Cultural Guide to Reykjavik
When the Norseman Ingolfur Arnarson arrived in Iceland in AD 870, he became the country’s first settler. Arnarson picked what is now Reykjavik to be his home and it isn’t difficult to see why! When you arrive in the beautiful Icelandic capital, be careful that the charm of the place doesn’t make you want to put down roots! Reykjavik’s Viking past is still remembered in its museums, sculptures and re-enactments, but the city has culture beyond what the Norse seafarers brought with them.
The coastal capital has a thumping music scene and has turned out many famous artists, including Bjork and Sigur Ros. There are plenty of galleries to wander in, great buildings to admire and a large sculpture collection. Whilst Arnarson might have been content to travel around on a horse, nowadays, to explore to your heart’s content, you should rent a car in Reykjavik with easyCar.
The Vikings specialised in arts such as wood, stone and metal working, but to see remnants of their creations you’ll need to visit one of the island’s museums as Reykjavik’s galleries take more of a contemporary view. The National Gallery of Iceland houses a wide selection of artworks by Icelandic artists produced in the 19th Century or after. The is no permanent collection so whenever you return to Reykjavik (we know its pull will too much for you to resist) you’ll get a different experience. For some eclectic, international flavour peruse the walls of i8 Gallery. If you seek the bohemian and unconventional, head to Kling and Bang, the fun newcomer on the Icelandic arts scene. In past years, Reykjavik embraced the street art movement and you can find colourful, lively offerings on buildings all over the city. Now that the city has begun to take a sterner view on unauthorised offerings, more murals have started to appear created on request by building owners. See Reykjavik’s upmarket graffiti on one of the city’s walking tours.
If tales of daring Viking do are completely up your alley then you won’t be disappointed in Reykjavik’s museums. The Saga Museum offers a walk through of early Icelandic history, complete with an audio guide and waxwork figures scenes of the key events. Save some energy for the photo opportunity at the end where you can try on replica Viking costumes and wield some dummy weaponry. For something a bit classier with a few more artefacts, try Skogar Folk Museum which is a two hour drive from the capital. The highlights include a large Icelandic fishing boat and the turf covered traditional houses and public buildings that have been reconstructed on the site. If you are at the folk museum be sure to cross over to the Museum of Transport opposite to learn about how the islanders have developed vehicles and communication methods to help them overcome the elements.
For a comprehensive tour through Icelandic history, spend a day at the National Museum of Iceland. Start on the ground floor in medieval times and work your way upwards to household items from the modern day. Of course no trip would be complete without a visit to the weird, wonderful and frankly quite shocking Icelandic Phallological Museum. This tiny museum has the world’s largest collection of animal penises (but who says size matters!) including fifty-five whale penises and one human one.
The influence of Iceland’s Viking settlers has certainly not be lost on Reykjavik’s modern sculptors. Looking out over the Atlantic Ocean on Reykjavik’s peninsula is Jon Gunnar Arnason’s Sun Voyager, a strange seafaring sculpture that resembles both a Viking longship and a whale. Arnason’s structure is an ode to the sun which sets and rises behind the artwork, throwing beautiful light over the water. Reykjavik’s most famous sculpture is Ásmundur Sveinsson, whose former workshop has been converted into a museum for his work. The Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum reflects the artist’s strong interest in Viking culture, sagas and mythology. His pieces often depict people labouring over old-fashioned tasks or resemble characters from traditional stories.
The beautiful honeycomb structure of the Harpa concert hall is unmissable as you walk along the seafront, which is a good job as missing it is something you definitely you do not want to do! Home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and The Icelandic Opera, Harpa is a concert hall with a difference. The building is an architectural wonder inside and out, with numerous coloured glass panels that light up at night (the scale of which can be marvelled at once within). Another striking building when viewed at night is Hallgrímskirkja. Shaped to look like the basalt pillars found in Icelandic coastal cliffs, the church has a tower that can be climbed for stunning views over Reykjavik’s coloured buildings. When the light fades, the church is illuminated from beneath by spotlights sending its crinkle-cut exterior into relief.