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Visiting Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world, is to imagine one of those cities that no longer exists in Europe, for the capital of Iceland takes the traveler back to a past of brightly colored, not too tall buildings, little traffic, and less noise.
It is home to just 122,000 people, one third of the country’s total population, people who still keep intact their candor and their warm hospitality and curiosity about a visitor. Reykjavik, bathed by the waters of Lake Tjörnin, means “smoking cove” in Icelandic, for it’s surrounded by a multitude of geysers. Furthermore, due to its location, its winters provide only four hours of light a day, while in summer sunlight almost totally hides the night.
Reykjavik’s historic core is a combination of the old and the new: museums, art galleries, restaurants, cafeterias, stores, and hotels.
The city was a Viking settlement and a whaling port and for centuries Iceland’s main source of wealth was whaling. Today, Reykjavik is a young, cosmopolitan city that hosts many tourists and its essential charm lies in sharing the daily life of its inhabitants.
City dwellers commute between a fairly compact historic center, located between the coastal neighborhoods, the urban lake (Tjörnin) and the outskirts of the suburbs.
Reykjavik’s historic core is a combination of the old and the new: museums, art galleries, restaurants, cafeterias, stores, and hotels. Aðalstræti is the oldest street in the city, and it is believed that the legendary Viking King Ingólfur Arnarson lived there and was its first inhabitant.
Nearby Austurvöllur Plaza is a robust national symbol. Here, a large tree is erected during Christmas, and it’s an ideal place to bask in the sun in summer at one of its many bars and cafeterias. Beautiful pastel-colored buildings and the statue of Jón Sigurðsson, the main national leader of Iceland, are its main attractions.
It is very interesting to stroll by Lake Tjörnin, for it borders city hall, some museums, and the university. It’s a strategic spot for bird watching or a bike ride. During winter, the lake becomes the city’s center of recreation, and becomes a gigantic skating rink.
Laugaveugr is the shopping strip where the main fashion stores and souvenir shops are found. Here, you can buy hand-knitted Icelandic wool sweaters or original jewelry set with lava stones. And of course, you must not miss Hallgrimskirkja, home of the Lutheran Church of Iceland. In front of it there is a statue of Leif Eiríksson, the first Viking to land on the coasts of America, in the area now known as Terranova (five centuries before Christopher Columbus). The statue was a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Icelandic Parliament, considered the oldest in the world, for it was created in the year 930.
The main cultural meeting place in Reykjavik is the auditorium, the work of architecture studio Henning Larsen, whose façade is a futurist lacework of glass hexagons.
A good way to end a tour through Reykjavik is at one of the restaurants by the harbor, where you can try a flavorful lobster soup paired with a light Icelandic beer. I assure you that you’ll never taste anything so delicious, and, much less, in a place as peculiar as Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world. ■