1. For decades, urban travellers have dismissed Iceland as a remote
land of northern lights, overcast skies, unruly volcanoes and cozy wool
sweaters. While arguably one of the more photogenic and identifiable places
on earth, Iceland remains an exotic mystery to many; a volcanic island in the
middle of the Atlantic Ocean where people believe in elves (the huldufólk,
or “hidden people”), there are no last names (they use the Icelandic
patronymic system ), and where musician Björk became…well, Björk.
It’s true that Iceland is remote and mostly untouched by big brands and
chains (McDonald’s pulled out in 2009 and Starbucks has yet to infiltrate
it), but it has successfully shaken its rep as a land of ash and ice. Capital city
Reykjavík’s average winter temperatures actually hover around the freezing
mark and it’s remarkably green in the summer.
Nature’s still the number one draw, but in recent years, travel tastemakers
have been whispering about Reykjavík’s rising potential as an urban
weekend destination. Reykjavík has bolted to the top of travel wish lists as a
small but sophisticated city, luring visitors on their way to and from Europe,
and reeling in crews of beer-guzzling bachelors.
A recent report by the European Travel Commission claims Iceland is
now one of the fastest-rising European destinations for U.S. travellers .
Statistics Iceland reports that the number of visitors to the island has more
than doubled since the year 2000 and that American and United Kingdom
tourists top the list . Over 673,000 people visited the country in 2012—
more than double Iceland’s entire population.
Super-savvy travellers have been tapping into Iceland’s stopover
potential for years, snagging cheap flights to and from Europe, but it has
yet to catch on with the mainstream. Major airlines like Icelandair offer
stopover packages for up to a week at no extra cost but even with the
increase in tourism, nature tops the list of reasons to visit, with stopovers
accounting for only 11.8 percent of visitors last summer, and 8.2 percent
during winter .
A lot can be packed into a single weekend here, from nightlife to some of the
country’s most photogenic natural wonders. Scenic attractions are a short
drive from the city, including the Golden Circle tour featuring the Gullfoss
waterfall and Geysir, and Northern Lights missions in winter months. The
recognizable Blue Lagoon actually sits in lava fields near Iceland’s main
travel hub, Keflavík International Airport, and is considered by many to be a
mandatory stop on the way to and from the airport.
Reykjavík is home to just over 200,000 people (New York City has more
than 40 times the population) but it still upholds a notably urban vibe. Fine
dining restaurants are on the rise and the downtown area is lined with bars,
pubs and designer shops.
Manufacturing and fishing are still Iceland’s major industries (though
tourism is growing fast) and Reykjavík’s working downtown harbour reels in
travellers for several whale watching and Puffin Island boat tours departing
from the docks. Local landmark Sægreifinn (The Sea Baron) serves up
world-famous lobster soup, Iceland’s infamous fermented shark cubes,
and their specialty, “Moby Dick on a stick” (whale kebabs, which can be a
controversial topic here).
Almost everything is within walking distance and various downtown
walking tours depart regularly, with many meeting by the Tourist
Information Centre . Or, wander the streets and seize photo ops at
high vantage points such as The Pearl water tank complex and revolving
restaurant, or Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church , which doubles as an
Waterfront paths take you past the glistening new Harpa concert hall and
conference centre and offer gorgeous views of the Mount Esja range (also
called Esjan), whose famous flat top was formed by layers of lava eruptions
under a glacier during the Ice Age. The mountains are especially beautiful
during evening hours or under the midnight sun, by one of the country’s
most photographed steel sculptures, the Solfar Sun Voyageur .
Icelanders are bathers by nature and it’s common to stop for a swim on
the way to work and a hot tub dip on the way home. All of Reykjavík’s
neighbourhoods have large public geothermal pools. The Nauthólsvík’s
Ylströnd beach is the city’s sandy, man-made geothermal beach with hot-
and-cold waters, thanks to mixing seawater and “hot streams” from heated
Reykjavík water tanks.
Reykjavík’s Artsy Side
Culturally, the city is an intersection of Scandinavian and Gaelic traditions,
sprinkled with modern European sophistication, then churned into
something uniquely Icelandic—due in part to their isolation and general
dismissal of global pop culture, but also from a deeply ingrained creative
People here are overwhelmingly artsy and stylish. Many claim to be a
musician, artist, chef, designer or photographer—and somehow they all rock
a traditional lopapeysa wool sweater like they’re on a fashion runway. Maybe
it’s something in the glacial water?
When it comes to experimental arts, the weirder, the better. The annual
Reykjavík Arts Festival held each spring is a gateway to the city’s eccentric
arts scene. One of this year’s most buzzed-about exhibits featured a “Vessel
Orchestra” . Local artist Lilja Birgisdóttir wrote the score using the
different sounds of horns from working ships in the Reykjavík harbour, then
coordinated a public performance with ship captains.
In 2011, the City of Reykjavík even hired an Official Illustrator, Rán
Flygenring, to capture local street life in art form.
Interest in Iceland
Illustrations by Rán Flygenring
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