A Brief History of Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland's Picturesque Church

Hallgrimskirkja | ©anieto2k / Flickr
Vala Árnadóttir

At 73m (244 ft.) high, Hallgrímskirkja used to be the tallest building in Reykjavík until recently, and is still its tallest church. Reykjavík’s new tallest structure, the Smáratorg Tower, is in fact only 3.1m (10.1 ft.) taller than the church. The Evangelical Lutheran church is visible throughout Reykjavík, and is said to stand guard over the city. Read our history of this magnificent building.

The story behind Reykjavík’s almost tallest building

Hallgrímskirkja was named after the 17th-century clergyman and renowned poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson, author of the Hymns of the Passion. The church was commissioned in 1937, and was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson. It was thanks to the Icelandic Parliament that Hallgrímskirkja was finally built, however, as rules were announced in 1929 by the parliament specifically stating it should seat 1,200 people and have a high tower so it would be able to transmit radio signals.
Although the church’s landmark high tower was finished before the rest of the church, it took 41 years to complete the whole building. Its final construction was done in 1986, a day before Hallgrímur Pétursson’s death, but Guðjón Samúelsson never got to see it completed as he passed away in 1950.


The church was designed to resemble the Icelandic landscape and remind the viewer of the country’s magnificent glaciers and mountains. The columns on the sides of the tower represent volcanic basalt. Samúelsson was strongly influenced by Scandinavian Modernism, but was also inspired by natural forms. His work often carried references to Icelandic nature, and you can see how the wings on the church resemble cliffs of basalt columns.
Facing the church is a big statue of Viking explorer Leifur Eiríksson, said to be the first European to land in America. It was a present from the US to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi (Althing), in 1930.

Statue of Viking explorer Leifur Eiríksson

Even though Hallgrímskirkja is one of the most visited places in Reykjavik, its construction was very controversial at the time, and many critics were not by it. Even today it is often ranked as one of the strangest but yet most beautiful houses of worsh
Although the outside design of the church is quite dramatic, the inside is quite stark, but also impressive. It houses a beautiful pipe organ with 5,275 pipes, which is 15m (49 ft.) tall and weighs 25 tonnes (27.5 tons).

Organ inside Hallgrímskirkja

Given the church’s size and history, many believe it is the cathedral of Reykjavík. However, this is not the case. Reykjavík Cathedral is much smaller and is located downtown, next to the house of the Icelandic parliament.
While sightseeing in the city, a stop at Hallgrímskirkja and its tower is a must for a panoramic view over the whole of Reykjavík.

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