To most people who visit Iceland, the town of Hafnarfjörður is a suburb on the way to Reykjavík, or “that bit where the city starts.” As seen from the Flybus window, the main drag consists mostly of a working harbour, a viking-themed hotel, a row of grey seaside apartment buildings, and a profoundly uncharming mall.
But this architecturally unfortunate first impression couldn’t be farther from the truth. A few steps from the main road, there’s a historic old town with a charming tucked-away park, and inside some of those shop units and harbour buildings, an organic and interesting cultural regeneration is taking place.
If you build it, they will come
A good example is an unassuming white harbour-side building on Strandgata that houses a well-regarded restaurant called Von, and the Pallet café (facebook.co/palletkaffi). Pallet is an ideal coffee place: a spacious room with lovingly prepared drinks, comfy mismatched furniture, soft music, big bright windows, plants everywhere, and appealing clutter such as sewing machines and intriguing books in various languages. The atmosphere is hushed and conversational, with a patio for sunny days, and they also have a kitchen that serves pies and pasties, a rich lamb stew—complete with a free second helping—and light pastries. It’s the ideal place to do some work, or just to chill, and worth the twenty minute drive to Hafnarfjörður alone.
Just across the street is the Íshús, or “Icehouse” (ishushafnarfjardar.is)—a bright blue harbourside industrial building that’s been converted over the past few years into an inspiring, thriving colony of creative businesses. There are thirty different practises going on inside these walls—a lively community of people working in everything from ceramics to fashion design, woodwork, jewellery, decorative arts and products of all sorts. It’s not open to the public on a daily basis, but they do take organised group visits, and a store and café is planned.
Angelica and Myrrh
The central shopping streets are home to an old-style bakery, an Icelandic herbal preparation store named Urta Islandica, a concert house, some boutiques and, perhaps surprisingly, an entire store dedicated to Buddhism. Kailash is run by Beggi and Helga, and is named after a sacred mountain in Tibet. The two are Icelanders who embraced Buddhism when Beggi and visited Nepal and Tibet. Now, they import statues, incense, clothing, jewellery, oils and trinkets. Customers are treated to a warm welcome—Beggi answers questions about his journey into Buddhism graciously, and Kailash feels as much about importing Buddhist ideas and culture as the products.
Our final stop is Hellisgerði, Hafnarfjörður’s famous park. Tucked away behind an unassuming railing, this hilly area holds many peaceful nooks, including a sitting area with a fountain and a waterfall, lava boulders, copses of trees, flower patches, winding pathways and busts of local historic figures. There’s an outdoor stage for community events, and a twee elf-themed cafe, where you can get a drink and hear stories of the elves and húldufólk. Like everything in Hafnarfjörður, the best parts of Hellisgerði feels a little hidden—but it’s well worth taking the time to find them.
Read about more “drive-through” towns here.