The world’s most northerly capital, Reykjavík has a sense of space and calm that comes as a breath of fresh air to travellers accustomed to the bustle of the traffic-clogged streets in Europe’s other major cities. Although small for a capital (the population is barely 120,000), Reykjavík is a throbbing urban metropolis compared with Iceland’s other built-up areas; the Greater Reykjavík area is home to two out of every three Icelanders. If you’re planning to visit some of the country’s more remote and isolated regions, you should make the most of the atmosphere generated by this bustling port, with its highbrow museums and buzzing nightlife. But while it’s true that Friday and Saturday nightlife has earned Reykjavík a reputation for hedonistic revelry, with locals carousing for as long as the summer nights allow, the pace of life is in fact sedate.
Split roughly into two halves by the brilliant waters of the large, naturally occurring Tjörnin lake, the tiny city centre is more a place to amble around and take in the suburban-looking streets and corner cafés than somewhere to hurtle through between attractions. Reykjavík lacks the grand and imposing buildings found in other Nordic capitals, possessing instead an apparently ramshackle clusters of houses, either clad in garishly painted corrugated iron or daubed in pebbledash as protection against the ferocious North Atlantic storms of winter. This rather unkempt feel, though, is as much part of the city’s charm as the views across the sea to glaciers and the sheer mountains that form the backdrop to the streets. Even in the heart of this capital, nature is always in evidence – there can be few other cities in the world, for example, where greylag geese regularly overfly the busy centre, sending bemused visitors, more accustomed to diminutive pigeons, scurrying for cover.
Amid the essentially residential city centre, it is the Hallgrímskirkja, a gargantuan white concrete church towering over the surrounding houses, that is the most enduring image of Reykjavík. Below this, the elegant shops and stylish bars and restaurants that line the main street and commercial thoroughfare of Laugavegur are a consumer’s heaven. The central core of streets around Laugavegur is where the capital’s most engaging museums are also to be found, containing, among other things, superb collections of the medieval sagas. The displays in the Þjóðminjasafn (National Museum), Þjóðmenningarhúsið (Culture House) and Saga Museum, for example, offer a fine introduction to Iceland’s stirring past, while you’ll find the outstanding work of sculptors Ásmundur Sveinsson and Einar Jónsson outdoors in the streets and parks, as well as in two permanent exhibitions.
With time to spare, it’s worth venturing outside the city limits into Greater Reykjavík, for a taste of the Icelandic provinces – suburban style. Although predominantly an area of dormitory overspill for the capital, the town of Hafnarfjörður is large enough to be independent of Reykjavík and has a couple of museums and a busy harbour, though it’s perhaps best known for its Viking feasts. Alternatively, the flat and treeless island of Viðey, barely ten minutes offshore from Reykjavík, is the place to come for magnificent views of the city and of the surrounding mountains – there are also some enjoyable walking trails here, which lead around the island in a couple of hours.
As recounted in the ancient manuscripts Íslendingabók and Landnámábók, Reykjavík’s origins date back to the country’s first settler, Ingólfur Arnarson, who arrived in 874 AD, brought here by his high seat pillars – emblems of tribal chieftainship, tossed overboard from his boat – and settling, in pagan tradition, wherever they washed up. He named the place “smoky bay” (reykja meaning “of smoke”, vík meaning “bay”, cognate with English wick), mistakenly thinking that the distant plumes of steam issuing from boiling spring water were smoke caused by fire. It was a poor place to settle, however, as the soil was too infertile to support successful farming, and Reykjavík remained barely inhabited until an early seventeenth-century sea-fishing boom brought Danish traders here, after which a small shanty town to house their Icelandic labour force sprang into existence. Later, in the middle of the eighteenth century, Skúli Magnússon, the official in charge of Reykjavík’s administrative affairs (landfógeti), a man today regarded as the city’s founder, used Reykjavík as a base to establish Icelandic-controlled industries, opening several mills and tanneries and importing foreign craftspeople to pass on their skills. A municipal charter was granted in 1786, when the population totalled a mere 167 – setting the course for Reykjavík’s acceptance as Iceland’s capital. At the end of the eighteenth century, the city replaced Skálholt as the national seat of religion and gained the Lutheran Cathedral, Dómkirkjan; eighty years later, with the opening of the new Alþingi building, it became the base of the national parliament.
Since independence in 1944, expansion has been almost continuous. As a fishing harbour, a port for the produce of the fertile farms of the southwest and a centre for a variety of small industries, Reykjavík provides employment for over half the country’s population. The city has also pioneered the use of geothermal energy to provide low-cost heating – which is why you have to wait for the cold water instead of the hot when taking a shower, and why tap water always has a whiff of sulphur.
Over recent years there’s been a substantial boom, too, in tourism. The ever-increasing visitor numbers to Reykjavík are largely due to the greater number of airlines now operating to Iceland, and the collapse of the country’s banking system and currency in 2008 which saw prices drop by half virtually overnight for anyone converting money into the formerly overvalued Icelandic króna. Consequently, Iceland has never provided better value for money.