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  • Writer's pictureEinar Páll Svavarsson

Hallgrímskirkja - Hallgrimskirkja Church of Hallgrímur in Reykjavík

Updated: 1 day ago

Hallgrímskirkja at New Year's Eve
My photo of Hallgrímskirkja at New Year's Eve was the photo of the day at National Geographic on December 31st 2016

Hallgrímskirkja is the best-known landmark in Reykjavík city. Hallgrímskirkja is a church at the top of Skólavörðuholt, a small hill in the Reykjavík City Center district. For decades and even centuries, the hill was the highest point in the village of Reykjavík and then the town of Reykjavík. That was before the districts of Árbær, Breiðholt, Grafarholt, and Grafarvogur developed in the early 20th century on land with higher elevation and before Reykjavík became a city. As early as the second decade of the 20th century, ideas began to surface suggesting building a church on the Skólavörðuholt hill. At a time when religion mattered more than it does today, Christianity was at the center of everyone’s life. In the third decade, elaborated proposals started to see daylight as the State Architect, titled House Master of the State, Guðjón Samúelsson, presented his grand idea about several buildings at Skólavörðuholt. Ideas that were supposed to represent the highest elevation of Icelandic culture and civic life, in any sense of the word, and give the small, remote Arctic Island an international makeover. An idea that never came to live apart from the idea of building a church at Skólavörðuholt. So even though Hallgrímskirkja church is just a building, its cultural reference has a much deeper meaning for Iceland, Reykjavík, and Icelanders. Hallgrímskirkja is an Evangelical-Lutheran church and part of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Iceland.

Hallgrimskirkja Church is a building that sparked decades of disputes

Skólavörðustígur street in front of Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík
Skólavörðustígur street in front of Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík

The State Architect and House Master of the State, Guðjón Samúelsson, is a remarkable person in Icelandic history. In addition to being the architect of Hallgrímskirkja church, he is also the architect of the main building at the University of Iceland, The National Theater in the Reykjavík City Center, and many other significant buildings in Reykjavík and around the country. You will most likely continue to see his name as you travel around the island and visit places with schools, churches, and other official buildings. His work and plan regarding Hallgrimskirkja Church started around 1937, and construction began around 1945. Forty-one years later, when the church was dedicated and blessed in 1986, it had initiated a flood of disputes and political conflicts while under construction. People argued left and right about the cost, the height of the tower, whether the church was beautiful or a blend of ugly, contradictory architecture, and many other matters as the church stood half-built for decades. For those of us who were born in the two decades after the Second World War, it was a monument to the slow process toward better times and prosperity. In 2008, the church was renovated due to major damages to the concrete and outside walls of the tower. As the repairs and improvements were extremely expensive of Hallgrímskirkja church, it took some years before they were done. Most of the outside layer of the tower had to be removed. It was a devastating sight, as the church has so recently been finished.

Hallgrímskirkja is a very Icelandic architectural phenomenon

Springtime by Hallrímskirkja
Springtime by Hallrímskirkja

When the initial design at Hallgrímskirkja church started, only a few artists, natural scientists, and people interested in traveling the countryside of Iceland for enjoyment really understood the value of our landscapes and natural wonders. Guðjón Samúelsson was one of those who knew and appreciated Iceland’s nature. Born and raised at Hunkubakkar, only a few minutes’ walk from Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, and having the mind of an artist and designer, it is not difficult to understand why he sought inspiration from many natural wonders.

Hallgrímskirkja and the basalt column stacks inspiration out in nature
Hallgrímskirkja church and the basalt column stacks inspiration out in nature.

One of the most obvious references is the basalt columns that we can see at Dverghamrar, not far from his home, at Gerðuberg in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell. You can see basalt column stacks in many places in Iceland. Many admirers of Hallgrímskirkja’s architecture also see references to mountains, icebergs, and glaciers. Although seen as a part of early 20th-century expressionist architecture, it is a very Icelandic phenomenon when we look at the references to many of our natural wonders and landscapes.

The name and the historical source

Hallgrímskirkja during Christmas
Hallgrímskirkja during Christmas

Hallgrímskirkja, or The Hallgrímskirkja church, took its name from one of the most prominent individuals in the 17th century. Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674) was a minister at Hvalsneskirkja in the Reykjanes Peninsula and later the Saurbær Church in Hvalfjörður fjord. His life was quite colorful, but he was an influential pastor for his time. Hallgrímur was also a poet who wrote some of Iceland's most important hymns. His work, the Passion Hymns, consisting of 50 hymns dedicated to "the history of the pain and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ," is regarded as one of the most valuable contributions to Icelandic literature.

Hallgrímskirkja is a great building, a great church, and one the best-known landmarks in Reykjavík.

Hallgrímskirkja and Skólavörðustígur are inseparable in the Reykjavík culture
Hallgrímskirkja and Skólavörðustígur are inseparable in the Reykjavík culture

Hallgrímskirkja church is one of the most famous landmarks in Reykjavík and probably one of the best-known landmarks in Iceland, alongside some of our other renowned waterfalls like Gullfoss and Dettifoss, basalt column sites like Stuðlagil and Gerðuberg, iceberg lagoons like Jökulsárlón, and hot springs like Strokkur. It is probably the most photographed item in Iceland. As a church, it is a wonderful and peaceful place to attend services and find a sanctuary for prayer. Hallgrímskirkja church has overcome most of the criticism and is considered by many to be an important and beautiful construction with great architecture.

A view from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja church
A view from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja church

The 73-meter tower is one of Iceland's most popular observation panels, welcoming hundreds of visitors every day of the year. Admission to the tower is ISK 1200 for adults and ISK 200 for children. At the top, you will experience a wonderful view in any direction over Reykjavík city. Today, it is very difficult for anyone in Reykjavík to imagine the city without this greatly admired church, the Hallgrímskirkja church.

The Organ at Hallgrímskirkja church

The organ at Hallgrímskirkja is 15 meters high and weighs 25 tons
The organ at Hallgrímskirkja is 15 meters high and weighs 25 tons

The concert organ in Hallgrímskirkja church is the largest musical instrument in Iceland and a great addition to your visit once you enter the church. It is not unusual that organists have a practice during the day, only adding to the wonderful experience of visiting the Hallgrímskirkja church. The organ and the sound within the church often enhance the visit. The organ was built by the Johannes Klais organ factory in Germany. It was inaugurated in 1992, just before Christmas. The organ has four keyboards and pedals, 72 voices, and 5275 pipes. The organ is 15 meters high and weighs 25 tons. The largest pipes are about 10 meters high, and the instrument is part of the photogenic nature of the building. The purchase of the organ was largely financed by donations, as Icelanders were invited to buy the pipes. If you want to support the organ, it is still possible to buy a gift certificate in the church's store, which certifies that the person is the owner of a particular pipe in the organ.

Opening hours

In 2008 a major renovation to the tower took place
In 2008 a major renovation of the towerofHallgrímskirkja church took place

Hallgrímskirkja’s church opening hours are Monday through Saturday from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. If you are staying in Reykjavík, you don’t want to miss this spot! But you also need to keep in mind that it is an active church with regular religious and ceremonial activities and sometimes concerts. So sometimes the church closes at short notice, as does the tower.

If you're planning to tour Iceland in a rental car, make sure to read this article about the type of car that would be best for your trip.

Hallgrímskirkja is the best-known landmark in Reykjavík city.
Hallgrímskirkja church is the best-known landmark in Reykjavík city.


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