Today I had an amazing walking tour of Reykjavik with Eric from CityWalk. This tour starts at 2pm by the Parliament building, on Austurvöllur square. Meet next to the statue of Jón Sigurðsson, a leader of Iceland’s independence movement.
One great thing about this walking tour is that it’s wheelchair accessible. The walking tour is also priced as ‘free’ to allow everyone to attend, but I encourage you to make a donation at the end of the tour, as it is not funded by the government or anything else, and the guys who run it do so voluntarily.
Outside the Icelandic Parliament building, we learnt that there are 63 senators in parliament and 26 are women, ranking Iceland as one of the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world (after Rwanda and Finland to name a few others). There are only 6 political parties in Iceland.
Look up at the roof line for 4 characters – North, East, South and West. Those 4 symbols appear on the back of every coin in Iceland. In the top windows, you can see four creatures for protection.
From the square, you will also see the main Cathedral (the main Cathedral of Reykjavik is not Hallgrimskirkja!) This Church has been there since 1847. From 1796 there was actually a different church on the same spot!
History of Iceland
The Viking Period – late 8th century to mid 11th century. In 871 first settlers came to Iceland. (+/-2 due to historical debate!)
The Making of Reykjavik – Iceland was colonised by Norway and then by Denmark. There were only 301 people living in Reykjavik in 1800!
The Battle Period – Jon the president whose famous year was 1851 when he said ‘no’ to the colonising Danes (the independence battle).
Iceland got independence in the middle of WW2 – Iceland was Nazi occupied and it took advantage of that towards the end of the war. Keflavik airport built by the Americans in WW2. Iceland told the Americans that if they wanted to build their army base in Keflavik, they had to help with the battle against the Danes!
The Influx of Christianity
We then stood on the oldest cemetery in Reykjavik, and saw the three stones that were put there to represent influx of Christianity. In 999 or 1000: Christianity was adopted in Iceland.
We next stopped at ‘Rocky Village’ to see the beautiful colourful houses. These colourful houses of Reykjavik used to be made of rocks. In 1850 they started to build the timber houses with imported timber and corrugated iron. As there were no trees or forests in Iceland, the timber and iron came from Denmark.
In 1900, they started to build up concrete houses in Reykjavik. Over 90% of heating or power is natural in Iceland, the majority of which is geothermal energy. Bills are really low for this reason. It’s a volcanic island you don’t have to go far below earth to find heat.
50% of People in Iceland Still Believe in Elves!
Eric told us that 50% of islanders believe in Elves. Elves are people, and they only reveal themselves to real believers. We saw Elf Rock – a stone that could not be moved. Of course if it is an elf rock, If you don’t have permission from the Elves, you cannot move it. They obviously didn’t ask the Elves permission! 😉
The Flag of Iceland
We stopped by in the main shopping area to discuss the Islandic flag. It’s a cross because Iceland is a Christian country. The blue represents the ocean, the blue represents the lava and the white represents the ice that covers the island.
There are 332000 people living in Iceland now. There has been a tourism boom since the financial crisis (the crash of 2008). Prices now in Iceland are half what they were 8 years ago (although Iceland is still quite expensive – see Budgeting for Iceland). The Volcanic Eruption in 2010 and the film series Game of Thrones have also contribute to an increase in tourism in Iceland.
Harpa Concert Hall
We then walked past the Harpa concert hall on the seafront. It is often lit up at night, and is currently lit as the Belgian flag to show solidarity in light of the recent terrorist attacks.
Ingólfur Arnarson – The First Settler of Iceland
We then walked towards the statue of the first settler of Iceland – Ingólfur Arnarson. Eric really made me laugh, because he said that the very first settlers were murderers and pillagers in exile from Norway. “And what do we, the Islanders, do with the first murderer and pillager who settled here?” he asked, “We build a statue out of him and make him into a hero!” He certainly had a sense of humour!
We learnt that the only Icelandic wild mammal is the arctic fox. All other animals were bought in with the Vikings.
From the statue of Arnatson, you can see a big White House with a flag pole, which is the Prime Ministers house. It’s not guarded with security. The only place that is in Reykjavik is the US embassy!
There are beautiful views across Reykjavik Harbour. The big grey ships in the harbour are Coast Guard ships that are controlling fishing (not defence ships). The only defense that Iceland really has is two helicopters, and most of the time, they are rescuing lost hikers!
Icelandic Traditional Food
We discussed some Islandic food specialities which include fermented shark or sheeps testicles! But basically, go for the fish of the day! Icelandic Lamb is also delicious because they live outdoors all year round living off the land.
Unfortunately, some restaurants in Iceland do still serve Whale and Puffin. ‘Whale friendly restaurants’ don’t serve whale, so I tend to look for those. Puffin can be eaten in Iceland, but recently has been put on the endangered species list.
Drink the pure icelandic water that comes directly from the taps. Eric suggested that you buy a bottle of water and then just keep filling it up in the taps.
Next we stopped off at the smallest gymnasium in the world to learn about Icelandic education! Iceland offers its citizens free education, even degree and postgraduate level (MA and PHD). High school is 16-20, in order for students to take more time to decide what they want to study.
Iceland has the lowest crime rates in Europe. There are only 4 prisons and only 1 maximum security prison. If you want to see the police in Iceland, find them on Instagram! The murder rate in Iceland third lowest in the world.
We walked past the Reykjavik pond, where many Islanders gather in the summer to socialise. You can see many geese and ducks there, and there is a stunning view of the Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík Church across the pond from the Town Hall.
Reykjavik Town Hall
The tour ends at Reykjavik town hall, where you can see a fantastic 3D relief map of the whole of Iceland.
You also get the opportunity to purchase cleverly designed ‘beer-mittens’ so that you can drink your beer in the cold – genius!
Overall, the City Walk tour was extremely informative, and it gave me an insight into Icelandic culture, history and politics that I would not have had without Eric. I highly recommend this tour.
You might also like to read about What to pack for Iceland and Iceland – 10 Things you need to know before you go.