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A Complete Guide to Hallgrimskirkja Church

The Largest Church - The Symbol of Reykjavik - Unparalleled Panorama View

April 11, 2019
author YS Lee

By YS Lee

A journalist, photographer and nature lover, YS finds inspiration in Iceland’s vast wilderness and wants to share with her audience everything about travelling in Iceland through words and visuals.


As an astounding landmark in the capital city of Iceland, Hallgrimskirkja Church is the highest building in downtown Reykjavik, dominating the skyline of the northernmost capital of the world. It stands out among the cute, colorful two-floored houses, and for which it’s one of the most photogenic spots in the entire country. As a destination like no other, we are going to go over everything you need to know about visiting Hallgrimskirkja church and its vicinity.

A Complete Guide to Hallgrimskirkja Church

The Name of Hallgrimskirkja

The Lutheran church was named after the 17th-century Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson. His most renowned work is the Passion Hymns, which writes in Icelandic as “Passíusálmar.” Unlike many Icelandic words that sound like tongue twisters, the church’s name is relatively easy to pronounce. The most common mistakes that foreigners make is to pronounce the two “l”s since in Icelandic the double “l”s pronounced like “t.”

The History of Hallgrimskirkja

When you compare Reykjavik’s 1860 skyline to the current one, you will notice that the cityscape of Reykjavik has changed dramatically. It looked more like a small village back then when there was only one main church, Dómkirkjan church, standing in the city center.

In 1929, the Parish of Reykjavik initiated a national competition looking for an ideal blueprint for a new church in downtown Reykjavik - a church that should seat 1200 people, that has a high tower that additionally serves as a radio mast for the national radio service that’s soon to be founded. However, until 1937, there was no winner in the competition. So, the Parish passed the task to the State Architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samúelsson, who has designed multiple important structures in the city.

As the first Icelander who was educated in architecture, Guðjón Samúelsson lived almost his entire life on a street in downtown Reykjavik named Skolavordustigur. The sloped street connects the main shopping street of Reykjavik, Laugavegur, and other major areas in the capital, and it leads to the top of the hill named Skólavörðuhæð, a spot Samuelsson envisioned to be a perfect spot for such church, as the church tower-to-be will have a splendid view overlooking the city and the harbor.

Hallgrimskirkja Standing on top of the hill at Skolavordustigur

The top of the hill, Skólavörðuhæð, a spot Samuelsson envisioned to be a perfect spot for the church

As a State Architect, he has designed multiple structures in Reykjavik including the main building of the University of Iceland, the National Theater, a number of churches, and the first city plan for Reykjavik in 1927.

But the construction of Hallgrimskirkja Church was not smooth sailing. The architect himself passed away in 1950 due to a disease, leaving the design of the church unfinished. In the following years, other architects had to try their best to work out a plan for continuing the vision of Samuelsson. The task of completing the design fell on architects Hörður Bjarnason and Garðar Halldórsson. The construction started in 1945, after more than 40 years and going through all the criticisms and debates, Hallgrimskirkja Church finally consecrated on 26 October. 1986.

The Design of Hallgrimskirkja Church

Iceland was new to owning a national style that’s easily recognizable. Samuelsson wanted to fill this void by creating an Icelandic national architectural style that’s inspired by its incredible natural and geographical features of the amazing country that people can distinguish over time. And in Iceland, the most common geological feature is the ubiquitous basalt columns as the glorious creation of the volcanoes and glaciers. Samuelsson strongly favored this feature to set the tone for his vision of the national style. The dark grey, sometimes blackish hexagonal columns had become the signature in many of his design work. Hallgrimskirkja is a great example of that.

As a structure built of concrete, the surface of Hallgrimskirkja is coated in a rough cast of white granite. It’s an essential element making the connection between the architectural style and the raw Icelandic nature, which resulted in a blend of modernism and Icelandic naturalism. The span of the jagged columns on both sides created a memorable wide facade, inspired by the world-renowned black sand beach Reynisfjara on the South Coast, and Svartifoss, Black Waterfall in Skaftafell Nature Reserve near the largest glacier Vatnajokull.

Hallgrimskirkja is inspired by the basalt columns at the world-renowned black sand beach Reynisfjara

Hallgrimskirkja is inspired by the basalt columns at the world-renowned black sand beach Reynisfjara

People always feel the exterior of Hallgrimskirkja shows a great deal of coolness and remoteness that the Arctic would imply. When you walk inside the church, the feeling of distance isn’t going away but being reinforced by interior’s minimalism consistent throughout the entire visual journey of the church.

The minimalism of Hallgrimskirkja church Inside

Hallgrimskirkja’s minimalism is consistent throughout the entire visual journey of the church.

However, many Icelanders didn’t see the design eye to eye at the beginning. Many other architects also harshly criticized it. The design of the church is so distinctively unique that people needed time and context to digest the architecture. Until recently, Iceland experiences its biggest tourism boom so far in history, many travelers came to the country for the astonishing landscapes and the vibrant cityscapes, Hallgrimskirkja became celebrated among tourists, and locals as well.

Ascending on top of the tower of 73 meters in height is a highlight of the tour. You will see white-capped mountains in the distance, and everything Reykjavik has to offer. The panoramic view of Reykjavik downtown from Hallgrimskirkja’s tower has become an iconic imagery on social media.

The Pipe Organ of Hallgrimskirkja Church

Samuelsson once addressed a famous quote from the great English art critic John Ruskin as he was describing the idea behind the basalt columns - to create the “music turned into stone.” The abstract critique is, in fact, made true in real life by the enormous concert pipe organ inside Hallgrimskirkja.

An organist of Hallgrimskirkja, Björn Steinar Sólbergsson, is performing J.S. Bach's Fugue with the Pipe Organ at the church.

As Iceland’s largest pipe organ, it’s constructed by Johannes Klais of Bonn in Germany. The 15.24 meters (50 feet) tall instrument has 72 stops and 5,275 pipes, and the entirety weighs 25 tons. The largest pipes are about 10 meters (30.8 feet) high. The structure of the church also allows outstanding acoustics for the sound projection, which enables the church being a fantastic venue for hosting choir performance, drama shows, art exhibitions, ceremonial events, and even public debates. The choir performance is especially worth mentioning since it’s what Icelanders are good at and are proud of. A related fun fact: there are more than 300 choirs of all kinds with over 900 choir members across Iceland and growing. It surely is a country of music.

All aspects of Hallgrimskirkja and Pipe Organ player performing

Left: Hallgrimskirkja Front; Middle: Musician playing the pipe organ; Right: the back of the church

n 2012, Hallgrimskirkja pipe organ went through a cleaning process that enabled the traditional mechanical instrument to be refurbished and connected to computers, making it the latest model “Midi-equipment.”

To immerse yourself in the acoustics of the church, a YouTube video featuring Bjork, Icelandic pop icon, performing in Hallgrimskirkja can best testify the versatility of the grandeur and glory.

Björk performing "Anchor Song" with The Europe Choir at The Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The Statue in Front of Hallgrimskirkja Church

The first thing you will notice when you get to the church is the green statue standing on top of a stone pedestal. The name for the heroic figure is the famous Leifur Eiriksson. And you have probably already encountered his name before you meet him “in person” because, at Keflavik International Airport, the terminal is named after him. As the first known European who has set foot on the North American continent before Christopher Columbus, Eiriksson was once was considered as Norwegian due to its close tie being a Viking. At that time, the notion of being a Norwegian or an Icelandic was different from how we perceive nationality today. In Eiriksson’s age, these two roots can be taken as one since they only differentiated themselves from being Danes and Swedes.

Leifur Eiriksson Statue in front of Hallgrimskirkja

The statue of Eiriksson was a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of Althingi

The statue of Eiriksson was a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of Althingi, the oldest parliament in the world that was established in 930 AD. But Icelanders took the weight of the 50-ton gift a bit far as they argue this nice gesture was to officially recognize Leifur Eiriksson as an Icelandic person rather than a Norwegian. The debate has not ended yet.

The statue of Eiriksson

The statue of Eiriksson seen from the back

Also, it’s good to know that the statue hasn’t really completed its installation. Its sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder envisioned to put the statue in the middle of a pond as the water symbolizes the North Atlantic Ocean that he once crossed - A beautiful idea that might be proven difficult in Iceland since a fountain statue combination is never a thing in the Nordic island nation.

Visiting Hallgrimskirkja Church

If we could make an analogy to compare Reykjavik to London so we can better understand how important Hallgrimskirkja is, in the contemporary culture of Iceland, then it should go like this. We call people who are born within the hearing radius of the Bow Bell in East London “Cockneys.” In Reykjavik, we may have something similar by calling those who like to hang out within the hearing radius of Hallgrimskirkja Tower Bell “downtown rat,” though the truth is, the Icelandic word “miðbæjarrottur” (downtown rat in English) means people who like to spend their time in the area with a zip code of 101, the downtown Reykjavik area. Hallgirmskirkja is the center of the zip code 101, and a fantastic spot to visit.

Hallgrimskirkja is located in downtown Reykjavik

Hallgrimskirkja is located in downtown Reykjavik overlooking the city and the harbor

The location of Hallgrimskirkja church on GPS coordinates is 64.1417° N, 21.9266° W. Its physical address is: Hallgrímstorg 101, 101 Reykjavík. It almost sounds as memorable as Apple’s new company address at 1 Apple Park way in the Silicon Valley of California - imagine you have an address created just for you.

Visiting Hallgrimskirkja is an amazing experience

The Inside Gate of the Church

How to get there?

Many bus routes stop close to the church, and they are coming from multiple parts of the capital. If you are staying in the Capital Region but outside downtown Reykjavik, you will need to make a transfer in between.

If you stay in downtown Reykjavik, getting there should be very easy. The city is walking friendly and it has a lot to offer for people who enjoy walking.

Opening Hours

Hallgrimskirkja has seasonal opening hours.

In winter, from October to April, the church opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. The tower closes a bit earlier at 4:30 p.m.

In summer, from May to September, the church opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 9 p.m. The tower closes at 8:30 p.m., making it a perfect spot for seeing the cityscape covered by soft light from the sunset.

Entrance Fee

The entrance to the church is free. It only costs when you want to take the elevator to the tower, which is highly recommended to see the city.

For children aged from seven to 16, it only costs ISK 100, that’s roughly no more than one dollar or one euro.

For adults, the admission fee is ISK 1000.

The tower admission ticket can be purchased in the church shop.

A friendly reminder:

The church preserves rights to close without notice due to maintenance, social engagements, or other reasons. During an ongoing service or concerts, the church welcomes visitors to stay, just please in mind that try to avoid disturbance.

Best Spots to Photograph Hallgrimskirkja

Hallgrimskirkja is, without a doubt, the most popular attraction in Reykjavik, or we can even say it’s the most visited in Iceland. As the highest structure in downtown, the church presents itself proudly on the hilltop. If you are thinking about photographing the church properly, we are here to share a few tips on the favorite spots for excellent imagery.

The most popular spots are all near the church. There are plenty of options for a good photo. You can be in the farther areas of front right, front, and front left, capturing a wide angle of the subject. Or, you can walk closer to the church’s gate and take close-up shots of the structure showing details and elements.

Hallgrimskirkja seen from the other side of the lake in Reykjavik

Hallgrimskirkja seen from afar in Reykjavik (Photo credit to Óli Haukur Mýrdal)

If you are staying in a place that’s higher than most of the houses in downtown Reykjavik, then you are in for an eye-pleasing adventure as you are able to observe the church within Reykjavik’s awesome cityscape.

The skyline of Reykjavik has been developing fiercely in recent years. It also positively offers a wonderful subject for photographers. When you are at the Old Harbor of Reykjavik, you are able to frame Hallgirmskirkja with another landmark, Harpa Concert Hall, in the same image, which is quite nice to have for your collection.

Don’t worry if you are not staying near Reykjavik city center. The Capital Region is pretty much low-rise. The church can be seen even farther away in Alftanes and Hafnarfjordur, two neighboring towns. A detailed location map is provided here for you to fully enjoy a photo hunt.

The grandeur of Hallgrimskirkja church in golden sunlight

The grandeur of Hallgrimskirkja church in golden sunlight (Photo by Hjörleifur Sveinbjörnsson)

Hallgrimskirkja Church in Fours Seasons

Speaking of four seasons, Iceland doesn’t really have a cycle of four distinctive seasons like most parts of the world do. The country, or more specifically, the Capital Region of Iceland, has a rather mild winter and warm summer alternating. The locals sometimes joke that there’s only one season in Iceland - after the first winter, it comes the second winter before it alternates back to the previous winter.

But no matter what, all 12 months bring to Iceland extraordinary sceneries, and Hallgrimskirkja is a perfect symbol to demonstrate that!

Hallgrimskirkja afar seen from Hafnarfjordur in winter

Hallgrimskirkja seen from Hafnarfjordur in winter (Photo credit to Yanshu Li)

Hallgrimskirkja as a Tour Pick-up Location

Unlike many other countries, Iceland’s population density is relatively low, even in its most populated Reykjavik area. For tour participants staying in different parts of Reykjavik, meeting up at one location is rather hard before the tour starts. Many tour operators started to improve the efficiency of the logistics by having the driver picking up tourists one by one within a said period of time.

It came out as a brilliant idea.  

Hallgrimskirkja has one pick-up bus stop right next to it - Bus Stop number eight (No. 8) - it’s located on the west side of the churchyard.

If your accommodation is located close by, No.8 will be your pick-up stop for tours departing from Reykjavik. There are all types of tours suitable for everyone: sightseeing day tours, glacier adventures, and fantastic combo tours.

Video from Extreme Iceland | South Coast Day Tour

The most popular ones are:

You can also take your backpack for an adventure on a glacier in South Iceland:

There are also multiple activity tours within the Golden Circle Route:

Hallgrimskirkja’s Nearby Attractions

Downtown Reykjavik is a walking friendly area. If you want to spend a day exploring the city, Hallgrimskirkja is close to many other attractions and it’s a great starting or end point of your day.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center

Icelanders named the impressive, iridescent glass structure “Harpa.” Located on the shore of Reykjavik Harbor, Harpa has become the cultural center of the nation since its inauguration in 2011. Its event calendar is packed with wonderful concerts, music festivals, performances, talk shows and many more. When evening approaches and the sun goes down, Harpa’s photogenic, geometrical exterior is always the center of attention. The memorable glass structure is modeled of more than 1000 quasi-bricks, and each brick is taller than an average adult’s height. The architect also enabled the glass more interaction with light by adding many special, colorful pieces of glass, allowing Harpa to shine brilliantly in the sun.

The iridescent glass of Harpa Concert Hall

Harpa’s photogenic, geometrical exterior is always the center of attention

Perlan Museum

Not far from Hallgrimskirkja, you will find Perlan Museum perched on top of a hill with a blue dome looming in the air. Its beautiful Icelandic name “perlan” is referencing “the pearl” in English for its sphere shape. In recent years, Perlan has undergone a robust renovation, launching several exhibitions including glaciers and ice cave experience, puffin and volcano exhibitions. There is also an awesome planetarium where you can immerse yourselves under amazing Northern Lights filled the sky, or powerful volcano eruptions. Perlan’s observation deck is a must-visit as well as you can see the entire Reykjavik area on a fine day!

Reykjavik Harbor or the Old Harbor

Not far from Hallgrimskirkja, a quiet, picturesque harbor is found on the west corner of the extensive shoreline of Reykjavik. Boats of different sizes and colors dock at the harbor, preparing for their next journey out in the sea.

The most popular and praised outing on one of the boats here is the beloved whale watching tours. Boarding the whale watching boat, your exciting journey will take you first out to the ocean from Reykjavik water as buildings, mountains and busy Nordic metropolis retreating away. There are mainly four whale species found in the water of Faxafloi Bay: Minke whales, Humpback whales, White-Beaked Dolphins, and Harbor Porpoises. You can also pick the RIB boat whale watching tour as it’s able to get closer to those beautiful marine creatures.

Hallgrimskirkja Dominates the Skyline of Reykjavik from the Old Harbor

Hallgrimskirkja Dominates the Skyline of Reykjavik from the Old Harbor

Accommodations Near Hallgrimskirkja

There are many wonderful hotels, hostels, and guesthouses near Hallgrimskirkja. If you want to book a nice spot, we suggest you plan and book early. Staying near the church has a natural advantage of being close to gourmet restaurants for great food, and nightlife is also easy.

The Tower of Hallgrimskirkja is visible on streets of downtown Reykjavik

Hallgrimskirkja's tower overlooking the city

Hotels

Hotel Leifur Eiriksson

Hotel Holt

Alda Hotel

OK Hotel

Hotel Reykjavik Centrum

Skuggi Hotel by Keahotels

Canopy by Hilton

CenterHotel Skjaldbreid

Reykjavik Residence Hotel

ION City Hotel

CenterHotel Klopp

Sandhotel

Hostels, Guesthouses, and Apartments

Kex Hostel

Sunna Guesthouse

Aurora Guesthouse

Guesthouse Andrea

Gestin Guesthouse

Eric the Red Guesthouse

Hostel B47

Reykjavik Hostel Village

Snorris Guesthouse

Birta Apartments

Hallgrimskirkja Church’s Social Significance

Many national or important social events were held in Hallgrimskirkja Church - the recent one being the wedding ceremony for the Captain of the Icelandic National Football team, Aron Gunnarsson, who fought along with his fearless fellows outstandingly in the Euro Cup in 2016, and the World Cup in 2018.

Every year in one of the darkest months in Iceland, Reykjavik will put up a light show illuminating the winter night with exciting, artistic light choreography, the best one being the Hallgrimskirkja light show.

There’s so much to explore in all aspects of the amazing church. Before you hit the road to visit other parts of the country, make sure to enjoy what Hallgrímskirkja could bring you.

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