Ísafjörður In 5 Minutes:
Ísafjörður [ees – ah – fyur – thur] is the capital of the Westfjords, which are a remote Icelandic province in the far northeastern reaches of the country. It translates to something like “Ice Fjord,” which is pretty fitting, and a shining example of Iceland's love for hyper-literal names. Today we’ll begin by talking about the Westfjords as a whole, but first, some clerical housekeeping…
What Is A Fjord?
A fjord is a long, deep, coastal inlet with steep cliffs on either side created by glacial erosion. Perhaps the most famous examples of fjords can be found along Norway's rugged coastline, but Iceland is also home to thousands of breathtaking fjords of its own.
What Are The Westfjords?
The Westfjords, together, form a major Icelandic province, and this province is as massive as it is isolated. And between these gorgeous fjords, there are 8,599 square miles of desolate tundra. Indeed, the many natural boundaries presented by Iceland’s harsh volcanic landscape have made it difficult to travel into the Westfjords. For this reason, the people who live here, historically, have not had much contact with the people who live in mainland Iceland. Thus, the Westfjords are often referred to as “the other Iceland.”
Looking at the map, you can see that Ísafjörður is pretty far up into this impenetrable fortress of fjords. I had a million questions about how and why a capital city is being operated out here on the edge of the world. It seemed to me that choosing such a hard-to-reach city to be the capital of such a large province would be extremely inconvenient for the local government. However, by the time I arrived in Ísafjörður, I understood completely.
All About Ísafjörður:
Ísafjörður’s fjord is unique in that it is quite possibly the only safe harbor in the entire province. You see, topographically, most Icelandic fjords are pretty cut-and-dry. There are steep cliffs that dive down into the water below, and the presence of enough level ground for any kind of settlement to take root is uncommon. In the Westfjords, there are only occasional houses in between the steep rocky cliffs and the frigid waters below. But Ísafjörður sits on a large peninsula that comes out from one side of its fjord, and reaches almost all the way to the opposite side, leaving just enough room for ships to come in and dock. Historically, communities in the Westfjords have been sustained by fishing, so it didn’t take long for Ísafjörður’s strategic value to be recognized.
Ísafjörður isn’t just the capital of the Westfjords, it’s pretty much the only city in the Westfjords! If you can even call it a city, that is. About 2,600 people live here in the capital, but they make up almost half of the province’s total population. Currently, that number stands at just over 7,000. However, the population of both Ísafjörður, and the Westfjords as a whole, have been steadily declining in recent years. Many young people born into these remote homesteads have opted to move south to the “big city” (Reykjavík).
Why are people leaving the Westfjords? In short, because life out there is hard! The weather is harsh, traveling is difficult (not to mention dangerous), the winds are punishing, the clouds are dreary, and the winter is long. With the dawn of globalization, it’s a planet-wide trend that people are abandoning rural areas in favor of cities, and the Westfjords are no exception. So, at a glance, it might seem that cities like Ísafjörður are destined to be ghost towns, but after visiting for myself, I'm not so sure about that.
So let's get into it!
But first, let me give a huge shout-out to Matthildur & Gummi (pronounced "goomi") for opening their home to my brother and I, and feeding me the best fish I’ve ever had in my life. You guys rock.
To be honest, Akureyri disappointed me in some ways. The natural beauty surrounding it was next-level, and there were beautiful stretches of town, but much of the city felt very suburban and grey. And that’s okay! It’s real. But it wasn’t quite what I had hoped for...
But Ísafjörður was everything I had hoped for, and more. Ísafjörður has a northerly aura to it unlike anything I've ever experienced. It was just so unadulterated and specific!
Every building in Ísafjörður was a gorgeous, rugged example of cozy Nordic architecture. As had been true in many other parts of Iceland, the colorful building fronts were mostly made out of sheets of metal, calling to mind images of Eskimo settlements in the Canadian Yukon. Why sheets of metal? In short, because it's easy to maintain. Winters in the Westfjords are long and harsh. Residents of towns like Ísafjörður have a narrow time frame each summer during which they will be able to polish up their property, so they need their homes to be as hardy as possible. Consequently, every little piece of these structures was a reminder of how far north we had ventured.
Walking through town, I was surrounded by Christmassy little cottages wherever I looked. The roads were entirely brick and cobblestone, save for one main road that made a quick pass through town and continued off into the wilderness. Fog hung low on the slopes of the fjords around us, obscuring the tops of the mountains in thick white sheets. The cold, arctic breeze that whistled through town was mild in the summer time, but the threat of heavier weather was a constant.
In the harbor, an assortment of industrial fishing boats bobbed in the water, safe from the arctic waves that were throwing themselves at the rocky barrier on the other side of the Ísafjörður peninsula. Clouds hung low overhead, and icy winds blew in from the ocean. However, in the face of all this, the warm glow from the cottage windows told another story; this was a place of refuge. Inside, safe from the elements, people laughed, ate, and drank behind foggy window panes. Wooden floorboards creaked and the warmth exuded by these houses made me feel as if I was sitting next to an enormous fireplace.
Bars In Ísafjörður
There’s really only 2 bars in all of Ísafjörður, and I really liked that. With so few options, these bars have become pillars of the community that they are a part of. Ísafjörður is a lot like any small town in the U.S. that way. There isn't much to do, but the relationships that exist here are as tight knit as they can get, and during the brutal Icelandic winters, it is in these bars that the people of Ísafjörður gather.
Address: Aðalstræti 7, Ísafjörður, Iceland
Hours: [11:30am – 10:00pm | June – August]
……….....[12:00pm – 9:00pm | September – May]
Of Ísafjörður's 2 bars, Edinborg has a much more “modern” feel to it. It shares a large building with local offices at the central square of the peninsula that forms Ísafjörður. Out the windows of this bar is the harbor. Safe behind the natural barrier provided by the peninsula, weathered fishing vessels float calmly on the backdrop of rugged coastal mountains. Their lights shine comfortingly through the cold, salty night.
Edinborg has a few basic Icelandic beers on tap. Their stated hours aren't particularly generous, but if the place is crowded, their closing time is very flexible. It's known to stay open all night as long as there are still people to justify it. During our visit however, it was a cold, quiet night. We drank a few beers, and then left to continue wandering the cobblestone streets.
Address: Intersection of Hafnarstræti & Hrannargata, Ísafjörður, Iceland
Hours: [Open 24 hours | 7 days per week]
Husið is, perhaps, the more 'low-key' option when it comes to nightlife in Ísafjörður, but it was definitely my favorite. Dimly lit with natural wood floors and ceiling beams, it's hard to find a cozier nook than Husið. It's a place of refuge from the elements raging outside. Even in the summer twilight, the cold Westfjords wind whistled outside, but the world felt pretty warm and safe inside Husið.
Husið is open 24/7, which is just awesome. For businesses, that is the way to my heart. It's nice to know that Husið is always going to be there for you. They have good wifi, they serve good food, they have a bakery, a coffee shop, and of course, a bar. It's everything you could ever want, and it's right in the middle of town. So, if you ever find yourself in Ísafjörður, you should definitely poke your head into Husið.
Cafés & Bakeries In Ísafjörður
Here's a quick lesson in Icelandic (if it wasn't already obvious):
Coffee = Kaffi
In places like Ísafjörður, the line between coffee shops and bakeries is blurry. Indeed, the delicious, sugar-coated, frosting-covered pastries that Nordic bakeries are famous for often go hand-in-hand with coffee. So, since we obviously couldn't resist the seductive allure of the treats in these bakeries, we had a different kind of pick-me-up at the start of each day. And also coffee, which we saved for the inevitable, debilitating sugar crash. So here are a couple Ísafjörður favorites...
Address: Aðalstræti, 400 Ísafjörður, Iceland
Hours: [7:00am – 6:00pm | Monday – Saturday]
.....…......[Closed | Sunday]
Located in the center of town, at the crux of the Ísafjörður peninsula, our first bakery / coffee shop is Gamla Bakaríið. The way the treats behind the glass glimmer and glisten, this place is shrine to the God of pastries. Good luck coming into this place and not buying something heart attack-inducing. It's an exercise in resisting temptation. Oh, and the coffee is good too.
Gamla Bakaríið actually has a pretty substantial seating area. Joining us in this seating area, as we chewed our way through our morning sugar binge, were other travelers. It seemed that we were not the only ones who had stumbled upon this little bakery, but we enjoyed it nevertheless.
Address: Hafnarstræti 18, Ísafjörður, Iceland
Hours: [7:00am – 7:30pm | 7 days per week]
On a quieter stretch of Hafnarstræti street, which runs through the center of town, Kaffihus Bakarans occupies a relatively unassuming store-front. Through the doors, there is a small staircase that leads up to the bakery. Kaffihus Bakarans is less flashy, and less crowded than Gamla Bakaríið, which makes it a nice relaxing place for a cup of coffee and a scone... or whatever type of pastry you're into.
The seating area of Kaffihus Bakarans isn't much, but you won't have much competition to find a spot. There are Icelandic newspapers sitting on the tables, but they weren't much use to a gringo like me. Luckily, caffeine and sugar are both universal languages.
The People Of Ísafjörður (+ The Westfjords)
Who the hell lives out here on the edge of the world?
I was apprehensive about what kind of people I was going to meet in Ísafjörður. Having never lived outside the confines of a massive metropolitan area, rural living has always sort of thrown me for a loop, even in the U.S., where travel is still (comparably) easy. Out here, in the inhospitable Icelandic wastes, I really did not understand what had kept people living here for so long. It’s not that I had any sort of prejudice against them… it’s just that this can’t be an easy existence for them. So, just, why?
For as small as Ísafjörður is, it’s freaking Tokyo compared the rest of what passes for civilization in the Westfjords. Most of the rest of the Westfjord’s 5,000-some residents live in tiny, isolated homesteads that have somehow managed to weather winter after winter out in the tundra. I didn’t get it, but then I talked to Matthildur, my brother’s host mother in Ísafjörður.
She and her husband live in a cozy house in the center of Ísafjörður. Both born and raised in the Westfjords, they’ve been there forever. They have bore witness to the great migration out of the Westfjords, which continues to this day. Their children are among those who have left for the “big city.”
So, what would YOUR assumptions be about the folks that live their whole lives out here in towns like Ísafjörður? Speaking for myself, I am guilty of associating rural living with a lack of education, and ignorance of what else is out there. However, in such a progressive, well-educated country, it didn't seem like that could possibly hold true, so I didn't know what to think. I was having trouble getting a read on these people. I mean, as delightful and cozy as Ísafjörður was, and as breathtakingly beautiful as the Westfjords were, wouldn’t living out here just be LONLEY?
As delicately as I could, I asked Matthildur about life out here. She and Gummi were both clearly smart, informed, political, creative, and well-traveled. I didn't understand what would keep them in a place like this. Matthildur, however, had no plans of leaving Ísafjörður, because she knew a few things that I didn't.
As Matthildur talked to me about life in the Westfjords, I began to understand that what I had seen was more than just a collection of individual households fighting for survival—this was a tight-knit community! It turns out that the Westfjords are a pretty small world. Everybody knows each other well because, out here, they need each other!
There’s a well-known fjord out here that has only 1 house in it. Fjords are huge by the way, so that is some extreme isolation. Matthildur mentioned knowing the woman that lives in this fjord. “She just doesn’t want to leave,” she said with a shrug. But that’s fine! It’s her home. Why should she leave? I think this lady is getting older, so I don't know what the hell she'll do if she slips in the shower, but she still manages to keep up with her friends in Ísafjörður, apparently.
My brother, who spent some time living with Matthildur and her husband Gummi, described never-ending visits to the supermarket, during which they stopped to catch up with almost every single person they saw in the store. Can you imagine walking into the grocery store and knowing every single random person?
I've moved around a lot in my life and I put a lot of stock into my location. One of the biggest factors that I consider when evaluating a place that I might want to live are my perceptions on how difficult it will be to plug into a community in that location. So, as we drove away, with Ísafjörður in the rearview mirror, it was easy to see what kept Matthildur & Gummi living there. Of course it was their home, but they have something more than personal history in Ísafjörður. They are part of a community! An actual, organic, supportive community. Isn't that what we are all searching for? It's a rare thing, so who in their right mind would want to leave that behind?? I certainly wouldn't.
It’s also beautiful out there. I'm sure that doesn’t hurt either.