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Reykjavik travel guide — Reykjavik tourism and travel information

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about Reykjavik

Reykjavík is the capital of Iceland, its largest city and the world's northernmost capital. Its latitude being 64°08' N, not far from the Arctic Circle (at 66°33' N), it receives only four hours of sunlight per day in the depth of winter, and in the summer the nights are almost as bright as day.

Reykjavik geography

Reykjavík is located in southwest Iceland by Faxaflói bay. The Reykjavík area coastline is characterized by peninsulas, coves, straits and islands. The city of Reykjavík is mostly located on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula but the suburbs spread to the south and east from it. Reykjavík is a spread out city, most of its urban area is in the form of low-density suburbs and houses are usually widely spaced. The outer residential neighborhoods are as well widely spaced from each other and in between run the main traffic arteries and a lot of empty spaces with little aesthetical or recreational value. The young age of the city has contributed the most to this kind of urban planning. The largest rivers to run through Reykjavík are the Elliðaár Rivers, not navigable by ships. Mt. Esja, at 914 m, is the tallest mountain in the vicinity of Reykjavík.

Reykjavik history

870: Settlement

The first permanent settlement in Iceland by Nordic people is believed to have been established in Reykjavík by Ingólfur Arnarson around the year 870 AD; this is described in Landnámabók, the Book of Settlement. Steam from hot springs in the region is supposed to have inspired the name for Reykjavík translates to "Bay of Smokes".

1752: Industry arrives

Reykjavík is not mentioned in any medieval sources except as a regular farm land but the 18th century was the beginning of urban concentration there. The Danish rulers of Iceland backed ideas of a domestic industry in Iceland that would help generate some much needed progress to the island. In 1752, the King of Denmark donated the estate of Reykjavík to the Innréttingar Corporation; the name comes from Danish (indretninger) and means enterprises. In the 1750s several houses were constructed to house the woolen industry that was to be Reykjavík's most important employer for a few decades and the original reason for its existence. Other crafts were also practiced by the Innréttingar such as fisheries, sulphur mining, agriculture and ship building.

1786: Chartered

The Danish Crown abolished its monopoly trading in 1786 and granted six communities around the country an exclusive trading charter, Reykjavík was one of them and the only one to hold on to the charter permanently. 1786 is regarded as the date of the city's founding; it celebrated its 200 years in 1986. Trading rights were still limited to the subjects of the Danish Crown however, and Danish traders continued to dominate trade in Iceland Over the next decades, their business in Iceland expanded. After 1880, free trade was expanded to all nationalities and the influence of Icelandic merchants started to grow.

1845: Capital of Iceland

A nationalist movement gained much influence in the 19th century and ideas about Icelandic independence became widespread. Reykjavík as Iceland's only city was the melting pot of such ideas in the country. Advocates of an independent Iceland realized that a strong Reykjavík was fundamental for that objective. All the big years in the history of the independence struggle are quite significant for Reykjavík as well. In the year 1845, Alþingi, the general assembly that Icelanders formed in 930 was re-established in Reykjavík but it had been suspended a few decades earlier when it was positioned at Þingvellir. At the time it only functioned as a advisory assembly that was supposed to advice the King about the matters of Iceland. The placement of Alþingi in Reykjavík effectively established the city as the capital of Iceland. In 1874 Iceland was given a constitution and with it, Alþingi gained some limited legislative powers and in essence became the institution that it is still today. The next step was to move most of the executive power to Iceland and that was done by the Home Rule in 1904 when the office of minister for Iceland was established in Reykjavík. The biggest step towards an independent Iceland was taken December 1, 1918 when Iceland became a sovereign country under the Crown of Denmark, the Kingdom of Iceland.

1918–1944: Occupation and republic

In the 1920s and 1930s most of the growing Icelandic fishing trawler fleet sailed from Reykjavík and salt-cod production was the main industry but the Great Depression hit Reykjavík hard with unemployment and labour union struggles that sometimes became violent.

In the morning of May 10, 1940 four warships approached Reykjavík and anchored in the harbour, citizens were relieved to find out that those were British but not German. In few hours, the allied occupation of Reykjavík was complete without any violence. The Icelandic government had received many requests from the British government about allowing the occupation but they always declined on the basis of the Neutrality Policy. For the remaining years of World War II, British and later American soldiers built bases in Reykjavík, the number of foreign soldiers in Reykjavík became about the same as the local population of the city.

The economic effects of the occupation were quite positive for Reykjavík, the unemployment of the depression years vanished and a lot of construction work was done. The British built Reykjavík Airport, which is still in service today, mostly serving national flights; the Americans built Keflavík Airport that has later become Iceland's primary international airport, situated 50 km from Reykjavík. In 1944 the Republic of Iceland was founded and a president elected in popular elections replaced the King, the office of the president was placed in Reykjavík.

1950s–1970s: Post-war boom

In the post-war years, the growth of Reykjavík began for real. A mass exodus from the rural countryside started mainly because of the better technology in agriculture that reduced the need for workforce in that sector and because of the population boom following better living conditions in Iceland. Young people in the prime of their lives were the most populous group that moved to the capital to live the "Reykjavík Dream", and the city became a city of children. The previously primitive village was rapidly transforming into a modern city. Private cars became common and modern apartment complexes rose in the expanding suburbs and much of Reykjavík lost its village feel. In 1972, Reykjavík hosted the world chess championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.

1980s–2000s: Modern metropolis

Reykjavík has in the last two decades become a significant player in the global community, the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev underlined Reykjavík's new-found international status. Deregulation in the financial sector and the computer revolution of the 1990s have transformed Reykjavík yet again. The financial sector and information technology are now significant employers in the city. The energetic city of children has fostered some world famous talents in recent years such as Björk and Sigur Rós. This period is well described in the autobiography Sól í Norðurmýri by Megas and Þórunn Valdimarsdóttur.

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