When reading about Tórshavn, one is more than likely to come across phrases and statements like these:
– ‘The smallest capital city in the world’,
– ‘One of the best things… is its wonderfully compact size’,
– ‘Nowhere is too far to reach on foot’,
– ‘[The Faroese Parliament], one of the smallest parliament buildings in the world, looks more like a suburban family home…’,
… and so on. ‘So much for a capital city’, you might think. Hold that thought.
True, Tórshavn city centre is directly proportional to the size of the city itself, so it really does not take long to have a good look around. And yet, small as it might be if compared to the average size of capital cities ‘as we know them’, it’s not lacking anything, not even a dance school specialised in Latin American dances.
The city is the true focal point of the archipelago at all levels: administration, culture, economy, bar scene and transport. Most buses either leave from there or drive through Tórshavn on the way to their final destination, just as many ferries to the southern islands (not all of them, but many) sail from the capital.
We visited the Faroese capital straight after we got back from Gjógv. Our guide dropped us off by the SMS shopping centre, from which we began our descent toward the city centre.
The short version is: Tórshavn is a lovely, lively and colourful city.
What’s more, we were lucky enough to visit it on an extraordinarily sunny day: we had patches of blue sky above our heads the whole time, and only two or three super brief showers. The sunlight made the colours of the buildings even brighter than they already were, especially around the harbour.
On a future visit to the Faroes I intend to devote some quality time to touring at least a couple of Tórshavn museums, such as the National Museum (Tjóðsavn) and the Open-Air Museum (Hoyvíksgarður). After all, visiting national museums is often a great way of gaining a proper insight into the history, culture and traditions of the country itself.
This time, though, we knew we’d have no time to tour around museums, so we tried to focus as best as we could on the urban landscape instead.
From the SMS shopping centre (which, by the way, has a good, diverse selection of shops, plus a large supermarket in the basement floor) we headed south, crossed through the bundle of streets and lanes that make up the centre, and eventually reached the harbour.
We arranged our itinerary around what appeared to be the main highlights and places of interest in the city. We also came across a few extras along the way.
As we trotted down R.C. Effersøes Gøta, we made a little detour: left into Gripsvegur, right into Hoyvíksvegur, and then right again into a narrow alley with no name. That’s how we reached the Kongaminni, or King’s Monument.
The obelisk commemorates the 1874 visit of Danish king Christian IX to the islands. Perched on top of a small hill and ‘embellished’ by the odd sheep grazing by, the monument offers sweeping views of Tórshavn and its harbour.
In the vicinity of the monument you will also notice the bronze statues of two people returning from the outfields with loads on their backs.
Speaking of which, Tórshavn is scattered with more seemingly ‘random’ statues like these.
There’s the figure sitting on a bench near the restaurant called Barbara, which looks like it’s been standing in the outside for too long and is now freezing cold.
Then there are the two nude female bronzes near the supermarket in Doktara Jakobsens Gøta, the statue of a washwoman by the harbour, and the statues south of Skansin Fort, which portray the human figure in different positions. And these are just a few.
The heart of the city centre lies west of the King’s Monument, so from the obelisk you can retrace your steps and turn right into Bøkjarabrekka. Walk down that street till the second junction, and you will reach Niels Finsens Gøta, Tórshavn’s high street.
That is where the majority of shops, cafés and restaurants are located. If you’re interested in traditional Faroese knitwear, you can stop at Guðdrun&Guðrun, and you will not be disappointed. That and Navia are especially popular knitwear brands you’re likely to find in several shops on different islands around the archipelago. They are objectively rather expensive, but the high quality of the product is unrivalled, plus the jumpers are all so beautiful!
As for cafés and restaurants in the area, we had super yummy bagels at Kafé Kaspar, a bagel café on Áarvegur Street. Keep walking down Niels Finsens Gøta toward the harbour, and you will see it on your left.
The unique atmosphere combines the modern and the traditional, plus when you order you get a small ‘form’ where you can tick off the ingredients you want to put in your bagel. How cool is that?
In Niels Finsens Gota you might also want to keep an eye out for the Tourist Information Centre, where you can find souvenirs and traditional artifacts, as well as book tours and trips around the islands.
At the junction between Niels Finsens Gøta and Tinghúsvegur lies Vaglið square, which is close to three key institutional buildings in the city. The first is the white house in front of you, which does resemble a detached house, but in fact is the Løgting, where the Faroese Parliament is headquartered.
The second is the grey basalt-walled, two-storey building to the left of the Parliament, down the street called Mylnugøta. Formerly a school, today it is home to the City Hall (Ráðhúsið).
Right across the street from the City Hall you have the third key building in the centre: Havnar Kirkja (or Dómkirkjan). This wooden church has been functioning as Tórshavn cathedral since 1990.
As you keep heading south, you will walk through Old Tórshavn, which coincides with the Undir Ryggi area, south of Niels Finsens Gøta. Its wooden houses and narrow alleys make it very characteristic.
The easiest thing to do at this point is head toward Vágsbotn, the harbour. The rows of colourful warehouses framing the area make it one of the prettiest (and most typical) sights in the whole city, so much so that you will want to stroll up and down there just ‘one more time’.
On the corner between Undir Briggjubakka and Vágsbotnur keep an eye out for Sølutorgið, a row of large metal tables where fresh fish is laid out and sold just as it’s delivered from the boats.
Undir Briggjubakka is the street that takes you straight to yet another key institutional complex, as well as top highlight in Tórshavn: Tinganes.
Tinganes is home to the Home Rule Government of the Faroes. It looks like a compact bundle of red wooden houses perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea. It’s probably one of the most unusual government complexes ever built, at least by the standards of government buildings as we know them. Except, Tinganes makes so much sense as it is, and that’s why it should rank high in any Tórshavn to-do list you might make.
As you freely stroll around the maze of cobbled alleys, you will come across a number of wooden cabin-like houses (some of which turf-roofed). Each of them is home to one Ministry, while the one called Skansapakkhússið is the Prime Minister’s Office.
After you have visited Tinganes, you shouldn’t leave without heading to the back of the complex, where you will see a Faroese flag tied to a tall flagpole, proudly flapping in the northern wind. That’s where the very tip of the promontory is and where, at some non-specified point, a Viking sundial was engraved into the rock.
The sundial shouldn’t be too hard to locate. The promontory isn’t particularly large, and, if you have the Faroe Islands Bradt guide, its author gives a very accurate description of the exact spot where you can find it: ‘roughly halfway between the flagpole and the right-hand corner of Skansapakkhússið when standing with the building behind you’.
Okay, if we spent, say, forty minutes around Tinganes, we probably spent FIFTY hopping around the rocks in search for the sundial. We Google-imaged it, re-read the directions a dozen times, scanned the rock surface without blinking once multiple times… But I’m not sure we found it. We took the liberty of blaming the wind and the rain for potentially eroding the engraving (?), thus making it hard to see, but really, that’s the lamest excuse ever.
At some point we thought we saw ‘something’, and we took a photo of the rock surface. As I’m writing this post, though, I realise I probably know for sure where we went wrong in our sundial quest. I’m not sure we saw it after all. So, please, I beg you, if you visit Tórshavn and find the sundial, please tell me how to (better) spot it. Or at least, as Samuel Beckett wisely puts it, how to ‘Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better’.
At the south-eastern end of Tórshavn you also find Skansin Fort. The structure was originally built in the late 16th century on top of a hill to protect the city and its trading activities. Its current appearance, which only includes a lighthouse and a few cannons, is the result of reconstructions that took place over the course of the centuries.
Needless to say, the view from the top is breathtaking: you have the city on one side, and the sea, with the island of Nólsoy in the distance, on the other.
In fact, as you reach the hilltop you’re likely to confirm a suspicion you probably harboured since you first set foot in the Faroese capital: Tórshavn always looks truly beautiful, whichever the viewing spot. Especially when you admire it from uphill, it presents you with such broad, spacious bird’s eye views that it makes you want to look for more.
But I guess the photos speak for themselves, right?