Iceland might not be the first place that springs to mind when you’re planning a weekend away. The obvious cities like Paris, Berlin or Budapest would probably occur to you well before Reykjavík becomes an option. But after a four-night jaunt across some of Iceland’s impressive landscapes, including the Golden Circle and Reykjanes Peninsula, Lottie Gross discovers why Iceland’s capital is the perfect weekend break destination.

Why go for just a weekend?

Because it’s cheap to get there, and expensive to stay. Iceland is a notoriously expensive destination due to its small population and dependency on imports. It’s hard to stay in the country for a long time without breaking the bank, so a short trip is the most economical option for most travellers.

There are two different sides to Iceland – the capital and the countryside. Staying in Reykjavík makes it possible to enjoy the highlights of both the city and scenery in a short amount of time by taking day trips with tour companies to your chosen areas of interest. Reykjavík has charm and nightlife to rival cities even twice its size, while the surrounding countryside is too ethereal to miss.

Flights with WOW Air run from London Gatwick ten times a week and can set you back as little as £49 each way. Plus, new flights launching between London and the US (Washington DC and Boston) via Reykjavík this year, make Iceland the perfect place for a small adventure before reaching your final destination.

Reykjavik and the mountains, IcelandImage © Lottie Gross 2015

What should I see in Reykjavík?

On first impression Reykjavík – the country’s largest city with a population of just 120,000 people – is like a life-size model village. There are no skyscrapers, but instead a network of small, tin can-style houses with multicoloured corrugated iron walls and roofs. Thanks to this, the whole city has a somewhat temporary feel to it, as if each building could be taken down and reassembled as something else entirely next week – although in reality, the corrugated iron really protects against the relentless year-round winds.

Because of its small scale, Reykjavík can be explored on foot in a single day. A walk along the seafront past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager sculpture gives breathtaking views to the mountains on the tiny island of Viðey across the bay; a stroll along the main street, Laugavegur, introduces you to an independent shopping heaven; and a wander up Lækjargata past the pond, where locals feed ducks, swans and geese, takes you to Hallgrímskirkja – the famously sci-fi-looking church with a towering concrete steeple that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

For history you can visit the National Museum or the Saga Museum, while for an understanding of the country’s landscape – before you get out there yourself – see the huge relief map in City Hall. Finally, Perhaps for a bit of irreverent fun, have a giggle in the Reykjavík Phallological Museum where over 200 penises from a variety of animals (including humans) are preserved in jars.

Sólfar, the Sun Voyager sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason

What should I eat?

With an economy that depends heavily on the fishing industry – fish is Iceland’s biggest export – it comes as no surprise that seafood in Iceland is sublime. Head to Icelandic Fish & Chips on Tryggvagata for a deliciously fresh, healthy dinner, or to the weekend flea market by the harbour where you can buy a variety of fish almost straight from the boats.

For those with a sweet tooth in pursuit of authentic Icelandic treats, Café Loki, sitting on a corner opposite Hallgrímskirkja, is perfect for a spot of afternoon tea. Try the ‘bow’, a knot of donut dough, deep-fried and served with cream, and the skyr cake, a cheesecake-style sweet layered with yoghurt, rhubarb sauce and a sweet biscuit base.

Kex Hostel, Reykjavik, IcelandKex Hostel, Reykjavík

Where’s the party?

Reykjavík by night is a very different place. It’s famous for its Friday rúntur, or ‘round tour’, when hundreds of young Icelanders tank themselves up on vodka at home before hitting the streets around midnight to embark on an almost orgiastic pub crawl.

Start your evening in style at The Ten Drops, a tiny, basement-level speakeasy that feels like someone’s living room rather than a pub. There’s live acoustic guitar and a good selection of Icelandic beers (Einstok is the most popular choice, but the Myrkvi Porter is a great winter warmer if it’s cold out) to get you going before moving onto the more serious party at Reykjavík institution, Kaffibarrin. For up-to-date listings on what’s on in town, see the Reykjavík Grapevine.

Any budget-friendly accommodation?

Yes. Kex Hostel, set in an old biscuit factory on the seafront in downtown Reykjavík, has dorm rooms from £30 or private rooms from £40 per person per night. There’s a kitchen for self-caterers and a rather dark but very cool (read: hipster) gastropub serving everything from rich, juicy beef burgers to braised reindeer shank in batter.

How do I get into the wild?

A number of day-tours (pick-up from your hotel) on offer from Reykjavík Excursions take in the highlights of the surrounding countryside and dramatic coastline – the most popular of which is the Golden Circle. This takes you through the beautiful Þingvellir National Park and across the Assembly Plains (where the country’s first parliament, the oldest in the world, was founded in 930 AD). From here you reach the Geysir geothermal area, where the spectacular geyser that gave its name to all others thrusts hot water from underground up to 30 metres in the air every few minutes. The visitor centre’s free exhibition shows just how temperamental Iceland’s environment can be, detailing the science behind these geothermal surges, the frequent volcanic eruptions and showing, with a simulator, what it feels like to experience an earthquake.

Before heading back to Reykjavík, the tour visits Gullfoss (Golden Falls): an enormous waterfall viewed from above, which plummets thunderously into a 32 metre-deep rift created by the Hvítá river. A number of tours can be combined with a visit to the Blue Lagoon – the man-made geothermal pool and spa that attracts thousands of visitors a year.

Explore more of Iceland’s natural beauty with the Rough Guide to Iceland. Compare flightsbook hostels, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.