I have often been asked for Icelandic travel tips. Finally, here is a mini-guide to some of my very favourite places in Reykjavík and what to do and see. Yes, there is much more to see and do but these are just some of my un-missables if you spend a few days in Reykjavík. Sorry, only one hotel tip because I simply have no insight into that part of visiting Reykjavík. Airbnb is widely available in Reykjavík.
Whereas fast food is expensive in Iceland fine dining comes at a very reasonable price – and is quite often rather good. Here are some that don’t disappoint (but don’t expect really good wine; also the service is normally very friendly but often not very professional).
Grillið (The Grill) at Hotel Saga is one of the oldest fine-dining restaurants in Reykjavík and probably the best right now. It’s on the top floor of a luxury hotel with an absolutely fantastic view over Reykjavík and the surroundings. It’s now run by Siggi Helgason (he’s to the left on the website photo), a dedicated young chef who has seen the world. I have to declare interest, family relations. Siggi is very interested in making the most out of all things Icelandic, also very Nordic style cuisine but he had worked in England, Ireland and elsewhere and picked up good things on his trips. A seriously professional cook with a good kitchen team.
Dill used to be in the Nordic House, by the University of Iceland campus, built by the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and worth the trip just for that. However, the restaurant has now moved downtown, haven’t been to the new place yet but heard the same rave reviews as earlier. The Dill cuisine is the Icelandic version of the Nordic cuisine and the staff has always been enthusiastic about their food. – For the café at the Nordic House, Aalto Bistro, see below.
Other good places, all in the centre
Lækjarbrekka has been around for decades and has had a revival recently – lovely ambience and great food.
The restaurant at Hotel Marina, right on the harbour as the name indicates, is very lively during happy hour and in the evening, also good for lunch.
Kopar is a restaurant by the harbor – always seems packed and in the evening heaving with partying Icelanders, more though in winter than in summer. Try to get one of the tables upstairs by the windows with a truly fantastic view over the harbour. Crab and seafood is their specialty.
Hotel Holt is a luxury hotel from the sixties, gone downhill a bit but it’s full of Icelandic art from early 20th century – go to see Kjarval there in a private setting and the bar is just great for seeing it. This is a place for fine dining, I’ve had some great food there but also pretty unmemorable food. Dark wood, dated but in an interesting way.
And just off the centre, out on the Reykjavík beach is Nauthóll, see below.
Matur og drykkur (Food and drink) is out on Grandi, by the harbour, a neighbourhood rapidly turning into a favourite destination for various food places. They specialise in classic Icelandic (i.e. often Danish-inspired) but done in a modern way with a twist. I had dinner there the other night, absolutely fantastic with interesting and innovative take on Icelandic classics, great vibe and lovely staff.
Now in July I did a day-trip to the Vestman-islands in order to have dinner at Slippurinn the other restaurant owned by Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, who also owns Matur og drykkur – the food and the whole experience of going there, even if it’s not a sunny day like they come once in a decade, is superb. Gísli is from the islands, loves making use of all there is to have there and some more and both the food, the service and the environment has the warmth and loveliness stemming from doing things with a big heart and soul.
Two newish restaurants that I have recently visited: Public House on Laugarvegur, Icelandic-Asian fusion and Von mathús og bar, in an artists’ community in a lovely setting in Hafnarfjörður – two very exciting new-comers on the Icelandic food scene.
I’m often asked where to go for typical Icelandic food. Well, facing Hallgrímskirkja is Café Loki. It’s been around for a long time, had dinner there in July for the first time and yes, it’s really like being invited to dinner with an old and generous, warm-hearted Icelandic aunt (sorry, men didn’t much cook some decades ago). I have to admit that old-fashioned Icelandic food isn’t my favourite, didn’t really grow up with it but this is absolutely the ideal place to get this type of homey Icelandic cooking. I had a plate of herring and it was very very good. Their “rúgbrauðsís”, ice cream with rye bread is, no exaggeration, one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had – ice cream lovers, don’t miss it!
Fast food – but not really
Don’t be tempted to have a bite at fast food joints – except of course Bæjarins bestu, a by now world-famous hot dog stand in the centre – because fast food is unreasonably expensive in Iceland and normally not very good. Rather, if you are hungry go to a supermarket, buy smoked salmon and “seytt rúgbrauð” – dark, slightly sweet rye bread – and enjoy with butter and Icelandic cucumber. Icelandic fish roes – salmon, trout and lump fish is a delicacy not to miss. Look out for “skyr,” slightly sour dairy product, similar to German “Quark,” delicious on its own or with milk and muscovado/dark sugar; look for the frozen Icelandic berries, fantastic with skyr; “flatbrauð,” “flatbread,” is unleavened bread, good with smoked salmon or smoked lamb, “hangikjöt.” “Harðfiskur,” literally “hardfish,” is dried fish, tastes a bit like prawn crackers but the fish taste is stronger without being overpowering.
My all-time favourite food shop is Melabúðin, Hagamel 39, in the Western part of Reykjavík. A family-run shop with all sorts of delicious Icelandic food, also from some small producers. It’s open until 8pm, pretty crowded around 6pm but that is part of the charm. I love going there because I invariably run into people I know and they have the best of everything. If you want an all Icelandic immersion buy their cooked and warm “svið” – lamb head – or “slátur” i.e. “lifrarpylsa” liver pudding and “blöðmör” blood pudding as well as all the typical Icelandic delicacies and the more adventures ones where inventive producers make new products from typical produce. Now, drink that with some of the new Icelandic beers and turn an everyday meal into a veritable feast. Perhaps a moveable one for those travelling around or staying in tents.
Frú Lauga Bændamarkaður, Mrs Lauga Farmers’ market, is a shop at Laugalækur and Óðinsgata. Kjöt og fiskur (Meat and fish) is in the centre, Bergstaðastræti. There are several good fishmongers in Reykjavík. My favourite is Fiskbúðin Vegamót, Nesvegi – fresh fish, frozen seafood, “seytt brauð” and various things that are found at any good Icelandic fishmonger.
Streetfood is now a growing part of the Icelandic food scene. Look for the wagons along the harbour. On Saturdays and Sundays there is a food market in the centre, in Fógetagarðurinn, mostly streetfood.
Sægreifinn, the Sea Baron, is in a barack by the harbour, where the cooks is an old fisherman whose speciality is lobster soup. He also offers minky whale (but some restaurants have a sign saying “meat us, don’t eat us” meaning they don’t serve whale meat, for animal welfare reasons; difficult to hunt whales without making them suffer) and other fish on skewers. – An original place, best for lunch. I normally don’t go there, find it slightly too touristy, it is much loved by many foreigners but I have just been there and it is cheap, chic and really good. Had the soup and skewers again, with Icelandic beer, sat outside and it was quite enjoyable.
Icelanders love ice cream and it is not just a summer thing – in Iceland you eat ice cream all year around, also out in the cold. There are now many ice cream shops in Reykjavík. One of the older ones, more or less with a constant queue, the default choice, is Ísbúð Vesturbæjar, Hagamelur 67. Valdís out at Grandi is a popular one, as the queues there witness. I have recently been to the ice cream shop at Lauglækur 8, love their old-fashioned milk ice cream, dipped in chocolate and rolled in grated coconut. They also do an unusual variety of hot dogs. Everyone in Reykjavík has their favourite ice cream shop; in my opinion they are all good – not like the best in Italy etc but good in the sense that there is great variety, also in ice cream-based deserts and it is a good place for watching Icelanders being Icelanders. Don’t miss it – a very Icelandic guilty pleasure.
The best coffee is at Kaffismiðjan – on a little side street off Skólavörðustígur, close to the landmark Hallgrímskirkja (on the hill). A great hang-out place with good cakes etc and open wifi and my absolute favourite when I’m in Reykjavík.
Mokka is a café that hasn’t changed since it opened in the sixties. Also a gallery with art of varying interest but always great atmosphere. Their hot chocolate is famous.
There are three Súfistinn cafés but my favourite is in the Mál og menning bookshop on Laugavegur 18.
Because I always go to Kaffismiðjan I haven’t yet tried out Kaffifélagið on Skólavörðurstígur who many say is really the best café. I can’t say because yes, have yet to try it and intend to do so in summer. – I have tried it now, the coffee is good but it is more to drop by rather than hang around since it is small.
A great place to visit in the evening is Kex Hostel, an incredibly cool and quirky place, close to the harbour, where you meet a great selection of young Icelanders (and the slightly older ones, when I’m there). In the evening there is often live music. It’s open from breakfast until late, serves food all day. In the office building opposite the Office of the Special Prosecutor has its abode so that building is full of secrets from the banking bubble times in the years up to October 2008.
The Kex group now also runs an avant garde pizzeria on Hverfisgata 12, the (so far) No Name Place. Modern take on pizzas, great selection of Icelandic craft beers and a good bar (reasonably or more reasonably priced than many other bars in Reykjavík) with the unmistakably good vibes of Kex. It is not for those who insist on classic pizzas or want to compose their own but invariably good for those who are prepared to follow the cooks’ lead.
Aalto Bistro is at the Nordic House. Not going for the hyperbole but their shell fish soup on a good day, based on Icelandic crab stock, is worth the trip… even all the way to Iceland.
When Kaffi Vest opened in October 2014; who would have thought it possible to run a café in the Vesturbærinn, a suburb but yes, that is now possible. It has great decor, good vibe, open from morning to late. The food is a bit erratic, might be just teething problems, but the vibe always good. And it is just opposite Vesturbæjarlaugin, the swimming pool and Melabúðin, the best deli for food shopping.
A propos hotels: I would stay at Kex if I were traveling to Reykjavík as a tourist: well located, quirky and accommodation offers for all budgets.
Another new hotel, based on a similar concept as Kex, is Oddsson (in case you are familiar with Icelandic politics: no, nothing to do with the politician of that name). An incredibly cool place to hang-out in, good if you want to do some work. There is also a bar and a bistro there, haven’t yet tried it but I’ve heard good things about it. The building is one of the more distinctive buildings in Reykjavík, originally from the 1940s, with a fabulous view on the gulf, Snæfellsnesjökull and glorious sunsets when mother nature offers them. A walking distance from Grandi, the harbour and the centre.
The Icelandic beer deserves a mention by now. There is a veritable surge in craft beers and I have not had anything but just great beer from this thriving flora of small breweries. It is now one of the things I look forward to enjoy when I visit but happily Einstök beer is now available in UK, i.a. at Oddbins and at least in my local Oddbins I am told it sells really well.
Before I knew other places intimately I assumed that modern gold and silver jewelry was something found everywhere but that is of course not at all the case. However, in Iceland there is plenty of choice when it comes to contemporary jewelry. I doubt there is another city in the world with as great a choice of it as is found in Reykjavík. There is historic reason for it: in the decades after the war not much could be imported to Iceland, Icelanders were flush with money and some of it was spent on in the silver- and goldsmith workshops, set up under Danish influence. The best thing to buy in Iceland is silver jewelry, both in terms of price and design. I doubt there is another city in the world with as great a choice of contemporary jewelry as is found in Reykjavík.
Skólavörðustígur and Laugavegur are filled with little shops of Icelandic design, plenty of jewelry shops around there. Also shops with contemporary clothing and Icelandic design.
There is so much that comes and goes in Iceland but Kirsuberjatréð has been around for decades now and sells a great selection of Icelandic design, both jewellery (fabulous!), other accessorise and things for the home.
Cintamani and 66North are Icelandic sport labels, shops in Bankastræti. Cintamani has really cute children’s clothes. The fishmongers at Borough market wear 66North!
A quirky place is the antiquariat on Klapparstígur 25-27, off Laugavegur – huge for a second hand book shop, stuffed with books, mostly in Icelandic but also many in other languages, and some weird things.
One of the best music shops in the world. I know, Icelanders are prone to hyperbole but this isn’t saying too much, 12 tónar at Skólavörðustígur 15, of course with all kinds of Icelandic music and other good music.
Art and museums
Contemporary Icelandic art is thriving. The most interesting galleries are i8 in Tryggvagata, right by Hotel Marina and the Sea Baron. Hverfisgallerí at Hverfisgata 4 is a recent addition to the Icelandic gallery scene. The old rebel and wild-at-heart Kling and Bang has been without a home for a while now but its new space will open in autumn 2016.
You find the two main public museums/galleries in the city centre, the National Gallery, a lovely café there, good for lunch. The same at Reykjavík Art Museum. In the East part of town there is Kjarvalsstaðir, dedicated to works by the greatest Icelandic artist, Kjarval. Seen in connection to art during his time (1885-1972) his work is truly original, inspired by Iceland in a very special way.
For weirdness and total experience there is the Einar Jónsson museum, by Hallgrímskirkja. The museum was designed by the artist (1874-1954) himself who is spiritually connected to the British arts and craft and symbolism. His bedroom is normally not open but ask if you can possibly see it.
Sigurjón Ólafsson was a sculptor who studied in Denmark before moving to Iceland with his Danish wife. They lived in Laugarnes, close to the container harbour of Sundahöfn. There is now a beautiful little museum there and a café. There are also regular concerts at the museum.
There are often art exhibition at Hallgrímskirkja, keep an eye on their programme.
To do and see
Harpa is the concert hall on the harbour. Half-built when the Icelandic banks collapsed in Oct. 2008 it was then finished after a hefty debate if such extravagance was permissible in times of crisis. The glass “case” encasing it is by the Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson who did the sun installation at Tate Modern.
The best thing about life in Iceland are the swimming pools – plenty of them around in Reykjavík and around the whole country – with varyingly hot tubs and normally also with a sauna/steam bath. My favourite is on the outskirts of Reykjavík, Seltjarnarnesslaug. A good time to go is in the morning or after a long day; open until 8 or 9pm, depending on the season. I like Seltjarnarnesslaug because the water is salty, instead of chlorine.
Those who like a properly long pool go to Laugardalslaug. Swimming in Iceland is a website with all you need to know about this topic. Even if you don’t particularly like swimming don’t miss out on the experience of swimming the Icelandic way: outdoors, no matter the weather, the essential Icelandic experience.
All pools have outside dressing rooms (yes, closed-off, separate for male and female) and that is for me part of the true experience of swimming in Iceland. Again, try it, best in an Icelandic company.
Nauthólsvík is the Reykjavík beach. You don’t need to be a heroic viking, there is a hot pool there but if you want to dip your toe into the Atlantic that’s the place, especially if you stay close to where the hot water flows into the sea there. The facilities are modern and I love the vibe there, as well as the cold water. Not to be missed. Right by there is a nice restaurant, Nauthóll, good both for lunch and dinner – modern architecture, glorious view.
There is of course the famous Blue lagoon – I used to think it was totally worth it, also for the architecture and being in the middle of a lava field but it’s just so crowded and ridiculously expensive that I’m no longer sure, I would rather go to any of the pools. You can take a bus out there, ca. 45 min. drive (it’s close to Keflavík Airport).
To see a bit of Iceland in a day, do the Golden Circle tour, covering the glorious Þingvallavatn, a huge lake in a sunken lava field, the famous Geysir (which has given its name to all hot springs in the English language) and the great waterfall, Gullfoss (the “gold waterfall”).
There is now another spa/lagoon type of pool at Laugavatn, ca. 60 km east of Reykjavík, passing Þingvallavatn. Haven’t tried it yet but it looks great on photos.
No need to mention whale watching, plenty of offers but check out this company that runs tours from the old harbour, close to Hotel Marina and Sea Baron.
In Mosfellsbær, a Reykjavík suburb, there is a small waterfall called Álafoss. In early last century this was the centre of the Icelandic wool industry and the label was called Álafoss. Then it went bankrupt but the old factory and surrounding buildings now house artistis, a tourist shop (what Icelanders call sea puffin shops because that seems to be The Icelandic Souvenir for some reason), a café, a knife workshop and other activities, a great place to visit. In the knife workshop, look out for faces glued to the floor: five politicians who, according the the owners, gave away the banks when they were privatised in 1998 to 2003. These faces are familiar to most Icelanders above a certain age and bear witness to the time before the boom that led to the collapse of the three main Icelandic banks in October 2008.
If you have a car one of the most fantastic things is to drive out of town – it does not really matter where to because everywhere there is something to see and it is marvellously easy to find a place where no man-made things are in sight and you can feel around in the world!
The Northern lights season has passed for the time being. The weather is changeable, you will come to understand the word if stay for more than just a few days. Here there is all you need to know about the weather in Iceland, right from the Icelandic meteorological institute, Veðurstofan. But for me, the weather in Iceland is always just great because no matter what, it is always an experience.
In July I stayed at Barðaströnd, where the Westfjords start. I stayed at Þverá, part of Nordic Lodges, wholly recommended – they have three other cottages in other parts of Iceland – and aided by fabulous weather and glorious sunsets the time spent there was fantastic. The Westfjords are definitely not crowded. I visited Bíldudalur and the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, Patreksfjörður, various pools, check Swimming in Iceland, Selárdalur, Rauðisandur, Látrabjarg, the nearby museum and last but not least Ísafjörður.
Drive carefully in case you are driving, the roads are not what global urban dwellers are used to but have a good trip – or, as we say in Icelandic, “góða ferð!”
*Last updated August 10, 2016.
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