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Reykjavik

Hallgrimskirkja Church, Reykjavik (Courtesy of photoiconix/Shutterstock.com)

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 all the gift stores are apt mascots for a city with a decidedly playful streak.

More than half of Iceland's population lives there (or nearby), in one of the world's smallest capital cities -- some 200,000 people. Most travelers visit between late May and early October, especially during the summer months, when the daylight literally lasts around 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 best 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 Icelandic 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.

Iceland has seen 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 as the predominant occupation, restaurants serve up delectable seafood, and gourmet dining of all kinds is plentiful and popular. (One local told me that, because Iceland has no traditional food culture, its young chefs feel far more free to create innovative dishes with a trend toward local products that range from blueberries to lamb.)

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 clean and 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.

--written by Eleanor Berman; updated by Dori Saltzman

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