Europe's northernmost and westernmost capital is a delightful destination, part old Norse, part modern city, with a quirky personality of its own. The puffin, troll and elf souvenirs found in gift stores are apt mascots for a city with a decidedly playful streak.
More than half of Iceland's population lives in Reykjavik (or nearby), in one of the world's smallest capital cities -- some 190,000 people. Cruise ships are increasingly paying calls on Reykjavik from late May to early October, especially during the summer months, when the daylight literally lasts 'round the clock. Visitors and residents alike seem to stay awake, golfing, strolling the compact town's picturesque streets, drinking Gull beer at sidewalk cafes and cycling along the seafront promenade.
Many believe that Reykjavik's character is more defined in winter, when daunting weather and 20-hour nights are defied by rollicking pubs and a sense of humor. But, locals laugh at the climate, whether calm or tempestuous. They keep warm in the iconic handsome sweaters for which Iceland is well known; the long hours indoors and out inspire artisans, evidenced by many shops that display lovely local art and clothing.
This is a city that has learned to make the best of things. The Iceland landscape is bare and covered with volcanic rock. With no trees for building houses, 18th-century settlers used driftwood that floated in from the sea, covering the wood in sheets of corrugated tin and painting walls and roofs in vivid colors to brighten the scene. The rock that abounds was turned into material for a fine stone Parliament building, erected in 1881. Citizens have planted and nurtured welcome oases of green. The geothermal springs that bubble underground have been put to work to provide hot water for residents.
Reykjavik has experienced much advancement in the past few years. Progress is plain to see in the sleek, contemporary buildings that are changing the cityscape. Several worthwhile museums salute local history and art, and whimsical street murals dot the city center. With fishing still a dominant occupation, restaurants serve up delectable seafood, and gourmet dining of all kinds is plentiful and popular.
But, if you ask natives for their favorite eating place, the answer most often will be a simple hot dog stand near the harbor.
Reykjavik is a safe city, compact and easy to navigate on foot. As charming as it is, no visit to Iceland is complete without getting out into the vast interior, which lies at the city's doorstep. Seriously, how can you not love a place where sheep have the right of way?
Cruise lines often assign ships to overnight in Reykjavik, offering passengers more than the typical eight-hour port experience, but my greatest regret is that visitors don't have even more time to explore this charming land, where the balance of urban sophistication and nature at its most rugged is unique.
If you regard cruise travel as a chance to sample places you might want to return to later for longer stays, I can't think of a better recommendation than Reykjavik.