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10 interesting things you (probably) didn’t know about Reykjavík

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • At the edge of the world Reykjavík is the northernmost capital city in the world as well as the only capital city anywhere with a large puffin colony. Photo/Stefán Karlsson.

There is no denying that Reykjavík has its charm. Over the past years, international media like CNN, travel magazines, and websites like Condé Nast and Lonely Planet have named Reykjavík everything from the best place to visit for Christmas or the best place to spend New Year’s Eve, to simply the most interesting city in the world to visit. It has the aura of a cosmopolitan centre packed into a tiny, sparkling clean town.
Here are a few things that make Reykjavík surprisingly awesome and interesting:

1) The Puffin Capital:
Reykjavík is the only capital city in the world that is home to a major puffin breeding colony! Iceland, of course, is home to the largest and most important nesting grounds of the Atlantic puffin—an estimated 60% of the entire world puffin population nests in Iceland. As many as 3 or 4 million pairs of puffins nest in Iceland each year. 

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Puffin taking off Akurey island west of the old harbour is home to as many as 60,000 adult puffin Photo/Viljelm Gunnarsson

Read more: 5 Things you need to know about Puffins

Puffins build their nests in burrows on islands or cliffs around Iceland. While the largest colonies are in the Westman Islands, south of Iceland, and in Northern and Western Iceland, Reykjavík is home to a sizable puffin colony on Akurey island, west of the old harbour in Reykjavík.

Akurey is a tiny island, one of the smallest in the Faxaflói bay, measuring only 300 meters (just 0.2 miles) at its widest. Still, it is home to 20,000 to 30,000 breeding pairs of puffins, making it one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Reykjavík! 

2) Dogs were banned in Reykjavík:
Iceland in the 20th century was a curious country and Reykjavík was the capital city of this curious country! Chances are you have heard that beer was banned in Iceland between 1915 and 1989. But did you know that there were no TV broadcasts in July until 1983 and no TV on Thursdays until 1987? Or did you know that dogs were banned in Reykjavík from 1924 to 1984? 

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Man's best friend was banned in Reykjavík Dogs were only allowed in the city in 1984 Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson

The thinking behind the ban was quite simple: A city is no place for a dog. Iceland was still predominantly a rural society and the overwhelming majority of people living in Reykjavík were either first or second generation migrants from the countryside.  They considered dogs farm animals which really couldn’t adapt to urban life.

Of course, there were always people who flouted the ban by keeping illegal dogs. The most high-profile case of such illegal dogs involved the conservative MP and Minister of Finance, Albert Guðmundsson and his dog Lucy, a mongrel of undistinguished ancestry. In 1984, when Albert was reported to the police, charged with breaking the ban, and ordered to give up his dog, a media frenzy erupted which ended in the ban on dogs being partially lifted, allowing people to apply for an exception from the ban. These exceptions became progressively more liberal, until 2006, when the ban was finally lifted completely.

3) With no dogs, cats ruled!
Anyone visiting Reykjavík has noted that the city is full of cats. There are no official figures on the number of cats in Reykjavík, but the Icelandic Cat Protection Society, which operates a cat shelter, has estimated that there might be as many as 20,000 cats in the capital region or one cat for every ten people. 

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Kings of Reykjavík Reykjavík is a city of cats Photo/Stefán Karlsson

Read more: Harry the tom cat banned from visiting library

The overwhelming majority of the cats in Reykjavík are domestic cats. You might think that the large numbers of un-collared cats must be feral, but Icelanders have a bad habit of allowing their felines to roam sans collar or bell, much to the chagrin of bird lovers who have repeatedly claimed that the cats are chasing songbirds out of Reykjavík. They point out that the town of Akureyri in Northern Iceland—which, unlike Reykjavik, is not ruled by cats—has a much larger population of birds.

The feral cat population was brought under control in the 1980s and ‘90s. A massive operation in 2000 to eradicate the remaining feral population found only a handful of cats who didn’t have a warm windowsill to return to. Instead of collars, cats in Reykjavík are tagged with microchips, which allow them to be returned to their rightful owners if they get lost.

4) Permanent settlement in Iceland began in Reykjavík
According to the oldest written sources on Icelandic history, Landnámabók, the Book of Settlement, and Íslendingabók, the Book of Icelanders, the first permanent settlement in Iceland was in Reykjavík in 874.  

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A Viking age village A map showing the Viking age settlement in Reykjavík Photo/Ivan Burkni - Iceland Magazine

Archaeological research has confirmed that Reykjavík was most likely one of the first places in Iceland with a permanent settlement, although the identity of the first settler and the date of settlement are likely more myth than historical fact.

Read more: News report: The Viking Age settlement that is emerging in downtown Reykjavík

Take for example the story of why Ingólfur Arnarson, who is often said to be the first settler, chose Reykjavík. The sagas claim that Ingólfur threw his öndvegissúlur, a pair of wooden poles which were placed on either side of a Viking chief’s high seat, into the sea, vowing to settle wherever they came to shore. He then landed in Southern Iceland and sent his slaves to search for the poles. Three years later, after the poles were found near Reykjavík, Ingólfur set up his farm on the shore by the small hill Arnarhóll, where his statue now stands. 

A more likely explanation for the decision of the earliest settlers to choose Reykjavík can be found in the name of Reykjavík, which translates literally as “smoky bay.” The steam rising from hot springs in the city (see below) made Reykjavík an appealing place to build a farm. With fertile lowland, forested hills, plenty of hot and cold water, ample fishing grounds, and islands just off the coast filled with birds, Reykjavík would have been an ideal place to live.

5) Nearly half of the inhabitants during WWII were British and American
British troops arrived in Reykjavík on May 10, 1940, occupying Iceland and thus separating the Icelanders from their former colonial masters in Denmark, who were by then under German rule. A year later, America took over the military protection of Iceland. 

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The end of an era US troops remained stationed in Keflavík until 2006 Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson

The occupation forces quickly transformed Iceland and Reykjavík. In the late summer of 1941, when American troops were beginning to arrive, there were already 28,000 British troops in Iceland. By the summer of 1942, there were as many as 55,000 American and British soldiers in Iceland. Most (more than 80%) of the foreign troops were stationed in Reykjavík and its immediate vicinity in the southwestern corner of the island. When we consider the fact that the population of Reykjavík was only 38,000 in 1940, we can easily imagine the impact.

Read more: Watch: What did the “bleak outpost” of Reykjavík look like in WWII?

The foreign troops brought with them new cultural influences, new consumer goods, and above all, money. Reykjavík underwent a transformation which is probably only rivalled by the present explosion of tourism with new cafés and restaurants opening up all over town.

Read more: US considering restationing troops in Iceland

Unemployment, which had been a persistent problem in the 1930s, was wiped out overnight as Icelanders were hired to do various jobs for the troops, including the construction of barracks for the soldiers. The British also constructed the first proper airport in Iceland, the Reykjavík municipal airport, while the Americans built a larger airport near the fishing village of Keflavík on the Reykjanes peninsula. These are now the two busiest airports in Iceland.

6) People in Reykjavík lived in turf houses into the 1960s
One of the first things foreign travellers notice when arriving in Iceland is the virtual absence of trees and forests. This meant that Icelanders could not build wooden houses. But neither could Icelanders build stone buildings. The reason was that no lime deposits had been found, meaning it was not possible to make mortar. This left turf as the only easily available domestic building material for houses.  

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Puffin burrows? A traditional Icelandic turf farm Photo/Wikimedia Commons under a creative commons license, Foto von Stefan Schafft

It was only in 1863 that lime deposits were discovered in the mountain Esja north of Reykjavík. Still, it took the residents of Reykjavík more than a hundred years to move out of the turf farms or sod houses that they had lived in for centuries. In the 1960s, there were still people living in one sod farm in Reykjavík, which stood by Suðurgata street, south of the old harbour. The farm was only demolished in 1980.

Although memoirs of people who grew up in sod houses describe them as snug and cosy, it is difficult for modern humans to envision what life must have been like in a dwelling which was really a glorified hole in the ground, perhaps resembling a puffin burrow more than a modern house.

7) The northernmost capital city in the world
Life in a sod house in Reykjavík must have been particularly tough in the winter months! Reykjavík is the northernmost capital city of a sovereign state in the world. Only Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is further north than Reykjavík.  

 

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Cold, windy and dark It can be tough to survive Reykjavík winters. Photo/Pjetur Sigurðsson

Since Reykjavík is located at 64°08‘N, just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, the darkest days of winter are both very dark and very long. At the winter solstice, on December 21, daylight lasts for only 4 hours and 8 minutes in Reykjavík. Taking into consideration cloud cover and the endless rain, sleet, or snow, those four hours barely register as day. Little wonder that Reykjavík residents leave the Christmas lights out on their balconies well into January!

Read more: How long are the summer days in Iceland?

The upside, of course, is that during the summer the sun barely sets. At the summer solstice in June, Reykjavík gets 21 hours and 11 minutes of daylight.  And even the remaining 2 hours and 49 minutes are not completely dark!

8) A very small big city
Even if it sometimes feels like a large metropolis, Reykjavík is a very small city. In 2015, there were 211,282 people living in the capital region. Of those, 121,822, or just over half, lived in Reykjavík proper, with the rest living in other municipalities in the metropolitan area. This means that the greater Reykjavík area has a population similar to the city of Des Moines, Iowa, in the US, or a little less than the city of Southampton in the UK. 

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Lake Tjörnin Reykjavík manages to be both at the same time: A quaint small town and a proper city Photo/GVA

Comparatively speaking, however, Reykjavík is quite large. Almost two thirds, or over 64%, of Icelanders live in the capital region. Few countries have a similarly large portion of their population living in one city. Uruguay comes close, with 60% of the population living in the Montevideo metropolitan area.

9) Only Western European capital without a Starbucks or a McDonald’s
Reykjavík is the only Western European capital without a McDonald’s or a Starbucks. In fact, the only other European capital without a McDonald’s is Tirana, the capital of Albania, while Reykjavík shares the distinction of being Starbucks-free with Rome, the capital of espresso.

Read more: Guide: The street food of Reykjavík - Not just hot dogs anymore

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No Starbucks Reykjavík has neither a Starbucks nor a McDonalds Photo/Starbucks logo

But fear not. If you are craving fast food or coffee made by an American fast food franchise, you have plenty of places to visit. Taco Bell, KFC, Dominos, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Dunkin Donuts have all opened stores in Reykjavík. McDonald’s did try to colonize Iceland, opening a restaurant with great fanfare in 1993. Davíð Oddsson, prime minister of Iceland at the time, ordered and ate the first burger.  But for some reason, McDonald’s hamburgers never really caught on, and the restaurant was closed down in 2009.

10) A multicultural city
Despite the conspicuous absence of Starbucks or McDonald’s, the best known symbols of global consumer culture, Reykjavík is a very cosmopolitan and multicultural city. Like any other metropolis, Reykjavik’s inhabitants come from all over the world.  Immigrants of 131 different nationalities make up 8.5% of the total population. The highest concentration is in the suburb of Breiðholt, where 20% of the population is either a first or a second generation immigrant, according to the 2011 census.

 

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