The world’s northernmost capital conjures illusions of hardy vikings conquering a cold and blustery landscape hundreds of years ago, taming its wild plains and making it habitable. Reykjavik started becoming a capital of some importance in the 1700s, and entered contemporary cultural consciousness after the devastating financial crash of 2008.
Whatever the reasons for it, Iceland’s popularity as a tourist destination has risen dramatically in the past two decades, putting Reykjavik on the maps of all globe trotters. Whether you’re here for a night before taking off to drive the Ring Road or are spending more time here, making short day trips out to see the country’s natural attractions in its south, Reykjavik has lots to offer.
Its downtown heart has got a lovely small town vibe. It’s vibrant, full of great little art shops, cafés, bars and cultural attractions. Prices in this city are high, but the standards in most places exceed expectations, so you really can’t complain. Also, unlike many other metropolises, everyone here gets paid a living wage, which sits well with my conscience.
One of Reykjavik’s newest buildings, Harpa was completed after the financial crash of 2008, with much difficulty. It’s now one of the world’s most iconic and architecturally significant buildings. I’m not sure why – although it’s cool, and I like the concept of the facade resembling somewhat the basalt columns you see everywhere in Iceland. It also has an excellent bar with homemade schnapps made by the chef, with liquor he gets from ‘a guy’ out in the countryside. It’s the real thing, trust me.
Similar to the shows put on by the Reduced Shakespere Company, Icelandic Sagas (which plays in Harpa) attempts to condense the entire Icelandic Sagas into a 75 minute show, and succeeds quite well. I hadn’t planned to read the Icelandic Sagas, but if I had, this would have saved me a lot of time. The performance was colourful, the jokes clever and bawdy and the actors were fun and charismatic. I was fully engaged the entire time.
Highly recommended is Ostabúðin, a restaurant that’s attached to a deli and is known for its lunches. We didn’t make it to Reykjavik in time for lunch, but I can tell you that dinner here was also fantastic. I had the Artic char, which is a type of fish similar to salmon – it was perfectly done. Sous vide to the perfect temperature, it’s skin seared at the end to attain the perfect level of crisp. Portions are decent sized and service is quick.
A contemporary restaurant known for its fish pans, Messinn really knows how to serve up seafood. The vibe is rustic and casual, the food delicious and the portions generous. They have a decent selection of meals on their menu, but the fish pan is the thing you want. They do a few different types of fish (artic char, which is like salmon, but less fatty and sweeter, cod, salmon, wolffish and plaice) served up with different sauces. I tried all the dishes and I can say the artic char wins hands down with its honey and almonds butter sauce.
There’s a famous kiosk with a long queue in front of it at any time of the day, but we couldn’t be bothered to wait and so went to this stand right beside the “Husband Day Care” bar on the main thoroughfare. It was tasty and really good, we actually revisited it several times. I can’t think the other place could do it better, but if you try both and think otherwise, leave a comment.
The best place for breakfast/brunch in Iceland. The baked goods here are in a class of their own. The breads, pastry and cakes on offer are a sweet, delightful mix of Scandinavian and Viennese, and they have excellent sourdough bread. Also, the Skyr with homemade muesli is the perfect start to any day. I recommend you make a reservation if you want a table for breakfast.
Whale and Puffin Meat in Iceland
We went to another restaurant, the Grill Market. I’m not going to do a proper review here because it serves whale meat. Let’s just say it was late and we were out of options, and didn’t know they served whale until we’d ordered our drinks. We did not eat any whale or puffin meat. Lots of restaurants in Reykjavik offer whale meat – it’s best to avoid them. The locals don’t eat whale and neither should anyone else.
Whale meat aside, Reykjavik, although a small city relative to many other world capitals, can really hold its own when it comes to food and fun. I suppose that’s the key, considering how long winters can get here, when you might end up spending days being snowed in. Rain, shine, snow or hail, it’s a charming, cosy place with lots to do all year round.
Most of the photos here are courtesy of one of our best friends and a travel buddy who is known by many names, depending on which country he’s in and how the natives pronounce his name. We know him as Phil but sometimes he is also Mr. Pirrip, Expat at Large or E@L.