Move over, New York. Reykjavik is the new city that never sleeps. In summer, the world's most northerly capital gets 24-hour daylight and has a full dance card of arts, music, film and food festivals, despite its small population (about 123,000). If the sun doesn't keep you awake, the coffee might; like other Nordic folk, Icelanders love their espressos and there are hip and wholesome cafes all over the city. Not to mention pubs offering all-day happy "hours". Reykjavik is also literary, quirky, LGBTI-friendly, safe and eminently walkable, a place where you can climb a mountain, bathe in a hot spring, browse the "puffin" (souvenir) shops, go to a concert and see the midnight sun – all in a day.
Make sure you bring comfy shoes: walking is the best way to take in Reykjavik's street art, designer boutiques and quaint wooden houses. City Walks runs "free" (payment by donation) walking tours led by history graduates (Iceland has seven universities) as well as nightlife, haunted and running tours of the city; there's even a Money Talks tour explaining Icelandic politics and the 2008 financial crash. As a UNESCO City of Literature, Reykjavik also has an excellent free Culture Walks app, in four languages, for self-guided Crime Fiction, Literary Reykjavik and Queer Literature walks. See citywalk.is
If you want to mingle with the locals, go swimming. There are 170 pools in Iceland, most of them heated with geothermal energy and Reykjavikians often socialise while they soak, usually after work. Blue Lagoon is the best-known near Reykjavik, and pretty with its turquoise mineral-rich water surrounded by lava fields. But for laps and a local vibe, try a neighbourhood pool such as Laugardalslaug, one of the largest in Iceland; the water is heated to 28 degrees and there are water slides, steam rooms and jacuzzi-like hot pools. Just be prepared to shower naked with strangers (of your own gender – this isn't Finland) before taking a dip.
For the best views in the city, climb Reykjavik's most distinctive landmark: a rocket-shaped Lutheran church called Hallsgrimskirkja, which is visible from almost everywhere. Actually an elevator will take you to the top of its 75-metre tower for wide-screen views of the city and surrounding snow-capped peaks. Back at ground level, check out the statue in front of the church for a dose of Viking: it's Leifur Eiriksson, the first European to "discover" America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Another visual attraction is Bio Paradis, a cool indie cinema that screens Icelandic films with English subtitles daily (see bioparadis.is).
Reykjavik has a seriously hip cafe scene; try the rustic-chic Berggson Mathis, the Eymundsson Te & Kaffi bookstore cafe or Kaffi Vinyl vegan restaurant with resident DJ. Fresh seafood (try Sea Baron in the Old Harbour) and free-range lamb are classic Icelandic fare, served with greens grown year-round in geothermally heated greenhouses. Make sure you taste skyr, an Icelandic yoghurt-like dairy product, and kleine, little doughnut-like pastry twists. But give minke whalemeat a miss; it's not traditional and tourist demand is perpetuating commercial whaling in Iceland (see icewhale.is for a list of whale-friendly restaurants).
Hotel Eyja, a new eco-hotel run by Danish hotel group Guldsmeden ("dragonfly" in Danish), offers an alternative to Reykjavik's many heritage-style hotels. It's in a converted office block on a hill overlooking the harbour, just a short stroll from the city's restaurants and shops, and quieter than most downtown hotels, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights when Icelanders like to party like it's 1999. It also blends Nordic chic with Asian warmth; think cowskin rugs and Balinese four-poster beds. Rooms from €150 a night, see hoteleyja.com
Two ways to cut costs in this expensive city are to take a shuttle rather than a taxi from the airport (see airportdirect.is) and buy a Reykjavik City Card, which gives you free entry to museums and pools, free public transport and discounts at shops and restaurants (from 3700kr for a 24-hour card, see visitreykjavik.is).
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Lindblad Expeditions and at her own expense. See visitreykjavik.is