The Tourist Information Office at Aðalstræti 2 is a good starting point. Aðalstræti is the oldest street in Reykjavík, and the point from which all street numbers begin: The higher the number, the greater the distance from Aðalstræti. On the footpath across the road (Vesturgata) from the information office, the official hub of Reykjavík is marked, the perfect (if clichéd) place to stand a moment before you launch your journey around the city. Ingólfstorg (“Ingólfur’s Square”) takes up most of Aðalstræti’s eastern edge. Ingólfur Arnarson, traditionally regarded as Iceland’s first permanent settler, is thought to have settled here around 870—though Reykjavík didn’t have a proper street until the 18th century. For most of its history, Reykjavík was just one of many hereditary coastal estates. In 1613 the Danish monarch, who had imposed an oppressive trade monopoly on its Iceland colony, bought the settlement under threat of force. Reykjavík then grew into a kind of shantytown for seasonal workers assisting Danish merchants, mostly associated with the fishing trade. The oldest house in Reykjavík, from 1764, is at Aðalstræti 10; plans are afoot to open the house for tours.
A block east of Aðalstræti is Austurvöllur Square, an important outdoor gathering place and potent national symbol to every Icelander. During the early days of the financial crisis in 2008, this is where people gathered to protest. In December, a Christmas tree arrives here, a gift from the people of Oslo, as Iceland produces no adequately tall specimens. By European standards the square has little architectural distinction, but Austurvöllur has only been a public green since 1930. In the middle is a statue of Jón Sigurðsson (1811–1879), the hero of Iceland’s independence movement from Denmark. His birthday, June 17, was designated “National Day” after Icelandic independence in 1944. On the pedestal is a relief called “The Pioneer,” depicting an early settler, amid cliffs and basalt columns, forging a trail for later generations, who are lined up waiting to follow. Both the statue and relief are by Iceland’s best-known sculptor, Einar Jónsson.
Jón Sigurðsson looks approvingly at Alþingishús (Parliament House), an 1880 stone building with a glass and stone annex added in 2002. From October to May you can watch parliamentary proceedings from the visitors’ gallery (Mon 3pm; Tues–Wed 1:30pm; Thurs 10:30am). The Alþingishús (or Alþingi) and City Cathedral next door represent Icelandic independence and Reykjavík’s coming of age in the late 18th century. In 1797, the Danish king consolidated Iceland’s northern and southern bishoprics into a single diocese in Reykjavík, just as the cathedral was being completed. The following year, the Icelandic parliament (Alþing) was moved here from Þingvellir, only to be abolished 2 years later. It was reinstated in 1845 in an advisory role to the Danish authorities. Behind the Alþingi is the Parliament House Garden, the country’s oldest park maintaining its original design: a traditional, formal layout with paths emanating from a circular lawn.
The elegant, understated City Cathedral (Dómkirkjan) (tel. 520-9700; Mon–Fri 10am–4:30pm unless in use for services; Sat–Sun often busy for weddings, but open before or after; high mass Sunday 11am; various masses Sun evenings; prayer mass Tues 12:10–12:30pm) is a good counterweight to the grandiosity of Hallgrímskirkja. National independence received its first religious blessing here, and annual sessions of parliament start here with a prayer service. Completed in 1796, the cathedral was enlarged in 1848 by Copenhagen’s royal architect, L. A. Winstrup, using a conventional blend of neoclassical and baroque features. The loft was the original site of the National Museum and Archives, and still has an interesting photo exhibit. Check the information box outside the church for concerts and events, listed in Icelandic but often discernible anyway.
Also in Austurvöllur Square is the Hótel Borg, Iceland’s first luxury hotel, built in 1930 to accommodate foreign guests for the millennial celebration of Iceland’s first parliamentary assembly at Þingvellir. It’s been an important cultural landmark ever since: Public dances for Allied soldiers were held here during World War II; foreign visitors suffering under prohibition laws found refuge at the bar; and Iceland’s punk rockers performed here in the 1980s. Come in the morning to breakfast among parliament members, or visit for a drink in the small, wildly decorated lounge.
One long block east of Austurvöllur is Lækjargata, a broad avenue dividing the western and eastern halves of the city. Originally there was a brook here, and underneath the pavement, Tjörnin pond still drains to the sea.
In the courtyard behind Lækjargata 6 is the Unknown Official. Several countries have monuments to the Unknown Soldier, but perhaps only Iceland has a sculpture paying tribute to—in lighthearted manner—the thankless, anonymous job of the bureaucrat. The 1994 sculpture by Magnús Tómasson depicts a man in a suit holding a briefcase, with his head and shoulders subsumed in a slab of unsculpted stone.
Reykjavík’s geographical heart, Lækjartorg Square, has an important history of public meetings. From the square, look northeast to the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson holding his spear aloft, and the grassy slope of Arnarhóll, which was named for him. According to the Icelandic sagas, Ingólfur became Iceland’s first permanent settler in 874. After his exile from Norway on murder charges, he wintered for 3 years on the south coast of Iceland. Arnarson decided on Reykjavík after following a pagan ritual that involved throwing his high-seat pillars (carved wooden columns set at the corner of a chieftain’s chair) into the sea and trusting the gods to guide him to the right spot. Ingólfur’s slaves, so the story goes, found the pillars 3 years later right at Arnarhóll. The statue by Einar Jónsson was unveiled in 1924.
Austurstræti leads from Ingólfstorg to Lækjargata, then changes name to Bankastræti, which proceeds east from Lækjartorg Square, and after three small blocks divides into two busy commercial streets, Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur. Austurstræti, Bankastræti, and Laugavegur form a fairly straight line, and many assume Laugavegur covers this whole stretch. A block north of Laugavegur is Hverfisgata, another good street for strolling and people-watching.
Laugavegur (Hot Spring Path), Iceland’s busiest and most prestigious commercial street, was originally built as a trail for maids walking to Laugardalur to wash laundry in the natural springs. The street’s odd jumble of buildings reflects the emergent needs of commerce and benign neglect of architectural planners.