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, Reykjavík is a throbbing urban metropolis compared with Iceland’s other built-up areas. 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 a buzzing nightlife that has earned the place a reputation for hedonistic revelry.
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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 apparently ramshackle clusters of houses, either clad in garishly painted corrugated iron or daubed in pebbledash as protection against the ferocious North Atlantic storms. This rather unkempt feel, though, is as much a 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 you’ll find a range of engaging museums, too. The displays in the Landnámssýningin and the Saga Museum, for example, offer an accessible 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. The seemingly endless hotel construction boom in Reykjavík is a sure sign that tourism has never been more important and that the Icelandic economy is well and truly back on track.
Although Reykjavík’s accommodation options continue to mushroom as the tourist influx increases, pressure on beds in the summer months is always great and it’s a good idea to book in advance, especially in June, July and August. Prices rise by around third between May and September; those given here are for the cheapest double room during the summer months.
Activities around Reykjavík
Reykjavík offers a host of activities – besides wale-watching and puffin-spotting tours, there are helicopter tours, horseriding and trips out to the southwest’s glaciers aboard a super-jeep. The latest offering – and it’s proving inordinately popular – is a trip inside the Langjökull glacier, near Húsafell. The glacier is about a two-hour journey from Reykjavík. If you’re here during the winter months, there are also excursions to see the Northern Lights. All prices quoted are per person.
Departing from the City Airport, helicopter tours of Reykjavík and the surrounding area are fast becoming one of the city’s most popular excursions. True, they don’t come cheap but the views of the capital and the dramatic scenery of the Reykjanes peninsula and Faxaflói bay are, of course, unsurpassed. Prices start at 24,000kr for a twenty-minute flight over the capital; throw in a landing on top of Mount Esja and you’re looking at 29,000kr. Three companies operate from the airport, offering a broadly similar programme of trips; there are full details on the websites: Helicopter Service of Iceland (561 6100); Norðurflug (562 2500); Reykjavík Helicopters (589 1000).
For sheer exhilaration, it’s hard to beat a glacier tour. The most popular trip is inside the Langjökull glacier near Húsafell, though other options include a glacial ride in a super-jeep, and although the ticket price is high, it’s worth splashing out – especially if you’re intent on seeing this part of the country without your own transport. The nine-hour tours take in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland’s second largest, alongside some of western Iceland’s other attractions. You’ll head first for Hvalfjörður fjord, before cutting inland to the Deildartunguhver hot spring and the Hraunfossar waterfalls, and taking the Kaldidalur Interior route towards the glacier, where a super-jeep (the ones with the supersized tyres) takes you to the top of the ice sheet. There’s also a stop at Þingvellir before the return to Reykjavík. Try Activity Group (tours daily May–Aug; 35,700kr; 580 9900).
Several companies offer horseriding all year round, including Eldhestar Völlum, Hveragerði (480 4800); Íshestar, Sörlaskeið 26, Hafnarfjörður (555 7000); and Íslenski Hesturinn Surtlugata 3, Reykjavík (434 7979). Excursions range from a one- or two-hour canter through the countryside to longer excursions around the local lavafields and even trips out to Geysir and Gullfoss; a two-hour tour usually costs around 11,000kr, with most companies offering pickups from Reykjavík.
Northern Lights tours
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are most commonly seen between October and March, and one of the best ways to view them is to take a boat trip from Reykjavík harbour, which allows you to get well away from the city lights. Bear in mind, though, that the sky needs to be clear and free of cloud; on days when it’s too windy to put out to sea, the tour transfers to a coach that drives out of the city. Both Special Tours (560 8800) and Elding (519 5000) operate tours and a three-hour trip with Elding costs 9000kr, 8500kr with Special Tours; departure times are generally 9pm or 10pm – details are on the websites
The swimming pool is to Icelanders what the pub is to the British or the coffee shop to Americans. This is the place to come to meet people, catch up on the local gossip and to relax in divine geothermally heated waters. The abundance of natural hot water around the capital means there’s a good choice of pools, which are always at a comfortably warm 29°C, often with hot pots at 39–43°C. Opening hours vary greatly but are listed at itr.is, under the swimming pools link. Bear in mind that because pool water in Iceland doesn’t contain large amounts of chlorine as is common in most other countries, you must shower without a swimming costume before entering the pools and thoroughly wash the areas of your body marked on the signs by the showers.
Laugardalslaug Sundlaugavegur 411 5100. Iceland’s largest outdoor swimming complex, with a 50m pool, four hot pots, a jacuzzi, steam room, waterslide and masseuse.
Sundhöllin Barónsstígur 45A 411 5350. Until construction on a new outdoor pool is complete, the 25m pool here is indoors. However there are two outdoor hot pots, plus single-sex nude sunbathing terraces – a veritable suntrap on warm days.
Vesturbæjarlaug Hofsvallagata 411 5150. A 25m outdoor pool plus three hot pots, a sauna, steam bath and solarium.
Home to two out of every three Icelanders, Greater Reykjavík is composed of the neighbouring municipalities of Seltjarnarnes, northwest of the city centre, Mosfellsbær to the northeast, and, in the southwest, Hafnarfjörður, Garðabær and Kópavogur, the last three of which are passed through by the road into the city centre from Keflavík airport, and all but Hafnarfjörður containing little of interest. Just outside Sundahöfn harbour, to the north of Reykjavík, the island of Viðey makes an excellent destination for a short boat trip. It has some enjoyable walking trails and is easily reached on a seven-minute ferry journey from Sundahöfn harbour, northeast of Laugardalur.
The hidden people
The street of Strandgata and neighbouring Austurgata in Hafnarfjörður are, according to Icelandic folklore, home to the town’s population of hidden people – elves, dwarves and other spirits who live in entire families between the rocks that are dotted around the town centre. Apparently elves are only visible to those with second sight, though a majority of Icelanders are quite prepared to admit they believe in them. In fact, an alarming number of new roads constructed across the country have been subject to minor detours around large rocks after workers attempted to move the boulders only to find that their diggers and earth movers broke down time and again in the process. Should you be keen to try out your second sight, tours (from the tourist office at Strandgata 6; 694 2785) lasting a couple of hours and led by guide and storyteller Sigurbjörg Karlsdóttir weave their way through Hafnarfjörður visiting the homes of the huldufólk.
Proudly standing guard over Reykjavík, Mount Esja (914m) is a familiar sight to anyone who’s spent even a few hours in the capital. At 909m, the mountain appears to change colour – from light purple to deep blue, from light grey to golden – depending on the prevailing weather conditions and the light that reflects on the basalt rock and palagonite minerals which make up the mountain, although locals say it depends on her mood. Several hiking trails wind their way around Mount Esja – a detailed trail map is available from the tourist office – but it’s best to start out at Mógilsá, beside the Ringroad, where the Icelandic state forestry station has its base. From here an easy path leads up the mountain towards the rocky higher stretches.
Traditional Viking fare: Þorrablót
The best time to sample some truly weird Viking specialities in Hafnarfjörður is during the old Icelandic month of Þorri (from the Friday between Jan 19 & 25 until late Feb) when there are nightly Viking banquets known as þorrablót at Fjörugarðurinn. This smorgasbord-style feast offers the dubious delight of sampling traditional foods – rotten shark, singed sheep’s head and pickled rams’ testicles, squashed flat and eaten as a topping to an open sandwich – all washed down with generous quantities of the potent Icelandic schnapps, Black Death.
Actually the top of an extinct volcano and measuring barely 1.7 square kilometres, the island of Viðey 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.
The Viðey rescue
The greatest coastal rescue Iceland has ever seen took place off Viðey’s westernmost point in October 1944, after the Canadian destroyer HMCS Skeena, with over two hundred men on board, ran aground in heavy seas and blizzard conditions. Although fifteen crew members perished, the remainder were rescued by a team of Icelanders led by Einar Sigurðsson who was later awarded the MBE for his courage and guidance.
You’d be hard pushed to find another capital as diminutive as Reykjavík, and a leisurely walk of just an hour or two will take you around almost the entirety of the centre. Such smallness accounts for the city’s lack of contrasting and well-defined areas: for convenience, we’ve covered the northern and western side of Tjörnin lake first, then continued with sights on the eastern side. These areas are split neatly by the road, Lækjargata, which runs from the lake’s eastern border, past Reykjavík’s main square, Lækjartorg, and down towards the harbour. Even the few things of note further out from the centre can be reached in a few minutes on public transport.
If sculpture is your thing, you’ll want to check out the domed Ásmundursafn, dedicated to the work of Ásmundur Sveinsson and part of the Reykjavík Art Museum, a ten-minute dog-leg walk from Höfði; first head east along Borgartún, then south into Kringlumýrarbraut and east again into Sigtún where you’ll see the peculiar white igloo shape beyond the trees on your right-hand side. Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982) was one of the pioneers of Icelandic sculpture, and his powerful, often provocative, work was inspired by his country’s nature and literature. During the 1920s he studied in both Stockholm and Paris, returning to Iceland to develop his unique sculptural cubism, a style infused with Icelandic myth and legend, which you can view here at his former home that he designed and built with his own hands in 1942–50; he lived where the museum shop and reception are currently located.
The museum is an uncommon shape for Reykjavík because when Ásmundur planned it, he was experimenting with Mediterranean and North African themes, drawing particular inspiration from the domed houses common to Greece. The crescent-shaped building beyond reception contains examples of the sculptor’s work, including several busts from his period of Greek influence, though the original of his most famous sculpture from 1926, Sæmundur á selnum (Sæmundur on the Seal), is not on display here. Instead, it stands outside the main university building on Suðurgata, showing one of the first Icelanders to receive a university education, the priest and historian Sæmundur Sigfússon (1056–1133), astride a seal, psalter in hand. A smaller version of the original now stands in the museum grounds, where you’ll also find many of Ásmundur’s other soft-edged, gently curved monuments to the ordinary working people of the country.
Cold War hotspot
Called at the suggestion of the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Reykjavík superpower summit held at Höfði in 1986 aimed to discuss peace and disarmament between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although agreement was reached on reducing the number of medium-range and intercontinental missiles in Europe and Asia, the thornier question of America’s strategic defence initiative of shooting down missiles in space remained a sticking point. However, the summit achieved one major goal – it brought the world’s attention to Iceland, which, in the mid-1980s, was still relatively unknown as a destination for travellers, in effect marking the beginning of the tourist boom that Iceland is still enjoying today.
North of Geirsgata, the busy main road which runs parallel to the shoreline, Reykjavík harbour is built around reclaimed land – the beach where vessels once landed their foreign goods is now well inland from here. Street names around here, such as Ægisgata (ocean street) and Öldugata (wave street), reflect the importance of the sea to the city, and a stroll along the dockside demonstrates Iceland’s dependence on the Atlantic, with fishing trawlers being checked over and prepared for their next battle against the waves, and plastic crates of ice-packed cod awaiting transportation to village stores around the country. Keep an eye out, too, for the black whaling vessels, each with a red “H” painted on its funnel (hvalur is Icelandic for “whale”), which are moored here. Paradoxically, the harbour is also the departure point for whale-watching tours.
The Landnámssýningin (Settlement Exhibition), whose centrepiece is the extensive ruins of a Viking-age farmhouse, is one of Iceland’s most remarkable museums. Housed in a purpose-built hall directly beneath Aðalstræti, the structure’s oval-shaped stone walls, excavated in 2001, enclose a sizeable living space of 85 square metres with a central hearth as the focal point. Dating the farmhouse has been relatively straightforward, since the layer of volcanic ash which fell across Iceland following a powerful eruption in around 871 AD lies just beneath the building; it’s estimated, therefore, that people lived here between 930 and 1000.
As you wander around the exhibition, look out for the animal spine, probably that of a horse or cow, buried under part of the farmhouse’s western wall as a talisman to ward off evil spirits, a common practice during the Viking period. The exhibition’s wall space is given over to panoramic views of forest and scrubland to help give a realistic impression of what Reykjavík would have looked like at the time of the Settlement. Indeed, when the first settlers arrived in the area, the hills were covered in birch woods. However, just one hundred years later, the birch had all but disappeared, felled to make way for grazing land or burnt for charcoal needed for iron-smelting. Recent excavation work outside the museum at the corner of Kirkjustræti and Tjarnargata unearthed traces of eight iron-smelting furnaces and a charcoal pit, also from the 870s, where bog iron was used to produce various goods. Artefacts from the dig, including an ornate silver bracelet, are on display in the Settlement Exhibition.
If you arrive in Reykjavík from Keflavík airport, it’s hard to miss the space-age-looking grey container tanks that sit at the top of the wooded hill, Öskjuhlíð, immediately south of Kjarvalsstaðir, across Miklabraut and southeast along Bústaðavegur. Each is capable of holding four thousand litres of water at 80°C for use in the capital’s homes, offices and swimming pools; it’s also from here that water has traditionally been pumped, via a network of specially constructed pipes, underneath Reykjavík’s pavements to keep them ice- and snow-free during winter. The whole thing is topped by a revolving restaurant. The structure is one of Reykjavík’s best-known landmarks and is the best place for a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire city; simply take the lift to the fourth floor and step outside. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Snæfellsjökull glacier at the tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, as well as the entirety of Reykjavík. Before leaving, make sure you see the artificial indoor geyser simulator that erupts every few minutes from the basement, shooting a powerful jet of water all the way to the fourth floor: it’s a good taste of what’s to come if you’re heading out to the real thing at Geysir.
Öskjuhlíð itself was also an important landmark in the days when the only mode of long-distance transport was the horse, as it stood out for many kilometres across the barren surrounding plains – and more recently served as a military base for the British army during World War II. Today, though, it’s a popular recreation area for Reykjavíkers who, unused to being surrounded by expanses of woodland, flock here by foot and with mountain bikes to explore the paths that crisscross its slopes. In fact, Öskjuhlíð has only been wooded since 1950, when an extensive forestation programme began after soil erosion had left the area barren and desolate. Today the western and southern flanks of the hill are covered with birch, spruce, poplar and pine.
Nautholsvik geothermal beach
At the southern end of Öskjuhlíð at Nauthólsvík, on Nauthólsvegur road close to the Reykjavík Sailing Club, there’s an artificial beach of bright yellow sand where it’s possible to swim in a sea-water lagoon (the water temperature is generally 18–20°C), thanks to the addition of hundreds of litres of geothermally heated sea water into the open-air pool next to the beach, where there are also two hot pots (30–35°C), one of which is built into the sand. There are no lockers in the changing rooms, just baskets for your clothes, so don’t bring any valuables with you.
Sadly, the grand former National Library, now the Safnahús (Culture House), has lost its way. Until recently the home of a remarkable exhibition about Iceland’s medieval manuscripts, today the museum has been subject to an amateurish makeover and contains nothing more than a savage hotchpotch of seemingly random items from the country’s past. While individual items may impress, the overriding impression the muddled exhibition, known as “Points of View”, leaves the visitor, is one of disappointment – this could, and should, be so much better.
The ground floor
Though the ground floor is predominantly given over to religious art, it also, confusingly, contains more contemporary items such as a photographic portrait of former Icelandic president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, plonked alongside an ornate seventeenth-century tapestry and a sculpture of Mary from the church in Vatnsfjörður, dated around 1400–1500. It’s a juxtaposition which doesn’t work. Elsewhere on the ground floor look out for the various copies, dating from 1281 to 2004, of the ancient legal document of Jónsbók; most impressive is the copy from 1363, replete with ornately decorated initial letters.
The first and second floors
These contain a mishmash of exhibits and, once again, the ad hoc combination of items is quite arbitrary: a magnificent altar piece from the church at Grenjaðarstaður, dating from 1766, for example, uncomfortably rubs shoulders with a garish piece of modern art from 1948, “Big sister and little brother” by Kristján Daviðsson. As you stumble around the museum, do make sure you see the stuffed great auk, hidden away in a small alcove off the main staircase leading to the top floor. Bought at auction in London in 1971, it’s thought the bird was killed at Hólmsberg on the Reykjanes peninsula – the last two great auks in the world were bludgeoned to death on June 3, 1844 on the nearby island of Eldey.
Housed in a former fish storehouse on the western edge of the harbour, the excellent Saga Museum is Iceland’s answer to Madame Tussaud’s. The expertly crafted wax models of characters from the sagas and their reconstructed farms and homes are used to superbly enliven medieval Icelandic life, often a confusing period in the country’s history. A visit here will give you a genuine sense of what life must have been like in Iceland centuries ago. All the big names are here: Snorri, who even breathes deeply as he ponders; Eirík the Red; and Leifur Eiríksson and his sister Freyðis, the latter portrayed slicing off her breast as a solitary stand against the natives of Vínland who, after killing one of her compatriots, turned on her – according to the sagas, however, on seeing Freyðis brandish a sword against her breasts, they immediately took flight. An informative audioguide (included in the admission fee) explains a little about each of the characters on display – and the smells of the period which have been synthetically reproduced inside, too.
The Einar Jónsson museum
The heroic form of the Leifur Eiríksson statue is found in several other statues around the city, many of them the work of Einar Jónsson (1874–1954), who is remembered more officially by the pebbledash building to the right of Hallgrímskirkja at the corner of Eiríksgata and Njarðargata, home to the Einar Jónsson museum. Einar was Iceland’s foremost modern sculptor, and this cube-like structure was built by him between 1916 and 1923; he lived here in the upstairs apartment with his Danish wife, Anna. He worked here in an increasingly reclusive manner until his death in 1954, when the building was given over to displaying more than a hundred of his works, many based on religious themes and Icelandic folklore. A specially constructed group of rooms, connected by slim corridors and a spiral staircase, takes the visitor through a chronological survey of Einar’s career – and it’s pretty deep stuff. Einar claimed that his self-imposed isolation and total devotion to his work enabled him to achieve mystical states of creativity, and looking at the pieces exhibited here, many of them heavy with religious allegory and all dripping with spiritual energy, it’s a claim that doesn’t seem far-fetched; look out for his Vókumaðurinn (The Guardian) from 1902, a ghost keeping watch over a graveyard to make sure the dead receive a decent burial. If the museum is closed, peek into the garden at the rear, where several examples of Einar’s work are displayed alfresco; his most visible work, the statue of independence leader Jón Sigurðsson, stands in front of the Alþingishúsið in Austurvöllur square.
Þjóðminjasafn, the National Museum, offers a comprehensive historical overview of the country’s past from the days of the Settlement right up to the birth of the Republic in 1944 and beyond. Having seen the exhibits, it’s worth having a quick look at the changing displays of contemporary photography, which are displayed within an undistinguished room known rather pompously as the National Gallery of Photography; it’s behind the museum shop on the ground floor.
The first floor
The first floor, devoted to the period from 800 to 1600, is by far the most engaging part of the museum; the video presentation within the “Origin of Icelanders” exhibition, devoted to the early Viking period and the use of DNA testing, is particularly good. Recent genetic research has shown that whereas around eighty percent of today’s Icelanders are of Nordic origin, sixty-two percent of the early Viking-era women originated from the British Isles; the conclusion, therefore, is that the first settlers sailed from Scandinavia to Iceland via the British Isles where they took wives. An informative video display shows show how DNA testing of the pulp cavity of the teeth of these first settlers is being carried out in an attempt to add scientific credence to the recent genetic research results.
Other prime exhibits include a small human figure, about the size of a thumb and made of bronze, which is thought to be over a thousand years old and to portray either the Norse god Þór or Christ. More spectacular is the carved church door from Valþjófsstaður in Fljótsdalur (Þórsmörk), dating from around 1200, and depicting the medieval tale Le Chevalier au Lion: it features an ancient warrior on horseback slugging it out with an unruly dragon. The Danish authorities finally gave up the treasure in 1930 and returned the door to Iceland, together with a host of medieval manuscripts. Check out, too, the impressive Romanesque-style carved Madonna dating from around 1200, which hails from northern Iceland and is displayed within the “Medieval church” section.
The second floor
The second floor of the museum, devoted to the period from 1600 onwards, canters through key events in Icelandic history such as the Trade Monopoly (1602–1787) and the Birth of the Republic. It terminates in a revolving airport-style conveyor belt laden with twentieth-century appliances and knick-knacks, featuring everything from a Björk LP to a milking machine.
From the harbour, Pósthússtræti leads south past the bars and restaurants of Tryggvagata, Hafnarstræti and Austurstræti to Vonarstræti and Tjörnin, invariably translated into English as “the lake” or “the pond”. Tjörn and its genitive form of tjarnar are actually old Viking words, still used in northern English and Scottish dialects as “tarn” to denote a mountain lake.
Originally formed by a lagoon inside the reef that once occupied the spot where Hafnarstræti now runs, this sizeable body of water, roughly a couple of square kilometres in size, is populated by forty to fifty bird species – including the notorious arctic tern, known for its dive-bombing attacks on passers-by, and found at the lake’s quieter southern end. The precise numbers of the lake’s bird population are charted on noticeboards stationed at several points along the bank.
Ice-skating on Lake Tjörnin
During the winter months, Lake Tjörnin becomes a hot spot for locals who take advantage of the frozen lake to ice-skate. A magical experience that is somewhat a tradition for residents of Reykjavik. Bizarrely, football matches have also been known to take part on the ice.
Whales of Iceland
This creative new museum at Fiskislóð 23 may well have drawn a fair amount of criticism over its inflated entry price, but Whales of Iceland offers a unique opportunity to see whales for what they really are – massive marine mammals whose true bulk is hidden under the surface of the water.
Located in a vast purpose-built warehouse, the museum contains no fewer than 23 life-size models of whales, suspended from the ceiling. Walking below and between the models really does give an amazing perspective of just how big these creatures are. The man-made models, complete with steel skeletons and silicone skins, are exceptionally well executed, having been made in China and shipped to Iceland in sections – the model of a blue whale, for example, is as long as a tennis court. The museum contains a model of virtually every species of whale present in Icelandic waters and consequently presents a great opportunity to see what some of the whales you’ll become familiar with as you travel around Iceland actually look like: the sperm whale, humpback, minke and even beluga are all here. In addition to the models, there are information panels on each of the species and a few short video presentations.
Reykjavík has the best range of places to eat in the country, mostly packed into the downtown area around Laugavegur and Austurvöllur square. Restaurant prices tend to be high, though, which may deter you from eating out on a regular basis and draw you towards self-catering, at least during part of your stay.
Excursions from Reykjavík
The capital makes a good base for excursions around Reykjavík, including to three of Iceland’s most popular attractions: the site of the old parliament, Alþingi, at Þingvellir, the waterspouts and waterfalls of Geysir and Gullfoss, and Skálholt cathedral – all within simple reach by public transport or, more expensively, on day-long guided tours from the city. Also worthwhile is the Reykjanes peninsula, a bleak lavafield that’s as good an introduction as any to the stark scenery you’ll find further into Iceland, and home to the mineral-rich waters of the Blue Lagoon – the most visited attraction in the country. If you’re only in the city for a short break, or flying on to either the US or Europe, Reykjavík is also the place to fix up two of Iceland’s most ususual trips: either a tour inside the Langjökull glacier near Húsafell or a descent into the extinct volcano at Þríhjúkahellir, southeast of Reykjavík.
Icelandic pop art
Erró is Iceland’s best known pop artist. His vibrant collages, depicting everything from Viking warriors to space-age superheroes all seemingly caught up in the same explosive battle, are certainly striking, if somewhat eye-blinding and not to everyone’s taste. Born Guðmundur Guðmundsson in Ólafsvík on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in 1932, Erró grew up in Kirkjubæjarklaustur before moving abroad to study at the art academies of Oslo, Florence and Ravenna and finally settling in Paris where he still lives today. In 1982 Erró (nobody knows why he chose this name, although he was forced to change from Ferró to Erró in 1967 after being sued) donated about two thousand of his works, including oil paintings, prints and sculptures, to the City of Reykjavík, a selection of which are on display inside the Hafnarhúsið.
Despite so many of Iceland’s sagas and histories being written down by medieval monks for purposes of posterity, there existed no suitable means of protecting them from the country’s damp climate, and within a few centuries these unique artefacts were rotting away. Enter Árni Magnússon (1663–1730), humanist, antiquarian and professor at the University of Copenhagen, who attempted to ensure the preservation of as many of the manuscripts as possible by sending them to Denmark for safekeeping. Although he completed his task in 1720, eight years later many of them went up in flames in the Great Fire of Copenhagen, and Árni died a heartbroken man fifteen months later, never having accepted his failure to rescue the manuscripts, despite braving the flames himself. As he noted at the time of the blaze, “these are the books which are to be had nowhere in the world”; the original Íslendingabók, for example, the most important historical record of the Settlement of Iceland, written on calfskin, was destroyed, though luckily it had been copied by a priest in Iceland before it left the country.
The manuscripts remained apart from their country of origin until long after Icelandic independence in 1944. In 1961, legislation was passed in Denmark decreeing that manuscripts composed or translated by Icelanders should be returned, but it took a further ruling by the Danish Supreme Court, in March 1971, to get things moving, as the Danes were reluctant to see these works of art leave their country. Finally, however, in April that year, a Danish naval frigate carried the first texts, Konungsbók Eddukvæða and Flateyjarbók, across the Atlantic into Reykjavík, to be met by crowds bearing signs reading “handritin heim” (“the manuscripts are home”) and waving Icelandic flags. Even so, the transfer of the manuscripts wasn’t completed until 1997. A new building, the Hús islenskra fræda (House of Icelandic Studies), is currently under construction near the National Museum on Suðurgata to house the collection.
Whale-watching and puffin-spotting
Whale-watching and puffin-spotting tours depart from Ægisgarður, the main jetty in Reykjavík harbour, between Geirsgata and Mýrargata. The two main operators are Elding (whale watching 10,990kr; puffin spotting 6500kr; 519 5000) and Special Tours (same prices; 560 8800) both based at Ægisgarður.
Whale-watching tours leave year-round (up to 12 departures daily depending on season), sailing for Faxaflói bay north of Reykjavík. You’re most likely to encounter minke whales, orcas, humpbacks and dolphins, although, occasionally, blue, fin and sei whales also put in an appearance.
Between mid-May and mid-August (after which the birds head out to sea for the winter months), there are twice-daily tours around the islands of Lundey and Akurey, where puffins gather to breed in the summer. Although it’s not possible to go ashore, you’ll have a great view of the cliffs and grassy slopes which make up the islands’ sides, and the burrows where the puffins live. Remember, though, that puffin numbers have fallen in recent years due to a lack of the birds’ main source of food, the sand eel.
Wrecked in Reykjavík
A rite of passage for all young Icelanders, the rúntur (literally “round tour”) is a drunken pub crawl that generally takes place between at least half a dozen bars and pubs, whatever the weather. Intent on searching out the place with the hottest action, groups of revellers (already well oiled after downing several generous vodkas before setting out) maraud the city centre, particularly on Friday nights. If you come across them, expect to be engaged in conversation or to see some rather unrestrained behaviour – but then nightlife in Iceland isn’t known for its subtleties.
Top image © Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock