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……