On the southeast coast of Iceland lies Jökulsárlón, one of the most beautiful and photogenic areas in the country (and that is saying something). Jökulsárlón translated into English means “glacial river lagoon”, as descriptive a name as you will ever find. Over time, as the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier slowly recedes from the ocean shore, the lagoon has slowly filled the deep glacial valley left behind. The chunks of ice breaking off the glacier now make a journey of about 1 mile through the lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean, creating a beautiful setting of floating white/blue icebergs surrounded by a deep blue lake and the glacier-covered mountains beyond.
There are actually two areas to explore on either side of the Ring Road with different personalities. On the east side of the highway, a black sand beach littered with small chunks of ice stretches in both directions. On the west side of the highway, the lagoon stretches to the foot of the mountains, where the glacier terminates in a massive wall of ice. You can also take a boat out on to the lagoon for close-up views of the ice and glacier.
The Pacific Northwest of the United States is a wonderland of snow-capped mountains, lush rainforests and foggy coastlines, and the far northwest corner exemplifies all of those qualities. The Olympic Peninsula, the “top-left” corner of Washington state and the lower 48 states, is a relatively small (about 3600 square miles) area of land has more diverse landscapes than perhaps any other similarly sized piece of land anywhere in the world. The interior of the peninsula is dominated by the Olympic Mountains and protected by Olympic National Park, which also contains some non-contiguous areas along the Pacific Coast. Created in 1938, Olympic National Park is also designated by UNESCO as both a International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. You could spend weeks trekking the backcountry, exploring almost a million acres of virtually untouched wilderness. If you don’t have that much time, here are a few highlights you won’t want to miss when you visit.
Nothing gets you in the holiday spirit faster than walking through a European Christmas market. That’s just a fact. The Europeans have been doing this for a long, long time, in some cases for over 700 years. The traditions run deep, and every market seems to have the just the right mix of food, fun and festivities. Some are small, some are huge, but they all seem to have more in common than not. The smell of bratwursts, roasting nuts and, of course, glühwein (a warm, spiced wine drink) is everywhere, spirits are high and everyone seems to be having a good time, despite the cold. Germany probably is the leader, with almost every town, large or small, hosting a market, but you can find markets in many other countries, even Romania.
The amazing two-spired Cologne Cathedral is the most visited landmark in all of Germany, and for good reason. The massive cathedral is beautiful, awe-inspiring and located steps away from the central train station, making it the first landmark many visitors see when arriving in Cologne. It also makes a perfect backdrop for the Weihnachtsmarkt am Dom (the Cathedral Christmas Market). While Cologne is large enough to feature several markets, it is hard to top the atmosphere surrounding the cathedral. The market also features a wider variety of foods than other markets. Best of all, you can easily visit the market even if you only have a short amount of time if you travel by train. Hop off the train and in less than 5 minutes, you can be sipping glühwein and shopping for ornaments.
While Brussels may not have the charm of some of the other cities on the list, it does have some beautiful architecture and a few tricks up its sleeve. The Christmas market is large, spread through the streets and plazas of the city center. One end is anchored by The View, a huge ferris wheel, which makes a very cool backdrop. The other end is anchored by the Grote Markt, or Grand Place, which serves as the main “town square”. The plaza itself is actually empty except for a large Christmas tree, but the real attraction here is the light show that takes place on the surrounding buildings. Synchronized to music, the show lasts almost 15 minutes and is a very impressive display. If that’s not enough, there is also an 3D-projection display on Saint Catherine’s Cathedral.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Germany will appear several times on this list, and for good reason: they invented them. The first Christmas markets anywhere in the world were held during the Middle Ages in Germanic-speaking Europe. One of the oldest markets is the one in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a small, medieval village on the Romantic Road that is almost perfectly preserved. Largely spared from WWII bombing raids, the city center inside the old walls is a perfect replica of a German village from the 14th century. Except, it isn’t a replica, it is the real deal. As such, it is a perfect place for an authentic Christmas market. While it is much smaller than some of its more famous German counterparts, the Rothenburg market more than makes up for it in tradition and an abundance of charm.
Another small, but incredibly charming, Christmas market can be found in an unlikely location, far away from Germany and the Alps. Sibiu, Romania, doesn’t have tradition going for it, as the market only started in 2007 as the first market in the country. But citizens and visitors alike have embraced the market, which has more the doubled in size since its inception. Most of the market stalls will be familiar to anyone who has visited another market in Europe, but there are a few exceptions. Probably the biggest difference (and the one to watch out for) is the availability of the traditional Romanian drink, țuică. Significantly stronger than mulled wine, the plum liquor can be over 50% alcohol, and drinking it is like drinking plum juice that is on fire. You have been warned.
Nördlingen is an interesting place to visit for a few reasons, but the main one is to get off the most touristed paths for a bit. Not that tourists don’t visit Nördlingen; it is on the Romantic Road, after all. But it doesn’t have the throngs of tour buses that you’ll find in Rothenburg. And while it isn’t perfectly preserved due to damages suffered in the war, Nördlingen is still full of old-world charm, with an intact city wall surrounding an inviting Old Town. It even served as the landscape that Charlie flew over in the Great Glass elevator in the filmed version of the book. You can climb to the top of the steeple (named the “Daniel”) of Saint George’s church to get roughly the same view over the red rooftops. Interesting side note: Nördlingen sits inside the crater of a meteor, the Nördlinger Ries, and as a result, many of the buildings are built with stone that contains millions of tiny diamonds created during the impact. Science!
One of the largest and most-visited Christmas markets in Europe, Nuremberg is an excellent choice to visit as the stalls offer everything you would expect from a market, with excellent backdrops such as the Frauenkirche Nürnberg and Nuremberg Castle. The stalls stretch throughout the city center, with one section dedicated to international stalls from all over the world. Like other larger markets, Nurmeberg offers more variety, especially in terms of food options, and of course many, many places to find the ubiquitous glühwein. Another added attraction in the market is the Schöner Brunnen, a 14th-century fountain that is decorated for the season. Plus, if you spin one of the brass rings embedded in the fence surrounding the fountain, you are guaranteed good luck.
Unlike the large, big city feel of Brussels, Bruges has much more of a small-town, village atmosphere. It’s well-preserved medieval city center is a laid-back, charming place to walk around and explore. In addition to dozens of small restaurants, cafes and chocolatiers, Bruges is also home to a small Christmas market. Probably one of the smallest markets in Europe, the market itself really isn’t the main attraction in Bruges, but the surroundings make it an excellent place to have a true Belgian waffle drizzled with the best chocolate you will ever eat.
Ulm is another place where the Christmas market isn’t really the main attraction. In this case, anything that happens in Ulm will have to compete with the star of the show, the 530-foot tall Ulm Minster (aka Ulm Cathedral, even though it technically isn’t a cathedral). The massive gothic spire of the world’s tallest church dominates the skyline for miles around, and it is an awe-inspiring place to visit. It is also an excellent backdrop for an excellent Christmas market, a small, compact collection of stalls selling food and handmade goods. A nice addition for kids is a small railroad that runs through dioramas of famous children’s fairy tales. You’ll also notice a plethora of signs imploring men to use the restrooms instead of urinating on or around the church, which were put up when it was discovered that urination was eroding the sandstone foundations of Ulm Minster, threatening its structural integrity.
Switzerland shares a border and a language with Germany, so it is no surprise that they share traditions, as well. In Zürich, the plaza in front of the Opernhaus Zürich (Zurich Opera House) is turned into a lovely Christmas market, complete with carousel for the children. Like everything in Switzerland, the goods for sale are expensive, but there are a lot of quality items available, along with a more diverse selection of food than you usually see at a market. If you are lucky enough to catch a clear evening (and remember, this is December, so by evening, we’re talking about 4:30pm), you can cross the street and watch the sun set on the distant peaks of the Alps, reflected by Lake Zurich in the foreground. And that won’t cost you a dime, so not too shabby.
Like Switzerland, Austria has a historical connection to Germany and its traditions. The markets in the two countries are very similar, but Innsbruck definitely stands out due to its natural setting. Located in a broad valley on the Inns River, and surrounded by peaks thousands of feet tall that rise right from the edge of the city, Innsbruck is a natural winter wonderland. In every direction, impressive snowcapped peaks act as backdrops for colorful rows of houses, church steeples and in December, the lights of the Christmas market. Throughout the streets of the Altstadt (Old Town) and along the Inns River near the Innanna Bridge, dozens of stalls sell everything you would expect to find at a Christmas market. With possibly the most picturesque setting of any market in Europe, you’ll want to bring your camera and your wallet for this one.
As one of the largest cities in Germany, it is no surprise that Munich is filled with Christmas markets. Probably the most popular, centered on Marienplatz in the Old Town, contains dozens of stalls that stretch into the surrounding side streets. The area is also a major shopping destination, so there are plenty of traditional retail shops to duck into along with all the that the market has to offer. Not far from the area, located on the same fairgrounds that host the famous Oktoberfest, the Tollwood Winter Festival is a slightly more corporate-feeling Christmas market. Besides the numerous outdoor stalls, huge tents allow you to shop or grab a bite to eat in warmth, which is a nice change of pace if you’ve been out in the cold for a few hours.
Portland Weekend Getaways: Mt. Rainier National Park
I love Oregon and tend to be biased toward our many natural treasures. But an advantage to living in Portland is having easy access to not only everything Oregon has to offer, but also the abundance of natural wonders claimed by our neighbor to the north, Washington. The crown jewel is massive Mt. Rainier, one of the earliest national parks and the 2nd tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. Topping out at 14,411 feet and capped by 26 major glaciers, the mountain is visible for hundreds of miles around on a clear day. However, you don’t really appreciate Mt. Rainier until you see it up close.
The rise of the automobile as the most common form of transportation after World War II made building highways a top post-war priority. As cities were connected by larger highways with higher capacities, and the suburbs blossomed on the edges of urban areas, the need for high-capacity corridors through major cities became more acute. Before 1950, most highways were routed on city streets in urban areas, streets that often were designed for a fraction of the traffic.
Historic postcard of downtown Lents, before annexation by Portland (image via Vintage Portland
With Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway plan, the die was cast. Urban planners such as Robert Moses saw their visions of grade-separated thoroughfares to carry traffic through cities quickly come to life. The promise of living in the idyllic suburbs and working in the city seemed to justify the cost. Unfortunately, as the first wave of construction tore through cities, it became apparent there was another cost. Historic neighborhoods, some over a hundred years old, were suddenly torn apart, divided by six to ten lanes of speeding traffic. It is hard to imagine how different life in these neighborhoods was before the freeways were built. Here are five examples of Portland neighborhoods that fell victim to the all-mighty automobile.
As I said in my original post, “Five of Portland’s Greatest Mistakes“, I love this city and I think we make more correct decisions than bad ones. Still, mistakes are made that many of us wish could be undone; here are five more.
As you can probably guess, I love Portland. More than that, I firmly believe that, as a community, Portland does more things right than it does wrong. No city is perfect, though, the Rose City included. Here are five big mistakes that we have made as a community in the past. …
In a sleepy corner of Sellwood, nestled against the city limits and the Waverly Golf Club, is a disappearing part of Portland’s extensive history of rail transportation. The non-descript entrance to the hidden Garthwick neighborhood and the extant buildings don’t give a lot of clues to the bustling activity you would have seen here one hundred years ago. While many people know Portland once had an extensive streetcar system, they often don’t know that Portland also had the nation’s first interurban railway, what we today would call “light rail”. These trains connected urban town centers (hence “interurban”) such as Oregon City, Milwaukee, Troutdale and Gresham to Portland and each other. This differed from the streetcar system, which connected close-in neighborhoods such as Buckman, Kerns, Montvilla, Woodstock, King’s Heights, Council Crest, etc. to the city center. …
It’s been over 40 years since the Freeway Revolts helped keep Portland from following other American cities into the tangled abyss of massive freeway infrastructures. In what may be the major turning point in Portland’s modern history, residents of Portland began to reject the plan put forward by the Godfather of freeways in America, Robert Moses. That plan had already led to the I-5, I-84, I-405 and Highway 26 freeways, the construction of which did major damage to several Portland neighborhoods, and separated residents from the river and each other. …
In 1980, Portland was planning a new building to house many of its public workers, and decided to hold a design competition (a fairly novel ideal at the time). The winner, famed architect (and designer of snazzy Target blenders) Michael Graves, produced what is considered the first major “postmodern” building, the Portland Building (apparently, a contest to name the building was not a priority). At the time, glass curtain boxes with little personality had begun to dominate urban skylines…Graves building was a strong, and many would say ill-considered, reaction to that movement. Using a variety of surfaces, colors and decorative flourishes, the building would definitely not be confused with the modern glass office towers nearby. …
Portland lands on a lot of internet top ten lists these days, but one list it might not make is one of top architectural cities. The Rose City hasn’t been graced by a plethora of major architectural works from the likes of a Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry or I.M. Pei. Portland is a city that likes to let its nature due to the talking, and I think most of us are OK with that. Still, the city isn’t bereft of interesting buildings created by talented, if not world-famous, architects. This list isn’t a top ten nor is it presented in any particular order. It is simply a list of some of Portland’s best-known and most interesting architectural treasures. …
When you think of Portland, religion may not be the first thing that springs to mind, but like most cities, a lot of Portland’s most interesting historical buildings are churches. I’ve been trying to capture as many as possible while walking around the city. In this post, we visit several churches in the southwest corner of downtown, generally in the area from the South Park Blocks to the Stadium Freeway (I-405). Almost all of the churches are over a hundred years old, and they display a wide variety of architectural styles and building materials. …
The view from Council Crest is amazing, but it isn’t the highest point in Portland.
A question often asked by visitors and newcomers to the city is “where is the highest point in Portland?”. It isn’t obvious where the highest point is, even if you’ve lived here for years. While Mt. Tabor and Rocky Butte are among the most prominent, they both fall well under the height of the West Hills. In many cities, a good guess is “whichever hill has all the radio towers on it”, and in Portland’s case, that is Healy Heights, at 1043 feet. While it appears to be the tallest of the West Hills due to its location on the eastern edge of the range (and the radio towers don’t hurt), it is not the highest point. …
Mt. Hood from Rocky Butte Park, WPA stonework in foreground
Catching a great view has always been one of my favorite pastimes. There are very few people who don’t enjoy a magnificent view from a high vantage point, and Portland is chock full of fantastic spots to indulge. On this list, we are looking at outdoor viewpoints; there are several buildings that also have great views located around town but it can often feel weird to enter a building just to get a view. To get the maximum enjoyment, you would want to visit all of these viewpoints on an ultra-clear day when you know the mountains are “out” and the haze level is low. Not all clear days are created equal, particularly in the summer, so look for those rare days when the air seems completely invisible for miles around. See the map below for directions!