Actually the top of an extinct volcano and measuring barely 1.7 square kilometres, the island of Viðey (welding.is/videy) boasts a rich historical background. Just 750m outside Sundahöfn harbour, you can see it from the mainland by taking a ten-minute walk north of the Laugardalur area along Dalbraut, which later mutates into Sundagarður. If you fancy a brisk stroll with ocean views and a bit of alfresco art thrown in, this is the place to come.
A short walk up the path from the jetty where the ferry deposits you is Viðeyjarstofa, once the residence of former royal treasurer and sheriff Skúli Magnússon, now a modest café. Designed in simple Rococo style by the architect who worked on the Amalienborg royal palace in Copenhagen, its outer walls are made of basalt and sandstone while the interior is of Danish brick and timber. Standing next to the café is Iceland’s second-oldest church, consecrated in 1774, and worth a glance inside for its original interior furnishings and Skúli’s grave beneath the altar. Walk east of here to the site of the old fort, Virkið, of which nothing now remains, to see the Skúli Magnússon monument (he died here in 1794) and Danadys (Danes’ Grave), the final resting place for a number of Danish citizens who lived on the island over the centuries.
To the left of the jetty, in the opposite direction to Viðeyjarstofa and the church, the unusual wishing-well structure you can see is the Imagine Peace Tower. Conceived by Yoko Ono as a beacon to world peace and inscribed with the words “imagine peace” in 24 languages, the structure emits a powerful tower of light every night between October 9 (John Lennon’s birthday) and December 8 (the anniversary of his death), illuminating the Reykjavík sky.
There’s little else to do on Viðey other than enjoy the spectacular views of the mainland and take a stroll on one of the many paths that lead around the island; allow at least two hours to walk all the way round. From Viðeyjarstofa, a road heads right beyond the island’s schoolhouse to the easternmost point, from where a path takes over, following the south coast back towards the ferry jetty, skirting a protected area (closed May & June) that’s home to thousands of nesting birds. Alternatively, from the easternmost point, a track leads back along the north coast past the café and out to the northwestern part of the island, Vesturey, a peninsula connected to the main island by the small isthmus, Eiði.
While in the western part of the island, keep an eye out for the Áfangar, an alfresco exhibit by the American sculptor Richard Serra, consisting of nine pairs of basalt columns (now covered in bird mess) arranged around Vesturey: when viewed from the correct angle, they frame landmarks visible on the mainland.
Viðey (Wood Island – though it’s no longer forested) was first claimed by Reykjavík’s original settler Ingólfur Arnarson as part of his estate. Archeological studies have shown that Viðey was inhabited during the tenth century and that a church was built here sometime in the twelfth century, though it is for the Augustinian monastery, consecrated here in 1225, that the island is better known. However, the island’s monks fled when, in 1539, representatives of the Danish king proclaimed Viðey property of the Lutheran royal crown. Barely eleven years later, in 1550, Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, regained possession of the island through an armed campaign, restored the monastery and built a fort here to defend Viðey from his Lutheran enemies. Little did that help, however, and in the same year, Arason was beheaded and the Reformation, taking place across mainland Europe, began in Iceland.
Two centuries of peace ensued and in 1751 Viðey was given to the royal treasurer and sheriff, Skúli Magnússon, with the Viðeyjarstofa, Iceland’s first stone building, being built as his residence four years later. In 1817, the island passed into the ownership of the President of the High Court, Magnús Stephensen, who brought Iceland’s only printing press to Viðey, further enhancing the tiny place’s claim as the country’s main centre of culture since the establishment of the Augustinian monastery here. Following several more changes of ownership, the City of Reykjavík finally bought the island in 1983.