Iceland has becomes a hot spot for film and TV — Game of Thrones, Thor, Prometheus, and Star Wars were/are filmed there. When the movies and TV shows leave, the tourists arrive to live out real life adventures like their favorite on-screen heroes and heroines. Iceland has certainly benefitted from this bump, with a tourism industry that saw 1.5 million people visiting just last year.
The island country on everyone’s “Travel Hot List” is a little smaller than the state of Colorado, with a population of around 315,000 people. 125,000 of those people are in the capital city Reykjavik. That much open space combined with that small of a population gives Iceland a distinct… quaintness that pairs well with nation’s stunningly natural beauty.
Icelanders built new cruise ship docks and hotels are sprouting like weeds in Reykjavik, so expect tourism to only grow over the next few years. In fact, it might be time to go now — before the place is overrun with thousands of cruisers clogging the streets of the city on a daily basis. And given that any trip to Iceland is going to be based out of Reykjavik, we thought it’d be a good idea to get to know that city a little better and dig deeper with this Insider Travel Guide.
$1= 108 ISK
WHERE TO SLEEP
Reykjavik is a tiny city, or a big town if you will. You can easily walk across the central area in 30 to 40 minutes if the weather is cooperative. There’s a small bus network that’ll get you around to the main spots across the city if the weather isn’t so nice. And there are cabs, but they will be expensive. So, our advice is to find someplace that’s centrally located near Laugavegur Street (Reykjavik’s main drag) and set up camp.
The cheapest option here is going to be a hostel (well, camping if it’s the right season). Bus Hostel Reykjavik has dorm beds starting at $32 and private rooms are $105.
Airbnbs range from around $60 for a private room to $100 and above for a whole pad. Hotels are going to to set you back minimum $100 a night for the bare necessities with breakfast. If you’re able to spend a little more, we’re big fans of Alda Hotel, right on Laugavegur. This spot is the sort of style-infused, luxurious (but in a smart way), sleekly-designed hotel that people go crazy over. We can’t blame them. Get a haircut while hanging in the “Barber Bar” and you’ll see why people love the spot.
WHERE TO EAT
Breakfast — Breakfast tends to side with the Scandanvian favorites — hard-boiled eggs, smoked meats, cheeses, skyr (yoghurt), heavy dark breads, butter, fish, and a nice cup of coffee. If you’re in Iceland in the winter, when the sun is unlikely to rise before 10 or 11 AM, then a good cup of coffee is a must. It’s very likely your hostel, guesthouse, or hotel will offer breakfast with your accommodation. Eat it. Dining out is not cheap in Iceland, so saving cash by not eating out for an entire meal is a what you want to be doing.
If you’re staying somewhere without breakfast, hit Bergsson Mathús. They open at seven AM every morning and offers a beautiful plate of local breakfast foods. There are two locations in town and you should expect to pay at least $15 for breakfast and a coffee.
Lunch — You’ll probably want to save some money here too. You could break the bank and one of Reykjavik’s awesome fish and chip shops, but expect to pay around $20 for a basket of cod and chips.
Alternatively, you can hit Bæjarins Beztu for Iceland’s most famous hot dog. There are hot dog stands dotted around the city center, but the one on the corner at Tryggvagata 1 is everyone’s favorite. A traditional dog is going to set you back about $4-$5 depending on the exchange rate and how much you add to it. The standard dog is a mix of beef, lamb, and pork that’s kept nice and warm in water. The buns are standard. The sauces range from a sweeter, darker ketchup to a tarragon remoulade to a pretty standard mustard and mayo. Everyone usually speaks English, but if you want to sound cool order a ‘Pylsur.’
Dinner — Kopar is a great place to finally break the bank a little in Reykjavik. The restaurant was installed into the old Custom’s House right on the city’s harbor and has huge picture windows facing the sea. The menu was devised by chef and co-owner Ylfa Helgadóttir to highlight the wonders of modern Icelandic cuisine with emphasis on the land and sea coming together in delicious harmony. There’s a nine course tasting meal that’ll set you back around $100 or you can order from the menu. Expect to pay from $20-$90 per plate with bottles of wine starting around $75.
Sweet Tooth — Dons Donuts operates out of a small shop and more famously from a food truck at Lækjartorg. Their glazed sugar bombs are often ordered in sets of six or more and topped with a smorgasbord of sweets, syrups, and candy of your choosing. They’re donuts covered in nostalgia, what more could you want? Plus, you’ll likely need the sugar boost if it’s winter and the sun is already setting at 2:30 in the afternoon.
One Can’t Miss Spot — Dill is the home base of Icelandic wunderkind Chef Gunnar Gíslason. Even though Chef Gíslason recently decamped to New York’s Grand Central Terminal to open up Agern, Dill is still the shining star of Icelandic and even pan-Scandinavian cuisine. Menu items are pushing the boundaries of food as we know it with techniques deep in the culinary DNA of Iceland. Their starter of a Chicken, yeast, kelp, dill, beetroot, heart, caviar, ash egg served with dung smoked trout is a highlight of where this food has been and where it’s going. A seven course tasting menu will set you back around $140 (another $120 if you also want a wine pairing). There is a smaller five course option for $120 ($99 for wine).
WHERE TO DRINK
Craft Beer — Mikkeller & Friends isn’t exactly Icelandic. The Danish craft brewers do dominate the Scandinavian market though with their decent, well-wrought beers. The beer bar is located in an old four-story building and also boosts a crafty cocktail bar, pizza joint, and full restaurant in case you get hungry. Expect to pay $10-$12 per pint.
The Bryggjan Brugghús — brainchild of brewmaster Bergur Gunnarsson — is often ranked number one amongst locally brewed craft beers in Iceland and you’ll see their bottles at most bars, restaurants, and shops around the country. Their Porter is especially delightful. Expect to pay $4-$5 for a bottle in a shop and $10-$12 for a beer at a bar or restaurant. The brewery also offers 90-minute tours.
MicroBar is a great option if you want to try a little of everything Iceland has to offer on the craft beer and spirits scene. It’s in the basement of the Reykjavik restaurant and gets pretty busy most nights. Expect to pay at least $10 for a pint.
Party — Laugavegur Street is your best bet to party in Reykjavik. The street is basically the city’s main drag that leads to Austurstræti street. Both are where you’ll find the bulk of places to meet people and drink. Places like Ölstofan, Bravó, Veðurbarinn, Kíkí Queer Bar, Lebowski Bar, and more get a lot of local and tourist traffic almost every night (the burgers at Lebowski bar get the job done as well if you’re looking for drunk food). You can hit up happy hours at each place and grab a beer for $6/$7 a pint if you’re up for drinking before dinner. Otherwise expect to pay anywhere from $10-$20 for a drink. We recommend you do some pre-gaming before you go out.
Secret Solstice Festival From June 15th-18th the best party is going to be the a music and art festival celebrating the midnight sun. This year’s line up includes Rick Ross, Foo Fighters, The Prodigy, and Big Sean. There are also events built around boat parties, cave parties, and glacier parties. The midnight sun is when the whole islands lets loose and parties day and (sunny) night. So June is the time to hit Reykjavik. Passes start at around $90.
TOURIST FOR A DAY
As you’ve surely figured out by now, Iceland is not cheap. And, let’s face it, you probably didn’t fly all that way on a budget airline to walk around what’s really just a big town and eat fish and chips. Or maybe you did. That’s cool too. What draws so many to Iceland is its natural wonders — caves, glaciers, thermal hot springs, volcanoes, waterfalls, tectonic plates, beast-filled seas, and so on. Renting a car and paying for gas is one way to go. Or you can book a tour, get bused around to the sights in relative comfort and warmth, and save time trying to navigate a foreign land. If you have a small amount of time to spend in Iceland, then booking a tour makes the most sense from a money standpoint.
Travel companies like Contiki offer a quick in-and-out experience that caters to 18-35 year olds. It’s four days that includes hotel, most meals, and trips out and about in the Icelandic countryside — letting you explore all the major attractions with a guides who know their shit. All in, you’re going to pay about $900 for a relaxing and well put together trip of a lifetime where you literally don’t have to worry about a single detail.
Likewise you can grab a quick tour from the airport, your hotel, or one of the many guides located on Laugavegur Street. Expect tours to set you back $100 for the basics.
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One of the most incredible experiences of my life… packed a 6 pack 🍺, a few mini bottles of champagne 🍾 and hiked 4 miles up a mountain in 25 degrees to a natural hot springs river. 🏃🏼♀️Laid in the 90 degree water drinking, laughing and dancing. Then ran around naked trying to get our clothes back on and hiked back as the sun was setting at 10 pm with our hair frozen solid. Thankful and happy. ❄️
MOVIES TO WATCH BEFORE YOU GO
Iceland is a tiny place. So one can’t expect a massive film industry to be born from 300,000 people. Still there are some soulful and iconic films that come out of Iceland that offer a glimpse into the wildness, despair, and beauty of Icelandic life.
Of Horses and Men — Benedikt Erlingsson
Benedikt Erlingsson’s film is a good entry point into the both the quaintness and quirkiness of island life — where everyone is in everyone else’s business. Horses also play a pretty big roll in Icelandic society and this film dives into that relationship while being as snarky and self-depreciating as possible.
[Pro tip: don’t call Icelandic horses ‘small.’ Icelanders considers it a slight and offensive. That being said… their horses are very small]
101 Reykjavik — Baltasar Kormákur
This film is credited with boosting the Icelandic tourism industry after its release for revealing the party and sex scenes in Reykjavik. The film follows a live-at-home 30-something who starts a sexual relationship with his mother’s lesbian lover. It’s a wild and, here again, quirky ride.
Metalhead — Ragnar Bragason
Loss in the ice cold of Iceland is put under the microscope with this mediative movie on a teenaged girl’s grief. She struggles with a distant family that can’t help but blame her a little for her brother’s death by diving deep into heavy metal.
Game of Thrones Season 7
A big portion of Game of Thrones was filmed in Iceland this year with Kit Harington. Also, Game of Thrones is almost back! So get ready to see some of Iceland’s most beautiful scenery creating the mythical backdrop for John Snow’s sulking (and dreamy) eyes.
MUSIC TO LISTEN TO
Sigur Ros and Björk probably come to mind first when you think about Icelandic music, and maybe even Iceland in general. And they’re certainly the heavy weights of that island’s music scene, especially with Sigur Ros gaining even bigger notoriety through Game of Thrones.
Listen to our playlist:
More Reykjavik Photos: