When people think of Icelandic beaches, they typically envision the dramatic black sand that greets the freezing, crashing waves of the North Atlantic. The majority of the coast does in fact look like this, and these beaches are not the place to set up a volleyball net and lay out on a towel in the sun. Yet, you can find all of this on one small beach in Reykjavík during the summer, as residents enjoy not the brooding black sand we‘re accustomed to but a small stretch of a golden sand beach. This is the story of Nauthólsvík.
From Farm to Hot Spot
Nauthólsvík began as a farm – the name translates as “bull-hill’s bay” – around 1850 when other farms were popping up around what would eventually become the capital area of Reykjavík. Around 1900, the farm was burned to the ground due to a typhoid outbreak.
In 1936, the area around Nauthólsvík was designated as a sports area. Reykjavík and the Sports Association of Iceland planned on building a large stadium, several football fields, tennis courts, and more. Some rowing clubs began building sheds for their boats, and construction began on a speedway for boat racing before everything was shut down – the British had arrived.
During WWII, the British invaded Iceland and took over what is now Reykjavík Domestic Airport and its surrounding areas – including Nauthólsvík. It was there the military built some barracks and a hotel.
Nevertheless, it was during the war that Nauthólsvík emerged as a popular outdoor recreational area. Sea swimming also became popular in this area due to some warm currents of geothermal water in the bay. However, pollution became a huge problem. The British would use the water to land their hydroplanes. Later, sewage dumped into the sea made sea swimming incredibly unsafe.
A Brand New Beach
The city cleaned up the area around Nauthólsvík at the end of the 20th century, and underwent some construction. A new area was built – Ylströndin (literally “The Warmth Beach”) – which is a smaller, shallower bay within the bigger bay where the warm water is discharged into the sea.
To entice visitors even more, the city decided to give Nauthólsvík a decidedly beachy look. Around 2000, hundreds of tonnes of golden sand were imported from Morocco. Carried on a freighter, the boat shot the sand out onto the previously-black beach. Every 1-2 years, a boat repeats this by spitting approximately 1200 cubic metres of sand – although, now it is taken from under the North Atlantic waters rather than from so far abroad.
Nauthólsvík officially opened as we know it in 2001, and it quickly became a Reykjavík hot spot on beautiful summer days. Huge crowds gather on the golden sands. Children play with toys while parents lay out in the sun. Fathers can be seen grilling hot dogs on the community grill. Some get a game of sand volleyball going, while the bravest wade out into the seawater.
Close to shore, the water is chilly, but waves of warm water keep it from being unbearable. Some Icelanders keep the Nauthólsvík tradition alive by swimming out to the sea. This became much more enjoyable when the city built a long hot pot that is filled with geothermally hot water. Now, you can enjoy the invigorating experience of sea swimming followed by a relaxing dip in the hot tub.
Beyond the Beach
Nauthólsvík has expanded and now, along with the sports and sailing clubs, includes a couple of restaurants. Bragginn serves burgers and tacos from inside what looks like an old war bunker. The long hall can hold up to 75 people, with a bar in the middle. But if you‘re in Nauthólsvík on a nice day, you‘ll want to sit outdoors. Nearby is Nauthóll Bistro, which serves a fantastic brunch. The bistro is built with huge windows all around the building, so even if you can‘t find outside seating, you still get a terrific view of the beach and the water.
Just a short walk from the beach is Öskjuhlíð. This wooded area contains several walking, hiking and mountain biking trails. The lush forest and undergrowth will make you forget that you are in Reykjavík. A couple of stone structures can be found on the wooded hillside, which are actually WWII bunkers the British built during their occupation. All of the trails lead uphill, where you can find Perlan, the exhibition centre that sits atop gigantic water tanks. Take advantage of the 360-degree viewing deck and coffee shop on the top floors.
Natuhólsvík is more than just a beach. It has a rich history that ties it to the early days of Reykjavík, to the days of disease and death before modern hospitals, and to the occupation during and after WWII. It is well worth a visit, though, we don’t recommend swimming in the sea unless you are in good health and it’s a fine summer’s day!