The One Thing You Can't Miss: Reykjavik, Iceland

Geysers and blue lagoons aside, the food and drink in Reykjavik is reason enough to head to Iceland
March 19, 2016Words by Sam AlvianiPhotos by Sam Alviani

Frozen tundras, midnight sun, impassable, dramatic terrain and landscapes; when we hear about Iceland, we hear about an island teeming with outdoor opportunity. It’s true; Iceland is a destination for epic hiking journeys, off-roading, geothermal spring soaking, glacier-seeking, diving, and snorkeling — just to name a few — in winter and summer. But it’s also home to Reykjavik, a burgeoning cultural center and the world’s northernmost capital city.

Reykjavik is renowned for its late-night, devil-may-care approach to eating and drinking.

With the Iceland stopover made popular by Icelandair, it’s even easier to experience Reykjavik, a piece of the Iceland experience that is often overlooked in favor of the (admittedly) spectacular access to the wild. 

Reykjavik is renowned for its late-night, devil-may-care approach to eating and drinking; it also celebrates Iceland’s Viking history with the National and Saga Museums, and provides sweeping views of the sea, volcanic hills, and an array of multi-colored houses from striking landmarks like the Hallgrimskirkja church. It’s a walking city, even in the heart of the cold months, faintly European but entirely distinctive in its own right with aged cobblestone streets, cozy cottages, and more stops for coffee and cocktails than you can shake a stick at. 

If you find yourself there for a stopover — in snow or midnight sun — hit the streets and take in the drinking culture. On a recent trip, we sampled the fruits of Iceland’s cocktail golden age (think lava bitters and birch “snaps” or schnapps) at superhero-themed Slippbarinn, relaxed with a whiskey at Kex Hostel, and sipped “black death,” coffee laced with brennivín, a caraway seed liqueur and traditional Icelandic beverage, at Matur og Drykkur. But for a one-stop place to hole-up, look no further than Mikkeler & Friends and Pizza With No Name restaurant housed below. 

We learned something very quickly in Reykjavik: native Icelanders not only know how to drink, they have an exceptional knowledge of the craft, creating a sense of place through their drinking habits with the use of time-honored Iceland botanicals and homegrown grains. They also have definitive strategies for going strong until 4 am, the typical shutter time for many local bars. 

It is the epitome of hygge — the Danish concept of complete coziness — with the dark wood and warm light of a cabin hideaway.

You might recognize Mikkeler & Friends from its roster of locations, from Denmark, the original, to San Francisco. The Reykjavik outpost feels anything but an arm of a coveted brewery; it feels as if it has been there forever, the building itself being one of the oldest houses on Hverfisgata, one of the main roads in downtown Reykjavik.

It is the epitome of hygge — the Danish concept of complete coziness — with the dark wood and warm light of a cabin hideaway. Originally designed and built by a doctor in 1910, it was a family residence that now hosts the creations of set designer Hálfdán Pedersen. If you’re in town for 48 hours, it would be easy to spend half of it here drinking beers like the Orange Yuzu Glad I Said Porter, Hverfisgata Wit, and a collection of beers from other Nordic brewers. Hungry? Walk down a flight of stairs to the elusive (and delicious) Pizza With No Name. 

Iceland continues to be ranked one of the happiest nations in the world, and in Reykjavik, it’s something immediately felt. The Icelandic people share attitudes and traits with their Nordic neighbors, but true to their Viking heritage, there is an inherent value placed on independence, self-sufficiency, and survival.

Before I left for Iceland, I was often asked why I was going in the dead of winter — I was happy to be going at all, even if I imagined trudging around in the harsh elements. In all reality, the weather doesn’t keep the Icelandic people from being out and about, meeting friends for coffee or in bars, taking a city stroll. The dark days didn’t seem to take a toll at all, and we were happy to learn from those around us — pull on the boots, zip up the jacket, and take life by the horns. [H] 

Thingvellir National Park
From Reykjavik, you have easy access to the Golden Circle — a 300-kilometer loop from the capital to central Iceland and back. A treasure on this route is the otherworldly Thingvellir National Park, a beautiful, rugged stretch of lake, glacier, and fissure zone with miles of trails accessible in all seasons. Rent a car and drive the 40 minutes through field and tundra for a hike or visit to the historic Thingvellir Church; in the height of winter, it’s an ideal spot to watch for Northern Lights. 

The geothermal fields at Geysir in Southwest Iceland include the “Great Geysir,” the first geyser known to modern Europeans. Active for approximately 10,000 years, a visit here yields a sighting of eruptions of boiling water that reach up to 70 meters in the air. Just a short trip down the road, you’ll find another natural phenomenon in the massive Gullfoss waterfall. 

Road snacks — check! Fridheimer, a farm and greenhouse that grows year-round, produces 18 percent of the tomato market in Iceland. Visitors can stop, brush up on horticulture, check out the greenhouses, and best of all, eat a meal inside them. The on-premise restaurant is situated in the center of one of the greenhouses, with hearty tomato soup, fresh-baked bread, homemade butter, and of course, the freshest Bloody Mary you will ever lay your hands on. 

Sam Alviani is a freelance writer and editor at Fellow Magazine. Her list of favorite things rambles on, but includes grilled cheese sandwiches, Stevie Nicks, New Orleans, and her Blue Heeler pup, Lucinda.


Trending Gear