When I imagined Iceland, my mind was filled with glorious images of thundering waterfalls, green mountains, and blue glaciers. In short, nature.
Not cities. Nothing urban.
To be perfectly honest, when I started planning my adventures around Iceland a year ago, I had zero interest in spending time in Reykjavik, the capital. I was so wrapped up in my visions of the epic scenery, I almost neglected Reykjavik. Almost.
Images via Tiny Iceland
And man, I am so glad I did! While I might not be a city traveler at heart, Reykjavik is both small enough and quirky enough to make me fall in love with it almost as soon as I stepped foot there.
And did I mention it’s colorful? Like a rainbow!
Iceland is also rated one of the happiest countries in the world, if you can believe it! There is evidence of this everywhere you turn in Reykjavik.
A city with a strongly independent vibe, Reykjavik doesn’t even feel like a big city, let alone the northernmost capital in the world. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains and the sea, it couldn’t be more picturesque, but what really makes Reykjavik tick and makes it so special are the people.
The locals are as fascinating as the town itself. But what can you expect from a country with the most creative people per capital in the entire world? Guaranteed anyone you might meet is a closet musician, writer or artist, giving Reykjavik another layer of complexity.
So with 24 hours in Reykjavik, I have haphazardly compiled a list of my favorite haunts and locals around town. Be prepared for a color explosion. You’ve been warned.
Image via Tiny Iceland
1. Taking in the cool cafe culture at the Laundromat Cafe
I quite possibly am the biggest coffee addict in the entire world.
And if my love for the bean is matched by one thing, that would be the cafe culture that goes along with it. I love hanging out in cafes, reading, writing, catching up with friends, and most importantly, people watching.
With my fingers wrapped around a steaming latte, I couldn’t be happier. I think because of this I am inherently drawn to destinations with banging coffee and cozy cafes, both of which Reykjavik has in abundance. Thank god.
Packed with cozy, quirky independent coffeehouses and cafes, I was in heaven! This was one way to make me fall in love a city, that’s for damn sure!
And if there was one place I was dying to check out in Reykjavik, it was the Laundromat Cafe. An actual laundromat downstairs, it has an awesome bookish, hipster cafe upstairs where you can hang out while your undies dry below.
What a fab idea – why hasn’t anyone thought of this sooner?
As I was walking by, I noticed a sign outside that read, “go ahead and breastfeed, we like both babies and boobs!” Sold even more! As it turns out, before the cafe owner was an owner, he was a cafe and overheard one of the staff ask a woman to stop breastfeeding in public. He then decided that one day when he owned a cafe, it would be the kind of place where people didn’t say nonsense like that.
Looks like dreams do come true buddy!
2. Get lost while exploring the street art
Being home to one of the most creative and artistic countries in the world, it’s no surprise that Reykjavik has a thriving street art scene.
And none of those ugly complicated gang tags that litter walls back home. Here they are more murals than graffiti, and it feels almost as if every image tells a story. Some of them even tell a story, not that I understand it exactly as it’s in Icelandic.
My last day in Iceland was beautiful weather, with clear blue skies and not a cloud in sight. I was happy to get lost following the street art while walking around downtown Reykjavik. Is there a better way to get to know city than to wander and get lost?
Don’t think so.
3. Try to keep up with the locals at hip bars like Den Danske Kro and the Lebowski Bar
There is no shortage of awesome hip bars to be found around Iceland. And to be honest, a trip to Iceland would be incomplete without experiencing some of the, how do I put this delicately, EPIC drinking culture.
Icelanders today both CAN and WILL drink you under the table. There is no point even trying to match these tough vikings, but do try to keep up.
It reminds me of a quote in Eric Weiner’s great book The Geography of Bliss when he’s talking about happiness in Iceland.
Faced with a brutal climate and utter isolation, Icelanders could have easily chosen despair and drunkenness. The Russian option. But instead these hardy sons and daughters of vikings peered into the unyielding blackness of the noon sky and chose another option: happiness and drunkenness. It is, I think, the wiser option. Besides, what else is there to do in the dark?
Don’t we all love happy drunks?
Reykjavik has plenty of cool spots to chose from, and in summertime with the midnight sun and with some good weather, it’s a fun and fabulous way to pass the evening hanging outside and catching up with friends.
Our first stop of the evening was Den Danske Kro, a Danish bar right downtown. With plenty of outdoor seating and classic live music, it was the perfect place to catch up with old friends.
Did you know beer was banned in Iceland until the 80’s? Perhaps that’s why there is such a hefty drinking culture. Who knows. Luckily nowadays there are some great and rare beers to be had around Reykjavik.
And of course any trip to Iceland would be incomplete with sampling the famous Brennivin aka the Black Death, dun dun dun.
One sip of this will knock you on your ass. In fact, this is where my memories of that evening start to get fuzzy…ok, not fuzzy, rather disappear. Ouch.
Image via Tiny Iceland
And as if Reykjavik wasn’t cool enough, there is also a Big Lebowski themed bar in town – the Lebowski Bar. With 16 types of White Russians available to chose from and even a bowling alley, this is the place to be in Iceland’s capital.
You don’t even have to be a fan of the iconic Coen Brothers film to enjoy this funky and wild space.
There are so many ways to get to know a city, and in Reykjavik, one of the best ways is to enjoy all the great bars.
Image via Tiny Iceland
4. Resting and recovering at Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura
Can you describe a hotel as having a personality?
As it turns out, every Icelandair Hotel we stayed in on our epic trip around the country had its own charm and personality, something I wasn’t expecting from a hotel chain. And Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura was no exception.
From the artisan wooden sheep greeting you in the lobby, to the great quotes and quirky Icelandic jokes dotting the property, it’s almost a game trying to find all the hidden charm tucked away around the property.
This was exactly the kind of place I needed after a hectic week of travel around Iceland with the girls. A simple and cozy hotel with plenty of space to roam around in, it was exactly what I was looking for subconsciously to relax and enjoy Reykjavik and unwind.
And like all the other Icelandair Hotels, Rykjavik Natura had the best breakfasts EVER!
Though my favorite breakfast discovery in Iceland by far was Skyr – have you heard of it?
It’s like a thick strained yogurt, and my god is it delicious. Here they served it homemade with fruit toppings and it was so good. I had Skyr about twice a day when traveling in Iceland. And I miss it terribly.
Someone send me some PLEASE!
5. Stuff your stomachs at some of the great foodie spots in town like Vegamót and Bæjarins beztu pylsur
At this point should you even be surprised that Iceland has a budding foodie scene?
For our final night in Iceland, we decided to go out with a bang in Reykjavik and have a big friend’s dinner at Vegamót, a super popular dining spot downtown that’s a cafe, restaurant and even a bar.
With a superb menu with stick-to-your-ribs comfort food including fusion Mexican (YUM) it was EXACTLY what I needed after a week of road trip food, i.e. chips, hot dogs, ice-cream and Skyr. Not exactly good for the system. I wanted something filling and hot!
We ordered just about everything on the menu and passed it around and shared amongst friends, laughing and telling stories about our recent adventures.
Though of course I couldn’t leave Reykjavik without sampling “the most famous hot dog in Europe,” right? Priorities people!
I’ve touched on this before, but for some reason Icelanders LOVE hot dogs. No idea why. If anyone can elaborate on this phenomenon, I’d love to hear it!
At Bæjarins beztu pylsur in Reykjavik, there is almost always a long line to get your mitts on one of their famous fully-loaded hot dogs. Forget boring ketchup and mustard, here they have sweet mustard, friend onions and a weird sauce called remoulade. Yum yum. Who knew I’d ever like hot dogs?
In the end I was really happy I decided to spend some time in Reykjavik. It was the introduction I needed to get to know the city a little bit, and see what made it tick. I think I would have regretted not stopping in town on my trip there.
It was also a great experience for me to reaffirm my love for quirky cities. Lately I had been on a kick where I hated urban traveling. I just realized I was going to the wrong cities, if that makes any sense…
I guess my only question now is when can I come back?
Have you been to Iceland? Is it on your bucketlist? Are you a cafe fan? Hot dog aficionado? Are you a city traveler?