Ólafsvík town on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Updated: Apr 3
Ólafsvík on the on the northern shoreline of Snæfellsnes Peninsula is first mentioned in the Book of Settlement in the Icelandic Sagas when Ólafur Belgur, or Belly as he was apparently nicknamed settled there around 900 BC. The region around Ólafsvík is also a large part of the setting for one of the funniest and most interesting sagas, Eyrbyggja Saga, written in the 12th century. Today, in 2022, Ólafsvík is a small town of 1000 inhabitants that has undergone both ups and downs throughout the centuries. As a hamlet began to take shape, the area became compact with fishing huts, as fishing grounds close to the shore were plentiful. At one point in the 17th and 18th centuries, commercial vessels began sailing between Ólafsvík and Denmark, and the village became one of the larger trading ports in Iceland. Ólafsvík soon became a certified trading center, authorized by the Danish King and Danish authorities, in the late 17th century. Thus, this beautiful town has been around for many centuries and played an essential role in the history of Iceland.
Ólafsvík as an old fishing town
The town mainly consists of single-family houses developed and built in the 20th century. This becomes quite evident when you walk across the town and up the slope from the harbor. Although many homes were built in the 17th and 18th centuries, most of them were huts and sheds and have long since disappeared. The oldest building currently standing is a warehouse that was built in 1844; it was a local store. Like it was for most towns and villages around the coastline of Iceland, things took a dramatic turn at the beginning of the 20th century. After decades of using small rowing boats and docked vessels, Icelanders started to import motorboats. This development had substantial economic effects. Harbors were improved, and fish processing and fish exporting developed. Unfortunately, Ólafsvík didn’t have many entrepreneurs or opportunities to participate in the motorboat venture, probably because it did not have the appropriate harbor. Accordingly, the economy of the town declined considerably from the first decade of the century and didn’t catch up until the 40s and later, as the harbor wasn’t satisfactory until the 60s. My grandparents on my mother’s side were born and raised in Ólafsvík. They lived there until the late 40s when they moved to Keflavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Even though my grandfather was a shoemaker, they could not provide for themselves and their four daughters in Ólafsvík since poverty and shortage were widespread at the time. It was thus a very difficult time for the town and its inhabitants.
The municipality Ólafsvík and the church
These are some of the reasons that Ólafsvík has a special history among the towns in Iceland. It has witnessed both its heyday and its downfall throughout many centuries. However, today, the economy has stabilized, making it a good place to live in. The houses are kept warm with electric heating since Ólafsvík belongs to a part of the country that doesn’t have access to geothermal heat. Some years ago, Ólafsvík merged with its neighboring villages of Rif and Hellissandur and is now part of the larger municipality, Snæfellsbær, along with adjoining districts. Currently, the economy is primarily based on fishing and fish processing, and it is thriving.
An aspect that doesn’t go unnoticed when you visit Ólafsvík is the beautiful church that towers over the town. It is unlike most churches that you see around the island, which all have a similar architecture. Built and consecrated in 1967—it was designed by the architect Hákon Hertervig, who was at the time in his early 40s—it was one of the first modern churches in Iceland and has become iconic for Ólafsvík as a town.
Living in Ólafsvík
Snæfellsbær is a municipality that offers the typical “good-quality” service required by residents. The town has excellent preschools and elementary and middle schools. It also has a music school and advanced sports facilities. The economic growth in the 60s and 70s was based on the regional development policy, initiated by the Icelandic government, to enhance the quality of life around the coastline. The policy greatly improved options for the younger generation. Some decades earlier, swimming pools were built in many places in Iceland, which is also true for Ólafsvík. In the 70s and 80s, many towns and villages suffered a setback after the introduction of the fishing quota system. However, Snæfellsbær has survived quite well, and fishing is still an important part of the economy. The town has also moved toward tourism, and in Ólafsvík, you will find good restaurants, accommodation options, gas stations, a wonderful camping site, and other fine services required when traveling in a foreign country.