Stealing the limelight from its suburban neighbours thanks to its dramatic setting amid an extensive lavafield, Hafnarfjörður, with a population of around 26,000 and just 10km from the capital, is as big as the centre of Reykjavík, although it’s not as likeable. There are nevertheless several good reasons to make the 25-minute bus ride out here, the main ones being to sample some real Viking food at the town’s Viking village, Fjörukráin, and to learn more about the Icelanders’ obsession with elves, dwarves and other spiritual beings – Hafnarfjörður is renowned across the country as home to the greatest concentration of huldufólk (“hidden people”).
The town’s prosperity stems from its superbly sheltered harbour (Hafnarfjörður meaning “the harbour fjord”) – the volcano Búrfell, around 5km east of the centre, erupted 7000 years ago, spewing lava out along the northern side of the fjord that is now home to Hafnarfjörður, and creating a protective wall. At the beginning of the fifteenth century the village became a strategic centre for trade with England, which was then just starting up, and the harbour was often full of English boats profiting from the then-rich fishing grounds offshore. Seventy-five years later, a dispute broke out between the English and newly arrived German fishermen who challenged, and won, the right to operate out of the burgeoning town. Their victory, however, was short-lived, since Hafnarfjörður fell under the trade monopoly of the Danes in 1602, which lasted until 1787, when the place fell into obscurity.
Today, Hafnarfjörður is known for its inhabitants, called hafnies, the unfortunate subjects of many an Icelandic joke – it’s said, for example, that local children take ladders when they start at high school, which their parents also use to go shopping with if they hear that prices have gone up. Needless to say, Icelandic humour can be an acquired taste.