Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik

1 / 3
The Northern Lights, seen from Iceland. (Shutterstock)
2 / 3
Godafoss Waterfall in Iceland. (Shutterstock)
3 / 3
Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 June 2019

Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik

  • The Icelandic capital is unlike anywhere else in Europe
  • The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route, as it’s easily accessible in a day trip from the capital. The route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

DUBLIN: Reykjavík looks like no other European capital, but Iceland is like no other European country. It is of course, technically part of Scandinavia, but the country is very different from the likes of Sweden and Denmark. Its capital is beautiful, dotted with picture-postcard wooden houses and surrounded by some of the most spectacular countryside on the planet. It’s also filled with creative, quirky locals, and despite being no bigger than a town, has a whole host of culinary and artistic diversions.

The experience you have here will depend greatly on the time of the year you go. Travel in the winter months, and you will get almost total darkness, bitter cold and, of course, the glorious Northern Lights. Travel in the summer and you can expect only a few hours of darkness every night, as well as perfect weather for walking.

For a glimpse of Iceland’s prolificacy during the boom years, take a stroll to Harpa — the massive glass concert hall on the waterfront which opened in 2011. There are regular concerts held there, but it’s worth taking one of the daily guided tours, to hear the ill-fated history of the building as well as soak up some spectacular views. 

Although Iceland is starting to question the wisdom of unfettered tourism, Reykjavík is a very breathable city. Most of the buildings are wooden and no more than three stories high, which gives the place a frontier-town vibe. Its size means it’s perfect for walking, and one of the best routes is from the city center to Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic, spaceship-like church on the edge of town. The church is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; take the lift to the top (73 meters up) where spectacular views of the city and surrounding coast await.

Back in the city center, head to Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Amid the overpriced tourist tat (any shop that sells stuffed toy puffins), there are some wonderful handmade goods on offer in Kirsuberjatred, on Vesturgata, including jewelry, baby footwear and sustainable bowls made of (yep) radish paper.

Although Iceland’s food culture hasn’t reached the heights of its Scandinavian neighbors further east, there is plenty to choose from in the city center; everything from hole-in-the-wall burger joints to tapas-style restaurants to high-concept Icelandic cuisine. We recommend Dill, the first Icelandic restaurant to receive a Michelin star, which focuses on New Nordic cuisine (try the dried puffin and trout).

It’s also worth getting the ferry to Videy Island, which only takes five minutes from the pier at Skarfabakki. The island is small, windswept and beautiful, and features an outdoor art gallery. Chief among the exhibits is the “Peace Tower,” created by Yoko Ono, which features the message “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages. Back on the mainland, take the waterfront path that heads northwest out of the city towards the iconic lighthouse on Grotta Island. The spectacular Esja mountain range looms across the bay, and provides a spectacular backdrop, as do the regular pieces of public art along the route.  

Iceland is rightly proud of how it has harnessed the geothermal energy that exists below its surface, allowing citizens to access free, unlimited hot water. You too can enjoy this natural bounty at Laugardalslaug, a series of rock pools in Laugardsalslaug Park at the eastern edge of the city. It features an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, waterslides and numerous hot tubs and steam baths.

If you want to go further afield — and you should — there are numerous day trips that give a glimpse of the country’s otherworldly scenery. The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route, as it’s easily accessible in a day trip from the capital. The route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

Iceland is known for its spectacular terrain, and even the 45-minute journey to Keflavik airport passes through breathtaking volcanic landscapes. The Reykjanes field is dotted with mud pools, steam vents and hot springs. If you have time, stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. It’s relentlessly popular (1.5 million tourists per year) and not cheap ($40), but its huge geothermal pools are the perfect way to wind down before a long flight.

How to travel post-COVID-19

Updated 07 July 2020

How to travel post-COVID-19

  • As borders begin to re-open in the Middle East and around the world, here is how to deal with traveling in a post-pandemic world

DUBAI: When it comes to the Middle East, July seems to be a marker. From Bahrain to Egypt, Morocco to Dubai, borders are tentatively opening, with plans to jumpstart tourism a sign of better days to come. But still, a question hangs heavy. Even if we are now allowed to travel, will the experience ever really be the same again?

From where you can go to how much it will cost, what you can do there to a fear of going in the first place, the very essence of travel stands on the precipice, and we are all at risk of a lesser life experience because of it.

For Dubai-based, Euronews Travel TV presenter Sarah Hedley-Hymers, the biggest repercussion is the resulting knowledge hit. “Traveling makes me hyper-attentive,” she said. “The newness of places stimulates all the senses. I’m like Bradley Cooper in the movie ‘Limitless,’ absorbing different destinations like a sponge, expanding with the knowledge of it all, energized by the novelty. Not traveling feels like a protracted comedown.”

But while COVID-19 may have grounded the first half of 2020, the green shoots of recovery are slowly creeping through the cracks. Tentatively, travel is once more an option, but if you are planning post-pandemic travel, preparation is paramount.

Where can I travel to?
June saw much of Europe slowly re-open its doors, albeit with entry generally restricted to EU nationals or returning residents. In the Middle East, July 1 saw airports open in Egypt and Lebanon, along with tourism facilities in Turkey. Dubai will welcome visitors from July 7, Morocco from July 11, and Bahrain hopes to re-open the King Fahd Causeway — and its border with Saudi Arabia — by the end of the month.

Tourists from around the world stepped foot in the UAE for the first time in nearly four months on July 7. Shutterstock

The re-openings are fluid, with plans changing daily. Best advice? Check carefully ahead of any trip. There is a good chance that restrictions will still apply, both with the country you are heading to and the one you are departing from.

Will air travel be more expensive post-COVID-19?
As fleets have lay grounded for months, the big fear was that airlines would have to charge extortionate fares in order to recoup losses. Thankfully, the opposite might be true.

“With regards to the cost of travel, views currently vary and it’s difficult to accurately predict airline strategies,” said Ciarán Kelly, managing director of the Middle East & Africa Network at FCM Travel Solutions. “But some people expect fares to stay low as airlines struggle to get customers back on board.

“Whether it’s a free checked bag on your flight, discount vouchers — as we’ve seen already from Etihad — free wifi or other incentives, airlines are going to have to do everything they can to get people back into the skies.

“Of course on the flip side, faced with huge losses to make up and potentially emptier planes, they could go the other way and raise ticket prices. But even if that happens, it’s also likely they’ll adopt more lenient change and cancelation policies, as has been seen over the last few weeks.”

What if I am scared to travel?
A perhaps unexpected repercussion of COVID-19 on travel is a fear of staying safe. A recent poll by Mower, an independent marketing, advertising and public relations agency in the US, found that only 16 percent of Americans would be comfortable flying again once restrictions were eased. For Reem Shaheen, counseling psychologist at Dubai’s Be Psychology Center, the key to allaying fear is preparation.
“Apart from concerns over the virus, the overwhelming worry at the moment is access. Most people are struggling to not only figure out a travel destination with open borders, but also if they’re able to return to their country of residency,” she said.

Most people are struggling to not only figure out a travel destination with open borders, but also if they’re able to return to their country of residency. Shutterstock

“I believe that the fuel of this fear lies in the feeling of helplessness. The best way to manage that is by gathering as much information as possible. This could be by knowing where the hospitals are, preparing for a safe return to your country of residence, or simply learning the protocols on social distancing of the country that you’re heading to. Working to gain control over situations within your power will help reduce the fear and anxiety triggered by traveling during the pandemic.”

When should I travel again?
While open borders might signify an invitation to travel, the reality is that things might take a little longer before the world is comfortable in transit once more. But while your travel experience might now be a little different, you would hope that the opportunity to embrace new experiences will once again prove too good to resist.

Travel equates to more than the sum of its parts, not just the act of being there but the attributes it brings. Patience, acceptance, kindness and curiosity — those are the traits that you pick up on the road, and without the ability to move freely, we are all missing out. Plus, as Hedley-Hymers said: “If nothing else, it’s always nice to find a corner of the world that doesn’t have a McDonald’s on it.”