24 hours in Reykjavik

Iceland's capital city is your inevitable gateway to all this Nordic island nation has to offer, including, in winter, the Northern Lights, says David Whitley

REYKJAVÍK, ICELAND - APRIL 27: The view of buildings in downtown Reykjavík are seen from the top of Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church which is also the national church of Iceland, on Wednesday April 27, 2016. The costal capital city is where over 60 percent of the countries population live in or near by.(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Iceland is an astonishing world of stark landscapes and eye-popping natural wonders, so pleasant as Reykjavik is, time is best spent out of the capital. However, Reykjavik is undergoing a period of rapid development and change, with new hotels seemingly popping up on a weekly basis. There’s also been a boom in the number of attractions there in recent years, which means that if you’re limiting yourself to just one day before heading further afield, there’s a pleasingly large amount to cram in. And that’s particularly the case during Northern Lights season, which runs between now and April.

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND - DECEMBER 31: Green Aurora Borealis light up the sky near Selfoss on December 31, 2016 in Reykjavik, Iceland.  (Photo by Sophia Groves/Getty Images)

07.00: To the water

For somewhere so northerly and chilly, Iceland has a bit of an obsession with open air pools. Of course, it helps when you have all manner of tumult going on under the surface to heat them up. Swimming around in thermally heated pools in much more pleasant – it’s just the run to the changing rooms afterwards that’s bracing.

Laugardalslaug is Reykjavik's largest thermal swimming complex, with a sprawling lagoon-like family pool and an Olympic-sized effort for lane swimmers. The water's heated to between 27 and 29 degrees Celsius, and entry costs 950kr (Dh34).

Looking down at locals and tourists in the thermal pools at the Blue Lagoon Spa just outside of Reykjavik, Iceland. Iceland is one of the most isolated countries at the world and has been drawing adventure tourists for years and continues to be one of the most visually stunning places in the world. (Photo by Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images)

09.00: To the deeper water

The North Atlantic is, of course, a rather bigger swimming pool. And you get rather bigger things swimming in it. Whale-watching is gradually taking over from whale-harpooning in Iceland, and Elding is amongst several operators offering tours to go and see the giants of the ocean.

(GERMANY OUT) Whale Watching , harbour, Reykjavik, main capital , Iceland, Europe, volcanic island, North Atlantic, polar circle, harbour, Whale, bird  (Photo by Raimund Franken/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Minke whales are the most commonly spotted, although humpbacks, fin whales and blue whales are sometimes seen too. That’s before you get to orcas, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises. Three hour cruises cost 10,990kr (Dh385) – and in the summer months there’s an option that goes to a puffin colony too.

12.15: Fish feast

Rather predictably, Iceland's culinary strength is seafood. And while the waterside Sægreifinn may not be the fanciest fish joint in town, it's arguably the most popular. Lobster soups are served up on egalitarian long tables, while the fish skewers – the cod version cost 1,850kr (Dh65) – are the posh option.

13.00: Cetacean close-ups

If you didn't get quite enough of the whales earlier, then the Whales of Iceland exhibition should act as dessert. Here, the concept is simple – lifesize models of every whale and dolphin found in Icelandic waters, on a perch or hanging from the ceiling in a giant hangar. It's a pretty spectacular display, and standing alongside them makes you realise just how phenomenally huge they are. But it's informative too – each one has a touch screen next to it, with facts and figures to scroll through. Tickets cost 2,900kr (Dh102).

15.00: Back to the start

For more education on something completely different, Reykjavík 871±2: The Settlement Exhibition has the remains of a 10th century Viking age hall downstairs. And, around it, are displays on how Iceland came to be settled from Norse-speaking Scandinavia. Holograms on the walls show shepherds, hunters and fishermen to liven up the archaeological finds in the cabinets below. But above all it tells the story of how people made a life on one of the last uninhabited major land masses on earth.

Drying fish field in Reykjanes peninsula, Reykjavik neighbourhoods. (Photo by Elisa Vendramin/SSPL/Getty Images)

18:00: Choice on the (relative) cheap

In a city where eating out is very, very expensive, the new Hlemmur Food Hall  inside a former bus terminal building is a great find. It has an upmarket look, with several small stall/ restaurant hybrids, specialising in something in particular. So one does Vietnamese banh mi, another burritos, another nitrogen ice creams, while Krost goes in for grilled meats such as the 72 hour marinated lamb with potato salad and rhubarb jam for 2,750kr (Dh97).

20.00: The sky at night

During the winter months, Iceland is about as good as anywhere for seeing the aurora borealis – otherwise known as the Northern Lights. The light show is never guaranteed, though.

City light pollution affects the visibility, so the cheap way to see the aurora is to take your hire car and drive out to a random part of the countryside. But there are also organised four to six hour tours available, and Arctic Shots runs one that is tailored to those who want to get the best photos. Destination depends on climactic conditions, guides are all professional photographers, and there's tuition on how to best use your camera to get the most impressive shots. This costs 25,000Kr (Dh875).

This photo was taken in The Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.

Rest your head

Right in the heart of the city, the Hilton Canopy has an endearingly hyperactive design – lots of mismatched furniture, books and vinyl records sprinkled around shelves everywhere and double take-inducing wall art. It also hands out free snacks between 6pm and 7pm, while there are free bikes for anyone wishing to get around on two wheels. Doubles cost from 30,597kr (Dh1,071), including breakfast.

Getting there

There are no direct flights to Reykjavik from the UAE, and the quickest connection is via London Heathrow with British Airways  – which flies from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Return fares cost from Dh2,623. Specialist tour operator Discover The World tailor-makes itineraries that maximise time and experiences in Reykjavik and elsewhere in Iceland.

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