From massive waterfalls to hidden hot springs and miniature horses, it’s likely that your Instagram feed has seen its fair share of photos of Iceland. Yet while these escapist rural fantasies may be the country’s pull to adventurous travelers, you would be remiss to visit Iceland and not see the capital city of Reykjavik.
The first thing you’ll notice when arriving in the Keflavik airport, 45 minutes from the city center, is the salty smell of the sea. The drive to downtown is a perfect introduction to the many kinds of landscapes Iceland has to offer as you catch a glimpse of the blue-grey tones of the harbor in the distance. Despite being home to more than 50% of the island’s population, Reykjavik is relatively small and very easy to navigate, and the real pleasure is in aimlessly wandering and discovering. Here are some ideas to give you a jump-start on exploring.
SIGHTS TO VISIT
A trip to Reykjavik wouldn’t be complete without a visit to this unique church, and it’s a great place to start your tour of the city. At 244 feet, Hallgrímskirkja is the tallest chapel in Iceland and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. For a small fee, the elevator will bring you into the building’s prominent steeple, where gusts of open air whip in and out, and a 360 degree view of the beautiful harbor comes into focus as well as the city’s colorful rooftops.
Out front, a statue of explorer Leif Erikson stands guard, a gift from the U.S. to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Iceland’s parliament. Another noteworthy feature is the iconic exterior of the church, inspired by the basalt columns formed by cooling lava, which can be seen throughout Iceland’s landscape.
Harpa Concert Hall
Walking by the blustery harbor, it’s hard not to notice this beautiful structure, completed in 2011 and featuring colorful geometric glass panels. While the building is used primarily as a concert hall for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, it is a breathtaking space to simply walk through and enjoy. What’s more, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more magnificent view of the looming Mt. Esla.
COFFEE TO DRINK
The coffee at Reykjavik Roasters is arguably the best in town. Catch it at just the right moment, and you’ll even be able to watch the roasters in action. The Swiss Mocha is a must—not too sweet, with a thick dollop of homemade whipped cream on top. Even sweeter is the shop’s expertly curated, cozy feel. Icelanders are masters at staving off the often-unpredictable weather, so you won’t find many laptops here, just quiet conversation and a record player to set the mood.
You won’t find many tourists at this rustic café, as it’s west of the bustling downtown area. It’s well worth the detour and just a 10 minute drive or 30 minute walk from the city center. We stopped in for a light breakfast and coffee, but lunch and dinner are served as well. It’s an inviting space—full of natural light and wood accents—created by the same interior designer as the famous Kex Hostel.
FOOD TO EAT
The Kex (meaning “biscuit” in Icelandic) is located in a former biscuit factory on the harbor and offers affordable rooms, a quirky atmosphere and a gastropub, Sæmundur. While we chose to stay in an Airbnb just outside the city center, we stopped in twice. The Kex’s all-you-can-eat brunch serves up great food (freshly-baked bread, porridge, meats and cheeses) and coffee at a fair price (1,450 kr). In the evening, we enjoyed sampling Icelandic beers and the sounds of local musicians.
This simple, beautiful cafe offers an affordable and filling breakfast: homemade, crusty bread, hummus, vegetables, eggs, bacon, yogurt and strong coffee. Owner and head chef, Þórir Bergsson, opts for a menu of healthy food with fresh ingredients—often direct from the farm—and it shows. You can also visit for lunch and dinner, and the menu changes frequently and seasonally.
Said to be the best bakery in Reykjavik, this spot serves rustic breads, delicate pastries and filling sandwiches. Preparing for our drive along the Ring Road, we picked up their seed-topped pumpkin bread and a few of their homemade soft pretzels.
Matur og Drykker
Easily our favorite meal in Reykjavik, Matur og Drykker (or “food and drink” in Icelandic) celebrates traditional Icelandic ingredients with a modern twist. Cured arctic char, salted cod croquettes, the most incredible caraway bread and Icelandic doughnuts were just a sample of the dishes on the night we visited. Moreover, we were impressed by the warm hospitality and loved chatting with the friendly chef, who personally served some of our courses. The brunch offered on Sundays features a gorgeous spread of different sweet and savory options. Reservations recommended.
Sægreifinn (Sea Baron)
The famed Icelandic lobster soup can be found exactly where you’d expect in this quaint little shack near the harbor. It’s a filling and affordable meal perfect for a cold, windy day, especially when paired with an ice-cold local Gull beer. Served simply with white bread and butter, it hits the spot in more ways than one.
Hverfisgata 12: Pizza With No Name / Mikkeller & Friends
Local craft beers, thin crust sourdough pizzas and cocktails in a low-lit space make this nameless spot a romantic, relaxing escape from the cold. Despite its speakeasy vibe, it’s not too difficult to find—just head upstairs from the famous DILL restaurant. Then kick back, relax and grab a glass of Mikkeller & Friends’ delicious Danish craft beer on the top floor before sampling the pizzas below.
BEFORE YOU GO
Búrið Cheese Shop
Located in Reykjavik’s old harbor area, about a 15-minute walk from the city center, this specialty shop offers an international selection of cured meats and cheeses. A delightful gourmet shop, it’s the perfect place to stock up on local delicacies and gifts for friends including Icelandic sea salt, chocolates and jams.
A quaint organic grocery just outside of the downtown area of Reykjavik, this was our favorite place to stock up on items for our road trip to the southern coast. Look for unique pantry items like salts, honey and bread, as well as produce and meat from local farms.