Stretching from Laugavegur all the way up to Hallgrímskirkja church, Skólavörðustígur is a street so familiar to locals they often don’t notice all it has to offer and can’t be bothered to have a look inside Art-Iceland.com, Listaselið and Antíkhúsið, to name just a few galleries and craft shops in the area. A walk up and down can be a great way to spend an afternoon.
“I love this street. I walk up and down twice a day while taking my kids to kindergarten,” Sara, who has agreed to be my guide for the day, says as we stand in front of her designer shop The Naked Ape. The shop, selling designer sweaters, t-shirts, dresses and handbags among so many other curious things by vivid colours and various patterns, is located at a crossroad, and it can be considered part of Bankastræti, Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur.
“Every day, this small corner outside the store is crowded with tourists,” Tolli, the co-owner of Naked Ape, says while pointing at the place were the street sign marked Skólavörðustígur sticks up from the paving stone. At the same instant a large red sight-seeing bus drives down the street with a couple of curious passengers having a look through the window. The three of us set out on a walking tour to explore the street; we hoped to drop into some galleries and designer stores, try on clothes, smell baked-goods and discover shops we had never even noticed before.
During the summer months, tourists fill the street and troop with their cameras at both ends, some standing in front of the statue of Leifur Eríksson taking pictures of Hallgrímskirkja church, others capturing the special street atmosphere, most apparent when the weather is good, as then many of the shops owners put small tables and chairs outside for customers to relax and enjoy the sunshine. As it was a sunny Saturday, all this became apparent when we left the Naked Ape shop.
Named after the Skólavörðuholt, where the church dominates the surrounding, this elegant street, with its old and colourful houses, is home to many of the more unique shops in the capital. The street is home not only to locals, but to many of Reykjavík’s visitors, as many of the city centre’s more noted guesthouses are located there. The street also houses some of the city’s more infamous inhabitants, in the piled brick building located right next to the bank Spron. This is Hegningarhúsið, the oldest prison in the country.
Though largely quiet at night, the street is lively during the day and constant traffic up and down gives it a true metropolitan feel. But Skólavörðustígur has not always been this popular shopping street. A lot has changed in past decades and in recent years Skólavörðustígur has been reviving from a slow decline. Many smaller buildings and apartment houses have had to shunt for newer ones and the whole structure is rapidly changing. Things our grandparents once took for granted are mostly gone as the street is being modernised. Where now there is a fashionable designer shop on the corner of Bergstaðastræti and Skólavörðustígur, there used to be a candy store where kids from all around the neighbourhood came to buy ice cream, for example.
Luckily, some things are here to stay. Eggert the Furrier Shop is one of them. His small and quite unobtrusive shop has been on Skólavörðustígur 38 for as long as I can remember, and he sure isn’t going anywhere. When standing outside the shop almost at the top of the street we just couldn’t help but go inside and try on some expensive fur. Sara, standing in a long coat made out of a bobcat worth one million ISK couldn’t believe she would ever come into possession of such a garment.
As I was putting on a green furry jacket and a Russian hat, my guide, Sara, yelled out: “Can you believe I’m holding a leopard?” and wrapped the skin around her shoulders. The saleswomen were nice enough to show us the newest products, letting us try them all on, even if we weren’t going to buy anything. We probably didn’t look like women wealthy enough to even afford a pair of gloves designed by Eggert, but our little fashion show was a lot of fun.
Þorsteinn Bergmann, only few doors down, was the next place to grab our attention. I had never been inside this small shop selling all kinds of stuff for the home, but Sara says she is a regular.
“I buy all the colouring for my shop in this place. This store is just amazing and totally vital for the street.” Unfortunately it was closed, so I had to settle for looking through the window, seeing a set of china I wouldn’t mind buying.
Andrés Clothing Store, a traditional menswear shop, selling trousers and jackets, neckties and shirts, all for a laughably low price, was our next stop.
“The shop will be 100 years old this year,” the saleswoman informed us as Sara was trying on a fleece cap. She went on to tell us that with almost everything inside being fairly cheap but sophisticated clothing for men, the shop has its regular costomers who won’t by clothing anywhere else.
Across the street is the newly opened children’s toy store, Börn Nátturunnar, in the basement of Skólavörðustígur 17a. The remarkable thing about this shop is the fact that everything inside is made of organic products: the clothes, the toys and even the board games. I was getting distracted by a pinball game when Sara pointed out how much more interesting and creative those toys were compared to all the plastic dolls children usually play with nowadays. I had to agree. The next time I’m in a pickle over finding a birthday present for a young niece or nephew, I may stop in.
The street got a second shout of devotion, this time from the record shop 12 Tónar. “I love Skólavörðustígurinn. I find it the most beautiful street in all of Reykjavík,” Jonni of 12 Tónar told Sara and me as we stood outside Skólavörðustígur 15.
12 Tónar was founded eight years ago and since that time the small building, clad with grey corrugated iron, has become a popular hangout spot for music lovers who can sit down on the sofa and relax with a cup of coffee while listening to the various music selections available.
“You should check out the new exhibition inside. There we have collages all made by artist and musician Sigríður Níelsdóttir, and she sold every single piece last week,” Jonni added and led the way up the stairs and inside the shop.
Sigríður, a remarkable woman in her eighties, who released her first album at the age of 71 and now, a couple of years later, can take pride in a large stack of records, couldn’t have found a better location for her exhibition. Still, a certain aesthetic started to wear on my guide.
“I know Skólavörðustígur is considered the best street to stroll if you want to experience Icelandic art, but, in my opinion, the street doesn’t give the right picture of the scene at all,” Sara said and pointed out that there are a lot of galleries selling Icelandic landscape paintings as well as souvenir shops with supplies of woollen sweaters and ashtrays made out of lava simulations but no young artists showing their works.
“I would like to see a gallery, where only artists younger than 27 may sell their art and design. That would make the street perfect,” she added.
Still we kept on. We checked out the Art Form Shop, where I found an exquisite orange-coloured coffee machine; the Handknitting Association of Iceland, where you can dress up for the cold winter months; the trendy children’s clothing shop Hnokkar og Hnátur, Gallery Verksmiðjan, run by nine artists and designers who sell their products at Skólavörðustígur 4 and ER Fashion House, offering high-quality clothing aimed at women.
Having checked out more clothing and craft shops recommended for one day we decided it was time for a different approach and started exploring the eatable and drinkable parts of the street.
Coffee, Fish and Cheese
“I would like to see more coffeehouses,” Tolli answered when I asked him what he thought lacking on Skólavörðustígur. “I used to enjoy Mokka, and the thick smoke which welcomed you when opening the door, but now they have banned smoking inside, even though it isn’t illegal yet.”
Mokka is one of the oldest coffee shops in Reykjavík, located at Skólavörðustígur 3a, attracting a regular crowd every morning, which enjoys its cup of coffee while reading the morning newspaper.
A smoker-friendlier place is recently opened Babalú, located higher up on the street in an orange building. Babalú has to be regarded as the cosiest coffeehouse in town, with old furniture and a homey kitchen with children’s paintings hanging up on the walls, this coffeehouse makes you feel like you just walked into your grandma’s place. Old books are stuffed in the shelves and with room for your laptop on the table you can easily spend a couple of hours doing absolutely nothing except browsing the Internet and drinking espressos.
“This definitely will be my next hangout place,” Sara said, discovering the local shop for the first time, as I grabbed a cup of coffee before continuing our walk.
There might not be as many coffeehouses and restaurants on Skólavörðustígur as on the neighbouring street Laugavegur, but gourmet stores make up for that. At Ostabúðin you can find all kinds of goodies and during lunch hours they serve soups, salads and a fish of the day. Fylgifiskar, a shop specialising in fish products next door to Ostabúðin, offers the best crabsalad on earth and great sushi as well. Finally, the grocery store Yggdrasill is the healthy eaters paradise, selling all kinds of organic foods, vitamins and cosmetics.
Our last stop this time, appropriately enough, was the newest member of the street, the designer store Xirena at Skólavörðustígur 4a.
“I get inspired by the Icelandic nature,” the woman behind the counter told us as we were scouting through the selection of skirts and trousers. In line with what we had seen earlier, the country clearly inspired the designers, artists and craftsmen all meeting in the same small area and opening galleries and fashion shops. Discussing that topic once again with Sara and listening to her more elaborated ideas of a young artists’ gallery on Skólavörðustígur, we were suddenly standing at the same corner we had first met almost two hours ago. New tourists, with their cameras hanging around their necks, had planted themselves in front of the Naked Ape shop pointing in various directions and taking pictures of the surroundings before heading up the street, probably on their way to Hallgrímskirkja church.