If you look south over Skerjafjörður, the inlet that frames Reykjavík’s south coast, a striking collection of red-roofed houses might catch your eye, just across the water. I see this view every day as I wind around the domestic airport on my running route. For some reason, the distant cluster of buildings captured my imagination—what started as an interest soon evolved into an obsession, and it became my goal to see them up close.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that these red-roofed houses were in fact Bessastaðir, the official residence of the President of Iceland. It’s an estate that sprawls along a peninsula next to Álftanes, a town just fifteen minutes from downtown Reykjavík. The buildings are surrounded by green fields and farmland, and its location offers stunning views of the city. It would be a beautiful spot to spend a sunny day, but for one fact—it’s closed to the everyday public.
When we drove out to Bessastaðir, I was surprised by how understated it is. It’s a simple set of buildings with red roofs just a few metres behind the red-roofed church, which is itself just a few metres from where the public road ends. On a grey day, the estate felt swaddled in a silence and stillness that was broken only by the sounds of the many bird species that also call the property home. There are no signs to indicate its political significance, and no plaque that describes the history of the home or the church. If it weren’t for the massive flagpole, you’d be excused for thinking it was just another farm on the edge of the city.
If this were any other country, there would likely be much fanfare about the official residence of its head of state. Maybe they’d try to profit off tourists eager to sidle up next to the political elite, or maybe they’d erect a theme park along the water. But, in true Icelandic fashion, someone somewhere down the line decided even the president deserves their privacy.
Stay off the lawn
Bessastaðir has been an important location since long before the advent of the presidency. The first mention of the farm at Bessastaðir is in Íslendinga Saga, written by Sturla Þórðarson in the thirteenth century. The Saga claims that the property was owned by Snorri Sturluson, the famous writer and lawmaker. After Snorri’s murder in 1241, the site became the seat of governing powers from Norway and Denmark.
However, even before it was a farm and residence, it’s believed that Bessastaðir was the site of a church since around the year 1000 AD, shortly after the settlement of Iceland. At Bessastaðir today, the church is the only place on the property that allows walk-up visitors. A sign on the lawn warns people not to get too close to the official residence behind it.
Elections to determine who will be living behind the closed doors of Bessastaðir for the next four years will be held on June 25. As for me, I’ll be keeping my eyes on those red roofs from the other side of the water.