Published July 18, 2011
Most cities and towns around the world have a fascinating history that the common visitor can explore and enjoy. Reykjavík is no exception…
On a windy day in Reykjavík, we meet up with Andrea Björk Andrésdóttir and Ólöf Vignisdóttir, a couple of friendly history students from the University of Iceland. This summer, they are branching out and employing their studies to carry out a ‘historical tour of Reykjavík’ that they devised with the support of youth centre Hitt Húsið. “We started planning this project in January, mainly because we were frustrated with how the local academic community had little interest in the public representation of Icelandic history, especially with regard to tourists,” they tell me.
Ready, steady, go!
We begin our tour at the Ingólfstorg square, as Andrea explains that this current site of buildings and stores was farmland in the early years of Reykjavík. While our guides explain some curiosities about the city, we come to Aðalstræti, where some of Reykjavík’s oldest buildings stand. Andrea then tells us the story of Skúli Magnússon, who would be celebrating his 300th birthday this year were he still alive.
Skúli founded the first industrial enterprise in Iceland in 1751, the Innréttingar woollen workshops. His goal was to set up a modern (for the time) industry that would regenerate Iceland’s agriculture, fishing and wool processing. Acting as an entrepreneur, as well as town magistrate of Reykjavík, Skúli brought industry to the city and encouraged the construction of wool-factories and stores on both sides of the Aðalstræti. These buildings eventually formed the centre of the town and led to the beginning of urban development in Reykjavík in 1786. Because of that, Skúli Magnússon is considered by many people as having transformed Reykjavík into a town.
The Rock Village
After observing and learning about some of the oldest houses in Reykjavík, our route takes us to the city’s first suburb, Grjótaþorpið, which we could translate as “The Rock Village.” We learn how the area got its name, and about a crazy plan that the bubble-Icelanders of 2007 had in store for the area. Both of those stories alone make the tour worth attending, and both are best told by Andrea and Ólöf, so we’ll use this opportunity to urge you to attend.
From Grjótaþorpið we observe a house known as ‘Vaktarabærinn’ in Garðastræti, where the town’s first watchmen held post. The house was built around 1848 and derives its moniker from the fact that it is where Reykjavík’s first ‘watchmen’ held post, making sure its citizens wouldn’t commit crimes and misdemeanours. Walking along Garðastræti we also learn about Unuhús, which was known as a centre of culture in the early 20th century. It was a regular meeting place for young poets and artists, such as Stefán frá Hvítadal, Steinn Steinarr and Iceland’s Nobel laureate, Halldór Laxness.
The amazing disappearing swastika
Walking on to Tryggvagata, Andrea tells us about Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of the 19th century Icelandic independence movement, whose efforts are now credited with the constitution Icelanders received in 1874 and are currently trying to rewrite.
We find ourselves front of the Radisson SAS Hotel, next to the Bæjarins bestu hot dog stand. Ólöf explains the history of the building, which opened in 1919 as the headquarters of Iceland’s first shipping company, Eimskipafélag Íslands. In 2005, the building reopened as a hotel and has kept some of the classic elements, but they decided not to retain one of them. The building was, until 2005, adorned by the shipping company’s old logo… a swastika. When the building was transformed into a hotel in the mid ‘00s, its new proprietors decided to cover up the much-maligned symbol. Instead of a swastika, the numbers 1919 now adorn the building, marking the year it was built.
The tour without a doubt provides an excellent opportunity to learn about Reykjavík’s rich and relatively short history. I left it with a lot of insight and a new way of thinking about the city I’m calling home for the summer. Furthermore, I’ve acquired some great anecdotes to tell visiting friends, stories of drunken revolutionaries, rivers of champagnes and street fires. Reykjavík will never look the same to me, in a good way.
Tours are every weekday at 11:00 and 14:00, with an Icelandic one every Sunday at 15:00. Private outings can be booked. More info at www.facebook.com/ungsaga