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Exploring Icelandic History & Culture

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Exploring Icelandic History & Culture
Iceland’s history and culture are inextricably intertwined and can be explored in a range of obvious and not-so-obvious places around the country.
By Paul Sullivan, AFAR Local Expert
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    Introduction to Icelandic Culture & History
    Although often associated with, and certainly influenced by, the cultures of its fellow Scandinavian and Nordic countries, Iceland’s culture is more individual than one might imagine for such a small country. Its relative isolation for many centuries has meant that its language, rooted in Old Norse, has not modernized as much as, say, Norwegian or Danish, and contemporary citizens can still clearly read and understand the ancient sagas. Indeed, literary culture, as well as music, crafts, and Viking gods and folk myths (think elves and trolls), still resonate strongly throughout contemporary society. This vibrant mix of ancient history and modern culture is a joy to explore and can be found throughout the country in famous landmarks such as Thingvellir (or Þingvellir) and Parliament House and in a range of dedicated historic museums.
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    Reykjavík’s History & Culture Museums
    A wealth of Icelandic history and culture can be explored via Reykjavík’s excellent selection of museums. The best place for a general overview is the National Museum. Its permanent exhibition, Making of a Nation—Heritage and History in Iceland, details the country’s past—from the medieval days of Viking settlements to contemporary culture—via some 2,000 artifacts and over 1,000 photos from the last century or so. At the Settlement Exhibition (Landnámssýningin), which is focused on the oldest archaeological evidence of human settlement of Iceland, you can gain insights into the Viking age via a range of impressive computer simulations and parts of a 10th-century longhouse. The Árbær Open Air Museum, set on the grounds of an old farm that closed in the 1950s, explores the more recent lifestyles and customs of local life in the late 19th century, featuring antique farm machinery, domestic animals, and an interesting events calendar. For insights into the country’s "hidden people" folklore, the Phallological Museum has a small but thoroughly intriguing collection of elf and troll penises.
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    Thingvellir & the Golden Circle Tour
    One of the most famous tours in Iceland is known as the Golden Circle tour. There are several different itineraries, depending on which tour company you choose (and how much you want to pay), but all of them visit the main trio of major geological and cultural sights: Gullfoss waterfall (whose visitor center has an exhibition centered on traditional life in the area); the Geysir geothermal area; and Thingvellir (or Þingvellir) National Park. The park is the most culturally significant aspect of the tour; not only is it where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are being slowly pulled apart (it’s possible to snorkel between them at Silfra), it’s also the historical site of Iceland’s Viking parliament, the oldest such institution in the world.
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    Reykjavík’s Cultural Landmarks
    Reykjavík offers a surprising number of cultural and historical sights for such a small capital. The soaring Hallgrímskirkja church, for example, is a must-see, not just for the quite magnificent interior and 5,000-pipe organ, but also for the sweeping views of the city and sea from its tower. Architecture and culture fans also won’t want to miss the glistening Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, whose eye-catching facade was created by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, while the city’s adjacent and increasingly buzzy harbor area hosts the fascinating Maritime Museum. Other landmarks include the charming Tjörnin Lake in the center of town and Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager sculpture—a large-scale steel "dream boat" built as an ode to the sun.
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    Discovering Art in & Beyond Reykjavík
    The principal art institution in the Icelandic capital is the Reykjavík Art Museum, whose eminent collection, built around the collections of three of the city’s most famous artists, is displayed in three separate buildings: the Hafnarhús (which showcases the work of painter Erró), the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum, and Kjarvalsstaðir Museum. In addition it’s worth checking out the Einar Jónsson Museum, dedicated to Iceland's most famous sculptor. To discover more contemporary artists (Icelandic and international), try art spaces like Kling & Bang, i8 Gallery, Berg Contemporary, and the Living Art Museum. And if you’re up near Akureyri, Safnasafnið shows an intriguing mix of contemporary and folk art, and the Hjalteyri Center for Contemporary Art is a project space for collaborative projects and installations. In the East Iceland village of Seyðisfjörður, the Skaftfell Center for Visual Art also makes a fine cultural destination.
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    How to Relax in Reykjavík
    As well as absorbing culture and exploring history, you'll have abundant opportunities for relaxation in Reykjavík. A stroll along  pretty Tjörnin Lake, where locals and visitors feed the birds, or along the peaceful harbor, is a pleasant way to spend time in the city. The island’s geothermal activity comes into its own in this realm too, with an array of hot springs dotted throughout the city and surrounding landscape. One of the most famous is the Blue Lagoon, where you can bathe, get pampered with beauty treatments, and enjoy some fine dining. There are a bunch of local municipal pools to access as well, along with natural sites like the wonderful Reykjadalur Hot Springs, set in a scenic valley just outside the city.
    Arnaldur Halldorsson