Geothermal springs, a fluid creative scene and history stretching back to Viking warriors make the world’s most northerly capital city worth setting sail for, says James Williams
Why go? More than one-third of Iceland’s 323,000-strong population reside in this small but very outward-looking capital. A cosmopolitan city born out of the 18th-century wool trade, it has a small-town feel and a thriving arts and music scene. It’s one of the world’s cleanest and safest cities – and one of the most innovative, too. Where else would the council think to turn off the street lights for a better view of the Northern Lights?
What to do Navigating Reykjavík on foot is easy, thanks to its compact size. Start by taking the lift to the top of Hallgrímskirkja, a 73m-high white concrete church that looks like an inverted organ and affords sweeping views of rooftops, sea and mountains. There’s even a statue of Leif Eiríkson, the Viking credited with discovering North America. More famous Icelanders include musicians Björk and Sigur Rós, as well as Olafur Elíasson, an artist partly responsible for the honeycomb-like Harpa concert hall en.harpa.is on the waterfront. Here you’ll find orchestral, jazz and folk music plus events such as Sónar, a cutting-edge electronic music festival sonarreykjavik.com (16-18 February). Just outside, stroll around the old harbour with its whale-watching and puffin colony boat tours, coffee shops and museums, then drop into the flea market kolaportid.is where you can flick through the vintage comics, racks of retro clothing and vinyl, and keep an eye out for a classic lopapeysa (a very Icelandic-looking jumper, to you and me). The best ones go quickly, so also try Thorvaldsens Bazar (corner of Austurstræti and Veltusund) for your knitwear needs. Stroll down to the National Museum thjodminjasafn.is where you can learn about the wars of the chieftains, birth of the fishing industry and the spread of Christianity. Go via Tjörnin Pond, where the warm waters attract a variety of birdlife. Generations have enjoyed the geothermal pools around the island, and the most famous is Blue Lagoon bluelagoon.com on the way to the airport. It’s a ritual that is part of everyday life and there are a number of bathing options, including Nauthólsvík nautholsvik.is beach.
Where to stay? Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Marina 00 354 444 4000, icelandairhotels.com is down by the old harbour. Rooms and suites are superbly eccentric with Seventies tilework, nautical wallpaper and tartan checks, and many offer views of the Atlantic Ocean and Mount Esja. More conventional but equally cosy is Hotel Reykjavík Centrum 00 354 514 6000, hotelcentrum.is on one of the city’s oldest streets with its own museum which houses relics found during a renovation. Hótel Borg 00 354 551 1440, keahotels.is was founded in the 1930s by a circus strongman and overlooks Austurvöllur square beside Parliament House. Rooms are decorated with parquet flooring, monochrome furnishings and there’s a spa using Icelandic DrBragi products.
Where to eat and drink? Hops was illegal in Iceland from 1915 until 1989, which makes the rise of craft brewing here even more special. Skúli Craft Bar 00 354 519 6455, Aðalstræti 9 is where hops geeks go to chat about the notes of the latest guest draught. At Einar Ben 00 354 511 5090, Veltusund 1 you can tuck into French and British dishes with Icelandic twists. It’s all about precision at Dill 00 354 552 1522, dillrestaurant.is where each deconstructed plate has been assembled using tweezers. The minimalism is underscored by the simplicity of flavours, with ingredients selected according to the season, including wild goose with berries, trout and cabbage, and blueberry pie. Or you could try Grillmarket 00 354 571 7777, grillmarkadurinn.is for its use of smoke and coal to fire up the flavours of its creative meat and fish dishes. Go for ribs with homemade dressing and chilli rice cakes.
Time running out? Join a Northern Lights tour with Reykjavík Excursions re.is that takes you to optimum viewing spots just out of town. If you’re unlucky and can’t see any, rejoin a later tour for free.
Trip tip Keep an eye out for the many outdoor art installations. Among the best are Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower light beam and the Sun Voyager skeleton ship’s hull which glints in the sunlight and symbolises new discoveries.
Currency is the Icelandic krona. Time is the same as GMT. Flight time is 11.2 hours from Dubai. The cost to carbon-offset is $17.17. For more details visit climatecare.org
KLM flies daily to Reykjavik from Dubai via Amsterdam KLM.com
Emirates Airlines flies daily to Reykjavik via Copenhagen emirates.com
Visit Reykjavík is the official tourist board and is packed full of information to help you get around the city. visitreykjavik.is
The Sagas of the Icelanders (Picador, $17) is a collection of stories from the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, telling of the struggles and conflicts faced by the nation’s early settlers.