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Famed for its Viking history and high-energy nightlife, Iceland’s capital is also the perfect pitstop for a range of activities: be it bobbing in a geothermal pool, spotting puffins or taking in one of the world’s best dive sites.

Geothermal pools and spas
Set in a black lava field, the Blue Lagoon spa is fed by water (at a perfect 38C) from the futuristic Svartsengi geothermal plant. Its silver towers, roiling clouds of steam and people daubed in blue-white silica mud provide an off-the-planet scene. There are two steam rooms, a spa, café and restaurant; it’s a 45-minute drive from the city centre (240 Grindavík; from £28).

Laugardalslaug Geothermal Pool is the largest in Iceland, and a place where children play, teenagers flirt, business deals are made and everyone catches up with the gossip. It also has the best facilities: an Olympic-size indoor pool (28C), an outdoor pool, four hot pots (38°C–44°C), steam bath, whirlpool, and curling 86m water slide. Get there via bus 14 (Sundlaugavegur 30a; 6.30am–10pm weekdays, from 8am weekends; from £3).

The dinky Blue Flag Nauthólsvík geothermal beach, on the edge of the Atlantic, is packed with happy bathers in summer, thanks to golden sand imported from Morocco and an artificial hot spring that keeps the water at a pleasant 18C–20C. There are sociable hot pots, a snack bar, changing rooms, and canoes and rowing boats. Get there on bus 19 (Ylströnd; free admission 15 May–15 Aug, £2.80 rest of the year).

Animal watching
Iceland is a fantastic place for whale watching – its waters hold more than 20 species of cetacean. In Faxaflói bay you’ll come across white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises and minkes; migratory humpbacks are also spotted. Between April and October, Elding Whale Watching runs three-hour trips from Reykjavík’s old harbour (Old Harbour; from £45).

Known for crash landings and frantic fluttering on land, the puffin is surprisingly graceful in water and spends most of its year at sea. Between May and August it comes to land to breed, and around 50,000 of these clumsy and endearingly comic birds nest on Lundey and Akurey, two islands just offshore from Reykjavík. Visit them on the one-hour Puffin Express boat trips, which sail from the harbour several times a day (Old Harbour; from £20).

Head less than a mile west from the city centre and you reach a red and white lighthouse, a lava-strewn beach and a windswept golf course. Seltjarnarnes – where the air has a salty tang and fish-drying racks sit by the shore – is a haven for birdwatching. Some 106 species have been spotted and the offshore island of Grótta is a natural reserve (accessible on foot at low tide but closed in nesting season, May–July). Expect to see Arctic terns, eider ducks and fulmars.

Other excursions
Horses are an integral part of Icelandic life and the sturdy, short local horse is a gentle breed, ideal for inexperienced riders. Horse farms around Reykjavík offer some truly unforgettable tours: from trotting through lava fields under the midnight sun to riding to the beautiful Gullfoss waterfall and the hot springs at Geysir (from £35 for a one-hour countryside tour).

The tiny, uninhabited island of Viđey, just a few minutes offshore, is criss-crossed with paths and makes an ideal day trip for walking. Strange modern artworks (including Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower), an abandoned village and shipwrecks give a melancholy feel and the walks are eminently peaceful. Pick up a trail map at the harbour (return ferry from Old Harbour or Skarfabakki pier; £11).

Iceland’s waters offer 100m visibility, lava ravines, wrecks and thermal chimneys, making it a special dive destination. One of the best sites in the world is Silfra at Þingvellir – a freshwater rift that runs between the Euroasian and American continental plates. Dive Iceland runs a half-day tour from the city, half an hour away (£193, including pick-up, two dives, equipment and refreshments).

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