A Tale of Two Cities

New York and Reykjavik: one is revered, the other is on the rise, but which city is really more impressive? Mitchell Jordan took a trip around the world to find out.

Everyone wants to be a part of New York, though in recent years the Big Apple has developed an unlikely yet close companionship with Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik.

With a flight time of just under six hours to the United States, Reykjavik is being heavily promoted as a stopover destination for anyone flying to and from Europe. While Iceland may be part of the Schengen Agreement, the country remains very much in a world of its own.

The flight into Iceland’s main airport, Keflavík, is one of the highlights and commonly compared by passengers to landing on the moon. Such a comparison, however, is surely unfair to both country and planet. Looking down at the mass of craters is distinctly otherworldly, and where is all the ice? It is rare to find oneself in a place so untouched by industrialisation.

No one needs a map in Reykjavik. Its main street, Laugavegur, is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants which all lead to Hallgrímskirkja, the famous Lutheran church which at 74.5 metres high is the tallest building in the city, and one of the highest in the country.

Despite its small size and pervading sense of cosiness the city’s charms stretch well beyond being merely cute or quirky. Interestingly, numerous independently owned businesses still survive and continue to do so, while the one Subway store plays the role of black sheep and is nowhere near as popular as Gló, a restaurant which specialises in vegetarian, vegan and raw food as well as meat. Street art has also gone some way towards injecting a bohemian flavour into the city.

Culture abounds in the galleries and museums, and in the dazzling glass concert hall, Harpa. And the city’s frugal public transport system in no way prevents visitors from getting out among Iceland’s nature. One of the main players, Iceland Excursions, runs daily bus trips to everywhere from the tourist route known as the Golden Circle where it’s possible to tick off the country’s big three: Gullfoss Waterfall, Þingvellir National Park and the geothermally-active valley of Haukadalur through to some of the more remote locations such as the stunning, yet sadly shrinking, Sólheimajökull glacier on the south coast and Snæfellsnes National Park in the west.

A local tour guide pointed out that Iceland has seen a 25 per cent year-on-year increase in tourism that, according to the guide, was “a bit risky in some areas”.

By contrast, tourism and New York hold hands quite comfortably. Indeed, many owners of I LOVE NYC clothing and paraphernalia have never even visited the city yet still feel the need to express an outpouring of affection for it. Were they to make the journey they would no doubt be surprised by just how green New York can be. The disorientating labyrinth that is Central Park is not the only way to take a break from the dazzling skyscrapers that have long defined the city. Almost a quarter of The Bronx – arguably the most notorious of the city’s five boroughs – is open space and home to the expansive New York Botanical Gardens.

Closer to home for many visitors is the High Line, a famous converted railroad-turned-park. It may be a tourist hotspot yet it also remains a testament to the city’s diverse and unpredictable nature. Outside of the well-worn path that is Times Square and Little Italy the city hides numerous treasures, such as Socrates Sculpture Park, located by the water in the otherwise unremarkable Long Island City and Astoria Park in Queens, which contains New York’s largest and oldest swimming pool.

New York’s modernity and slick façade may be what makes it so attractive to many visitors. However, history and literary lovers alike will find everything they are looking for in Brooklyn Heights, an area as well known for its role in the Battle of Long Island as it is for being home to the late writers Truman Capote, Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman. Aesthetically, the row houses and mansions are a feast for the eyes and even those who fail to be moved by the past will still likely feel something when visiting the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which offers some of the best views of Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge, with the Statue of Liberty floating off in the distance.

Ultimately, one’s preference for a fast-paced or old-style world will dictate whether they find Reykjavik or New York to be worthier of a longer visit, though neither city should be ignored. Put together, they represent two halves of a perfect whole.

Mitchell Jordan is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in travel and the arts.