Reykholt in Borgarfjörður, a little settlement on the western coast of Iceland, is one of the top historic sites in the region: a vivid glimpse into the world of the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). It's just a stone's throw from Reykjavik, and makes for a fantastic day trip, whether you like history or not.
The once-enormous church estate was the home of the renowned medieval author, as well as the site of his murder, and now holds a museum dedicated to his life and work, and exploring the world of medieval Iceland. Snorrastofa Cultural and Research Centre, is Reykholt’s biggest attraction, founded in 1995 and expanded since then to include several buildings.
The history of Snorri is represented through a permanent exhibit on his life and work, showing the world he inhabited and the events of his turbulent life.
Snorri’s contributions to Iceland’s literary history are impressive, if not unparalleled: his Prose Edda is one of the main sources of information on Norse mythology, and pre-Christian belief, though given the author’s medieval lens, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Writing in Old Icelandic, he offers significant glimpses of the language as it existed in his time. It is possible that he is the author of Egils Saga, one of the most famous Sagas of Icelanders.
His other major work, Heimskringla, gives a mythologised account of the Norwegian royal house, claiming their descent from Óðinn, and thus reminding the reader that Snorri spent many years in the employ of King Haakon of Norway. However, the often thorny politics of the 13th century meant that he made a number of powerful enemies, and his end was violently untimely.
Guided tours of the library and church are available, with a longer tour offered for groups, and lectures can be arranged with experts on Icelandic history and literature. There is even a recently-launched app called “Snorri” — a multilingual audioguide that brings visitors on a walking tour through the site, discovering the history of the region. This can be downloaded to Android and iPhone and enjoyed at the visitor’s leisure.
The museum’s topic may be medieval, but the research is current, with a full library in a beautiful environment to support scholarly work. For longer stays, there are apartments that can be rented out by scholars working in the library. Many of the spaces at Snorrastofa can be booked for meetings and events, ranging from small-scale discussion groups in the library to the 2018 Saga Conference, which hosted sessions in every building at once.
The Reykholt Church. Flickr/Ulrich Latzenhofer.
The church, Reykholtskirkja, frequently hosts concerts in its chandelier-lit, stained glass-windowed space, making use of the acoustics provided by high ceilings. An older church — Gamla Kirkja — now belongs to the National Museum, its high pulpit and cramped pews standing as an example of 19th-century architecture.
Archaeology has played a major role in the history of Reykholtsdalur, and digs are still ongoing. From a window in the floor in Gamla Kirkja, visitors can look down at the much-earlier foundations of a building. Tunnels from the 13th century, restored and incorporated into the modern buildings, lead from the museum out to the open, and to a classic Icelandic sight.
Outside, a naturally heated pool sends tendrils of steam up into the air. This is Snorralaug, one of the early archaeological discoveries of the area, and one of the oldest constructions in the region. It’s a restored version of the kind of pool Snorri would have enjoyed in the time that he lived at Reykholt.
Reykholt is abundant with geothermal energy. Flickr/bekassine.
The Krauma Spa. Travelade/Nina.
The Krauma Spa. Travelade/Nina.
The now-decorative pool is also a hint of the other main attraction nearby, the spa Krauma. Set in the heart of the Deildartunguhver area, one of the most powerful hot springs in Europe, its five geothermal baths, two saunas, and relaxation room make it an excellent place to enjoy a luxurious soak in the calming waters, after a day’s dive into the distant past.
You can purchase entrance tickets to the Krauma Spa here.
The national park Þingvellir is only a 45-minute drive away; alternatively, head a little further from the Ring Road and visit the two notable nearby waterfalls. Hraunfossar, a series of rivulets crawling over the black rocks, originates in a nearby lava field, bubbling up underground.
Hraunfossar. Flickr/Andrea Schaffer.
Barnafoss, a single chute, is said to have been named when two boys drowned there after falling off a natural stone bridge that crossed it. Their mother cursed the falls, proclaiming that no one would cross them without drowning. Shortly afterwards, it is said that the stone bridge collapsed.
Reykholt is the site of the Icelandic Chamber Music Festival, an annual summer event taking place over the last weekend in July, that draws music lovers from around the country and beyond. Snorrastofa is perhaps the ideal setting for it, with several spaces able to accommodate an audience, while still feeling close and intimate. The event features work by both current and historic composers, and includes a lecture at Snorrastofa as part of the programme.
Reykholt is located close to Reykjavík, and an easy journey. Less than two hours’ drive, it can be a day trip; for those who wish to stay overnight, the town offers both the country hotel Fosshótel Reykholt and a few guesthouses.
The one caution for anyone typing the name into a GPS: there are two Reykholts in the country. This is Reykholt in Borgarfjörður, the other one is in Árnessýsla, part of the southern region! This one is to the north of Reykjavík, in the western part of the country.