celebrations dressed in drag.
Upon closer inspection, the statue is filled with mythical fantasy. Arnarson is standing by his high seat pillar which depicts the pillars he tossed into the water once declaring settlement on the land. The pillars are decorated with a dragon’s head on one side and the god Odin with his two ravens, Hugin and Munin. The mythological tree, Yggdrasil is also included on the sculpture as well as the Worm of Midgard and Odin‘s eight legged horse, Sleipnir.
We were taken to a wonderful hidden residential area tucked away from the city’s shops and restaurants where we were shown a large chunk of volcanic rock. This area is known as Rocky Village because of the rock that sits right in the middle. Attempts were made by construction workers to move the rock but it wouldn’t budge.
A fascinating legend started in Iceland many years ago explaining the random rocks that are scattered all over the country. The legend of elves. According to statistics, around 54% of Icelanders believe in elves, referred to as Huldufólk. The elves are said to live beneath these rocks and there is an official Elf School in Reykjavik offering special sessions and certifications on Elf study if you wanted to find out more.
Some residents believe in the existence of 14 Santa Clauses, and Icelandic children are subsequently spoiled with continuous gifts. Children are also afraid of doing anything wrong as, according to legend, bad children are melted into a cauldron together!
After exploration of the nooks and crannies of Reykjavik, including a flea market and a hot dog stand that once served former US president Bill Clinton ‘the best hot dog he has ever tasted’, the tour ended at Lake Tjörnin where we were assured it would be ok to walk over the frozen water. We had never crossed a frozen lake before!Martinn made light humour of how grey and dull the most colourful city in the world’s City Hall is. The frozen water feature at the entrance of the City Hall made it very photogenic.
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We have derived this list from personal experience after spending two weeks in Iceland. We came up with as many free things to do in Reykjavik as we could, and we are certain we missed a lot more.
We’d love to evolve this list and we invite you to leave your suggestions in the comments below.
We hope you enjoy the beautiful city of Reykjavik, let us know what you enjoyed the most.