City Life: Reykjavík Exploration, Eating and Drinking

To-do list for a curious traveler:

  1. Walk and get your bearings (know where the pond/Tjörnin, harbor, cathedral, and HARPA are in reference to your lodgings)
  2. Visit a geothermal pool and take your time to enjoy and experience it
  3. Explore a few museums (if you love museums, get a City Card!)
  4. Find some affordable food and drink

Eat, drink, and go at least a bit broke

Dining out and buying alcohol will put a huge dent in your travel budget. There’s no way around it. So much needs to be imported, and that cost gets turned around to the consumer.

There are places to eat all over Reykjavík. The highest concentration is in old downtown (between Tjörnin and the harbor). Up front: I am not a huge seafood fan, don’t have food allergies, just am generally not “into food.”

First things first: stay hydrated.

The water in Iceland is fantastic. You can ask for water with any meal, or it will be available self-serve in pitchers at a counter, and tables usually get a carafe. Key tip for staying hydrated and saving a lot of money: bring your own water bottle, fill it in airports and before you leave for the day.

Carb up on arrival!

Arrive in Reykjavík at an annoyingly early hour after your flight? No fear. Get going at one of the amazing bakeries, such as Sandholt (on Laugarvegur, opens at 6:30 or 7am) or Brauð & Co (in a few locations, also opening early). Both are walking distance from BSÍ. HOT TIP: Take the FlyBus from Keflavík, freshen up in the bathroom at BSÍ, and rent a luggage locker (take your bathing suit, towel, and anything else you want for several great hours in the world’s most northern capital). If your hotel/hostel is in the downtown area, many will hold your luggage for you – ask before you leave.

Produce grown in Iceland?!

Thanks to the creative harnessing of geothermal heat, Iceland grows more produce than you think, but it’s still limited when nearly 2 million people visit their sublime island every year. If you’re curious about the greenhouses, there are a few that take visitors in the south, around Hveragerði and Fluðir. A visit to Friðheimar will let you meet the Iceland horse as well as check out the greenhouse and sample from their huge tomato crop, with the opportunity to dine and/or drink their fabulous options right in the greenhouse. If you prefer to go smaller scale, driving to/around Fluðir will give you easy access to a couple farms with produce and baked goods for sale.

Keeping it real.

Due to those high tourist numbers, it can be a little frustrating to find really authentic Icelandic cuisine. Be on the lookout for “meat soup” with delicious bread, as this will be an affordable, traditional offering. The “meat” in said soup is lamb, usually with a variety of simple vegetables and mild seasoning. It’s almost always offered alongside a vegetable-only soup that’s also delicious. The best soup and bread meal I’ve had is a tie between The Settlement Center restaurant in Borgarnes (about 90 minutes north of Reykjavík, a great place to stop if you’re coming or going en route to Akureyri, the West Fjords, or the Snaefellsnes Peninsula) and the rustic Café Bryggjan in Grindavík (on the south side of the Reykjanes peninsula, not far from the international airport and the Blue Lagoon).

Café Bryggjan is typical for small, authentic Icelandic basic place to find nourishment in its structure: they serve two or three soups with bread (usually with a limit of two large bowls), unlimited bread and butter, and coffee or tea as a one-price meal. A few other drinks can be purchased, water is available in pitches self-serve, and a small assortment of delicious cakes (usually a dense carrot cake and one or two other options) rounds out the offerings. If you’re lucky enough to visit Heimaey in the Westmann Islands, Café Varmó is the place to go for this type of meal.

Another classic destination for a unique Icelandic specialty, check out the famous hot dog stand (yes, hot dog stand) in downtown Reykjavík (be prepared to wait in line), Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Located not far from the harbor, between HARPA and the area around the library/photo museum and the Hafnarhus contemporary art museum. Hot dogs are Icelandic fast food, most larger pools will have hot dog (pylsur) and ice cream for sale outside. Bæjarins Beztu, however, offers a wide variety of toppings and condiments, and the dogs themselves are a special blend of lamb, beef, and pork.

It’s across the street from Kolaportið, the “flea market” (term used loosely), usually open weekends 11-5. In the market itself, you can view and purchase fresh seafood and meat fare, get delicious fresh gummy and licorice candy, sample and buy excellent baked goods, and browse a slew of booths selling everything from second hand clothing to old books. Kolaportið tip: get some cash before you go. There are often very long lines at the ATM in the building.

Fish and chips is a classic Icelandic dish, in spite of being shared by and considered part of the culture of Ireland and Great Britain. If you’re a seafood fan, try the Fish/Catch of the Day dish, though this won’t be a budget option but a great splurge. Mussels are also a good choice, if that’s your fancy.

Lamb will be second to fish in seeking a more authentic dish if you’re wading through a long menu. Icelandic sheep are hardy and can survive in remote areas (plus, the bonus of wool), and don’t take as much to feed as cattle and pigs. It’s possible to find Icelandic beef on menus and in the grocery store, or cheaper options from Europe (often Spain). To cater to tourists, chicken is common on menus. Common ethnic cuisine can be easily found, from Indian to Mexican to, of course, American. Pizza and burgers are common. Vegetarian options and interesting salads are thankfully also easy to negotiate.

“Cheap” eats in Reykjavík

By cheap, I mean, you’ll probably need to spend around $18-28 USD for a modest sit-down meal (it’s very easy to spend more). If you are staying in Reykjavík for multiple days and have access to a kitchen of sorts, buying food from supermarkets Bónus or Krónan is one way to explore and save on snacks and breakfast.

If the weather is good, swing by the square at the corner of Hafnarstraeti and Aðalstraeti (called Ingólfur Square, but not signed). There’s a basic hot dog and ice cream stand, along with sub shop Hlöllabátar, which are great ~$10 USD options. There are picnic tables and benches available, often with some young skateboarders learning their craft in the square along with a couple geothermal vents, crafted into a symbolic reminder of the meaning of Reykjavík, Smokey (reyk) Bay (vík), as it appeared to the first settlers.

If you’re a sandwich fan, there’s also Nonnabiti if you follow Hafnarstraeti east just a couple blocks. If you’re a sandwich fan with low standards, grocery stores (Bónus, Krónan, Nettó) and convenience stores (10-11 especially) will have premade grab-n-go cold sandwiches. Large 10-11s may have a made-to-order counter. However, they get very picked over at lunch, so plan ahead! I’ve also enjoyed a picnic sampler from 10-11 with grapes, crackers, cheese, etc.

Reykjavík, meet The Food Court
Map of Grandi Mathöll in Reykjavík
Map of Grandi Mathöll

In the last few years, some more affordable eating solutions have popped up in the form of mathöll (food hall) in Hlemmur (bus station, now revitalized) and along the harbor in the Grandi district. Each have several small but different options. Order at the counter, and eat in the shared seating area. Grandi also has several restaurants in converted fishing-related warehouses, some gourmet, along with what I’m hold is some fantastic fair trade coffee. Food halls are great for groups, as everyone can get what they want but still eat together, besides generally being less expensive and a little quicker than sit-down restaurants. The other bonus is that these places are open until 9, 10, or 11pm. When museums, attractions, and many stores close between 5 and 7, you won’t have to rush to get dinner in.

Plan if you like to drink.

As for alcohol, unless you’re buying at Duty Free or finding a great Happy Hour special, you’ll be paying astronomical taxes when served in establishments (included in listed price, like all other taxes in western Europe). The government runs all of the Vínbúð (wine store, by translation, but also selling beer and spirits), which are the only place to purchase real alcohol and beer to take away (yeah, there’s beer on the shelves in convenience and other store shelves, but it’s such a low percentage that it’s basically malt and hops juice).

Dairy dreams…

Iceland is tough for the seriously lactose intolerant. The ice cream is a part of culture, and delicious. Any ísbuðin (ice cream shop) gives you several options for soft, rich ice cream in cup or cone, with a long list of toppings. Even the butter (smjör) is a step above.

If you like yogurt, you’ve got to try skyr! This Icelandic staple is also used as an ingredient, but is a low fat, high protein option that can be bought on the go from grocery and convenience stores (much cheaper in the former). Plain tastes similar to plain greek yogurt, but is a little milder. There’s a variety of flavors, but added sugar can add up. Vanilla is a great option for a healthier dessert. When I’m in one place for more than a few days in Iceland, I buy a larger container of skyr and work on it at breakfast along with fruit and (I dunno, something else).


Tipping is not generally part of the culture for dining in Iceland. Tip jars and lines on receipts have popped up because of customers from cultures (like the USA) where tipping is expected. This isn’t to say that if you got great service and great food, you shouldn’t drop a couple extra dollars or couple hundred kronúr their way. Dealing with tourists can be hard, give them a treat.

Night Life

I know almost nothing about this, except that there are several “fun” theme bars in Reykjavík for those who are into them. It’s not uncommon to hear a local band, as it seems all Icelandic people are either in a rock band, a choir, or a published author. Especially on weekends, go downtown and just follow the noise, you’ll find the night life in pubs and clubs alike – Reykjavík is known for it.

The bottom line:

Budget carefully for food. Iceland is just an expensive place. If you’re a foodie, budget more. Stop at a grocery store for snacks. Hit up the food halls and sandwich shops, seek out fresh and authentic options. There are some fantastic, high end restaurants in Reykjavík, such as the Michelin-starred Dill, if that’s your thing – splurge! (But, make reservations.)