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Reykjavik’s cool architecture & street art murals! Iceland Dead Gallery, Harpa Concert Hall, Hallgrimskirkja.

Reykjavik cool young travel destination

When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who dreamed of going to Iceland. Now, it seems all my friends want to visit Reykjavik. Somehow, this far-away place has become the hipster travel destination.

I didn’t know much about Reykjavik before I came, but heard whisperings of an indie music scene, wild nightlife and creative culture. Sounds like my type of place — and it delivered on its promises!

interior hallgrimskirkja reykjavik

In this post, I’ll show you the artistic side of Reykjavik. We’ll wander into street art tunnels, shoot inside the alien-like Hallgrims Church

harpa music hall glass windows

.. and marvel at the prismatic architecture of Harpa Concert Hall.

hallgrims, famoous iceland church

First impressions: Reykjavik is smaller than I expected. The city essentially has two main streets filled with shops and restaurants. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised since only 119,000 people live here — and there are only 325,000 residents in the entire country!

Hallgrimskirkja towers over the city center. This Lutheran church is a wonder of Expressionist architecture, the early 20th century movement that harmonizes stylized forms with the native landscape. In this case, the exterior patterns are inspired by Iceland’s basalt formations, which naturally result from cooling lava.

white disco coat, 70s pimp jacket

The church design was commissioned in 1937, but wasn’t finished til the 1980s. I suppose it’s fitting that I’m wearing my Italo Disco pimp-coat, which would be en vogue during the last days of disco. I love this decadent garment, which  I found in a Portland vintage store (more photos here).

My leopard print fuzzy backpack is Gladnews, from Closet Child Tokyo.

icelandic language writing

At the entrance, there is a poem by Hallgrimur Petursson, who the church is named for. Isn’t the Icelandic language fascinating? It stems from early German and developed in isolation, which essentially preserved this ancient tongue.

(But don’t worry about getting around — everyone speaks fluent English in Reykjavik.)

hallgrims pipe organ

Look up, once you’re inside. There’s a pipe organ that looks straight out of Blade Runner. As soon as I stepped into Hallgrims Church, the organist played a short melody and it resonated through the white arches.

church window light shadow reflection

It was a rare sunny day in Reykjavik, which gave us the opportunity to play with light and shadow. Photographer Joey Wong captured this dramatic image of me — it almost looks I’m in a coffin — cast by the windows.

iceland visiting hallgrims church

The simple white altar conveys surprising grace and power. (It happens to match my coat, too.)

cool reykjavik attractions buildings

I thought the architect succeeded in building a space that felt like Iceland: stark landscapes under snow.

hallgrims exterior outside

Hallgrimskirkja looks like it teleported down from another planet. It’s not your typical church, and I love that.

hallgrímskirkja expressionist architecture

Outside, there stands a statue of Icelandic/Norse explorer Leif Erikson, the first European to set foot in North America.

harpa concert hall exterior

If you walk towards the water for about 15 minutes (remember, this is a small capital), you’ll come across yet another futuristic building. This sparkling, angular structure is Harpa Concert Hall: opened in 2011, and designed by Henning Larsen Architects

Húsið þitt

As we walked closer, Joey and I were puzzled by the facade, which seemed to shift colors and refract light from different angles. I found out that these panes are made from both clear and color-coated glass, and cut according to geometrical principles to fit on the steel framework.

iceland harpa music hall windows

More than 1000 of these three-dimensional prismatic “bricks” make up the exterior. At night, the entire facade comes to life with moving light projections.

iceland cute gift store

Inside, Harpa plays host to concerts and conferences (we heard musicians testing a gamelan on one of the upper levels). The lobby has an Epal Design gift store, and it’s well worth a browse.

iceland toys, design shop

It has a sweet selection of Nordic and European decorative objects. Cuteness is universal, it seems!

harpa music hall interior

Bjork, Yoko Ono, Wynton Marsalis and more have performed at Harpa (upcoming events can be found on their site).

harpa glass panels photoshoot

Reykjavik truly is photography heaven. Joey and I felt inspired by the city’s small details, eccentricities, and long hours of clear light.

reykjavik sculpture, art

Photos can’t begin to capture the experience of walking through Harpa and seeing the changing lights, colors and moods. If you come to Reykjavik, you’ll have to stop by and see for yourself.

Sun Voyager sculpture iceland, solfar

Down the road, we saw the Sun Voyager or Sólfar sculpture. Made by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason and unveiled in 1990, this is a “boat of dreams, an ode to the sun.” It also pays homage to the people who first migrated to Iceland, centuries ago.

(Behind the sculpture – how gorgeous is the mountain landscape?)

hipster cute cafes iceland

Reykjavik has many other art attractions, including various museums and a street filled with galleries. However, we were most impressed by the art we saw on the streets – like this yellow coffee shop painted with good vibes.

iceland street art big mural

While we were strolling the main street Laugavegur, we saw a smiling face peeking at us from a side street. How cool is this giant mural, made by  The London Police (from the UK) and Above (from USA)?

cool mural, london police, reykjavik

From 2010-14, Reykjavik’s major was an oddball comedian named Jon Gnarr. He encouraged people to create art in public spaces, resulting in big, striking works like this one.

reykjavik graffiti, street art

We ducked into a corridor, which was covered from ceiling to floor with graffiti and illustrations.

reykjavik big wall mural

New works are constantly appearing, like this one. The scale, quality and variety of street art in Reykjavik can’t be beat.

cool mural iceland

Some of the big streets have become very touristy (overpriced food, shops selling puffin toys). However, the city overall has an authentic feel, thanks to the DIY creativity that is allowed to thrive here. 

Reykjavik Foto camera store

If you need more proof that Reykjavik has become a hipster haven, peer inside the camera shop, Reykjavik Foto.

hipster young travel Reykjavik

The store sells old lomography cameras, photo books, and prints that put a unique lens on life in Reykjavik.

mandala mural, om sanskrit buddhism

Finally, one of my favorite memories of Iceland was visiting Dead Gallery, run by Jón Sæmundur or Nonni. Look for a mandala and DEAD written on the wall.

We heard that Jon only opens up his store/gallery at odd times. Fortunately, he was in that day…

dead gallery studio reykjavik

… and not only welcomed us, but let us go behind-the-scenes in his work studio!

jón sæmundur iceland artist

I felt an instant connection to Jon’s inspirations, which include Tibetan Buddhism and Goth aesthetics, particularly skulls. He surrounds himself with spiritual talismans as he paints.

nonni, Jon Saemundur Audarson

Jon is a multidisciplinary wonder — he also sings in his psychedelic rock band, The Dead Skeletons. He showed us his skull series, which will be published in a book. Each of these faces emerges viscerally, as he drives his brush across the paper. (The one pictured below resonated the most with me.)

skull art, reyjkavik artist

Dead Gallery’s logo is a skull surrounded by a mantra, which reads “He who fears death cannot fully enjoy life.” (I’m wearing one of his t-shirts in this post.)

Seeing past the illusions of life and death — which keep us clinging and fearful — became the major themes of Jon’s work. As he writes on his site, “Dead is focused on life, a paradox intended to shock people into thought. A benign virus.”

dead gallery tibetan buddhism art

Dead Gallery has stayed in my thoughts, and I hope I can go back soon. (Above is a photo from his site, which shows the staircase and bull head in winter.)

reykjavk hipster bars clubs nightlife

We also spotted Jon’s works at Húrra, a relatively new bar infused with incense and a young crowd. The nightlife in Iceland is notoriously wild; most have live bands who play surprisingly well. There are no cover charges, so you can hop into different bars and see what’s happening. On any given night, we recommend Dillon, a laid back rock / alternative / metal bar.

reykjavik boutique design hotel

Back to Hotel Alda, who hosted our stay. This modern, boutique hotel played disco vinyl records during breakfast, and served blueberry Skyr (my beloved Icelandic yogurt). 5 stars right there.

alda hotel, laugavegur street iceland

The lobby has a sleek retro feel, and houses a barber shop. Hotel Alda is located on the happening Laugavegur street — so you can party late, and easily walk back for a good night’s rest.

reykjavik city streets

I’ll leave you with this street view. Note the polar bear on the far left.

Isn’t Reykjavik the coolest place? Is it on your bucket list? 

iceland travel blogger tourism

PS — see more of my latest travel photos and highlighted hairstyle (by Stephanie Hoy of Stratosphere Hair Vancouver) on my Instagram @lacarmina.

SHARE & COMMENT

  • Laura

    I love these!!

  • Sally

    GORGEOUS!!!!!!!

  • Morgan

    Happy Belated Birthday la carmina.

  • Ellens Art

    Nice photos @lacarmina

  • 2 4 roughing

    Love, love, love Iceland – it’s an annual destination! I hope you enjoyed cake at Cafe Babalu (the yellow coffee shop) – it’s top notch!

  • va

    it is my fave place

  • Jayne

    hello I was just wondering if you would travel to ibiza next year?

    • No idea about next year’s plans but would love to!

  • KatMcD

    I hope to visit either late autumn or in the spring. when is best to see Northern lights and @DeadSkeletons

    • Ahhh we missed the Northern Lights this time…

  • Empty Wallet

    reminds me of something…

  • Anton

    I love it all –

  • Avery

    totally love that place~ I’m on a monument there but haven’t been yet lol

  • Patrick

    Out of all the places I went on my trip it was Reykjavik that had the best street art…

    • ANNA

      Thank´s to mayor Jón Gnarr

    • YES

  • Romero

    Happy birthday :S

  • Perventina

    pretty!(^^)

  • Elio

    ❤️ very stylish

  • jeramie

    superbe

  • Sapphire

    Happy belated birthday Leo!!

    mewwwww

  • Cindy

    Great post.

  • Henry

    Cheers!

  • Rurhter

    it looks beautiful..