Tórshavn has finally come of age, blossoming into a self-confident, bustling medium-sized town with … all the trappings of a national, if diminutive, capital.
Proudly named after the Norse god of war, Tórshavn (literally ‘Thor’s Harbour’) is curiously built around one of the worst natural harbours in the entire country, dangerously exposed to the gales and accompanying heavy swells of the North Atlantic.
Yet it was here, around AD900, on the rocky promontory, Tinganes, that the ting or Viking parliament first began meeting every summer to chew over matters of national importance, doing so uninterrupted until 1816; today this promontory is still the seat of the Faroese government. An annual market was also held here to coincide with the assembly, developing in the Middle Ages – with the introduction of the Trade Monopoly in 1579 – into a permanent trading place with warehouses for the importing and exporting of goods.
Although Tórshavn’s future was confirmed, population growth was slow due to restrictive land ownership laws that made farming difficult; by the beginning of the 17th century, barely 100 people lived in the settlement. In 1673 there was a further setback when a devastating fire raged across Tinganes, destroying all but two of the warehouses there.
Over the ensuing centuries growth gradually increased, helped in large part by reform of land ownership rights, and by 1900 Tórshavn’s population had soared to 15,000, tripling in just 100 years. Today, Tórshavn has finally come of age, blossoming into a self-confident, bustling medium-sized town with a population of around 19,800 people and all the trappings of a national, if diminutive, capital: government offices, parliament and foreign consulates are all here and the town is home to two out of five Faroe Islanders. Incidentally, you pronounce Tórshavn toe-ush-hown.
For orientation, take the harbour as your point of reference: from here, Tórshavn stretches in three directions: west up the steep hillsides behind the town centre that act as the capital’s backdrop, as well as both north and south curving around the waterfront.
For orientation, take the harbour as your point of reference: from here, Tórshavn stretches in three directions: west up the steep hillsides behind the town centre that act as the capital’s backdrop, as well as both north and south curving around the waterfront. However, it is the all-important harbour, through which the country maintains contact with the rest of the world, which remains the town’s focal point and is arguably the most attractive part of town.
Here a long row of converted warehouses, with façades ranging in colour from a rich yellow ochre to bright reds and blues, reflect in the crystal-clear waters of the harbour bursting with small wooden fishing vessels; during the long summer days, the couple of cafés on the waterfront here are full of people enjoying a cup of coffee, watching the boats bob on the Atlantic swell – the classic picture-postcard view of Tórshavn.
From here a warren of narrow streets and lanes leads up and over the hill on to Tinganes, winding past tiny black-tarred houses with white window frames and green turfed roofs to the grander former merchants’ houses. Today, these are home to the various departments of the Faroese Home Rule government; they stand on the very tip of the promontory looking over to Skansin fort which once protected Tórshavn harbour from marauding pirates.
However, it is in and around the compact grid of modern streets north of Tinganes, dominated by the pedestrianised main drag, Niels Finsens gøta, where you’re likely to spend most of your time. It’s here that most of the town’s facilities are located: shops, restaurants and a bank are all to be found within a central area measuring no more than 1km² or so – Tórshavn is, after all, the smallest national capital in the world.
From the centre of town, Tinghúsvegur streaks north, past the Faroese parliament, to the SMS shopping centre and on to the forested Viðarlundin Park, one of the few plantations in the country and a favourite place for a stroll.