Let Reykjavik invigorate you

Braving the Icelandic capital in darkest December, Peter Moss finds a cool and cultured city

Magnus Magnusson, Björk and that bloke who always wins the World's Strongest Man contest: the sum total of my knowledge of Iceland - before going there, that is. Now I have been, I can report that the scenery is breathtaking, the people delightful and Reykjavik an endearing small-town capital city that thoroughly deserves to be one of the European cities of culture in 2000.

Magnus Magnusson, Björk and that bloke who always wins the World's Strongest Man contest: the sum total of my knowledge of Iceland - before going there, that is. Now I have been, I can report that the scenery is breathtaking, the people delightful and Reykjavik an endearing small-town capital city that thoroughly deserves to be one of the European cities of culture in 2000.

Descending into Iceland is like the opening scene in Fargo - swirling snowy tundra that seems to lead nowhere, a car's headlights on the horizon the only hint of civilisation. And in Reykjavik you have the ultimate frontier town, where huge 4WD vehicles rumble into the city for their weekly provisions. If Iceland is the Wild West, Reykjavik is Dodge City, an exuberant oasis on the very edge of a largely uninhabitable country.

When to go

The weather is best in summer, when the temperature reaches the upper 50s, sometimes nudging 60F. It is the land of the midnight sun, and summer also brings unfeasibly long days. In June and July you can lose all track of time, as it never really gets dark. Winter, on the other hand, is cold and dark, with barely five hours of daylight in December and January. This is definitely not the tourist season, which makes it a good time to go. It's called Iceland, after all, so why not see it when it's icy and the landscape is at its most beguiling?

Needless to say, in 2000 there will be many special events to mark Reykjavik being a European city of culture.

Getting there

Iceland's only international airport is at Keflavik, 40 minutes from Reykjavik. Icelandair (tel: 0171-874 1000) is the only airline with direct flights to Iceland. It flies from Heathrow to Keflavik for £275 return plus £32 tax, rising to £295 plus £32 tax in summer and over the Christmas period. Tickets must be booked at least 21 days ahead and your stay must include a Saturday night.

Where to stay

The Radisson Saga Hotel, Hagatorg 1 (tel: 00 354 552 9900) is probably the best, with all the trappings - swimming-pool, health club, penthouse restaurant - of an international hotel. Doubles from £135. Otherwise, consider the Hotel Holt, Bergstadastraeti 37 (tel: 00 354 552 5700). As a hostelry it is pleasant if unexciting but it does have its own eclectic art collection and a prime location. Doubles from £125.

Hotel Borg is in the centre of town at Posthusstraeti 11 (tel: 00 354 551 1440). Nicely restored to 1930s style, it is run by the owner of the town's Hard Rock Café (expect your breakfast in a sesame bun with fries and a shake). Doubles from £120.

Guest-houses are a good option for the economy traveller. Most are clean and friendly. Typical is Gistiheimilio Svala at Skolavordustigur 30 (tel: 00 354 562 3544), a traditional town house offering singles from £35, doubles from £50. And for just £12 you can sleep in the attic - bring your own sleeping bag.

What to see and do

By necessity this must include "out of town", as Reykjavik is rather small and best used as a base for exploring the country, which can be done in three or four days. First port of call for many is the Blue Lagoon, 30 minutes from the city. From miles around you can see the steam rise from the outdoor geothermal pool. With the December air at -10C, I felt snug as a bug in a flue, the lagoon's blue waters a haven of warmth from the snow and ice all around. The water is invigorating and rejuvenating.

Geysir and Strokkur, the natural phenomena of spouting water, are other must-sees on the tourist trail. They form part of the Golden Circle day trip, which also includes the rainbow-enhanced cascade at Gullfoss; the Kerid crater with its brooding green lake; and the greenhouses of Hveragerdi, Iceland's "flower town".

Other tours include the South Shore Adventure - fascinating landscapes, puffin colonies and surf-pounded seashore - and a mini-cruise from Reykjavik's harbour around the nearby fjords.

Back in Reykjavik, tarry a while in Hallgrimskirkja, a silvery concrete church that is the Grace Kelly of churches - statuesque, ice-cool and soulless, though gorgeous to behold. Reykjavik excels in museums and galleries, mostly charting local history and culture. The Nordic House (tel: 551 7030) in Hringbraut is a favourite, as is the Museum of Photography (tel: 563 2530) at Borgartun 1. Both chronicle Nordic history; both are beautifully presented.

Where to eat

You can scarcely move for cafés in Reykjavik, each one cosier than the next, most serving top nosh from coffee and cake to full meals. For cappuccino and a chat with arty locals, try the bohemian Café Solon Islandus at Bankastraeti 7 (tel: 551 2666). It is open until 3am and has a cabaret room with good live music.

Unsurprisingly, seafood restaurants abound here. The pick of the bunch is Vio Tjornina at Templarasund 3 (tel: 551 8666), with daily specials such as a mezze of haddock, herring and mackerel, smoked to perfection. Main courses from £7 are good value.

There is an odd affinity between Iceland and Ireland, and The Dubliner (tel: 511 3233) is a wacky fusion of the two cultures: Irish stew, bloomor (sheep's-blood pudding!) and vodka-spiced Guinness. Try walking after that little lot.

The Perlan (tel: 562 0200) is one of the sights of Reykjavik, a big pearly dome atop the city's immense hot-water tanks. Expect to pay upwards of £25 a head at this revolving hilltop restaurant with a view and a half.

Beyond that, just café-hop round the main drag at Bankastraeti. At Kaffi Barrinn you may run into the owner, one Damon Albarn.

Nightlife

Icelanders have the highest literacy rate in the world, yet still they listen to Olivia Newton-John and the Bee Gees. Yes, Reykjavik is the disco capital of northern Europe. Most clubs are expensive - you will need £10 just to get in. The legendary nightspots, they tell me, include Casablanca at Skulagata 30 and The Spotlight at Hverfisgata 10.

Deals and packages

Peter Moss travelled with Travelscene (tel: 0181-427 8800), flying with Icelandair from Heathrow to Reykjavik and staying at the Radisson Saga Hotel. Travelscene offers two-night weekend breaks at the Saga in April 2000 from £319, based on two sharing. This includes breakfast, return flights, taxes and transfers.

Further information

Reykjavik tourist information centre is at Bankastratei 2 (tel: 00 354 562 3045). In the UK, call the Iceland Tourist Board (tel: 0181-286 8008).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz