When in Reykjavík, Visit its Tallest Church

Basaltic design formations meet a minimalist aesthetic in Hallgrímskirkja church.  
Hallgrímskirkja church, Reykjavík, Iceland
Every night, lights illuminate the Hallgrímskirkja church and the statue of Leifur Eiriksson, credited for discovering America almost 500 years before Columbus. Photo by Fotovoyager/iStock.

Architect Guðjón Samuel never saw the completion of his iconic creation which now adorns every postcard, poster, and magnet in Reykjavík, Iceland. The Hallgrímskirkja church, at Hallgrímstorg 1, was built in honour of the saint and poet Hallgrímur Pétursson, well-known for his work “Hymns of the Passion”, a collection that is still played on the radio for Lent every year. The building is not only the city’s most recognisable structure but also the tallest church in the country.

Samuel was fascinated with the shapes that formed when lava cooled down to basalt and envisioned a design for the city inspired by basalt rocks. Hallgrímskirkja’s facade embodies this vision. Its long, dark central tower and sloping sides resemble a gigantic stalagmite of cooled lava residue, one that is 245 feet tall.

When it was first proposed, the unconventional design raised eyebrows. However, after 40 years in the making from 1945-1986, it is one of the city’s landmark symbols. The church is visible from almost every corner of Reykjavík and hardly any visitor returns without having visited it.

For its imposing grand exterior, the interior is rather simple. Tall grey columns flank the aisle leading to the altar and seem to curve into pointed arches creating a canopy punctuated by large glass windows. In the long rows of seats, wood and basalt-coloured upholstery complement each other. The most eye-catching feature inside is a pipe organ added in December 1992, about 50 feet tall and with 5,275 pipes. The 25-tonne organ made by German organ builder Johannes Klaishas featured in pieces by international concert organist Christopher Herrick.

Visitors enter through stained glass-fitted doors to stand right below it and then walk towards a small stage beside which is the altar. The minimalist interiors are all a reflection of the Lutheran roots of the church and give it a distinctly Gothic design aesthetic.

The Hallgrímskirkja offers an unparalleled view of the city. And elevator through its bell tower leads to an open-air observation deck. From that vantage point the Hallgrímskirkja feels like a sentinel quietly watching over Reykjavík.

A statue of Leifur Eiriksson, said to be the first European to discover America, looks out to rooftops of waterfront homes in the distance. The houses and lanes stretch out to meet the azure waters of an inlet of the Norwegian Sea and to the viewer atop the tower, Reykjavík spreads out below like a colourful carpet.

(www.hallgrimskirkja.is; Oct-May 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Jun-Sep 9 a.m.-9p.m.; Sunday service 11 a.m.; tower entry adults ISK 900/ Rs 520, children 7-14 ISK 100/ Rs 60.)

  • Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.

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