Reykjavik is one of the smallest capital cities in Europe. It’s home to only 120,000 people, although that is still more than a third of Iceland’s total population. But this small city packs a big architectural punch.
Iceland has a long and interesting architectural history dating back to the days when Norwegian Vikings landed there in A.D. 870 and built wooden longhouses protected by turf and grass. Over the years, houses were still built out of wood, but styles changed from gable-fronted houses to farm buildings with porches to Swiss chalet styles. Only in the 18th century did the first stone houses and churches appear.
In 1915, when Reykjavik had a population of some 14,000 people, a large fire devastated the city, and many of the wooden houses were destroyed. The fire changed the city in many ways. Fire hydrants were installed and a fire brigade was established.
A young Icelandic architect, Gudjon Samuelsson, had just returned from studying housing design in Denmark. He would become the country’s chief architect and would change the face of Reykjavik forever. Samuelsson went on to design many of Reykjavik’s iconic buildings in concrete, and took some 41 years to finish the main architectural landmark of the city, if not the country: the impressive Hallgrimskirkja Church.
Since then, Reykjavik has embraced modern design and been open to a more contemporary and daring approach, resulting in a handful of architectural masterpieces.
Here are just a few works of architecture you should make time to see when you’re in Reykjavik.
The stunning Hallgrimskirkja Church that stands at the end of the Skolavordustigur shopping street is a photographer’s dream. Its steeple rises nearly 246 feet, making the church one of the tallest buildings in Iceland. Instead of rising separately from the church building, however, the steeple is a part of the front of the church.
On closer inspection, you can see that the details of the church, designed and built by Samuelsson, resemble the hexagonal basalt columns formed from lava along the coast of Iceland, giving the church a unique look. At night, the resemblance to the basalt columns is even more obvious -- and quite magical.
Visitors can ascend the tower by elevator, and the views across the colorful roofs of Reykjavik are stunning.
Harpa Concert Hall And Conference Centre
Like the Hallgrimskirkja Church, the very modern Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre near the old fishing harbor of Reykjavik has a look inspired by those iconic basalt columns. Here, they have been reimagined in the metal structures covering the glass facade of the building, which lights up at night.
Henning-Larsen Architects completed the hall in 2011 with a stunning interior to match, with seemingly off-kilter staircases, a grand lobby with a multistory atrium, and an auditorium where operas and concerts regularly take place.
The souvenir shop on the ground floor sells quirky mementos and pretty Christmas baubles.
National Theatre Of Iceland
Between the initial idea of building a national theater and the inauguration of the actual building lay 77 years, with the still-unfinished building being occupied by the British Army during World War II. A perfect example of art deco architecture, the National Theatre of Iceland, also by Samuelsson, showcases the architect’s beloved basalt columns.
Reportedly, the theater is Samuelsson’s version of an Elf Palace, referring to the ancient Icelandic belief that elves live inside rocks and that humans can enter into their colorful world of plenty, dance, and song. And indeed, you can enter here into no less than five different theatrical venues, including a puppet theater. Even though the plays are in Icelandic, you can still appreciate the colorful dance performances and operas.
Designed and built by the internationally acclaimed architect Alvar Aalto, the Nordic House, a celebration of all things Nordic, was constructed in 1968. If it weren’t for the pop of blue color on the roof jutting out of the plain white building, most would drive by without a second glance.
But at second glance, the design features, the white walls accentuated by wooden beams, and the slats on the roof all jump out at you. When you go inside, everything comes together perfectly: Aalto designed the furniture as well as the building, and the rooms -- such as the library, which contains some 30,000 books in seven Nordic languages -- present a perfect example of Nordic understated design.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the art library, which holds 500 examples of graphic designs by Nordic artists. Library members can borrow them for up to three months to display in their homes. Visitors can look at them.
University Of Iceland Main Building
Another gem by Samuelsson is the main building of the University of Iceland campus at Saemundargata 2. This art deco building features two large wings, elongated windows, smooth corners, a light-green entrance with lovely glass doors, and an overall stark geometric style.
It’s impressive, but in my mind, not as impressive as the National Theatre. But maybe I stand alone, since according to local lore, when Reykjavik was occupied by the British Army during World War II, the army did not seize this building, as it was deemed too beautiful to be taken over by the troops.
Pro Tip: Walk back into the city center past Lake Tjornin, where you’ll see lots of birds and pretty wooden residences.
In 1880, Iceland’s Parliament Building was built from dark gray dolerite, a volcanic rock similar to volcanic basalt. Designed by the Danish architect Ferdinand Meldahl, it is today one of the oldest stone buildings in Iceland. Look out for the reliefs above the four outer windows on the second floor, representing the four mythical Landvaettir, or pagan land spirits of Iceland: the giant, the eagle, the bull, and the dragon.
The building has two annexes: the Rotunda, dating to 1908, and the Skalinn, a glass-fronted addition dating to 2002. Another notable feature is the garden at the back of the building, which is Iceland’s oldest public garden.
You can visit this building when the Parliament is not in session, but you’ll need to take an organized tour.
Reykjavik Cathedral (Domkirkjan)
You might be surprised to learn that the city's Lutheran cathedral is not the Hallgrimskirkja Church, but the Domkirkjan, yet another example of Iceland’s quirkiness. This wooden structure next to the Parliament Building dates to 1796 and is the seat of the Lutheran bishop of Iceland. In typical Nordic style, the interior is relatively plain when compared to other European churches of the time, but it’s stunning nonetheless.
When inside, remember this: When the church was built, it could seat everyone living in Reykjavik!
Reykjavik Art Museum Asmundarsafn
One of three locations housing the Reykjavik Art Museum, Asmundarsafn is probably the most interesting architecturally. It was the former home of Iceland’s most famous sculptor, Asmundur Sveinsson, and he himself built it with a little help from architect Einar Sveinsson in a style heavily influenced by south Mediterranean and Arab styles. Its arches, pyramid shapes, and central igloo-like dome are a nod to old northern residential buildings.
The museum is set within a park displaying 30 or so of Asmundur Sveinsson’s gigantic sculptures.
Pro Tip: This museum is located on the outskirts of Reykjavik, so you’ll need to take a bus numbered 2, 4, 14, 15, 17, or 19 to the Sigtun stop.
Planning a trip to Iceland? Check out our other pieces on the country here.