Insider: Reykjavik

Ten highlights in Iceland's cool capital

1. Religious Experience Reykjavík"s most notable landmark is Hallgrímskirkja (Church of Hallgrímur) – a swooping white structure built to resemble a glacier and topped by a 240-foot-high steeple that can be seen from anywhere in town; take the elevator to the top for the best views of the city. The 1,200-seat Lutheran church gets a lot of attention, yet the Icelanders" sentimental favorite house of worship is the simpler and older Dómkirkjan, beside the Parliament building. To the people of Reykjavík, Hallgrímskirkja is a church, while Dómkirkjan remains the city"s cathedral.

2. Saddle Up Shaggy-maned Icelandic horses are a natural mode of transportation for seeing the Icelandic countryside. Their small stature, disproportionate strength, and accommodating natures make them manageable enough for beginners yet spirited enough for experienced riders. Ishestar, a tour company based in nearby Hafnarfjörd¯ur, runs short horseback tours to lava fields, geysers, parks, volcanoes, and even the Blue Lagoon (see No. 6). Longer, more rugged tours are also available; go to

3. Sculpture in the Park Wherever you turn in Reykjavík you"ll encounter sculpture by Iceland"s major artists. Don"t miss Jón Gunnar Arnason"s Sun Voyager on the pedestrian walkway along the north shore. Einar Jónsson"s powerful allegorical works and Asmundur Sveinsson"s sleek modernistic pieces can be found in several public spaces around Tjörnin – the city"s central lake. The fine sculpture gardens outside the Jónsson and Sveinsson museums are free and open year-round, even when the museums are closed.

4. Members Only Tired of the usual museum? There"s always The Icelandic Phallological Museum, perhaps the world"s only institution devoted to the mammalian phallus. Here you will see 142 specimens of penises and penis parts from virtually every kind of land and sea mammal found in Iceland. (The specimen from Homo sapiens will arrive, via bequest, sometime in the future.) "Somebody had to do this and it just fell to me to start collecting," says curator Sigurdur Hjartarson.

5. Good Sports If Icelanders look at you funny when asked about team handball, it"s probably because they can"t believe a non- European could have the slightest interest in their erstwhile national sport. Ignore their bemusement and go see a game; there"s one almost every night from late September through May. A blend of basketball, hockey, and soccer, team handball is a high-scoring game packed with body checking, fast breaks, and kick saves. Top Icelandic players go pro in bigger countries such as Germany or Sweden. Even so, you"ll find plenty of good local action, and get a chance to mix with the spirited fans.

6. Soak in It Iceland is a nation of bathers, and swimming and soaking in Reykjavík"s geo-thermally heated outdoor pools and "hot pots" is a popular activity. To truly immerse yourself in Iceland, however, you must visit the Blue Lagoon, a steamy hot spring of opaque turquoise water surrounded by black lava rock (above). The water, whose color comes from blue-green algae and white silica mud, is supposed to ease psoriasis and promote well-being. Locals slather on the mud and let it dry to a ghostly mask before rinsing clean. A word to the wise: Coat your hair with conditioner before taking the plunge because Blue Lagoon water works wonders on your skin but makes your hair feel like steel wool.

7. Buy In Reykjavík"s main shopping street is Laugavegur, and it covers the city"s old town from end to end. Here you"ll find high-quality souvenir shops, specialty stores, and restaurants. Galleries and crafts shops are clustered on Skólavörd¯ustígur, along with the Handknitting Association of Iceland shop, where wool sweaters made by more than 200 island knitters are piled high. (Get a tax-free voucher for purchases over 4,000 kroner, about $40.)

8. Cafe Life Coffeehouses have been part of the Reykjavík social scene since the first espresso was brewed at Mokka Kaffi in the 1950s. Today there are dozens of cafés in town, each with its own personality and clientele. Most are open from early morning until about 11 p.m. Mokka Kaffi, on Skólavörd¯ustígur, remains much the same as when it opened – small and cozy, with interesting artwork on the walls. It also serves creamy hot chocolate and warm waffles with cream and jam. For more of a scene, try the popular Café Paris on the town square.

9. Bjork – and Beyond Like modern Icelandic painting, modern Icelandic music is, for many foreigners, a "love it-hate it" proposition. (Consider the iconoclastic Björk, who put Iceland on the world"s popular-music radar.) If you love it, or think you might, visit the Icelandic music section of any record shop in town – Japis and Skífan are two of the bigger ones – to find CDs you can"t get at home. The current darling of Icelandic electronic music is the mystically glacial Sigur Rós, with the slightly more energetic group múm running a close second.

10. Going Green When you"ve had your fill of fried puffin and rare reindeer steak, try Reykjavík"s other local cuisine – vegetarian. At A Næstu Grösum (First Vegetarian), you can get a hearty, healthy meal for under $10, a bargain you"d be foolish to ignore. Everything is super fresh (most of it"s grown in geothermally heated greenhouses outside the city), the menu changes daily, and the clientele ranges from grannies and kids to green hardliners.