Top ten things to do in Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands
Visiting Tórshavn, the Charming Capital of the Faroe Islands.
If you start talking to most people about the Faroe Islands and how cool it is there, nine times out of ten you can expect the listener’s face to take on a cloudy, puzzled look just before they say something like, “The what islands now? Is that near Tahiti?”
Um, not really.
The Faroe Islands are not exactly on the radar for the vast majority of people, and perhaps that’s only fair. (Only Faroe…? Sorry. I’ll show myself out.)
After all, we’re talking about an island chain hundreds of miles away from the nearest mainland in the North Atlantic. No, seriously, the location is pretty darn remote: to get there, just hop in a rowboat and head north from Scotland about 200 miles and you’ll run into the Faroe Islands about halfway between Iceland and Norway.
Which is not the recommended method of travel, by the way. Given the northerly location—technically, the Faroe Islands have what is classified as a “sub-polar oceanic climate”—it’s not like it’s big on anybody’s list of spring break vacation spots to work on the old suntan and sip fruity frozen drinks in the sand.
However, with ever-cheaper airfare and travel deals opening up more of the world to more and more people, travellers in increasing numbers are starting to eye the Faroe Islands as a wonderfully off-the-beaten-track destination where all kinds of outdoor adventures can be found. Intrepid trekkers have known for years that for hiking, boating, scuba diving, bird-watching and simply revelling in the raw beauty of these northern yet surprisingly mild climes, the Faroe Islands are without parallel.
And if you plan to visit, which you absolutely should, you’ll find that pretty much all roads lead through the capital of the Faroe Islands, Tórshavn.
Thor’s Harbor and distant Denmark
Tórshavn or “Thor’s Harbor” in Danish, is the capital city of the Faroe Islands — a possession of Denmark despite being some 600 miles from the Danish mainland. The islands are usually best known for a rugged, rocky, but green-tinged allure that is perfectly in fitting with their Scandinavian roots.
If you can picture what Iceland looks like in reality (hint: not so much “ice” as “land”) there are a lot of similarities. That makes sense, considering both of these places were formed from ancient volcanic activity. Rocky tors jutting up to the sky, grass-covered hills and turf-roofed houses, epic waterfalls cascading over cliffs, hidden grottoes and inlets — all these are on the menu if you head to the Faroe Islands.
But if you go, you’ll definitely want to carve out some time in between outdoor adventures to spend in Tórshavn as well.
Even among the most rugged trekkers who revel in all that the Faroese great outdoors has to offer, the charms of Tórshavn are well known. Situated on the largest island in the chain, Streymoy, Tórshavn is all charming, narrow lanes winding between brightly painted houses reminiscent of those that can be found in the Nyhavn neighbourhood of Copenhagen, Denmark.
You’ll also find captivating little fairytale houses, turf-roofed buildings with walls slathered with the traditional coating of tar to preserve the wood in the salty, damp environment. And if you go down to the harbour, you’ll see every kind of sea craft plying the water, from yachts to fishing vessels to container ships loading and unloading.
There is also plentiful shopping, cafes, bars, and restaurants featuring the freshest of seafood and traditional dishes — what’s not to love?
The world’s smallest capital?
While it is the biggest city in the Faroe Islands, Tórshavn is often referred to as the “smallest capital city in Europe,” or even the smallest in the world. That’s not exactly true; depending on how you define what a country is and which territories are recognized as independent nations, and if you’re talking about the land area or population, there are still several capitals that rank smaller than Tórshavn by most measures.
But that being said, Tórshavn is still pretty dang small — it generally comes in somewhere around the 20 smallest capital cities in the world by population, with just 19,165 residents in the city and 22,078 in the metro area, so you certainly won’t ever mistake Tórshavn for Rome or London. In fact, this bustling metropolis boasts just three stoplights!
The good news—besides not having to worry about rush hour—is that it’s easy to get around Tórshavn with their free bus service. So even if you do get worn out walking around the town, you can always get to where you’re going in comfort and in a short amount of time.
The heart of old town Tórshavn and the home to the parliament of the Faroe Islands is located on the Tinganes peninsula, just as it has been since at least 850 AD when the Norse established their seat of government there.
It’s amazing to consider that this little jut of flat, rocky land perched halfway between the two halves of the bay in the heart of Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, way out here in the North Atlantic far from any other land, has functioned as a seat of government in one capacity or another for nearly 1,200 years! With its rich history and fascinating architecture, it’s also a great place to begin exploring this wonderful, far-off, magical place.
Top ten things to do in Tórshavn:
1. This ting of ours
The Tinganes section of the peninsula is the oldest part of Tórshavn, what with those long-ago Norse parliamentarians setting up shop there. It’s situated on the furthest part of the rocky outcropping also known as Reyni, dividing the harbor into eastern and western halves.
The name Tinganes comes from ting, the old Norse word for parliament. Various clans and sub-groups living on different parts of the islands would set up their own smaller ting closer to their own land holdings, but when it came time to convene a larger meeting of all the different groups of settlers, they decided to hold their conclave on the then-uninhabited flat rocks of Tinganes because it was considered a neutral spot, located as it was halfway between the east and west parts of the harbour.
The ancient Faroese historic legend that was recorded in that era titled the “Færeyinga Saga” tells the story of the origins of the Faroese people and even mentions Tórshavn by name: “…the place of the ting of the Faroese was on Streymoy, and there is the harbour that is called Tórshavn.”
Tinganes developed into a major centre for trade among the islanders, and as Tórshavn grew up around it the city eventually became recognized as home to the parliament for all of the 18 islets that make up the Faroe Islands.
Even today, the unprepossessing buildings of Tinganes with their red-painted wooden walls, turf roofs and traditional stone bases are home to the offices of the prime minister of the Faroe Islands, Bárður á Steig Nielsen. He and other government officials appear to be just as unpretentious as their governmental centre in Tinganes, and can be seen casually walking to and from these offices through this humble Tórshavn neighbourhood, greeting constituents and tourists alike.
But beyond the chance that you might randomly bump into the prime minister while visiting the Tinganes area of Tórshavn, you’ll also get to see some amazingly well-preserved old wooden structures. Some of these buildings date back to the middle ages, having been built as long ago as the 16th or 17th century. In fact, most of these buildings are still occupied today, either as offices or residential properties.
Even if you don’t have any official government business, you can get pleasantly lost wandering through these narrow streets, winding between the black tar-walled houses with their turf roofs and bright white window frames, as well as the red-walled, even older buildings further out on the peninsula. It’s no surprise that Tórshavn’s most popular Airbnb stays and guest houses can be found in these buildings, with their quaint gardens and palpable centuries of history embedded in every timber and floorboard. So book early if you’re planning to come and you want to stay in the heart of old Tórshavn.
2. The Nordic House
Another must-see attraction in Tórshavn is the Nordic House, a cultural centre celebrating all things to do with the Faroe Islands. The Nordic House in Tórshavn brings to life important pieces of the history of not only Tórshavn and the Faroe Islands, but also the history of the Nordic people as a whole and how the Faroe Islands fits in with it.
Interestingly, the history and folklore of Scandinavia is embedded in the Nordic House even down to its very architecture. The award-winning design incorporates over 21,000 square feet of sod roofing in homage to the traditional manner of home-building in these islands. It also features a rolling, serpentine form that evokes the ancient stories of fairies and elves who make their homes in hillside caves beneath the earth.
3. Tórshavn Cathedral
A highlight of the Tinganes/Reyni area for visitors to Tórshavn is the Tórshavn Cathedral or Havnar Kirkja. The cathedral is the second-oldest church in the Faroe Islands, standing out among the buildings of Tinganes with its brilliantly painted white walls and slate roof. It was completed in 1788, and although it was largely rebuilt in 1865, the structural parts of the original 1788 building were largely unaffected. Be sure to get a look at the altarpiece on the north wall of the nave, dating to 1647 and featuring a painting of the Last Supper.
4. Fort Skansin
Another incredible and well-preserved site dating to medieval times is the Skansin Fort, located on a hill adjacent to the port of Tórshavn. Construction on Skansin—literally meaning “the jump”—was begun by legendary Faroese naval hero, trader and privateer Magnus Heinason all the way back in 1580. Heinason and the Faroese leadership wanted the fortress constructed in order to protect the markets of Tórshavn and the islands’ vital trade routes from marauding pirates. But it’s fair to say that Heinason’s motivation wasn’t entirely altruistic; he pushed to get the fort built shortly after he himself was nearly kidnapped by pirates during one of their then-frequent raids.
A pair of Danish bronze cannons dating to 1782 stand impressively aimed out to sea, and appear to be at the ready should any persistent buccaneers take a renewed interest in Tórshavn’s leading businessmen.
If you visit the fortress while in Tórshavn, you’ll also notice a pair of much more modern-looking large guns, a duo of 5.5-inch weapons that were used onboard the HMS Furious prior to World War II. That’s because, during the war, the British military occupied the islands in order to prevent a German takeover of the strategically important archipelago and used the fortress as their headquarters.
The fortress is a great place to spend some time on a nice day, as it is also home to the Skansin Lighthouse, offering spectacular views of Tórshavn, the surrounding hills, and even Nólsoy Island, weather permitting.
5, 6, and 7. Museum Mania
Definitely take the time to visit the Faroese Museum of History, which brings to life the incredible history of the islands and the hardy people who settled in this unlikely locale so long ago. The museum’s exhibits take you all the way back to prerecorded history and the roots of the Faroese, on through the Viking era when the first governments of the Faroe Islands were formed, through the Middle Ages touching on the importance of trade and especially the islanders’ budding fishing industry, right up to the modern era.
A big draw for many visitors to the museum is an exhibit preserving the carved wooden pew ends taken from the cathedral. The carvings date to the early 1400s and feature intricate and quite stunning carvings depicting the 12 apostles. Another fascinating side trip is to stop off at the Museum of Natural History to learn about the islands’ unique animal life, bird populations, plant life and geological formation.
For another rainy day activity, which, let’s be honest, are a regular occurrence in the Faroe Islands, be sure to add to your list of museums the Faroe Islands Art Museum or Listasavn Føroya. It is a great little museum, with much-admired exhibitions of modern art, including extensive exhibits of expressionism and abstract pieces.
The building itself is also quite striking, with a multi-gabled roof and lovely garden grounds as well as great park just next door. If you’re a true art lover, be sure to visit one of the last remaining lithographic workshops in the world, Steinprent. There is a small gallery downstairs, and reports say that if you ask nicely, visitors can sometimes be allowed a peek into the upstairs workshop.
8. Enjoy a beverage and a meal at harborside
One of the great joys of visiting Tórshavn is enjoying meals with the freshest of ingredients from the bounty the nearby sea has to offer. Strolling around the harbour area you’ll come across a wide variety of restaurants to suit any taste, especially if seafood and/or traditional Faroese cooking is your thing. And carnivores don’t forget, the Faroe Islands’ biggest demographic is its sheep, who outnumber the human residents of the islands 2 to 1, so mutton and lamb is definitely on the menu.
A great place to let out the beast in you is The Tarv, a grill house featuring both seafood and a variety of steaks and lamb options. Vegetarians are covered as well in Tórshavn, as Sirkus, a favourite among the city’s restaurants and bars catering to the young, hipster demographic also specialize in vegetarian/vegan options.
For the true gastronome, believe it or not, tiny Tórshavn is home to its very own Michelin-starred restaurant, the highly regarded KOKS, which features an eclectic and extensive 18-course meal using not only locally sourced items, but also items that are foraged locally from the surrounding countryside.
There is also any number of cafes and bars offering virtually any kind of beverage you might like near the harbour, and for shoppers, don’t forget to check out local shops featuring sweaters made from the legendary and highly sought-after Faroe Islands wool.
9. Don’t forget about Tórshavn nightlife and music
For such a small bunch of rocks tossed into the remote North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands pack a mighty wallop when it comes to nightlife and music scene. There are plenty of clubs and bars offering virtually any kind of atmosphere you might want, from lounge singers in romantic restaurants to rock bands to thumping DJ beats. Plus, you can find a wild range of musical styles here, from traditional Nordic fisherman’s tunes to ethereal and moody Scandinavian-styled music in the vein of Sigur Ros, to a surprisingly vibrant country and blues scene.
It’s worth a visit to a record store run by the Faroe Islands’ own label TUTL, a collective that is owned by the musicians themselves. Not only will you be able to buy records created by Faroese musicians, but the shop is also a great place to find out about last-minute shows and venues that might be hosting bands while you’re there.
10. Boat tours
As the capital, home to 42 percent of the Faroe Islands’ population, and the ostensible centre of the life of the islands, Tórshavn is also a great jumping-off point for booking a boat tour of Stremoy Island as well as other nearby islands. You can find tours ranging from a couple of hours to multi-day cruises, as well as trips that will take you to the famed Mykines Island where the puffins have their breeding ground.
All in all, the Faroe Islands’ capital Tórshavn is fascinating, wondrous, and a joy to get lost in. Even though it may not be the smallest capital city in the world, or even in Europe for that matter, Tórshavn is still right up there with the other Faroe Islands experiences awaiting you. Sure, the population of just 22,000 is minuscule, but Tórshavn is massive in the sense that it punches far above its weight in offering visitors a plethora of unique activities and experiences.
When you plan your trip to revel in all the natural beauty that the wider Faroe Islands have to offer, be sure you pencil in a few days to fully explore the Faroe Islands capital Tórshavn!
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