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Back in the first century AD, legendary Viking, Ingolfur Arnarson, named the settlement he founded on a southwestern peninsula Reykjavik, meaning 'Smokey Bay'. The smoke he found wafting over the area, however, had nothing to do with pollution, but rather the bubbling, boiling natural geysers and geothermal springs that now underlie the modern capital of Iceland. This source of heat and water has ensured that Reykjavik has no need to burn fuels to warm its heart, and the crisp, clean air is delightful.
The sky is not always blue, however: Reykjavik receives more than its fair share of rainy weather blown in from the sea, and during the long, bleak winter its northern latitude ensures that the sun makes no more than a brief appearance every day.
Despite this, the capital of Iceland is definitely a hot spot, renowned for its lively pubs and clubs, which draw hundreds of merry-making visitors, particularly during the long, light, bright summer nights.
Reykjavik's growing reputation as a fun tourist destination is enhanced by its fiery but friendly inhabitants, relaxed pace of life, many cultural attractions, and dozens of opportunities for fascinating day trips, not to mention the novelty of bathing in one of the steamy public geothermal swimming baths.
Reykjavik's setting on the southwest corner of Iceland is another drawcard. Panoramic views surround the majestic Mount Esja rising behind the bay, while vistas stretch as far as the crystalline Snaefellsjokull Glacier to the west across the Atlantic. The city is well positioned to act as a springboard for southern Iceland, and many of the country's most popular attractions are within easy reach.
Reykjavik has a small-town atmosphere, its centre easily explored on foot, the quaint whitewashed wooden buildings and colourful houses interspersed with plenty of open space. Even those who come to indulge mainly in the hedonistic nightlife cannot fail to leave Reykjavik feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
One of the tallest buildings in Iceland, this landmark church dominates the city from its highest point and is visible on a sunny day from up to 10 miles (16km) away. Named after the 17th-century Icelandic poet, hymn composer, and clergyman Hallgrimur Petursson, the church's unusual design includes volcanic basalt columns flanking its towering steeple. It took more than 40 years to build the edifice, which was finally completed in 1986. In front of the church stands a statue of Leif Eriksson, donated to Iceland by the United States. The church is lovely inside but even those uninterested in exploring this place of worship will be impressed by the striking facade. It is possible to climb the tower for views over the city.
Although Iceland is better known for its stark and rocky landscapes, a walk in Reykjavik's gardens will convince travellers of the country's more lush and flowery offerings. The pretty Reykjavik Botanic Garden is a haven for strollers, enshrining about 5,000 plant species, including a large collection of Icelandic indigenous plants and other plant collections, which give an idea of the enormous diversity of vegetation in the northern temperate zone. Besides walking trails and water features, the garden has a display greenhouse where a cosy cafe is open during the summer months. Located close to the garden is the Reykjavik Zoo and Family Park. The gardens are open all year round, though opening times may vary season to season and there is less to see in the colder months. Admission is free.
Einar Jonsson was Iceland's foremost sculptor, designing and establishing the Einar Jonsson Museum himself. It contains over 300 of his pieces, spanning his 60-year career, and served as his home, gallery, and studio. The building itself is deemed to be Jonsson's largest work, with the foundation stone laid in 1916. Iceland's first art museum, it retains pride of place on the highest point in Reykjavik. It is adjoined by a pristine and leafy sculpture garden, sporting about 26 bronze casts of the artist's work. There is also a museum shop selling plaster casts of Jonsson's works, books, and postcards. Travellers should note that the museum is closed on Mondays and for the whole of January and February. All other admission details can be found on the official website listed below.
One of the most interesting cultural drawcards of Iceland must surely be the Huldufolk ('Hidden People'). In Icelandic folklore, the Huldufolk are magical invisible beings who can appear at will. Also called elves, they can be observed by humans with a talent for communicating with the hidden realm. While not many of Iceland's population believe in the Huldufolk, they remain an important element of the country's folklore and national identity. Visitors to Iceland who learn about the Hidden People will gain a lot of insight into local culture. Recommended Huldufolk-related activities include a visit to Reykjavik's Hellisgerdi Lava Park (which is supposedly full of elven homes); a trip to the Museum of Icelandic Wonders in Stokkseyri (just 37 miles/60km from the capital); and, for the really enthusiastic, a half-day course at Magnus Skarphedinsson's Alfaskolinn, the Icelandic Elf School, where visitors learn all about their world and even receive a diploma to prove it.
Despite its extreme north Atlantic location, Reykjavik's temperate sub-polar oceanic climate is not as cold as might be expected, its average mid-winter temperatures being no lower than those in New York City. Winter temperatures average between 28F (-2C) and 38F (3C). This is because the Icelandic coastal weather is tempered by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The city's coastal position does, however, also mean it is prone to wind, and gales are common in winter. Summer temperatures in July, the warmest month, peak at around 59F (15C).
Although the national diet is quickly diversifying, fish and lamb are still consumed in great quantities in Iceland, and reportedly it can reportedly be quite hard to find a vegetarian option on restaurant menus.
Despite this, Reykjavik's restaurant scene is exciting and becoming increasingly cosmopolitan as restaurateurs rush to embrace fusion cooking, attempting to offer fresh interpretations of international dishes using local ingredients.
Traditional fare, available everywhere, but probably only tempting for the more gastronomically adventurous, includes harðfiskur (dried fish-meat, eaten with butter); svið (singed sheep's head); slátur (sausage made from blood and offal, like black pudding); hrútspungar (pickled ram's testicles); and hákarl (putrefied shark-meat).
There is also, controversially for some, the option of eating whale-meat while in Iceland. And if you really want to push the boat out, you can get it with some grated puffin on the side. Those with tamer appetites will be relieved to know that a staple of the Icelandic diet is the pylsa, a good, old-fashioned hot dog, served with fried onions, ketchup, and mustard.
There may be limited sunlight in the northern city of Reykjavik, but the locals here really know how to make good use of those long, cold, and dark winter nights. The bright lights of the bars and clubs that line the streets will blow visitors away, and they can heat things up even more on the dance floor.
Due to the high cost of alcohol, the nightlife only gets going very late, as most Icelanders tend to have a few drinks at home before hitting the town. Travellers arriving in Reykjavik by air should not pass up the opportunity to buy cheap alcohol in the duty free store at the airport.
Once sufficiently warmed up for the night, travellers can head to trendy Laugavegur, where most of Reykjavik's 100 or so bars and clubs are located, dotted around the strip and its side streets. On busy Friday and Saturday nights, it's not uncommon for the street to be filled with people all night long. On a side note, the drinking age in Iceland is 20.
The best way to travel around Reykjavik is on the excellent bus service that covers downtown and the outer suburbs from the central terminals at Hlemmur and Laekjartorg. Buses run from around 7am to 11pm on weekdays and less frequently on weekends. Passengers should pay the exact fare to drivers, as they are not permitted to give change. Bicycles are an extremely popular form of transport and the city has a network of cycle lanes. Car hire is recommended as there is little traffic congestion and local drivers are typically considerate. The Hreyfill taxi app is another option.
Although a beautiful, cosmopolitan, and vibrant city, many of Iceland's best tourist attractions are actually located outside Reykjavik. Luckily for visitors, Iceland is a small country and none of the tourist attractions mentioned here require a significant amount of travelling to get to.
As far as attractions in Reykjavik are concerned, travellers shouldn't miss the Botanical Gardens, which are full of interesting indigenous plants and trees; the Einar Jonsson Museum, which displays works by Iceland's greatest sculptor; Hallgrimskirkja, one of the weirdest, most grandiose churches on the planet; and, to satisfy any Viking curiosity, the National Museum, Saga Museum, and the Reykjavik City Museum.
As visitors enter the remarkable hinterland, the real tourist gems can be found, and luckily the south of the country is home to most of Iceland's top tourist attractions. Travellers should be sure to check out the Blue Lagoon, a manmade geothermal spring and spa; Geysir, the world's original hot spring; the truly transcendent Gullfoss Falls; Thingvellir National Park, with its incredible hiking trails; and Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon full of eerie, luminous-blue ice bergs.
No matter what travellers decide to see and do in the 'Land of Fire and Ice', one thing is for sure: they mustn't forget to take a camera along, as Iceland is a country uniquely full of sights that beggar belief. Travellers should also consider arming themselves with the Reykjavik City Card, which gives discounts on tourist attractions and restaurants, and allows unlimited bus transport.
A favourite and unique attraction close to Reykjavik, about 30 miles (50km) southwest of the city, is the manmade geothermal Blue Lagoon. It is set in a lava field, filled with mineral-rich hot water pumped from about a mile below the surface. The lagoon is flanked by a luxurious health spa where visitors come to be pampered and treated for skin ailments such as eczema and psoriasis. The lagoon's surreal phosphorescent aquamarine colour is caused by the therapeutic ecosystem of algae, silica, and minerals in the water. Visitors should note that the Blue Lagoon is very popular and should be booked as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment. The opening times change seasonally and can be found on the website listed below.
Iceland's famed Gullfoss (Golden) Falls are justly rated among the most beautiful in the world, and make for a popular excursion from Reykjavik. The falls, with their awesome double-cascade, are incredibly powerful, which has meant they have come under threat of being utilised as a source of hydro-electricity. Currently, however, the magnificent natural water feature, shrouded in mist and rainbows and gushing into a canyon on the Hvita River, is safely ensconced in a national park and remains one of the country's top tourist attractions. The falls can be visited on Iceland's famous Golden Circle route, and many tour operators and public buses make daily trips to the national park during the warmer months.
The weird landscape of the Haukadalur Valley in the southern lowlands of Iceland has been dominated for centuries by the Great Geysir. It's from here that all other such phenomena around the world have gained their name. The geyser once shot boiling water hundreds of feet into the air, but the height of the eruption has reduced in modern times. Nevertheless, it's still an impressive sight. The rest of the thermal area, bathed in a sulphuric smell, is just as fascinating, featuring several other spouting vents and geysers that frequently display their prowess. The Great Geysir has become a very popular tourist attraction, and a centre has been opened containing a multimedia geology museum and folklore exhibits. There is also a hotel, souvenir shop, and restaurant on site.
The national park of Thingvellir, 30 miles (50km) east of Reykjavik, is not only Iceland's most important historic site, but also a place of natural and geological wonder. It was here that the world's first-ever parliament, the Alting, initially convened in AD 930, and where Christianity was first introduced to Iceland. Even today, people gather at Thingvellir to celebrate any major national event. Geologically, this is the only site in the world where the American and European tectonic plates are visible. The park is also home to the largest lake in Iceland, and stunning scenery including a lava gorge, the Oxararfoss Waterfall, and the Money Chasm, where visitors drop coins down a gorge into water, to witness the strange distorted reflections that result. Activities available at Thingvellir National Park include hiking, angling, horseback riding, diving, and camping. The national park is open all year and in the warmer months a daily bus visits the park from Reykjavik.
Jokulsarlon (glacier lagoon) is the largest glacial lake in Iceland, and an enormously popular tourist attraction. The site shot to prominence after being featured in Hollywood movies (most memorably, Batman Begins), and now attracts thousands of visitors each year. Caused by the retreat of the glacier known as Breidamerkurjokull, the lagoon is now nearly a mile (1.5km) from the ocean's edge, and is over 814 feet (248m) deep. Most easily approached from the fishing town of Hofn on Iceland's southern coast, visitors in search of an indelible memory of their time in the country should definitely make the trip to Jokulsarlon, where luminous blue icebergs float eerily across the freezing water. Whatever visitors do, they shouldn't forget to pack a camera. Jokulsarlon is undoubtedly one of the best sights Iceland has to offer, and in such a staggeringly beautiful country, that's really saying something.
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