24 hours in Reykjavik

Now the ash cloud has settled, Sam Vincent settles into a city of quirky creativity and serious partying.

Finally, news anchors can breathe easy: Eyjafjallajokull, the world's most unpronounceable volcano (something like ''Ay! You fergot la yoghurt!''), seems to have settled down. With Iceland's airspace clear just in time for the European summer and volcano-induced tourism bargains to be had, it's a good time to visit the island. And the best place to start is the country's colourful, sleepless and eccentric capital, Reykjavik.

Occupying a small peninsula in the island's south-west, Reykjavik fuses fishing village charm with big-city glamour. Cats laze on footpaths outside thumping warehouse bars, elderly women stop to chat in the middle of the city's busiest street and, amid the quaint, toy-like houses, a series of world-class restaurants, galleries and museums belies the city's population of 120,000.

The global financial crash of 2008 hit Iceland hard (and has taken the sting out of the country's preposterous prices) but it hasn't diminished Reykjavik's creative reputation or hedonistic soul.


Sleep in; you'll need to conserve energy for later tonight. Meander down to the harbour for a blast of North Atlantic sea air to wake you up. From the docks, walk up Hverfisgata for a mammoth breakfast in Grai Kotturinn (''the grey cat''), a quirky basement bookshop-cafe serving coffee, bagels and fluffy Icelandic pancakes smothered in whipped cream and rhubarb jam. In trend-conscious Reykjavik, this is currently the place for breakfast. When I visit I sit behind Jon Gnarr, a comedian and Reykjavik's new mayor, whose Best Party made headlines around the world recently when it swept to power on a platform of a polar bear for the city's zoo, free towels in every public swimming pool and ''generally doing what's best''.

Grai Kotturinn, Hverfisgata 16a, breakfast 8am-noon.


Reykjavik's best-known landmark is the Lego-like Hallgrimskirkja, a striking concrete church built between 1940 and 1974. Walk here for the mandatory photograph of its 75-metre tower fronted by a statue of Leifr Eiriksson, the Viking discoverer of North America, striking a heroic pose. Compared with the dramatic exterior, the church's interior is surprisingly plain but it is well worth catching the elevator to the top of the tower for sweeping views across the city, especially if you're still getting your bearings.


Hallgrimskirkja, Skolavorduholt, open daily 9am-8pm; church admission is free but access to the tower costs 400 krona ($3.60). See www.hallgrimskirkja.is.


Iceland's economic woes have inspired a rush of creativity, with the country's already healthy arts scene exploding with new talent. From the Hallgrimskirkja, walk down the hill via Skolavordustigur, a street of galleries, Icelandic design shops, independent record stores and music cafes. First stop should be Figura, a hipster's paradise selling hilarious T-shirts (''Don't f--- with Iceland: we may have no cash but we have ash''), plus some superb black-and-white prints from Iceland's best artistic photographers.

Across the street, the Handknitting Association of Iceland is the place to buy one of those traditional woollen jumpers you'll see everyone wearing. Starting at 14,000 krona, these aren't cheap but Icelandic wool is renowned for its warmth and longevity and the beautiful patterns never go out of fashion.

And if you thought Iceland's music scene started and ended with Bjork and Sigur Ros, finish your walk down Skolavordustigur with some musical education in 12 Tonar, a record shop that is responsible for launching some of the country's hottest bands. New favourites I've discovered include the Arcade Fire-influenced Hjaltalin, indie rockers Seabear and Johann Johannsson, an experimental electronic artist who also composes for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. You can listen to all these artists - and anything else you fancy - while sinking into 12 Tonar's retro couches.

Figura, Skolavordustigur 22, see www.myspace.com/figurastore. Hand-knitting Association of Iceland, Skolavordustigur 19, phone +354 552 1890, see www.handknit.is/en/user/home. 12 Tonar, Skolavordustigur 15, phone +354 511 5656, see www.12tonar.is.


With its artsy, latte-swilling population, it's sometimes easy to forget Reykjavik was settled by a bunch of marauding Vikings. A visit to the Saga Museum will set things straight. Here, a series of life-like wax sculptures tells the story of the city's settlement in 870 to the arrival of the Reformation in 1540, set to a blood-curdling soundtrack of shrieks, clashing swords and pillaging. The exhibits are a hoot for children and if you think the Vikings on display look familiar, it's because they probably are; each mould was taken from a Reykjavik resident.

The Saga Museum, Perlan, open daily 10am-6pm, entry 1500 krona, see www.sagamuseum.is.


Cafe Paris is a local lunchtime favourite, with simple, hearty meals such as burgers, tacos, salads and crepes. In summer its terrace is packed with diners and provides a great vantage for people-watching. After lunch, you can walk off your meal with a stroll around the backstreets of Reykjavik's old town, admiring the colourful 17th-century houses made of driftwood and sheets of corrugated tin.

Cafe Paris, Austurstraeti 14, open lunch and dinner, phone +354 551 1020.


Good coffee can be as rare as sunshine in the North Atlantic but an exception is found in a tiny cafe near the docks. It was started by Iceland's Haitian community (that is, by Elda, the owner), who has beans shipped from Port-au-Prince, roasted and ground on site, then turned into delicious caffeine concoctions. Buying a coffee here is a small way of contributing to Haiti's disaster relief in an unlikely location.

Cafe Haiti, Tryggvagata 16, open 8.30am-6pm.


If you are planning to join in Reykjavik's nightlife, a late-afternoon rest is probably a good idea. Historic Hotel Borg, centrally located and full of art deco charm, is a perfect spot for a siesta. If you're not staying at ''the Borg'' and don't want to head back to your hotel, join the locals sunbaking (weather permitting) on the grass at Austurvollur, the city's central square overlooked by the parliament building.

Alternatively, head to the Blue Lagoon for a wallow in one of the world's most famous spas. The milky-blue pool is fed by the nearby Svartsengi geothermal plant, with the temperature a constant 38 degrees. It's fun but, frankly, for tourists; to see local people wallowing in geothermal bliss, head instead to the city's myriad outdoor public pools; Laugardalslaug is my favourite. Don't forget your towel, though - Gnarr's pre-election promise hasn't yet been fulfilled.

Hotel Borg, Posthusstraeti 11-101, double rooms from 40,500 krona, see www.hotelborg.is. The Blue Lagoon, 240 Grindavik, open daily 10am-9pm, entry 4400 krona. Frequent buses link Reykjavik with the lagoon, 40 kilometres outside town. See www.bluelagoon.com. Laugardalslaug pool, Sundlaugavegur 30a, open daily 6.30am-10.30pm, entry 360 krona, see www.spacity.is.


Assuming you're not tempted by Icelandic ''delicacies'' such as rotting shark and pickled ram's testicles, head to Fish Market for original infusions of Icelandic seafood with Asian flavours. The menu shows off Iceland's regional specialties, with lobsters from the east, halibut from the west and salmon from the interior, with spicy sauces and tropical fruit. The calamari tempura with jalapeno sauce (2900 krona) is excellent and there are fusion takes on grilled minke whale and smoked puffin should you be so inclined.

Fish Market, Adalstraeti 12, phone +354 578 8877, see www.fiskmarkadurinn.is. Dinner from 6pm.


 If you're here on a Friday or Saturday, Reykjavikers will only now be starting to hit the streets for the city's infamous pub crawl. Widely miscalled the ''runtur'' by English speakers (this actually means doing laps of the town in your car), the all-night party takes place in the multitude of cafes, bistros, bars and pubs in and around downtown's two main streets: Laugavegur and Austurstraeti.

Most places stay open until at least 3am; some until 6am. With so much debauchery in such a concentrated area, it's hard to go wrong with bar selection but some perennial favourites are the rockers' haunt, Bar 11 (Hverfisgata 18), chilled-out Bakkus (Tryggvagata 22) and bohemian Hemmi & Valdi (Laugavegur 21), all of which are good live-music venues.

A tip: if you buy a round in Reykjavik you'll have friends for life; at 800 krona a pint, such generosity is virtually unheard of.

Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and Iceland Express.

Singapore Airlines flies to Singapore (8hr), then to Copenhagen (13hr) for about $1900 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Icelandair has a return fare from Copenhagen to Reykjavik (3hr) for $325 including tax. Icelandair also flies from other European cities, such as London, Paris and Glasgow.