Overview of Reykjavík
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11 Little Known Facts About Reykjavík

Reykjavík is Iceland’s charming and vibrant capital that’s brimming with artefacts, historical buildings, and fun activities that give you deeper insight into the country’s culture, history, nature, and language. While some of what the city has to offer is obvious, there are plenty of things in Reykjavík that are hidden in plain sight.

Here are 10 little-known facts about Reykjavík that make exploring this city even more exciting.

     1. The Majority of the Country Lives in the Reykjavík Area

Over 370,000 people live in Iceland, and to many visitors’ surprise, about 63% of the country’s population (236,518) resides in the Reykjavík Capital area. While you‘ll find a mix of tourists and residents in the very centre of downtown, most people who live in the capital region reside in suburbs nearby.

The Capital Region is so heavily populated, in comparison to the rest of the country, because it‘s the centre of Iceland´s cultural, economic, and governmental activity. Additionally, almost every tourist that visits the country passes through Reykjavík or stays overnight. There are numerous restaurants, museums, music venues, historical sites, spas, pools, and accommodations. For such a “small” city, there’s a large variety of things to do and see for people of all ages.

     2. Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature

Due to the abundance of literary riches that can be found in the city, Reykjavík was designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2011. It was the first non-native English-speaking city to receive this prestigious designation, and the fifth in the world to have this title.

Icelandic medieval literature ranks among the world‘s most important and culturally significant works, and Reykjavík is home to some of the original manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas.

On the contemporary side of literature, many award-winning authors that are known domestically and globally reside in the country’s capital. Icelandic crime novels have been captivating readers worldwide for over a decade but over the last few years, different genres from Icelandic authors have been getting global recognition as well.

     3. Northern Most Capital City of a Sovereign State in the World

Iceland became a sovereign state in 1918 after signing a Union Treaty that effectively ended Denmark’s rule over the country. From that moment on, Reykjavík has held the title of the Northern Most Capital City of a Sovereign State in the World. If you say it fast enough, it kind of rolls off the tongue.

     4. Dogs Were Once Banned in Reykjavik

Dog lovers across the globe will be shocked when they find out that our canine friends were banned from living in Reykjavík for 60 years! A ban on dogs in the city was issued in 1924 for three reasons.

The first was that Reykjavík was a small but rapidly growing place at the time. Due to an acute housing shortage, many residents were living in small, overcrowded apartments. The authorities felt that banning dogs would make the living situation much more bearable.

Secondly, dogs were considered working animals and were deemed ill-suited for city life. During this time, most of the country was rural and dogs played an important role in working on farms chasing sheep. Plus, breeds like Icelandic sheepdogs need a lot of space to run wild. The last reason came down to hygiene. It was argued that dogs were a major carrier of tapeworms, so they were considered a health risk.

After many years of dog lovers being fined for illegally owning their canine companions in Reykjavík, the dog ban was lifted on April 3rd, 1984. Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story. In an effort to keep the number of dogs living in the city down, owners were still required to apply for a special permit to have their dogs in Reykjavík up until 2006.

Over the 60-year dog ban, cats became the pet of choice in the city. Whether you’re in the centre of downtown or in outlying areas, you’re bound to come across a curious and adorable cat roaming the streets.

     5. No Starbucks or McDonald’s in the City

McDonald’s was once a staple fast-food restaurant in Reykjavík from 1993-2009. Unfortunately, the financial crash between 2008 -2011 resulted in high import tariffs on imported ingredients. These tariffs made it unsustainable to run the franchise, so the owner shut down McDonald‘s on October 30th, 2009. That same owner opened a local alternative called Metro.

While Metro is not the same as McDonald‘s, it does have menu items you can find in the popular franchise but they use cheaper locally supplied ingredients.

Icelanders love their coffee but there has never been a Starbucks coffee shop here. Dunkin‘ Donuts opened a location on Reykjavík’s most famous street Laugavegur but it was short-lived. Fellow coffee enthusiasts need not fear because Reykjavík is bursting with local coffee shops that will satisfy your caffeine cravings

     6. Puffins and Whales can be seen in the area

If seeing puffins and whales while visiting Reykjavík are on your bucket list, make sure to visit our vibrant city during the summer. It’s possible to see whales year-round here, but puffins only nest on land between May and August. Surprisingly, it only takes a 15-minute boat ride from the Reykjavík harbour to see adorable puffins nesting on Akurey and Engey islands.

Whale-watching adventures require sailing farther out to sea to experience these majestic animals and other wild sea life. Minke whales, humpback whales, harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins, and other whale species have been spotted on numerous tours that departed from the old harbour in the Reykjavík area.

     7. How Reykjavík City Got Its Name

Reykjavík translates to “smoky bay”, which might seem odd to modern-day visitors, but it visually made sense to the city’s first permanent settler Ingólfur Arnarson when he decided to live there in 874. The abundance of geothermal hot water in the area created wafts of steam that rose up from the ground and made the bay look smoky. Hence the name that we have today.

A famous statue of Ingólfur Arnarson created by Einar Jónsson was erected in 1942 and can be found on Arnarhól in the downtown area.

     8. View Original Manuscripts of the Icelandic Sagas

For those that want to see some original manuscripts from the famous Icelandic Sagas, which are tales of Viking family disputes that rival any tv show dramas today, we invite you to check out the exhibits at the Culture House. There, you can also find the Poetic Edda, which is one of the most important pieces of medieval literature ever preserved.

Additionally, you’ll find fascinating artefacts, and works of art, and learn about Iceland’s visual art history and cultural heritage as you explore the seven exhibition rooms.

     9. The World’s Oldest Functioning Parliament

Alþingi, Icelandic Parliament, was founded at Þingvellir (Parliament plains) in 930. Until 1798, officials in the country met at this location to form new laws and settle disputes. Unfortunately, the Danish King at the time formally abolished Icelandic Parliament in 1800. Thankfully, the government was restored in 1844 by royal decree and was moved to Reykjavík.

The current location of Alþingi is downtown in Austurvöllur square. The stately building is made of hewn Icelandic stone and was built in 1881.

If you look closely at the front of the building, you can see 1881 written across the top. Additionally, you’ll see a bull, a dragon, a vulture, and a giant placed above the second-floor windows. These are the protectors of Iceland that are on the country’s coat of arms.

     10. A Beautiful Public Garden Hidden in Plain Sight

The protectors of Iceland are not the only surprises to be found at Alþingi. If you are facing the front of the building, walk toward the left and around the corner to find an enchanting and tranquil garden tucked behind the building. This is a public space that most visitors have no idea exists. This place is called Alþingisgarðurinn or The Alþingi Garden.

     11. A Hot Spring Road That Runs Through Downtown

Laugavegur is Reykjavík‘s most famous street. In modern times, it‘s known for having numerous shops, cafes, bakeries, bars, and restaurants. But the city was not always a cosmopolitan hot spot for travellers and locals. A loose translation of the word Laugavegur is „hot spring road“ or „wash road“. Many years ago, Icelandic women that lived in what is now downtown Reykjavík, walked this road lugging their family’s laundry for several kilometres so they could wash them in the geothermal hot springs located in Laugadalur. It was a tedious task and nothing like the lovely stroll down the street we get to experience today.