Is it a spaceship? A torpedo? Or just a really unusual church? One of Reykjavik’s – and Iceland’s – most iconic landmarks, the ultra modern Hallsgrimkirkja Church in downtown Reykjavik is somehow also reminiscent of the dramatic and bizarre worlds found inside of the Icelandic Sagas. The Hallsgrimkirkja also sports an observation deck for aerial city views and a statue of Leif Eriksson, the man often credited as the first European to arrive in the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus. Only finished in 1986 and standing atop one of Reykjavik’s highest points, the Hallsgrimkirkja is some 74 metres high, making it the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures on the island. Iceland is a strange place. Remote, isolated, cold, inhospitable, Iceland is also home to some of the most enduring tradition, mythology and storytelling in Europe. For such a small, remote place, this Nordic country is one of Europe’s most progressive. Home to about 340,000 people (of which nearly half [122,000] live in the capital), it actually has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) unemployment rates, one of the highest standards of living, and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes – including some spectacular volcanoes – in the whole world. In the winter, it might still be light out at midnight or later, meaning that in the winter, some days only see a few hours of daylight (though on the up side, that means higher chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights!). It is a country of myth and legend, of fire and snow, of ancient and modern. This small place packs a bundle!
Pro tip: Though only available to those ready to brave the cold (even in summer), it is actually possible to SCUBA dive between two tectonic plates – it doesn’t get cooler than that! For those who prefer to stay a bit warmer (or to warm up afterwards), Reykjavik and Iceland in general is full of hot springs heated naturally by the piping hot water from the volcanoes. Whether you prefer a dramatic outdoor pool or a modern pool in the city, there are plenty of options (though as this is popular with tourists and locals alike, don’t expect it to yourself. Iceland is sadly victim to overtourism from the mass cruise industry).
The beginning of January is a cold time of year. It brings to mind snow and hot chocolate and fireplaces…interestingly enough, these are important things year-round in Iceland. But once you get past the cold, once you embrace it, you’ll start to fall in love with this little northern capital in this little rugged island country. Containing 120,000 people (therefore containing 1/3 of Iceland’s population), this is the most northern capital in the whole world! Here, you’ll find little wooden houses, snow-capped mountains and clean air. In fact, it is one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities worldwide. Supposedly established in 870 AD, it wasn’t much of a city until it was founded in 1786 as a trading outpost. Despite its growth over recent centuries, Reykjavik is far from the hustle-and-bustle you find in most capital cities – instead, it is a relatively relaxed, chill and happy place. Even if it is a bit chilly and sometimes a little (okay very) dark. But Iceland wouldn’t be Iceland without a little of both !
View of Reykjavik and the Atlantic Ocean, as seen from Esja Mountain, Höfuðborgarsvæðið, Iceland
Upon hearing the name of the country called “Iceland,” one probably thinks of intense cold (its climate) or intense heat (its volcanoes). Both happen to be fairly true. Roughly half of the country’s surface area is covered by mountainous lava desert. At one point, scientists think 30-40% of its’ landmass was forested, though after European settlers rapidly and maladroitly cultivated the land, its forests were destroyed and arable land weakened. Today, only small patches of trees have survived, though the Icelandic people have undertaken a massive reforestation programme intended to return their island to a healthier state. Here at the summit of Mt Esja, where you can almost see the lava fields, one can see how barren Iceland can be—but also just how beautiful.
If you can somehow finagle a trip to Iceland on your way back from Europe as I did, be sure to explore its nature. Young, still nervous about solo travel and nearly out of money after 5 months in England and abroad, I barely left Reykjavik. On my second and final full day, I knew I had to search for Iceland’s natural beauty. Without venturing too far, I ended up here, at Mt Esja. It’s small–just 914 m (or 2,999 ft), only 10km from Reykjavik and dating back to the ice age. Much like the rest of Iceland, it’s volcanic. It’s brown, dusty, dead. The tree line is low, the winds are unforgiving, the cold becomes bone-chilling, even in May. Yet, there is something special about climbing a desolate mountain with a fellow solo-traveler, a Scandinavian you met on the bus to Esjurnelar. Life seems to stop at the mountain’s summit–in every direction you can see the evidence of what happens when the earth gets angry and spits fire. Ashy and grey, I’ve discovered Iceland’s true beauty.
Houses in Reykjavik, Iceland, looking across the Tjörnin.
Welcome to Reykjavik, the teeny tiny capital of Iceland, and also the northernmost capital in the world. Human habitation of the site dates back to 870, though the city wasn’t established until 1786. Because it was under Danish rule and settled by many Scandinavians, the city has a distinctly Scandinavian feel. It is capital of an island full of impressive scenery, angry volcanoes, and a stark coastline.