In the bright morning light of the city’s pedestrianised heart, streets are sparsely populated, but groups are found around doors. Music thumps from bars. Young men and women, with a few old dogs for the hard road interspersed, gather in the cool air, with the unofficial uniform of black almost universal and sailors’ hats adorning about half of the girls. Some sing, some stumble, some glasses break on the street. The flow is undeniably into, rather than out of the drinking dens which range from dive bar to cool club. It’s 3.45 in the morning in the centre of Reykjavik.
Earlier – on the same waking day, but the previous day according to the calendar – the appeal was struggling to reveal itself. It’s the end of May and it is cold in this northern European outpost. The wind when it blows bites hard. The town – where most of the country’s population lives – has limited appeal architecturally, and its infamous food and drink prices have already stung the new visitor just a handful of hours in.
Yet this jolt of morning life has started the process which reveals a true jewel. The laid-back Nordic manner masks an extraordinary charm offensive. Stop to glance at a map to reorient yourself and unheard cyclists stop to ask where you’re looking for. In the gloriously eccentric shops, the hard sell is a soft soap. Mention of the product doesn’t arise while you’re talking about everything else – EVERYTHING else. Politics, the economy, that banking crisis, it’s all open for discussion.
The chase for the happy hour is less a tourist tic than a national pastime – the AppyHour app, a brand with global potential if ever there was one, has started and stayed here. It guides you around the easily manageable city to a range of quirky, lively spots from the Lebowski Bar to the English Bar, from Hresso Jazz to Bravo to Icelandic stand-up comedy. Think Dublin has fun and friendly nightlife locked up? Think again.
The National Museum a confident and compelling history of this young nation. The Icelandic Penis Museum brings you right back to the heart of quirk (the donation letter below the outer reaches of quirk to be fair!). The Sculpture and Shore Walk brings you to the Sun Voyager, up to the beginning of the end of the Cold War, where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had their first summit, then back to the whale watching, puffin tours, sea fishing stands, where once again casual interest takes the place of hard sell.
Cast a little further in the capital which has now enraptured you to Seltjarnanes peninsula for a bracing sea walk and lighthouse. Nautholsvik thermal beach and Laugardular pool offer urban swimming. And then there’s that perpetual late May / early June light. Dazzling at 10pm, barely dimmed when the sun sets at 11.30pm, still clear as day in the depths of 1.30am, and greeting the revellers as sunrise passes and 4am approaches.
There’s so much more to see in Reykjavik, but there’s so much more to Iceland too. A four-day trip only allowed the main tourist circuit sadly, so Westfjords, rafting the east Glacial River, Vik and the south coast, glacier hikes and more will need another visit. And the Northern Lights will need another season.
The Blue Lagoon is the signature site – convenient to the airport and Reykjavik, and as we visited on arrival, the first evidence that the reputation as an expensive country is literally richly deserved. There’s an atmosphere that ranges from raucous to oddly serene as you glide along the blue steaming pool. Not the radioactive blue you see on approaches, but in stark contrast to the surrounding lava fields. Sauna and steam, a swim-up bar, facial mud, relaxation areas, and plentiful opportunities to use your wrist band to spend even more.
The other major land-based lure is the Golden Circle. A small slice of a clearly spectacular landscape, passing lakelands backed by snow-topped peaks, to the Thingvellir National Park and historic site, the bustling Geysir – which loses none of its appeal despite having a tourist supermarket opposite – and the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall, with multiple viewing points and a certain drenching from the roaring spray.
We didn’t delve into the folklore of elves and epics. Our food was of the highest quality, but maybe because we stayed away from the infamous rotted shark. It was the wrong time of year for a range of festivals, and for the flip side of near-continuous darkness. The new ice cave had just opened. The hiking, mountain biking, ATV driving, and more are still to do.
The immense nature of the landscape and appeal of the country and its people therefore demands another visit. But what to do? What to leave out then? Maybe there’s a reason for the last idiosyncratic feature of quite a few of its bars. Spin the wheel to see what you’ll get.