G's Guide to Reykjavik

After a G&T Weekend spent in a luxe Icelandic lodge, complete with Northern Lights sightings and fireworks on New Year’s Eve, a private Golden Circle tour, and a visit to the Blue Lagoon, I headed to Reykjavik with Freya McOmish from Scandinavia Standard.

Even though Reykjavik is only a 5 hour, non-stop flight from Toronto, I felt a little bit like I was on the other side of the world:

  • Although every local we met spoke perfect English, I was completely hopeless at attempting the indecipherable Icelandic language: after a year of organizing the lodge, tours, deliveries, etc, I still cannot pronounce the name of the house where we stayed.
  • The hot and cold water come from two different sources; the smell of sulfur when you turn on the tap is the hot water coming directly from the geothermal source.  
  • We visited in January, which meant we spent 21 hours of our day in darkness. Happy Hour (a very popular time in bars, as alcohol prices in this country are tremendously steep) generally starts at 4pm, and we didn’t feel guilty about drinking when the sun had been down for an hour already.
Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Reykjavik is expensive: don’t bum out your fellow travellers and constantly complain about the prices. My advice is to wait until you're at home open yourVisa bill. Have a bottle of scotch close by and caution your neighbours they will be hearing screaming coming from your apartment. Take a deep breath and remind yourself you value experiences over material things

A completely walkable city, Reykjavik is charming, beautiful, and full of quirks that will make your experience fun and memorable. Read on to find my favourite spots.

STAY

Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina 

icelandair hotel reykjavic
iceland air hotel

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but this hotel has got it going on. I loved the Icelandic design throughout the hotel, and fireplaces in every common room made for a very cozy reception.  The food at the restaurant is delicious, the cocktails at the bar strong (ask for a “Svartafell”, with the Icelandic liquor Brennivin), and the buzzy vibe FUN (challenge your new friends to a ping pong tournament before dancing to a DJ’s set. Don’t want to party? There’s a full gym and even a cinema to keep you occupied. Of course, what I really needed after a G&T was a good night’s sleep, and my room was extremely comfortable and thankfully, quiet. Make sure to ask for a room with a view of the marina.

READ 

You’ll want to head over to The Reykjavik Grapevine to see what’s going on in Reykjavik. Find your plans this afternoon or tonight by seeing what art shows, live music, theatre, you can attend. Get to know Iceland better by reading the local news – and by planning your Happy Hour schedule.

EAT 

Geiri Smart  

While this stylish spot is best known for its fine dining and cocktails, the buffet brunch is phenomenal and offers a fantastic assortment of food for a reasonable (by Icelandic standards) price. We may have visited in between partying and heading to the airport (the coffee is very strong)… 

geiri smart breakfast reykjavic

Saegreifinn

Located in the marina, this slightly touristy spot is nautical themed. Think – not upscale Hamptons style, more like your mad-uncle-obssessed-with-the-sea’s Nova Scotian home. The lobster soup is a specialty and just what I needed after a day spent in the cold. Members of our party also tried the minke whale*.

Glo

This cafeteria-style restaurant is a great place for nourishing food. The daily menu has great raw, vegan, and meat options, made with organic ingredients. We loved the vegetarian lasagne with choice of salads.

 Kaffi Vinyl

We came for the happy hour**, stayed for the awesome food and great vibe. This hyggely (as described by the Copenhagen-based Freya) bar/ restaurant has a menu of vegetarian and vegan dishes and a great selection of local beers. We loved the Thai Noodles. Post-dinner, a DJ comes and spins – you guessed it – vinyl records.

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Reykjavik Roasters  

Discerning coffee drinkers and Australians: head here for your coffee fix. The smell of cinnamon as you enter the bright and airy café will have you craving their delicious cinnamon scones with cheese and jam. We spent the afternoon here working, chatting with the Reykjavik University students sharing our table, and sipping free-refilled coffee.

*Before you eat whale or puffin in Iceland, consider the impact had on the environment and species. Most (90%) of Icelanders do not eat whale meat, which was a sustainable food when the population of the country was 325,000. Now, with over a million tourists every year (40% trying whale meat), fin whales have become an endangered species and 80% of minke whale is is discarded of after killing. Icelandic puffins has been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature list of endangered species, with numbers declining from 8 million in 2003 to 5 million today. Sorry to be a bummer, I just want you to be aware before you make a decision about eating whale or puffin.

** Drinking in Reykjavik is pricey, make sure to download the “Appy Hour” app that tells you which bars are promoting Happy Hour around you. Stop by the Vinbudin liquor stores to pick up libations for cocktails before you head out.  

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

DRINK 

Kex

I was sceptical when I heard this hostel bar was a great place for locals to hang out. I was happily proved wrong, and loved this beautiful, quirky bar. The live music changes daily, check out their listings to see what’s on. We sipped red wine as we took in an incredible Icelandic jazz band.

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Gaukurinn

We came on a Tuesday night for karaoke and were not disappointed by the talent on display. We chatted to a local couple who had clearly been practicing their Grease medley before heading onstage to sing vodka-fuelled Gloria Gaynor.

Kaffibarinn

The familiar London Underground sign welcomed us to this cosy, candlelit bar. This place was rammed on a Monday night, full of Reykjavik’s hippest residents. We drank, danced, and laughed here until closing time.

Enski Barinn

I’m a little embarrassed to recommend this place – it is literally called English Pub and looks from the outside like every bar I’ve tried to avoid my entire adult life. But this place is FUN – we came after a Chelsea vs. Arsenal game (the bar broadcasts sporting events), so the crowd was primarily young male tourists. We sang and danced to the band’s Bryan Adams covers, and paid 20,000ISK to spin the Wheel of Fortune. Spin the wheel and join your fellow partyers in celebratory cheers when you win six beers for you and your new mates.

SEE

Hallgrímskirkja

 This impressive church is Reykjavik’s biggest landmark, and can be seen almost everywhere throughout the city. Designed by Guðjón Samuel in 1937, its unique structure was inspired by the basalt rock formed when lava cools. The church (which wasn’t actually built until 1986) is beautiful inside and out, and offers a spectacular view of Reykjavik from its tower. We weren’t willing to brave the hour-long queue to climb said tower, so instead headed to the Perlan.

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Perlan

The Perlan is more than worth the half hour, uphill walk from the Hallgrímskirkja. The space-age looking building houses an incredible glass-filled dome, that makes it the perfect spot to have cocktails or for dinner (their restaurant is highly rated). Unfortunately, e missed these as the Perlan was closed for a private event. We still enjoyed the stunning views over all of Reykjavik, mountains and water. Not to be missed!

The gorgeous Freya McOmish from Scandinavia Standard.

The gorgeous Freya McOmish from Scandinavia Standard.

Harpa

A controversial building when first built in 2008 (apparently a government spending €160 million on a cultural centre during a financial crisis is frowned upon), the Harpa is a must-see in Reykjavik. Make sure to get there during daylight to see how the light filters through the geometric-shaped glass panels that make up the building. Have a wander around and book to see a performance. We loved  How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes – a hilarious show that provided insight for us on the Icelandic people and culture.

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

SHOP

Fatamarkaðurinn Second Hand Market - Fatamarkaðurinn Laugavegur 118 

Reykjavik has incredible second hand and vintage stores, be sure to stop by here for on-trend clothing and unique pieces. I found a silvery vintage sweater here that has been on high rotation. Spúútnik is the most well-known vintage store in town and arguable the best. I’m still kicking myself for not picking up a velvet slip dress from the nineties.

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Handknitting Association of Iceland

Don’t pick up your Lopapeysa from anywhere else. This co-operative of knitters is set up so an Icelandic lady (or gentleman) isknitting your sweater in their home before you buy it from store; no sweatshops to be seen here. Apart from the traditional Icelandic Lopapeysa sweaters, the stores also sell wool, hats, gloves, and more fashion forward pieces (as pictured). I adore my Lopapeysa from here, and it keeps me warm on even the coldest days when I walk my dog in Toronnto.

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish

Blue Lagoon Store

The Blue Lagoon product marketing is sneaky – and highly effective. When G&T visited the Blue Lagoon, we were given first the Silica Mud Mask to try, followed by the Algae mask. My skin looked so incredible after I couldn’t pass a shiny surface without admiring my new radiant look. Pick the masks up for yourself (there’s a duty free at the airport), and you’ll glow like you’ve spent a week in the bedroom, not in Iceland.  

Photo: Freya McOmish

Photo: Freya McOmish