As you head south on Route 1 from Reykjavík, the first thing you see as you cross into Hafnarfjörður city limits are giant piles of lava flanking the highway, pushing up out of the lawns of apartment buildings, which make holes in a football field. But in many ways, the outskirts of Hafnarfjörður give no indication that you’re at the edge of the greater capital area. You see the same shopping centres, apartment buildings, and fast food restaurants that you would see in east Reykjavík, albeit amongst piles of lava. It’s not until you head towards the centre of Hafnarfjörður that you get the feeling that you’re in a very different place, running on another measurement of time.
Built around a harbour and extending uphill from there, Hafnarfjörður’s beginnings date back as far as 1400. In photos from as recently as the early 20th century, it was still only comprised of a few houses built close to the harbour. Today, while the centre of the town’s activity is still around the harbour, it has grown into a town of about 22,000 people, with houses and lawns cut into the lava that extends east and south to the Reykjanes peninsula. From any of the higher points in town, the sight of Hafnarfjörður suddenly ending at the edge of a vast lava wasteland brings to mind a frontier town.
In many ways, Hafnarfjörður is exactly that – even though it’s the second largest town in Iceland, it’s far enough away from Reykjavík to have retained its easygoing village attitude. This mentality has made the people of Hafnarfjörður the notorious butt of jokes as being slow and slightly backwards, but the town’s aesthetic beauty and relaxed feel make it one of the more worthwhile destinations near Reykjavík.
I started my day at the bakery, then walked to Strandgata, Hafnarfjörður’s main street. As most of the town’s mercantile needs are served by either Fjörður or the shopping centres in the outskirts of town, Strandgata is ironically one of the quieter streets in the city. There’s a Penninn bookstore, a jeweller, some boutiques, the town library, and a Súfistinn coffee shop, located in a small house with two levels.
Little else but Súfistinn was open this early on a Saturday, so I headed up Reykjavíkurvegur at the end of the street to take a walk in Bonsai Park.
The Cliff in the Centre of Town
This is probably one of Hafnarfjörður’s best-kept secrets; even though the bus into town drives past it, it’s not immediately recognisable. But just a few seconds’ walk up from the restaurant and bar A. Hansen (located where Reykjavíkurvegur and Strandgata meet), there’s a tree-covered park carved into the lava.
Even in the leafless winter, the birches still make a solid canopy over this the Japanese-style garden, at the centre of which is a natural fountain. After a short stroll there, I decided to get reacquainted with one of my favourite activities when I lived in this town for my first three years in Iceland – I walked the streets.
It’s often pointed out in guidebooks that Hafnarfjörður in many ways resembles a toy village. Small, two-story houses with brightly-coloured roofs comprise most of the town immediately outside of the harbour area, and walking through these neighbourhoods, you get a pretty good idea of what the town looked like nearly a hundred years ago. Perhaps my favourite street in Hafnarfjörður, Hverfisgata, is a great example. Since one end is directly across the street from the park’s entrance, I started from there, taking my time as I walked the narrow, winding streets that branch off of Hverfisgata.
At the other end of Hverfisgata is a large pond in the middle of town. The pond is actually a swelling point in a creek that starts in the mountains and runs to the harbour. As it’s the only town of its size with a waterway running through it, Hafnarfjörður’s centre is open and uncrowded. Remembering one of my favourite views of the town, I walked up Lækjargata (on the southern side of the pond) and then up Öldugata to the hill Hamarin. Located next to the town college, Hamarin is a hill-sized cliff in the centre of town that has remained untouched, with the town growing around it instead of over it. From its peak, you get a great view of the capital area and Reykjanes, making it worth at least a cursory visit.
If You Have a Hidden People Map, Are They Still Hidden?
One of the other bits of folklore surrounding Hafnarfjörður is its reputed elf population. Some locals have even gone so far as to make maps of what kinds of elves live where in town. You can pick up a Hidden Worlds Map (available in English, German and Icelandic) at the Information Centre at the Town Hall (Strandgata 6) and walk through elf turf.
The two longer routes that I chose to take confirmed that they’re not called “hidden people” for nothing, but whether an elf is spotted or not, the paths marked do introduce the visitor to some of Hafnarfjörður’s more beautiful areas, many of them passing through lava fields.
One of the most immediately recognisable landmarks in downtown Hafnarfjörður is the “Viking” restaurant and hotel Fjörukráin, the restaurant itself modelled after a medieval Norwegian church. This is a popular destination for tourist groups. While it does have a fine dining section, most visitors opt for the Viking section of the restaurant, where everyone from couples to groups in the hundreds are treated to musicians dressed in horse skin tunics who sing Icelandic folk songs, and they like to stay in character.
The “Viking dinner”, comprised of putrified shark and harðfiskur for a starter, followed by a seafood soup, an entrée of lamb, veggies and potatoes served with a beer and a shot of Icelandic schnapps as well as skyr and ice cream for dessert, is a fairly good value at 5,600 ISK. Weekend nights are an especially good time to visit, as Viking (read: loud and bawdy) behaviour is even more encouraged then, and you’re more likely to witness an “honorary Viking” ceremony.
Here, some unfortunate soul is set up by the others in his tour group to be publicly and lightheartedly mocked and chided by some of the Viking musicians in a ceremony that ends with the hapless victim bestowed with a certificate confirming his or her new-found Viking identity. After the kitchen closes, this spacious restaurant becomes a beer hall where live acts will often grace the stage, providing a boisterous alternative to the more intimate upstairs bar at A. Hansen bar and restaurant just five minutes’ away.
Favours from Óðinn
Another place worth at least a cursory stroll is the Sculpture Park Víðistaðatún, located in the northern part of town. In the summer, this park is one of the places hosting the Viking Festival. Year round, you can look at sculptures by artists from Iceland, Mexico, Switzerland, France, Finland, Japan and Germany.
If you’d like to hike a bit further afield, one route I discovered by accident one night years ago is found by following Flókagata north, and staying on the path as close to the harbour as possible. Eventually, this path heads away from the town and into an unpopulated wilderness of hills and lava fields. Follow this path long enough, and you will end up in Garðabær. It’s a great nature walk that you can spend hours enjoying and provides some of the most undisturbed seaside areas in the capital area.
Just outside of Hafnarfjörður are a number of protected natural areas, close by but seemingly far from any civilisation. By heading south on Suðurlandsvegur, you eventually reach a crossroads just before the Straumsvík aluminium smelter. Take the first left, and you’re at Kapelluhraun, where you can visit the ruins of a medieval prayer chapel where a statuette of St. Barbara was discovered in 1950. While the original is in the National Museum of Reykjavík, a replica is still there.
If you head further south and then make another left, you will come to Helgafell (“Holy Mountain”). The surrounding lava fields and relatively easy path up the mountain make for a scenic nature walk, and (like many places in Iceland) the mountain also has magical significance. Legend has it that the Norse god Óðinn will grant three wishes to anyone climbing to the peak of Helgafell for the first time, provided they make the climb in silence and descend the eastern face without looking back. The eastern face is a bit steep, which adds an element of danger to a silent descent, if hiking with others – not being able to speak, you can’t warn those ahead of you of rocks you might have accidentally kicked down their way and, not being able to look back, you can’t turn to see if there are any coming your way.
The real pearl of the outer Hafnarfjörður area, however, is Krísuvík. Located by taking the same left from Straumsvík but heading right (instead of left to Helgafell), this geothermally active area is one of the more overlooked parts of Iceland. After passing through lava fields and a few mountains, you come to Kleifarvatn, a lake that actually dropped a few metres into the earth in 2000 when an earthquake opened a fissure in the lakebed. Nearby is a geothermal hot springs area similar to the area around Geysir, only without the geysers. Water heated by lava bubbles up to the surface of a small stream and some patches of quicksand, making for some great photo opportunities.
If you continue heading south, you will eventually reach Krísuvíkurkirkja, a small chapel that is almost always left open for visitors. This church, barely the size of a small living room and with a ceiling that brushes the top of your head, is the last remaining structure of the village Krísuvík, which was abandoned in the 1950s as residents headed to nearby Grindavík and beyond. Today, it provides a warm and dry shelter, should you get caught out in bad weather, as well as a feeling of almost total isolation from the outside world.
In the Land of Cranes, Change Comes Quickly
On my recent visit, I hiked all the trails in the course of a day. Before getting a bus home, I visited what I remembered as the sparse restaurant and bar in the upper level. Now called Café Aroma, the restaurant, which overlooks the harbour area is spacious and reasonably priced, with soups, sandwiches, and meat and fish entrees for about 1,500 ISK. Also available are “Skyr boozt,” smoothies made with skyr. After buying a Special K (made from vanilla skyr, apples and bananas), I caught a seat by a window and struck up a conversation with Halli, a Hafnarfjörður native – or “gaflari” (“one who uses a fork”) as they’re called in the vernacular – now retired from a career in construction. When asked about the notorious “Hafnarfjörður” jokes, Halli brushed it off with the wave of his hand.
“These jokes come from jealousy,” he said dismissively.
“What are people from Reykjavík jealous of in Hafnarfjörður?” I asked.
Halli answered like he expected the question, “It’s quiet here, but you’re not in the middle of nowhere, either.”
When asked if the town has changed much since he was a kid, he laughed, “Changed since I was a kid? It’s changed since last week. They’re constantly building new neighbourhoods, adding more and more to the town. I think some people have this idea of Hafnarfjörður being a big city one day. I don’t know if that’ll happen. I hope not.” When I asked why, he replied, “I used to work in Reykjavík and at the end of the day, it was always nice to come home to some peace and quiet. Plus, it’s safer for the kids than downtown.”
My bus arrived, so I said my goodbyes and left. Halli’s observation that Hafnarfjörður is growing is especially noticeable on the way out, where you can see the cranes looming over new developments in the making. Optimist that I am, I’d like to believe that Hafnarfjörður will always maintain its sleepy, subtle charm despite the expansion.
If travelling by bus, take the S1 from Hlemmur and get off at downtown Hafnarfjörður’s shopping mall, Fjörður. The drive takes about 20 minutes, and is as good a place to start from as any, as it houses a 10-11 grocery store, a bakery, the ÁTVR alcohol store, a pharmacy, and a restaurant and bar upstairs, along with the usual mall standards of clothing, books and toys.