Reykjavik

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.


Reynisfjara (Black Sand Beach)

For most travellers, a white sand beach vacation is just what the doctor ordered after a long and stressful year of work. Travel Agencies all over the world offer attractive vacation packages that allow weary travellers to simply hop on a plane and be transported to a beautiful beach resort - where all they have to do is lay around, eat, drink and relax.

Having visited the beautiful beaches of Boracay, Bali and Palau (among others), I can certainly attest that this style of vacation helps to recharge the soul and even though its not the sort of trip that I typically prefer to go on, I can certainly understand why people are so fond of them.

If you’re looking to relax on a beach its unlikely that Iceland is going to be on the top of your list of destinations - The small island nation in the North Atlantic isn’t exactly known for its beach-resorts.

Instead it is a nature lovers paradise where visitors spend their precious vacation time time in awe of giant glaciers, steaming volcanoes, massive waterfalls and the spectacular Aurora Borealis.

Nicknamed the ‘Land of Ice and Fire’, the country is known more for its geo-thermal hot springs and spas than it is for beaches, but you might be surprised to learn that Iceland is home to one of the top-ten (non tropical) beaches in the world!

Just don’t expect to go for a swim.

Southern Iceland’s ‘Black Sand Beach’, known to locals as Reynisfjara is one of the country’s top attractions and for good reason - It is one of the prettiest beaches you’ll ever have the luck of visiting.

Black Sand?

Why is the sand at Reynisfjara ‘black’ while most of the worlds other beaches have either golden, brown or white sand?

Well, thats actually quite simple to explain.

The beach is located near the very active Katla Volcano. The lava from each of its eruptions flowed down from the mountain eventually reaching the coast. This allowed for the formation of basalt rocks when the lava met with the frigid temperatures of the North Atlantic.

With each of Katla’s eruptions, the topography in the region changed and the land area also expanded - so much that thousands of years ago this beach didn’t even exist.

The “sand” that you’ll find on the beach is actually more similar to fine rocks and pebbles than the finely grained sand that you are used to on other beaches.

The supply of this special black sand howeveris constantly being replenished thanks to the volatility of Katla which is in a constant state of activity.

The Reynisdrangar Basalt Columns and Folklore

For travellers, the beach is highly regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world - Locals on the other hand hold Reynisfjara in high regard not only for its beauty but for some supernatural events that (they’re convinced to have) occurred there once upon a time.

Local folklore tells of two different stories that attempt to explain why the beach looks the way it does with the beautiful basalt columns at the far end.

Icelanders debate about which myth is the most accurate but everyone agrees that the common feature of both is that trolls were most definitely involved.

If you’re unaware, trolls are basically the bane of every Icelanders existence.

These trolls, unlike their internet counterparts however are quite dangerous.

The first legend tells of a husband whose beloved wife was kidnapped and murdered by two of these dangerous trolls.

The husband, seeking vengeance pursued the trolls to Reynisfjara and somehow froze them as they attempted to escape to sea.

How he froze them, I can’t really tell you but I’d like to think that it was by the power of love.

The second legend tells of a group of trolls who lived in the caves on the beach and terrorized ships that passed by.

The trolls were not only greedy but a bit daft, so one day when they went out to sea to attack a ship they lost track of time.

When the sun came up, they were turned to stone on the spot - unfortunately the ship and the people on it were turned to stone as well.

Link: Folklore in Iceland  

In actuality the ‘Reynisdrangar basalt columns’ were not formed by the nefarious activity of trolls but are naturally occurring and were at one time connected to Reynisfjall mountain.

Thousands of years of weathering and sea erosion has submerged part of the mountain making the columns seem as if they are disconnected from the mountain by a patch of ocean.

Reynisfjall Mountain and Hálsanefshellir Cave

Reynisfjall Mountain, which is located next to the beach is a 340 meter (1115 ft) tall mountain that is at least five kilometres in length and about 800 meters wide.

The mountain is most well-known for its pyramid-shaped cliff of basalt columns which look like they were sculpted by hand rather than by the work of Mother Nature.

The columnar joints on the side of the mountain, known to locals as ‘Garðar’ are one of the most popular locations for taking selfies in Iceland and were even featured in an episode of the Game of Thrones.

You aren’t likely to find trolls making their homes in the mountain, but it is important to note that the mountain is a nesting ground for various species of seabirds. Depending on the season you might see fulmars, guillemots and if you’re lucky some puffins!

On the beach you are bound to come across the beautiful ‘Hálsanefshellir Cave’ which is just a small cavern in the mountain.

The interior of the cave looks a bit like the basalt columns on the outside and is a great place to escape when the winds get too high and you’re feeling cold.

Be careful not to stay in the cave for too long though, you could get trapped inside during high tide!

Tips and Safety Considerations

 There are some important things that you’re going to want to keep in mind while visiting.

You’ll likely notice a warning sign before you’re able to walk onto the beach. Pay close attention to all of the warnings.

This isn’t a place where you’re going to want to have an unfortunate accident.

  • You can’t swim at this beach. Even if the frigid water doesn’t bother you, the water is extremely dangerous and there have been quite a few unfortunate accidents in recent years.

  • You may feel like you are standing a safe distance away from the water, but the ‘sleeper waves’ at this beach are as sneaky as they are dangerous. Stay at least thirty meters from the water and make sure that you are constantly aware of your surroundings. Don’t turn your back to the ocean.

  • Some travellers may think that its okay to get close to the water but something most people don’t ever consider is that when the waves pull back into the ocean they pull back with even greater force. This means that’s the water will drag out even the strongest of us. If you get pulled out with the water its not likely anyone will ever see you again.

  • If you are travelling with children, make sure to keep an eye on them at all times.

  • There is no one on duty, no lifeguards, no security guards, no tourism officials. You’re on your own if something unfortunate happens!

  • There is a small cafe next to the parking lot. Parking is free but if you want to use the restroom you’re going to have to pay a small fee to get in.

  • The food in the cafe is quite expensive, so you’ll probably want to have a lunch packed.

  • Make sure to pack a down jacket as it tends to be very cold and extremely windy on the beach. Likewise you’re going to need sturdy footwear to walk on the beach.

 

The beach, which is located near the country’s southernmost village Vík í Mýrdal is about 180 km (110 mi) from the capital of Reykjavik.

If you are driving from the capital you can expect about a 2.5 hour drive along the Ring Road.

There is lots of signage along the way, so its not likely that you’ll need to use GPS to find your way.

If you’ve decided that you won’t bother renting a car while visiting Iceland, you’re going to have to rely on public transportation to get to the waterfall. There are tours out of the capital offered by tour groups like Reykjavik Excursions which offer tourists access to several different stops for around $100USD. 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.

If you are visiting the beach you’ll also want to visit other attractions like Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, the Dyrhólaey Lighhouse and Kirkjufjara Beach which are all a short distance away from the beach and the small village of Vik.