Iceland, Part 1: Reykjavik

 

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Overview of Reykjavik, from the observation deck of the Hallgrímskirkja Church

Virtually everyone who travels to Iceland begins and ends their visit in Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world. Despite its location just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s climate is milder than one would expect due to the influence of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream.  At the same time, summers are quite cool, with lows in the 40s and sometimes below.

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A typical side street in Reykjavik, with a decidely non-urban backdrop featuring Iceland’s dramatic landscape.

The name Reykjavik translates roughly as “Smoky Bay,”  a reference to the steam rising from geothermal vents observed by early Viking settlers in the 9th Century.  The island currently has a population of about 330,000 persons, yet more than 2/3 of them reside in the capital region.  By comparison Fairfax County, Virginia where I live, has over 1 million inhabitants.

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A view up the the hill toward the Hallgrímskirkja Church around midnight in early June.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Iceland’s history is that it has the oldest parliament in the world. The “Alþingi”  was established as an outdoor assembly around 930 AD and was moved to Reykjavik in 1844.  Its survival during a long and often turbulent history enabled the country to maintain a semblance of control over its political destiny even as it became part of the kingdom of Norway in the 15th century and eventually under Danish control.  World War II severed the link with Denmark and Iceland became an independent Republic on June 17, 1944.

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The Hallgrímskirkja Church with a statue of Leif Eriksson in the foreground.  The vertical columns evoke the balsaltic columns which characterize the geology of Iceland’s landscape.

Despite its small size, Reykjavik is a “happening” place anchored by an impressive concert hall, the Harpa, with its colored glass façade evoking the country’s volcanic geology.   Additionally, there are upscale restaurants, art galleries, vibrant street art, and a lively nightlife scene.

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The Harpa Concert Hall which held its opening concert on May 4, 2011. It houses the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the offices of the Icelandic Opera. The interior architecture is equally dramatic.

 

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Example of Street Art, a 40-foot mural by Li-Hill, a Canadian artist currently based in Brooklyn.  Entitled “Deacon of Dark River,” it was completed in 2015.

 

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Prikid, a casual cafe by day, jammin’ hip-hop joint at night (according to folks who have been inside)

 

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Reykjavik boasts a good number of stylish boutiques such as this specialty store, Ofeigur, which carries Icelandic jewelry, dresses by Hildur Bolladittir and hats by Liivia Leskin

But for many who visit here, the most dramatic location is found along the shore of the bay where the stainless steel “Sun Voyager” points its prow out to the sea. Often mistaken as a Viking ship, the artist described it in more general terms of the human experience: calling it “a dreamboat, an ode to the sun, symbolizing light and hope.”

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The “Sun Voyager” by Jón Gunnar Árnason

This was my second trip to Iceland, an expedition over the island’s  storied landscape which, like most visits here, began and ended with a day in Reykjavik. I was accompanied by two fellow photographers, Rick and Michele and, as we prepared to lave the capital, our intent was to find some places that were off the beaten track.  We even hoped we might find one or two special places that were off any track, beaten or otherwise.

 

Next:  The road trip begins……

34 thoughts on “Iceland, Part 1: Reykjavik

    • Thanks, Chris! Yes, it never got fully dark while we were there, a strange feeling for those of us used to the regular cycle of thew middle latitudes. Several people have commented that the sculpture reminded them of whale bones.

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  1. I have enjoyed the photos and reviews from several friends and family who have visited Iceland. You are the first one to share from the city!
    That said, I am looking forward to the road trip and post. Something tells me the Kent camera caught some spectacular natural scenery as well.
    Thanks for sharing

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  2. Thanks very much for sharing this post – I learned a lot and loved your photos! I had a brief (24hrs) layover in Iceland once but chose to go to the geyser and Gullfoss waterfall instead of the city, so I missed all these sites. I’m looking forward to your next posts!

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    • Gulfoss and the geyser are both good choices, especially the former. We spend a fair amount of time at Gulfoss during our first photo trip there in 2015 but decided to bypass it this time because it was pretty crowded. Thanks for your comments and I hope you are able to get back there for a longer stay.

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  3. What a nice writeup and stunning photos!

    There was just an airfare sale to Iceland recently from Baltimore, I think. Looks like I missed out! It’s on my radar now.

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    • Thanks for visiting and for the comments! Sorry you missed that chance, but they have those bargain fares every so often and rates out of BWI are pretty good compared to other choices around here (e.g. Reagan and Dulles). Depending on what you want to see there, it’s possible to have a good experience almost anytime of the year.

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    • Thanks for visiting and for your comments. I’m very impressed that you visited Iceland long before it became a “go-to” place for tourists and photographers. It would be interesting to hear what took you there the first time.

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      • I’d visited the pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, then went to Peru to work for a year; remembered Iceland later, how clever they were to tap into the thermal energy to heat Reykjavik homes & greenhouses, also wanted an adventure & travel still cheap at the time…

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      • Great story, thanks! As I’m sure you know, the country continues to use their thermal and hydroelectric resources for electricity and heating. We were told that much of the hydroelectric comes from the rivers created by melting glaciers, which will eventually decline, but I’m sure the fact that Iceland is one of the windiest places on earth means they will have a back-up solution when the time comes.

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    • THanks very much for the comments. I see from your blog posts that you are doing some really interesting traveling. If Iceland interests you, stay tuned to this channel for a bit, more is coming. And if you do decide to go there and have any questions about our experiences, feel free to drop a line; I’ll be happy to answer them if I can.

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  4. Wow – your photos are truly a feast for my eyes. Gorgeous. John and I have talked a lot about visiting Iceland 🇮🇸 but then another location presents itself and we move one. Maybe next summer. Don’t think I could handle a winter visit. Do you have another trip identified already? We’re heading to Chile! Have you been there? I’m looking for advice.

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    • Thanks so much for the kind words. I haven’t been to Iceland in the winter, but it may happen. Their weather is not as extremely cold as one would expect given their location. Other than a week in NYC to do a NY Times workshop on the theatre (November) we haven’t picked our next destination yet. Candidates include a return to Paris, Iceland (in March to see the Northern Lights–Smithsonian Tour) and Cost Rica. We have not been to Chile but I hear great things about it, especially as a way to see Patagonia and Torres del Paine. If you get there, I definitely will be asking your advice because it is on our list.

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    • Thanks very much for visiting and for commenting. November should be a really interesting time to be in Reykjavik. With luck, you’ll see the Northern Lights at that time of year. The temperatures will be chilly but not as cold as one would expect that far north (almost in the Arctic Circle). Have a fantastic trip and I hope you will visit here again.

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  5. Happy to find your blog and photos. I was in Iceland 4 years ago, about the same time of year. We did a smaller loop, east and south from Reykjavik. I’ve been wanting to return ever since and do the full loop, so I’m really enjoying your photos and narration of your journey. Thanks!

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    • Hi, and thanks for visiting my blog. I especially appreciate your taking the time to comment and I’m glad you are enjoying this Iceland series. The itinerary you chose for your first trip sounds like you probably hit most of the top sites, an excellent way to start. Our 2015 trip was primarily in that area. Hope you will drop by again.

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