Here's my selection of Reykjavik's most remarkable buildings, both in terms of architectural and historical significance.
Hallgrímskirkja Church is without a doubt Reykjavik’s most iconic building. The church, designed by the state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, was constructed from 1945 to 1986. Hallgrimskirkja, which is 244 ft tall, is Iceland’s second tallest building, after the Smáratorg Tower in Kópavogur.
During the 41-year construction period, Hallgrímskirkja’s architecture became an apple of discord amongst the city’s inhabitants. Guðjón Samúelsson’s design was criticised for being a medley of different architectural styles and some thought the church’s exterior was too traditional-looking.
Hallgrimskirkja’s enormous size was also frequently debated; at that time there were few tall buildings in Iceland and the surrounding houses looked tiny compared to this huge church. The church was built during times of inflation and that made financing the construction hard. Disunity about the church’s design didn’t help either. When the church was finally inaugurated in 1986, 65% of the construction costs had been covered by parishioners.
The façade of Hallgrímskirkja is, like several other buildings in Iceland, inspired by columnar basalts. Other elements of the church are also inspired by Icelandic nature, such as volcanoes, geysers and the vast wilderness.
The church’s interior is impressive too, although it hardly rivals the unique exterior. The most notable feature of the interior is probably the 50 ft tall Klais organ, which is the largest musical instrument in Iceland. It consists of 5275 pipes and weighs 50,000 pounds.
Hallgrímskirkja was selected the second most interesting church of the world by the Danish newspaper Politiken in 2013. According to the selection committee, Hallgrimskirkja’s unique architecture (ironically!) and the fact that its tower offers wonderful views over the city, were the determining factors for the selection.
Is it possible to go up to the tower?
Yes. The church is inarguably the best observation tower you’ll find in downtown Reykjavik. There’s an elevator that takes you to the top and the entrance fee is 800 isk (around 8 usd).
There’s a statue of some guy in front of the church. Who is he?
This heroic-looking man is Leifur Eiríksson – the first known European to have discovered the continent of North America. According to Icelandic Sagas, he arrived in Vinland (now Newfoundland in Canada) around 1000 and established a Norse settlement in the new land. I stumbled upon this interesting article about the statue, it is a good read for those who are interested in Icelandic history and culture.
Can I go to a concert at Hallgrimskirkja Church?
Absolutely. There are recitals and concerts held at the church every now and then and you can also go to Sunday mass if you like. You can check out the schedule here.
Why does Hallgrimskirkja look like a rocket?
According to Carol Pucci, a columnist at Seattle Times, Hallgrimskirkja looks just like a space rocket. She apparently shares her opinion with lots of Tripadvisor reviewers. I’ve heard Icelanders discussing this resemblance too, especially kids. I did some research and found no possible explanations for this. If you have a hard time believing that this rocket-like look is a coincidence, I challenge you to get to the bottom of this curious matter!
Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert and conference hall, is the youngest building on my list. Harpa’s opening concert, by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, was in May 2011.
Harpa’s design is inspired by basalt columns, just like Hallgrimskirkja. These basalt columns appear as geometrically shaped structures on the exterior of the building, made of metal and glass of different colors.
Harpa was designed by a Danish architectural firm in coöperation with the Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson.
The construction of Harpa began in 2007 but there was serious relapse just a year later when the 2008 financial crisis hit the country. The future of Harpa was uncertain for some time until the government finally decided to finance the rest of the construction. According to Wikipedia, Harpa’s construction was the only active construction project in Reykjavik for several years during the crisis. Fortunately, times have changed drastically since then, as you might have noticed from a large number of cranes in the city!
When it isn’t bright outside, the exterior of Harpa becomes a spectacle of dancing lights. The lights can be programmed in different ways, so the spectacle changes every night. Most of the time the lights resemble the Aurora Borealis so if you are in Iceland for the northern lights but don’t have any luck, you can go and gaze at these “fake” northern lights (I am just messing with you, nothing comes close to the real thing).
Harpa is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and The Icelandic Opera. The main hall of Harpa, Eldborg, is renowned for its stunning acoustics that attract performers from all over the world.
Is there an entrance fee to visit Harpa?
Kind of. There are areas inside the hall that are restricted for guided tours only. Going to a guided tour is probably quite nice, you get to know all sorts of things about the architecture of the house and its (short!) history.
Can I go to concerts?
Yes you can. A visit to Harpa isn’t complete without going to a concert, in my opinion. For the summer, I recommend the Reykjavik Classics concert series, but for the winter I recommend going to one of ISO’s concerts. You’ll be amazed by the high standard of the orchestra and the marvellous acoustics of Harpa’s main concert hall, Eldborg.
The Nordic House is one of Reykjavik’s architectural hidden gems. The house, opened in 1968, is designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. According to the Nordic House website, its goal is to foster and support cultural connections between Iceland and the other Nordic countries.
Inside the house there is a library, a restaurant and a hall for exhibitions, concerts and conferences. The house is open to the public and there’s no entrance fee.
Famous characteristics of Aalto’s design are present in The Nordic House’s architecture, such as the navy blue mosaic tiles on the roof of the house and the usage of the colour white on the exterior and the interior of the house. The furniture inside the building are also designed by Aalto.
The Nordic House is situated in Vatnsmýri, which is a large breeding place for birds, not far from the city centre. You can walk through Vatnsmýri from downtown Reykjavik to The Nordic House, but the pathway is closed during the bird nesting season. I live in downtown Reykjavik so I usually ride my bike through Vatnsmýri and past The Nordic House when I go to school (The University of Iceland) and I enjoy it every time.
How long does it take to walk from the city centre to The Nordic House?
That depends on where you are in downtown Reykjavik. If you are in Laekjartorg Square, it will take you 15 to 20 minutes to walk.
Are there any concerts or other events taking place at The Nordic House?
Yes, every now and then. The Nordic House Concert Series is beginning its first season this summer, check out the program here.
Perlan (The Pearl) is a dome-shaped glass building sitting atop six enormous hot water storage tanks, situated on Öskjuhlíð Hill. Perlan was designed by Ingimundur Sveinsson and opened in 1991. It is hands down the most bizarre building in Iceland.
The construction of Perlan was the brainchild of Davíð Oddson, former mayor of Reykjavík (which became Iceland’s Prime minister after his incumbency as mayor). The purpose of this huge glass building has remained a mystery. There was a restaurant and a cocktail bar on the top floor of the building for a long time but that closed down earlier this year. I has been now replaced by a souvenir shop. The ground floor is huge but there’s really nothing there to see. Luckily, there is a large glacier exhibtion opening in Perlan this summer, so there will hopefully be plenty to do and see when that has been established.
When Davíð Oddsson, the former mayor of Reykjavik, was asked why on earth he wanted to build this strange house he replied: “There are just so many people that haven’t got a slightest idea about what to do on Sundays”. Icelandic families might have visited Perlan on Sunday afternoons when it was still brand new, but I can hardly imagine that many Icelanders spend time there anymore.
The coolest thing about Perlan, in my opinion, is an insanely tall water fountain on the lowest floor of Perlan. It lays dormant for ten minutes or so and then it suddenly bursts up into the air and reaches all the way to the highest floor. It is probably supposed to mimic the behaviour of geysers. Another cool thing about Perlan is the panoramic terrace that offers spectacular views over the city.
Is there an entrance fee?
Can I walk there from the city centre?
Yes. Walking from downtown Reykjavik to Perlan takes about 20 minutes.
Are the water storage tanks still full of hot water?
Five of the water storage tanks still contain some hot water but one of them is empty.
Þjóðleikhúsið, The National Theatre of Iceland, was formally opened in 1950. It was designed by the same architect as Hallgrímskirkja Church, Guðjón Samúelsson. The design is inspired by basalt columns, just like Harpa and Hallgrímskirkja. Guðjón Samúelsson wasn’t just influenced by Icelandic nature when he designed the building but also when he chose the building materials, which for instance include obsidian, quarz and Iceland spar.
The National Theatre is located on Hverfisgata in downtown Reykjavik and some say it’s kind of overshadowed by the surrounding buildings. The theatre had originally been found a different place, by the western side of Ingolfstorg square but since the government had offered a free lot on the spot where it is now, that was the most practical solution.
Guðjón Samúelsson died just five days after the first play premiered at the National Theatre. According to a report I read about the history of Reykjavik he said these words about designing the theatre:
“When I first started working on the plan, I began thinking about our folktales about elves and rock column formations. Both of these phenomena are as Icelandic as they can be. During times of poverty, the nation dreamed that glorious beauty, embellishments, warmth and light were present in the elves’ homes; the enormous hammers made of naturally formed rock. With this ideal in mind I designed the National Theatre as a massive hammer, where the beauty of life spreads out before you as you enter.”
Are there any plays in English?
No, I am afraid not.
Is the building open to the public?
Just the foyer. That might even be closed during off-season, which is in the summertime.
Höfði makes the cut not because of its architecture, but because of its historic significance. Höfði was built in 1909, making it the oldest house on the list.
Höfði was originally built for the French consul in Iceland but it served as Einar Benediktsson’s exclusive residency for years.
The historical event that Höfði owes its fame to is the 1986 meeting of Mikhail Gorbatsjov and Ronald Reagan. This event, as you probably know already, marked the end of the Cold War.
Höfði is unfortunately not open to the general public. It is owned by Reykjavik City and is sometimes used for events on special occasions. You could go there just to stroll around the house and take a look at some outdoor art surrounding it, for instance there’s a small part of the Berlin Wall located in Borgartún, just a few metres from Höfði.
Fun fact: Höfði was frequently shown in TV all over the world during the meeting of Reagan and Gorbatsjov. A Japanese millionaire was so fascinated by the house after seeing it on the news so he decided to build an exact replica of the house in Japan.