Tag: "europe"

Iceland

Iceland

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By Alexandria Ott

Located at Latitude 67 north, Iceland and its recent rise in tourism is befitting: With majestically milky hot springs, blistering and bright volcanoes, landscapes that resemble landing on the moon, unusual scapes for scuba diving and lava fields inhibited by Santa and his elves, this Nordic island has quickly become a top destination for American travelers. In fact, at any given time, more American tourists inhabit Iceland than Icelandic residents. With a surge in travel deals from the US to Iceland, journeying to this ancient land has become a must-do for travel connoisseurs and peace seekers.
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HEAD TO THE NORTH
With a quick flight from Reykjavik to the town of Akureyri, Northern Iceland gives visitors a picturesque look into the nation’s most treasured natural wonders. More familiar is South Iceland’s Diamond Circle, but what many don’t know is that the North also boasts a tour that will take you to Lake Myvatn, the Godafoss waterfalls, the geothermal area called Namaskard, the Jokulsargljufur canyon and much more.

Godafoss (Goðafoss), which translates to “the Waterfall of the Gods,” is a historical monument and stunning sight near ring-road 1. It is named as such from the ancient Viking story about Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi (Þorgeir ljósvetningagoði), an ex-Pagan Chief who converted to Christianity in AD 1000 by throwing pagan idols of Nordic gods into this waterfall as a proclamation of the new faith.

Lake Myvatn is one of northern Iceland’s most beloved stops. The lake’s birdlife is plentiful with fourteen different duck species (the most gathered in any place in the world) and a Bird Museum worth checking out. Myvatn’s Nature Bath is located just east of Reykjahlid, where guests can enjoy a warm dip in the relaxing natural waters. As the fourth largest lake in Iceland, the Myvatn region also offers visitors many hiking routes, if you’re looking for some cardio after your spa-like experience. The Yule Lads, figures from Icelandic folklore who are commonly identified as the Icelandic version of Santa Claus, also live in the Myvatn area at Dimmuborgir. “Watch out for the little elves,” say the locals.

Namafjall mountain (also known as ‘Namaskard’ or ‘Hverir’) is a geothermal area that looks as celestial as it is serene. With boiling and bubbling mud pools, this high-temperature area is often referred to as “Hell’s Kitchen” for the steam that rises from it and the strong sulfur odor caused by hydrogen sulfide. Take a walk on the Icelandic moon.

Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is home to the roaring and spectacular Dettifoss waterfall. Visitors can travel along the canyon and see the famous Hljodaklettar or “Echoing” Cliffs, named for their exceptional acoustics. Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall and is situated in the glacial river, Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which is the second longest river in Iceland. The river originates in Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest glacier.
In the springtime, you can also see cliffs of the Tjornes peninsula and will be met by majestic puffins that nest in the area. While there, drive through the village of Husavik, which is the whale watching capital of Iceland, before heading back to Akureyri.
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WHAT TO WEAR
“If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Pack for all seasons and occasions when visiting Iceland, where the weather is often windy and unpredictable. Each day will bring multiple changes in temperature, so preparing for anything is the best way to stay warm and comfortable for your Nordic adventures. A beautiful day can rapidly turn into a windstorm so pack layers that will allow you to go from t-shirt weather to winter weather in the turn of a moment.

SNORKEL THE SILFRA
When you think of the most ideal places to snorkel in the world, your imagination might fill with images of tropical waters in Hawaii or Indonesia. What many may not know when planning a trip to Iceland is that it’s waters are some of the most clear in the world and offer a rare opportunity to swim between continental plates. Scuba divers and snorkelers are attracted to this freshwater beauty for many reasons but most its geological significance: The Silfra is located between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Offering exceptional visibility, there are three main dive sites: Silfra Hall, Silfra Cathedral, and the Silfra Lagoon. If you’re a newbie or first time snorkeler, this is a great place because the area is shallow upon entry. The “Ice” in Iceland certainly applies to the water temperature, which ranges between 36–39 °F but can be relieved with a dry suit. The lava rocks are constantly filtering the water so it is truly some of the clearest water in the world. It’s so clean that you can drink it while you are snorkeling. You will view underwater majesty for as far as the eye can see while staying more hydrated than you have ever been.
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DO AS THE LOCALS DO
Four-Wheeling to Freedom: Ditching the tour groups can have its advantages. Trekking through Iceland’s highlands and mountain roads through Jeep Excursions can be the best way to break away. The best places to rent a four-wheeler and take off include:

Glymur waterfall (one hour north of Reykjavik): This amazing waterfall, which is the second largest in Iceland, empties into a giant canyon and with such a short hike, the reward is well worth the time.

Seljavallalaug is Iceland’s oldest geothermal swimming pool, which sits at the base of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Located in southern Iceland, this outdoor pool is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland (built in 1923) and gives you yet another excuse to relax in tranquil waters.

Landmannalaugar (meaning “the people’s pools”) is a steaming volcanic landscape in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the Highlands of Iceland. It is at the edge of Laugahraun lava field, which was formed in an eruption that dates back to 1477. With colorful mountains in the backdrop and cute shops in town, this is a great spot to break away and explore with your travel partner.

Relaxing in the isolated countryside is another way to live like a native. Chic cottages on Airbnb start at $53/night and can range from mossy spots that border lava fields to naturally heated hot tubs overlooking volcanoes. When renting in rural areas, you can also have access to fresh, local food including lamb or seafood and produce like strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers. Dining in may be a better option for the pocket book as Iceland’s restaurant culture is infamously expensive.

If you are a music lover, then Iceland is a great place to follow major international acts like Foo Fighters, who are headlining this year’s Secret Solace. In addition to being home of major musicians such as Sigur Ros, Of Monsters and Men and Bjork, Iceland has a breadth of festivals to check out, depending on the time of year you are visiting.

Launched in 1999 in an airplane hangar in Reykjavík, Iceland Airwaves is the most well-known. The festival, which takes place in November each year, showcases the Icelandic rock/pop/electro music scene along with numerous international acts. Hard rock festival, Eistnaflug, has taken place annually since 2005. An indoor festival situated in a quaint little town on the Eastern coast of Iceland called Neskaupstaður, the lineup consists of 30-40 bands from Iceland and around the world. Dark Music Days is another festival that locals love, consisting of contemporary and new music and takes place at Harpa in downtown Reykjavík during the darkest period of the Icelandic winter. The festival was founded in 1980 by the Iceland Composers’ Society as a platform for Icelandic composers to present their work. Today, the festival is a platform for getting to know new music with an emphasis on Icelandic composers and performers.

Reykjavík Blues Festival opens with “Blues Day” in the city center every year and it usually takes place in March or April. It includes live blues in different downtown venues and highlights include surprise performances in the downtown city center. Blues clubs in the area also liven up and serve as the official after hour venues. The annual Reykjavik Jazz Festival is an increasingly prestigious event on the international jazz scene. The festival hosts performances in a variety of styles, from contemporary jazz and the avant-garde to Latin jazz, gospel and big bands. It features many acclaimed international Jazz players as well as Iceland’s leading Jazz musicians against a stunning backdrop of colorful mountains in the inspiring coastal town.

Finally, Secret Solstice is back in it’s fourth year, bringing “72 hours straight of never-ending daylight”, incredible live acts, and some of the most unique parties nestled in Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes. The 2017 lineup includes headliners Foo Fighters, The Prodigy, Richard Ashcroft, Pharoahe Monch, Foreign Beggars, Dubfire, and Kerri Chandler. With side events that utilize the beautiful and natural terrain, visitors of this festival can expect events such as performances in the Raufarholshellir lava tunnel system outside Reykjavík. Formed over 5,000 years ago during a volcanic eruption, the Raufarhollshellir cave system is a magnificent phenomenon of nature, which instills a sense of wonder in all who journey within it. And for the first time ever, guests can be part of this ultra-special concert, in this natural space.

WHEN TO GO
Visiting Iceland in winter can impede your adventures with a sliver of sunlight each day, but this is also when some of the best deals can be found. Tourism is most popular in the summer months where the month of June can see 24/7 arctic daylight. If you are looking to miss the high-traffic months of July and August, where the weather is best and most predictable, try booking your trip in the early fall months. This will allow you to enjoy all that Iceland has to offer before the snowy season arrives and even gives you the best chance to catch the enchanting Northern Lights.

Brussels

Brussels

Grand-PLace

Brussels
Equal parts tough and adorable, Belgian comic book icon Tintin and his faithful hound Snowy, brought the sophistication, style, and exuberance of Brussels with them on their adventures—and focused the world’s attention on this cosmopolitan city. That’s just fine with locals, who are proud to show off why their city of a million people is not only the capital of Belgium, but also the entire European Union. That means immersing oneself in the some of the world’s best beer, chocolate, waffles, and fries—served “in German portions, but with French finesse,” as the Belgian saying goes—all the while discovering gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture, vintage markets, puppet shows, pop-up parties, and comic book art.
French and Flemish may be on the tips of local tongues, but Brussels is a true polyglot, making it hard to find a person who doesn’t speak English. Commuting into the city is just as easy as communicating, with six hourly trains running from the airport to Brussels Central Station, and taking just 18 minutes. From there, a vast network of subways, trams, and buses weave through the tightly-knit neighborhoods. In many cases, your foot-power will be enough, starting with the city’s most famous icon, the Grand Place, just five minutes walking time from the station. Like most of Brussels’ primary sights, hotels, and restaurants, the Grand Palace is found in the City Center, or in easy striking distance in the surrounding neighborhoods of Ixelles, Saint-Gilles, Anderlecht, Laekan, and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. Tap into the pure spirit of Brussels at these ten sites:

Palais Royal
Théâtre Royal de Toone
The actors who take the stage at this theatre may be wooden in composition but not in expression, thanks to nearly two hundred years of history, starting in 1830, when Antoine (Toone) Genty founded this marionette theater. With more than 1,300 hand-carved figures in the inventory (each with its own tailored costume), there’s a huge cast of characters to draw from for spoofed-up classics, like Romeo & Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac, and The Three Musketeers. The stage itself is nestled under angled eaves upstairs, but don’t leave without seeing the charming downstairs café and bar filled with vintage puppets, posters and an impressive menu of Belgian beer.

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BELvue Museum and Coudenberg Castle
After fire engulfed the castle of Coudenberg in 1731, the 700-year-old residence of central Brussels soon disappeared from existence altogether, buried from view under the Place Royale and surrounding neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the 1980s that serious excavation commenced, and today, several parts of the ancient castle are open to the public, including stairs, passages, cellars, a chapel, warehouse, and the former Rue Isabelle. Flesh out the history above the ruins at the BELvue Museum, where two floors of striking exhibitions present the history of Belgium in a bright, modern way, with many interactive elements, including cartoons, making it fun even for those who generally hate museums.
Cantillon Brewery
Enjoy a sip of Brussels’ revered lambics, gueuze, and kriek beers, especially those concocted at this legendary brewery, the last of its kind in in the city. Opened in 1900, it is truly Old School, utilizing the original 19th-century equipment to produce the world’s original style of beer. Guided tours run every 30 minutes, taking visitors through the production floor, where antique belt-driven machines continue today, milling, mashing, boiling, and cooling the brew. Inhale deeply in the aging room, as the fruity, woody aroma of beer brewing in chestnut wine casks perfumes the air. Abundant spider webs don’t prosper from neglect, but rather are encouraged to keep the brewery naturally bug-free. The Brewery’s admission fee includes one glass of Cantillon’s coveted stock, but few visitors stop at just one glass.
Belgian Chocolate Workshop at Zaabär
Although you can’t actually dive into a vat of Belgian chocolate, it’s still possible to get up close and personal with it at this chocolate factory in the center of Brussels. Every Saturday afternoon (plus Wednesdays during school holidays), one-hour workshops facilitated by the chocolate maker instruct up to 30 guests in the fine art of making truffles, bars, and traditional “mendicants,” named after the four mendicant or monastic orders. There is plenty to taste, too, and your delicious creations are yours to take home…if you make it that far. Be sure to snap your selfies before slipping off your compulsory hairnet, apron, and gloves.

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Les Apéros Urbaines
When the mercury rises high enough on the thermostat, Brussels’ denizens love to get outside and celebrate the warm weather together, and some have converted this rite into an art. One citizen’s attempt to get a few friends together for drinks transformed into Les Apéros Urbaines, a festival of large scale “apéros” on Friday nights throughout the spring and summer. Enormously popular, each event attracts hundreds of locals to chat, drink, dance, and meet friends old and new. The pop-up parties travel throughout the city, and are found in parks, squares, rooftops, and forests during the season—always with the doctrine of “Simplicity, Happiness, Originality, Friendliness.”

Belgian Comic Strip Center
Belgium claims more comic strip artists per square kilometer than any other country, and the evidence is overwhelming — if not in your childhood memories of Tintin and the Smurfs, then in Brussels’ numerous venues for comic book art. The most important is the Belgian Comic Strip Center, where the rich history and production of the “ninth art” pack several floors of permanent and temporary exhibitions. The Grand Poohbah of comics and creator of Tintin, Hergé (aka Georges Remi) are featured in a dedicated area. The Center’s Art Nouveau home, a former textile warehouse built by Victor Horta, is a work of art itself, and the iron-and-glass ceiling bathes the contents in defused light. Outside the center, enjoy more of Belgium’s comic culture along the “Comic Book Route:” a path through the city marked by dozens of large-scale, comic-style murals painted on buildings.
Brussels Vintage Market
Fashionistas visiting Brussels should aim for the first Sunday of each month when the vaunted vintage clothing market opens its doors to nearly 2500 shoppers in need of retail therapy. The remedy is in ample supply, with 40 or more second-hand vendors, and more than 20 designers, filling the charming space in Halles Saint-Géry, a neo-Renaissance brick-and-wrought-iron former meat market. A central obelisk is the point from which all distances in Belgium are measured. Shopping for vintage clothes, furniture, tableware, and accessories, however, is only part of the fun. Meeting friends, snacking on delicious cakes, and possibly shaking your hips to the live music provide the rest — all with a retro flavor.
Royal Greenhouses of Laeken
Brussels’ passion for flowers culminates every two years, when one million artistically arranged begonias fill the Grand-Place with a “Flower Carpet,” stretching 250 feet. Equally coveted by budding botanists and stop-and-smell-the-flowers guests, is the annual opening of the sumptuous greenhouses on the grounds of the royal palace in Laeken, which lasts only three weeks every spring. Established in 1895 by King Léopold, the complex of art nouveau pavilions, cupolas, and arcades is capped by the massive, domed “Winter Garden,” filled with rare and valuable plants, many belonging to King Leopold II’s original collection. The gathering of camellias (over 100 species) is especially prized, as the largest and oldest of its kind in a greenhouse. Afterwards, head to Hallerbos Forest, located 10 miles southwest of Brussels. Here, an astonishing carpet of bluebells covers the forest floor every spring, as if from Arthurian fantasy.

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Horta Museum
The “father of art nouveau”—Victor Horta—lived and worked in Brussels, endowing the city with many of its most beautiful buildings, including his private home and studio. Inside the tall and slender house are many exquisite examples of the style, including tile mosaics, stained glass, wrought iron fixtures, a spiral staircase, and furniture designed by Horta himself. Horta believed material and design should harmonize like a beautiful piece of music, and no one doubts he achieved harmony here. UNESCO called it a work of “human creative genius.”
Bois de la Cambre
On the eve of Waterloo, three miles to the south, British soldiers played a cricket match on the grounds of this park before marching to hand Napoleon his final defeat. The playing field, La Pelouse des Anglais, now makes up but one part of this 300-acre park at the edge of the Sonian Forest. One of Brussels’ favorite escapes, the Bois de la Cambre offers tons of green space, playgrounds, walking and bike paths, a theater, roller-skating rink, row boats, and even its own island, home to one of Brussels’ swankiest restaurants, Chalet Robinson, reachable by ferry only. Make your visit even sweeter – enjoy a Belgian waffle from one of the numerous food trucks.

Getting there – nonstop service from Dulles International Airport (IAD) to Brussels Airport (BRU) is available on Brussels Airlines (5 times per week) and United Airlines (daily).