Iceland 2020 (2/4). Reykjavik: Portrait of A Capital

An overview of the countless places of interest Reykjavik has to offer: cultural sights, high streets, natural areas, monuments and museums. As many entries as I could squeeze into one very, very long post.

 

Of all the Nordic cities I have seen, and with the exception of Tórshavn (the Faroese capital), Reykjavik is hands-down the one that least resembles a capital in the traditional meaning of the word. Also, it’s considerably smaller and less populated than its Nordic counterparts.

That said, I found Reykjavik truly beautiful and fascinating in so many ways: its lively atmosphere and colourful streets, interesting monuments, its proximity with nature, its proximity to the ocean…

Okay, I won’t be listing all of Reykjavik’s beauties in the opening of the post, so let me make an orderly list, and tell you more about the Icelandic capital and its countless places of interest.

View from Hallgrímskirkja

Reykjavik. View from Perlan

View from Perlan

 

Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja is both the largest church in Iceland and one of Reykjavik’s most unmistakable landmarks. Named after Icelandic poet Hallgrímur Pétursson, it sits at the top of Skólavörðustígur, from where it overlooks the whole city centre.

Its Expressionist architecture makes the complex look even more massive, especially the façade, which resembles something between a pointed wave and a waterfall.

No matter the angle or the time of the day, it always looks stunning: if you stand at the bottom of Skólavörðustígur and look up toward the top of the street, if you stare at it all lit up at night, or if you’re just somewhere in the city and, by taking a look around, you see its outline pop up in the urban landscape.

The view from the tower must be amazing, and also a ‘classic’ of Reykjavik views. For this or that reason (either because it had already closed or because it was closed for the day due to strong winds) I wasn’t able to enjoy it myself – which means it now ranks quite high on my Reykjavik’s to-do list for my next Iceland trip.

 

Sun Voyager (Sólfarið)

Okay, I really thought the Sun Voyager (Sólfarið in Icelandic) was a much larger monument than it is. For that I blame the fact that popular monuments are often charged with such high expectations of grandeur that, when you get to stand in front of them, you realise you had just pictured them in some ‘random’ way in your head.

That said, the Sun Voyager is a beautiful, evocative monument. It doesn’t really need that many descriptions or introductions, especially if you’re lucky to see it as I first did: at twilight, at the peak of blue hour, with no people around, and in complete silence but for the sleepy waves rustling the sea surface and a (still) moderately strong wind blowing over the ocean. And, yes, it was as blissful as it sounds.

The steel ship sculpture dates back to 1990, when its author, Icelandic sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason, won a competition for an outdoor sculpture to mark the city’s 200th anniversary. It sits near Sæbraut road, by the seafront, its gleaming structure reflecting the city lights of the skyline behind it.

It appears that, against (quite) common belief and despite the resemblance, the Sun Voyager is not meant as a Viking ship. In fact, It aims to represent a dream boat, an ode to the sun.

The spot where the Sun Voyager sits makes for quite a view of the seafront, Harpa Concert Hall (which, if you’re looking at the sea, is located to your left, only a bit further down Sæbraut), and majestic Esja mountain range, one of the most beautiful, mesmerising Reykjavik sights I can possibly think of. (I will bring up the subject more in detail in the next post.)

 

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre

The Harpa centre hardly goes unnoticed in the urban landscape. Opened in 2011 as a music and conference venue, it enjoys a highly scenic location: right by the ocean in the heart of the city. The architecture is already astonishing from the outside, thanks to the glass façade, which lights up in colours when it’s dark.

The feeling won’t subside as you walk past the sliding doors, and gradually start taking in all the elements that make up its airy interiors: the foyer, the main staircase, the shops and cafe/restaurant on the ground floor and, last but not least, the gleaming, multi-coloured ceiling, which almost makes it look like there’s no ceiling at all.

Though Harpa is not a library, its overall vibe reminded me a lot of Helsinki’s Oodi Library and Copenhagen’s Black Diamond. The Harpa complex retains the chief function(s) that led to its construction (namely music and conferences), but it goes further by turning into a place of culture in the broadest meaning of the word. It becomes a hub, one that’s so tightly connected with the city that their roots meet and interweave underground, and you can no longer tell them apart. The place of culture forms an integral part of the cityscape. Places like this are special.

The Harpa official website explains the meaning behind its name: ‘an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year and is in fact a month in the old Nordic calendar [the first summer month, from mid-April to mid-May]’, as well as the musical instrument by the same name.

 

Reykjavik high streets

Okay, Reykjavik’s city centre is small. By ‘small’ I mean small. It’s a collected bundle of streets adjacent to the seafront. Roughly it stretches between the Old Harbour (see the dedicated entry below), Lake Tjörnin (same here), Hallgrímskirkja and Harpa.

Reykjavik city centre is lively, vibrant and colourful. Laugavegur, the main high street, is lined up by dozens of restaurants, bars and cafes of all kinds, one more attractive than the next. Here you also find the Downtown Cafe, where they serve incredibly yummy soups in bread bowls, and Pho Vietnam restaurant, where I could try vegan pho, at last. (I’m a vegetarian – not a vegan – and I love Vietnamese food.)

Both Laugavegur and its neighbouring streets are dotted with lots of shops which normally one would call ‘souvenir shops’, but in fact, alongside the usual types of items tourists and visitors usually can’t do without (magnets, keyrings, postcards, and the like), they all have extensive sections of traditional jumpers.

Traditional wool jumpers are called ‘Lopapeysa’ in Icelandic, and they are hand-knit in traditional pattern styles. I am in love with each and every one of them but, no, I don’t have my own lopapeysa yet. I was this close to buying one at some point, but even discounted, it was still too expensive for my spending capability.

Skólavörðustígur

As for Skólavörðustígur, its tarmac is entirely covered in rainbow. There, too, you will find a number of quaint cafes and quirky shops as well as, at the top of the street, Hallgrímskirkja in all its magnificence.

Needless to say, a number of key monuments also happen to be located in the very heart of Reykjavik:
– The Cathedral, so white and neat that it almost looks fake. It’s lovely, especially because, if you didn’t know it was the cathedral, you would hardly bet on it. You would bet on Hallgrímskirkja instead.
– The City Hall (Ráðhús), which enjoys a super scenic location by Lake Tjörnin. It’s an impressive, yet sober structure: airy, bright and light.
– Reykjavik’s oldest timber house on Aðalstræti 10, which was built in 1762, when the Icelandic capital was no more than a village. In 2018 the house reopened as a museum.
– The Government House (Stjórnarráðshúsið) on Lækjargata. Formerly a prison, it is now home to the Prime Minister’s Office.
– The Parliament House (Alþingishúsið) in Austurvöllur Square. It is home to the Icelandic parliament (Alþingi in Icelandic), which also happens to be the oldest surviving parliament in the world.

Government House

Reykjavik Cathedral

Aðalstræti 10

Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat

Something I found especially unique is the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat by Magnús Tómasson. The artwork depicts the average public official on his way to work. This ordinary character is wearing a suit and, briefcase in hand, he is seemingly walking toward the City Hall. Except, his torso and face are replaced by a large, thick slab of basalt, the volcanic rock 90% of Iceland consists of. The sculpture does look like a homage to the average public employee, yet I couldn’t help thinking there might as well be a somewhat satirical edge to it. What I know for sure is that I stumbled upon it one evening while strolling by the pond, and there was no one around, and for a split second it really did scare me!

Last-but-not-least piece of advice: keep an eye out for all the street art. As you walk down Laugavegur (or elsewhere), make sure you turn around at every building, because that is where you’re most likely to spot cool, extremely cool artworks you really don’t want to miss. In order to see all of them you might have to walk back and forth a few times, but trust me, you will do it anyway, because there is so much to see!

Ánanaust Street

Laugavegur and surroundings

Laugavegur

City centre (left), and Old Harbour (right)

 

Lake Tjörnin

Yes, in Reykjavik there’s a pond in the very heart of the city. Yes, it’s lovely, and I would love to see it in the summer! It reminded me a bit of Stavanger’s Breiavatnet, which, too, is adjacent to the city centre.

Frozen lakes have a certain charm to them, and I fall victim to them very easily. I do believe, though, that Lake Tjörnin (which, oh the irony, means ‘lake’ in Icelandic) is at its best in the summer months, when it’s easier to make the most of the possibilities it gives, as well as enjoy the prettiest city views from its banks.

I, for sure, was not able to enjoy Tjörnin to the fullest. When I walked down its banks, the ice storm that had been raging for the previous couple of hours wasn’t over yet. I couldn’t quite see where the shore gave way to the actual lake, because fresh snow covered the lake surface entirely. Also, visibility was poor, and it was really cold. Also, I was both soaked and exhausted from the walk to Seltjarnarnes, so I couldn’t stay around for long.

The next day I was wandering about the city centre in the evening, and I found myself back at Tjörnin almost by chance. It was dark, still and silent but for the loud calls of the many seagulls, swans and ducks that habitually populate the lake.

 

The Old Harbour

This, too, is an area I wasn’t able to spend that much time around, because it was already dark when I got there, and a number of attractions headquartered there had already closed for the day.

Originally dating back to the early 1900s, the Old Harbour has recently grown into a major Reykjavik landmark. You can simply go for a walk down its wooden banks or try some of the activities there. In fact, the Old Harbour is also home to the Maritime Museum (Sjóminjasafnið), tour operators offering boat tours, bike rental services.

Needless to say, the Old Harbour also has its good share of bars and restaurants, amongst them Valdís ice cream parlour (which this time I did not get a chance to try) and Kaffivagninn, Reykjavik’s oldest restaurant and coffeehouse, which I definitely recommend: there is no way its cosy atmosphere and yummy cakes are going to disappoint you!

 

Elliðaárdalur, or Nature in the city

Elliðaárdalur is what you might easily call a hidden gem in the heart of the city. This outdoor recreational area is named after river Elliðaár, which flows through the valley. Located around 5 km from the city centre, it can be reached in around 15 minutes by public transport, while if you fancy a walk, it might take you up to an hour to get there.

Needless to say, once you’re there you will feel like you’re miles away from anything urban. The feeling is only heightened if you walk all the way there, because the last stretch of footpath takes you over and along a busy four-lane road. Once you walk down the underpass into Elliðaárdalur, all sounds are muffled instantly, and suddenly the loudest noise is the bubbling of the river flowing next to the trail.

The rest is all pine forest, more trails taking you through the woods, and narrow bridges crossing the river here and there.

For now I can only imagine how green and leafy it must be in the summer. I can tell you for sure that in mid January, and under a thick blanket of fresh snow, Elliðaárdalur is no less than the literal translation of a winter wonderland.

 

Perlan Museum

Perlan Museum (literally ‘The Pearl’) is one of the largest, most diverse museums in Reykjavik. It sits on the top of the hill called Öskjuhlið.

When I visit a new city for the first time, I’m usually all about walking around and staying outdoors. I might just pick one museum, and go to that one as part of my city visit. In Reykjavik Perlan was my pick, and one I was super happy with. In fact, the museum does make for a true must-see while you’re in the Icelandic capital.

Perlan will provide you with the ‘full Icelandic experience’. The permanent collection, ‘Forces of Nature’, includes sections on specific aspects of the country’s territory: volcanoes, geothermal energy, glaciers, birdlife, water, and more.

Each room includes real-size or models of the natural element or occurrence it is focused on. For example, in the Fire and Volcano section you can sit on an Iceland-shaped bench, and watch a brief documentary about volcanic activity on the island. Get ready to feel your seat shake and see the lights flicker in the room when the volcano is about to erupt!

As part of the tour, you also get the opportunity to walk through a real ice cave: that’s around 100 metres of low tunnels made of Icelandic snow. Don’t forget to grab one of the coats by the cave entrance: it’s -10°C in there! 

Aside from the main exhibition, Perlan is also home to the ‘Áróra – Northern Lights Planetarium Show’, where you can sit and enjoy a very realistic Northern Lights show. (I did not go for it, because I will only see the northern lights if and when I do get to see the real thing.)

Perlan Museum is known for more than its super amazing exhibitions. For one thing, the building itself is impressive to say the least. It used to be a cluster of water tanks, and only in the 1990s was it converted into a public venue. I walked to Perlan from my guesthouse first thing on a Sunday morning. It was pitch black, there was no one around, and a strong wind was blowing. From the main road the building looked like a spaceship that had just landed on top of the hill, all lit up in red and with a rotating light on the roof from the observation deck.

Also, from the top floor, where you also find the gift shop and the cafe/restaurant, you can access the open terrace, which offers a stunning 360-degree-view of Reykjavik. (I did not venture out onto the terrace and, again, it was because of the strong winds, and the warning sign by the turnpikes by the sliding doors.)

Last, but not least, Perlan is the perfect starting point for a walk through the woods of Öskjuhlið hill, and on to Nauthólsvík geothermal beach. But that’s another story, one I will write extensively about in the next post.

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