Region: The Greater Reykjavik Area
Reykjavík, (“Smoky bay”) (pop. 116,000) the capital of Iceland. Settled in the year 874 by Ingólfur Arnarson, who named it for the steam rising from its hot springs.
Today Reykjavík is a bustling modern mini-metropolis with close connections to surrounding towns, bringing the total population of the greater Reykjavík area to 190,000. For over 1,000 years it has been at the hub of all Icelandic affairs. As early as 930 A.D. Alþingi (the Althing) was only 30 miles away at Þingvellir and later there was a very powerful monastery on the off-lying island of Viðey.
For many years the Danish Governors lived at nearby Bessastaðir. From the earliest times merchants came from England, Holland and Germany to trade with the fishermen-farmers of Reykjavík. It was, however, in the middle of the 18th century that Reykjavík really started to develop into what it has become today. It was thanks to the almost single-handed efforts of a man named Skúli Magnússon, the first Icelander to be appointed High Sheriff of Iceland, that the tiny fishing and farming village of about 150 people changed so radically.
In the mid-18th century Skúli built wool-processing factories in Reykjavík as part of a national effort not only to improve the simple lot of the Icelandic people but also to end the cruel stranglehold of the Danish trade monopoly.
By 1786, with a population of 167, Reykjavík had its charter as a market-town. The Bishopric was moved from Skálholt to Reykjavík in 1796, another sign of where the town was heading. Around the same time the local prison was converted into Government House (the low white building opposite the square in Lækjargata) and has been the office of the heads of government ever since.
Following Home Rule in 1904 the town developed by leaps and bounds: Hospitals were extended, their services improved and new ones built. The University was established to provide higher education for 300 students (ca. 10,000 today). The country’s more important financial houses were established in Reykjavík, starting with the National Bank in 1885. In 1908 a Lord Mayor was appointed to head the City Council.
The city began to provide utilities in earnest: fresh water in 1909, gas (obsolete by the fifties) a little later. The construction of the old harbour took place between 1913 and 1917 with the aid of a light railway - the only railway there has ever been in Iceland - that carried fill from the hill Öskjuhlíð on which the hot water tanks stand today.
A power station was built in 1921 on the Elliðaár river, one of Icelands’s better salmon rivers. It was not long before this became inadequate and in cooperation with the State the town built the hydroelectric plant on the river Sog - a venture
that led to the formation of the National Power Company. Reykjavík Heating Service (Hitaveita Reykjavíkur) has been supplying geothermal water to the homes of the city since 1939 and continues to do so most efficiently.
Printing started in Reykjavík in 1844. Today, more books, magazines and newspapers are printed per capita in Reykjavík than anywhere else in the world.
The excellent work of a succession of dedicated city engineers and their staffs has helped to make Reykjavík an organised, spacious, well-kept community.
There are a number of buildings of historical, architectural or cultural interest in or near the downtown area. On the south side of Austurvöllur Square in the centre of Reykjavík is the house of Alþingi (Parliament) built in 1881 and beside it the Lutheran Cathedral built in 1796. In the centre of the square is the statue of Jón Sigurðsson, patriot, who started Iceland on the road to independence from the Danish Crown. Nearby, in Lækjargata, is the National Art Gallery in what was once a warehouse for storing ice taken from the lake Tjörnin. To the east, at the top of the hill, is Hallgrímskirkja, a church of medieval proportions, dedicated to the 17th century poet Hallgrímur Pétursson.
Returning to Austurvöllur Square you come to a statue of High Sheriff Skúli Magnússon, across the road from City Hall built out into the Tjörnin lake. From here it is about a 15 minute walk south to the University campus and the National Museum, the Manuscript Institute, The Nordic House and the University Concert Hall and Cinema.
Looking east from this area across the runways of Reykjavík domestic Airport to Öskjuhlíð hill, you will see Perlan (“The pearl”), perched atop the hot water tanks that supply Reykjavík with heat and running hot water.
A few of the many other sights worth seeing in Reykjavík that should be mentioned are: the Tjörnin Lake in the city centre, along with its surrounding park, Hljómskálagarðurinn; the old harbour area, also right in the centre of the city; Reykjavík Art Museum; Öskjuhlíð hill, whose slopes are wooded and crisscrossed with marked footpaths; the Laugardalur valley with its sports facilities, campsite, swimming pool, Reykjavík Zoo and Family Park, botanical gardens and footpaths; and the Árbæjarsafn Folk Museum near the crossroads marking the beginning of Highway 1 (Ring Road) in the outskirts of the city.
source Iceland Road Atlas