Explore Iceland

Hallgrímskirkja Church

After an exhaustive trip around Iceland, we arrived back in the capital city of Reykjavik for two nights of respite before flying out of the country and onto our next destination. The previous twelve days were a meticulously planned action-packed adventure enjoying some of the most beautiful landscapes you can find on this planet - and a lot of time driving..

We had started to plan our adventure more than six months before we even got on an airplane at London’s Gatwick Airport and ended up with an extremely detailed itinerary that ensured we made the most of our time in Iceland.

The last day and a half though? Yeah, we didn’t really plan that much.

We figured we’d be tired and we’d just mull about Reykjavik, check out a couple places of interest and possibly eat one of those famous hotdogs that everyone talks about (it was amazing).

Reykjavik isn’t really a large city and there isn’t all that much to see when you’re there, but if there is one thing that every tourist agrees on, its that a visit to the capital city’s iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church should definitely be on your list. The church, which is coincidentally the tallest building in the country is also Iceland’s most iconic structure and has become an image that has become synonymous with Reykjavik, defining the skyline of the capital city.

History

When we talk about the history of churches in Europe, we often think of places of worship that date back hundreds, if not a thousand years. The history of Hallgrímskirkja is much less complex - its actually only a few decades old and its story is easier to tell.

The history of the church starts with its designer, famed state architect Guðjón Samúelsson who played a key role in the urban planning of the Reykjavik and designing several other beautiful buildings throughout the country. Samúelsson, one of the first Icelanders to be formally educated in architecture was known for his genius combination of contemporary architectural styles with traditional Icelandic imagery that were inspired the landscapes and geology of the country.

The legacy created by Samúelsson designs have had a lasting effect on the shape of modern Iceland with many architects following in his footsteps, blending his style of modernism and naturalism into something that is intrinsically Icelandic.

With a collection of buildings already under his belt, Samúelsson was tasked with designing a parish church in the heart of Reykjavik which was envisioned to become the ‘grandest place of worship in the entire country’ and coincidentally also its tallest building.

Designs for the project were commissioned in 1937, but due to the disastrous effects of the Second World War, construction didn’t start until 1945. The delays in construction unfortunately ensured that Samúelsson would never live to see the finished product, which would become his most iconic.

Samúelsson passed away in 1950, five years after construction started, but the project which was completed in stages would ultimately take over four decades to complete.

Stages of Construction

  • 1948 - The crypt, which is beneath the chancel was completed and consecrated.

  • 1974 - The tower and the front wings were completed.

  • 1986 - The nave was completed and the church opened to the public.

  • 1992 - Construction and installation of the massive organ was completed.

Link: Historic Photos show Hallgrimskirkja church under construction 50 years ago.

Hallgrímskirkja opened to the public in 1986 to what would become mixed reviews from locals who considered it an eyesore and thought it far too old-fashioned. In the years since however, the church has become one of the city’s most iconic buildings and locals eventually warmed up to it.

What’s in a name?

I’m sure that the whole time you’ve been reading this, you’ve seen the word “Hallgrímskirkja” pop up and you’ve been thinking to yourself, “How am I supposed to pronounce this?” and “What does it even mean?

Well, I don’t speak Icelandic, so I’m clearly not an authority, but apparently it’s pronounced: “Hal-Grimes-Kirk-Yow” (ˈhatlkrimsˌcɪrca) and translates to “Church of Hallgrímur“ in English.

Don’t take my word for it though, if you really want to solve this linguistic mystery, learn from a pro that speaks the language with this helpful article and video: Iceland with a view - How to Pronounce Icelandic Words.

So who is Hallgrímur?

Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614 - 1674) was a renowned Icelandic poet, politician and clergyman who most notably wrote the “Passíusálmar“ or the “Passion Hymns”, a collection of 50 poems which chronicle the last days of the life of Jesus. The poems are a significant work of Icelandic literature and it has become tradition for them to be read in almost every home (and is broadcast on radio and television) every year during the Easter holidays. One of the Icelandic Lutheran churches most prominent figures, it is only fitting that the most important place of worship in the country be named after him.

In Iceland, the Lutheran Church is known as the Church or Iceland, or the “National Church” (Þjóðkirkjan) and consists of over 300 churches providing a place of worship for its 250,000 members. Interestingly though, even though Hallgrimskirkja is the largest, it is not the headquarters. The Bishop of Iceland lives much more modestly in the much smaller, but more historic Reykjavik Cathedral, which is only a short distance away.

Design

As mentioned above, residents of Reykjavik weren’t really all that thrilled about the design of the church. Even before it was completed, it was considered an “old-fashioned” eyesore that was designed to resemble an already outdated style of architecture.

Eventually they came around and started to see the genius in its design.

The genius in the design of the church cannot be underscored - Not only does it take inspiration from from the basalt columns found at Southern Iceland’s Black Beach and Svartifoss Waterfall, it does so in a way that also evokes an image of both a geyser rising to the heavens and that of the pipes of a church organ.

Once you realize the inspiration for the design and what it represents, you can’t help but respect its genius.

The 74.5 meter (244 ft) tower, which also serves as an observation desk rises high above every other building in the capital city. Its height is actually one of the reasons why people weren’t really too thrilled about it. Similar to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, there are few places you can go in Reykjavik where you won’t catch a glimpse of the church.

The interior, which encompasses 1,676 square meters, is a bit more subdued in its design and truthfully doesn’t really pop out at you like many of Europes other churches do. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films, you might imagine the interior of the church resembling Gondor’s Minas Tirith castle which is also a simple stone hall with very little colour or warmth.

The interior keeps with traditional gothic-style cathedral architecture with large pillars rising up from the walls in order to support an arched ceiling. Staying true to Lutheran tradition which stresses simplicity, you’ll notice that there is a lack of decorations or designs on the walls throughout the interior. The lack of distinct colour or decoration is part of what adds to the feeling that you’re in an ice castle rather than a giant church.

The one feature of the interior of the church that stands out from everything else is the large pipe organ - Installed by the famed German organ designer Johannes Klais, the organ consists of over 5000 pipes, weighs over 25 tons and is 15 meters tall. Completed in 1992, it has become one of Hallgrimskirkja’s most prominent features making the church a popular site for musical performances.

If you visit Hallgrimskirkja and are expecting to see something like some of the other popular places of worship in Europe like Westminster Abbey or Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, you’re sure to be disappointed. The beauty of Hallgrimskirkja however is not for its lavish displays and decorations, but its adherence to traditional design while making it something that is truly Icelandic.

Getting There

 

Address: Hallgrímstorg 101, 101 Reykjavík

The area near the church is part of the popular downtown core of the city where you’ll find the best places to eat, drink and shop. Suffice to say, finding parking can be quite difficult and the church is located near the city’s most expensive parking zone. Keep in mind that parking in the city is scaled based on how close you are to the city centre.

Link: Reykjavik Parking Zones

If you’re not driving and want to make use of Reykjavik’s excellent public transportation system, there are several bus routes that will get you to the church. You’ll need to keep in mind though that the closest bus stops are at least a ten minute walk from the church.

Bus Link: How to get to Hallgrimskirkja by Bus

If you plan to do a bit of exploring around the city, your best bet is probably just to walk to the church. This way you’ll save yourself from getting stuck in traffic, wasting a bunch of time searching for a parking spot and a bunch of money on the parking meters. You’ll also get to enjoy the sights and sounds of this quaint little city and its wonderful people.

Visiting the church is free of charge, but if you’d like to check out the view of the city from the observation tower, you’ll have to pay an admission fee of ISK 1000 ($8.00 USD) to take the lift to the top. You can purchase your tickets in the church shop but the hours for the observation deck can be a bit difficult to understand, so make sure to check the website before going. We unfortunately missed out on the tower on the day we visited due to construction work on the elevator, which was really unfortunate!

Hallgrimskirkja and its popular observation tower are probably the most widely visited tourist destinations with Iceland’s capital city. The iconic church, while not all that old is a spectacular example of Icelandic architecture and is a design that gives a nod to the country’s spectacular landscape.

Most tourists who visit Reykjavik will find spend a bit of time enjoying the church and the amazing 360 degree views from the observation tower, so if you find yourself in the city don’t miss out on the opportunity to visit.


Goðafoss

While traveling around Iceland’s ‘Diamond Circle’, one of the last major stops before heading back to Reykjavik is the beautiful northern port city of Akureyri - Known as Iceland’s “Northern Capital” the city was a welcome respite after countless hours of driving through northern Iceland.

Coincidentally we happened to be travelling through Iceland at the same time as when the 2018 World Cup was being held and the Icelandic national team had earned a spot for the first time in its history. It was somewhat of a cultural thing for me as I’m from Canada and the whole football / soccer thing never really interested me. I find its to be a far too dramatic sport. The collective attention of the Icelandic people however was focused solely on the World Cup.

We knew that Iceland had a relatively small population, especially compared to what we’re used to living in Taiwan, but when almost half of the country had packed up and left for Russia, the small town of almost 20,000 seemed eerily empty.

Nevertheless Akureyri is a picturesque harbour-side city surrounded by mountains and the ocean and compared to the capital, has a much better system of urban planning, which means getting around is a lot less confusing for tourists.

Our accommodations in town were stunning and included a geothermal jacuzzi which was much appreciated after driving hundreds of kilometres from the rather desolate area where we stayed near Dettifoss.

Another highlight was having access to a nice supermarket where we picked up some fresh juice, Icelandic craft beer, fresh bread and more supplies for the road.

Due to time constraints we hadn’t planned many stops for the last leg of our trip between Akureyri and Reykjavik, so just before arriving in Akureyri we more or less made our final stop along the Diamond Circle at yet another waterfall, but not just any waterfall - The Waterfall of the Gods.

With a name like that, who wouldn’t want to stop and check it out?

Godafoss

Goðafoss as it is known locally just so happens to be one of the most spectacular and well-known waterfalls in Iceland. Even though it is not as large, wide or powerful as all of the others it is certainly one of the most beautiful and that is true for every season.

There’s a reason why the waterfall is known as the “Waterfall of the Gods” but before I get into that I think I should talk about its physical attributes:

Godafoss is a 12 meter high, 30 meter wide set of cascading falls, similar to Canada’s Niagara Falls.

The water flows from the river Skjálfandafljót, one of Iceland’s longest rivers. Originating from the Vatnajökull Glacier, the river also happens to be the water source for several other waterfalls including Hrafnabjargafoss, Aldeyjarfoss, Barnafoss and Ullarfoss.

During the summer the area around the waterfall is lush with green grass which reflects in the colour of the water. In the winter the area is usually covered in snow, the falls may freeze and if you’re lucky you can see the Aurora Borealis in the night sky.

The waterfall is attractive year round and when I visited it was really beautiful.

However I would have loved to have the opportunity to watch the Northern Lights at the same time.

So how does it get its name?

Well, like a lot of things in Iceland, it has to do with a bit of a legend. Whether or not the story is true is up for debate, but in Iceland it is widely accepted as fact as it is chronicled in the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), a 12th Century work that tells the early history of human settlement in Iceland.

The first people to settle in Iceland were Norwegian explorers, more commonly known as the Vikings. When they settled on the island they brought with them their culture and their old Norse religion which consisted of deities like Thor, Odin, Loki, etc.

No, not the superheroes that you’ve seen in the movies.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, societies that practiced what was considered “pagan” religions were often forcibly converted. The Christianity of a thousand years ago was much different than it is today, no one bothered with slogans like “God is Love” to convert people - The good word was spread primarily by the sword.

By the time the Icelandic Commonwealth was established in 930AD, pressure to make Christianity the official state religion became an issue as Norway threatened to invade if the people of Iceland didn’t conform.

Around the year 1000AD, when the annual meeting of the parliament met at Þingvellir, it was decided that for the good of the people, Christianity would become the state religion with the caveat that pagans could still practice in private.

That decision was placed on the shoulders of an “Ásatrú” priest (or goði) named Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi Thorkelsson who was said to have spent days meditating and praying to the Old Gods before it was clear what path would be taken. When the decision was made to make Christianity the official state religion Thorkelsson returned home to the north of Iceland where he tossed his idols of the Norse Gods into a beautiful waterfall.

Since then that waterfall has been named Goðafoss.

Photography

Like most other destinations in Iceland there are a few things you’ll want to take into consideration if you’re planning on visiting and taking photos at this waterfall.

Similar to Dettifoss, the last waterfall you’re likely to have seen before this one, there are two different sides to view Godafoss from. In this case however getting to either side doesn’t take an much time - You’ll just have to get in your car, cross a bridge and park at another parking lot to enjoy the view from the other bank.

Unfortunately due to the amount of people that visit, you’ll probably want to find a spot to set up your tripod away from the wooden platform - The problem with the platform is that when people walk it creates a shake which will ruin your long exposure shots.

To solve this problem you can walk a bit further past the waterfall onto the grass bank for a bit more stability. Likewise you could also consider taking the path down to water level.

If you do take the path down to water level though, you’ll be confronted with a whole new set of issues with the amount of spray and mist that will cloud up your lens. In this case you’ll need to bring something to safely wipe down your lens with between shots.

Most of the shots I’m sharing here today were taken on an overcast and somewhat dreary day with a wide-angle lens and an ND filter attached. The shots are a range of long exposures that are anywhere between 2-10 seconds each.

If you don’t have an ND Filter on-hand it is important that you know how to manually control your camera if you’re looking to take photos similar to these. You may be able to get up to around one second exposures if the light is right.

To do this you’ll want to ensure that your ISO is as low as possible. Preferably at ISO 100. You’ll also want to have your exposure set to -1 or -2 so that your shot won’t be blown out.

Take some test shots and play with the settings to find out what’s best and then have fun!

If you visit during the summer and want long exposure shots like the ones here, I highly recommend investing in a Natural Density filter for your lens. However if you visit during the winter when there isn’t much light, you could get away without one.

If you visit in winter you’re going to be in luck because it’s likely that you’ll have the added bonus of the Northern Lights overhead. You won’t need lens filters for taking photos of the waterfall and the Northern Lights, but you’re definitely going to need a tripod, a remote control (or cable shutter release) and a lens capable of f/2.8 apertures.

For a handy introduction on how to shoot the Northern Lights click this link - Northern Lights Photography Settings

Getting There

 

Godafoss is located in northern Iceland along the Ring Road that circles the country.

Situated along the ‘Diamond Circle’ sightseeing route it is about a 53 kilometre (45 minute) drive from the northern city of Akureyri.

If you’ve first travelled south along the Diamond Circle and made your way north, the waterfall is about a 50km drive west of Lake Mývatn or the town of Húsavík.

In both cases you will drive along Road N.1 which is the highway that circles the country. The waterfall is a simple stop along the road and there will be adequate signage on both sides that notify travellers that you’re approaching the falls.

If you’ve decided that you’re not going to bother renting a car while visiting Iceland, you’re going to have to rely on public transportation or tour groups to get to where you want to go. There are tours out of the capital offered by tour groups like Reykjavik Excursions or Arctic Adventures which offer tourists access to several different destinations. It is important to remember that if you want to book a tour that you should do so well in advance as the seats on the daily tours tend to fill up quickly.

There are public buses that run between Akureyri, Myvatn and Egilsstadir that you may want to consider but you should know in advance that these buses don’t come that often, so you may get stuck waiting around for quite a while which is probably not the wisest way to use your time in Iceland. 

Bus Link: SBA-Norðurleid route 62 and 62A.

As one of the highlights of any travellers trip through Northern Iceland, Godafoss is one of those must-visit locations when you’re in the area. The waterfall is beautiful all year long but even though it is one of Iceland’s most popular destinations, it is rarely packed with people. If you visit, make sure to check out both sides of the fall and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Likewise if you are in Iceland during the winter months, try to visit a bit later at night so that you can not only enjoy the waterfall but the beautiful Northern Lights as well.