In Reykjavík, the northernmost capital on the planet, the two quintessential buildings are Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran parish church, and Harpa, the music hall. The former towers up from a hill in the center of the old town, pointing toward the heavens. The latter sits down by the harbor, with a view of the bay that opens wide to the Atlantic.
Hallgrímskirkja is dedicated to the memory of one of Iceland’s most loved poets: the pastor and Baroque psalmist Hallgrímur Pétursson, who died of leprosy in 1674. This house of God takes the shape of an álfakirkja, or elf church—a testament to the somewhat eccentric Christianity practiced on this island. Icelanders believe that the huldufólk (“hidden people”) who populate the isle hold their masses in rock formations in the mountains. The base and spire of Hallgrímskirkja imitate the magnificent columns of hexagonal basalt, found throughout the country, that helped inspire these tales—for the people of old considered them to be sure proof that the land itself was sculpted by the hands of ancient forces, mythical or biblical. Until the mid 19th century, church services in Iceland did not include choral music; the Icelanders’ only chance of hearing wondrous choral harmonies was if they happened to pass an elf mass being celebrated in the wilderness.
Harpa, the other signature building of Reykjavík, is a temple to music, named after the most poetic of instruments. The outer shell of this building, too, is based on the revered hexagonal basalt columns—this time made of glass and steel. Designed by Olafur Eliasson, the Icelandic-Danish star of the contemporary art world, the building’s exterior looks like solid, gleaming rock. But inside, it becomes transparent, like melting ice, giving view to the world of humans and mountains beyond.
Though their design and construction are separated by six decades, both Harpa and Hallgrímskirkja share a common philosophy. The inhabitants of this small city at the edge of the world have always strived to be as cosmopolitan as possible—but they still want to keep their natural phenomena close and visible, even when they’re not out in the wild themselves.
From childhood I was taught to appreciate the raw beauty of my country, in school and at home. The landscape makes up a large part of the self-identity of those born and bred on the island. It is what fueled the works of Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval, perhaps the most important Icelandic painter. It is also the domain of our 19th-century Romantic poets, who—by reinventing the treacherous lava fields, the merciless waters, the desolate beaches and deadly highlands as mirrors for the human struggle, the resilience of the spirit, and the endurance of the body—used their words to craft a treaty between their fellow Icelanders and the hostile environment that threatened their existence at every step. The movement was both an exercise in writing about the sublime and a tool to create a nation—to seek a path toward political independence from Denmark, which granted Iceland home rule in 1904. In our minds, the land and the poetry praising it fused together.
Around the same time Icelanders were discovering their own country, so too were foreign travelers. Nineteenth-century artists, writers, and scholars from elsewhere in Europe were the first bona fide tourists to seek Icelandic shores, braving the waves to visit this volcanic rock in the north. Some, like pioneering Austrian travel writer Ida Pfeiffer, wanted to see the legendary landscapes. As Pfeiffer writes in her 1846 book, Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North, the country contained “nature in a garb such as she wears nowhere else.”
Others—English author and artist William Morris among the more famous—were drawn by the thrill of walking the same earth as the characters of Iceland’s medieval sagas. In these writers’ retellings, we again find the coming together of literature and nature, this time read together by the keen eyes of foreign sightseers. The fields and fjords became stage sets for gripping tales about love and revenge, noble riders and murderous villains, strong women and flawed heroes. Time has swallowed up the actors, but the grounds are still there, prepared for the arrival of a new cast, ready to play out their individual stories under the wide sky.
More recently, Icelanders have revisited their own country as vacationers. Traveling abroad was impossible because of COVID-19, but the tourism industry has become an important part of our economy in the past 15 years, and there was a consensus among islanders that it was up to us to save what we could of it. My wife and I took to the Ring Road, the famous highway that loops the island, visiting both places dear to us and parts of Iceland I had never seen before. The rocky mountain giants were newly mind-blowing, the fragile flora deeply touching. It was good to be reminded why people flock to this land from all over the globe. What had changed since my younger days was that this time around we experienced its riches in the company of our new compatriots—immigrants who have arrived in recent years from Poland, from Thailand, from the Philippines. It is in their discoveries, their new connection to Iceland’s rugged nature, that we can renew our own relationships to it.
Even now, when we city dwellers take to the road, we return to Reykjavík carrying the landscape inside of us. We find comfort in buildings that imitate nature’s own design. But even Harpa and Hallgrímskirkja are tiny compared with the originals. This land is a reminder, in times of crisis, that humankind is small, at most a fragment of a larger poem.
A version of this story first appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Fire & Ice.