Is it a spaceship? A torpedo? Or just a really unusual church? One of Reykjavik’s – and Iceland’s – most iconic landmarks, the ultra modern Hallsgrimkirkja Church in downtown Reykjavik is somehow also reminiscent of the dramatic and bizarre worlds found inside of the Icelandic Sagas. The Hallsgrimkirkja also sports an observation deck for aerial city views and a statue of Leif Eriksson, the man often credited as the first European to arrive in the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus. Only finished in 1986 and standing atop one of Reykjavik’s highest points, the Hallsgrimkirkja is some 74 metres high, making it the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures on the island. Iceland is a strange place. Remote, isolated, cold, inhospitable, Iceland is also home to some of the most enduring tradition, mythology and storytelling in Europe. For such a small, remote place, this Nordic country is one of Europe’s most progressive. Home to about 340,000 people (of which nearly half [122,000] live in the capital), it actually has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) unemployment rates, one of the highest standards of living, and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes – including some spectacular volcanoes – in the whole world. In the winter, it might still be light out at midnight or later, meaning that in the winter, some days only see a few hours of daylight (though on the up side, that means higher chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights!). It is a country of myth and legend, of fire and snow, of ancient and modern. This small place packs a bundle!
Pro tip: Though only available to those ready to brave the cold (even in summer), it is actually possible to SCUBA dive between two tectonic plates – it doesn’t get cooler than that! For those who prefer to stay a bit warmer (or to warm up afterwards), Reykjavik and Iceland in general is full of hot springs heated naturally by the piping hot water from the volcanoes. Whether you prefer a dramatic outdoor pool or a modern pool in the city, there are plenty of options (though as this is popular with tourists and locals alike, don’t expect it to yourself. Iceland is sadly victim to overtourism from the mass cruise industry).
Church of Our Saviour, or the Spiral Church in Copenhagen, Denmark
Denmark‘s capital is a fascinating place. There are a few things that make it so – including fancy food, the sleek and elegant Nyhavn neighbourhood, the famous Christianshavn neighbourhood, the remodelled brick factories and the fact that there’s a statue based on a fairytale in town. Another thing that makes Copenhagen cool is this bizarre and beautiful place, the Church of our Saviour. Not the most exciting (or memorable) name, but when you say that “spiral church,” everyone knows exactly what you mean. In fact, that spiral is also a staircase, which people can follow to the top for aerial views of Copenhagen (provided they don’t have vertigo, that is!). This Baroque beauty was built in 1695 (though the spire not fully completed until 1752) and is home to an interesting urban legend. Supposedly, the architect committed suicide by jumping from the spire’s summit when he realised the spirals twist upwards in an anticlockwise manner (something you’d think he’d realise during the years it took to build the spire!). While this isn’t true of course (the architect died of natural causes nearly a decade later), it doesn’t stop the urban legend from being latching hold – helped along by the notorious part of Copenhagen where the spiral church is found. Tucked into the infamous Christianshavn, a series of artificial islands, the locale started life as a 17th century fortified and purpose-built merchant town but was quickly consumed by the much larger Copenhagen. In the late 20th century, Christianshavn gained a reputation as a working-class and bohemian town à la Charles Aznavour’s Parisian Montmatre of the late 1940s and 50s. Today it has become one of Copenhagen’s hippest quartiers – where a blend of businessmen, students, young families and hippies happily reside together – though that does not stop the reminiscing of those nostalgic for the romantic bohemian atmosphere of Christianshavn’s past life.
Pro tip: The Church of the Saviour is also noted for its carillon (a musical instrument consisting of a collection of 20+ bells), which is northern Europe’s largest. If you’re curious to hear what it sounds like, it plays melodies every hour from 8 am to midnight.
Wooden houses on the edge of Aurlandsvangen, Norway
Wooden clapboard houses, dipped liberally in sombre yet sharp colours, hug the cold shores of one of the most beautiful fjords in all of Norway, the massive Sogneford. The village of Aurlandsvangen is located on one of the fjord’s thinnest and most stunning branches: the narrow arm of Aurlandsfjorden. Its sister arm, Nærøyfjord, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to a mere 770 people, the little houses of the village cling happily along the edge of the fjord. In this place, where the river weaves through the . mountains to cascade into the fjord, life is simple. Due to the influx of tourists, however, it has gotten more complex lately. When people travel sustainably, there is little impact on the destination. However, tiny fjord villages like Aurlandsvangen or nearby Flam have been overwhelmed with visitors, receiving double or triple their population daily in season. While visiting small communities such as these is great in that tourism spending strengthens the villages’ local economies, too large an influx who simply ‘pass through’ on the way to somewhere else (without spending locally) only succeed in leaving a negative footprint. Be mindful of local cultures and communities when you travel and make sure your euros stay in the local destination and don’t go to faraway international corporations.
Copenhagen is not a city that is afraid to be colourful. The Danes regularly rate themselves as one of the happiest populations across the globe, and though you’d have a hard time believing that from a window into Danish daily life or accidentally falling upon a Nordic Noir TV series or film (like The Bridge, The Killing or Borgen), a walk through the bright, clean and colourful streets of Copenhagen should change your mind. Copenhagen is one of Europe’s cleanest cities (an actual fact), and though the Danish capital’s inhabitants may seem somewhat dispassionate at times, their city shows their true colours – literally. Street upon street of vibrant facades traverse the capital, from the imperial King’s Garden to the hippie Christiana to the chic Nyhavn; the city ekes colour and vivacity. The secret to life in Denmark is simplicity – without making a ruckus, the Danes quietly make the most of everything in life. YOLO stands for ‘you only live once’ – but is that true? To quote a line from the novel, the Secret Diary of Hendrick Groen, 83 Years Old: “You only die once but you live everyday.” Instead of going about life with the too-vivid enthusiasm of the Spanish, the fast-paced lifestyle of the Italians or the pompous culinary pride of the French, the Danish prefer to enjoy life’s simple pleasures and daily joys with a subtle but unwavering and unquestioning contentedness – a feat that they do remarkably well. And a feat we could all learn from.
Hans Christian Andersen remains one of the Danish capital’s most famed residents. And, as we all know, Andersen is the author of the famous tale, the Little Mermaid (in Danish: Den Lille Havfrue). The Disney version softens it up a bit, but in the much darker original fairy tale, the poor mermaid feels like she is walking on nails every time she takes a step, looses her tongue rather than an incarnation of her voice, the prince never knows it was her who rescued him and marries someone else, nearly kills the prince and princess on their honeymoon in order to become a mermaid once more, and at the end she dies of a broken heart and is transformed to sea foam. Ouch. Little in common with the Disney tale. Yet, people still make the quasi-mandatory pilgrimage upriver to pay homage to the lost little mermaid. Created in 1913, the small, unassuming statue was commissioned by the son of the founder of beer empire, Carlsberg, after becoming obsessed with a ballet of the Little Mermaid – even going so far as to use the lead ballerina (Ellen Price) as the model for the sculpture! Though the story is sad, in a way, the Little Mermaid lives on in her role of iconising her city of Copenhagen. While visiting Copenhagen, visit the ritzy Nyhavn for restaurants, the regal Rosenberg Palace in the central park, and the Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, not far from the Mermaid herself.
Danske Sukkerfabrikker Factory, Copenhagen, Denmark
Red clay brick walls line the Port of Copenhagen and the Inner Harbour in Denmark’s infamous Christianshavn district. Now abandoned, this industrial revolution-aged building was once part of De Danske Sukkerfabrikker, later Danisco Sugar and now Nordic Sugar, founded in 1989. Originally nothing more than an extension of Copenhagen’s fortifications, it quickly gained a nautical and working class reputation. Christiania, a neighbourhood within the greater borough of Christianshavn, is perhaps the most well-known part of Christianshavn. Known since the 1970’s the place to get cannabis, Christiania garnered a fantastic Bohemian reputation that it still holds today. It is considered probably the liveliest, most fashionable and interesting part of town to live in, and the residents often identify themselves first as from Christiania, then from Copenhagen, instead of the other way around. As Christianshavn was once part of the port, the neighbourhood is still heavily influenced by this purpose, and buildings such as this sugar factory are not uncommon, though as Copenhagen’s housing demands increase, and the Danish capital slowly gains more international interest and economic significance, the city has reached into its folds for additional housing, and places like Christianshavn are being developed. Christiania, occupying the site of former military barracks and a self-proclaimed ‘autonomous neighbourhood,’ has always been a site of unrest, even skirmishes. Yet, this only seems to make it one of Copenhagen’s most intriguing and exciting places to be!
6/6/1993 – darkness falls as the flames begin to lick the walls, the floors, the tower as the dark wood turns to ash. Built in 1150 in the magnificent Sognefjord, the Fantoft Stave Church was carried piece by piece to its current site near Bergen by a kind soul named Fredrik Georg Gade 1883 to save it from demolition. 100 years later, it was burned to the ground. What happened? In short, Norwegian Black Metal happened. A genre unfortunately synonymous with church burnings, this beautiful piece of history was lit afire by Varg Vikernes from the one-man-band, Burzum, who, in poor taste, later used a photo of the church’s burnt shell for his ‘Aske’ (Ashes) album. Convicted of 4 acts of arson (and other crimes), Varg is locked safely behind bars, though he apparently has ‘fans’ who applaud his crimes. Destroyed or not however, the Norwegians, much like the Poles after WWII, refused to give in, and instead painstakingly reconstructed the building to its original state. Today, the beautiful Fantoft Stave Church sails into its forest landing in all its original glory, one of the last remaining stave churches (many of which are UNESCO sites), or medieval wooden churches whose name comes from the pinewood support posts (stav in Norwegian). Fantoft has been through a lot, but for now, it rests in tranquility in the whispering woods below Bergen.
In English: the Swedish Church. In Denmark. Located on the moat banks of the Kastellet, a 17th century star fortress adjoined to the city walls tasked with the protection of Copenhagen. What’s a Swedish church doing there? To understand, we must first look to the church’s history. Denmark and Sweden share many things, including a similarly harsh climate, the Øresund and the Baltic Sea, and even almost a common language (they are close enough for speakers of each language to understand the other). They also seem to share a similar attitude on life: live and let live. Despite a troubled past, the two nations, along with the rest of their Scandinavian sisters, all seem to get along and just live – a marvellous notion that we could all take a page from. Well enough preaching – and back to Svenska Gustaf. The story starts with a Swedish pastor called Nils Widner who went to Copenhagen to educate Swedish sailors living there, but was soon swept into the world of Swedish expats. As his circle grew, Nils realised they would need a church to provide for the growing congregation. In an action of solidarity, his loyal followers agreed to donate 10 øre a week (mere pennies, but dedication counts!) until the church was completed, which ended up being in 1911. The Danish, bless them, provided Pastor Nils with a lovely site along the northern side of the Kastellet, a beautiful island fortress (a stone’s throw away from the St Alban’s, a 19th-century English church, erected for similar reasons 25 years before). A Swedish architect designed Svenska Gustaf, and a Danish architect supervised the construction. Danish and Swedish royalty alike attended the opening ceremony. Everyone got along, everyone worked together, everyone was happy. But then again, what more do you expect from Danes and Swedes, eh?
No tourism information about Denmark would be complete without at least one mention of the infamous Nyhavn, one of Denmark’s most iconic sights. Translated to mean ‘New Harbour,’ the canal was dug by Swedish prisoners of war in the late 1600s, and most of the elegant, coloured houses lining the canal date to the 17th and early 18th century. With canals that remind one of Venice or Bruges, colourful squares that bring to mind the vibrant ryneks(or main squares) of Poland, a mentality similar to that of the Norwegians and the Swedes, and an architectural style that has a northern, Baltic feel (styles ranging from the Netherlands all the way to Riga), Copenhagen has an inspiring mix of it all. On one side, a bustling capital, and on the other, a calm, clean city, Copenhagen is also a young, hip and fun town. Nyhavn is a splendid example of how Copenhagen can mix beauty and charm with vivacity and liveliness. Tourists and locals intermingle along the famed quays of Nyhavn; the cafes and restaurants bubble with activity, the air vibrates with multiple languages. The cool, brisk air under sunny skies is a welcome respite. The water laps against the anchored boats, and forks chink from the nearby diners. An afternoon in Nyhavn is an afternoon well-spent.
The setting sun over the Swedish capital shines off the facades of the buildings on this neighboring island in Stockholm’s massive archipelago. As the largest city in Sweden, it is also the most populous city in the Nordic region with nearly 1.5 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area. As Stockholm also happens to be one of the most expensive European cities, the best way to spend a quiet evening is to sit out on the quay with a beer in hand and watch the sun set over the Swedish skyline before ambling back into the center of the old town (Gamla Stan) in search of a cozy cafe. If, like so many others, you’ve been watching the recent outburst of Nordic noir series and films (such as The Bridge, The Killing, Borgen, or any one of the many films), explore the city after dark to get a new perspective on Stockholm. But don’t worry; despite the dark nature of these series and films, Scandinavia is a relatively safe place. Just don’t forget to bring a jacket and scarf; the combination of its northern location as well as its proximity to the water makes for chilly air !
Hopefully, you’re not afraid of heights. Oh you are? Hmm, well, perhaps it’s best to avoid driving in rural areas in Scandinavia, especially on the western coast of Norway in the direction of the fjords. This is the kind of place where you’ll find zigzagging roads that curl back and forth, criss-crossing each other time and again. These are the kinds of roads that cut through cliffs, chipped away by Norwegian laborers using rough tools and dynamite. These are the kinds of roads that plummet suddenly downwards, seemingly trying to follow the path of the countless waterfalls you’ve already passed along on your drive. Curving around cliff sides, these are these kinds of roads that leave you hanging over steep drops, with the sound of thousands of tons of water pounding onto the rocks below. These are the kinds of roads where you can imagine literally falling off the face of the earth, disappearing into the cavern far below. And yet—these are the kinds of roads that leave you excited and exhilarated by the end, dumbfounded at the wonders you’ve encountered along the road and breathless with the magnitude and sheer danger of driving on them—because at the end of the day, it’s the journey not the destination that matters. And this, you must admit, looks like a pretty unforgettable (if slightly terrifying!) journey.
Stockholm, capital of Sweden. What do you really know about Sweden? A place where you find beautiful blonde women and extremely high prices, right? The Swedes are a unique brand of people–resilient, fun, brilliant, hard-working, multilingual, as well as a little bit crazy and even a tad dangerous. Nordic noir films and TV series paint a bleak picture of Sweden while Pippi Longstocking (or Langstrumpf) paints Sweden as an ideal world. And then there are many people who think of Sweden as a frozen tundra, and still others who think it’s more expensive than life itself. But how about visiting this little country to make your assumptions? Stockholm–Sweden’s metropolis–is as cosmopolitan as other ‘major’ European cities–perhaps more so! The Gamla Stan (or old town) on one of the many islands making up the massive archipelago, is populated by a vast array of tourists from every part of the world–starkly contrasted with the countries on the other side of the Baltics. You will hear a dozen languages in a matter of minutes. Restaurants from every country are easy to find–as well as unique raw ingredients often difficult to find in other European cities. Even the shopping feels international! And besides, as Stockholm is made up of many islands, no matter where you go, you will always have a view of the water!
One of the most naturally beautiful places in Europe – and in the world – is surely the Norwegian fjords, of which they seem to have no shortage! The Sognefjord is one of the most famous; not only has if been recognised by UNESCO, but it is also located not far from Norway’s fjord capital, Bergen. It also happens to be the largest fjord in Norway, and the third-largest in the world (covering 205 km)! What better way to see these beautiful fjords than by boat? Boat as a method of travel has certainly diminished in recent years with the invention and perfection of both the car and the airplane. Boats have been rendered old-fashioned – which, actually, makes them more picturesque and romantic. Travelling by boat – whether it be a row boat on a rural Italian lake, an eveningdinner-boat on the Amsterdam Canals, a cruise-liner down the Rhine River, an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik or a Norwegian cruise deep within these magical fjords, being on that boat, feeling the wind in your face, the hull rocking beneath you, the lap of the waves against its sides, the ability to actually see and enjoy and appreciate the scenery as they glide by – is an experience worth having.
Founded in 1070, Bergen was largely settled by merchants that made their living from the sea – and Bryggen remains the oldest part of the rainy city. In 1360, the Hanseatic League established a trading post in Bryggen (called a “kontor“), the only surviving kontor today. Over the years as Bergen thrived, the town developed around Bryggen, improving the wharfs as well as the city itself. Bryggen became the claim of the Hanseatic merchants, who used the warehouses to store goods such as fish from northern Norway as well as grains from Europe. Today, Bryggen consists of roughly 30 buildings, though more are currently under renovation. It is a UNESCO site and Bergen’s trademark. The rows of colourful wooden buildings with narrow covered passageways always smelling a little bit like fish just seem so utterly…Scandinavian.
Houses in Reykjavik, Iceland, looking across the Tjörnin.
Welcome to Reykjavik, the teeny tiny capital of Iceland, and also the northernmost capital in the world. Human habitation of the site dates back to 870, though the city wasn’t established until 1786. Because it was under Danish rule and settled by many Scandinavians, the city has a distinctly Scandinavian feel. It is capital of an island full of impressive scenery, angry volcanoes, and a stark coastline.