Travel 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.


Dettifoss

Iceland is a country that is often defined by superlatives - Home to the world’s northernmost capital, Europe’s largest glacier, most powerful waterfall, one of the world’s leaders in energy efficiency and coincidentally one of the most stable economies and oddly enough Europe’s largest banana plantations.

Among many more.

If you are planning on travelling to Iceland, one thing you’ll quickly realize is that it is also one of the most expensive places in the world to visit.

Even though most of the destinations you’ll want to visit are free of charge - Eating, sleeping and getting around is likely to cost you an arm and a leg.

There are of course ways to save money and travel on a budget while in Iceland, but cost tends to be one of the most important factors that prevents people from visiting, or just limiting their travels to the “Golden Circle” route.

If you’re a good at planning and you have the time and resources to travel (What has become popularly known as) the “Diamond Circle” you’ll discover that the northern portion of Iceland is just as amazing as the rest of the country and if you skipped it like many others have, you will have really missed out.

For most, the most important destination on the northern stretch of the Diamond Circle just so happens to be one of those ‘superlatives’ mentioned above - Europe’s most powerful waterfall.

You may be thinking, “I’ve already seen dozens of waterfalls in Iceland, why would I travel hundreds of kilometres north to see another one?” and I wouldn’t blame you if you asked that.

I started feeling a bit weary of waterfalls after a few days in Iceland.

But, its important that you realize that there are waterfalls, and then there is Dettifoss.

Dettifoss is a force of nature.

Standing next to this waterfall is probably one of the most humbling experiences that you’ll ever experience. The sheer size and power of this waterfall in addition to having the ability to just walk up next to it and see it so close is reason enough to make the long journey north.

Dettifoss

Known to locals simply as “The Beast”, the name Dettifoss actually translates loosely to English as “The Collapsing Waterfall.

I’d submit that its nickname is probably much more fitting.

Dettifoss is 100 meters (330 ft) wide and 45 meters (144 ft) high, making it among Iceland’s largest waterfalls. The more important measurement though (and the defining feature of this waterfall) is that over 500 cubic meters of water plummets over the falls every second creating a cloud of mist that can be seen from miles away.

It also makes for some really beautiful rainbows.

The water comes from the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river and has travelled hundreds of kilometres from its origin at Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, to get to the falls.

The river, which is Iceland’s second longest at 206km in length then continues to flow north until it meets the Greenland Sea on Iceland’s northern coast.

Another one of the waterfall’s defining features is the odd greyish white-coloured water that flows down the river and gives the falls its distinctive colour. You might look at the photos and think that the water is dirty or polluted but the colour is actually common for glacial rivers as they are carrying volcanic sediment out to sea.

Visitors to Dettifoss are able to enjoy the waterfall from two different vantage points - namely on the West or East side of the river. It is important to note that when you are planning your visit that you will to have to keep in mind which side you want to view the falls from.

If you’ve got time to spare, you could check out the waterfall from both sides, but that will require a few extra hours of driving in order to cross the river canyon.

Whichever side you choose, there are parking lots, hiking trails and public restrooms made available by park authorities making your visit rather simple. It should go without saying that no matter which side you visit, you are going to be able to fully enjoy the waterfall.

There are however Pros-and-Cons for each.

By now you may have noticed that all of my photos were taken on the same side of the falls.

I strategically planned where I would stay the night before we went to Dettifoss so that we could wake up early in the morning and take the long gravel road out to the East Bank.

From my research I felt that the view from the East side not only would allow me to get very close to the falls but would also offer me a better view of nearby Selfoss as well.

The road to the east bank is terrible and if you’re driving a rental car you’re going to have to take it easy so that you don’t cause any damage. Likewise the hike from the parking lot to Dettifoss and further on and can be dangerous, especially during winter.

On the East side, the height of Dettifoss will be much more prevalent than the width and you’ll be able to stand next to the river at the base of the falls.

The view on the western side of the falls is a bit higher than that of the east side, so you’ll be able to better enjoy the width of Dettifoss. The view of Selfoss on this side however isn’t as good and you’ll miss out on some of its beauty on this side.

The road to the parking lot is much better and the hiking trail on the western side is much more well-developed as well as being considerably safer if you’re travelling with children or seniors.

No matter which side you visit, if you are planning on visiting both Dettifoss and Selfoss when you’re there, it is about a 2-2.5km round trip from your car!

Getting There

 

If you are driving directly from Reykjavik, it should take you a little over seven hours to arrive at Dettifoss.

I sincerely hope you aren’t driving directly from the capital just for this waterfall though - That’d make for a really long day and you’d pass by so many other interesting things!

The route you take to the waterfall depends on which side you intend on visiting, but both roads are a simple turn off of Ring Road #1, the highway that circles the country.

East Bank - Road 864 (Hólsfjallavegur)

The road to the East Bank of Dettifoss is a well-developed paved road that is open to the public year round. From the Ring Road it is about a 30km drive to the parking lot.

If you are travelling to the waterfall in the winter months, you’re likely going to be forced to drive this route due to road closures or the type of car you’re driving.

It is possible however that this road will be closed due to weather.

West Bank - Road 862 (Dettifossvegur)

If you like a bit of adventure you’re going to love this road - Road 862 is a simple turn off of the Ring Road and is a bumpy 25km drive to the parking lot.

If you’re driving a 4WD you’ll be able to fly down the road and have a pretty good time.

For everyone else, take it slow and try not to cause damage to your rental car.

The drive from the Ring Road to the parking lot is a flat and rather desolate ride that seems like its never going to end.

There are some resources online that claim that the authorities will close the gate on Road 862 during the winter months while others say that road closures depend on weather conditions. Before you go, make sure to bookmark and regularly check the road conditions and road closures on the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration site which provides you with real-time information on all of the roads around the country.

Link: Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration.  

You’ll find Roads 862 and 864 listed under ‘Northeast Iceland.’

Dettifoss is the highlight of every travellers journey through the northern section of Iceland’s Diamond Circle. It might be a bit of the way and somewhat of a hassle to get to in comparison to most of Iceland’s other destinations but it is highly worth the time and effort it takes to get there. This waterfall is definitely one that you’re not going to want to miss.

Just don’t try to go for a swim. You may end up in Greenland.