Iceland´s capital Reykjavík (Reykjavik) is the world’s most northerly capital and Europe’s most westerly capital. Located in southwestern Iceland, spread across a peninsula with striking panoramic views of the mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, Reykjavik is the centre of Iceland’s government, administration and economic activity. Designated UNESCO City of Literature 2011, Reykjavik is also home to Iceland’s main cultural institutions, has a flourishing arts scene and is renowned as a vibrant, creative city with a great range of cultural events and a dynamic grassroots arena. With the opening of the Harpa (2011), Reykjavik’s magnificent concert hall and conference centre on the harbour, the city has reaffirmed its place as a pivotal spot in world events and culture.
Reykjavik is diverse, cosmopolitan and exciting, a city with its own inimitable character, one easy to fall in love with. Friendly, energetic, beautiful; famed for its audacious design and architecture, chic shopping, great restaurants, notoriously “enthusiastic” nightlife, summertime exuberance and wintertime ambience of sheer magic, Reykjavik is also a perfect base for day, weekend, or longer tours into the countryside and all the hot spots in southwestern and southern Iceland. Taking a tour by super jeep, an Icelandic invention enabling glacier-driving and easy handling of rugged terrains, it’s possible to explore the many natural wonders of Iceland and experience a world of blue ice, incredible volcanic surroundings, the lunar-like landscapes of the interior and venture off the beaten track into the otherwise inaccessible regions of staggering natural beauty.
Citizens of Reykjavik, “Reykvíkingar”, are the largest community in Iceland, with population numbering around 120,000 – or 200,000 in the Greater Reykjavik Area. Almost ⅔ of Iceland’s total population of around 320,000 live in the south-west part of Iceland, mostly in or around Reykjavik. The city covers an area of more than 270 km² and it’s constantly expanding. Whilst Iceland is the least densely populated country in Europe with only 3 people per km2, the Reykjavik municipality population density is around 436 per km2.
Iceland was settled by Norwegian and Celtic immigrants during the late 9th and 10th centuries AD. According to the Book of Settlements, Landnámabók, Ingólfur Arnarson (Ingolfur) – the first settler of Iceland – built his farm on the peninsula where Reykjavik stands today. Old accounts say that the ancient gods guided Ingólfur to make his home here: Ingólfur had decided on the location of his settlement using a traditional Viking method of casting his ”high seat” pillars overboard when he sighted land and he settled where the pillars came ashore. Reykjavík means “Bay of Smokes” or “Steamy Bay” and it got this name because of the columns of steam that rise from the hot springs in the area that made such a profound impression on the original settlers.
Reykjavik’s urban development began in the 1750s when the Royal Treasurer, Icelander Skúli Magnússon (Skuli Magnusson), known as the Father of Reykjavik, established wool workshops in the city as part of his efforts to modernise the Icelandic economy. In 1786 Reykjavik received its town charter. The Icelandic parliament, Alþingi (Althingi), which was founded in the year 930 AD at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) in the southwest, moved to Reykjavik in 1798, and to the Parliament House on Austurvöllur in 1881.The location of Alþingi in Reykjavík effectively established the city as the capital of Iceland.
Reykjavík is a city that honours its cultural heritage, treasures its Viking past, celebrates its present and looks unwaveringly to the future – the spirit very much reflected in its myriad of attractions. Insights into Icelandic history are offered, amongst others, by the National Museum of Iceland, the Víkin Maritime Museum – tribute to Iceland’s seafaring heritage, the National Art Gallery, Árbær (Arbaer) Open Air Museum, and the Culture House which has a permanent exhibition relating to saga history and Árni Magnússon (Arni Magnusson), who devoted his life to saving Icelandic manuscripts.
Reykjavík’s architectural gems and buildings of interest include the Nordic House designed by Alvar Aalto, with its exceptional ultramarine blue ceramic rooftop, Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrimskirkja) church, designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, offering an unmissable 360º view of the city from its 74.5 m high tower, Höfði (Hofdi), the venue for the 1986 Reykjavík Summit meeting and Perlan (The Pearl) with its 10, 000 m3 of exhibition space, a viewing deck with panoramic telescopes, shops and a revolving restaurant. Another must-see structure is Harpa (Harp), a collaborative project between Henning Larsen Architects and artist Olafur Eliasson, which won the EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture, Mies van der Rohe Award 2013 and which, according to Wiel Arets, Chair of the Jury, “has captured the myth of a nation – Iceland …”
Throughout the city there are world-class restaurants, serving traditional and New Nordic food, cosy cafés, fashionable music, art and film festival venues; weekend nightlife scene with over 100 bars and stylish clubs, and numerous state-of-the-art geothermal pools.
As everywhere else in Iceland, nature takes centre stage in the capital, with sea, mountains, rivers, woodlands, parks and geothermal swimming pools all close by. Laugardalslaug geothermal pool is the largest pool in Iceland, with the best facilities: an Olympic-size indoor pool, an outdoor pool, four “hot pots” (Jacuzzi like pools) filled with natural geothermal and seawater, a whirlpool, a steam bath, and an 86 m water slide. Relaxing in “hot pots” is very much part of the city’s social life.
Next door is Reykjavík Botanic Gardens which has more than 5,000 varieties of subarctic plant species, wonderful seasonal flowers, a summer café and lots of bird life, particularly grey geese. There are parks, beaches and green areas within walking distance from most places in Reykjavik.
Tjörnin is the little lake at the centre of the city. It has over 40 species of visiting birds, including swans, geese and arctic terns. Lovely parks interspersed with sculptures line the southern shores, and their paths are much used by walkers, cyclists and joggers. In winter, the lake is turned into an outdoor skating rink.
Reykjavík is perfect for outdoor and wildlife lovers and it’s easy to “get away” into the great outdoors. There is even a salmon fishing river, Elliðaár (Ellida River), which runs right through the city, and where anglers enjoy landing salmon from clear, unpolluted waters under the bridge of a busy motorway. The whole valley, Elliðaárdalur (Ellidaardalur) is a green recreational area, with hiking, bicycle paths, a swimming pool, a small ski lift and horse riding facilities. The birdlife is varied and includes more than 60 different species. As well as swans and 8 species of ducks, there are many song birds to be found, for example, the thrush.
Reykjavík has it all: from precious cultural treasures to premier entertainment, stylish shopping, beautiful green spaces for outdoor activities, leisurely walks around the harbour or along the waterfront, to opportunities for unforgettable adventure expeditions into Iceland’s wilderness on super jeep tours – the choice is endless.
A full range of accommodation is available in Reykjavik, from international-standard hotels with good conference facilities, through smaller hotels and cosy guesthouses, to a campsite in the city’s biggest park.