Hallgrimskirkja: Planning Your Visit

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral
Chris VR / TripSavvy
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The colorful Icelandic city of Reykjavik is located on an island shaped by earthquakes and volcanos and is home to the radically designed Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland's iconic Lutheran church. Rising from the hilltop in the center of the city, this church stands 250 feet tall, is visible from twelve miles away, and dominates the local skyline. Hallgrimskirkja (or Hallgrimur’s Church) also serves as an observation tower where, for a small fee (proceeds go toward church upkeep), you can ride an elevator to the top to witness an unforgettable view of Reykjavik. The steeple houses three enormous bells named Hallgrimur, Gudrun, and Steinunn after the 17th-century Reverend Hallgrímur, his wife, and his daughter who passed away at a young age. The church itself takes its name from the poet and clergyman, Hallgrimur Petursson, a man who had a major influence on the nation's spiritual development. 

History

Designed by state architect Guojon Samuelsson and commissioned in 1937, the construction of Hallgrimskirkja began in 1945 and was finally completed 41 years later in 1986. In 1948, the crypt (or vault) under the choir was consecrated for use as a worship space. It served in this capacity until 1974 when the steeple was finished, alongside both wings. The new area was consecrated and the congregation enjoyed more space and additional facilities. Finally, in 1986, the nave (the central and principal part of the Christian church) was consecrated on Reykjavik’s bicentennial day. Unfortunately, Samuelsson, who died in 1950, did not live to see the completion of his work, and while the church took years to finish, it was used for service throughout its 41 years of construction.

Hallgrimskirkja contains the largest organ in all of Iceland. Made by German organ builder Johannes Klais, this massive instrument stands at an impressive 45 feet tall and weighs an unbelievable 25 tons. The organ was finished and installed in 1992 and mid-June through mid-August, it can be heard three times per week, during a lunch hour and an evening concert.

Architecture

Samuelsson, strongly influenced by Scandinavian Modernism, was also the principal architect of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Reykjavik, as well as the Church of Akureyri. In fact, according to Samuelsson’s earliest renderings, Hallgrimskirkja was originally designed to be part of a much larger and grander neoclassical square, surrounded by institutes dedicated to the arts and higher learning. This design had striking similarities to the senate square in Helsinki. However, nothing ever became of this grand design.

Like his peers in other Nordic countries, Samuelsson wished to create a national iconic style and strove to make the church look like a part of the Icelandic terrain, with the clean, minimalist lines common to modernism. For this reason, Hallgrimskirkja was meant to resemble the mathematical symmetry of the island's volcanic basalt after it has cooled. In contrast, the interior of the church is architecturally different. Traditional high-pointed Gothic vaults and narrow windows make up the church's inside.

Interesting Facts

Hallgrimskirkja is home to many interesting pieces of trivia, all worth noting on your tour of this magnificent building:

  • Leifer Breidfjord (best known for designing the Robert Burns memorial window in the St. Giles Church in Edinburgh, Scotland) designed and crafted the main door to Hallgrimskirkja's sanctuary, as well as the large stained glass window above the front entrance. Breidfjord also designed the decorations in and around the pulpit: a symbolic representation of the Trinity, the Greek initials of Christ, and the Alpha and Omega Christian symbols.
  • The church owns a copy of Gudbrandsbiblia, the first Icelandic bible printed in 1584 in Holar, Iceland.
  • The parish of Hallgrimskirkja is 6,000 people strong and is served by two ministers, a number of additional deacons and wardens, and an organist.
  • Hallgrimskirkja is full of art and culture. Pieces of artwork hang throughout the church, like watercolors by Icelandic artist Karolina Larusdottir and paintings by the Danish artist Stefan Viggo Pedersen.
  • Founded in 1982, the church choir is among the best in Iceland. For this reason, the choir tours the country, and most of Europe, too, so that others can hear their music.
  • Outside the church stands a statue of the legendary Leif Eriksson, a Viking who is widely believed to have been the first European to discover the American continent, beating Columbus by five centuries. The statue commemorates the millennial anniversary of Iceland’s first parliament and was a gift from the United States of America.

Visiting Hallgrimskirkja

  • Best Time to Visit: Arguably, the best time to visit Hallgrimskirkja, and Iceland in general, is during the summer months when the country receives up to 21 hours of sunlight (a phenomenon called "midnight sun"). During this time (June through August), the view from the tower will be best. However, you can save some pennies on both airfare and lodging by visiting Iceland in the winter. But take note—the country receives only four to five hours of daylight from December through February.
  • Location: Hallgrimskirkja is located on a hilltop in the city of Reykjavík, Iceland, the country's capital and largest city. This coastal town sits on the southwest side of the island and is home to other attractions like the National and Saga museums.
  • Tours: The church is open to the public for self-guided tours every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. May through September, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through April. You can pay a small fee to access the tower and its amazing views of the city. The tower closes half an hour before church closing time and is not open on Sundays during mass.
  • Admission: Admission to the church is free, but it costs 1000 ISK for adults to access the tower and 100 ISK for children ages 7 to 14.
  • Tip: The church can close at any time due to events, masses, private gatherings, or maintenance. Please check operating hours before heading to Hallgrimskirkja for a tour.

Getting There

Most international airlines fly directly into Reykjavík since it's the nation's capital. Several bus routes operate within the capital city giving tourists access to Hallgrimskirkja. If you're staying out of town, however, you will need to transfer busses once you arrive at the BSI Reykjavik bus terminal. The downtown area is walkable, allowing easy access to the church by foot if you're staying close by.

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Hallgrimskirkja (Hallgrimur’s Church) in Reykjavik, Iceland