It’s become the hottest tourist destination in the past year, which is slightly ironic considering it’s the land of Ice. Tourism has quickly skyrocketed in Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik and it’s apparent why. The town is beautiful, the countryside is even more breathtaking and the restaurants could compete with most New York hotspots (prices included). From the moment we stepped onto our Icelandic Airlines flight at JFK, we had that Dorothy moment where we realized we weren’t in cynical New York City anymore. The flight attendants cracked jokes, handed out water bottles (our first taste of the insanely delicious glacier water) and we toasted to the start of an incredible adventure.
Beginning at the Blue Lagoon and ending at a local pub cheering on the Icelandic national football team, our entire trip was filled with excitement, thrills and taking in the sheer beauty and culture of an incredible place.
My words of wisdom: wander, get lost, talk to people, because you never know what you’ll stumble upon. Our first day brought us to a random bookstore where a lamb was being cooked on a spit and we sipped Boli Beers and took in the kindness and Viking culture (I know, that sounds like an oxymoron) of Iceland.
There are two key things are important to know before your trip that we didn’t know before we arrived: first, it is not customary to tip in Iceland. They will of course accept any additional compensation, but they aren’t offended if you don’t tip (in fact they will be kind of shocked if you do). And second, food and drinks are pretty expensive in the city. It’s all relative, but something to be mindful of when planning where to dine.
Explore, enjoy — and here’s our guide to Reykjavik.
Three mornings in a row, we found ourselves slathering rhubarb jam on freshly baked sourdough bread while sipping piping hot espressos. Located centrally in downtown Reykjavik (right behind Parliament), Bergusson Mathús is one of the few places open before 8am for breakfast and luckily the food is outstanding.
The daily specials menu rotates — we enjoyed avocado toast with smoked salmon and sweet potato soup on the first day, and stuck to their traditional menus on the second and third. Platters of freshly baked bread (I have a new found love for sourdough after this place), slices of cheese, thin pieces of prosciutto, a soft boiled egg, a mixture of fresh fruit, hummus, and muesli with Greek yogurt round out a traditional Bergsson Breakfast. Make your way to the front to load up on their insanely sweet and addictive jam and butter, real butter — the kind that’s creamy and sweet and bright yellow — to compliment the sourdough or a warm, freshly baked croissant. It’s one of those breakfasts where you wonder why in America you ever opted for an egg white omelette with spinach, no toast and a small side salad.
Templarasund 3 – Official Website
To find one of the best brunches in Reykjavik, you have to wander off the beaten path. Behind the smaller marina and through the construction in the appropriately named “fish packing” district, you will find a little oasis of brunch heaven. The menu is small with dishes you’ve seen on the menus of your favorite brunch spots in Brooklyn. But they put a fun twist on each dish — especially the Eggs Florentine. Served on fresh sourdough bread (sense a theme here?) the eggs, spinach and sourdough are coated in an creamy blue cheese sauce that takes the place of a standard hollandaise. On the side, crispy eggs in a spicy salsa give a nice kick to cut through the amazingly gluttonous breakfast. A house made Bloody Mary that veers towards the sweeter side is the perfect companion for this delightful brunch stop.
Grandagarður 23 – Official Website
If you’re looking for a taste of America, this place will satisfy your needs. They have scrambled eggs with bacon and sausage and potatoes, iced coffee, large bowls of Greek yogurt with prepackaged granola. Everything served is okay — a pretty decent New York diner type fare. But it will do the trick if you’re looking for simple eggs and an iced coffee, and the decor is really super cute.
Austurstræti 9 9 – Official Website
On a quest for local pub fare, we stumbled upon one of the best kept secrets in Reykjavik. Located on a side street right off Laugavegur (the main street in town), the restaurant is exactly what you would think a cute, seaside pub would look like. The whimsical menu features all of the food famous in Iceland (including some controversial items like puffin and whale). Get yourself acquainted with local Icelandic beer like Einstok and Viking, and also be sure to try their local house brew which is a delightful brown ale (our favorite of the bunch).
Minke whale is served in a jar topped with cheese sauce and potato chips, which might sound strange but in fact tastes delicious. Whale is a red meat, so the texture is reminiscent to that of steak, making this dish taste something like a fancy version of a Philly cheesesteak. Do yourself a favor and order the lobster dog — a sweet bun and a simple bed of lettuce hold the crispy pieces of langoustine which is slathered in a sweet aioli and topped with orange slices to give that burst of fresh, citrus tang. It is not to be missed. The haddock burger was the day’s special. The patty was formed in a style similar to that of a crab cake topped with dill and pickled red onions. The texture of the burger was a little too mushy for my liking, despite the crisp exterior — and when compared to the first two dishes, it didn’t stand a chance.
1a, Ingólfsstræti – Official Website
Ostabúðin á Skólavörðustíg:
On my never-ending, lifelong quest to try all the cheese plates in the world, I looked to a recommendation from my friend Alisha Siegel. This restaurant is adjacent to a deli/cheese shop of the same name, so you can bet their platters and pairings are top notch. While sipping delicious wine, we devoured the white and blue cheese plate, which came with the most delightful red currant jam (we asked for more and proceeded to buy a jar in the shop the following day) and garlic bread crisps. But the real star of the meal was the delicate brioche and Icelandic beef tartine with sweet fig jam underneath, topped with a mushroom aioli and pieces of dried mushrooms. I will dream about this perfect bite for years to come.
Skólavörðustígur 8 – Official Facebook Page
Matur og Drykkur:
If you want to try real Icelandic food with a twist, this is your spot. The restaurant is named after the most famous Icelandic cookbook and they’ve taken traditional dishes to a new level using modern techniques and style. The restaurant is located in the fish packing district in a tiny museum paying tribute to the vikings. The place is adorable with a funky decor that makes disconnected paintings come together in a truly beautiful way. We had originally planned to visit here for dinner, but switched our reservation to lunchtime to take advantage of a tasting menu only offered during the daytime. “Icelandic Taste” menu is a series of five small plates that highlight the main components of Icelandic cuisine.
It began with crispy fish chips with burnt butter and seaweed that tasted much fishier than they looked, but the burnt butter added a balance (the waiter said this is universally the least favorite of the bunch). Next, dried smoked lamb arrived which he explained was meant to be reminiscent of a traditional Christmas dinner (lamb is a big deal in this country and it tastes better than most places because the animals are allowed to roam freely across the country side). An ode to Denmark, the country that ruled Iceland until 1944, was served next with sweet pieces of herring perched on top of beet roots on a rye crisp. Delightful cod croquettes were served with a creamy remoulade — and these were the kind of croquettes where big pieces of fish were found throughout (none of that pureed left over junk). And finally, sheep’s dung smoked arctic char (yes, you read that correctly — it’s an old technique to infuse flavor) was served over a brunt crisp with a horseradish creme that would give any Jewish deli a run for their money.
Perhaps the main star was something we ordered outside of the tasting menu: the “halibut” soup. Halibut is in quotes because it is illegal to fish for halibut, so the technique used to create the broth is the same as the past but the fish is instead a flatfish called plaice, which is a dreamy flaky whitefish that just melts in your mouth. According to Frommers, “it’s said that his grandmother cried after trying his halibut soup, a recipe that brought back memories from her childhood.” We have to agree, we were moved by the complexity of this dish. It was unlike anything I’d ever had before. This place must not be missed.
Grandagarður, 2 – Official Website
We ended up here by accident. My friends had recommended a place called ‘Icelandic Fish and Chips’ on the corner, but as it turns out, there are two places with Fish & Chips in the name on opposite street corners and thanks to a plethora of construction, it blocks the view of the other spot. Luckily, this place was exactly what we wanted. You order at the front and are handed a little fish with a number on it. The basket of fish and chips is pretty big (in our case, perfect for sharing) and we selected two sauces; lemon-pepper-dill and jalapeño-garlic. The pieces of flakey fish were encased in the golden brown batter which had been fried to perfection. Fries were hidden underneath and were a little less crispy then I usually like, but they were devoured anyway.
Tryggvagata 8 – Official Website
*side note: we walked into the correct fish and chips shop afterwards and it looked to be a bit more high end with a variety of selections of fish used for the dish. We liked the vibe of our low key, more kitschy place better*
Named after the cult classic, “The Big Lebowski,” this place is decorated in a way that would make ‘The Dude’ proud. They also happen to make a mean burger to enjoy alongside their happy hour specialty drinks. After a long day of exploring, it was the perfect place to kick back and just hang out.
Laugavegur 20b – Official Website
Skúli Craft Bar:
Any bar that has ‘Cards Against Humanity’ is a winner in my book. And if they serve delightful, local brews from around the island — that’s just a bonus. Snag a seat at the bar and talk to the bartender about the different brews and sample a few until you find the perfect beer. Great spot to hang out and wind down after a long day.
Fógetagarður, Aðalstræti 9 – Official Facebook Page
The Drunk Rabbit:
Find the sign that says “Irish Bar” and you might just walk into an 80’s and 90’s music sing-a-long. Seriously. While I sipped one of the best Johnny Walker cocktails of my life (it was infused with smoked herbs), I sang along to the guitarist playing renditions of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby… One More Time” and Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Chill out, sing along, and you’re in for a treat.
Austurstraeti 3 – Official Facebook Page
On our way back from exploring fish packing, we decided to take advantage of happy hour. Quickly we learned happy hour meant $11 drinks instead of $18, so we treated ourselves to one cocktail each. The ones on the specials list weren’t particularly full of local flare but the complimentary popcorn was worth hanging around.
Mýrargata 2 – Official Website
If you’re craving microbrews, this is your spot. All the beer is brewed in house, and you can stare at the large metal barrels through glass windows to see some of the magic happen. There’s a beautiful outdoor area — if you can handle to cold — where you can stare at the stunning mountains while sitting on the water. It’s worth the trek to the fish packing district.
101, Grandagarður 8 – Official Website
As soon as our redeye flight from JFK landed in Iceland, we grabbed coffees at Joe and the Juice and headed to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa and it’s the ultimate way to cure the blues (pun intended) after a long flight. We selected the “comfort” package which we booked online in advance (this was the only thing we booked ahead of our trip) — this option allows you access to a towel, which is very necessary and gives you a complimentary first drink. There’s nothing quite like sipping a glass of prosecco in a bikini while it’s a brisk 35º outside. The place is completely state of the art with lockers, great showers and a place to store your luggage if you come straight from the airport. This is a fantastic way to kick off your trip.
Horseback Riding (Arctic Adventures):
We booked our horseback riding excursion through Arctic Adventures which has an office in downtown. We walked inside and had expressed our interest that type of excursion and they encouraged us to try the one that is called the “lava tour.” Having been in Europe during the 2010 volcanic eruption, I was excited at the prospect of exploring the volcanos on horseback. Unfortunately, the title of the tour was incredibly misleading. We were led through lava fields from centuries past that were now just dark rock with moss growing on top. The actual riding was different, the horses here are a different breed — beautiful, smaller horses with a thicker coat that are native to Iceland — and we rode on Eastern saddles which was new to the two of us. We still managed to have a great time (as seen in our pictures below), but wished there were better explanations when we were sold the tour.
The Golden Circle (Trips.Is):
The main attraction in Iceland is the Golden Circle with is a trifecta of three natural wonders; Þingvellir national park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and geysers. Every single tour company has a variation of their trip here and we deliberated long and hard about how to approach the Golden Circle experience. Ultimately, we decided we didn’t want to add an excursion (ie: snorkeling, snowmobiling) and wanted to spend the full day in the area. Following the recommendation at our hotel, we booked it through Trips.Is opting for a minibus experience that allows for spontaneous stops.
The tour was everything we could’ve wanted and more. Our guide Helgi was phenomenal. As an Iceland native, he knew the history and mixed it with witty humor throughout. We made 5 additional stops at another tectonic plate, a geothermal plant (where the cook bread underground), to feed horses and more. We ended up bonding with the motley crew on our bus and genuinely learned so much and felt like we were never rushed at any of the locations. It was a fantastic way to explore the most beautiful parts of the country.
Walking Tour (City Walk):
On our last day, we decided to do a free walking tour of the city, (although that totally seems wildly out of order). Someone on our trip the day before recommended City Walk‘s tour and it met right outside our hotel. We arrived promptly to learn you needed to register in advance. The guide, Eric, squeezed us in and off we went. It was interesting, he had a great sense of humor, but we having explored for a few days at that point, we didn’t feel like we really experienced anything quite new. The best part of the tour was learning that you could take the elevator to the top of the city’s main church, Hallgrimskirkja (say that 10x fast), which has spectacular views of the city.
This fantastic, boutique hotel is located in the heart of downtown on the same square as the Parliament. The staff is so friendly and the rooms are wonderful, where you just melt into your bed at the end of the night. Due to the insanely low cost of energy in the city (thank you geothermal plants), it’s incredibly reasonably priced.
Pósthússtræti – Official Website