Friday, 15 November 2019

Reykjavik Sightseeing: Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral

If you plan on spending any time in Reykjavik, it's likely that you're going to be doing some sightseeing around town. One of the city's most famous landmarks is our beautiful Lutheran church on a hill, Hallgrimskirkja. This holy place has become a symbol of not only the country's capital but also Iceland itself. Let's go in-depth and learn all about the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral.

Hallgrímskirkja cathedral in Reykjavk at sunrise.

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral: Basic Information


The church stands 74.5 meters tall (240 feet), which makes it the largest church in Iceland. It's also one of the tallest structures in the country. It's visible from just about anywhere in the city and serves as a reference point. Much like the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Hallgrimskirkja towers over Reykjavik.

After construction started in 1945, it took around 41 years to build and construction was completed in 1986. The church is free to enter, but if you want to go to the top of the tower it's going to cost you a little bit. Currently, the price is ISK 1000 or about $8 or 7€. Children ages 7 to 16 only have to pay ISK 100, which is less than a euro or a dollar.

I highly recommend taking a trip to the top of the observation tower. You can take the elevator straight up and enjoy the viewing deck. Much like the Perlan Observatory, it offers beautiful views over Reykjavik. It’s also a great way to get a bird’s eye view of the colorful houses that Iceland’s capital is so famous for.

Opening Hours


In the summer months (May to September), the church is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. During the winter (October to April), these hours are reduced to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The church is especially beautiful during Northern Lights season when the Aurora Borealis serves as a dazzling backdrop to the already illuminated church.

Hallgrímskirkja cathedral facade and Northern Lights

Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik Iceland’s Influence and Architect 


One of the first things people notice about Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik Iceland is its imposing facade. For those who know little about Iceland's geology or the history of the church, it might look like a large pipe organ. This is a normal assumption to make, as there is a rather large pipe organ inside. We'll touch more on that later, but for now, let's talk about the exterior of the Lutheran parish.

The man who designed this striking building was none another than Icelandic state architect Guðjón Samúelsson. He was also responsible for several other famous Icelandic buildings. These include the Church of Akureyri, the main building of the University of Iceland, the Landakot Roman Catholic Cathedral in Reykjavík, and the National Theatre of Iceland. Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral was his final work and his most famous masterpiece.

He drew his inspiration from Iceland's stunning volcanic landscapes, especially its hexagonal basalt columns. You'll find these natural rock formations in places like Svartifoss waterfall, Reynisfjara beach, Gerðuberg cliffs, and Stuðlagil canyon. These tall, geometric shapes can be found all over the island and are a unique part of the scenery. When you look at the front of Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik Iceland through this lens, it takes on a whole new dimension.

The solid concrete facade is both a nod to Icelandic nature and one of the more modernistic, expressionistic styles of architecture.

The Main Church in Reykjavik: Hallgrimskirkja and Its Massive Pipe Organ 


So while the exterior of the church has nothing to do with the huge pipe organ inside, I do still want to touch upon the topic. German organ builder Johannes Klais created this gorgeous instrument housed inside the cathedral. Its 102 ranks, 72 stops, and 5275 pipes weigh in at an impressive 25 metric tons. You’ll feel quite small standing beneath it, as it is 15 meters (49 feet) tall. The pipe organ’s construction ended in 1992.

It was also featured on CDs by famed organists Christoper Herrick (Organ Fireworks VII) and Mattias Wager (Live at Vatnajökull). Perhaps when you visit the famous church in Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja, you’ll stumble in during a service and someone will be playing a beautiful hymn on the organ.

The church has an active congregation and is frequently used for religious services, weddings, and other events. Obviously, if there is a private event going on, please be respectful and do not enter the church or take photos.

Hallgrímskirkja cathedral statue

Who's that guy standing out front? 


So many times when we go to visit a foreign country, we'll see statues and monuments of famous people from that country. Many times, you will have no idea who that person is. Well if you go to Reykjavik and visit Hallgrimskirkja, you'll notice a handsome warrior standing boldly out front just waiting to defend his beloved cathedral.

This fine gentleman is none other than Icelandic Norse explorer Leif Erikson. According to the history books, he was the first European to set foot on continental North America, back then called Vinland.  For those keeping track, his travels were around 500 years before both Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. Sorry Italy, but Iceland wins this one.

The statue by sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder was a gift from the United States to the Icelandic parliament in 1930. They wanted to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s Thingvellir Parliament, which began in 930 AD. Fun fact: Iceland wins here again as this is the world’s oldest and longest-running parliament. The statue was presented as part of the 1930 Althing Millennial Festival. This means that it predates the church, but eventually, the Icelandic government found the perfect home for it in front of Hallgrimskirkja.

Hallgrimskirkja Church: The Best of Reykjavik Sightseeing


This is a lovely church with a unique facade and a stunning interior.  In addition to the pipe organ, the vaulted ceilings are also quite impressive. While walking around Reykjavik, this building will certainly catch your eye. I highly encourage you to climb those steps at the end of Skolavordustigur street and pay Hallgrimskirkja (Hallgrímskirkja) a visit. It will likely be one of the highlights on your trip to Iceland.

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