For many travellers, Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik is a springboard to seeing the rest of the land of fire and ice.
It’s common to tick off seeing Hallgrimskirkja – the Lutheran parish church visible from everywhere in Reykjavik – the Viking Saga Museum and many of the city’s inviting cafes. But having spent two weeks exploring the city’s dining scene, I discovered that the world’s most northerly capital offers some exceptional eats and exciting nightlife – both of which offer a brilliant mix of traditional and cosmopolitan.
Here’s a guide to the best food and drink in Reykjavik.
Reykjavik’s food scene: Where to eat
As a port town that’s on an island, Reykjavik has quite the focus on seafood. That means you’ll be urged to try rotten fermented shark called Hákarl, Iceland’s national dish, but rest assured there’s a lot more than that. There’s diversity of flavour, cheap eats, fine dining and heaps of atmosphere to accompany it all. Here are five must-visit restaurants:
Þingholtsstræti 5, 101 Reykjavík
Sushi social offers a mix of Japanese and South American cuisine that uses Icelandic ingredients, notably, its fresh seafood. There are several set menus to choose from, or you can order individual items. Highly recommended is the Icelandic roll—Gravlax (raw salmon cured in salt and sugar) with Brennivín and dill, teemed with avocado, mango, cucumber, dill mayo and rye bread crumble.
Though delicious, it doesn’t come cheap, and you won’t get a sushi roll for any less than 2890 Icelandic Krona (ISK).
Tryggvagata 1, 101 Reykjavík
For a truly Icelandic experience and fabulous cheap eat look no further than this humble hot dog and fast food stand. Translating to “best hot dogs in town,” it’s a tempting invitation. The hot dogs are mostly made with lamb, and it’s essential to try one with all the toppings, including raw onions, fried onions, tomato sauce, sweet brown mustard, and remoulade – a mayonnaise-based sauce with capers, mustard, gherkins and herbs.
Take cash (500 ISK will do it) and expect a line at the stand that boasts previous customers such as Bill Clinton.
Skúlagata 28, 101 Reykjavík
Kex Hostel offers a range of bar food and share dishes at affordable prices. It’s a lovely fusion of traditional and modern cuisine, ranging from salted codfish to baked goat’s cheese on grilled brioche with sweet figs.
Dishes range from 550 to 3850 ISK, but sharing is easy and a better way to try more of the menu. Kex Hostel also insist you try the sides and sauces, and with good reason – the Sæmichips with cumin mayo are sensational.
Hverfisgata 76, 101 Reykjavík
Calling all vegetarians and vegans; this is your haven in Reykjavik. There’s a rotating and diverse menu that features burgers, soups, noodle dishes and best of all, a layered and warming vegan lasagne. They also have an excellent collection of vinyl and games. Here, the vibe is excellent, and you could find yourself at Hverfisgata for many more hours than you intended.
Geirsgata 4a, 101 Reykjavík
This shop has all the classics: fish and chips, mussels and fries, and plokkari, Iceland’s famed mashed fish. They also serve a range of local and imported beers. The restaurant is cosy inside, looking out onto docked fishing boats, a fitting and authentic view for munching on what has been hauled out that day. It’s also a perfect location for taking shelter from inclement weather or falling snow, and the best place to witness it all from.
Reykjavik’s nightlife: Where to drink
Because Reykjavik is small, late-night venues are only a short distance from each other and there’s rarely any waiting or queueing time. You’ll never get lost and perhaps best of all, there are always generous happy hours. Be sure to download the Appy Hour app (on Apple and Android) to familiarise yourself with every happy hour across the city.
Once you’ve done that, here are five of my favourite bars – all of which are worth checking out:
Laugavegur 20b, 101 Reykjavík
If the name didn’t give it away, this downtown bar is an homage to the 1998 Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski. There’s a bowling-themed burger joint, a restaurant, bar and a range of White Russians to go around, starting at 1700 ISK. It’s garish, but not without charm and warmth. Always abuzz with people and music, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Klapparstígur 38, 101 Reykjavík
The pineapple bar is a fitting name for the drinking spot adorned with tiki paraphernalia, flamingos, electric colours and, unsurprisingly, fruit. The bar is cosy and there are often music gigs packed into the ground level room. It’s a venue that has the special ability to feel like somewhere much sunnier than Iceland – always a bonus!
Eyjarslóð 5, 101 Reykjavík
If the range of craft beers at this portside brewery didn’t lure you in, the amazing décor should. A huge map of Iceland is drawn out in gold on an aquamarine wall, catching your eye no matter where you are in the bar. There’s a neat collection of neon lights and often sport or music on in the massive venue for punters to enjoy.
While this part of Reykjavik is more spread out then the densely populated Laugavegur, keep an eye out for the giant Viking on the wall and you’ll find Ægisgarður with ease. Take a tour of the brewery and try beers unique to Reykjavik for 3900 ISK.
Laugavegur 22, 101 Reykjavík
Bravó is one of the city’s most popular bars, likely because there’s something for everyone. There are comfortable seats and tables, ambient music, local beers and the longest happy hour in the city, where beers are fixed at 600 ISK for nine glorious hours. It’s hard to argue with that.
Bankastræti 7, 101 Reykjavík
Climb the four flights of stairs or cruise up the elevator to this smart rooftop bar. It services the hostel but is commonly frequented by tourists and locals, and as such there’s always a sense of community there. There are tables and chairs, or couches and floor space for whatever mood you’re in. Leaf through the plethora of books on offer as you enjoy a wine, beer or even a late night (and most sensational) hot chocolate.
Ready to explore Iceland’s foodie and nature delights? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures there.
(Image credits from top to bottom: iStock/sumos, iStock/JasonDoiy, Intrepid Travel x2.)