48 Hours In Reykjavik

The most northerly capital in the world is a fabulous destination for a winter break. From its hot springs to cool bars, stylish shops to exquisite restaurants, Iceland's biggest city has it all. Matt Warren takes a tour of the main attractions
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

With long nights and short days, where better to snuggle up with a loved one than in the world's northernmost capital? Cosy bars fizz with life from dusk to dawn, the Northern Lights flicker overhead and divine seafood is whisked from trawler to plate. Glowing after a daily trip to one of the country's hot spas, Reykjavik's residents are stylish and perennially lively, thus ensuring that this tiny, windswept city is the coolest little capital in Europe. Make sure you bring your woollens - and plenty of cash. You will get through an awful lot of Icelandic kronur (ISK), even at the present rate of 120 to the pound.

TOUCH DOWN

Icelandair (0845 758 1111; www.icelandair.co.uk) flies to Iceland's main airport, Keflavik, from London Heathrow and Glasgow. Return fares start at £148, if you book online, well in advance. Iceland Express (0870 240 5600; www.icelandexpress.com) flies from London Stansted for £133 return. Given the cost of accommodation, it's well worth considering a package; Icelandair Holidays (0870 787 4044; www.icelandair.co.uk) sells two-night trips, including flights, transfers and a four-star hotel with breakfast for £249 per person based on two sharing. The airport is 50km south of Reykjavik. The Flybus coach (00 354 562 1011; www.re.is) departs from the front of the terminal building. It takes 45 minutes to reach the centre of Reykjavik, calling at most of the city's main hotels and also stopping at the youth hostel. A single/return ticket costs ISK1,100/2,000 (£9/17). A taxi into town costs ISK7,500 (£62).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Reykjavik, with a population of only 110,000, is a pipsqueak among the other European capitals. As long as you are wrapped up warm, you can happily get around on foot. The city's main hub is Austurvollur Square, just south of the waterside. Most of the action takes place on and around Laugavegur, the main thoroughfare, which runs east from here. The tourist information centre at Adalstraeti 2 (00 354 590 1550; www.visitreykjavik.is), opens 9am-6pm during the week and 10am-2pm at weekends (longer in summer). The Reykjavik Tourist Card, available here, includes unlimited travel on city buses and admission to most of Reykjavik's main attractions. A 48-hour card costs ISK1,700 (£14).

CHECK IN

The 101 Hotel at Hverfisgata 10 (00 354 5800 101; www.101hotel.is) is an arty boutique hotel. The rooms are stylish and comfortable, and there is a spa and gym for guests. Doubles cost ISK26,900 (£225) without breakfast. King of the old school is Hotel Borg at Posthusstraeti 2 (00 354 551 1440; www.hotelborg.is), dating back to the 1930s and is awash with Art Deco details. In winter, doubles start at ISK20,500 (£170). Reykjavik's youth hostel, 2km east of the centre at Sundlaugavegur 34 (00 354 553 8110; www.hostel.is), is the best budget option. It's functional rather than flash, but a dorm bed will cost you just ISK1,600 (£14) and a double ISK4,200 (£37) - a little more if you are not a member of the YHA.

TAKE A VIEW

Reykjavik's skyline is dominated by the ethereal form of Hallgrimskirkja church on Skolavorduholt (00 354 510 1000). Here, you can take the lift to the top of the bell tower (open 9am-5pm daily) where there are sweeping views of the city. Tickets cost ISK350 (£3); try to avoid being at the top when the deafening bells strike the hour.

TAKE A HIKE

Start at the harbour, where the city's lifeblood fishing fleet moors up between trips across the Atlantic. Head south from here to Austurvollur Square, where Iceland's first settler, Ingolfur Arnarson, made his home in the ninth century. The square is also site of the country's Alpingishusid (Parliament House). From here, make a quick loop of Tjornin lake, which is celebrated for its Arctic terns, before heading up Laugavegur for a spot of window-shopping and a few stiff drinks. Alternatively, if you're feeling energetic, take a number 20 bus to nearby Mount Esja (914m); it's a two-hour hike from the bus stop to the summit. Ask the tourist office for details and take care in winter.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Grai Kotturinn at Hverfisgata 16a is a typically broody basement outfit, serving hearty brunches, amphetamine-strength coffee and oodles of cosy atmosphere. Bring a book and look philosophical if you want to blend in. Gigantic cooked breakfasts start at ISK1,200 (£10).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The newly renovated National Museum at Sudurgata 41 (00 354 530 2200; www.natmus.is) tells the story of Iceland's last 1,200 years through 3,000 exhibits and plenty of well-presented background information. It opens 11am-5pm daily except Monday (10am-6pm from May to September); admission ISK600 (£5). You can delve even deeper into Iceland's past in the Culture House at Hverfisgata 15 (00 354 545 1400; www.thjodmenning.is). Housing Iceland's medieval Sagas - the country's unofficial "crown jewels" - this is the place to soak up the tales that spawned many Viking legends. It is open 11am-5pm daily, admission ISK300 (£2.50).

WINDOW SHOPPING

Laugavegur boasts a reasonable array of idiosyncratic shops, selling everything from designer clothing and hip kitchenware to miniature porcelain trolls (Iceland's souvenir staple). On big purchases, you can reclaim tax - or simply buy at the duty-free shop at Keflavik airport before your flight home.

AN APERITIF

The Friday- and Saturday-night frolics in Reykjavik are known as the runtur. Things really get going after midnight, when locals have drunk enough to stop caring about the high price of alcohol, but you can start an evening at Kaffibarinn at Bergstadastraeti 1 (00 354 551 1588), where strong Viking beer and snug styling fend off the chill. Part of the movie 101 Reykjavik, named after the postcode, was filmed here. The most potent local poison is brennivin, an Icelandic vodka.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Lobster House at Amtmannstig 1 (00 354 561 3303; www.humarhusid.is) is one of the city's swankiest seafood eateries. It has top-notch cooking, slick service and a good atmosphere. Expect adventurous fish and meat dishes from ISK3,000 (£25); wine starts at ISK3,590 (£30) per bottle. Sjavarkjallarinn at Adalstraeti 2 (00 354 511 1212; www.sjavarkjallarinn.is) is housed in the city's oldest cellar, hidden away behind the tourist information centre. It is one of Reykjavik's newest openings, but the capital's gourmands are already chattering about the cooking, which brings fusion to the fabulous seafood. Meat and vegetarian dishes are also available from ISK2,400 (£20) for a main; wine starts at ISK3,300 (£27.50) per bottle. Once a pharmacy, now one of the city's most popular restaurants, Apotek at Austurstraeti 16 (00 354 575 7900; www.veitingar.is) serves up some delicious game dishes, including reindeer from eastern Iceland. Mains, which span the gulf between sushi and rich meat options, start at ISK2,390 (£20); a bottle of wine starts at ISK1,750 (£16).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

You've been up the tower, now attend a service at the city's fabulously austere Hallgrimskirkja church on Skolavorduholt (00 354 510 1000) - on the way in, remember to tip your hat to the statue of Leifur Eiriksson, who discovered America. Sunday services begin at 11am.

OUT TO BRUNCH

The victims of Sunday morning hangovers congregate at Vegamot at Vegamotastigur 4 (00 354 511 3040; www.vegamot.is). Comfort food is the order of the day here, with burgers and burritos on the menu.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Just 2km east of the centre, Laugardalur is a large expanse of greenery that features an outdoor swimming pool, botanical gardens and the Reykjavik Zoo and Family Park (00 354 575 7800; www.mu.is). It opens 10am-5pm daily, admission ISK550 (£4.70).

TAKE A RIDE

Iceland's foremost spa is the Blue Lagoon (00 354 420 8800; www.bluelagoon.is), 45km out of Reykjavik, en route to the airport. You can reach the hot pools here by bus in 45 minutes from Reykjavik's main bus station - the one-way fare is ISK850 (£7). The spa opens 10am-8pm daily from September to May (9am-9pm in summer), admission ISK1,200 (£10).

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Iceland's finest sight won't cost you a penny. Streaming across the night sky in ribbons of green and red, the Northern Lights are an unforgettable experience and are best seen on cold, clear evenings.

Light pollution from the capital diminishes their intensity, but head into Reykjavik's darker corners (try Laugardalur) and you'll still see enough to bring up the goose bumps.

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