“What time do you think it is? Take a guess.”
It’s June, and the sky is streaked with blue and purple, some pink fading in the west. My husband and I are walking back to our hotel, which is about 15 minutes from downtown Reykjavik. We’re wearing our fall/spring coats. I have on a hat. Still chilly here. He’s just looked at his watch.
“Uh, how late is it?”
“After midnight. 12:30”
We never tired of this.
The perpetual daylight inspired some awe even while it frustrated our jetlag, we were overall captivated by Iceland’s beauty and Reykjavik’s charm. As scads of other tourists have been in recent years. After the 2008 recession, Iceland leaned hard into promoting tourism, with the result that most of Reykjavik is now given over to hordes of folks drawn by the siren song of fresh seafood, jaw-dropping landscapes, and a literary culture that’s hard to beat. While Icelandair flights are direct from a lot of US cities and are quite affordable, the country itself commands rather high prices. Not surprising for an isolated island.
But I’m not here today to explore the effects of tourism on local culture or how one can ethically travel these days (bigger topic for another day). What I’m going to do is embrace the reality that Iceland is popular and folks want to stretch their bucks (or Euros or yen, etc.). Shout-out to Reykjavik Grapevine and my friend, Melanie, for some of these recommendations.
Walking down Laugavegur, the main street through Reykjavik, you’ll see plenty of tourist shops peddling stuffed puffins and Viking-themed shot glasses, but you’ll also spy plenty of little restaurants. One we loved that a friend had recommended was Noodle Station. Their phở is out of this world (and the Twin Cities, where we live, has incredible phở). The broth is dark and rich and overflowing with noodles and tender vegetables and chicken or beef. The meat bowls run you about $15, and the vegetable-only bowl around $9. Compared to bowls of phở in the Twin Cities–which run anywhere from around $7-$10 for the same size–this is pricey. But for Reykjavik, it’s a deal. And it’s delicious.
If you still need more of a noodle fix, head to Ramen Momo near the waterfront. It’s tiny and cozy, which in early June, chilled from our walk over from the university, we needed. You can build your own bowl and then slurp it up at the counter along the window. We chatted for a bit with the woman behind the counter, and she asked if she could take our photo for their Instagram. That’s not why I’m recommending it. It’s a hearty, warming soup for about $18 in a calm atmosphere.
OK, but a lot of people don’t come all the way to Iceland to only eat soups, delicious though they are. You probably want some seafood. For a quick bite, head to Sakebarinn or its sister location outside downtown Sushibarinn. Both locations serve reasonably-priced and very tasty sushi, skewers, appetizers, and combos. We found those combinations offered the best bang for our buck. And we also couldn’t help but try their grilled whale skewer. When else can you eat whale? Gamey in flavor like venison but texturally like beef, whale was a delight.
If you end up walking as much as we did, you’ll likely want to take an afternoon pit stop and recharge with some tea or coffee. I cannot recommend Stofan Cafe enough. The building is charming, the staff friendly, the atmosphere restorative. Sal often grabbed some espresso, and I was very content with my giant cups of tea. We also decided to split a large slice of chocolate cake during one of our visits, sitting in their cozy basement. This was not a mistake. Come later in the day, and hang out with a glass of wine or beer. They’re open until 11pm.
View from Stofan Cafe.
Prikið is the oldest bar in Reykjavik. And while its simple, classic burgers aren’t the cheapest thing you’ll find, they are satisfying, especially when washed down with some Viking beer. It’s a great spot to hang out: kinda divey, no one rushing you. And it seems like a downtown bar that local folks still frequent. In the evenings, a DJ shows up, and the disco ball gets going. It’s a tight space, but we didn’t stick around to see how dancers navigated that.
At any rate, I’ll always love Prikið for this sign in their restroom:
I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I didn’t mention hot dogs! There’s a real devotion to hot dogs in Reykjavik, and while we didn’t sample any–afraid it might upset Sal’s stomach–the long lines at several hot dog spots affirmed their tastiness and affordability. I also didn’t go into raptures about Saegriffin, as that spot has been frequently covered, and, I mean, just go there, too. The lobster soup is delectable, and you can sit outside on the water, slurping away. Also, if you continue along the waterfront toward the Maritime Museum, you may happen upon the Fish & Chips Wagon, which served some of the best fish & chips I’ve ever eaten. They’re made better by sitting on the bench in the sunshine.
I urge you to do your research, both in food and in being a courteous and respectful traveler. Reykjavik is an incredible city with excellent museums and bookstores, festivals and theatre.
P.S.: If you’re planning to have at least one or two pricier meals while in Reykjavik, head to Snaps Bistro for French-inflected fare. Get any fish dish. Another spot, Íslenski Barinn, is a tad more touristy, but you won’t care the moment you taste puffin and dig into their fish stew.