I n spite of what many visitors believe the city of Reykjavik is a very young city in all respects. Those “old” buildings you see crammed between modern high rises in the center of the city are very seldom older than a century.
For many that might sound impressive. Hundred year old buildings scattered around downtown Reykjavik. However, in comparison with almost any other European city a hundred years is crybaby stuff.
But although really old really famous buildings are not scattered around we do have a few that impress most folks. If not by the architecture then by their short but interesting history.
There is little doubt as to the most visible and symbolic building in Reykjavik city. That would be Hallgrímskirkja church.
Hallgrimskirkja church, Church of Hallgrimur, is not only one of the highest buildings in Iceland at 73 meters but it also sits on top of the highest hill in central Reykjavik. Which means it towers over most anything else in the city and on a fair day can be seen from far away.
Although construction of this largest church in Iceland started way back in 1945 it took quite some time to put on the finishing touches due to lack of funds. The church was not finally completed and consecrated until 1986. Funnily enough, by the time they finished the oldest part of the building was already showing signs of wear and tear. It was partly closed for a few years after completion while repairs were done.
The church is certainly beautiful but its facade is also quite unique with step-like columns of stone rising way up the church tower.The architect actually had the assistance of Icelandic nature when designing the welcoming facade as the idea was to mimic a special kind of rock formation, interlocking basalt columns, found in a few places in the country. And luckily the steps to heaven fit perfectly into the holy scriptures.
Who was this Hallgrimur the place is named after? Icelandic saint? Nope, just a regular Joe or regular Hallgrimur in this case. His claim to fame is mostly being one of the greatest poets this place has fostered. His poems dealt very much with Christianity and the faith and the guy was much revered. In fact, he has not one but two churches in the country named in his honor. There is another Hallgrimskirkja in nearby Hvalfjordur.
Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik is open year round and it is possible to visit the tower for a fee. From there you can enjoy a great panorama over almost the whole of Reykjavik and surrounding area.
Walking around central Reykjavik you may be lightly struck by a two-story, white and rather plain looking building straight across from Lækjartorg square. A couple of old statues in the tiny garden make it clear this place has some significance as statues are not too common in the city.
But one would be hard pressed to make an educated guess as to what this building is. Apart from no parking signs out front there are no other signs to make sense of this building for foreigners. While it makes sense this is an important building being in the very center of the city it cannot be too important since there is not much activity here apart from selfie-taking tourists.
Thus, it will probably surprise you very much to know this is in effect the workplace of the Prime minister of Iceland. This is the Icelandic 10 Downing Street.
But there´s a difference. You will never see the UK Prime minister working leisurely at his desk through the window. But here you actually can. The second floor office is the office of the minister.
While all this info might excite you, wait until you hear what this place was before government officials thought to take it over. It was the first penitentiary in Iceland. Indeed, where the prime minister does his chores today was the holding cell for the worst of the worst in the country.
We might surprise you even more by telling you it was a Danish King that decided to build a jail here. This was back in the day when Iceland belonged to the Danish Crown. Also, at that time, the location was well outside of what constituted Reykjavik at the time. This was suburb stuff.
The king´s jailhouse was finished in 1770 and is among the oldest places in the country although it has largely been rebuilt time and time again since then. Little or nothing remains of the original building.
Visiting is out of the question.
This place is designed by the same individual that designed Hallgrimskirkja church and again inspiration comes from the very same oddity in Icelandic nature: natural basalt stone columns. Admittedly, it is not as obvious on this building but look closely and you´ll realize the resemblance sooner than later. Indeed, even the odd-looking black sandy material used on the building comes directly from the highland of Iceland where in particular spots ash, lava, wind and water have created a totally unique type of material.
The theater itself is the old-school type and no different or better than similar buildings around the world. Even the shows here tend to be the same shit as is popular everywhere else too. Visits are not possible unless you buy a ticket for a show.
While here take note of the next door building. Safnahúsið or Culture House is among the more beautiful buildings in Reykjavik and inside you´ll find smaller exhibitions about life and times in Iceland on a regular basis. Entrance usually free too.