Seven interesting facts about the old part of Reykjavík
Reykjavík's centre is nicknamed 101, which is the postal code for the area. It's the oldest part of the capital and is well-known for its small, colourful houses of corrugated iron, narrow streets and diverse architecture. It's home to numerous shops, restaurants, museums and most of the capital's best known landmark.
1: Hallgrímskirkja - It took 41 years to build
One of the most easily recognizable landmarks of Reykjavík is Hallgrímskirkja church. Located atop Skólavörðuholtið hill, it towers over downtown and giving its striking presence to the Reykjavík skyline.
Standing at 74.5 meters (244 feet) tall Hallgrímskirkja is the tallest building in Reykjavík, the second highest building in Iceland.
The church was designed by the State Architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samuelsson in 1937, after years of discussion about where to build a church named after and in the honour of Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of the best known poets of Iceland. However, the war delayed the start of construction, which only began in 1945. Work proceeded slowly, as the church was a monumental undertaking. The crypt beneath the choir was constructed first, being consecrated in 1948. The steeple and the wings were then consecrated in 1974, while the construction of the nave was only completed in 1986.
2: Son of Iceland — Discoverer of Vínland
Standing in front of Hallgrímskirkja church is one of the best-known landmarks in Reykjavik, the statue of Leifur Eiríksson. Leifur is probably the best known hero of Viking age Iceland, the first European to arrive in America: Leifur’s voyage to America in the year 1000 preceded the Christopher Columbus’ voyage by roughly half a millennia.
The statue of Leifur, who is known in English as Leif Eriksson, was a gift from the United States to Iceland to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of Alþingi, the parliament of Iceland. Alþingi was first convened at Þingvellir in the year 930 AD.
In 1930 many Icelanders interpreted the gift as a formal recognition by the US that Leifur Eiríksson was indeed Icelandic, and thus an important victory over the Norwegians who were trying to claim Leifur as theirs. The inscription on the back of the statue seemed to confirm this, as it reads “Leifr Eiricsson. Son of Iceland. Discoverer of Vínland. The United States of America to the People of Iceland on the one thousandth Anniversary of the Althing A. D. 1930.”
3: Hegningarhúsið - Behind those sturdy stone walls
The old stone building, located on the bustling Skólavörðustígur street in the dead centre of Reykjavík served as a prison until 1 June 2016.
The building, known as Hegningarhúsið in Icelandic, is located in the capital’s main shopping and nightlife area. Its construction was finished in 1874 and for years it was one of the capital’s most grand buildings, serving additionally as the home to Iceland’s Supreme Court between 1920 and 1949.
The historic building is on the market and will be sold to the highest bidder. New owners will not be able to do whatever they want with it. The exterior is protected and all interior changes will have to be accepted by The Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland.
During it’s prison days there were never visible guards outside the building, and with no fence or exterior sign there were on clues what was kept behind those sturdy stone walls.
4: Austurvöllur- The centre of disillusionment
Austurvöllur square in front of the parliament building in the centre of Reykjavík is the focal point of protests in the capital.
Multiple rallies have taking place at the square since Iceland’s economy crashed in the autumn of 2008. The tradition of demonstrating at Austurvöllur goes way back and is of course related to the parliament building being located by the square.
A major riot occurred on 30 March 1949, when a resolution was adopted on Iceland's entry into NATO, and police used teargas to disperse protesters. Almost 60 years passed until teargas was used at the square again. On 22 January 2009, police shot cans of teargas into the crowd, when some protesters had tried to put fire to the wooden doors of the parliament building. The protesters were demanding general election and got their wish fulfilled three months later.
However Austurvöllur is more often a happy place as it’s a popular gathering spot when the sun is shining. Currently the western edge is undergoing a major transformation as a new hotel is being constructed.
5: Dómkirkjan - The cathedral of Reykjavík
Given it’s size and commanding presence many foreign visitors assume that Hallgrímskirkja must be the cathedral of Reykjavík. But it’s not. The actual cathedral church of Reykjavík is called Dómkirkjan and is located, right across the street from the house of Parliament at Austurvöllur Square.
The much smaller building was consecrated in 1796 and is the capital’s oldest church. The Parliament building was erected 100 years later.
6: Reykjavík - A vibrant Viking village
At the time of settlement of Iceland (in the year of 874) there was a vibrant Viking village where the center of the old part of Reykjavík is now.
Archaeological discoveries in downtown Reykjavík over the past few years paint a picture of a small village in the neighbourhood of Lake Tjörnin. An archaeological site along Tjarnargata street revealed several smithies and workshops, most importantly ironworks but also silverworks, a woodshed and as well as workshops for tool making, processing skins, wool and foodstuffs and a brewery, showing an industrial area of a small village.
7: Hólavallakirkjugarður - Leading fellow souls to the afterlife
The old Hólavallagarður cemetery located at Suðurgata street, just west of Reykjavík’s centre, has been nominated as one of Europe‘s loveliest cemeteries in an article published on National Geographic’s website.
The cemetery was consecrated in 1838. In 1932 all plots had been allocated and burials may now take place only in reserved plots.
The cemetery’s first occupant, a woman called Guðrún Odssdóttir was assigned the role of “light bringer,” or guide responsible for leading fellow souls to the afterlife.
There are many intriguing tombstones in the cemetery. Memorial plots for French and Faeroese sailors are to be found in the ancient cemetery.
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