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Our Favorite Bars and Restaurants in Reykjavík

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We spent a sizable chunk of our 91 Icelandic days inside the drinking and eating establishments of Reykjavík. After another long day of museum-visiting or waterfall-ogling, a big beer and dinner cooked by someone else always sounded like a good idea. Here’s a quick list of our favorite places in the city.

Puffin Breast Smoked
Puffin Breast at Þrir Frakkar
Bars

Throughout our first month in Iceland, we were shocked by the sky-high alcohol prices, and drastically scaled back consumption. Of course, our alcoholic natures eventually reasserted themselves, but not until we had discovered the trick to drinking in Iceland: happy hour, happy hour, happy hour. Almost every bar in Reykjavík has a generous happy hour special, and a fun evening can be had by bouncing from one to the other. The Reykjavík Grapevine even offers an app for it. Here are our three favorite bars, in no particular order.

Den Danske Kro literally means The Danish Inn, but this is a place for Icelanders. We often visited the small bar on Ingólfsstræti and always had a blast. A raucous crowd gathers here to talk, play darts and listen to music. There’s also a large patio out front, but good luck finding a seat during one of Reykjavík’s rare sunny days. [Location]

The Loft is found on the fourth floor of a building on Bankastræti. The terrace offers a great view of the city, and is another popular spot when the sun is shining. Inside, there are comfortable couches and tables which are perfect for working. I spent more than one afternoon here, happily hacking away at my computer and sipping on a giant Gull lager. [Location]

MicroBar is an apt name for this tiny bar tucked into the back of the City Hotel. Beer Heaven would also work. Despite its small size, MicroBar has the best selection of beer in the city, with craft Icelandic brews joining bottles from across Europe. There’s always a different local beer discounted during happy hour and the crowd seems to be an even mix between Icelanders and tourists. [Location]

Honorable mention goes to a few other places we often patronized. Kaldi Bar on Laugavegur is a cozy and intimate little joint, with excruciatingly slow taps and an indie vibe. The Íslenski Barinn (Icelandic Bar) is a cool spot across from the Austurvöllur Park with a lot of outdoor seating and great food. And Lebowski Bar has fully dedicated itself to The Big Lebowski with film paraphernalia and even a full size bowling lane adorning the walls. You read that right: the bowling lane is affixed to the wall.

Restaurants

Eating out in Reykjavík always presented a challenge, as much to our palates as to our pocketbooks. All too often, we ended up at ho-hum places memorable only for their outrageous prices. A bill over $100 at a mediocre pasta joint? Anything is possible in Reykjavík! So it was a treat to find restaurants that offered either great food or reasonable prices… and occasionally even both.

Icelandic Fish & Chips might not have one of the city’s most creative names, but it serves up some of the best food we had in town, at an affordable price. This is a mix-and-match kind of place, where you can choose your type of fish, potatoes and a sauce. The menu includes suggestions for those who don’t feel like winging it, but I have a feeling any combination is equally delicious. [Location]

The Noodle Station serves up probably the best-value meal in Reykjavík. Big steaming bowls of oriental noodle soups, served with chicken, lamb or veggies. Predictably popular with students, this place is about as simple and quick as it gets, but the noodles are incredible. The nearby Núðluskálin, which serves similar dishes, is also worth checking out. [Location]

Þrir Frakkar isn’t exactly cheap, but if you’re going to splash out, you might as well do it right. The name of this Reykjavík institution translates to either “Three Overcoats” or “Three Frenchmen”, and both meanings are played upon in the decor. The restaurant concentrates on Icelandic fare, such as puffin breast, horse filet and whale steak. Incidentally, we tried all of these. The whale was surprisingly flavorful and the horse was amazing. At the end of our meal, we felt good enough for shots of Brennivín. A very fun and popular place, where reservations are mandatory. [Location]

Those were our favorites, but we enjoyed other great meals in town. You can’t talk about Icelandic cuisine without tipping your hat to the Icelandic Hot Dog, best enjoyed at the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand near the harbor. Nearby is the excellent and affordable Krua Thai. We also loved more upscale meals at Rub23 Sushi and especially Vegamot.

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Also, if you have access to a kitchen during your time in Reykjavík, you can save a ton of money by shopping at the weekly Kolaportið Flea Market. The focus here is on clothes and toys, but there is also a food section toward the back, where filets of horse meat and even whale are surprisingly cheap.

Horse Meat Market Iceland
Whale Meat Market

At this market, these pale blue eggs caught our eye. These are guillemot eggs, and they’re considered a delicacy in Iceland. We bought a couple and boiled them up… the consistency was a bit strange, but we enjoyed them.

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November 2, 2013 at 7:27 pm Comments (2)

Reykjavík Street Art

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Street Art Reykjavik

One of our favorite parts of moving to a new place is checking out the street art scene. We’ve come to learn that aspects of a city’s personality will often be reflected in its graffiti and public art, so the work we saw in Reykjavík wasn’t a total surprise. Extremely artistic, modern, intelligent and well-coordinated, Reykjavík’s street art is clearly done with the property owner’s permission. Perhaps a bit too nice for such an anarchic art form, but very Icelandic.

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November 1, 2013 at 8:46 pm Comments (2)

Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – The National Museum

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Here’s a little known fact: anyone who can correctly pronounce the name of Iceland’s National Museum automatically wins Icelandic citizenship. Absolutely true. The immense Þjóðminjasafn (that’s THYOTH-min-ya-safin, if you feel like practicing) takes visitors on an exhausting chronological tour through Icelandic history. If you want to learn about the country and can only visit a single museum, this is the clear choice.

The National Museum Reykjavik

The museum’s permanent exhibition, spread across two massive floors, is called “Making of a Nation – Heritage and History in Iceland”. With all sorts of artifacts from settlement times, interactive (and surprisingly engaging) videos detailing the historical highlights, religious vestments, recreations of medieval homesteads, and collections of pop memorabilia right up through to the modern day, the Þjóðminjasafn is nothing if not thorough.

Depending on your tolerance for this kind of information-dump, the Þjóðminjasafn can be extremely rewarding. You’ll want to spend a few hours here, taking a break or two in the cozy café. If you take the time to read all the information presented by the museum, you’ll emerge as an Iceland expert to be reckoned with.

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Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – Website

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October 4, 2013 at 8:40 pm Comments (0)

Harpa – Iceland’s Opera House

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An asymmetrical glass building on Reykjavík’s harbor, Harpa resembles a shimmering iceberg that crashed onto the shore. Since opening in 2010, the city’s opera and concert hall has won prominent architectural awards, welcomed over two million visitors and become one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.

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One stormy afternoon, we took a guided tour of Harpa, which introduced us to the building’s design elements. With three concert venues, ample space for conferences, a restaurant and enormous open spaces meant for nothing more than lounging, the place is just huge. Insanely so, when you consider the size of Iceland’s population. I asked our guide if the entire population of Iceland could fit inside Harpa, and she kind of laughed… unsure whether I was joking or being serious. I was being serious.

As we toured each of the concert halls, outfitted with state-of-the-art acoustic and lighting technology, it became clear that no expense was spared. And so it came as no surprise to learn that Harpa was conceived during those intoxicating years when Iceland was rolling in cash. It’s just what you do when you’re suddenly very wealthy; you build an opera house. But Harpa wasn’t yet completed when the 2008 financial crash brought Iceland’s party to an end. The half-built monstrosity on the shore immediately became a symbol of the excess and corruption which led to financial downfall, and was looked upon with scorn.

Despite the calls for Harpa’s demolition, the government decided to push through with the plans. They took it over from its private investors, making it a public venue, and funded the construction with taxpayer money. Not an entirely popular move, but I would guess that, today, most Icelanders are happy about the government’s resolve. What could have been a symbol of greed became one of determination. They had been planning to put this private, bank-owned concert hall in a new section of town which would go by the horrible name of “World Trade Center Reykjavík”. Instead, it’s become a beautiful public venue.

The Harpa is almost always open to the public and is free to visit. It’s possibly even more stunning from the inside than the out. The design is fantastic, with sharp angles, glass, grand open spaces and black granite walls meant to evoke the bizarre landscape of the country itself. Gorgeous, and it’s definitely the architectural highlight of Reykjavík.

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Harpa – Website

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October 4, 2013 at 7:30 pm Comment (1)

Ásmundursafn – The Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum

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Reykjavík’s Ásmundursafn is dedicated to the work of Iceland’s most accomplished sculpture artist, Ásmundur Sveinsson. The museum is worth visiting as much for the architecture of the building, as for the statues both indoors and out in the garden.

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Born in 1893, Ásmundur traveled extensively as a young man, with long stints in both Stockholm and Paris. When he returned to Iceland, he immediately took a place among his country’s most influential artists. His works tend toward the abstract, though they’re not so surreal as to be nonsensical. With themes taken from Icelandic folklore and the Sagas, Ásmundur created sculptures designed to be enjoyed by the public, instead of just private collectors.

The Ásmundursafn is found in a building designed in the 1930s by the artist himself, who used it as a studio. All white domes and ample light, it must have provided as nice an atmosphere to work on sculptures as it presently does to admire them.

Since visiting the Ásmundursafn and acquainting ourselves with his work, we’ve discovered more of his pieces scattered around Iceland. With their strange, cubist shapes and sharp angles, they’re hard to overlook.

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September 30, 2013 at 4:33 pm Comments (0)

Over Vatnajökull and the Westman Islands

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It was a beautiful morning when we arrived at the Reyjavík city airport for our third flight into the skies above Iceland. Our trips over the Golden Circle and the Westfjords had been outstanding, and today we’d be soaring over Iceland’s four biggest glaciers, the Þórsmörk Valley and the Westman Islands.

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Near the Langisjór Lake, Southwest of Vatnajökull

Soon after settling into our four-seat Cessna, we were climbing above a sleepy Reykjavík still shaking off its morning mist. We headed east over the Hengill Mountains and Þingvallavatn Lake on our way to Langjökull, the second-biggest glacier in Iceland. Langjökull is shrinking rapidly and climatologists believe that it may disappear entirely within a couple centuries. Thanks to global warming, all of Iceland’s glaciers are losing mass, with the sole exception of Drangajökull in the Westfjords.

Leaving Langjökull behind, we soared over the highlands, passing the Klöjur Road which we would soon be driving across, and skirting the southern end of Hofsjökull. Soon enough, we were approaching the big boy: Vatnajökull. With an area of 8300 km², this enormous chunk of ice is about the size of Puerto Rico. We only saw the southwestern corner of it, but even this was enough to boggle the mind.

Now we turned around, following the Mid-Atlantic Ridge southwest. This was an area we had hiked across on the Fimmvörðuháls Trail, but from above it took on whole new dimensions. In a single, spectacular panorama, we could see craters, the valley, rivers, lava fields and volcanoes. I couldn’t help but be amazed that we choose voluntarily to walk across this murderous landscape.

From here, it was a short hop across the water to the Westman Islands, which we had recently spent a couple days visiting. From the air, the damage wrought by the Eldfell explosion was much more apparent than it had been on the ground. It was shocking to see the size of the area which had so swiftly been covered by lava in 1976. We moved on to some of the other islands in the archipelago, including Surtsey, which was formed in 1963 during a four-year-long eruption. The island was immediately declared off-limits to humans and is now being used to monitor how life develops on a brand new patch of land.

An amazing flight, and one we were very lucky to experience. If you’d like to hire a pilot for a similar flight, get in touch and we can put you in touch with our contact. You truly haven’t seen Iceland, until you’ve seen it from the air.

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September 30, 2013 at 9:20 am Comments (4)

The Víkin Maritime Museum

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Located appropriately enough on Reykjavík’s harbor, the Víkin Maritime Museum provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Iceland’s fishing industry. It’s a massive place which is more interesting than a fishing museum really has any right to be, and could easily eat up hours of your time.

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Fishing has always played an integral role in the economy of Iceland. It powered the country’s growth throughout the 20th century, still accounts for 40% of exports, and employs a huge chunk of the workforce. Fishing is, at least partly, the reason Iceland is dragging its feet to join the EU, and it very nearly caused the little country to provoke Britain into a naval war. Fishing has created and destroyed entire Icelandic communities, sometimes within a single decade.

Considering the industry’s importance to Iceland, we weren’t shocked to discover that Reykjavík went all out for its maritime museum. With models, photos, dioramas, videos, and loads of information, the exhibits in the Víkin paint a comprehensive picture of fishing in Iceland. Visitors are taken through the early days, when fishermen were truly chancing death every time they set out into the choppy waters of the North Atlantic, up into the relative comfort of the present day.

Fascinating stuff, and then you turn a corner in the museum, and find yourself in an exhibition dedicated to Iceland’s first nursing home for fishermen. Complete with model beds and rooms which recreate the actual living conditions of retired fishermen. There was even a model bedpan.

Bizarre, but this provides a sense of how thorough the Víkin Museum is. Something we didn’t have a chance to see was the Óðinn, a coast guard vessel which sits just outside the museum and can be visited for an extra charge. Looks like the kind of thing kids would love.

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Reykjavik Maritime Museum – Website

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These well-wishers are not seeing off a Nazi boat… this swastika was the logo of the fishing company Eimskip well before Hitler appropriated it.
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September 27, 2013 at 7:09 pm Comments (0)

The Reykjavík City Zoo

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Not all that many animals are native to Iceland, and those that do exist can be notoriously difficult to spot in the wild. So if you want to see creatures like reindeer, seals and foxes, and don’t have time to scour the coasts and countrysides, head to the tiny Reykjavík City Zoo.

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The zoo is part of the immense Laugardalur park just outside the city center. We needed a really long time to locate it, and were exhausted by the time we entered. So I was happy to discover that the zoo isn’t all that big. At just 750 krona, it’s among the cheaper things you can do in Reykjavík and won’t take more than an hour of your time. Unless you have a kid who just loves pigs or chickens. In that case, good luck, because there are a ton of them. Your little chicken-lover will never want to leave.

We found the seals right away, swimming endless loops around their small pool. They made me a little sad. Even the pups had clearly gone insane from the boredom… all there is to do is swim the same loop over and over, all day today, tomorrow and every day thereafter for the rest of your life. From the seal pool, we wandered through stables where some truly massive pigs were feeding and a cow was hooked up to a milking machine. We saw a few rabbits and Icelandic goats, but paid them short shrift. Apologies all around, but we only really cared about the foxes.

The zoo has well over a dozen arctic foxes kept in a huge pen, and they were great fun to watch. Very playful, they were wrestling around with each other, hopping in and out of their burrows and keeping a watchful eye on our movements outside the cage. Unlike the seals, they had plenty of room and seemed to be truly happy.

The foxes aren’t the only ones having fun, because toward the back of the zoo is a theme park with carnival rides for children. We possess neither kids nor any kind of tolerance for their maddening darling squeals of delight, so we skipped out on this. But it’s another reason the zoo is such a popular activity for Icelandic families.

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September 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm Comments (2)

The Best Party and Jón Gnarr

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“Stop corruption: We promise to stop corruption. We’ll accomplish this by participating in it openly.” Now that’s a political promise I can believe in! It’s just one of the excellent items in the platform of The Best Party, led by Reykjavík’s Jón Gnarr.

Jón Gnarr at the 2011 naming of the Reykjavík Tree… possibly yawning. [Photo by Helgi Halldórsson]

For most of his career, Jón Gnarr was an Icelandic comedian and writer. He went by the name of “Jónsi Punk” when he played bass in a band called Runny Nose. And now he’s mayor of the capital.

Before the 2010 elections, the Best Party openly described themselves as a joke. So why would Iceland vote them into power? The better question is, why not? The country was still recovering from a horrendous financial crisis, brought about when “serious” political parties deregulated the banking system, and Icelanders were completely disillusioned with politics.

Enter the comedian. The Best Party lampooned traditional politics, imitating the hypocrisy and bullshit inherent in every party platform to hilarious effect. “Free bus rides for students and cripples” they promised, going on to explain: “We can offer more free things than any other party because we aren’t going to follow through with it. We could say whatever we want. For example, free flights for women or free cars for people who live in rural areas. It’s all the same.”

For the municipal elections, the Best Party promised Reykjavík a polar bear at the city zoo and an Icelandic Disneyland. And they won, to the surprise of everyone, especially those in the establishment. Jón Gnarr became mayor and immediately began trailblazing a new path for public office. He would show up for official events dressed as Obi Wan Kenobe, and lead the city’s gay pride parade dressed in (frankly, very tasteful) drag.

But he’s not a joke. Despite treating his office with the irreverence it probably deserves, he’s spoken out about a number of serious issues. In 2013, he urged Reykjavík to cut ties with Moscow over Russia’s horrific record on gay rights, and has also gone up against China’s human rights record.

Perhaps Jón’s biggest accomplishment as mayor is returning a dose of reality to politics. Turns out there’s another way than the double-speak and institutional corruption most of us have come to identify as “normal”. Maybe it takes a punk rocking atheist comedian to remind us of that.

[Read this great interview with Mayor Jón in the Reykjavík Grapevine, conducted shortly after his win.]

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August 20, 2013 at 6:31 pm Comments (2)

The Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach

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Close to the Perlan Building, and directly underneath the path of roaring planes landing at the nearby Reykjavík airport, is the Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, one of the city’s favorite hangouts.

Icelanders love bathing. Every town, no matter how big, has a pool. Reykjavík has a dozen! And then there are the naturally-occurring geothermal hot springs scattered about the country. It doesn’t matter if it’s a river, a pond, or just a hole someone has dug into the ground, point out a puddle of lukewarm water to an Icelander and he’ll be disrobed before you’ve put your finger down.

So despite the terrible weather, it was no surprise to find Nauthólsvík fairly crowded on the day we visited. It’s a neat spot, near downtown and absolutely free. The small crescent-shaped beach is full of fine golden sand imported from Morocco, and the water in the bay is nearly warm enough to swim in.

But the big attraction on cold days is Nautholsvík’s long, narrow hot tub. We joined the crowd which had congregated here, after taking a very thorough, buck-naked shower in the locker rooms. In Iceland, you’re expected to shower carefully, completely nude and with ample soap. Most pools even have diagrams posted to show you exactly the areas on which to concentrate your scrubbing. If you don’t shower, or try to keep your trunks on, you’re likely to find yourself being scolded by a naked old Icelandic dude. And nobody wants that.

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Nauthólsvík – Website

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August 11, 2013 at 6:52 pm Comment (1)

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Our Favorite Bars and Restaurants in Reykjavk We spent a sizable chunk of our 91 Icelandic days inside the drinking and eating establishments of Reykjavík. After another long day of museum-visiting or waterfall-ogling, a big beer and dinner cooked by someone else always sounded like a good idea. Here's a quick list of our favorite places in the city.
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