The history of Iceland’s capital Reykjavík

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Once a humble fishing village, Reykjavik has blossomed into a radiant fusion of time-worn heritage and contemporary innovation.

As Iceland´s vibrant capital city, the convergence of history, literature, and culture is ever-present in the cobbled streets and colourful facades that hallmark Reykjavik´s identity.

For those enticed by the land of fire and ice, the capital gently whispers its narrative through art, architecture, and the indomitable spirit of its people.

Threaded in the fabric of Reykjavik lies a multifaceted tale that intrigues and invites you to explore further.

Streets of Reykjavik in 1820´s. Icelandic flag on the Governors house in the Main Street

Venture into the heart of Iceland´s capital city with our comprehensive guide, "Turning Pages in Reykjavik: Writing the History of Iceland´s Capital".

Unravel Reykjavik´s rich historical tapestry as we delve into its formation, cultural transformations, and literary influences that have shaped its ever-evolving identity.

Allow the spirit of Reykjavik to spark your curiosity, and embark on a journey through time as you uncover the history of Iceland´s capital.

From settlement to city

Reykjavik´s journey begins with the arrival of Ingólfur Arnarson, the first permanent Norse settler, in the year 874.

According to the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), Ingólfur was guided by the gods to the site that would later become Reykjavik by following the smoke emitted from steam vents.

The name Reykjavik itself is derived from two Icelandic words— ‘Reykja’,meaning ‘smoke’, and ‘Vik’, referring to a ‘cove’ or ‘bay’.

While the area initially remained a small cluster of farms, developing a trading port in the 18th century sparked Reykjavik´s gradual transformation into a bustling urban centre.

Reykjavik city in 1800. The Reykjavik Pond (Tjörnin) and the governor's house on the left (amtmannshúsið; stjórnarráðið), the cathedral in the middle (dómkirkjan) and the college on the right (Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík)

Literary capital:
Fostering intellectual enlightenment

The 19th century saw the emergence of Reykjavik as a focal point of European cultural exchange and knowledge dissemination.

In the early 1800s, the establishment of key institutions, such as the national library (now the National and University Library), the Latin school (later the University of Iceland), and the printworks (now the National Museum of Iceland), paved the way for an atmosphere of intellectual inauguration.

This era of enlightenment was catalysed by prominent Icelandic scholars and advocates, such as Jón Sigurðsson, who dedicated themselves to educating their fellow citizens and promoting
Icelandic independence.

The strive for independence:
An emergent national identity

Reykjavik´s cultural metamorphosis went hand-in-hand with Iceland´s political struggle.

The latter half of the 19th century saw the birth of a powerful national movement driven by the ideals of self-governance and emancipation from Danish rule.

In 1874, the first step towards autonomy was secured as Denmark granted Iceland its constitution.

The lively streets of Reykjavik became a symbol of the island´s emergent national pride, serving as a hub for political discourseand civil engagement.

Finally, on June 17th, 1944, Iceland attained full independence, with
Reykjavik becoming the natural choice for the fledgling nation´s capital.

1923-1935. Reykjavík, Iceland, The meeting – house „Góðtemplarahúsið“ on Templarasund

Architecture through the ages:
Reykjavik´s built environment

The cityscape of Reykjavik offers a vibrant narrative through its distinctive blend of architectural styles and periods.

From turf houses to Nordic functionalism, Reykjavik´s buildings reveal the
phases of the city´s evolution and cultural influences.

Among Reykjavik´s most notable landmarks is Hallgrímskirkja, a modernist church designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson.

Inspired by the basalt columns formed by Iceland´s volcanic activity, this striking edifice is a prime example of the city´s creative relationship with its surrounding landscapes.

Hallgrimskirkja church sitting on top of reykjavik city with colourful houses all around

Reykjavik´s neighbourhoods are adorned with colourful corrugated metal houses, originally inspired by practical considerations for insulating against the harsh Icelandic winters.

Rich in both form and function, these vivid homes add a unique charm to the city, becoming an essential facet of its character.

Reykjavík today:
The pulse of Iceland´s future

The Reykjavik of today is a living testament to its multifaceted history, marrying tradition with innovation to create a thriving cosmopolitan centre.

The capital serves as a hub for Iceland´s burgeoning arts, music, and culinary scenes while retaining its role as a country-wide cultural nexus.

Landmarks such as Harpa, the iconic concert hall designed by artist Ólafur Elíasson, and festivals like the Reykjavik International Film Festival demonstrate the city's contemporary embrace of creativity and artistic expression.

Reykjavik harbour with amazing view over the city

As public opinion shifts toward sustainability and environmental stewardship, Reykjavik has adapted by tapping into its renewable energy sources.

Harnessing the power of geothermal and hydroelectric resources, the city is committed to reducing its carbon footprint and becoming an exemplar of ecologically responsible urban planning.

Throughout the centuries, Reykjavik has evolved from humble beginnings to a pulsating epicentre of history, culture, and forward-thinking vision. The city´s timeline is one of inspiration, dedication, and resilience, with echoes of its past resonating with its present ambitions.

Reykjavik´s intriguing transformation narrates the story of a capital united by the force of its people and their unwavering pursuit of progress, an indomitable spirit that lives on in the streets and the hearts of all who tread them.

Embark on an unforgettable journey through Reykjavik´s storied past as you unearth the historical gems that have moulded the city into the vibrant capital it is today.

Satiate your curiosity for all things Icelandic by exploring Reykjavik´s timeline of cultural milestones, political milestones, and architectural wonders.

With Slice of Iceland, you can dive deep into the city´s tapestry of intrigue and enchantment, savouring every facet of its unique heritage.

Beautiful midnight sun over Reykjavik city. still weather with rainbow mirroring in the still sea

Capture the essence of Reykjavik´s history by booking your personalised Iceland tour with Slice of Iceland today.

Embrace the opportunity to immerse yourself in the spirit of the city and to gain an authentic insight into the captivating narrative that has shaped the heart of the world´s northernmost capital.

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