Top ten historical moments in Reykjavík

Read about some of Reykjavík's greatest historical moments.

  • In the year 874 two Norwegian Vikings set out in search of a country reported to lie in the East. Ingolfur Arnarson and his sworn blood brother Hjörleifur Hróðmarson left Norway because of a blood feud and when land was in sight Ingólfur threw out the pillars of his high seat and vowed to settle where they would beach. After two years of searching his slaves found them in Reykjavík. Ingólfur named the place “Smokey Bay” when he saw white steam rising from hot pools in Laugardalur Valley.
  • In 1751 the first Icelandic corporation was founded in Þingvellir with the aim to improve the country’s economy. A man named Skúli Magnússon was at the forefront of this endeavour and as he was sheriff to the Danish commissioner in Iceland he had access to the kings ear. He helped set up factories in Reykjavík that laid foundation for the city as people came looking for work and this started the growth of this small cluster of houses to a village, then town and later city. Skúli has therefore often been referred to as the Father of Reykjavík.
  • The city was founded in 1786 when Reykjavík became an official trading town. The Danish King in need of money for his coiffures rented out the monopoly to trade in Iceland. Several trading stations where established throughout the country one being in Reykjavík. The trading monopoly lasted from 1602-1786.
  • In 1845, Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament founded in 930 in Þingvellir was re-established in Reykjavík. It had been ineffectual for a few decades since the assembly house in Þingvellir had fallen into disrepair.  At first the new Alþingi only functioned as an advisory assembly sending the King advice about Icelandic affairs. The location of Alþingi in Reykjavík, however, effectively established the city as the capital of Iceland.
  • Iceland was given a constitution in 1874 after a long struggle mainly fought with petitions and words on paper from Icelandic nationalists. It was king Christian IX of Denmark that visited Iceland bringing with him that important gift.The next step on the path to independence was taken December 1, 1918 when Iceland became a sovereign country under the Crown of Denmark the Kingdom of Iceland.
  • The winter in 1918 was extremely cold. In Iceland it is named the winter of the Great Frosts. In January the frost went below -30°C and in a country of turf and timber houses where all means of heating were extremely expensive people suffered greatly. Icebergs from Greenland floated just outside the coastline and blocked sailing routes all through February. It was a hard time in Reykjavík and when the Spanish Flu hit in October two thirds of the population became ill nearly immediately. In Reykjavík 258 people died of the Spanish Flu and that is a great number in a city of only about 15.000 inhabitants.
  • The Great Depression hit the world in 1929 and Iceland was severely affected. The fishing industry was growing and the first motorboat came to Iceland in 1902. Salted cod was the main export and in the 1920s and 1930s most of the growing Icelandic fishing trawler fleet was stationed in Reykjavík. When the Depression hit many of the fishing companies went bankrupt and unemployment spread. Labour unions had started forming by then and labour struggles and protests sometimes became violent during those years. Another major collapse of the country’s financial system was in October 2008. It happened in the wake of a build-up of what has been described as the world’s largest bubble economy, in relation the size of the national economy. Given the enormity of these developments the consequences have made a huge impact on the level of living.
  • In the morning of May 10, 1940 people in Reykjavík awoke to the marching boots of soldiers storming through their city. The British Army had invaded Iceland.  Following the German occupation of Denmark and Norway on April 9, the British Government deemed it prudent to gain better control of the Atlantic Ocean taking over Iceland. The occupation of Reykjavík only took a few hours and the army met no resistance.  The economic effects of the war, however were quite positive for Icelanders. 
  • In 1944 the Republic of Iceland was founded under the shadow of the German occupation of Denmark. Icelanders had taken control of their foreign affairs and proven themselves capable of running the country on their own. A president was elected and his office placed in Reykjavík while his residence, Bessastaðir, is just outside the city limits.  
  • After the war Reykjavík grew enormously both in terms of population and geographical terrain.This new and dynamic city on the European scene received international attention in 1972 when the World Chess Championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was hosted was held here. After the chess championship Iceland no longer was just a dot on a map and Reykjavik had caught the attention of world leaders. In 1986 Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev invited President Ronald Reagan to meet him in Reykjavík. The Reykjavík Summit was a success and many historians claim that it marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.