One of Reykjavik’s most iconic structures is the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran parish church. Sitting atop a hill at the end of Skolavordustigur street in downtown Reykjavik, this holy place has come to symbolize not only Iceland’s capital but the country itself. Standing proudly at 74.5 meters (240 feet), it is the tallest church in Iceland and one of the country’s tallest structures. This is quite evident as you can see the important landmark from almost any point in the city. The church watches over Reykjavik much like Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. So what’s the history behind this great building? Who designed it? And why does the facade resemble a pipe organ? Let’s get the full story behind this Icelandic icon.

Hallgrímskirkja during the Northern Lights is a must-do for sightseeing in Reykjavik

Background and History of Hallgrímskirkja

The church gets its name from Hallgrímur Pétursson. He was a famous 17th-century Icelandic poet and clergyman. His most well-known work is the Passion Hymns. These 50 poetic texts go through the Passion narrative and are sung or read during Lent in Icelandic homes. Hallgrímur Pétursson is so well-respected and beloved that there are actually two churches named after him. Hallgrímskirkja was commissioned in 1937. After some time spent deciding on the design of the church, construction began in 1945. Engineers built the crypt, steeple, wings, and nave in segments. The Lutheran temple was finally completed in 1986. The spire was originally not supposed to be so tall, but leaders of the Church of Iceland wanted something to rival that of the Reyjavik’s Landakot Catholic cathedral. The church initially received mixed reactions. Some thought it was too stodgy and old-fashioned while others said there were too many different architectural styles.

Nowadays, the church is a beloved icon and its distinctive mix of  Gothic Revival architecture and Expressionist architecture are part of its charm. Some assume that the long, vertical pillars evoke the church’s massive 15 m (49 foot) tall pipe organ, but in reality, it’s something else. The architect who designed the cathedral took his cues from Iceland’s natural landscapes. Anyone who has seen the hexagonal basalt columns at Reynisfjara or at Svartifoss waterfall will no doubt recognize the inspiration for this unique architectural feature.

Basalt columns like Svartifoss were the inspiration for Hallgrímskirkja's unique architecture

Hallgrímskirkja’s Architect: Guðjón Samúelsson

Guðjón Samúelsson was a trailblazer in Iceland. He was the first Icelander to officially receive training in architecture. Many consider him to be one of the country’s most influential architects. He played a major role in the modernization, urbanization, and planning of Reykjavik. Samúelsson also designed several other well-known buildings in his native land. Some of his most notable works are the National Theatre of Iceland, the Landakot Roman Catholic Cathedral in Reykjavík, the main building of the University of Iceland, and the Church of Akureyri. Both the geology of his country’s landscapes and more folksy buildings like the country’s turf houses inspired the state architect. Hallgrímskirkja (pronounced hatl-krims-kirk-ya) is his final and most famous design.

The Church’s Opening Hours

The opening hours vary depending on the season. From October to April, you can visit the church from 9 am to 5 pm. Summer hours last until 9 pm, so from May to September, visiting hours are 9 am to 9 pm.

The view from Reykjavik's HallgrímskirkjaThe interior of the church is beautiful yet simple, and its most striking feature is its aforementioned pipe organ. Those who do the climb to the top of the hill where the church sits get the reward of magnificent views of Reykjavik and Faxa Bay. On extremely clear days it’s also possible to glimpse the mighty Snaefellsjökull glacier far off in the distance.

Reykjavik Sightseeing: Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church

Whether you’re stopping in Reykjavik for a few hours or a few days, make sure Hallgrímskirkja church is on your itinerary. A walk around the city is a great way to learn your way around and get to know Iceland’s capital on a more intimate level. So grab a warm drink, start strolling, and find your way to Hallgrímskirkja.

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