Laugardalur—“hot spring valley”—was so-named due to the prevalence of, yes, hot springs in the area. Some people even say that the name Reykjavík—“Smoky Bay”—derives from the hot steam that rose from these springs. For centuries people went there to bathe and swim, but mostly it was women doing laundry. Things changed, however, in 1928-1930 when hot water was piped to a number of buildings in Reykjavík. This was the beginning of a massive operation to heat every house in Reykjavík with geothermal water—which also caused the hot springs in the area to reduce tremendously.
When people think of Laugardalur today, they most likely think of its swimming pool, Laugardalslaug, which was built in 1968. However, there is a whole lot more to the neighbourhood…
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Laugardalur was mostly grass and bedrock. One of the farms, which dates back to the first settlement around 870, was located on Laugarnes, a peninsula that is today preserved by The Archaeological Heritage Agency of Iceland. It was home to Hallgerður Langbrók, the notorious femme fatale of the Icelandic sagas. Not only will you find her grave there, but you will also find the only natural seashore on the north coast of Reykjavík.
A mental hospital leads the way
Iceland’s first mental hospital, Kleppur, was built near Laugarnes in 1907. It was originally far away from the city centre, but after Reykjavík’s population increased dramatically during World War II, the demand for land could no longer be ignored. As the city had already built roads and sewage systems and implemented a bus system in the area, it made sense to construct around this existing infrastructure rather than build everything from scratch.
This policy caused the city to grow in an isolated neighbourhood outside the city centre. Residents felt like the neighbourhood was so far away in 1947 that they believed they should have their own spokesperson in the city council, according to an article published in the newspaper Heimskringla at the time. Residents were very worried about being forgotten and left out when it came to council matters.
Imported houses to ’60s mansions
Laugardalur did not remain isolated for long. The demand for housing was greater than most had anticipated, and the area was mostly built over two decades, from the end of the World War II to 1960.
If you’re into architecture from this era, Laugardalur is the prime Reykjavík place to explore it. You will find everything from imported ready-made wooden houses from Sweden or Finland to eleven-floor, Le Corbusier influenced apartment-buildings to spacious private modernist houses built in the ’60s—buildings that were a design breakthrough in Reykjavík at the time they were constructed.
A financial district is born
Although most of the houses date from 1945 to 1960, newer and older houses can also be found in the neighbourhood. Reykjavík’s ‘financial district,’ Borgartún, is home to the newest buildings. This district grew fast in the 2000s and reached a peak in 2008, just before the economic collapse. Today you can still find many banks located in the district along with other businesses and offices, like some of the City of Reykjavík’s departments.
In Borgartún you will also find one of the city’s oldest houses, Höfði. It was built in 1909 for a French consul and has served a series of residents—famous artists, politicians, and the mysterious Höfði Ghost. In 1958, the city of Reykjavík bought it and restored it to its original glory. Höfði secured its status as the most famous house in Reykjavík when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met there for The Reykjavík Summit meeting in October of 1986.
In addition to being home to a famous house, Laugardalur is home to Iceland’s most famous protestor, Helgi Hóseasson, who lived in the neighbourhood and dedicated much of his life to protesting there until he died in 2009. He was given the informal title, “Iceland’s protestor,” after a documentary was produced about him and his views in 2003.
Helgi’s protest started in 1962 when the church would not invalidate his baptism and confirmation like he wished, but his protests weren’t exclusively against the church. He also protested against the inequality promoted by the Icelandic government and, in his last years, the Icelandic governmental support of the Iraq war. A statue of Helgi can be found on the corner of Langholtsvegur and Holtsvegur, where he often stood carrying message bearing signs.
The neighbourhood shares its name with a big green park in the area, but the park and the name are not as old as you might think. A couple of years after Central Park opened in New York City in 1871, Sigurður Guðmundsson—a designer of the Icelandic National Costume and a specialist in Icelandic culture and history—suggested that Laugardalur be made a park for the residents of Reykjavík. He saw the spot as a perfect place for walks and picnicking. The idea took 72 years to be realised, but today it has become the park Sigurður foresaw. There you can find the aforementioned swimming pool, camping facilities, a gym, an ice-skating rink, an amusement park, a zoo and botanical gardens.
Thus Laugardalur has attractions of all sorts, including a rich history, interesting architecture, and great possibilities for outdoor activities. There is even something that attracted 17 owls to take up residence in the park—a rare find in Reykjavík, as owls are fairly new settlers in Iceland.