Reykjavík is one of the world’s most charming capitals. Its attractions speak for themselves; so much so that though the Icelandic scenery is spectacular, visitors still want to spend time in the city center before they rent a car and tour the country.
If you’re planning a trip, it’s always a good idea to learn a bit about the place you’re headed beforehand. So, whether you’re a geography nerd or a compulsive hoarder of trivia, these seven fun facts about Reykjavík are a must-read.
1. The city’s name translates to ‘Smoky Bay’
When the Vikings first arrived in Iceland in the 9th century, they named Reykjavík ‘Bay of Smokes’. Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson founded the place in 874 and it remained a small fishing village and trading center for many centuries. The Althingi moved to Reykjavík in the 1840s and finally, in 1944, it was promoted to the capital of a newly independent Iceland.
It’s very unlikely that the Vikings would have been referring to fire when they called Reykjavík ‘Smoky Bay’. Instead, the smoke would most probably have been steam. As modern day travelers fly into Keflavik, they’d see the same steam today. ‘Smoky Bay’, of course, was so named because of the geothermal processes that have shaped Iceland.
The Land of Fire and Ice is littered with hot springs and thermal baths, but there are also some unmissable places to check out in Reykjavík itself. The swanky Sky Lagoon is one such place, with its infinity edge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, it first opened to the public just last year.
If that’s not your style, try Reykjavík’s Nauthólsvík Thermal Beach, where hot water is pumped into a manmade lagoon right beside the sea.
2. Of all the world’s capitals, only Nuuk is further north
Reykjavík’s located at 64.1466° north of the Equator. That puts it closer to the North Pole than the capitals of any of the other Nordic nations: Helsinki (60°), Oslo (59°), Stockholm (59°) and especially Copenhagen (55°) don’t come close.
Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands located at 62°N is a close contender, though technically it’s a self-governing nation under the external sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark, so it doesn’t count (yet, in any case).
Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is a tricky one. Greenland was a colony of Denmark until 1953 but ever since there has been a lot of political change.
Today, it’s described as an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Whether that constitutes a fully-fledged country is still up for debate. If it does, then Nuuk, at latitude 64.1814°N, just nudges ahead of the finish line and Reykjavík’s out of luck.
3. Reykjavik became UNESCO’s fifth City of Literature in 2011
Icelanders have a great love of reading. There’s even a Christmas Eve tradition known as the Jólabókaflóð which sees everyone tucked up in the warmth of their homes with a good book rather than out on the town.
The country also boasts high per capita rates for reading and publishing. Six times as many books are published in Iceland than the US and they reckon one in ten Icelanders will publish a book during their lifetime.
So it made Icelanders immensely proud when, in 2011, UNESCO named Reykjavik the fifth ever City of Literature. The initiative is part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network initiative and launched with Edinburgh back in 2004. Members of this exclusive literary club also include cities as diverse as Melbourne, Dublin and Seattle, so Reykjavík’s in good company.
The choice to award Reykjavik City of Literature status was partly because of the contribution made by the sagas to literary history – and their influence on Icelandic identity – but also simply that the population devours books like they’re going out of fashion. Unsurprisingly, given the facts above, one recent survey found that half of Icelanders read more than eight books a year.
4. Keeping dogs as pets used to be banned
Iceland has a tradition of banning things that the rest of the world might find a little odd. For instance, the country barred people from watching television in July until 1983 and on Thursdays until 1987. The idea was to encourage Icelanders to talk more to each other, but this was years before Trapped and they’d obviously forgotten that most of us like to compare notes about what we’ve watched.
There was another ban which came off a bit harsh initially, especially if you’re a dog owner yourself. In 1924, the city banned dogs as pets, a belated reaction to the discovery that dogs were carriers of a disease called echinococcosis which could be fatal to humans. It had been around for centuries, most likely since the time of the Vikings, but it took a while to connect the dots.
Further advances in medical science meant that it was easy to justify banning dogs as pets to stop the spread of echinococcosis. Although, outside the city, it was accepted that keeping working dogs was still a necessity for many farmers.
Eventually, the disease was eradicated and the ban on dogs was lifted in the 1980s. Nowadays, you’ll want to pack the dog treats: Reykjavik’s friendly canines are waiting to meet you with waggy tails and heavy panting.
5. Hallgrímskirkja is Reykjavik’s tallest building
Unlike some European capitals, you’ll notice that Reykjavík isn’t home to many high-rises. However, some buildings do manage to stand out: Harpa Concert Hall on the waterfront is one of them, thanks to its eye-catching architecture.
But if you’ve come expecting to see glittering skyscrapers in a densely packed business district, then you’re in the wrong place. In fact, the tallest building in Reykjavík is Hallgrímskirkja.
This landmark church dominates the city’s skyline – drive out to the Akranes peninsula and look back across the bay if you don’t believe us. Construction began in 1945, but turned out to be a mammoth job. The church was finally consecrated in 1986 and has become one of the city’s most popular visitor attractions.
Hallgrímskirkja’s tower stands an impressive 73 meters high. From the viewing platform at the top, you can see for miles across the city of Reykjavík and beyond. Admire the flat-topped Mount Esja to the north across Faxafloi Bay, or watch the planes come and go from Reykjavik City Airport to the south. Check out this panorama above, though take a tip from us: it’s much better in real life.
6. The city has its own Elf School
The Huldufólk are an important part of Icelandic culture. Though it can be hard for an Icelander to say outrightly that they believe in elves, there are many that don’t want to rule out the possibility of these mythical creatures existing. For example, sometimes the nation’s civil engineers have taken the location of Huldufólk buildings into account when carrying out road building schemes.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, therefore, to learn that there’s a bonafide Elf School in the Reykjavík suburbs. Located on the first floor of a modest housing block, headteacher Magnús Skarphéðinsson will tell you all he knows about this hidden community. Sign up and it will certainly be the strangest afternoon you’ll spend in the city, but also a fascinating insight into Icelandic beliefs.
7. McDonald’s closed in 2009, but they couldn’t bear to throw away all the burgers
Now here’s a strange one, trivia junkies. Reykjavík wouldn’t be the first place to have hounded McDonald’s out of town, but it’s probably the only one that stuck one of the burgers it made on its last day into a museum. The US fast-food chain first arrived in Iceland in 1993, and Davíð Oddsson, Reykjavík’s mayor at the time, was the first to order.
Over the course of the next few years, three more McDonald’s restaurants opened up, but none of them could avoid the negative effects of the financial crisis.
As some of the ingredients had to be imported, it was impossible for the franchise holder to make a profit without significantly raising prices, which he didn’t want to do. In 2009, the last McDonald’s burger to be made in Reykjavík was handed over and the place shut its doors.
Now, the closest thing you can get to McDonald’s is a burger from the Icelandic chain, Metro, which is a pretty good substitute. But that’s not quite the end of the story for McDonald’s in Iceland. You see, one of the burgers sold that day in 2009 was never eaten. Instead, Hjörtur Smárason decided to keep it to see if it decomposed. Famously, it did not.
After three years in the guy’s garage, it went on display at the National Museum of Iceland for a time, and then was moved to the Reykjavík’s Bus Hostel. Eventually, they decided it was time for the famed burger to leave the city just as McDonald’s itself had, and it wound up at another hostel in South Iceland where it was live-streamed.
Like that itinerant burger, perhaps you have seen enough of Reykjavík, and you’d like to go on tour, too. If so, grab yourself a rental car in Iceland and hit the open road!