Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital, is cosmopolitan yet the city also clings affectionately to its parochialism. Greater Reykjavík is home to more than half the country’s population, and almost all visitors to Iceland pass through the city, many venturing no farther than the city limits before heading back to the airport. Reykjavík has become a destination in itself. Whether you’re packing hiking boots, fishing rods, or zoom lenses, it’s easy to fill a long weekend or a whole fortnight in Reykjavík.
For most of its history, Reykjavík suffered a backward reputation among European cities, but this has only intensified its heady sensation of newfound wealth and authority. Thirty years ago, no one even dreamed Reykjavík would become an international arbiter of hipness, especially in music and nightlife.
Despite its reputation for wild nights, Reykjavík by day is the most subdued of European capitals. Its cosmopolitan edge seems at odds with its squat, boxy architecture. It almost feels wrong to leave the world’s problems so far behind: Iceland’s urban life is virtually free of crime (aside from some artful graffiti), homelessness, and pollution. Reykjavík is committed to sustainable development, with aggressive tree planting, home heating and electrical systems powered by underground hot springs—that faint egg smell in bathrooms is a natural by-product—and a few buses running on hydrogen fuel (look for steam emissions from the roof). One night a year, since 2006, the entire city turns off all lights for 30 minutes simultaneously. Sleepy children stand outside gazing up at the night sky alongside their parents: Reykjavíkians paying tribute to the romance of their town’s original, natural state.
Reykjavík hosts a multitude of festivals. Most events take place outside of summer, belying the widespread perception of Iceland as a one-season destination.