Travel photography

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.


Skaftafell National Park

Iceland is probably best known as home to some of the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet, but the country does have much more to offer to tourists than just waterfalls. There are a multitude of other attractions and things to see and do when you’re in the country and if your trip doesn’t include a visit to one of the nations massive glaciers, you’ve really missed out on a golden opportunity.

Given the fact that glaciers occupy at least 11% of the total land area of Iceland, glacial tourism has become a popular attraction in recent years. A simple Google search yields hundreds of results from the many tour operators who offer packages that include glacial hikes, ice climbing, snowmobile adventures, ice cave tours, etc. etc. etc.

To be frank though, these tours tend to break the bank in how expensive they are. Likewise, if you haven’t planned your trip well in advance, its unlikely that you’ll be lucky enough to reserve a spot on one of the tours after you’ve already arrived in the country.

That being said, even if you don’t join a tour, you can still see some of Iceland’s massive glaciers up close and personal during your travels.

Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull is one of the most popular glaciers for tourists, especially with adventure tour groups but also offers quite a few attractions for individual tourists to enjoy.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the glacier and the two beautiful waterfalls situated within Skafatafell National Park.

Skaftafell / Vatnajokull National Park

Skaftafell, in Southern Iceland has been classified as a protected area since 1967 and is considered to have an environment resembling what you’d see in the ‘Swiss Alps’ with mountains, glaciers, rivers, a wealth of flora and fauna and a temperate climate that is somewhat uncommon for the area.

The National Park was at that time Iceland’s largest environmental preservation area covering a massive 5000 square kilometres. In 2008 however it got even bigger when it was combined to form the “Vatnajökull National Park”, which is the second largest national park in Europe covering around 14,000 km2, or around 14% of Iceland’s total land area.

Taking into consideration the sheer size of the newly formed National Park, it was decided that it would be divided into four geographic territories that would be locally operated and maintained to ensure that they could offer the best environmental protection and services to the public.

The southern area, located in Skaftafell has a large visitor centre where guests can learn about the local environment and is also where most tour groups will start their tours of the area. The visitor centre also provides facilities for campers which includes a camp ground, toilets, washing machines, an on-site restaurant as well as free walking tours arranged by the park rangers.

While you won’t find many roads through the park, there are several well-maintained hiking trails. Some of which will allow for great views of the Svinafellsjokull Glacier while others transport you up the mountain to check out the Hundafoss and Svartifoss waterfalls.

The hiking trails in the park range in difficulty and length with the shortest being five kilometres while the others are much more time consuming and range between 16 - 20 kilometres each.

Link: Hiking in Skaftafell, Vatnajokull National Park

Unfortunately it seems like a lot of people just pass through Skaftafell on their way to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and completely miss out on the glacier and the waterfalls in the park. If you have the time, it is highly recommended to stop by the park for at least an afternoon and do the hike to the two waterfalls as well as the short walk to the glacier from the visitor centre.

If you’re camping, you’ll definitely want to set up camp in the park for the night. I can’t imagine a better camp ground to spend the night.

Svínafellsjökull Glacier

Svínafellsjökull is one of thirty outlet glaciers originating from Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Europe.

Situated in the valley between two steep mountains, the glacier is about 10 kilometres in length and estimated to be about two kilometres at its thickest.

As with most glacier tongues, a glacial lagoon has formed at the base of Svinafellsjokull thanks to the constant activity and melting of the glacier. The water in the lagoon appears to be dark brown in colour, but isn’t polluted - it is actually this colour because of the mixture of glacial water with black ash deposits which were collected over many thousands of years of volcanic eruptions.

In the lake you’ll likely notice some beautiful icebergs floating by - while it is an exciting and unique experience to see something like this, it is also a bit sad when you realize that after thousands of years of being a part of the glacier, they are now floating to their death in the lagoon.

Don’t let the little icebergs get you down though, the fact is that the glacier is in a constant state of motion and even though parts of it are floating away, it is constantly replenishing itself with fresh glacial ice.

Part of the magic of visiting a glacial mouth like this is that you get to observe up close the activity taking place at the glacier - It may not seem that apparent when watching from a distance but you will most certainly be able to hear the constant cracks taking place.

The glacier is a short walk from the Skaftafell Visitor Centre and should probably only take you about 10-20 minutes to arrive at the lagoon. Depending on the conditions at the lagoon (and the time of year that you visit) you may be able to get quite close to the glacier or not at all.

In the past tours of Svínafellsjökull were offered with experienced guides - In recent years though, due to the instability of the mountains on either side of the glacier, the tours have mostly shifted to the nearby Falljökull glacier outlet instead.

Still, the experience of visiting Svínafellsjökull is a highly recommended one - Especially if your trip to Iceland doesn’t include a group tour of a glacier. You’ll want to see one of these magnificent forces of nature up close while you have the chance!

Hundafoss and Svartifoss

Once you’ve finished checking out the glacier, you’re probably going to want to set out on the short hike nearby to check out the national park’s waterfalls.

Svartifoss is regarded as one of the most unique waterfalls in Iceland and for that reason it is a popular destination - So popular that people are actually willing to hike the five and a half kilometre route to see it.

You might be thinking - Five and a half kilometres? That’s it? - And you’d be right to think so, but when you’re travelling in Iceland you’ll quickly learn that most of the destinations you’re going to visit are nothing but a short walk from a car park on the side of the road.

The hike to the waterfalls starts out steep but rest assured it eventually flattens out and is actually more of a brisk walk than an actual hike.

After about ten or twenty minutes you’ll start to hear the sound of rushing water - This will be your first indication that you’re getting close to the first waterfall, Hundafoss.

Admittedly, for most people Hundafoss is just an extra treat on the trail to the more important destination - I’d argue though that if you don’t stop to enjoy this waterfall, you are really missing out.

Visitors are able to enjoy views of the waterfall on either side of the gorge as well as being able to walk right up to the top of the falls and look over.

Although when I did that it gave me a bit of vertigo when I looked straight down.

Hundafoss is about 24 meters in height with a flow of water that varies between the summer and winter months. In the summer months you may find that foliage blocks a bit of your view, especially on the viewing platform constructed by the park authorities. In winter on the other hand the views of the waterfall are much more impressive, especially if the waterfall is frozen.

Personally, I had no problem setting up my tripod to get photos of the waterfall on the platform provided. Once I crossed the river I also hiked down the trail for a few minutes to where there is a natural platform and a short trail that leads to the top of the falls.  

Once you’ve finished checking out Hundafoss, you’re about halfway to your final stop.

After hiking for another ten or twenty minutes, Svartifoss will eventually start to come into your line of sight. Even though you can see the waterfall from quite a distance away you’ll still have to complete the hike and descend into the river valley.

If there is snow on the ground you’re going to want to be careful walking on the trail in case you run into a patch of slippery ice.

Once you’ve arrived at Svartifoss you’ll notice that there is a platform set up by the park authorities that allows visitors to get a pretty good view of the waterfall.

The platform however is positioned a bit to the right of the falls and doesn’t allow for a front-on view.

Even though there is a small gate with a warning sign not to pass by it seems like most people ignore it and hop over to get a bit closer to the waterfall to take their pretty photos.

The gate is likely there primarily to protect the natural environment rather than tourists, so if you are hopping over, be sure to be careful but more importantly try not to destroy the place.

What makes Svartifoss, or the “Black Falls” so unique is not the flow of water, but the beautiful wall of basalt rock columns that the waterfall is rushing over the 20 meter crescent-shaped drop.

The columns of basalt rocks are something that you might have already seen when you visited the Reynisfjara “Black Beach.” Here though they are put on display as a naturally layered wall of columns that almost makes it hard to believe that it was formed naturally and not carved by hand.

Some have compared the hexagonal columns on the rock wall to the pipes of a giant church organ, so it shouldn’t be surprising to know that the architects who designed Reykjavík’s most famous landmark, the Hallgrímskirkja church, looked to Svartifoss for inspiration!

Hallgrímskirkja - Can you see the resemblance?

Obviously it goes without saying that what you’re going to see at the waterfall will vary by season. During the summer months the area is known for its lush greenery with moss growing on the jagged rocks around the river. In winter on the other hand, the waterfall and the river tends to freeze and there is often snow on the ground.

Even though I visited in summer, I would have really enjoyed the winter view a little more. The colours would have been much more contrasting with the black rock and the white snow.

Maybe I’ll have to take another trip back to Iceland!

Getting There

 

Skaftafell National Park is located 327 km (203 miles) from the capital city of Reykjavik. If you are driving directly from the capital it should take you about four hours to arrive.

Most people however will take several days to travel the Golden Circle and then make their way to the south of the country to visit the Black Beach, Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon.

If you are driving, simply follow the ring road (Route #1) until you reach the park.

When you are nearing the national park there will be lots of signage that will tell you when to make a turn.

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

During winter your options for public transportation are limited, so you’ll want to reserve your seats early.

Likewise, if you are booking a glacier tour from any of the tour operators, you’ll likely be able to find an option that includes round-trip transportation from Reykjavik.

If you’re traveling through the south of Iceland, you’re definitely going to want to stop at the Skaftafell National Park for a few hours. If the glacier isn’t enough to attract your interest, there is also one of the most unique and beautiful waterfalls in the country. You’re sure to have a great time enjoying nature in this park and I’m sure that if you’re camping, a night spent in this park might be one of the best you’ll have in your travels!