Get Cultured Reykjavik: The Ultimate Local Guide to Iceland’s Capital

Seasoned writer and avid traveler, Jeanine Barone, spills a slew of secrets in her local travel guide to Reykjavik, Iceland. 

On your first day here, seeing this is a must:

A visit to a city hall sounds like it couldn’t be more of a snore, but not in Reykjavik. But, unlike most city halls that are grand displays of classic architecture, Reykjavik’s City Hall is a minimalist ensemble of glass, steel and concrete with a façade dripping moss. And if the contemporary architecture doesn’t capture your attention, the sight will:  the building appears to float on placid Tjornin pond. You couldn’t ask for a more tranquil venue. After checking out the raised-relief map that puts into perspective the Icelandic landscape, head to the café, order a cappuccino and a pastry and get comfortable near the expansive windows. I never tire looking out at the ducks and the rippling waters.

Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”….

Go to the beach. Whenever I tell my friends back home that I brought along my beach blanket and hung out on a sandy stretch in Reykjavik, they think I must’ve been hallucinating. Sure, Nautholsvik is a man-made beach but it’s worth checking out for the warm, geothermically-heated waters, and the hot tubs set on the shore as well as within this petite half-moon bay. You’ll find a wide cross section of the citizenry bathing here, from parents with toddlers to grandmas.

For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation:

Walking. There’s no better way to get around the petite city center year round. On my wanderings, I’ve always discovered something, whether an art gallery hosting an opening with wine and cheese; a new coffee shop; or a bookstore with avant garde selections down a quiet side street. I would not have found any of these had I hopped on a bus or jumped in a taxi. But my favorite experience is watching the crystals of new fallen snow glisten in the street lamps as I walk through Parliament Square late at night.

I had my best night’s sleep at:

Hotel Reykjavik Centrum. I stay here each and every year because of the relatively economic prices, the spare, contemporary décor, and, most importantly — as the name says — its central location that makes it easy to walk to just about all the signature sights. Yet, curiously, the hotel sits directly above a major archeological site discovered during construction, now a museum given the equally curious name 871 +/- 2, named for Iceland’s approximate settlement date. It’s worth visiting because of the holographic-type images and sounds that’ll transport you back centuries. Also, buy a t-shirt that displays Iceland’s founding date. It’s a real conversation starter.

Another accommodation I recommend is the trendy 101 Hotel that attracts a fashionable crowd. The owner’s private art collection decorates the public spaces.

On the other side of the economic scale, an old biscuit factory has been transformed into cool Kex, a hostel and gastropub with a kitschy décor. Spring for a private room that offers superlative views of the harbor as well as the distant peaks, Esja and Akrafjau, and even Snafellsjokull Glacier.

The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days:

At Dill that’s helmed by chef and owner Gunnar Karl Gislason, a pioneer of the New Nordic Kitchen, the name says it all. Gunnar grows dill and other herbs and produce on the property. The well-crafted offerings focus on a locavore aesthetic that won’t disappoint even critical foodies, like me. The multi-course tasting menu changes weekly. The night I dined I sampled: homemade bread that I slathered with spruce flavored butter; lightly smoked lamb with crème fraiche and horseradish; fennel salad atop cream cheese and pickled angelica; salt cod paired with smoked cheese and a green-tinged herb sorbet; rare beef tenderloin drizzled with Danish cheese sauce; and a bowl of praline and goat milk ice cream served along with crowberries.

Best place to find artisan handicrafts:

Kraum. Set in a house dating from the 18th century, this whitewashed emporium displays elegant and innovative arts and crafts exclusively from Icelandic designers. Among the more unusual but stylish objects are stools made of tufts of lamb’s wool, pendant lights fashioned from dried codfish skin, and knit scarves that are intricately patterned on an Icelandic bread served during Christmas.

Local celebration not to be missed:

Culture Night. If there was any day of the year to see Icelanders at their creative best, this is it. Over the course of some 15 hours on a Saturday in mid-August (this year it’s set for August 18th), stroll the city with the three-page schedule in hand. You’ll find musicians (from violinists to rock bands) playing on street corners, in parking lots or inside shop display windows; museums offering free access to special exhibitions that may include hands-on activities; historic walking tours; open house events where residents will serve you waffles and whipped cream (an Icelandic favorite); flea markets; belly dancing lessons and much, much more. The kick off event – an early morning marathon – even lets kids participate in the 1.1 km or 700 meter run. As someone who’s fairly Type A and craves nonstop activities, I can see myself attending this celebration year after year.

Favorite pastimes:

Lounging in coffee shops and casual cafes, including a new clutch that is family friendly. In this country where socialized medicine is alive and well, it’s not all that surprising to discover cafes dedicated to toddlers and even new moms. A lot of thought went into Iðunnareplið (Apple of Eve) where breast-feeding moms can order fish stew or lasagna without offensive garlic and onions while the little ones can chow down on organic baby food. Dads and people without kids (like myself) come to this colorfully decorated space, too, that has a playroom in the basement and also supplies bottle warmers, high chairs, reading materials, diapers and wholesome food.

At C is for Cookie, a homey café where bookshelves are stacked with titles that include the Lord of the Rings and the Secret Life of Bees, I basked in the sunlight streaming through the broad windows. People sit for hours outside or in the mismatched chairs inside. The cheesecake with chocolate pieces is a Polish recipe from the owner’s family and a must-try dessert.

For a bucolic/green setting I escape here:

I’m not one who hangs out in cemeteries. But Reykjavik’s Holavalla Cemetery, which has been around since the 19th century, might easily be mistaken for a botanical garden. Interestingly, whenever I’ve walked among the lush foliage and ancient trees that tower over ornate headstones, I’ve rarely found any other visitors. It’s a perfect place to de-stress.

Then walk or bicycle to the other side of town where the city’s Botanical Garden is a verdant retreat. In Iceland where most plant life is barely knee high,  you’ll find stands of tall evergreens. I can easily spend the better part of an afternoon here meandering the network of paths. Their eatery, Café Flora that’s snuggled amongst the foliage, is definitely worth checking out for the setting as well as for the menu chock full of ingredients sourced from the garden.

The art/music scene is alive and well here:

Harpa is the city’s new concert hall where the luminous architecture is as captivating as the music. Towering over the city’s old harbor, the façade built of hexagonal glass bricks, twinkles in the ever-changing Nordic light. Once inside this abstract glass and steel edifice, you’re still never far from a connection to nature. (You’ll have vistas of sea, sky and mountains.) Home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Harpa schedules an impressive array of performances, from Jethro Tull to Bjork.

In addition, the three independent venues of the Reykjavik Art Museum are all worth visiting if you crave contemporary works. Aside from numerous temporary exhibits, the Harbor House features the pop oeuvre of Erro. Across town, Kjarvalsstadir showcases the legendary landscape paintings of Johannes Kjgrval. And, finally, the Asmunder Sveinsson Sculpture Museum displays the stone, wood and metal often-abstract works of this pioneering sculpture artist. The building itself is worth exploring: it harkens to the Mideast with its whitewashed dome and pyramidal configuration.

Where the locals get tipsy: Vinbarinn is a relaxed wine bar where, because of its proximity to the Parliament, you’ll likely bump into a politician or two. The well traveled owner, Gunnar Runarsson, stocks vintages that can’t help but satisfy even the most discerning oenophile.

Most ludicrous stereotype about the people here:

The cuisine is all about remnants from the days of the Vikings, such as pickled ram’s balls, boiled sheep’s head and fermented shark meat. Sure, you can find these curiosities in some places, including on the menu at certain restaurants. But Reykjavik has a sophisticated culinary scene where award-winning chefs preside over acclaimed restaurants and many menus focus in on Scandinavian, including Icelandic, sourced ingredients.

If I had only 24 hours to explore Reykjavik I would:

Start your day with breakfast at the Laundromat Café that successfully multitasks as a café, bar, kid’s playroom, and, of course, a laundromat. You’ll rub shoulders with young professionals, artists, parents with toddlers and anyone who needs to wash and dry their clothes. The menu is extensive but I chose between the healthy Clean Breakfast (muesli, fruits, eggs and Greek yogurt) and the fat-laden Dirty Breakfast with bacon, sausage, eggs and fried potatoes plus Greek yogurt. (I had the low-fat option along with a mango smoothie spiked with elderflower and ginger.)

If it’s Saturday morning, walk to the harbor to the bric-a-brac laden flea market where the food court is brimming with Icelandic specialties. Expect to see packs of dried haddock, fresh horsemeat and guillemot, a bird.

A trip to Reykjavik wouldn’t be complete without a walk down the main shopping street, Laugavegur that becomes Bankastraeti, and the adjacent Skolavordustigur. If you’re into good-looking, top functioning outerwear, stop at 66° North and Cintamani, two companies with high-priced jackets, pants and vests that you’ll surely covet.

For an informal lunch, wander back to the waterfront for a tasty bowl of lobster soup at the Sea Baron. Then rent a bicycle at the tourist office on Austurstraeti Street. Pedaling mostly along bicycle paths, you’ll reach Nautholsvik Beach in about 15 minutes. You’ll notice that whenever your path crosses trafficked roads, cars will come to an immediate stop (unlike my experience in my home town, New York City).

Even if you’re not a beach buff, the beach is a peaceful spot to enjoy a glass of sparkling wine or a snack at Café Nautholl. From the patio you can gaze at the placid bay and watch cyclists roll by.

When you’re ready, take the longer coastal bicycle path for a scenic return trip to downtown. You might want to head back to the hotel for a nap but I’d rather hang onto the bicycle and board the ferry downtown for a 10-minute trip to Videy, a postage-stamp size island that harkens to another era. Networked by myriad dirt paths, this isle is ringed by rugged sea cliffs and speckled with different art installations, including Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower and the nine basalt pillars by noted American sculptor, Richard Serra.

After returning your bike on the mainland, head to dinner at the buzz-worthy Grill Market launched last year by top chef Hrefna Rosa Saetran. An ultra high-temperature grill figures prominently in almost all the cuisine, whether it’s wild salmon or minke whale. The décor is all a reflection on nature with details that includes lava rocks, tree branches and a moss-layered wall.

For drinks, rather than heading to one of Reykjavik’s bars that are dripping with chaotic weekend revelers, I prefer the low-key vib at Kex. The bar that serves craft beer attracts locals and visitors alike. I’ve often arrived alone and quickly was able to strike up a conversation.

About Jeanine Barone
Jeanine Barone is a New York City-based travel writer who is always seeking out under-the-radar or undiscovered sights, whether it’s in her own backyard or halfway around the world. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications, including National Geographic Traveler, the Boston Globe and Travel + Leisure. She blogs at JTheTravelAuthority.


Can’t get enough culture? Check out last week’s Get Cultured: St. Louis and be on the lookout for the next installment in the series.


Photo by: by pocius/Flickr

seven mile miracle oahu
The Culture-ist