Reykjavík is the northernmost capital in the world. If it is not the main reason for one to visit Iceland, you are very likely to spend between one and three days there during your trip. Reykjavik is surprisingly packed with entertainment and culture for such a small city, which is even truer since the tourism boomed 10 years ago. I wrote two brief guides about the city, this one concerns bars and restaurants.
Reykjavik counts a bit less than 130 thousands inhabitants, whereas Iceland has a total of 330 thousands inhabitants. For such a small population, the number of restaurants and bars one can find downtown is oddly high. Tourism is obviously a reason for that. Even though Iceland is not famous for its gourmet cuisine, one can find few typically Icelandic dishes such as sheep head, lamb soup and plokkfiskur (fish stew). But mostly, scattered around the city are restaurants providing international cuisine or thematic one. Food is expensive in Iceland, so are restaurants. But so far, to my experience, they always compensated with high-quality food.
And about the bars … well … yes, Reykjavik is definitely a party city. I remember once talking with a guy in a bar in New-York who told me his brother was currently in Reykjavik for his bachelor party. And even if you are not a party person, you should go out after midnight on a Friday or Saturday night. This is a part of Reykjavik’s life, therefore one of the “must see” of your trip. Whether you will like it or not is your opinion, but traveling must always be about experiences.
There are basically four different areas in Reykjavik in which one will find around ninety percents of all coffees, bars and restaurants. This guide will go through all of them. Obviously, there are many places which would deserve to be in that guide and that are not mentioned. I have chosen to speak about the ones that I either recently discovered, or, that I discovered a long time ago but still go to occasionally or on a regular basis.
You might want to get a map of Reykjavik or simply open Google maps while reading this guide. Also, this article is followed by A brief guide to Reykjavik City: Walking itinerary.
Laugavegur is the main street of Reykjavik, it is a long one, that reaches the outskirts of the city, but we will focus on its most famous part which goes from Hlemmur to Bankastræti. You will find restaurants there, but it is mostly packed with bars. Here are my favorites.
The Dillon is a whiky bar, it is located on first floor, but easy to spot from the street. I like it because of its decoration, woody and cozy. Also, their whisky selection is very good, and price range is wide. They, of course, have fancy and pricy whiskies, but also affordable ones.
There is also a large terrace and a second floor with live music on a regular basis. You can order at the counter food from the burger joint below: “The Chuck Norris Grill”.
Right next to The Dillon is Boston. This one is mostly appreciated by smokers for the warm terrace. As a proud recent nonsmoker, I like it for other reasons. It is mostly because the bar shifts its ambiance depending on the hour. It means that this bar can please everyone. Early, you can go there, have a pint and chat with your friends; there is also a pool upstairs if one wants to play a game. If you head there later, the bar will have turned into a dance floor, lights are turned off, music volume has been pushed up and you can forget about the quiet talk with your friends. The party has begun.
Skolavordustigur is the street that goes from the most iconic church of Reykjavik: Hallgrimskirkja to Laugavegur Street. There is nothing suitable for nightlife there, but some nice coffee places and restaurants. This is a family friendly street.
I must first precise that I am not fully objective about the Babalu Café as this is where I have been working for two years now.
Unlike the places mentioned before, The Babalu Café is nothing like a party place. In a very cozy atmosphere, you will feel like in a grandma’s house, and will be able to find all kind of food or refreshments. If you are into sweet food, there is a good selection of cakes including vegan options, crêpes and giant cookies. Yes, really giant. You also have different kinds of grilled sandwiches, but most important, the traditional Icelandic Lamb Soup.
About drinks, you will find all kind of coffees and the best Chaï Latte in town.
Prikid is open all day long, therefore, it is a place where you go for breakfast, for lunch, coffee, beer or even dancing at night. Although, as a night bar, this is not my favorite place.
I mostly like Prikið for its food. Nothing gourmet here but in my opinion, they have the best burgers in towns. I never had the opportunity to try their breakfasts yet, but their menu always tempted me and I know their breakfasts are, indeed, quite popular.
Hverfisgata is parallel to Laugavegur and this is a place getting trendier and trendier. The proportion between bars and restaurants is a bit more in favor of restaurants compared to Laugavegur.
Hverfisgata 12 is maybe an odd choice for the name of a restaurant, but it is straightforward. It is simply their address.
I have been there once, I tried starters and pizza. I highly do not recommend anyone to do that, it is way too much food for one! But pizzas there are the best I had in Iceland so far. Without a doubt. I do not have much more to say about the place, but those pizzas had to be mentioned here.
A nice underground coffee place, perfect for breakfasts. The decoration is old fashioned and cozy and their breakfast offer is wide. Tourists often complain about how everything opens so late in Reykjavik. The Grey Cat is open from 07:30am.
There is much more bars and restaurants in Hverfisgata. Most of them are new and I have not tried them yet. But I encourage you to roam this street without limiting yourself to the two establishments mentioned above.
What I call The DownTown area is what is situated on Austustræti after Lækjargata and the parallel streets like Tryggvagata and around Ingólfur square.
At the beginning of Austurstræti, in front of the Gray Line office is a square called Lækjatorg. It is empty during the day, but becomes packed with 3 or 4 food trucks at night, with the clear objective to feed the party goers. So, if it is late and you are looking for a snack on your way home or between two bars, by all means, avoid the 10-11 hot dogs and grab a greasy burger or the sweetest waffle ever in one of those trucks.
If you are a beer lover, this is the place to go. The Micro Bar sells a wide selection of beers coming from Micro Breweries from all over the country. The best thing it that they are having new beers almost on a daily basis, so it is always a new menu.
It is located underground, with stone walls and wooden tables. Music is never loud, so it is the perfect place either for an after work beer or a pre-party one. For a while, I was used to go there and take advantage of the quietness to read a book with a delicious beer.
The Gaukurinn is a bar that hosts shows and events many times a week. Some of them are free, some are not. They have comedy nights, with stand-up artists performing in english every Monday with a free entrance.
Concerts are also very frequent, and even if all kinds of music are represented, this is the one place showing metal concert in Reykjavik. So if you are into brutal music, you should have a look at their program before coming to Reykjavik.
Since recently, they opened the Veganæs, a one hundred percent vegan restaurant, inside the Gaukurinn. So if you are there, hungry, and not into vegan food, do not freak out, you can still have French fries, everybody love French fries.
All the streets mentioned earlier were quite in the same neighborhood. Grandi is a bit aside of the main city center, and is like a town in the city. There is plenty to do there, I will do my best to stay brief.
While in Bryggjan Brugghus, you can choose between the bar area or the restaurant. Both are nicely decorated in this new industrial style. The bar will provide you a nice selection of local beers and the restaurant offers a large choice of dishes from the pricy ones to fish and chips. If the weather is nice enough, one should sit at the terrace and enjoy the view on the harbor. They also often have live venues.
This is simply the best rolled-sandwiches one can have. All the ingredients are fresh and accurately spiced. The bread is baked on the spot and the lamb is roasted to the perfection.
If you are vegetarian, the lamb can be replaced by falafel.
Kaffivagninn is an old-fashioned restaurant with a very enjoyable view on the harbor. One can there enjoy all type of coffees or sweet snacks, but what really makes the difference to me is their breakfast.
Their offer is not that wide and actually pretty traditional: bacon, eggs, salmon, toasts, a bit of cold cuts… I had the salmon breakfast and vegetables with toasts, fresh orange juice and coffee. When I saw my plate coming, I was not that happy. Clearly, at first glance it looked cheap to me, and I thought I would need 5 plates like this one to have enough. I was wrong. The cucumbers and tomatoes were sweet and juicy, the scrambled eggs very well cooked and when I unfolded my slices of a salmon I realized that I actually had a more than decent quantity of salmon.
It has been a great surprise and I will definitely go there again.
As mentioned, Reykjavík has a great nightlife. Although, it is important to note that it is only true during weekends. From Sunday evenings to Thursday evenings (except days before holidays) no establishment is allowed to close after 1am.
Also, during Friday and Saturday nights, most of Icelanders usually do not go out in bars before midnight. Before that, one will mainly find tourists and foreign locals in bars.
To find out about what is happening in bars during your stay, your best option is to put a like on their Facebook page. Bars always make an event on Facebook to notify all of their followers when they have a show, a concert or anything going on. This is you best chance for being kept posted.
Yes, once can still easily find whale meat in Reykjavik’s restaurants. Although, as whaling is becoming less and less popular among Icelanders, this tendency is decreasing. If you think this is your thing, aim to the obviously touristy restaurants.
There is one, it is called The Dill, it has one Michelin star and earned it last year. It is located on Hverfisgata. I never tried it.
As I am writing this article I checked their price list, it is not that expensive for such a high standard place. Especially for Reykjavik.