One of the first things you notice when entering Reykjavík’s city center are the charming low-rise buildings and adorable gardens that usually accompany them. They each possess their own unique style; often reflecting the people who inhabit them.
On any given day it’s easy to get lost in this colorful world of colorful houses, exploring the old town and its surrounding streets and suburbs. Walking along the city’s side streets you’ll soon become aware of the cats. Like in Rome the streets of Reykjavík are ruled by cats, but unlike their Italian counterparts these are mostly domestic cats. The cats come and go as they please, independent like their owners, yet never straying far from home.
The mishmash of color in addition to the swarm of friendly cats in this pulsating town may very well give you the feeling of having stepped into a rabbit’s hole.
Many of these delightful houses were built out of a need to house a rapidly growing population rather than for aesthetic purposes. By painting them in vibrant colors during a time when plants and trees were scarce in Reykjavík and the town looked muted and bare, these colorful buildings became the fundamental groundwork on which Reykjavik was built and a testament to the true Icelandic spirit.
Make the most of what you have and everything will be OK! These houses are a lovely reminder to this frame of mind and should be respected as such. It’s similar to when Icelanders say: “Þetta reddast!,” when things are looking downright glum, meaning that everything will work out. It just has to somehow. This is usually followed by a shrug and a smirk.
As Iceland became independent in 1944 so did its countrymen and women. The aftermath of independence from the Danish king still contributes to the carefree aura that surrounds Reykjavik today so it’s perhaps not surprising when its inhabitants (the heart of any city) choose to brighten their town as they do in Iceland’s capital city. Also, what better way to mark your territory than painting your house yellow?
“…there is something a little ‘toy-town’ about them—a beautifully naive way in which to lighten up a city. Before visiting Iceland the palette in my head was gray and muted. But now—red, blue, green. Bold, confident little houses with homely residents waiting inside to give you a big bowl of stew.” – Happy traveler
The Swiss chalet style prevailed as Reykjavik grew during the 18th century and eventually became the style so characteristic of the city today. The houses were either made from stone or wood framed and often clad with corrugated iron, a cheap but strong material, and then painted in the bright color schemes that later became somewhat of a tradition.
It goes without saying that an old house needs a great deal of care and work. Sadly there are those who don’t see the point in restoring these “mere shacks” and want nothing more than to demolish them and replace with modern high rises. This mostly applies to the houses along Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street.
Thankfully there’s been an awakening in recent years concerning conservation and people seem to have a better understanding of the importance of preserving Reykjavík’s roots and originality. Erasing history is not an option and chances are that you, dear visitor, are not coming to Iceland to view glass covered high rises.
“Why don’t we all have bright little houses in which we live in? Imagine going home to a yellow house.” – Anonymous globetrotter
For the ultimate Reykjavik experience why not rent an apartment in one of these authentic town houses. There are numerous guesthouses that offer warm and cozy accommodation right in the heart of the capital city.
When traveling out of the city and into the country you’ll soon notice that this world of color is not exclusive to Reykjavík and that it extends to the far regions of Iceland. For instance, if you travel to the Westman Islands, be sure to take a stroll through Skvísusund.
Words & Photos: Edda Fransiska Kjarval - firstname.lastname@example.org
Edda Fransiska is filling in for Zoë today.