When I made my very first solo trip abroad to Iceland this past June, I knew that I would want to tap into the pace and flow of life in Europe’s northern-most capital city, Reykjavik, over the twelve days and nights that I would reside there. My hope was to experience life like a local.
Today, I’m sharing what I learned so that you, too, can live like a local in Iceland — even if it’s for a short layover or for one day (on an airline like IcelandAir, which offers a free layover in Iceland en route to or from Europe for up to 7 days).
If you’re like me, as soon as you arrive in a new city or location, the first thing you feel is disoriented. Months of Google Map searches do little to ultimately help you orient when your feet are on the ground. That’s why I try to find a high spot or central location to help me orient myself from a relative bird’s-eye view.
Thankfully, the low-lying architecture of the capital city of Reykjavik makes for more of a small town feel than a big, intimidating city. And, even better, perched high upon a hill that overlooks the city is an emblematic tower reminiscent of a Lord of the Rings castle: Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest church in Iceland. Throughout my time in Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja became a familiar point of reference for providing some geographic proximity for where I was walking throughout the city’s streets.
You can climb to the top of the tower of Hallgrímskirkja (or take the slow elevator) for about 700 Krona, or less than $6 USD. You will have a magnificent 360-degree view of Reykjavik. Bring your camera or your iPhone to snap some beautiful pictures — or even a map to take notes.
Tap the Pace and Flow
Oriented? Check. Head down and march to the street called Laugavegur. This is Reykjavik’s downtown main street: a small, one-lane, pedestrian dotted avenue featuring some of the city’s oldest shops, bars, coffee houses, and most popular restaurants. In days of old, Laugavegur, or “wash road,” was the path that led to some of Iceland’s nearby natural hot springs, which were used by townspeople for washing clothes.
Today, Laugavegur is a great “home base” to navigate from throughout your time in downtown Reykjavik. The street’s sidewalks are delicately decorated with brightly colored park benches, picnic tables, potted plants, and flowers in the summer. A recent initiative of the city, on certain days large swinging gates made of defunct bicycles (which are also brightly painted) block off the one-way street to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to enjoy the street without car traffic.
In between the unpredictable and passing rain showers, cafes and shops take advantage of the added real estate by setting tables and chairs across the sidewalks, inviting shoppers and locals to sit and enjoy a meal, latte, or book. Up and down Laugavegur, you’ll see unique performance art, live music, and the familiar sight of skateboarding kids that look like they’ve been plucked out of Seattle during the grunge era. You might even catch a passing parade.
Eating Like a Local
Ah, food. Reykjavik offers a slew of local foods and flavors — although the much discussed “traditional” foods of Iceland that we read about as tourists before we arrive in Iceland (like fermented shark) seem to be more of a dated tradition than a present-day trend enjoyed by locals.
As a breakfast junkie, I was often still hungry when I left many of Reykjavik’s fine restaurants and cafes. Unlike our carbo-loading American tradition, breakfast and brunch in Iceland are indeed very small meals meant only to break your night’s fast.
However, you can find a fantastic and filling breakfast for a good price at Tíu Dropar or “Ten Drops,” a small, hidden restaurant situated just off of Laugavegur in an underground location with small windows that peak street-level. Tíu Dropar offers great combination brunch options for between 1500 and 2500 Krona (about $12-$20) and includes American favorites like bacon and eggs, toast and butter, a waffle, fresh fruit, and even Skyr, Iceland’s traditional and very popular yogurt.
A great midday lunch spot is HAPP, located off of Laugavegur at Laekjargata. HAPP is a modern feeling panini shop and juice bar that serves up freshly made, hot pressed sandwiches and a slew of green juices and smoothies. The shop has comfortable seats in a cozy back room for relaxing during your lunch, or another small bar by the register with tall metal stools and windows that overlook Laugavegur. The countertop features a few iPads for customers to use to check news, weather, directions, and more.
fish., located on Skólavörðustígur (otherwise known as the road that ceremoniously leads directly up to the front door of Hallgrímskirkja), featured, by far, my favorite meal in Reykjavik — which is fascinating, because there are only three items on the menu. At fish., a small family-run “seat-yourself” restaurant, you can order either the fish soup, baked fish, or fish stew plate.
My go-to choice for a fully satiating meal was the fish stew plate. The man behind the counter, who I assumed to be the restaurant’s patriach owner, told me that the fish stew’s secret ingredient was “Passion. Lots of passion.” The traditional meal of mashed baked fish with a slight, salty crunch comes with a side of baked vegetables, diced baked apples, a whole grain rice, sweet rye bread, and mouth-watering homemade sauces for dipping.
Getting Out of Town
Truth is, you really can “do” Reykjavik in a day. And if you’ve ever been before, a great option (albeit perhaps touristy) is to spend some of your day renting a car for an afternoon. You can easily tour the Golden Circle in a rented car that will cost you only about 9,000 Krona, or $75, even when you rent it that very day.
The Golden Circle is a popular tourist drive that spans south Iceland hotspots, all within a few hours’ drive of Reykjavik. The route includes historical sites like Þingvellir National Park (pronounced like “Thingvellir”), which is the home of the world’s first parliamentary system.
The next stop is the Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) waterfall and the geothermal area of Haukadalur, which features 100-foot spouting geysers like Geysir and Strokkur.
The landscape outside of Reykjavik feels expansive and mysterious: so barren of trees and covered in lava rock that is almost feels martian at times. But the countryside is as beautiful as it is sprawling, and relatively simple to navigate with a GPS or road map.
Unwinding Like a Local
Almost every restaurant in Reykjavik doubles over as a cafe where patrons will relax and unwind with a cup of coffee, book, or laptop. But my favorite place to unwind in the afternoon was Te og Kaffi. Te og Kaffi (or, “Tea and Coffee”) seems to be the Starbucks of Iceland — they’re a by-the-book coffee house with at least three locations (that I know of) within a mile of each other in downtown Reykjavik.
The feel of these coffee houses is polished, professional, and corporate. But like everywhere else in Iceland, even the most corporate and professional of businesses and storefronts have a homey, small-town, personal feel. The people behind the counters at Te og Kaffi are spectacularly friendly and, damn, the coffee is good.
In the bright summer evenings, most weekend nights don’t start until 12:00 AM or 1:00 AM, and last well after sunrise. Living like a local in Reykjavik means taking advantage of the dusky-evenings pictured above (that’s an overcast 11 PM on a June evening).
By night, the streets are swarmed with well-dressed party-goers until 5:00 AM. The relatively-modest nightlife of Reykjavik, which by New York City standards is tame though lively, features extremely fashionable locals meandering from bar to bar and food stand to food truck. Young men in the city typically wear suits and sports coats; the local ladies deck out in heels, short skirts, and designer tops.
The English Pub features nightly live music that serenades patrons who pay 1,500 Krona (or $12) to spin a big “Wheel of Fortune” style wheel that hovers above the bar — it’s a game of chance that could reward (to use the term loosely) you and your friends with alcoholic prizes that range from a “meter of beer” and “10 beers” to shots of the local black licorice liqueur Opal. It’s a fun place that gets crowded on weekends and seems to be the, “I know it’s only Tuesday but we’re going to do it up tonight anyway” location in town. You’ll leave here anticipating a hangover in the morning.
However, if you’re looking for a lower-key environment to enjoy some nightlife, you can make your way to the Danish Pub (or, Danski barinn), which is the yin to the English Pub’s yang. The Danish Pub features a handful of televisions for sports games, but great live music and an older, more traditional crowd that welcomes you into their relaxed atmosphere.
Living Like a Local in Iceland
I hope these tips give you plenty of ways to tap into the pace and flow of life in Reykjavik, Iceland. Beyond all else, the best way to get into life like a local is to meet locals — and luckily for us tourists, Icelandic culture is extremely warm, accommodating, and friendly. If you have any friends who have been to Iceland before, or have a friend of a friend who has, chances are strong that you can connect with a handful of locals or fellow travelers through Facebook or email well before you arrive.
Of course, that’s the best way to live like a local. Throw yourself into wherever your Icelandic friends-of-friends feel called to take you. Sit in the energy, culture, pace, and flow of whatever life in Iceland has to offer you.
All photos are courtesy of the author.