A sister city friendship making a difference

Seattle and Reykjavík forge together in a special bond

The Norwegian American

Ever wondered what a sister city is and exactly what they do, or perhaps you are interested in getting involved in some of their activities?

If you live in Seattle and are thinking about exploring Iceland, the Seattle-Reykjavík Sister City Association (SRSCA) offers unique opportunities for learning about Iceland and engaging in direct people-to-people exchange.

The history of sister cities

But first, what is a sister city? The idea of sister cities, or “town twinning” as it is known in Great Britain, goes back to the days of World War II and the Coventry Blitz in November 1940. When Germany bombed Coventry, England, the city’s mayor sent a telegram to the people of Stalingrad in the Soviet Union, expressing solidarity and the wish to share experiences and ideas on how to rebuild. The people of Coventry sent a tablecloth with the words “Little help is better than big sympathy” with a small sum of money to symbolize the relationship. In 1944, a formal agreement was put in place between the two cities.

The idea took off after the war, and on Sept. 11, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his famous speech on people-to-people diplomacy at a conference at the White House. As commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower had witnessed the devastating effects of war firsthand, and it was his belief that if every American could have a least one friend in a foreign country, the world would see fewer wars. This conference was the genesis of Sister Cities International.

Today, a Sister City International pairing of cities requires a formal agreement between the two cities at the municipal level. Certain criteria must be met to ensure that the cities will enter into a mutually beneficial relationship. In general, the cities usually share a number of things in common: geography, industries, educational, and cultural interests.

Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson / Visit Reykjavík
Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja, situated on a hilltop near the center of the city, was completed in 1986.

Seattle-Reykjavík bond

In 1986, an agreement was signed between Seattle and Reykjavík to formalize their sister-city partnership. The relationship between Seattle and Reykjavík seemed like a natural pairing, because the two cities have many things in common.

As the website for the SRSCA at srsca.org states, “Both Seattle and Reykjavík are surrounded by unrivaled landscapes, share a passion for literature, music, and the arts, and engender an innovative entrepreneurial spirit. Because of exponential growth and rapid changes, both cities face similar challenges.”

Seattle, a center of Nordic settlement, is also home to a significant number of Icelandic immigrants. Both cities are ports and home to active fishing fleets, and the Icelanders saw opportunities in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The fishers are still coming to Seattle, and these days, Reykjavik serves as a gateway to Europe, with direct flights to and from Seattle, with connections to many major European cities.

Yet, there are also significant differences between the two cities. The population of Seattle is about 750,000, while Reykjavík claims only 135,422 inhabitants. In fact, the population of the country of Iceland with 366,425 people according to a 2020 count is less than that of Seattle. And, not to be forgotten, Rey­kjavík has been around as a city for over 1,100 years, while Seattle was first incorporated as a municipality in 1859.

A flood of books

Both Seattle and Reykjavík are very bookish cities (it may have something to do with the climate), and both have been designated UNESCO Cities of Literature. For this reason, SRSCA uses public events and platforms to feature the voices of a diverse range of contemporary, emerging, and established writers in both cities. One of their most popular annual events is the Holiday Book Flood—the Jolabokaflod—in early December.

Modeled on an Icelandic tradition, local authors and academics read from works by celebrated authors from both the Pacific Northwest and Iceland. There is always a pop-up book shop, where attendees can buy  books to enjoy at home.

And reading is by no means restricted to the holiday season. Throughout the year, the SRSCA hosts a book club with a focus on Icelandic literature.


Photo: powerofforever / iStock
Seattle’s iconic Space Needle was built for the 1962 Word’s Fair with the theme “Century 21.”

Films and food

The strong importance of books and storytelling in Icelandic culture has led to the emergence of a thriving modern film industry. To promote exchange within this genre, each year, the SRSCA sponsors a film at Seattle’s Nordic Lights Film festival, sponsored by the Seattle International Film Festival and the National Nordic Museum. Icelandic films are also frequently featured at the main Seattle International Film Festival, which attracts visitors from all over the world.

Another popular event is Seattle’s Taste of Iceland, which not only features food prepared by renowned Iceland chefs but musical performances by popular contemporary Icelandic artists. Local Seattle radio station KEXP is a strong proponent of the festival and contemporary Icelandic music in general.

And then there is more food each holiday season with the Jolablott, a party that features traditional Icelandic food and entertainment. Held at the National Nordic Museum, it is a feast with contemporary music and traditional food.

Recently, in 2021, the SRSCA was one of the driving forces behind a cookbook project for the Seattle Sister Cities Association, The International Table: Recipes from the Seattle Sister Cities. The project was the recipient of the prestigious 2022 Sister Cities International Innovation in Arts & Culture award.

In it, recipes from all 20 of Seattle’s sister cities were compiled, including not only Reykjavík but Bergen in Norway as well (see Cocktail: Thor’s Forest from the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American).

A special connection

The SRSCA has a particularly close association with the National Nordic Museum. All three of its recent presidents have been staff, board members, or volunteers there, including Eric Nelson, executive director and CEO of the museum.

In 2018, the SRSCA was honored to welcome the Icelandic President Guðni Jóhannesson and helped sponsor the Icelandic Men’s Chorus and the operatic quartet of Voices of Reykjavík at the grand opening of the new museum.

More recently, Jóhannesson returned to the museum for the Nordic Innovation Summit last May, (see Iceland’s president outlines a clear vision for his country) and his wife, Eliza Reid, presented her new book Secrets of the Sprakkar (see Secrets of the Sprakkar from the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American).

Aspiring to new heights

As the SRSCA website states, the aspiration of this sister city group is to envision “a world in which connections between global communities enlivens culture, celebrates diversity, deepens mutual understanding, and builds respect for humanity and the natural world.”

It is a tall order, embodied in the iconic symbols of the cities of Seattle and Reykjavík, the Space Needle and Hallgrímskirkja. At 605 feet and 255 feet, respectively, both are structures that reach for the sky, with a futuristic feeling of progress and transcendence. In their early days, both buildings were considered to be a bit daring and avant-garde, and in the same way, the SRSCA practices and promotes evaluating and undertaking innovative and daring approaches to solving the challenges facing the two cities.

Sister Cities International can open doors for citizens that otherwise might be closed. With formal agreements in place between the cities, connections are easily facilitated.

Since its inception in 1956, Sister Cities International has worked to create global relationships based on cultural, educational, information, and trade exchanges. The result is lifelong friendships that provide prosperity and peace. The sister cities Seattle and Reykjavík are a  testimonial to the success of the this venerable organization.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.