Reykjavik

Reykjavik’s foundation traces back to AD 874 when Ingólfr Arnarson, recognized as the first permanent Norse settler in Iceland, established his homestead in what is now the heart of the city. Fast forward to 1786, Reykjavik was officially founded, evolving from a mere settlement into a center for commerce, population, and governance within Iceland. An important moment in its history occurred in 1845 with the establishment of Alþingi, Iceland’s national parliament, further cementing the city’s role in the national identity and legislative history of the country. The post-World War II era heralded a period of rapid urbanization and economic prosperity. Throughout these different epochs Reykjavik has consistently played a crucial role in the cultural, economic, and political spheres of Iceland.

Geography

Iceland’s capital is positioned on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, extending into the North Atlantic Ocean. This northernmost capital of a sovereign state finds itself at latitude 64.1466° N. The city’s relief is marked by the presence of Mount Esja, a prominent feature that adds to the scenic beauty while reminding inhabitants of Iceland’s volcanic origins. Reykjavík’s climate is classified as subarctic, a characteristic that brings mild, albeit cool summers and chilly winters. This climate influences the lifestyle of its residents, adapted to handle variable weather conditions. Distribution of the urban areas takes into account the natural terrain, ensuring that the city’s growth harmonizes with its geographical context. The careful planning of Reykjavík has resulted in a blend of open spaces, residential areas, and commercial centers, all situated to make the most of the city’s geographical and climatic conditions.

Population

Reykjavík has a population of approximately 140,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in the country. This population is primarily of Icelandic descent. The city has seen an increase in multicultural demographics over recent years, including Polish, Filipino, and other communities, enriching the cultural scene of Reykjavík.

The dominant religion in Reykjavík is Christianity, specifically the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, which plays a central role in the community’s spiritual life. However, the city is known for its religious tolerance, with various other religious communities, including Catholicism and Asatru, the traditional Norse religion.

Icelandic is the official language, spoken by the majority of the population, though English is widely spoken and understood, especially within the tourism and business sectors. This multilingual capability has made Reykjavík an accessible and welcoming city for international visitors and expatriates alike.

Main sights

  • Hallgrímskirkja: This church is Reykjavík’s most recognizable landmark, known for its impressive architectural design inspired by Iceland’s natural landscapes.
  • Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre: A great example of modern architecture, Harpa is a cultural and social center in the heart of Reykjavík, known for its distinctive glass facade that reflects the city and harbor.
  • Perlan: Set on a hill, Perlan is a remarkable building with a glass dome housing observation decks for a 360-degree view of Reykjavík and its surroundings, along with exhibits on Icelandic nature.
  • National Museum of Iceland: This museum is essential for understanding Iceland’s history and culture, from its settlement to modern times, through a wide range of artifacts and exhibitions.
  • The Sun Voyager (Sólfar): A sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason that sits on the Reykjavík coastline, symbolizing dreams of discovery, hope, and freedom.
  • Reykjavík Old Harbour: A lively area full of character, providing insight into Iceland’s nautical heritage, alongside modern attractions like cafes, tours, and the Maritime Museum.
  • The Settlement Exhibition: A fascinating look into Reykjavík’s Viking-age history, built around an excavated longhouse from the 10th century.

Food

  • Plokkfiskur: This traditional Icelandic fish stew combines boiled fish (often cod or haddock) with potatoes, onions, and béchamel sauce. It’s comforting, hearty, and a staple in Icelandic households, often served with rye bread on the side.
  • Hákarl: A dish not for the faint of heart, hákarl is fermented Greenland shark. It’s known for its strong ammonia-rich smell and distinctive taste, usually served in small cubes.
  • Skyr: A dairy product similar to yogurt but with a milder taste and thicker texture. Skyr has been a part of Icelandic cuisine for over a thousand years, often served with berries or sugar.
  • Harðfiskur: Dried fish, typically haddock or cod, harðfiskur is enjoyed as a snack, often spread with butter. It’s packed with protein and highly revered in Icelandic culture.
  • Lamb Soup (Kjötsúpa): A traditional Icelandic soup made with lamb, potatoes, rutabagas, and carrots, all simmered with local herbs. It reflects Iceland’s strong pastoral traditions.

Fun facts

  • Reykjavik means “Smokey Bay”, because of the steam rising from hot springs in the area.
  • The Imagine Peace Tower, a light installation in Reykjavík, was commissioned by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lennon. It projects a towering beam of light into the sky and is inscribed with the words “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages.
  • The city operates on geothermal power, making it one of the cleanest and most sustainable cities in the world. About 90% of Iceland’s homes are heated with geothermal energy, and Reykjavík leads in this initiative.
  • Reykjavík was the first city in the world to elect an openly gay head of government, when Jón Gnarr became mayor in 2010. Gnarr was also a comedian and an actor before entering politics.
  • The Reykjavík Grapevine is an English-language magazine and website focusing on Icelandic news, culture, and events.