Europe 2017: Reykyavík, Iceland

After two weeks in Germany, we've arrived in Iceland for a 4-day stay. This is something I've wanted to do for a long time, and it's finally happening (Icelandair allows you to make a free stopover of up to 7 days on any transatlantic flight).

On our first day (Sunday), we explored Reykjavík, Iceland's capital and biggest population center (two thirds of Iceland's 332,000 people live there). Reykjavík means "Smoky Bay" in Icelandic, alluding to the mist often rising over the ocean. It was the first settlement in Iceland (874 CE) but there was no urban development here until the 19th century.

Today, Reykjavík is a modern city with a relaxed, easy-going vibe with all the conveniences you could ask for--and surprisingly little traffic. After all the crazy driving we'd encountered in Germany, that in itself was a huge boon.

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík

We started out at Reykjavík's best-known landmark: Hallgrímskirkja, the Church of Hallgrímur. You can see the church from pretty much anywhere in the city center, and if you park close to it (like we did), you'll always know where your car is. The church is named after Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), a beloved poet and hymn writer, and was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, Iceland's state architect at the time. Samúelsson created a uniquely Icelandic style of architecture that mirrored the geology of the country. His design for Hallgrímskirkja was inspired by the basalt columns that are form when lava cools. Construction of the church started in 1945 and the signature tower was completed fairly quickly. However, it took another 41 years before the rest of the church was finished: the nave wasn't consecrated until 1986.

In front of the church is a statue of Leifur Eiríksson (aka Leif Erikson), the intrepid Icelandic explorer who is said to have discovered Continental North America somewhere around 1000--almost 500 years before Columbus.

Statue of Leif Erikson in front of Hallgrímskirkja

The interior of the church is beautifully simple, with strong lines and little ornamentation:

Interior of Hallgrímskirkja

For a fee of 900 Icelandic kroner (about $8.50) you can take the elevator to a viewing deck which offers 360° views of Reykjavík. It's definitely worth it, as you can see below.

Leif Erikson statue from the viewing deck. I love the guy in red posing for a photo!

Icelanders certainly don't shy away from color!

Just across Hallgrímskirkja is the Einar Jónsson Museum and Sculpture Garden. Jónsson (1874-1954) is Iceland's best-known sculptor. We skipped the museum but enjoyed a walk through the sculpture garden, which is open to the public. 

The tallest and lushest astilbe I've ever seen!

Einar Jónsson sculptures. LEFT: The Crucible (1913-1914)   RIGHT: The Wave of the Ages (1894-1905)

Einar Jónsson sculptures. LEFT: Earth (1904-1908)   RIGHT: Monument to Hallgrímur Pétursson (1914-1922)

While I didn't see "real" gardens on our walk through Reykjavík, here are some plant shots:

Icelanders love cactus, too!

The largest dandelion I've ever seen!

Lobelia erinus

NOID sedum

Another majestic white astilbe

We spent a lovely couple of hours wandering through Reykjavík. There was little traffic on Sunday morning and nobody seemed to be a hurry.

Hallgrímskirkja from one of the downtown shopping streets

Beautiful stone house

Entrance to the pedestrian zone

It's always Caturday somewhere!

Is the polar bear supposed to attract tourists or scare them off?

Try to memorize the name of this street!

Outdoor photographic exhibit ("Basking" by Icelandic photographer Björn Árnason). I think this is a wonderful concept but I'm not sure it would work in the U.S. The pieces would be defaced or destroyed in no time.

Love those dye-tied pants!

I know people love puffins but I think this is a bit much

Bjarni Fel Sportbar has a sense of humor... you can see here...

...and here

Feeling adventurous? Try puffin and minke whale at Apotek!

I don't like shopping, but this is my kind of place

String of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus) in a store

Sansevieria sighting in a café

Jade plant (Crassula ovata) at Kaffi Vinyl where we had lunch

Mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) at Kaffi Vinyl. They were for sale for the equivalent of $95 each, coffee can and all. Yes, Iceland is expensive!

Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), in abundant bloom all over the city

Reykjavík has many murals. This one, near Hallgrímskirkja, was the creepiest I saw.

In the evening, my wife and I drove to Perlan, another landmark building in Reykjavík. It's a complex of six enormous tanks that store geothermal hot water for the city of Reykjavík, each tank holding 1 million gallons. On top of the tanks sits a glass dome with an observation deck, a café and a fine-dining restaurant. To fully appreciate the beauty of this structure, take a look at this aerial image.

Entrance to Perlan

Two of the six hot-water storage tanks

Observation deck

Selfie time!

Hallgrímskirkja from Perlan

View towards downtown Reykjavík from Perlan


Top floor, looking up and down


Glass dome

Dansleikur/Dance by Þorbjörg Pálsdóttir next to the Perlan parking lot

Even though the summer solstice was a month ago, it still stays light until past 11pm and never gets fully dark.  I woke up at 4am this morning and I could have read in bed without a light. Our landlord says that in the summer he never sleeps more than 5 hours. If I lived here, I'd definitely install blackout shades!




  1. What a fascinating place - thanks for the tour! Those astilbe, that church, Perlan - it's all magnificent.

  2. Fascinating is a good word for this city. Thanks for sharing. I do miss those endless summer days of the north.

  3. Oh! I always wanted to go to Reykjavik. Now I think I've seen enough. So much modernity. Thanks for taking the photos and the time to post them. I like seeing northern, colder places especially in summer.

  4. Thanks so much for the tour. Nigel and I have talked in the past about visiting Iceland, back when we lived in Massachusetts and were a little closer to it. Fascinating place. Love the colorful houses!

  5. You're making great use of your trip! I've always been fascinated by Iceland and the futuristic feel of some of your photos show that it lives up to my expectations.

  6. Very interesting. I can see how they would like colorful houses. It must be very white and grey in winter.

    Their hot water storage facilities look better than our airports. Sheesh!


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