The city of Reykjavik is the capital and the largest city on Iceland. The Harbor city, situated at latitude of 64°08′ N is also the northern-most capital of the world belonging to a sovereign state.
Reykjavík has history dating back over a millennium ago, as told by Ingólfr Arnarson, one of the first permanent Norse settlers of Iceland. Reykjavík is believed to be the location of the first permanent settlement in Iceland established in AD 874. During the Ice Age up to 10,000 years ago, a large glacier covered parts of the city area. Today, you can still make out the remaining glaciers still surrounding the city.
Geographically, the Reykjavík area coastline is characterized by peninsulas, coves, straits, and islands. The city itself is located on the southwestern part of the Icelandic island along the southern shore of Faxa Bay and is very well connected to the rest of the country via highway “ringroads”. These roads are the main arteries in and out of the city linking up other minor cities, towns and supply routes.
Much of Iceland’s GDP comprise mostly of agriculture and fishing, as well as tourism receipts. With the exception of farming activities, much of Iceland economic activity is focused within Reykjavik itself, which is also home to about half (about 120 thousand) of Iceland’s total population of 330 thousand.
Iceland itself is a volcano island formed by over 130 volcanoes in the region. It sits on a location very prone to volcanic-related activity, such as earthquakes. This pretty much sets the sparse housing density and architectural heights of buildings in the city, comprising of mostly short houses not exceeding 3-4 floors. The city’s southwestern location also makes it strategically protected from volcanic lava flow in the island, which comprises of several active volcanoes located centrally on the island.
Over the past 10 years at least, the city had served as the main port of entry with its international airport (Keflavik Airport- KEF) as well as a popular destination from travelers from all over the world. The city’s is highly accessible with an internal network of public transport buses.
Being the Capital of Iceland, Reykjavik also serves as one of the main city bus hubs (Reykjavik center) for inter-city travel, groups offering sightseeing and exploration, as well as private vehicle rentals to get around pretty much anywhere in Iceland, such as Pinngville national park for instance for Scuba diving, or explore a Glacier by trekking. There are however, no train metro or subway systems in Reykjavik, partly as the city does not require one.
Reykjavik is also the go-to place for almost all major tours on the Iceland. For instance, Greyline tours operates a large fleet of buses right from central station serving the Icelandic Golden circle day tours- a staple and recommended attraction during your visit to Iceland.
Buzz in the city
Reykjavik is the heart of Iceland’s cultural, economic and governmental activity. You can find Iceland’s city hall and parliament here, as well as the Reykjavik Concert and Conference Centre, called the HARPA.
Reykjavik is a very cosmopolitan city- a melting pot of many immigrant cultures of people from all over the world who migrated to the island, coming together in the recent population boom over the past decade, many of which is to cater for the new boom in tourist receipts the country is experiencing today. During my stay there, I met a group of Australians who migrated to Iceland 2 years ago to run an adventure exploration company to cater for the increasing growing population of adventurers visiting Iceland.
Icelandic streets are relatively quiet in the night often devoid of people, but the main shopping streets stay relatively busy and lit throughout the night. Crime rate in Iceland is very low and it is generally safe to walk out at night in the city. From the city center you can check sights of the busy Austurvollur Square and the nearby Alþingishúsið (Icelandic Parliament) which used to be at Þingvellir.
The Icelandic seafront is a nice cool and breezy area to catch the sights on the edge of the city with the sea breezes, allowing you to appreciate the coastal views with glaciers in the background over the horizon. An iconic sculpture by the sea to catch here will be the Seafront and Voyager sculptures. Sólfarið, or The Sun Voyager, is an iconic statue along the seaside of Reykjavík located along Sæbraut, as part of Reykjavík’s sculpture walking path.
The stainless steel sculpture, Designed by artist Jón Gunnar was unveiled on August 1990 to mark the 200th birthday of the city of Reykjavík. Contrary to what most people think of the sculpture as a Viking ship, it is the artist’s interpretation of a dreamboat and ode to the sun to inspire dreams and imagination, symbolizing hope and the light from the sun.
In the far distance of the city on nightfall, you can see the Imagine Peace Tower illuminated from the horizon, with its beam of light shining into the night sky. The Imagine Peace Tower is a memorial to John Lennon from his widow, Yoko Ono, located on Viðey Island in Kollafjörður Bay near the city.
Food in Iceland
If you long for a nice snack in the middle of the night, a must try will be the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur Hotdogs at the open air carpark in downtown Reykjavik by the performance arts center. It is a harbor side hot dog stand established since 1937, and has become a staple feature of runtur, Reykjavik’s weekend revelry.
The hotdogs are made with a combination of pork, beef and lamb. Go for a hot dog with eina med ollu, or ‘the works’, ketchup, sweet mustard, raw and fried onions and remoulade.
You can find the traditional fanfare of classic burgers, washed down with Icelandic viking beer too for an authentic way of doing it like the vikings did.
The various communities coming together is reflected in the myriad of food cuisines offered in the city. There are even several cafes, pubs to chill and grab a drink. Notably, there are several Indian and Thai restaurants serving authentic food of the trade, being run by none other than ethnic Indians and Thai business owners who migrated over.
The cost of food and accommodation in Iceland is generally very affordable for a European destination. Generally, the budget you spend for a single day on food and accommodation in Scandinavia can be stretched to three days in Iceland. A typical meal will set you back not more than the equivalent of 10-15 Euros (under 1800 ISK).
When it comes to food options, it is not uncommon to finish up a Chinese buffet lunch in the middle of town, go down the street and wash it down at one of the many bubble tea stores along Skólavörðustígur shopping street, run by none other than the Taiwanese. English is the common language in Iceland and all signage are well-labelled in both Icelandic and English.
Tap water in Reykjavik is drinkable and is extremely fresh. The city take their water source from the surrounding fresh glacier melt, the dispensed water is refreshing and is almost like drinking (or even showering) in Evian mineral spring water.
Whale meat is a delicacy there, with whales here sourced from sustainable fishing methods. One such place to try it will be Saegreifinn – The Sea Baron, located just off the Reykjavik harbour area. The type of whale meat, ranging from white to red (with texture like beef) served varies from the day to day catch and best goes with their trademark lobster bisque served with fresh bread.
Icelandic food is something which does not suit the palate of many, comprising mostly of bizarre preserved and pickled foods typically consumed by the Vikings in the era, such as fermented shark and even sheep brain jelly. A good place to try such traditional Icelandic homemade dishes including Icelandic meat soup, Icelandic plate, homemade bread and cakes will be the Loki café restaurant.
It is open daily from 9:00 – 21:00 (opens 11am on Sundays) offering breakfast, Brunch, Lunch and Wine and Dine dinners. You can find the cafe on the top of a hill, it is near the end of the said Skólavörðustígur shopping street (Lokastigur 28). This street offers a variety of contemporary stores including hipster cafes. The café is located just beside and offers a beautiful view the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church- a rather modern and gothic looking church was built in 1986.
One of the few prominent and architectural stunning buildings in Reykjavík will be the Hallgrimskirkja Church. Designed by the late Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937, it sits centrally at a high spot in the city on top of a hill. It is open all year round from 9am to 9pm daily. Winter opening hours (October – April) are shorter with closing at 5pm.
The building itself is relatively modern by design. The church exterior is finished in concrete with the aritechiture comprising of a number of stepped stone elements laid on top of each other seemingly building up to form the main bell tower. The design itself was inspired by the fascinating shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock.
Construction of the church began in 1945 with completion 41 years later in 1986. The church main tower was completed before the rest of the building comprising of the main service seating areas and an underground crypt.
The newest addition to the church will be its main pipe organ. It was introduced in December 1992 and sits at the center of the church. It was designed and constructed by the German organ builder Johannes Klais of Bonn and designed to reproduce powerful notes capable of filling the interiors of Hallgrimskirkja with a range of tones from the dulcet to the dramatic.
The impressive mechanical action pipe organ is 15m tall, large even by today’s standard and weighs about 25 tons. The pipe instrument is so large it has to be driven by four manuals and a pedal, 102 ranks, 72 stops and 5275 pipes. Since its introduction, the organ had been utilized in a variety of recordings, including some by Christopher Herrick.
From the entrance of the church, you can take an elevator up, followed by a few flights of stairs up to the top bell tower. The view from up the bell tower offers one of the best uninterrupted views of the city of Reykjavik with the Bláfjöll mountains in the distant horizon. You can see much of the city center in view with the harbor, port by the sea, domestic airport and the surrounding glaciers over the horizon.
This concludes the first part of my write-up of the city of Reykjavik. You can view more photos of Reykjavik here or carry on to the next part of the write up here covering areas such as Shopping, Museums, Geothermal Springs and Whale watching.