Reykjavik is the capital and largest city in Iceland, but it remains an average-sized city with a population of about 131,136 people. For this reason, the atmosphere is calm and one does not feel the same stress as in other more significant capitals. The streets are clear, colorful, and there are no large buildings that cut off the view and the sun. This atmosphere struck and pleased me as soon as we got off the bus from the airport. To complete the picture, it is one of the cleanest, greenest, and safest cities in the world.
The first part of our visit of Reykjavik
Therefore, it is full of enthusiasm on a lovely sunny day that we set out to discover it. We did the visit in one day. The only requirement is to be an early bird!
We decided to start with the monument we have spotted upon arrival — a building visible from everywhere in the city.
Hallgrímskirkja, literally the Church of Hallgrímur, is a Lutheran parish church. Built of concrete and 74.5 meters high, it sits on top of a hill from which you can see it across the city.
Its name comes from the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson, author of a major Icelandic work, Hymns of Passion.
It was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson, inspired by the numerous basalt columns in the country, and is shaped like a geyser.
The construction began in 1945 and it took 41 years to complete.
Initially, the church was supposed to be lower. Still, the Church of Iceland leaders, wanting to surpass the Church of Landakot, the Catholic Church’s cathedral, added the great spire.
It is possible, thanks to an elevator, to reach the top of the great tower from where one overlooks the city. The view is beautiful.
The statue of Leif Erikson
This statue of the Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson (970-1020) was created by Alexander Stirling Calder. It was gifted to Iceland by the United States in 1930, in honor of the Millennial Festival of Althingi, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the Icelandic parliament’s convening in Thingvellir.
Historians believe Leif Erikson was the first known European to set foot on the American continent, excluding Greenland, about half a century before Christopher Columbus. This new territory, which he called Vinland, would later come to be North America’s coast. An Icelandic saga says he even established a colony there.
Leif was the son of “Erik the Red,” the founder of the first Nordic settlement in Greenland.
Einar Jonsson Art Museum
Einar Jónsson (1874-1954) was the first Icelandic sculptor. In 1909, he donated his entire work to his country with one condition, that the town must build a museum to house it. It was not until 1914 that the Icelandic Parliament accepted this offer upon realizing that Icelanders really appreciated his works.
The museum building, also a design of Einar Jónsson, was the first art museum built in Reykjavik. It was built on what was then a desolate part of town, Skolavorduhaed Hill.
The museum was closed when we visited. Still, we took full advantage of the adjacent park, which exhibited somewhat strange sculptures.
The garden was charming. We had a great time strolling through these magnificent works of art. And since the entry to the garden is free, make sure to check the place out.
Laugavegur Avenue, one of the oldest streets in Reykjavik, is the city’s main shopping street.
Its name means “basin road.” In the past, women came to this street to have their laundry done in tubs of naturally hot water.
The French Hospital
The old French Hospital was built in 1902 by the French. It then had 20 beds and employed doctors and nurses, most of whom were Icelandic. It was intended to provide medical care to French and Icelandic sailors working in western Iceland fishing grounds.
When the hospital was built, 150 to 200 French vessels — the vast majority of schooners — were allowed to fish in Icelandic waters from February to August. The crews of the ships were made up of between 4,000 and 5,000 men.
Tragedies occurred, like ships running aground and others being lost at sea. Despite this, the fishing was good.
French fishing off Iceland mostly ended in 1914.
The Sun Voyager – Sólfarid
The “Sun Voyager” is a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason located on the seafront in Reykjavik’s center. At first, I thought it was a Viking ship!
But no, it represents a dreamboat, an ode to the sun. It symbolizes the promise of unknown territory, a dream of hope, progress, and freedom.
It was made of high-quality stainless steel and stands on a circle of granite slabs. The artwork is surrounded by concrete.
Harpa music hall and conference center
The most surprising thing when discovering this building is that it clashes with the other buildings’ architecture in Reykjavik. This modern monument is also the pride of the inhabitants of the city.
The structure is made of steel. The facades are an assemblage of glass panels of irregular shapes and different colors from each other, taking inspiration from Iceland’s basalt landscape.
Depending on their orientation, each panel uniquely captures light. The colors of the façade change according to the weather or the time of the day. Each photo that one can take is a unique copy. It’s magical!
The center was opened on May 4, 2011, with a performance by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. The Harpa music hall became its home.
First and foremost a recording venue, it is suitable for all types of music, classical or contemporary. It has several halls of different sizes, all with exceptional acoustics. The biggest one is Eldborg, designed as a world-class concert hall which can accommodate up to 1,600 guests. There are two recital halls, Norurljus (520 people) and Kaldalon (195 people), ideal for recordings but also for lectures.
Then there are conference rooms that can host exhibitions, receptions or meetings. Located on the upper floors of the building, they offer spectacular views of the city and the sea.
Landakotskirkja, the church of Landakot, is the cathedral of the Catholic Church of Iceland. It is often called Kristskirkja — Church of Christ.
I was surprised by its flat roof, which differs from the spires traditionally found on churches.
The history of Catholicism in Iceland
In the 10th Century, Norwegian and German missionaries arrived in Iceland to propagate their Christian faith.
At this time, the kingdom of Denmark and Norway ruled the country. Under pressure from its king, the Althingi – the Icelandic Parliament founded in 930 – adopted Christianity as the religion of the state.
But that all changed in the 16th Century, when Christian III, the then-new king of this kingdom, ordered the Protestant Lutheran Reformation to seize all Catholic Church property.
This Protestant Reformation led to the execution of the Catholic Bishop of Iceland and his family. The country then became Lutheran.
It is only much later that two Catholic priests returned to Iceland to reintroduce their faith; Jean Baptiste Baudoin and Bernard Bernard from France. As soon as they arrived they bought the Landakota farm, located where the cathedral is now — to build a small chapel there. The reception they received was full of struggles. For this reason, Bernard left the country in 1862, while Baudoin persevered until 1875.
A few years later, after the First World War, the small chapel was replaced by a church in the neo-Gothic style.
Sanctified in 1929, it was the largest church in Iceland at the time. Today, Landakotskirkja is the seat of Iceland’s only Catholic school.
We continued our walk through the old alleys around Aðalstræti Street, the oldest street in Reykjavik. Fun fact, House Number 10 was the first one built in the city in 1764.
In this old quarter, we find an atmosphere of a small village with its cobbled roads and colorful, picturesque houses.
I didn’t expect to discover such a peaceful cemetery! It is a haven of nature in the middle of the city. There are trees on each plot, and the wild nature attracts birds and small animals, which softens this place of gloom.
The cemetery was completed in the summer of 1838 but was only consecrated a few months later. An old superstition has it that the first person buried in a graveyard will become its guardian. Their role being to welcome and watch over new dead people, they will never rest in peace, and their bodies will never decompose.
As few people wish such a fate for their deceased loved ones, it could be several months before the first body is buried in a new cemetery.
In Hólavallagarður, the magistrate Þórður Jónassen agreed to have his last wife buried here to become the guardian of the place.
Thirty thousand bodies lie here. All the plots were sold, which led to the construction of a new cemetery in 1932.
But it is possible to have a small space there as your final resting place. Urns can be buried in graves that already have a coffin, provided the landowner’s permission, of course — a practice that has increased in recent years.
Hljómskálagarður Park is near Lake Tjörnin, a large inland lake that adjoins the Town Hall. This lake is home to many freshwater birds — ducks, geese, and arctic terns — and is a delight for children who come to throw them bread on sunny days. The atmosphere in this city is truly relaxing.
After a bit of walking along the lake, we finally reached the park.
We left behind us the noise of the city and entered an ocean of greenery. The driveway winds along flower beds and statues of some well-known artists, leading us to a children’s playground and resting areas. Benches line the path and invite you for a halt to admire the majestic trees surrounding the site.
This scenery is such a contrast with the desert landscapes we saw outside the city!
And yet, when the idea of this park was announced, especially how it was going to be done, the city’s inhabitants were somewhat reluctant.
Indeed, at the beginning of the 19th Century, there were only marshy fields meaning that the land had to be backfilled. The solution: to use the ashes and waste of the city to level the ground.
With the stench of the garbage, one can imagine why this idea was not attractive to the residents. Despite everything, work began and ended in 1920.
Nowadays, it’s a must-do park for a pleasant and relaxing walk! Some say as well that the place is ideal for watching the Northern Lights.
A section of the park dedicated to sculptures all made by women — five Icelandic and one Danish.
A little further on is the Vatnsmýri Park . After Hljómskálagarður, I was a little disappointed. It’s not exactly a park as one might expect — more of a wilderness reserve with a circuit that takes you to the circle of life through water. For me, it was just nature!
As the first part of our visit ended, we decided to return to Hljómskálagarður park to enjoy our lunchtime snack. This park is so quiet and beautiful!
The second part, the old town of Reykjavik
We made the most of our short half-hour break before heading to the old town, invigorated and once again full of enthusiasm.
The town hall and the Unknown Bureaucrat
Opened in 1992, the Town Hall is a modern building, all in glass and concrete. It differs entirely from the surrounding architecture but blends in perfectly with the landscape. On the lakeside, columns plunge into the calm water, while on the street side, a pool has been built to give the impression that the building is surrounded by water.
On the ground floor, one can find an exhibition room, an information desk, and a large relief map of Iceland. An excellent way to spot natural parks and volcanoes. Not negligible either, one can find toilets.
We left the city hall via the lakeside by taking a footbridge that reaches the shore where the Unknown Bureaucrat stand.
This statue was created in 1994 by the Icelandic sculptor Magnus Tomasson. It shows a man in a crumpled suit, carrying a briefcase and walking towards the town hall. His shoulders and bust are a raw block of Icelandic volcanic basalt.
Anyone can interpret the message conveyed by this work. According to the artist, it is a tribute to the unknown workers who serve their country through their work. Or as the name suggests, to anonymous bureaucrats.
The block, meanwhile, represents the thankless burden of being an office worker.
Austurvöllur Square and the Parliament house
Historically, Austurvöllur Square has been a gathering place for Icelanders whether for demands, protests, celebrations, or just for fun.
In the early days when Reykjavik was a farm, it is hard to imagine that the square was just a small part of the meadow for animals. The area was swampy. It was unsuitable for construction because of the animals roaming around, and the inhabitants cutting up plots of land to make their typical turf houses.
But in 1875, the town fenced, grassed, and equipped with walkways to install a statue donated by Copenhagen. This statue, by Icelandic-Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, was Reykjavik’s first public sculpture.
It was not until 1930 that the barriers were finally removed, opening the place to the public. The statue of Bertel Thorvaldsen was moved to Hljómskálagarður Park and replaced by that of Jon Sigurdsson, leader of the Icelandic movement. This politician’s birthday, June 17, became the country’s national holiday after Iceland gained independence in 1944.
The relief on the statue’s pedestal is called “The Pioneer.” It represents a settler in the middle of cliffs and basalt columns tracing a trail for future generations. The sculpture and the relief are the work of the famous Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson.
Icelanders are rebels
“The black cone.” The Spanish artist Santiago Sierra created this sculpture following the significant demonstrations in Austurvöllur Square after the banking collapse in 2008. It is dedicated to civil disobedience and was donated to the city by the artist on the condition that it permanently stays on Austurvöllur Square.
The work consists of a huge rock split open and surmounted by a black cone, an allusion to the hats the condemned had to wear as a sign of humiliation during the Inquisition in the 12th Century.
On the plaque is a quote from the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution:”
“When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”
Nowadays, one of the popular gatherings in this square takes place every December to admire the illuminations of the Christmas tree offered by the city of Oslo.
Althingishus, the Parliament House
The Icelandic parliament — Althingi — was founded in 930 in Thingvellir, a place about 50 km from Reykjavik. It held its sessions there until 1799, before being transferred to the capital.
If you are curious about the history of the Althingi, read more.
To house the institution, Althingishus was built in 1881. Today, it’s one of Iceland’s oldest stone buildings designed in the country’s classic 19th-Century style.
On the main facade of the building are ornaments, including the crown and crest of King Christian IX on the roof.
Under the eaves, the date 1881 is marked with metallic numerals interspersed with stars.
On four of the second-story windows, the guardian spirits of Iceland are depicted in bas-relief: a giant, a large bird, a bull, and a dragon.
Behind the building is the Parliament Garden, the oldest park in the country. It has retained its original design: a traditional and formal layout with paths emanating from a circular lawn.
Reykjavík Cathedral was built between 1787 and 1796 in a neoclassical style. It was the first building to be built influenced by the idea that Reykjavík was to become the nation’s capital.
It’s in front of Althingishus that our visit came to an end. We headed to the Icelandic Punk Museum, which is situated at the beginning of Laugavegur Street. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the museum was closed, so we decided to take this famous street looking for a terrace to enjoy good coffee.
I truly appreciated this beautiful town because of the calm ambiance and the typical architecture of the houses — multicolors, with their walls and roof made of steel. They made me think of homes I saw in some documentaries about Greenland which I didn’t expect to see here. Another thing I appreciated and don’t take for granted is that all the interiors are extremely cozy. It was pretty cold when we went to Iceland in early October, so I frankly enjoyed entering a place and feeling as if I was in a cocoon.
To finish, there is a place outside the city center that warrants a visit: Perlan.
It is located at the top of Öskjuhlíð hill. What was a group of hot water tanks was converted in 1991 into a building open to the public. It hosts an exhibition, a planetarium, an observation terrace, and a restaurant.
Written descriptions don’t really do it justice, one would have to see it for themselves.