The people of Reykjavík are used to hunkering down for the winter, when each day brings with it barely a few snatches of sunlight. Come February, they’re more than ready to wriggle out of hibernation and welcome the first, if tentative, signs of spring. The local authorities decided this was a good time of year to try to raise people’s spirits, and in 2002 they set up the Winter Lights Festival (Feb. 7 to 10). Starting out as Museum Night, when museums waived their fees and stayed open until midnight, the festival has grown to incorporate events that mark both winter and the imminent return of daylight. For a few days, the city comes alive with dazzling light installations, street performances, theater, dance and live music. Shops, cafés, outdoor thermal pools and the aforementioned museums stay open until 12 a.m. and it’s all free of charge, with complimentary shuttle-bus services thrown in. Here are another five things about Reykjavík that will help you celebrate the coming end of winter:
1. THE BLUE LAGOON
The Blue Lagoon (bluelagoon.com) is Iceland’s most visited tourist attraction but don’t let that put you off—it’s popular for good reason. An extraordinary place at any time of day, this 5,000-sq-m spa located on a lava field is magical at dusk, when the steamy, ice blue waters shimmer in the glow of dozens of floodlights. Little wooden bridges and walkways connect smaller pools with a larger pool. Between them, they contain 6 million L of geothermal seawater heated to 37°C to 39°C. If you fancy a tipple, there’s a swim-up bar, or you can opt for a massage while floating in the pool and slather yourself in the silica mud that gives the water its blue sheen. The Lava Restaurant has great views over the illuminated waters. Basic entrance to the lagoon costs $44.
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Opened in May 2011, the striking Harpa (harpa.is) concert hall is situated in the city’s up-and-coming harbor district and was designed in collaboration with the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (whose works include the 2003 Weather Project in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern and New York City Waterfalls in 2008). He took inspiration from Iceland’s geology and fascinating light to create the building’s facade. Made up of over 1,000 glass blocks, it is bathed in color at night when one of six LED-light sequences plays over the glass. The seven-story structure (an eighth floor is under construction) houses a bistro, an à la carte restaurant, conference and exhibition spaces and four concert halls, the largest of which seats up to 1,800 people.
3. IMAGINE PEACE TOWER
Yoko Ono’s memorial to John Lennon, the Imagine Peace Tower (imaginepeacetower.com), is situated on the blustery island of Videy (videy.com), a few minutes by ferry from Reykjavík. The tower was first lit by Ono in 2007 on Oct. 9, Lennon’s birthday, and shone until Dec. 8, the date he was killed in 1980. It’s lit on the same dates every year, as well as winter solstice, New Year’s Eve and spring equinox, which in 2013 is on March 20. It will also be lit for Ono’s 80th birthday on Feb. 18. The tower—a cylindrical structure of opaque glass inscribed with the words imagine peace in 24 languages—contains 15 searchlights that send a column of light 4,000 m up into the night sky. Ferries (elding.is) to Videy operate from Skarfabakki pier just outside central Reykjavík. Guided tours are available with pickup from your hotel for $39.
4. THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
You don’t need to venture into the middle of nowhere to see one of nature’s most spellbinding performances: a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík will do. According to NASA scientists, the aurora borealis—visible during winter—is at its brightest level for 50 years owing to increased solar activity. This being a natural phenomenon, nothing is guaranteed, but you can increase the odds of a sighting by choosing a cold, clear night, away from artificial-light sources. The Northern Lights and Lobster Jeep Tour, run by Iceland Rovers (icelandrovers.is), lasts about five hours and costs $245. It includes a drive on the black-sand beach at Stokkseyri, southeast of Reykjavík. Afterward, there’s a lobster dinner at the Fjorubordid (fjorubordid.is) restaurant before you head off to look for the lights on the way back to the city.
Based in the Nordic House cultural center and designed by acclaimed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (the furnishings are also his designs), Dill (dillrestaurant.is) is a champion of new Nordic cuisine. Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason, who founded Dill in 2009, uses natural Icelandic produce and when the nights get longer can be seen in the restaurant’s little garden picking herbs. He also harvests his own sea salt and gets his bread from a waitress’s grandmother, who bakes it at home. “There are lots of restaurants in Reykjavík flirting with new Nordic cuisine, but we’re focusing all our efforts on it,” says Gislason. A five-course tasting menu with wine pairing is $132. Typical dishes are pancake and arctic-char roe, and pureed rutabaga (a kind of turnip) with salted cod and dill.
PHOTOS: Norway’s Northern Lights