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Reykjavík cherishes its position as the northernmost capital city in the world, out of reach of convention. Being so far off the European map has given it licence to be unusual, quirky and ground-breaking in many areas from music to pop art. But behind the futuristic hairstyles and heady nightlife lies a city well-grounded in history and folklore. If you counted up all the elves and huldufólk (hidden people) that are said to exist in the Reykjavík suburb of Hafnarfjörður, the small town would have the population of any other European city.
The strangeness of everyday life is mirrored in Reykjavík’s surreal natural beauty. It’s so far north that the sun, like the locals, barely sleeps in summer, dipping briefly into the sea in the early hours of the morning; in the winter it sleeps off a long hangover of its own. Peering out across the Faxaflói Bay, past the old whalers, you can usually catch a glimpse of Snæfellsjökull, the magical glacier that has inspired writers for centuries. Closer still looms Mount Esja, its snow-dusted peak changing colour with every passing season.
Reykjavík is a small town by anyone’s standards. Capital of a country the size of England and Wales together, the city comprises approximately 40% of the country’s meagre population of 280000, making it the island’s only real city and the cultural centre of everything in Iceland. 101 Reykjavík, the bohemian old town contains many of the city’s sights: the historic AlÞing parliament building and city cathedral, the National Museum, which covers 1200 years of Icelandic history, and the Harbour House Museum, which showcases the best of Icelandic modern art.
Above the city centre on the hill is Hallgrímskirkja, a towering church designed to look like an erupting volcano. On the outskirts of the city you’ll find two of Reykjavík’s most idiosyncratic sights. In the Laugardalur Valley hot springs feed the city’s biggest swimming pool and luxury spa complex, while Öskjuhlíð Hill is crowned by the spherical Pearl building. It looks like a Bond villain’s hideout but in fact conceals tanks that store the city’s hot water and affords viewpoints out over the city. At the foot of the hill a man-made yellow-sand beach, complete with hot tub, is lapped by a warmed-up section of the Atlantic where you can swim or paddle.