Top 10 Churches in Iceland
You may not have considered Iceland as a particularly religious country. And you would be right. A large percentage of the population are in fact atheist with a growing number reconnecting with their ancestors and identifying as pagan. None the less there are many beautiful churches in Iceland. Dotted right around the country in towns, cities and stunning natural locations you will find well over 300 churches. In a country with a population of only around 339,000 this is quite a high number of churches per capita.
Christianity has a long history in Iceland. The very first inhabitants of the island were Irish monks who lived in Iceland as hermits in the mid 8th Century. In the 9th Century settlers arrived from Scandinavia and brought Norse paganism with them. Christianity was peacefully adopted in Iceland around the time of the founding of the Icelandic parliament (Althing) in AD 1000. Some say that it was more for political reasons than for anything else. Perhaps because of this the worship of the Norse gods has been woven around the practice of Christianity. Elements of both religious traditions have survived to this day and they do intermingle to a certain extent.
Today the majority of the population only attend church for special events such as weddings, funerals or festive services such as Christmas. Despite this the churches in Iceland are well maintained and worth seeking out. Among them are examples of traditional turf roof buildings and some really creative modernist architecture. With locations right across the country you’ll be able to plan church visits into many Iceland road trip itineraries. Just look out for the word Kirkjan (meaning church) on road signs as you drive. Read on for our top ten favourite churches in Iceland.
This is the big hitter and certainly one of the most visited churches in all of Iceland. The monumental Hallgrímskirkja church is the largest in Iceland and can be found in central Reykjavik. The famous Icelandic architect Guðjón Samuelsson designed this striking building. The church was commissioned in 1937 but wasn’t completed until 1986. So it was a long time in the making.
Samuelsson took his creative inspiration from both European modernism and the stark beauty of Iceland’s landscapes. In his work he draws directly from nature and there are echoes of glaciers and rock formations in his creations. In the Hallgrímskirkja church we can see a direct link to the basalt columns that surround the Svartifoss Waterfall in South Icealnd’s Skaftafell Nature Reserve. For many Hallgrímskirkja is one of the most beautiful churches in Iceland.
This modernist church is located in the North Iceland city of Akureyri. Its bold design is the work of architect Guðjón Samuelsson. As with the Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik its monumental stature makes a strong visual impact.
Víðimýrarkirkja Turf Church
Turf roofed buildings represent one of the most traditional building methods of Iceland. In a country with very little in the way of forests it was tricky and expensive to construct wooden buildings. So turf was often used for both walls and roof. This is especially true in the north of Iceland where the climate is less wet and so the turf needs replacing less often. Turf churches were the very first churches to be built in Iceland right back at the very start of Christianity.
Víðimýrarkirkja is one of the earliest examples and there is recorded to have been a church on this site since the early 12thCentury. The present day church was built in 1834 but the clock tower dates back to the 1600s. Víðimýrarkirkja Turf Church can be found near the town of Varmahlíð minutes from the ring road in North Iceland.
Grafarkirkja Turf Church
Also in North Iceland the Grafarkirkja Church is the oldest of Iceland’s turf churches. This one dates back to the late 17th century but stood in ruin until the 1960s. It was then acquired as a restoration project by the National Museum. It is a beautiful example of early Icelandic architecture and has been well restored and maintained.
Bláa Kirkjan - The Blue Church
The pretty little church of Bláa Kirkjan is located in the northeast of Iceland in the small fishing village of Seyðisfjörður. This is a charming little village just off of the ring road and a good place to visit if you are driving east on the ring road from Akureyri towards Hofn and the Vatnajökull National Park. In English it is called the Blue Church after its pastel blue exterior. In the summer months the church hosts a series of live music events and performances. This is a lovely use of the space and it is well worth checking the schedule if you are in the area during summer.
This pretty church is one of the few stone churches in Iceland. The church’s brightly painted steeple contrasts with the dark stone. Interestingly the interior is entirely made from driftwood gathered from the local beach. Using driftwood as a building material was a very common practice in Iceland. With few trees growing on the island gathering wood from the beaches provided an excellent free material. The Hvalsneskirkja Church is on the Reykjanes Peninsula and just a few minutes drive from Keflavík International Airport.
Vik i Myrdal Church
Vik is a popular coastal town in South Iceland and its church is a famous landmark of the town. It sits high on a hill overlooking the town and coast and is probably one of the most photographed churches in Iceland. The town of Vik is a great place to stay to visit the natural attractions of Iceland’s South Coast. These include stunning black sand beaches and the famous Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
Budakirkja or the Budir Black Church is found on Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is in the south west of Iceland just across the bay from Reykjavik. It is a popular little church to visit and is built in wood and painted black. The reason for its popularity is its dramatic coastal location on the edge of a lava field. Its stark black paintwork stands out against the sea and the sky making for some dramatic shots. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a great place to see the Northern Lights. Capturing an image of the church with a backdrop of these colourful dancing lights is a popular pursuit.
This church is notable as it is considerably larger than many of Iceland’s petite little churches. Its picturesque spire and painted wooden framed structure make it reminiscent of a Swiss village church. Husavikurkirkja is located way up in the north of Iceland and in winter it is often completely inaccessible. If you want to visit it is best to travel in the summer months. The church sits close to the harbour in the popular whale-watching town of Húsavík. So can be easily combined with a whale watching boat trip.
Heimaey Stave Church
This unique little church was gifted to Iceland by Norway to mark 1000 years of Christianity on the Island. It was placed on Heimaey Island in the 1970s. Heimaey Island is the only inhabited island of the Westman Islands archipelago that lies off of Iceland’s South Coast.