I was surprised to learn Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital city, but this interesting fact was only the first of a long list of surprises I would discover during my trip to Reykjavik.
Reykjavik is only a small city, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character and colour. You can travel everywhere by foot and within minutes you’ll notice it’s a city that takes pride on skirting away from the norm.
You won’t find the same generic shops, restaurants and bars that most major cities possess. Instead every corner invites you to learn more about Icelandic culture, whether it’s one of the restaurants offering fresh lobster soup, or one of the many independent shops stacked with books and vinyl records. In fact, this is the first capital city I’ve been to that doesn’t have a McDonalds! Though this hasn’t always been the case, the world-famous chain had landed here previously but after the economy crashed in 2008 the fast food outlet packed up, and to be honest, I say good riddance!
I’m not a person who goes crazy for shopping, but Reykjavik has some excruciatingly nice boutiques, not only with stylish clothes but flawless shop interiors. There’s something about the simplicity, lightness and minimalism of Scandinavian design that I find so appealing.
Whilst I’m talking about Scandinavia some people might be reading this and thinking, ‘but Iceland isn’t a Scandinavian country’, and whilst this is true it’s often labelled part of Scandinavia because it used to be under Danish rule and so shares a large cultural and political likeness with these countries.
Harpa Concert Hall is not to be missed. You can freely walk around and enjoy the views of the harbour from the glass panels. A lot of light floods through the building, a feature which Scandinavian design executes well.
A common characteristic of Scandinavian architecture is the inspiration or involvement of nature, and Harpa showcases this beautifully. The concert hall has been inspired by the basalt rocks which can be found all over Iceland. For further information you can read a post I’ve written about Iceland’s basalt rocks and where you can find them.
In a bid to conserve money, most of my time was spent walking around the streets of this lively city. If I could only describe Reykjavik in one word, it would be ‘quirky’ (just to confirm the thousands of people who’ve said that before me), because architecturally speaking, it’s far from beautiful or intricate yet its surprising colourfulness brings the city alive.
The colour is necessary because most buildings look more like garages. This is mainly due to the island’s lack of natural raw building materials such as wood and stone, so most buildings are made from concrete and corrugated steel.
But this city doesn’t let its lack of raw materials affect its visual appeal… new sculptures are cropping up around the city, vast areas of street art sprawl over buildings, and old gentlemen fashioning huge handlebar moustaches have become one of the city’s quirky fixtures.
If you go to the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church, you’ll get awesome panoramic views of city. From a birds-eye perspective it makes the city like look a monopoly board because the buildings create a row of bright red, blue, yellow and green cubes. This toy like appearance isn’t so apparent when walking around the city so I would definitely urge heading up to the church tower for approx. £6.
Hallgrímskirkja Church dominates the very low-rising cityscape of Reykjavik
Panoramic view of Reykjavik from the church tower
And because once wasn’t enough, I went again at sunset.
In some ways, Reykjavik reminded me of Lodz in Poland, because it’s impossible not to notice the creative vibe that filters through both cities. Streets art is not merely tolerated in these cities but they are embraced. It’s difficult not to walk down a street without seeing something brightly coloured to catch your eye, and in this sense the art doesn’t feel subversive and disrespectful: it feels free and liberated, and creatively thought over.
Now look closely at this picture:
Would you be surprised if I told you the door on the right wasn’t real? Well ladies and gents, the door on the right is actually a painting! I wouldn’t have given it a second look if it wasn’t for the cat. I spotted the cat, and thought it was strange how it didn’t react to the people walking past, and then when I noticed it wasn’t moving, that’s when the penny dropped! Don’t you think it’s virtually impossible to tell that this door and cat is actually just one very cleverly disguised painting?!
I hope you enjoyed this insight into Reykjavik’s colourful streets – just one of the many reasons why so many people describe this city as quirky.