The Vibrant and Cozy Port Town of Hafnarfjordur

  • by Yanshu
  • Reykjavik
  • 14 Apr 2024

Situated just 10 kilometers south of Reykjavík, Hafnarfjörður welcomes visitors with its charming harbor and lively cultural atmosphere. Immerse yourself in Icelandic folklore as you explore the quaint streets, delve into its rich history, and experience the delightful fusion of modernity and tradition.

The iconic landmark at the Harbor of Hafnarfjordur. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]
The iconic landmark at the Harbor of Hafnarfjordur. [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

In your exploration of Hafnarfjörður, you’ll find yourself amidst Iceland’s iconic rugged landscapes. The town is encased in ancient lava fields, which add a dramatic touch to its natural beauty.

Where is Hafnarfjordur Located

Hafnarfjörður is a town in the southwest of Iceland, located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Reykjavík, the capital and largest city of Iceland. It is part of the Greater Reykjavík area and is known for its picturesque harbor, cultural events, and folklore.

Situated south of Reykjavík, Hafnarfjörður benefits from easy access to urban amenities while maintaining its connection with the Icelandic raw nature. It serves as a gateway to the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is known for its rugged terrain and volcanic activity.

Faxafloi Bay provides a picturesque backdrop to the town, enhancing the serenity and charm of this port municipality. The beautiful bay contributes to the town’s status as a treasured destination within Iceland, appealing both to those seeking adventure and tranquility in the embrace of the North Atlantic’s crisp climate.

The colourful houses in Hafnarfjordur. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

What’s So Special about Hafnarfjordur

Notably, Hafnarfjörður warmly earns its nicknames, “Town in the Lava” and “Town of the Elves,” embracing the Icelandic culture and Icelandic folklore and showcasing remarkable lava formations. Its natural harbor has been central to the town’s development, facilitating trade and fishing.Embracing environmental consciousness, the town utilizes geothermal energy, evident in inviting hot springs and vents that uniquely define its character.

Boat houses in Hafnarfjordur in winter. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

The Best Way To Explore Hafnarfjordur

Hafnarfjörður holds a special place in my heart, and right alongside it is Seydisfjordur, another charming harbor town nestled at the tip of East Iceland. These two places are kind of similar, sharing traits of openness, friendliness, vibrant colors, and an authentic display of modern Icelandic lifestyle within their local communities. 

To truly immerse yourself in the beauty of Hafnarfjörður, a leisurely walk through its downtown area on a beautiful day is the perfect way to experience its unique charm and atmosphere.

When you embark on a delightful stroll through downtown Hafnarfjörður, where each step reveals the town’s unique charm, you can begin the journey at Strandgata, a popular street adorned with charming shops and cafes. Then, meander towards the lively Hafnarfjörður Cultural Center, where local arts and events await. Continue to Hafnarborg, the town’s iconic art museum, and make your way to Fjörugarðurinn, the Viking Village restaurant, surrounded by beautiful gardens. 

Enjoy a quiet moment at Tjornin Hafnarfjordur. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

After a pleasant meal, take a serene detour to Tjornin Hafnarfjordur, the picturesque pond, where swans, ducks, and seagulls bask under the Icelandic sunshine. This pond shares the same name as the Tjornin in Reykjavik, and by size it’s smaller, calmer, and a wonderful spot to relax.

Complete your exploration at the lively harbor, indulging in breathtaking views of the ocean, boats, buildings, the low-lying skyline, and occasionally, even spotting whales.

Downtown Hafnarfjörður promises a memorable journey through its cultural, natural, and serene sights.

Harfnarfjordur horror view in winter
A boat on the serene water of Hafnarfjordur harbor, Iceland. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

What To Do in and around Hafnarfjordur

Exploring Hafnarfjordur offers a delightful experience that caters to a variety of interests. I will offer some useful travel tips to ensure a seamless journey for you as it is one of my favorite towns in Iceland.

Explore Museums & Galleries

Hafnarfjörður Museum

The Hafnarfjörður Museum is a valuable repository of cultural artifacts and photos, offering a glimpse into the town’s vibrant history. Dedicated to preserving its legacy, the museum’s collections span from its founding to the present day, with exhibitions shedding light on the lives of Hafnarfjörður’s residents.

Hafnarfjörður Museum’s look from outside. [Photo credit to Hafnarfjordur]

The Hafnarfjörður Centre of Culture and Fine Art

Established in 1983, Hafnarborg, the Hafnarfjörður Centre of Culture and Fine Art, is the town’s artistic hub, home to around 1,600 diverse artworks. With 8–10 annual exhibitions, it showcases Iceland’s art evolution, featuring pieces from pioneering artists to contemporary experimentations. The museum extends beyond its walls, with public artworks across Hafnarfjörður, narrating the town’s history and harbor, from memorials to abstract sculptures. 

Whether in the heart of town, by the harbor, or in scenic parks like Víðistaðatún and Hellisgerði, these artworks blend seamlessly into Hafnarfjörður’s culture and history.

Discover Cultural Events and Venues

Annual Events

Throughout the year, Hafnarfjörður hosts a variety of annual events that bring culture and history to life.

In March, the town becomes a stage for the celebrated Viking Festival, where you can immerse yourself in the world of Norse warriors, crafts, and traditions.

Moving into summer, June heats up with festivals celebrating both the local culture and international influences that are open to everyone’s enjoyment.

Then it comes to December, there will be a Christmas market in downtown Hafnarfjordur, with live music playing on the stage. There will be a light display at Hellisgerði, a popular spot for family outings.

Viking Culture

As you explore Hafnarfjörður, you’ll encounter a town deeply intertwined with Icelandic history and heritage, from its Viking roots to enchanting elf folklore.

Hafnarfjörður proudly celebrates its Viking heritage with an annual festival that transforms the town into a lively Viking village.

Visitors have the opportunity to witness first-hand the traditions and customs of the Viking Age, embracing a part of history that is both fascinating and integral to the Icelandic identity.

Elf and Hidden Folk Traditions

The ethereal charm of Hafnarfjörður is nowhere more apparent than in its elf and hidden folk traditions.

The Elf Garden, or Hellisgerði, invites you to meander through its paths, possibly catching a glimpse of an elf or two.

The local folklore is rich with stories of Huldufólk, and many Icelanders hold these traditions close, often consulting elf “experts” before construction projects to avoid disturbing their hidden dwellings.

Elves and Vikings: Embrace the local folklore and history by engaging in tours that explore the hidden worlds of elves or the Viking Village.

Hiking to the top of Helgafell mountain

One of the most popular hiking spots in the Hafnarfjordur area is Mt. Helgafell. This name is common for holy mountains in Iceland, and the well-known one is situated in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Positioned in a region marked by tectonic and volcanic activity, Hafnarfjordur’s Helgafell is part of the Krýsuvík volcanic system. It’s believed to have originated from a single subglacial fissure eruption beneath at least 500 meters of glacial ice.

Despite its fame, Helgafell stands at a modest 338 meters (1,109 feet), making it an ideal destination for a weekend day excursion that blends hiking with easy mountain climbing. A guest book and pens are provided in a box, allowing you to sign your name after a delightful visit.

hiking up to Helgafell mountain in Hafnarfjordur Iceland
Hiking to the top of Helgafell mountain in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Exploring the Surroundings of Hvaleyrarvatn Lake

A calm lake surrounded by green forests has many paths and spots for barbecues—perfect for a picnic with friends. Unlike the rough lava fields, Hvaleyrarvatn Lake is peaceful and green, protected from the wind. 

The Forestry Association planted trees to make the area more beautiful, and there’s a nice two-kilometer path around the lake. You can also explore trails to hills and see Keilir Mountain from some places. There are special spots like a memorial area and a scouting center along the way. The lake is next to horse stables and farms, where you can ride Icelandic horses on good paths.

Taking a walk around Hvaleyrarvatn Lake around sunset hours, Iceland. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Local Cuisine and Dining

In the heart of Hafnarfjörður, you’ll find an array of restaurants offering a taste of authentic Icelandic cuisine. This picturesque town hosts dining establishments that cater to a variety of palates and preferences.

  • Icelandic Lamb
    Renowned for being tender and flavorful, the lamb in Hafnarfjörður is often prepared with traditional methods, ensuring a savory experience. Check out local menus for fresh, grass-fed lamb dishes that define Icelandic culinary excellence.
  • Seafood Specialties
    Given Iceland’s rich maritime heritage, it’s no surprise that seafood is a staple. Whether it’s cod, haddock, or Arctic char, you’re guaranteed the freshest catch.
  • Viking Feast
    For an immersive experience, indulge in a Viking Feast. Such events often feature hearty, age-old recipes and are sometimes accompanied by historical reenactments.
  • Drinks in Hafnarfjörður
    Quench your thirst with Iceland’s crafted drinks. From local beers to Brennivín, a traditional Icelandic schnapps, your dining experience is incomplete without a taste of these beverages.

Be sure to explore the offerings at the top recommended restaurants in Hafnarfjörður, each providing a unique encounter with Iceland’s culinary delights.

Whether it’s a quick bite or a fine dining experience, you will find a place that fits your mood and taste.

A signature Icelandic lobster dish. [Photo credit to Andrzej Machnike]

Hafnarfjordur’s Economy and Industry

In Hafnarfjörður, the local economy is marked by a blend of tradition and modernization. The fishing industry has historically been the backbone of the town’s prosperity, providing jobs and supporting the local economy.

Even today, the export of seafood plays a crucial role in maintaining the town’s financial stability.

The town is also characterized by its aluminum smelter, one of the largest industries in the area.

The smelter contributes significantly to the local economy, providing numerous employment opportunities and influencing the economic landscape of the region.

Despite the strong presence of fishing and heavy industry, Hafnarfjörður has diversified its economy to include service and tourism sectors, expanding its economic prospects.

The unique character and culture of the town attract visitors, contributing to economic growth beyond its traditional industry.

Through careful management and strategic industry diversification, Hafnarfjörður sustains its status as a thriving economic hub within Iceland’s landscape.

Fishing is one important section in Hafnarfjordur’s economy. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Frequently Asked Questions about Hafnarfjordur

In this section, you’ll find concise answers to common questions about Hafnarfjordur’s points of interest, its connection to elf folklore, and the exhibits at the local museum.

What are the top attractions to visit in Hafnarfjordur?

Hafnarfjordur is celebrated for its unique attractions. Among them, the Viking Village and the enchanting Hellisgerdi Park stand out.

Can tourists visit the elf-related sites in Hafnarfjordur?

Yes, you can explore Hafnarfjordur’s mystical elf sites. The town is known for its rich tales of the “Huldufólk” or hidden people. Various tours are available that take you to these legendary locations.

What exhibits are currently available at the Hafnarfjordur Museum?

The Hafnarfjordur Museum offers a range of exhibits that display the town’s cultural heritage.

To see what’s currently on exhibit, check the museum’s website or contact them directly for the latest information.

From the shoreline of Hafnarfjordur, you can see Hallgirmskirkja church in Reykjavik. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]
About the author
A journalist and photographer, Yanshu is driven by a deep passion for Iceland. She's on a mission to share her love for authentic travel experiences and exciting adventures with fellow explorers. Armed with her camera, she sets off on hikes, delving into Iceland's intricacies while mastering the art of Icelandic language whenever possible.

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