Reykjavík is thronging with tours these days. Everywhere you look, there are biking tours, walking tours, boating tours, helicopter tours—and as soon as you choose your method of transit, a thousand new options seem to open up. It could be all too easy to sample the quirky cheeses down by the wharf, browse row upon row of stuffed animal puffins, and call it a day. But on a particularly blustery day, I decided to hitch myself to Reykjavík Sightseeing’s wagon and see the city through an Icelander’s eyes.
I joined our guide for the day, Hafþór, and a cluster of Canadian tourists outside of Hallgrímskirkja, the famed concrete church that rises above Reykjavík like a wave out of the ocean. I’d been in the church before, but never knew why the lancet windows—unlike most large churches in Europe and the United States—are free of stained glass. “Our culture revolves around the sun,” Hafþór said, noting how the light changes inside the church depending on the season and time of day. He whipped out his phone to show us images of his hometown in the Eastfjords on the day, late the the spring, when the sun finally grazed the rooftops. Some towns, he explained, are nestled so low in the valleys that the winter darkness can last a month longer than in Reykjavík.
We then took the tiny elevator—built in the days before tourism was Iceland’s flagship industry—to the pinnacle of the church. Bracing ourselves against the cold, we gazed out at colourful roofs and the slopes of Esja, the mountain that watches over Reykjavík. From such heights, you get a sense of how small this northern capital is compared to other cities: there are few skyscrapers, no clogged highways and no rapid transit. In both its size and its artistic flare, the city feels much like my hometown in the mountains of North Carolina: both Reykjavík and Asheville are walkable, intimate and brimming with tourist shops. Today was our lucky day, Hafþór said: Snæfellsjökull, a glacier-capped mountain, gleamed across the bay. It is rarely seen so clearly from Reykjavík.
In the sculpture garden across from Hallgrímskirkja sit masterpieces from one of Iceland’s most renowned sculptors, Einar Jónsson, whose name I’d heard but whose work I’d never taken a chance to appreciate. Hafþór gave me that chance: he knew the stories of the sculptures by heart. There, a man sucking from the teet of a cow—the Norse creation myth—and next to it, a bent, melancholic figure titled “Sleep.” The dark metal at first seemed cold and uninviting, jarringly different from the marble that dominates Western sculpture, but I soon realised it speaks powerfully of Icelandic history, culture and myth. Einar’s pieces have become part of the national consciousness—a means of honoring both the woe and joy of life.
As we strode down the main shopping drag, Hafþór eagerly recommended restaurants and congratulated one woman in our crew on her Icelandic—she’d bought practice CDs and rehearsed in the car for a few weeks before her trip. Then, around one corner, as we admired several of the city’s murals, we encountered one of the oddest sights in the whole city—a plastic cow leaping out of a wall. It was on a residential street where few tourists ever walk; I surely would have never seen it had I not embarked on this tour.
“Don’t ask me why it’s there,” said Hafþór. “I don’t know.” But I relish those quirks that give one new insight into a place. Why not decorate your house with a shiny, life-size bovine?
Next up was the national cathedral, which is actually much smaller than Hallgrímskirkja, and much more inviting, in my opinion, with its wooden framing, candlelight and narrow pews. Björk’s concert there a few years ago could even be described as “quaint”, a word not often associated with the swan dress-wearing pop star. From the cathedral, it was a quick jaunt to the City Hall, where I took a minute to warm my freezing fingers amid the photography exhibit on the nation’s major events of 2016, from the Panama Papers protests to the election of Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson as Iceland’s new President.
The penultimate stop was Harpa, the postmodern concert hall meant to vault Iceland into the 21st century. Its construction was beset by a budgetary fiasco after Iceland’s 2008 financial collapse. I would have appreciated a more nuanced take on the saga of the building; Hafþór didn’t discuss how Harpa began as a pet project by one of Iceland’s banking oligarchs and was embroiled in controversy for years as the government took over its construction. But I could also see why many Icelanders now see Harpa as a gem of the city: the glass honeycomb frame mirrors a choppy ocean and links the building to the sea, Iceland’s constant muse. And the shows inside put Reykjavík on the world stage.
Hafþór had one last treat in store for us: chocolate, granola and traditional Icelandic skyr for dessert. I walked away without a critical take on the city’s history or culture, but certainly with a deeper appreciation for its art and architecture. If you want a glimpse of Icelandic murals or are passionate about Nordic building design, this tour could be the one for you.