Travel to Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland, spreads out in this view from the tower of the Hallgrimskirkja church. (Lynn Jacobson, Seattle Times, MCT / February 25, 2012)

SEATTLE — 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?

Yes, that's in Iceland — and you may be surprised to learn you can get there and back in a long weekend.

At this time of year, it's also affordable: You can get your fill of lava fields, geothermal steam, ghostly winter light and quaint European streetscapes for not much more than the cost of three or four nights in San Francisco.

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 for $685 each. Here's how we spent our time:

—Day one

After about a seven-hour flight, 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 and a stop to drop our bags at our hotel (the well-situated Centerhotel Plaza), we walked straightaway up a short hill to the Hallgrimskirkja — perhaps Reykjavik's most recognizable landmark.

A modernist church designed by Icelandic architect Guðjon 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.

It's a charming view — marked by colorful, functional, low-rise buildings made mostly of concrete and corrugated metal (trees are scarce in Iceland).

As we looked out on the rooftops and the glowering sky, we sensed a slight whiff of sulfur in the air — evidence of the geothermal activity that powers most of the country. The church bell tolled, seeming to welcome us to this strange and beautiful world.

After a quick stop for a slice of pizza, we spent the afternoon walking the main commercial streets of Reykjavik: Laugavegur and Skolavorðustigur.

Shop windows bloom with high-end fashion; traditional woolens; outdoor gear by Iceland companies like 66o North and Zo-on; contemporary Danish housewares; and trinket shops hawking trolls and Viking figurines.

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 Vinbuðen (Iceland's state-owned liquor stores) for a bottle of wine.

We enjoyed a glass of inexpensive Chilean merlot 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 ("made with pure Icelandic spring water and filtered through lava rocks").

The bill came to 6,100 Icelandic krona — about $25 per person.

—Day two