Although Christianity is the official religion in Iceland it is not a very overtly religious country. The population here is in general pretty tolerant of all religious beliefs and quite relaxed in their own religious practices. If at all most people will only go to church once or twice a year. Perhaps to celebrate Christmas or Easter or to attend a wedding.
There are however an inordinate number of churches in Iceland. From monumental architectural structures in Reykjavik to tiny turf roofed churches in the North. In fact a tour of Iceland’s churches in very much like taking a tour of the country’s architectural history. In the past turf roofed buildings were the traditional form of dwelling in Iceland. The turf churches dotted around the villages and countryside of the North are excellent examples of this building technique.
If you are taking a road trip around Iceland then you should definitely consider visiting some of its churches. The Ring Road loop around the county is punctuated with churches of all shapes and sizes. Looking up a nearby church as you are driving through can make for an interesting interlude on your road trip. You might find out a little more about the history of the place. Or you could visit somewhere you otherwise wouldn’t have found. Look out for the word Kirkjan on signposting as you drive and that will point the way to a church. In this article we will take you through a few of the prettiest and most interesting churches in Iceland. But first a very brief history of religion in Iceland.
Religion in Iceland
Although Christianity is the official religion there are actually a fair number of Icelandic people that consider themselves pagan. Before the country officially adopted Christianity in around AD 1000 they followed the pagan Norse gods. The very first arrivals on Iceland in the 8th Century were Irish monks who lived here as hermits. In the 9th Century settlers arrived from Scandinavia bringing with them their own pagan beliefs. Once Christianity was adopted the two religions intermingled. Today both are practised to a certain extent. Stories of the Norse Gods are woven into the country’s cultural heritage. The official church is known as the Lutheran church of Iceland.
Some of the Prettiest Churches in Iceland
Hallgrímskirkja Church is one of the most famous and visited churches in Iceland. It has a distinctive architectural style and can be found in central Reykjavik. It is something of a landmark in the capital and makes a big impact when you first see it. For many this is the most majestic and beautiful churches in Iceland.
Designed by Icelandic architect Guðjón Samuelsson the church was commissioned in 1937. His bold designs are inspired by the monumental landscapes of Iceland. Glaciers, mountains and the endlessly fascinating volcanic rock formations can be seen across his work. The Hallgrímskirkja Church was inspired by the basalt rock formations at Svartifoss Waterfall in South Iceland. If you get the chance to visit both you will really be able to see the similarities.
This church is unusual in that it is one of the few made of stone. The majority of Iceland’s churches have been built using wood. The church sits just a few minutes drive from Keflavík International Airport on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Although the outside is stone the inside is completely decorated with driftwood. Driftwood is actually a very traditional building material in Iceland. There are very few trees actually growing on the island. So people would make use of every piece of wood that the ocean delivered.
This diminutive Black Church is probably the most well photographed in all of Iceland. It is a small wooden construction painted completely black. The Budakirkja is found in west Iceland on the lovely Snæfellsnes Peninsula just a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. Visiting the peninsular and its national park is one of the great short road trips in Iceland. The reason why this particular church is quite so popular is its location between a lava field and the coast. Its dramatic setting along with its monochrome colour makes for some effective photography.
Heimaey Stave Church
The beautifully designed Stave Church on the island of Heimaey was a gift to Iceland from Norway. It was gifted in the 1970s to mark 1000 years of Christianity on the island. Heimaey Island lies off of the South Coast of Iceland in an archipelago know as the Westman Islands. It is the only inhabited island of the lot and holds a great festival on the island in the summer.
Vik i Myrdal Church
The little church in the town of Vik i Myrdal sits high on a hill overlooking the village and coast. It is a picturesque church and setting and many a holiday snap has taken in the surrounding views. Vik is a well-established stop on the Ring Road or for those exploring the South Coast. There are many nearby attractions including dramatic Black Sand Beaches and glaciers.
Bláa Kirkjan (The Blue Church)
Heading northwards now along the Ring Road we travel past the Vatnajökull National Park. Our next church of note lies just off of Route One between the town of Hofn and the city of Akureyri. This pastel blue painted church is interesting in that there are often concerts held there. If you are passing nearby do check the schedule and go and enjoy the acoustics and the unique atmosphere.
Víðimýrarkirkja Turf Church
As mentioned the North of Iceland is home to many traditional turf-roofed churches. One of the better examples is Víðimýrarkirkja. It is also one of the earliest examples. There has been a church recorded on this site since the 12th Century. Although the present day incarnation of the church was built in 1834 the clock tower dates back to the 15th Century.
Grafarkirkja Turf Church
Grafarkirkja is the oldest of the turf churches in Iceland dating back to the 17th Century. In the 1960s when it was in a dilapidated state the National Museum acquired it as a restoration project. The church was lovingly and carefully restored as a prime example of turf roof construction. It retains many of its original features and is fascinating to visit.