Reykjavík, Iceland

Reykjavík was founded in 874 by a Norse chieftain. The area was predominately farmland until it became a town in 1786. Iceland’s capital city is an inviting blend of unrushed appeal, performing arts, a rainbow of colors and sensational scenery.

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1 Welcome to Reykjavík, Iceland

Velkominn to the world’s most northern capital city. 65% of Iceland’s 333,000 people live within the Capital Region, primarily located on Seltjarnarnes Peninsula in the southwest corner of the island. Tourists focus on central Reykjavík. The city is clean, charming, safe, walkable and very scenic. Visual highlights are Lake Tjörnin shown here and Faxaflói Bay. Cultural offerings include museums and performing arts venues. There are plenty of restaurants and stores for exercising your credit cards. And Reykjavík’s location makes it an excellent hub for day trips to explore Iceland’s renowned glaciers, geysers, waterfalls and landscape on the western and southern coasts.

Fríkirkjuvegur & Sóleyjargata, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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2 Hljómskálagarður Park in Reykjavík, Iceland

Hljómskálagarður is a park at the southeast end of Lake Tjörnin. The serene greenspace provides fairytale views of Reykjavík framed by Mount Esja in the background. The lush lawn also features a sculpture garden showcasing works by five of Iceland’s talented female artists. This piece, simply called “Sculpture,” was created by Gerður Helgadóttir in 1968. Maps are available to help you find all the sculptures around the lake plus those placed along Lækjargata stretching down to the Harpa Concert Hall. The outdoor gallery continues on the Sculpture & Shore Walk parallel to the Sæbraut coastal road.

Bjarkargata & Hringbraut, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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3 National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavík, Iceland

The National Museum of Iceland explains the country’s evolution for nearly 1,150 years using engaging and interactive displays. The history museum’s collection exceeds 2,000 specimens. The most celebrated artifact is Valthjófsstadur, a pine church door created in 1200 AD. The intricate carving depicts a scene of a medieval horseman slaying a dragon and freeing a lion. The scene is from “Yvain, the Knight and the Lion.” The story was written in 1170 by Chrétien de Troyes.

Suðurgata 41, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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4 City Hall in Reykjavík, Iceland

Since this modern structure on the northern shore of Lake Tjörnin opened in 1992, City Hall has housed the offices of the mayor and the city government. Ráðhús Reykjavíkur also caters to tourists. Inside is an information bureau with a staff, services and information designed to enhance your trip to Iceland. You will also find a huge 3D map showing the country’s amazing topographical features.

Tjarnargata 11, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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5 Iðnó Theatre and Restaurant in Reykjavík, Iceland

Iðnó (Craftsmens’ House) opened in 1896 and was Reykjavík’s oldest theater. After nearly a century of performances by the Reykjavík Theatre Company, it closed in 1989 when new performing arts companies and stages attracted larger audiences. The city purchased it in 1992 and conducted a historical renovation. Iðnó is now a special event venue and available for rent for private parties. The facility includes a hall, restaurant and saloon.

Vonarstraeti 3, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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6 Reykjavík Cathedral in Reykjavík, Iceland

In 1786, the Danish Crown granted Reykjavík market rights, which in effect gave it town status. The following year, architect Andreas Kirkerup created the Neoclassical design for the Reykjavík Cathedral. It was finished and consecrated in 1796. Dómkirkjan í Reykjavík serves parishioners of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland and is the seat of the Bishop of Iceland. The cathedral also hosts a special service for the Opening of Parliament and the inauguration of Iceland’s president.

Dómkirkjan, Kirkjustræti, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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7 Parliament House in Reykjavík, Iceland

Alþingishúsið was built in 1881 based on the plans of architect Ferdinand Meldahl. For nearly 100 years, the structure in the heart of Reykjavík served several institutions including the National Library, National Gallery and the offices of Iceland’s president. In 1973, it was converted into the Parliament House where the 63 elected members of the unicameral government still conduct their debates. The Parliament of Iceland, named Alþingi, was established in 930, making it the world’s oldest. This rear view is part of Alþingisgarðurinn (Parliament’s Garden).

Alþingisgarðurinn, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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8 Hótel Borg in Reykjavík, Iceland

Glíma is a form of martial arts practiced by the Vikings dating back to the 8th century. This aggressive style of self-defense evolved into a Scandinavian form or wrestling. In 1907 and 1908, Icelandic native Jóhannes Jósefsson became the world champion. He leveraged these victories into a lucrative career performing fights as a strong man for Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. When he came back to Reykjavík in 1927, he invested his riches in the construction of a luxury hotel overlooking Austurvöllur Square. Hótel Borg opened in 1930 and Jósefsson managed the premiere property for thirty years. After a recent renovation, the hotel’s art deco design sparkles.

Pósthússtræti 11, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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9 Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík, Iceland

The old streets of Reykjavík are charming yet would feel cramped if not for the open sections provided by the bay, Lake Tjörnin and this central square called Austurvöllur. Since it was constructed in 1930, the refreshing greenspace has become a popular place for social gathering. Adjacent to the square are several city landmarks including Reykjavík Cathedral and the Parliament House.

Kirkjustræti & Pósthússtræti Streets, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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10 Jón Sigurðsson Statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

As a distinguished member of Iceland’s parliament for 35 years (1844 – 1879), Jón Sigurðsson was a thought leader and major proponent for Icelandic independence. His steadfast resolve resulted in Denmark agreeing to a limited Icelandic constitution in 1874. He also promoted Icelandic nationalism (called Þjóðernishyggja). This is the spirit of patriotism, love of country, freedom, and the preservation of the country’s culture and language. This bronze tribute by Einar Jónsson is the centerpiece of Austurvöllur, the main square in Reykjavík.

Vallarstræti & Pósthússtræti Streets, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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11 Climate in Reykjavík, Iceland

The temperature in Reykjavík follows a very narrow band, averaging from 37°F for a low to 47°F for a high throughout the year. During the summer, the thermostat typically stays in the 50s. The city also experiences about 150 days of rain a year. So, when the sun shines and the temperature rises to the high 60s, Icelanders soak up the heatwave like these folks at Austurvöllur while foreign tourists still wear their jackets.

Vallarstræti & Pósthússtræti Streets, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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12 Restaurants and Beer in Reykjavík, Iceland

Encircling Austurvöllur square are four streets lined with excellent restaurants. These eateries are particularly enjoyable when outdoor seating is available. If you order a beer, consider the Viking brand. The local brewery has a 30% market share in Iceland. You should also know drinking strong beer is a relative new privilege. Brews with an alcohol content of 2.25% or more were not legal in Iceland until 1989. The fall of the last bastion of prohibition is celebrated annually on March 1 as Beer Day.

Austurstræti 14, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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13 Early Concrete Building in Reykjavík, Iceland

In the early 20th century, concrete became a popular construction material in Reykjavík. One of the earliest examples is at Austurstræti 16. Apotekið (The Pharmacy) was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson in 1930 with this whimsical ornamentation resembling a Viking. Samúelsson became the country’s most prolific and famous designer. As the State Architect, he was also responsible for the city’s urban planning. His signature work is Hallgrimskirkja Church, a masterful project that was not finished until 36 years after his death.

Austurstræti 16, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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14 Government House in Reykjavík, Iceland

This prominent city landmark was a prison from 1770 until 1816. It then housed Danish governors until 1904 when Iceland’s constitution and rights for home rule were expanded. This change resulted in a Minister of Iceland being appointed to the Danish Cabinet and becoming the leader of Iceland’s Alþingi (Parliament). Hannes Hafstein – who is memorialized in the bronze statue by Einar Jónsson – was the first and fourth man to hold this leadership role. He and successive ministers resided in the Government House. In 1918, the position of Prime Minister of Iceland was established. Since then, Stjórnarráðið has served as his offices. This is why it is often called the Cabinet House (Stjornarrad).

Stjórnarráðið, Lækjargata, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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15 Shopping in Reykjavík, Iceland

If s-h-o-p-p-i-n-g is how you spell vacation, then there are four streets in Reykjavík to explore: Austurstr, Bankastræti, Laugevegur and, in this photo, Skólavörðustígur. You will find many boutique shops (and an occasional chain like Nordic Store) carrying Icelandic products. The most popular items are hand-knit wool clothing, artisan jewelry and handicrafts plus lots of souvenirs featuring puffins. You might also like visiting a flea market. Another option with about 150 stores is the Kringlan Shopping Mall. One word of caution: everything in Iceland is expensive, so don’t expect to find any bargains.

Bankastræti 11, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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16 Ingólfur Arnarson Statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

According to Landnámabók, the Book of Settlements, Norseman chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson fled Norway in the 9th century with his wife and brother. When he sighted land, he cast his high seat pillars into the Atlantic and vowed to settle where they washed ashore. Arnarson then established his settlement in 874 and called it Reykjarvík (with an extra “r”) meaning Smoke Cove or Smokey Bay. This sculpture of the city’s founder stands at the top of Arnarhóll Hill. The tribute was created by Einar Jónsson in 1907 and erected in 1924.

Park Arnarhóll, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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17 The Culture House in Reykjavík, Iceland

Etched into the pediment is the word Landsbókasafn. This reflects when the building called Þjóðmenningarhúsið was built in 1908 to serve The National Library of Iceland. Other tenants included the National Achieves, the Natural History Museum of Iceland and the Museum of Antiquities. After several of these organizations moved out or closed, the building was renamed The Culture House. Safnahúsiö now hosts temporary exhibits from Iceland’s prominent museums and institutions plus a permanent exhibit on Iceland’s history called Points of View.

Hverfisgata 15, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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18 National Theatre of Iceland in Reykjavík, Iceland

Since it opened in 1950, the National Theatre of Iceland has been the country’s leading performing arts venue. The theater hosts about 30 productions each season on its four stages including programs designed for children. NTI favors new and classical plays and musicals by Icelandic artists.

Hverfisgata 19, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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19 Danish Embassy in Reykjavík, Iceland

Iceland had a long history of being under Danish rule. From 1397 until 1523, the country was part of Norway’s overseas dependencies in the Kalmar Union dominated by Denmark. Iceland was then part of the Denmark-Norway Union from 1523 until 1814. After the Treaty of Kiel, Iceland was a dependent of Denmark until they became a sovereign state in December of 1918. Yet Denmark continued to represent its foreign affairs and provide military support until the founding of the Republic of Iceland in 1944. Today, Denmark’s presence is limited to the Danish Embassy in Reykjavík.

Hverfisgata 29, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland
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20 Unique Murals Project in Reykjavík, Iceland

Street art is often the domain of rogue individuals wielding a can of spray paint. In most cities, the result is unsightly graffiti. A few cities across the world sponsor and carefully select both the painters and their themes, yielding marvelous outdoor art. Reykjavík may be unique because ten of the murals adorning city center were a collaboration between accomplished visual and musical artists. For each project, a musician would write a song and the muralist would create their interpretation. Here, Caratoes painted Ylja’s song “Óður til móður.” The title means, “Oh, mother.” The event called Wallpoetry was organized in 2015 by Iceland Airways.

Laugavegur 23, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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21 Pedestrian Streets in Reykjavík, Iceland

A handful of Reykjavík’s streets are pedestrian only, such as the lower end of Skólavörðustígur Street shown here. This contributes to a comfortable pace while enjoying the landmarks such as the Church of Hallgrímur in the background. The downtown area is also compact, so don’t hurry. You can easily cover everything on foot within a few hours. As charming as the ambiance is, you quickly sense the city caters to foreigners. And why not when over two million tourists a year visit a country with a population just over 300,000. The peak tourism season is June through August.

Skólavörðustígur 22, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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22 Colorful Facades in Reykjavík, Iceland

Most of Reykjavík’s buildings are humble with features borrowed from Swiss chalets. They are often faced with corrugated galvanized iron because of the island’s lack of trees. Yet the facades and roofs are vibrant with every imaginable color as if painted from an artist’s palette. The visual result is enchanting.

Frakkastígur 15, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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23 Church of Hallgrímur in Reykjavík, Iceland

With a steeple peaking at 244 feet, Hallgrímskirkja is Iceland’s tallest church. State architect Guðjón Samúelsson claimed his Expressionist design patterns Iceland’s glaciers, mountains and basalt columns. The Church of Hallgrímur was completed in 1986 after 41 years of construction. The namesake for this Evangelical Lutheran church is Hallgrímur Pétursson. He was a 17th century Icelandic poet, minister and author of the “Passion Hymns.”

Hallgrímstorg 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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24 The Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavík, Iceland

According to Icelandic lore, Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson was the founder and first inhabitant of Reykjavík beginning in 874 AD. However, in 2001, archeologists uncovered earlier relics. These discoveries became the impetus for The Settlement Exhibition. Also called Reykjavík 871±2, it is a creation of the Reykjavík City Museum. Displayed are remnants of a 10th century longhouse found below the foundation of this building. Other artifacts and exhibits tell fascinating stories of the earliest pioneers during Iceland’s Settlement Age (874 – 930) and the Viking Age (8th – 11th centuries).

Aðalstræti 16, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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25 Skúli Magnússon Statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

Until the mid-18th century, the land currently occupied by Reykjavík was devoted to farming while trade was monopolized by the Danes. Skúli Magnússon radically changed that when he founded Innréttingar. The company’s original focus was woolen products but it soon expanded into other industries. With the endorsement of Frederik V, King of Denmark, Magnússon quickly built sixteen facilities while providing workers with new industrial skills. The resulting business boom led to the urbanization of Reykjavík and its city charter in 1786. This bronze statue of the Father of Reykjavík was created by Gudmundur Einarsson.

Aðalstræti & Kirkjustræti, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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26 Party Like an Icelander in Reykjavík, Iceland

Icelanders love to socialize, especially on weekends. They call their drinking and partying ritual rúntur. This means round tour. In the evening, couples and friends dress up and rotate among the taverns in Reykjavík. The hotspots for nightlife are easy to find … just follow the loud music. The fun typically continues until the wee hours of the morning. On warm summer days, things get going early at bars with outdoor seating. Iceland’s legal drinking age is 20 years old.

Vesturgata 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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27 Hafnarhús Location of Reykjavík Art Museum in Reykjavík, Iceland

Since 1973, the mission of the Reykjavík Art Museum is to collect and exhibit works by famous Icelandic artists as part of their permanent collection now totaling over 17,000 pieces. They also showcase contemporary artists. The exhibitions are housed in three Reykjavík galleries. Hafnarhús is the newest and largest location. It opened in 2000 after extensively refurbishing a harbor warehouse built during the 1930s.

Tryggvagata 17, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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28 Library, Culture Hall and Photography Museum in Reykjavík, Iceland

The formal name for this five-story, modern building is Borgarbókasafn Grófarhús. The multi-purpose facility contains the city library and a culture hall. Of greatest interest to me is on the top floor of Grófarhús: the Reykjavík Museum of Photography. In affiliation with the Reykjavík City Museum, the curators have assembled over six million photos dating from 1860 to the present covering a diverse range of Icelandic subjects and scenery.

Tryggvagata 15, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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29 Eimreiđin Minør in Reykjavík, Iceland

From 1913 until 1928, the Reykjavík Harbour Railway operated to haul rock and gravel from Öskjuhlið to the north coast of Reykjavík to construct breakwaters and a quay for the harbor. The Eimreiđin Minør was one of two steam locomotives that were the workhorses for this project. The Minør was manufactured in 1892 by Jung, a German engine company. The Miner is now on display in an area called the Old Harbour, a booming area for tourism.

41 & Austurbakki, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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30 Customs House Mosaic in Reykjavík, Iceland

Adorning the side of Tollhúsið, Reykjavík’s Custom House, is an enormous mosaic depicting scenes of the city’s harbor. This rising sun is a small section of the artwork. It was designed by Gerð Helgadóttir and manufactured by a German company called Oidtmann Brothers. When installation was finished in 1973, the 144 by 14.75 foot mosaic became Iceland’s largest.

Tryggvagata 19, 101, Reykjavík, Iceland
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31 Historic Stone Building in Reykjavík, Iceland

Danish architects introduced the style of stone buildings to Reykjavík during the 18th century. With the abundance of rocks on Iceland, you would expect this to be a prominent building material. It is not. One handsome yet overlooked example is at Pósthússtræti 3. It was a primary school when constructed in 1882. In later years, it was a post office, Iceland Telecom’s headquarters and then a police station and jail. Now it serves as a youth center. If you think the design resembles the Parliament, you are very perceptive. F. A. Bald was an architect for both projects.

Pósthússtræti 3, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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32 Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík, Iceland

Architect Ólafur Elíasson was inspired by the country’s basalt features when designing the blue-glass façade of Harpa. It became a stunning addition to Reykjavík’s coastline when finished in 2011. The modernistic building serves as a conference center, concert hall and headquarters for the Icelandic Opera and Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. The facility contains four halls with a capacity ranging from the intimate Kaldalón with 195 seats to Eldborg, which can accommodate up to 1,800 people. Original plans called for an adjoining hotel, apartments, retail center and corporate offices. Those plans were suspended during the 2008 financial crisis.

Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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33 Rocks Big and Small in Reykjavík, Iceland

Adjacent to the Harpa Concert Hall, the shoreline is lined with rocks. Many tourists can’t resist the urge to memorialize their visit by stacking the stones into small mounds called cairns. Across the Faxaflói Bay is Esja. The volcanic mountain range is popular among hikers. The numerous trails are clearly marked with boot symbols, ranging from one boot (easy) to three (challenging). Mount Esja peaks at 3,000 feet. This fails to make the top ten of Iceland’s tallest summits. Hvannadalshnúkur, in the country’s southeast corner, soars 6,922 feet.

Sculpture & Shore Walk, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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34 Faxaflói Bay in Reykjavík, Iceland

Reykjavík’s most beautiful promenade traces the shore of Kollafjörður Fjord, an inlet of Faxaflói Bay. You might never notice the high-rise apartments in the Skuggahverfi neighborhood while savoring the vista to the north. Several islands seem to float in the crystal blue water. All are uninhabited unless you count the colonies of seabirds. The largest two islets are Engey and Viðey. Mount Esja defines the opposite coastline. Also watch for Minke whales plus dolphins and porpoises. The rectangular blue building on the horizon is Höfðatorg. This was part of an ambitious development of Iceland’s financial district until all three of the country’s banks defaulted during the economic bust of 2008.

Sculpture & Shore Walk, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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35 The Sun Voyager in Reykjavík, Iceland

While walking along the Sæbraut coastal road, the abstract outline of a Viking ship grabs your attention. The Sun Voyager was created in 1990 by Jón Gunnar Arnason. He claims the stainless-steel sculpture represents a dreamboat of ancient navigators who followed the sun to discover new worlds. Yet its Icelandic name of Sólfar means Viking Funeral.

Skúlagata & Vatnsstígur, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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36 Historic Höfði House in Reykjavík, Iceland

It is easy to overlook this plain white house along the shore of Faxaflói Bay. But international history buffs will want to visit Höfði. It was built in 1909 as the residence for French consulate Jean-Paul Brillouin and later was the home of poet and political activist Einar Benediktsson. The most significant event was in 1986. During the Reykjavík Summit, President Ronald Regan met with Mikhail Gorbachev, then the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Their discussions regarding arms control stalled after two days. However, their agreements became the foundation for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty a year later and the end of the Cold War.

Fjörutún, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
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37 Einar Benediktsson Statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

Ásmundur Sveinsson’s statue of Einar Benediktsson stands adjacent to the Höfði House where he was a resident. Although Benediktsson was an attorney, his largest contributions to Iceland during the first half of the 20th century were twofold. As a co-founder of a political movement Landvarnarflokkurinn, he was a strong advocate for Iceland’s independence from Denmark. Einar Ben also spearheaded the country’s drive to harness waterfalls as a source of renewable energy.

Fjörutún, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
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38 Menntaskólinn of Reykjavík in Reykjavík, Iceland

Skálholtsskóli was the first school established in Iceland in 1056. From its origin in Skálholt, its mission and location evolved several times. In 1846, the educational institution moved to the capital city into this building called Menntaskóli. Menntaskólinn of Reykjavík is a high school whose goal is to prepare students for entry into a university. The building’s golden glow is curtesy of the setting sun.

Lækjargata 7, Reykjavík, Iceland
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39 Reykjavík Free Church in Reykjavík, Iceland

Nearly 70% of the country’s citizens are affiliated with the State Church which is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. Yet in 1899, a community of 600 members broke away to establish the Free Church in Reykjavík. Four years later, Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík built this place of worship in city center. Since then, it has been expanded in 1905 and 1924. This landmark with a green roof and spire are especially handsome at sunset reflecting along the eastern edge of Lake Tjörnin.

Hringbraut 80, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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40 Lake Tjörnin at Dusk in Reykjavík, Iceland

Lake Tjörnin is affectionately called “The Pond” by the locals. The shoreline is a haven for walkers, joggers, bikers, birders and sitters who enjoy the manicured shoreline and paths. At dusk, this lagoon becomes magical with a kaleidoscope of reflections.

Tjörnin, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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41 Birdwatching in Reykjavík, Iceland

Amateur and serious birdwatchers alike are thrilled to discover Lake Tjörnin. Estimates suggest up to 50 species of water birds visit The Pond during the year, ranging from the small Arctic tern to the graceful whooper swan. Feeding the birds has become so popular that Icelanders use a phrase to describe it: “stærsta brauðsúpa í heimi.” This translates to “world’s largest bread soup.”

Tjörnin, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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