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Reykjavik, Iceland - My Favourite 5

© by Mike Keenan

Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre

Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre, photo by Visit Iceland Centre

To employ a professional boxing cliché - with a population of only 317,000 (smaller than London, Ontario) Iceland recently proved that it punches far above its weight by defeating England (population - 53 million) in the 2016 Euro soccer playoffs in France.

And with the election of a new president, our Icelandic connection to this upstart country is Canadian first lady, Eliza Reid, who grew up near Ottawa.

Reykjavik (Smoky Bay) is Europe's northernmost capital, and Keflavik International Airport has become busy since tourists discovered that a European side trip comes relatively cheaply with airfare from London, England-return currently at £323 (Jetcost quote) for the summer and sale prices probably much lower.

I spent three exhilarating days in Reykjavik, and have assembled my favourite five things to do and see in this self-reliant city whose rugged inhabitants deal with constant volcanic activity along with earthquakes, avalanches and an occasional glacial flood thrown in to keep them alert.

Geothermal heat provides inexpensive, reliable, and environmentally safe energy. 70 drill holes varying in depth from 500 to 2,000 meters provide the capital with its hot water. In fact, natural hot water heats roughly 90% of all buildings in Iceland.

Due to its location over a rift in two continental plates, the high concentration of volcanoes is an advantage for the generation of geothermal energy and the production of electricity. During winter, the pavements in Reykjavik are warmed.

73.8% of the nation's electricity is generated by hydro power, and only 0.1% from fossil fuels, making for a healthy, pristine environment. The remarkable tap water that I drink is cool, pure, delicious, refreshing and addictive.

Hallgrímskirkja Evangelical-Lutheran church, photo by Visit Iceland  Hallgrímskirkja Evangelical-Lutheran church, photo by Visit Iceland  Hallgrímskirkja Evangelical-Lutheran church, photo by Visit Iceland  Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference, photo by Visit Iceland Centre  Perlan dining area, photo by Perlan  Perlan, photo by Visit Iceland

Let's examine my favourite five picks for Reykjavik.

1. The Pearl (Perlan) embodies the Icelandic melding of nature and space to accommodate vital community needs. 25.7 metres high, it sits on a hill with 176,000 planted trees, a woodland setting with surrounding nature trails, quite rare for a city. Hollow steel framing supports a glass dome and walls that link six aluminum-sided tanks, each of which can contain 4 million liters of water at 85°C. Hot water is pumped through the metal framework in winter, while cold water flows during summer, thereby producing a comfortable year-round environment.

The Viewing Deck on Level 4 takes full advantage of the panoramic view as I can see the entire city. There's 10,000 cubic meters of exhibition space on the ground floor known as the Winter Garden, which hosts concerts and various expos and markets. There are myriad shops, and on the top (fifth) floor, a revolving restaurant where I dined, completing a 360 degree circle in two hours. Apart from the four-course seasonal meal, there are traditional delicacies such as Skyr or reindeer meatballs. The food was pricey but delicious.

2. Hallgrimskirkja Evangelical-Lutheran church, the largest church in Iceland, was designed in 1937 by Guõjón Samuel, inspired by the captivating shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock. The concrete facade exudes modernism. The tower reminds me of the supersonic Concorde passenger jet. Quite tall at 73 m, it is visible throughout the city. Inside, a gargantuan pipe organ 15m tall and weighing a remarkable 25 tons is driven by four manuals and a pedal, 102 ranks, 72 stops and 5,275 pipes which produce powerful notes with a tonal range from soft to spectacular. Thousands visit daily, and I arrived during a wedding! Tower admission is ISK 900 or ISK 100 for children (7-14). 100 ISK = $1.06 Cdn.

In front of Hallgrímskirkja, there's a striking pagan counterpoint - a statue of Viking warrior, Leif Ericson, the first European to discover America in 1,000 A.D., 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Strange - because in the first attack recorded in England, Christian monks at Lindisfarne were hacked to death or drowned by Leif's pagan raiders. The statue is a gift from the United States in honour of the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland's first parliament in 930 AD.

3. Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre in the heart of the city, features stunning views of the neighbouring mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean. It hosts concerts and conferences and offers two restaurants along with its shops. The compelling structure consists of a mesmerizing steel framework clad with geometric shaped glass panels of different colours that demands to be photographed from every angle. The architecture is stunning, complemented by the harbor views. Harpa houses the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the offices of The Icelandic Opera.

4. The National Museum of Iceland provides a quick overview of Icelandic heritage and history and its permanent exhibition, Making of a Nation, includes 2,000 objects dating from the Settlement Age to the present, as well as about 1,000 photographs from the 20th century. I marveled at a replica of a flimsy ship in which medieval settlers crossed the ocean to their new home. Admission fee: Adult-1500 ISK, Senior citizens (67+), disabled and students-750 ISK.

5. Walking! The capital area is geographically concentrated, so one may easily walk to most sites or use public transportation for slightly more remote visits. Walking beside the ocean on the Sculpture and Shore Walk, I encountered trim-looking joggers and the exquisite Solfar (Sun Voyager) Sculpture. Created by Jon Gunnar Arnason, the gleaming steel resembles a Viking longship. Facing majestic Mt. Esja, it is a popular photo stop during the summer's Midnight Sun. Another site to see along the way is Hofdi House built in 1909, one of the most beautiful and historically significant buildings in the Reykjavík area and best known as the location for the 1986 summit meeting of presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that marked the end of the Cold War.

At the airport when reluctantly leaving Reykjavik, I notice the colours of Iceland's flag. Symbolic, they are red for volcanic fires, white for the snow and glaciers and blue for the skies above. Perfect for such an amazing, self-sufficient country!


Reykjavik snow, photo by Visit Iceland

Best Viewed (in person) Full Screen

Best Viewed (in person) Full Screen

Best Viewed (in person) Full Screen

Mike Keenan is a travel columnist for Troy Media. He produces a travel podcast - http://whattravelwriterssay.libsyn.com/ accessible on iTunes and Stitcher Radio and has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of five thousand viewers.

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If you go
Iceland is a North Atlantic island and the westernmost country in Europe, midway between North America and mainland Europe. It lies about 800 km northwest of Scotland and 970 km west of Norway, and its northern coast is just below the Arctic Circle.
Due to atmospheric refraction and also because the sun is a disk rather than a point, the midnight sun may be experienced at latitudes slightly below the polar circle, though not exceeding one degree (depending on local conditions). For example, Iceland is known for its midnight sun, even though most of it (Grímsey is the exception) is slightly south of the Arctic Circle. For the same reasons, the period of sunlight at the poles is slightly longer than six months. Even the northern extremities of Scotland (and those places on similar latitudes such as St. Petersburg) experience twilight in the northern sky at around the summer solstice.

Perlan: http://www.perlan.is/
Hallgrimskirkja Evangelical-Lutheran church: http://www.hallgrimskirkja.is/
Harpa: http://www.iceland.is/arts-culture/music/harpa
The National Museum of Iceland: http://www.thjodminjasafn.is/english
Solfar (Sun Voyager) Sculpture: http://www.visitreykjavik.is/solfar-sun-voyager
Hofdi House: http://www.visitreykjavik.is/hofdi-house
Visit Iceland: http://www.visiticeland.com/
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reykjav%C3%ADk
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Reykjavik
Wikivoyage: https://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Reykjav%C3%ADk
About.com: http://index.about.com/index?q=reykjavik&o=40026&qo=aboutSiteSearch&ad=dirN
Fiction: http://www.reykjavik.com/top-5-icelandic-novels/
Films featuring: http://www.planiceland.com/8_places_you_will_recognize_from_movies/
Music: https://foursquare.com/top-places/reykjavik/best-places-live-music
Places of worship: https://www.virtualtourist.com/travel/Europe/Iceland/Reykjavik_Region/Reykjavik-247851/Things_To_Do-Reykjavik-Churches-BR-1.html
Sport: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Sport_in_Reykjav%C3%ADk
Trip Advisor: https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Attractions-g189970-Activities-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html

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