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You might have heard, but Iceland is kind of a big deal. In just the last few years tourism in Iceland has boomed. Foreigners are flocking to the land of ice to see the northern lights, take dips in natural hot springs, and tour the glaciers. Reykjavík is the capital of Iceland and is the nations largest city. Reykjavík has a fascinating history in and of itself and is worth diving into. Ahoy! Land! Iceland!
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Reykjavik is believed to be the first permanent settlement in all of Iceland, which was settled in around 870 AD. You might be curious about who exactly settled in Iceland back in the day? Well, of course, it was the Norsemen. Ingólfur Arnarson led the Norsemen to the land later to be named Reykjavik.
There’s an ancient story about Ingólfur Arnarson launching pillars into the ocean from his ship and wherever the current took the pillars, where he would land his ship and settle. However, he likely chose the location due to the proximity of the steamy warm hot springs that would keep him and his tribe warm in winter.
The steam from the hot springs near Reykjavík’s is how it got its name. Reykjavík translates Smoke Cove. Yeah, it should probably translate to Steam Cove or even Misty Cove, but as we all know the words for smoke and steam are easy to get mixed up, right?
The city was officially founded though in 1786 as a trading town. Reykjavík was farmland, yes, but in the 18th century, they decided to branch out a bit. They extended into industries such as fisheries, sulphur mining, shipbuilding, and the wool industry as well.
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Interestingly enough the initial settlers in Iceland were technically not vikings. The word “viking” applies solely to Scandinavian raiders, not to just all ancient Scandinavians from that time period. The settlers were probably vikings who did a raid in the past, but because they didn’t plunder Iceland, they were not technically vikings anymore when they arrived to Iceland’s shore.
Iceland was devoid of an indigenous population. There was nobody around whatsoever. So when the Norsemen arrived to Iceland, they were the only ones there. That meant no one to pilage or plunder!
According to ancient history books, the first visitor in Iceland didn’t actually land near Reykjavik, but in the North of Iceland. And who was he? Could be nobody else but Naddodd the Viking! Around 830 AD the winds took his ship off course from the Faeroe Islands and he ended up in Iceland!
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The founding settlers to Iceland were all Nordic and Gaelic in origin but weren’t quite vikings as we’ve already covered. But they sure had a tough go at it in the beginning with brutal winters and many outbreaks of plague in Iceland’s early history. There were also 37 famines on record in the years between 1500 and 1804.
Iceland’s first census was in 1703 and totaled the population at 50,000. However, in 1703 and 1704 the catastrophic volcanic eruptions knocked the population down to 40,000. Darn that Laki volcano!
With modernization and improving living conditions, the population was able to rise. When a censure was conducted in 1850 the population number hit 60,000. And then boomed all the way to 1 million by 2008! Just kidding, 2008’s number was 320,000.
In the middle and late 1800s Icelanders began to emigrate in droves. Nearly 20% of the entire population of Iceland left Iceland in 1887. Most emigrated and settled in Canada. More cold, please!
Today, Iceland has a population of approximately 340,000 which means it’s the 180th most populated country in the world. Not much to brag about, 180th place right? Interestingly, Iceland has the lowest population density of all European countries. It clocks in at 3 people per kilometer.
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The Blue Lagoon is the most popular spring in Iceland and has been deemed one of the 25 natural wonders of the world. There are lots of hot springs within the greater Reykjavik area!
In Reykjavik, there is a tiny little geothermal foot-bath. It’s much too small to be called a pool, but it’s perfect for dunking your feet in and basking in the views of Mount Esja. If you catch a good weather day in the daytime you might see the Snæfellsjökull glacier in the West.
For the Game of Thrones fans out there, you might recognize the Grjótagjá hot spring lava cave. It’s about a six hour drive from Reykjavik city, but I’m certainly not missing an opportunity to mention GOT! Bummer is that you can’t actually take a dip in the hot spring.
Even though you’ve seen John Snow do it on Game of Thrones, getting in the Grjótagjá hot spring is forbidden, and has been so since the 1970s. With good reason though, because rocks commonly fall from the ceiling and the water temperature can spike up to 50°C! Yikes!
The Seljavallalaug hot spring is commonly referred to as the oldest swimming pool in all of Iceland. However, it was actually man-made. The geothermal waters naturally flow inside, but the pool itself was made by the hands of man.
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Iceland’s architecture definitely has strong Scandinavian roots. Of course, the lack of trees in Iceland was a big problem too. That’s how grass and turf covered houses were engineered. They kind of look like hobbit homes. Totally adorable!
The aforementioned turf houses were based on Viking longhouses with a main room of the house, called a skáli. It only had an open heart and two raised platforms. Later on, houses generally included a baðstofa, a heated sauna room which was often the sleeping quarters! Without modern heating systems, I’d sure need to sleep in a sauna room too!
Around the year 1000–does that number look bizarre to everyone else, too?— Christianity came to Iceland and churches began to be constructed. The churches were likely made out of turf, as the first stone church doesn’t appear until the 18th century!
In the 18th century, Iceland got a taste for stone! These stone buildings were made out of Icelandic stone and were built by foreigners, predominantly Danish craftsmen. They were very expensive to construct, so stone structures were usually reserved for official buildings or for mansions.
The historical museum of Iceland is called the Arbæjarsafn. It also has an open air part of the museum which displays the living environment of past generations. It was opened in 1957. It was founded when there was a quickening concern that “old Reykjavik” was fading away into the 20th century modern world. Never fear! Old Reykjavik has been preserved!
The Maritime Museum in Reykjavik is not to be missed as nothing has been more crucial to Iceland’s survival than fishing. There’s awesome artifacts and models of ships and other maritime related paraphernalia. The real show stopper though is the section on the Cod Words. No, not the Cold Wars. The Cod Wars are conflicts between Iceland and the U.K. About fishing rights. Ha!
P.S. – These are the 21 INCREDIBLE tours in Reykjavik!
Whoever would have guessed that Reykjavik has the national Icelandic Punk Museum. The museum is located underground, just like the punk scene itself. The museum is actually a former public toilet that was shut down in 2006. It reopened in 2016 as a punk museum. Talk about a Cinderella story: toilet to museum!
The Perlan, which translates in English to Pearl, is Reykjavik’s planetarium that was originally a cluster of hot water tanks! In 1991 it was converted into a building. It’s one of the most lovely landmarks in Reykjavik as it sits on top of Öskjuhlíð hill. Good luck pronouncing that one…
Iceland is an incredible hunk of land floating in the ocean, chock-full of natural wonders and a relatively unchanged landscape for the last millions of years. In 2018, Iceland ranked number 4 in the World Happiness Report. It’s easy to see why with their hot springs and punk museums. If you were getting curious about all the buzz about the international sensation that is Iceland, we hope we slaked your curiosity!
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Lily Allen-Duenas is a wandering yoga instructor, massage therapist, and reiki healer. For the last two years she’s been journeying around the world, teaching yoga on island resorts in Cambodia, surf hostels in Sri Lanka, and wellness centers in the Phillipines. Lily loves building her life around her passions, health, wellness, and travel. You can follow her journey at wildyogatribe.com or get social with her @wildyogatribe