You have a three-day weekend coming up and you want to get away for a little shopping and nightlife, or maybe just a change of scenery.
So how about Reykjavik?
You can get your fill of lava fields, geothermal steam, ghostly winter light and quaint European streetscapes and be back for work on Monday.
My sister and I recently booked a Thursday-to-Sunday Icelandair deal that included flight, hotel, some meals, a free museum pass and unlimited in-city bus service. Here's how we spent our time:
*Day one: We arrived at Keflavik airport at 6:45 a.m., though it could have been the middle of the night for all we knew. In Iceland, in February, the sun begins to rise about 9:30 a.m., traverses a low arc across the horizon, and sets around 5 p.m. Visitors learn quickly to make the most of precious daylight.
After breakfast we dropped our bags at our hotel, the well-situated Centerhotel Plaza, and walked straightaway up a short hill to the Hallgrimskirkja -- perhaps Reykjavik's most recognizable landmark.
A modernist church designed by Icelandic architect Gupjon Samuelsson in the middle of the 20th century, it presides over downtown. For about $4 you can take an elevator to the top of the bell tower and survey the city, the ice-clad mountains and the sea beyond.
After a quick stop for a slice of pizza, we spent the afternoon walking the main commercial streets of Reykjavik: Laugavegur and Skolavorpustigur.
Shop windows bloom with high-end fashion; traditional woolens; outdoor gear; contemporary Danish housewares; and trinket shops.
If you're in the mood to buy, be sure you understand how the VAT tax works, because you could save yourself about 15 percent on many purchases.
Speaking of economizing, We had been warned about the high cost of food and drinks in Reykjavik. So as evening closed in, we stopped at a Vinbupen (Iceland's state-owned liquor stores) for a bottle of wine to have in our room, then went prowling for a reasonable dinner.
At the trendy but low-key Laundromat Cafe, we found one. We sat at the bar and had sandwiches, fries and -- hey, it was vacation! -- shots of Reyka vodka.
The bill came to 6,100 Icelandic krona -- about $25 per person.
*Day two: Breakfast at the hotel was a feast -- artisan breads, salami and cheese, pastries, granola and other cereals, bacon and eggs, plus Scandinavian delicacies such as pickled herring.
Our first stop was Kolaportip, a popular flea market near the waterfront. A trove of tchotchkes, foodstuffs, books, jewelry and clothing, it offered an excellent alternative to pricier shops in the center of town.
For lunch on the cheap, we visited Bfjarins Beztu Pylsur on the waterfront, one of the most famous hot-dog stands in the world. ("Bill Clinton ate here," locals are quick to point out, in their impeccable English.) For a little more than $4, we bought two hot dogs slathered in ketchup and a sweet mustard sauce, sitting on a bed of crunchy fried onions.
Next stop: Culture House, for an exhibit of medieval manuscripts, including original handwritten copies of some of the Icelandic sagas -- the stories that relate the exploits of the Vikings who settled the country in the ninth and 10th centuries.
The grisly history of the Vikings was very much on our minds later that day as we passed through the rugged, wind-swept lava fields outside Reykjavik on a bus trip to the Blue Lagoon. A more inhospitable environment for a luxury spa is hard to imagine, but that's part of this famed attraction's otherworldly appeal.
Blue Lagoon is a geothermal pool famed for its warm, milky blue waters and natural silica mud masks. Massages and other spa treatments are also on the menu. As a day trip, it's a splurge, costing about $63 for bus and entry, and taking four hours at minimum.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors bathe in its sulfurous pools each year. Some find it an exotic, sensuous experience; others, an overpriced dip in a pungent bath. We landed somewhere in the middle, deeming it a pricey, but unique sensation, not likely to be repeated.
Back in Reykjavik, we dined at Prikip, an unpretentious spot in the commercial center promising traditional Icelandic food. It did not disappoint, especially with a gravlax salad drizzled in vinegar.
Reykjavik's famed wee-hours bar scene eluded us on this trip. On this night, we were out till about midnight -- just when things tend to heat up, according to the Icelanders we spoke to. At 2 or 3 in the morning, we awoke briefly to the sounds of singing and smashing glass.
*Day three: We devoted our final day in Reykjavik to a visit with relatives. Our plane wasn't scheduled to leave until 5 p.m., and if we'd had no family visit on our agenda, we could have easily filled a third day with art and natural history museums, or one of the country's many outdoor pursuits -- whale-watching; glacier hikes; or the Golden Circle driving tour past geysers and massive waterfalls.
As it was, those will have to wait for another trip -- perhaps a mad, weekend dash in summer, when it's daylight nearly around the clock.
If you go:
Go to www.icelandair.com and click on "Packages" for inclusive deals.
>Lodging: Icelandair packages typically include accommodations at a Centerhotel -- a small chain of modest hotels in convenient locations scattered throughout downtown Reykjavik. We stayed at Centerhotel Plaza, which featured comfortable, basic furnishings; a full, free breakfast; private baths; and free Wi-Fi -- when it worked. See www.centerhotels.com for more information.
>More information: www.visiticeland.com.
>Save on shopping: Iceland has a Value Added Tax, or VAT, that is charged on purchases but may be refunded at the airport when you leave the country, subject to certain limitations. Some tips:
*If you are buying lots of small souvenirs, buy them all in a single transaction, because the VAT is only refunded on purchases above 4,000 krona (about $33).
*Use a credit card instead of cash so that when you receive your refund, it will be applied to your credit card, rather than paid in Icelandic currency.
*Avoid the VAT entirely by shopping duty-free at the airport before departure. Many of Iceland's most coveted brands are represented at Keflavik airport.