Intro to Reykjavik

What’s there to do in Reykjavik, Iceland? Well, a lot. I have no doubt that Iceland is at the top of your “countries to visit” list. And, if it’s not, it’s most likely on a friend’s. Why? Iceland is a phenomenal country with extremely diverse nature – from glaciers to forests to black-sand beaches – kind, welcoming people, a form of government that seems to work more than most, and endless opportunities for adventures both near and far. In short, Iceland is a must-see country. And, if you’re going to Iceland, you’re most likely making Reykjavik your first stop. Whether the city is as awe-inspiring as you’ve heard is entirely up to you to find out.

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Beautiful streams shooting from above the Gljúfrabúi waterfall in Iceland
Beautiful streams shooting from above the Gljúfrabúi waterfall in Iceland

117-second history of Reykjavik

800s

Reykjavik is considered to be the first permanent settlement in Iceland. Around 870 A.D., Ingólfr Arnarson, his wife, and brother ventured over to Iceland from what is today considered Norway. Ingólfr built his home, in Reykjavik, in 874 A.D. In terms of how Ingólfr decided to settle in Reykjavik, he supposedly threw a pair of long poles – known as “high-seat pillars” – from his ship and decided settle where they washed ashore.

Despite the thought that Ingólfr was the first to settle Iceland, it’s widely believed that Papars (Irish monks and hermits) had been in the country before him. They were supposedly Christian monks who somehow ended up in Iceland.

900s

The name Reykjavik (Smoke Cove) comes from the steam that early settlers saw rising from the land. And by 930, most fertile land on the island was claimed. A legislative and judiciary assembly (known as Althing) was formed so that the settlers would have a bit of law and order regarding Icelandic commerce.  

1200s

Around the 13th century, the rules that the Icelanders had put in place began to crumble under the pressure of various tribes. So, in 1262, the Norwegians assumed control. This lasted until 1415, the year the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden became united. After they all broke up (boo-hoo) in 1523, Reykjavik, and the entire country, was absorbed into what was known as Denmark-Norway.

1400s

As time passed, Iceland became one of the poorest countries in Europe. Harsh climates, unforgiving soil and volcanic eruptions made it impossible to thrive there. In the early and late 15th century, two cases of the Black Death hit Iceland, decimating their population by 50%.

The Danes eventually placed hard economic restrictions on the country, which weakened it even further. Not to mention the fact that pirates were going to Iceland and stealing people to be slaves! Man, it was tough to be an Icelander.

1700s

Fast-forward to the 18th century. Life was certainly tough in Iceland, but urban development was beginning. The harsh sanctions that the Danes put on Iceland were lifted in 1786, and domestic industries – fishing, sulphur mining, agriculture, shipbuilding and wool (yeah, wool) – began to increase. At the same time, Reykjavik secured a permanent trading charter, which signified its emergence as a city. Woohoo! Finally, a little bright light in this land of darkness.

1800s

By the 19th century, Icelanders were beginning to feel…Icelandic. Nationalist sentiments were on the rise, and our friends in Iceland wanted independence. The movement to be free from Denmark was led by a man named Jón Sigurðsson. At the same time, the general assembly of Iceland was moved from Thingvellir to Reykjavik, establishing Reykjavik as the capital of the country (started from the bottom, now we here)!

Executive power continued to move to Reykjavik, and Denmark granted Iceland a constitution in 1874. In 1918, the country finally gained independence from Denmark…sort of. Denmark signed an agreement with them, which was valid for 25 years and designated them as a sovereign state in personal union with Denmark.

1900s

The Great Depression delivered a harsh blow to Iceland. Despite this, Iceland was considered a highly strategic point during WWII, which is why British troops, then the US Army, decided to occupy it. The country saw the occupation of Denmark, around 1944, and decided it was as good a time as any to declare full independence. While many associate “occupation” with negative effects, the occupation of Iceland proved to be positive in terms of the country’s economy.

After the war, Reykjavik was the place to be. It was modernizing at a rapid pace (the world chess championship was held there in 1972, as well as the important Reykjavik summit in 1986).

2000s

As time went on, our friends in Iceland experienced a financial boom. At least, until the crash of 2008, which led to the resignation of the government. Yes, the government. Icelanders aren’t to be messed with!

Since then, the country has been on a steady road to recovery, while earning top rankings in terms of GDP (ranked 28th in the world for GDP per capita) as well as overall happiness (ranked 3rd happiest country in the entire world). From tough times was born a tough country, a place that demands a visit and certainly won’t disappoint.

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The mighty Skogafoss waterfall, note the long staircase to the right
The mighty Skogafoss waterfall, note the long staircase to the right

Summary of Reykjavik

Reykjavik, the “Smoke Cove,” has been through a lot in order to get to where it is today. From Irish hermits to norsemen to the literal plague, the capital of Iceland has certainly earned its reputation as one of the most sought after destinations in the world, and it’s likely not to disappoint. Whether you’re in the mood for a delicious meal, fancy a night out on the town, or just want to use it as a starting point for your amazing Icelandic adventure, Reykjavik is the place to be.

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Mateo is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanos in Guatemala. And right now, he’s writing his second novel. His writing has been featured internationally in publications including Matador Network, GoAbroad, Víkurfréttir, Caribbean News Now and Black & Abroad. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at SwagPapi.com

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