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I knew I had to write a Reykjavik City Guide after our amazing trip there. Reykjavik is one of my favorite cities; I had never felt so connected to my Scandinavian roots before. For those of you that don’t know, my last name is Foss, which means “waterfall” in Norwegian. The Icelandic and Norwegian languages have similar roots, therefore all of the waterfalls in Iceland are called something-foss, e.g. Gullfoss, Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, etc. So when we arrived in Iceland, I felt oddly at home.
With a population of only 120,000 people, Reykjavik feels exactly like you may have imagined — like a quaint Nordic fishing village. The smell of salt air surrounds the city.
We learned that Iceland’s unique naming culture makes it difficult to determine who is actually related to whom. Iceland doesn’t pass down patronymic surnames each generation as is traditionally done in Western cultures. Names are typically passed down by using the father’s first name (and occasionally the mother’s) and then adding “dottir” or “son” if you are the daughter or son.
Let’s take Iceland’s most famous export, Björk, for example. She was born Björk Gudmundsdottir. Her mother was named Gudmund and therefore Björk is “Gudmund’s daughter.” Furthermore, names have to be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee — there’s only a handful of first names to choose from. You can see where this gets confusing, right? Dating is a challenge in Iceland because it isn’t immediately clear who you are related to! Thankfully an entrepreneurial-minded Icelander solved that problem by developing an app that includes the entire country’s genealogy to make sure people don’t date their cousins. Thank Odinn.
One of the things I love about Iceland is its quirkiness. More than half of the population believes in elves. Icelanders refer to them as Hudulfolk, or the “Hidden People.” After visiting Iceland, it’s not hard to imagine why — it feels otherworldly. We were told by a discerning individual to not disturb the elves while we were visiting Iceland or else “something bad would happen.” Sage advice.
My favorite excerpt while researching Icelandic culture for this post came from The Atlantic:
“Perhaps the darkest threads in the 19th century folklore involve elves kidnapping people and holding them hostage in the mountains, or replacing babies or small toddlers with a “changeling,” or an “elf that looks like a baby but isn’t,” according to Simpson. These acts are completely spontaneous and malicious. “There you are you see a happy young mother, got your nice baby, and then mysteriously,” she says, “it stops growing or it becomes very fretful and ill-tempered. And then you realize, ‘Oh heavens! The elves have stolen the real baby and left this thing instead.'”
We heard that elves were mischievous, but I didn’t realize how much so. Anyway, Iceland is still completely charming even if there are baby-snatching elves.
Hip coffee shop straight out of Brooklyn. This is the place to go if you want a single origin pour over. Pro Tip: If you order a batch coffee, you get free refills.
Great coffee spot in the very center of town off of Laugavegur Street. Try their waffles!
Kaffitar is a generic coffee shop that’s centrally-located. Many people post up here with laptops, so it gets quite crowded.
Iceland celebrates Beer Day every March 1 — the day parliament ended its 74-year prohibition of beer. Beer was legalized in 1989, and since then, microbreweries have sprung up around the country. I wouldn’t call Iceland an international beer destination, but there are definitely a few good spots to enjoy a tasty beverage.
Iceland employs high taxes on alcohol, so a night out can be expensive. The trick to enjoying Reykjavik’s nightlife without spending a fortune is to take advantage of the various happy hours. This iPhone app lists all of the happy hours around the city; I’ve never used it, but it looks useful.
Cozy bar with exposed brick walls and warm lighting in the center of town. This is one of the few spots to get Kaldi, the popular Icelandic beer, on tap. Great place to hang out with friends before going out.
Excellent spot for craft beer with a large selection from local and international microbreweries. Best to go during happy hour from 5-7pm.
Kaffibarinn is a Reykjavik institution. During the evening, it’s a chilled out bar that sort of feels like your grandma’s house (if Grandma was an alcoholic), but late at night it transforms into a trendy dance club. Go early. There is a line out the door at 1:00 am. The word on the street is that Damon Albarn used to be a part owner.
You don’t need to be a fan of the Big Lebowski to enjoy an evening of dancing to oldies in this retro America-themed bar. Lebowski Bar is FUN. With multiple areas to hang out in, from a classic 50s diner to a back porch to a bowling alley, Lebowski Bar has a place for everyone. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the 23 different types of White Russians on the menu.
Want an American breakfast? Head to Grai Kotturinn to get your pancake and bacon fix.
Casual spot to have lunch, coffee, or evening drinks. You can also do your laundry here — bonus!
This is my pick for both brunch or a cozy, candle-lit dinner. This underground cafe will transport you to a bygone era. Highly recommended for date night.
The best hot dog stand in the world! And I don’t even like hot dogs that much, but this is an Icelandic staple. Apparently Bill Clinton came here during a visit to Reykjavik.
There are countless, affordable options on Airbnb. We found a simple room in a charming apartment off of Laugavegur Street for roughly $50/night. Laugavegur is the main road street in Reykjavik, so when booking, look in this general area. Thankfully, the entirety of Reykjavik is walkable.
A trip to Reykjavik isn’t complete without visiting this iconic church. Visit the top of the belltower for a view of the entire city.
If you’re visiting Hallgrimskirkja, pop into this museum to check out the work of this famous Icelandic sculptor.
Legendary record shop. We found obscure Icelandic artists and bought CDs for our road trip around the Ring Road. The staff frequently offers espresso while customers listen to music.
Golden Circle Day Trip
If you don’t have much time and want to see the surrounding areas, book a day trip to the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle includes the Geysir, the geothermal area with a geyser that shoots water 100 ft into the air; the Gulfoss, the largest waterfall in Iceland; and Thingvellir National Park, the location where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. There are several tour companies offering day tours. Check online or with the tourist agency in downtown Reykjavik to book.
Alternatively, the more cost-effective option to see the Golden Circle is to rent a car. We found a rental for $20-30/day. I recommend renting one as long as driving conditions are good. You definitely do not want to drive through ice and snow, especially if you aren’t used to it. We enjoyed having the flexibility, and the drive was gorgeous. We drove past golden fields filled with Icelandic ponies and just had to pull over.
There are many geothermal baths in Iceland, but the most notable is the Blue Lagoon. It’s a quick car ride from central Reykjavik. Be warned that the baths are not cheap. The standard entry price is 40 euros and goes up from there depending on the package you book.
Northern Lights Tour
Tours are available from Reykjavik to see the Northern Lights. The auroras are unpredictable and are only active from late-September until April. When active, they are visible from Reykjavik, but it’s better to leave the city to view them in the pitch black. The city lights affect the visibility. We used this Aurora Tracker to chase the lights.
For a more in-depth review, check out Tyler’s excellent Iceland field report.