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10+ reasons to love Reykjavík's old harbor area

By Staff

  • The harbor in 1926 Downtown Reykjavík has changed a bit since this photo was taken. Photo/Sveinbjörn Matthíasson

The old harbor in downtown Reykjavík is both the heart of the city and the catalyst to its formation. The city grew up around the harbor which was one of the main centers of the Icelandic trawling industry in the early 20th century. 

It is still one of Iceland‘s busiest harbors, but it has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years. Tourism and whale watching have come to rival fishing, while shops, restaurants and galleries have moved into old warehouses.

1. The birthplace of the city and the nation
The harbor is located at the site of an excellent natural harbor. The Grandi isthmus and Örfirisey island, which have been expanded with landfill, as well as Engey island provided shelter for the bay which had several good landing sites for boats. This natural harbor was no doubt one of the reasons the first settler of Iceland, the Viking explorer Ingólfur Arnarson chose Reykjavík as his home.

Read more: Gorgeous images of Reykjavík in 1910s and 20s: A charming small town

The modern harbour area is the creation of extensive landfills. The original shoreline was just north of where Hafnarstræti ("Harbor street") lies today. The most important part of the natural harbor, called Ingólfsvör or "Ingólfur's landing" was located at the end of Aðalstræti street. The street leads from the harbor to where Ingólfur‘s farm is believed to have stood.

2. The center of the city
In 2000 archeological excavation unearthed a longhouse at the southern end of Austurstræti, which many believe was Ingólfur‘s farm. This probably makes Austurstræti the oldest street in Reykjavík, as it would have connected Ingólfur‘s settlement farm with the harbor: It‘s fun to imagine the first steps taken in Reykjavík on this street, when Ingólfur, having landed in the harbor walked south to pick a spot for his future farm.

Read more: Map: The Viking Age settlement remains in downtown Reykjavík

All streets in Reykjavík are numbered from this spot.

3. The failed "Reykjavík World Trade Center"
Harpa Concert Hall is one of Reykjavík‘s most iconic buildings. It's distinctive glass dome designed by Ólafur Elíasson echo the forms and shape of Icelandic nature. Opened in 2011 it was originally part of a re-development of the harbor area, dubbed "The World Trade Center Reykjavík" which would have included the headquarters of failed Landsbankinn bank.

Read more: Walk the crash in Reykjavík named on of 10 best alternative city tours in Europe

Construction began shortly before the 2008 crash which brought the dream of Reykjavík as a global financial center crashing down. In the fall of 2008 Harpa was still in the early stages of construction and the bank headquarters were nothing more than an empty foundation. Harpa was completed but the adjoining construction site remained abandoned until the spring of 2017 when construction of a new Marriot hotel began at the site.

4. World‘s best hot dogs
Bæjarins Beztu hot dog stand was opened in 1937 to serve a cheap lunch to dockhands and locals. It is still owned and operated by the same family, making it one of Iceland's oldest family owned and operated businesses.

Read more: The legendary downtown hot-dog stand recognized as world's best by Business Insider

It has also been recognized as one of the best street-food wendors in the world on several occasions, including by the newspaper the Guardian and the Business Insider. Former US President Bill Clinton stopped for a quick bite at Bæjarins Beztu during a 2004 visit to Reykjavík, announcing it served "the best hot dogs in the world".

5. Kolaportið: The Reykjavík Flea Market
Kolaportið is an indoor flea market bustling with life and action. Locals rent stalls to sell assorted stuff from their attic or garage, while permanent stalls offer used books, records or antiques.

You can find second-hand or home knit woolen sweaters and hand made jewlery. You can also stop by the food section, sample fermented shark or buy a bag of stockfish. Or just enjoy the smells!

Read more: Friends of Iceland Magazine name their favourite thing about Reykjavík

Kolaportið is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, 11 am-5 pm

6. Modern art and volcanoes 
At the Reykjavík Art Museum in Hafnarhúsið, a former warehouse and office building you will find a standing exhibition of the works of Erró, one of Iceland's best known modern artists and exhibitions by cutting edge Icelandic and international artists. Down the street is gallery i8, Reykjavík‘s best modern art gallery. 

On the corner of Tryggvagata and Geirsgata is the Volcano House, which offers a documentary show with two movies about Iceland‘s volcanoes, running every hour from 10 am to 9 pm as well as a small free exhibition of Icelandic volcanoes, including a hands-on mineral collection.

7. Dozens of restaurants
The old bait- and net sheds, warehouses and industrial buildings around the harbor have been taken over by restaurants and cafés, many with a beautiful view of the harbor.

Read more: The 2018 Michelin Guide recommends five Reykjavík restaurants

Among these is Matur & Drykkur, which serves traditional Icelandic cuisine with a twist. It‘s also one of five Reykjavík restaurants to be mentioned in the Michelin guide.

8. The center of whale watching
Several whale watching companies operate from the Ægisgarður pier, named after Ægir, the god of the sea, in the old Nordic Ásatrú. Previously the whaling vessels of Hvalur Hf berthed at the pier, now it is the center of whale watching. In 1986 the whaling boats became the target of the only terrorist attack in Icelandic history.

Read more: Only terrorist attack on Iceland: The sinking of whaling vessels in Reykjavík on 9/11 1986

9. Legendary Tommi‘s
Next to Ægisgarður pier is a unique building with a clock tower. The building was originally a weighing station and harbour café, but now houses Tommi‘s Burger Joint, a favorite local burger place. Legend has it that the success of Tommi‘s burger joints in the 80s made it impossible for McDonalds or Burger King to gain a foothold in Iceland.

Read more: Icelandic hamburger franchise continues London invasion: 3rd Tommi's Burger Joint opened

At the peak in the 80s there were 23 Tommi‘s burger joints around Iceland: This means Iceland had more than twice as many Tommi‘s Burger joints per capita than the US has McDonalds!

10. Grandi area
Originally home to warehouses and industry the Grandi area is now home to several museums, galleries, restaurants and cafés. One of Reykjavík‘s best known diners is Kaffivagninn, a local institution frequented by old fishermen which has recently seen an influx of a younger more hipstery clientele.

Read more: Here is our guide to Grandi, Reykjavík’s new food district

11. Museums and exhibits
Check out the The Saga Museum, a vax museum with hands on activities which brings the Icelandic Sagas into life, Aurora Reykjavík, an exhibit dedicated to the science and mystery of the Northern Lights, Whales of Iceland, which has life-size models of the whales who live in Icelandic waters and one of the best museums in Reykjavík, the Maritime Museum.

12. Marshallhúsið art center
An old fishmeal and herring factory built in 1948, with counterpart funds from the Marshall plan (hence the name) and remained in operation until the end of the turn of the century. It now houses an exhibition space for the Icelandic Modern Art Museum, the gallery Kling & Bang and Ólafur Elíasson, one of Iceland's best known modern artists.

Read more: Old fishmeal factory on Grandi to be converted into a new venue for contemporary art

13. Omnon Chocolate 
Iceland‘s only bean-to-bar chocolate maker Omnom is known for its high quality chocolate and stylish design. Visit their factory store and sign up for a tour of the premises or a chocolate-making class, or just stock up on superb chocolate!

14. Þúfa sculpture
The sculpture Þúfa (tussock), by the Icelandic artist Ólöf Nordal, a small man-made hill was commissioned by the harbor authority and the fishing company HB Grandi, whose fish processing plant it sits next to.

The top of the hill offers a great view of the harbor, the islands off the coast and the mountains north of Reykjavík. At the top of the tussock is a small fish-drying shed, bringing together the harbor and Icelandic nature. 

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