Sunday, December 13, 2015

Reykjavík recs

I recently took a December vacation to Reykjavík, Iceland with my boyfriend, Tim, and we had a fantastic time (see more photos here). We aren't really the tourist attraction types - my travel philosophy is basically "do what I would do if I lived here and it was the weekend". This meant we had plenty of time to explore downtown Reykjavik and try tons of food, coffee, and beer! Here's a giant compilation of links and recommendations based on our research and experiences. I definitely recommend a visit, and I hope this is helpful!

Coffee & breakfast

Reykjavík Roasters. Pretty sure this is objectively the best coffee in Reykjavik. We have high coffee standards (thanks SF) so it was nice to have some really good espresso drinks and pourover here, in a really cozy atmosphere. I recommend a cappuccino or latte so you can appreciate how amazing the milk tastes in Iceland compared to America.

Stofan Café. Closer to where we stayed, and incredibly cozy as well. It feels kind of like someone's (giant) living room! They have food, too, which we never ended up trying, but we had plenty of coffee drinks. It was a wonderful place to warm up on the walk between our apartment and the main part of downtown.

Sandholt Bakery. Amazing pastries. We got these to go more times than I care to admit, and we also sat down for breakfast twice, although I'm not sure if you can get pastries to eat in - the menu seems to be totally different than it is for take out. I'd recommend stopping in for a custard-filled pastry and eating it as you window shop at all of the adorable little stores nearby.

The Laundromat Cafe. A great place for a more substantial breakfast/brunch. They have a few homemade juices, which are a bit pricey but taste incredibly fresh and almost smoothie-like. We tried pancakes and a smoked trout bagel, as well as coffee drinks, and everything was really solid.

Lunch & dinner

KEX Hostel. There is a bar/restaurant in this hostel and it was one of the best meals we had! We went late-ish (8pm) on a Thursday night and it was very bustling, but we managed to get seats at the bar. We both got great fish dishes and Icelandic beers, and the warm, lively atmosphere (despite a blizzard outside) made it a really comforting night.

Fish Company. Our fancy date night dinner! Make a reservation (we did it online the day of and had some back and forth via email to nail down a time). They specialize in fish, with various countries represented, including many "Iceland"-inspired dishes. There is a bit of molecular gastronomy at play, and it's clear that they put a lot of thought and creativity and thought into the food. It was a great meal, but the definite standout was the dessert. So glad we each got our own, as they were very different and both amazing! This is definitely the priciest place we went to (~$150 USD for two), but great for a special night out.

The pizza place with no name. This is in the same building as Mikkeller Bar (below). The menu is super interesting, and the food was good but I wasn't blown away - maybe because we're spoiled by such great pizza at home? We got a strange but good appetizer of gingerbread with mulled wine jelly and blue cheese (!) and the bbq pork pizza. All tasty, but I think we messed up by leaning a little too heavy on the sweet side of the menu, and the pizza wasn't as substantial (read: protein-packed) as I had hoped. I'd totally give it another shot if I had more time. (Side note: we're like 90% sure Mastodon was at the only other occupied table in the restaurant when we ate here.)

Snaps. This got rave reviews from the Reykjavik Grapevine and from locals we talked to. It's a bit on the nicer side and is apparently packed at night. We went for lunch right at opening one day, and the menu seemed a bit sparse, but the food was really solid. Steaming fresh-baked bread came out first (yum), then Tim's chicken caesar salad and my fish of the day dish. Despite feeling a bit confused by the selection (there was way more listed online than in the restaurant - unsure if this was an early lunch thing?), everything we ate was just really nicely done all around.

Hamborgarbúllan (aka Burger Joint). A nice casual dinner for our first night in town. The burgers are a little more substantial than a fast food chain without being gourmet. The restaurant itself is small and laid back and was very festively decorated for Christmas. The burgers and fries weren't necessarily something we can't get at home but were nice after a long day of travel and jet lag and would be a good break in a week of fancier sit down dinners.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Hotdogs will never be my favorite food, but as they go this one was alright! It was a quick (but very light) lunch and I get the impression it's a bit of a "must try" - so why not!


Mikkeller & Friends. We already know and love Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco, so we knew we wanted to come here. Go up the stairs from the pizza place, and you're in Mikkeller & Friends! There's a fantastic selection of beers, with a bunch from Denmark, particularly Mikkeller and To Øl. It was really packed on Thursday night, complete with middle aged Icelandic men singing, but totally dead on Sunday evening around 7, so time your visit based on what vibe you're into.

MicroBar. A great little basement bar with lots of beers we don't see at home, including many from Iceland. We visited this on our first night, when we were incredibly jet lagged and exhausted, and I wish we'd come here in a better state! They offer flights of 5 or 10 beers (with very heavy pours!) so it's a great chance to try something new (or several).

Skúli Craft Bar. We went here twice. It reminds me of some of the fancy beer bars back in SF, but way less crowded and featuring lots of Icelandic (and other European) beers. There is a little side room that we got to ourselves on both visits, so it was a great place to sip a brown ale and talk about our trip so far.


Hallgrímskirkja Church. A very tall, iconic church at the edge of the main downtown area (and near Reykjavik Roasters!). For about $6 USD you can buy a ticket to the top and look down over the city. Definitely recommend!

Blue Lagoon. This seems to be the thing to do if you only do one tourist attraction (or at least... that was how we did things). It's definitely full of tourists, but the natural thermal pool is still really amazing and a fun way to spend a morning. An hour and a half was plenty for us, but definitely worth the visit. Buy tickets ahead, plan to drive or book a bus (it's about 45 minutes from Reykjavik), and go early (we went at 10 and it was great, but it started getting pretty busy by 11!). Lots of people recommended booking this right next to our flight in or out, since it's close to the airport, but I'm glad we broke up our week in town with this in the middle.

Our adorable penthouse airbnb. Melkorka's apartment is one of those picture-perfect airbnbs that make me dream of decorating my own home to be half as lovely (and is just as beautiful in person). This is her actual apartment, not a landlord with a full-time airbnb rental, and I felt so at home all week. She was really helpful with recommendations and answering questions, and she met up with me one day when I locked my key in the apartment (doh!). All in all, a fantastic place to stay, in a residential area but definitely walking distance to the shops and restaurants downtown.

Tips & things we learned

  • Buy snow boots. I got a nice sturdy pair and I'm so glad I did. Walking through the city, I stepped in snow up to the top of these boots more times than I can count, and my feet were always perfectly toasty even with regular-weight socks on.
  • All other winter gear can be fudged a bit - I wore yoga pants and leggings every day (these are my fav). I got a medium-weight parka, which worked just as well for Iceland as it did for rainy Portland in October. I layered those with some long sleeve tops, and a scarf, gloves, and hand-knit wool hat I already had (all too warm for daily wear in SF, but nothing really intense). I was set for the snow, rain, wind, and chilly temps, which never dipped below 20°F and were often above freezing -- no worse than the eastern US.
  • We rented a car and I'm glad we did, but I wouldn't recommend it if you've never driven in snow. Parking was the worst part - it was easy to get our sedan's tires stuck spinning in the snow. But we appreciated the freedom and not having to crowd onto a tour bus with tons of strangers. If we hadn't gone during one of the worst weather weeks ever (blizzards and hurricanes, oh my!), I think we may have used it to explore outside of town more.
  • Find a grocery store and get some skyr and muesli for breakfasts! It was a nice change from all the heavy food we ate at restaurants, and damn the yogurt is good. And if you have a kitchen where you're staying, buy some whole milk -- the milk in Iceland is so much tastier than in the US! -- and cook the muesli up like oatmeal.
  • I personally love gloom, cold, and snow - I swear I have RSAD. This trip was delightful and slightly made up for all of the year-round heat and sunshine I deal with in California. Tim is less of a winter enthusiast but still enjoyed the change of climate for a week. In early December, the sun rose between 10 and 11, stayed low (often covered by clouds) for most of the day, and slowly set from 3:30 to 5. The pitch black hours weren't significantly different from home (California), but there was way more dusk and overall gloom. It may be rough for someone with winter SAD.

Stuff we didn't do

Tim and I are very chill travelers - we don't like a lot of pre-booked plans, crowds of tourists, or going on guided tours. This means we missed out on some beautiful and interesting sites and spent most of our time eating, drinking, and relaxing in town. The internet is chock full of tours and adventures you can book (and I've heard mixed reviews on them from people who have done them). Here are a just a few things I had wanted to do, if weather and planning had cooperated:
  • Glacier cave tour. These looked super cool and I was really hoping to do one. Unfortunately, the options seemed to be a 36-hour guided tour with tons of activities and other visitors, or we would need to drive round trip in a day (about 4 hours in each direction), mostly in the dark. Combine that with needing to book ahead, with no idea of what the weather would be like, we skipped this one. Maybe on a future visit I'll give in and do the big tour!
  • Drive the golden circle. We were hoping to do this one day but the weather never really settled enough for us to feel safe driving out of the city. I'm not horribly sad, but it could have been a fun day trip.
  • See the northern lights. A lifelong dream of mine, but unfortunately it just didn't happen. A combination of cloud cover, auroral activity, and darkness all have to work out at once, and the inclement weather (and tons of clouds) meant it just didn't work. I'm hoping to come back someday and give it another shot! (If you want to try - track cloud cover here and the aurora here.)


Some other sites and posts that helped me find all of these great places (for once I didn't use Yelp at all!!)
  • Almost all of the recs we got from friends and google searches also ended up being on this 2015 Grapevine "Best of Reykjavik" list. This seems to be the source of truth for everything great in Reykjavik - the tab was open (and referenced often) during our trip, and this post is mostly duplicates from there.
  • Elsie and Emma from A Beautiful Mess went in September (and may have been the ones that actually planted the idea for me!) - they had a few recs in this blog post.
  • My internet friend Marssy visits Iceland often and left a great comment with food recommendations here
  • The I Heart Reykjavik blog was really helpful when I was figuring out what to do / how to prepare for our trip.

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