My kind of place: This nordic capital's lively scene provides a fun start to the drama of the rest of the country, says Laura Dixon.
Reykjavik is a northern light with plenty to offer
Reykjavik is the gateway to some of the most dramatic wilderness scenery in the world. From this frontier town, perched on a bay just south of the Arctic Circle, you can hike across glaciers and into volcanoes, watch whales breach in the North Atlantic and dive in a lake above the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
In the city, Gaga-esque designs adorn mannequins in the independent boutiques on the high street, the pioneering Icelandic take on New Nordic cuisine is making waves in the city's restaurants and bars and clubs pulse with life into the dawn and beyond. It's not short on drama, however you look at it.
A comfortable bed
Kex, a former biscuit factory turned retro-styled youth hostel is a cut above your usual backpackers' dive, drawing locals and visitors to its cafe with views of the bay and mountains. The hostel is owned by two Icelandic footballers, who played in the English Premier League, and has private rooms as well as dorms and hosts regular events and karaoke. It even has its own barber. Dorm beds cost from 3,500 kronur (Dh102) per night, private rooms from 9,400 kronur (Dh274) per night, excluding breakfast. Kex, Skulagata 28, Reykjavik; www.kexhostel.is; 00 354 561 6060.
For a taste of Icelandic luxury, try the elegant art deco Hotel Borg. Its two-floor Tower Suites are the best rooms in the city, with Hästens beds, Bang & Olufsen electronics and a private, 360° view of the city from the top floor. Doubles from 35,210 kronur (Dh1,028) per night, Tower Suites from 73,355 kronur (Dh2,141) per night, including breakfast. Hotel Borg, Posthusstraeti 11, Reykjavik; www.hotelborg.is; 00 354 551 1440.
Adventurers might prefer the brand-new Ion Hotel, on the edge of ingvellir National Park under an hour from Reykjavik. Its spa includes treatments using Icelandic herbs and the concierge desk can arrange anything from glacier tours and snorkelling to hot spring visits. Double rooms from 19,900 kronur (Dh581) per night, including breakfast. Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel, Nesjavellir, 801 Selfoss; www.ioniceland.is; 00 354 482 3415.
Find your feet
Reykjavik isn't a big city (population is 200,000) and you can get your bearings on a morning stroll. The main shopping street, Laugavegur, leads through the downtown area and into the old town where you'll find the Old Harbour Village, the Parliament, the Cathedral and most of the city's museums. Hire a car to explore the ingvellir National Park to the east, the dramatic glacier-topped peninsula Snaefellsnes to the north-west and the waterfalls and geysers a few hours from the city.
Meet the locals
Head to the hot tubs. Icelanders have to learn to swim before they can graduate from school, and spend plenty of time swimming laps or relaxing in hot waters of varying temperatures in their local geothermal pools. Laugardalur Valley is the best (swim from 550 kronur [Dh16]; Sundlaugavegur, 104 Reykjavik; 00 354 411 5100). Afterwards, join the locals for a snack at the stand outside.
Book a table
Dill (Nordic House, Sturlugata 5; www.dillrestaurant.is; 00 354 552 1522) is the city's leading exponent of New Nordic Cuisine. What to expect? Not the legendary rotten shark and whey-cured bull's testicles, but a modern take on traditional Icelandic food - marinated prawns with buttermilk and whey; scallops and sea buckthorn; local lamb with wild garlic. A seven-course tasting menu costs 9,500 kronur (Dh277).
Icelandic Fish & Chips (Tryggvagata 8; www.fishandchips.is; 00 354 511 1118) is a great lunch spot. It won't bust the bank balance and it's the best fish and chips you'll ever taste. Choose from nine types of spelt and barley battered fish, including cod, monkfish and halibut, and add oven roasted chips and a dip, perhaps ginger and wasabi skyronnaise (a mayonnaise-like dressing using the local yogurt), from 1,640 kronur (Dh47).
The current Icelandic chef of the year, Bjarni Jakobsson, cooks at Slippbarinn (Marina Hotel, Myrargata 2-8; www.icelandairhotels.com; 00 354 560 8000), a characterful bar overlooking the docks where the old whaling ships once stood. Order a Whale Tail to share: a platter of lamb, sausage, home-pickled vegetables, squid and fish. The bar serves a range of imported beers and has an exciting cocktail menu, too. Sharing platters from 3,100 kronur (Dh90); main courses from 2,750 kronur (Dh80).
Whether you're looking for stuffed puffins, traditional Icelandic jumpers, Scandic design or herbal remedies, you'll find them on Laugavegur, Reykjavik's main shopping street. Atmo (Laugavegur 91; www.atmo.is; 00 354 552 3500) is a unique fashion store with three floors of eye-popping design plus a carefully curated vintage store in the basement, while Geysir (Skólavör¿ustígur 16; www.geysirshops.is; 00 354 519 6000) stocks beautiful designer woollens, sheepskin rugs and outdoor gear.
What to avoid
Feeling the cold. Average temperatures peak at 14°C in July and August, so pack plenty of layers.
The northern lights. This year, the aurora borealis show is going to be the best in 12 years, according to Nasa. Take an adventure tour and chase the lights in the evening, then go lava caving and eat lobster for dinner (Kr28,990 [Dh846]; Arctic Adventures; www.adventures.is; 00 354 562 7000).
Laura Dixon is the author of the Footprint Focus Guide to Reykjavik.
Learn about the thrilling experience of arctic heli-skiing in Iceland in the Spring issue of Ultratravel Middle East, out next Thursday with The National.
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