Iceland's capital city Reykjavik is half quaint and charming and half primed for tourists. At times it can feel difficult to break away from the gimmicky establishments (Brooklyn Bar and Chuck Norris Grill) and large groups of men doing bachelor parties, but if you keep your eyes open, there are some real gems hidden in the city's nooks and crannies.
KEX Hostel is something of a hipster hub in Reykjavik, for travelers and locals alike, due to it's trendy bar and restaurant and intentionally grungy vintage industrial aesthetic. KEX does a lot of things right: the beds are comfortable, the prices are good (if you go with the massive 16-bed mixed gender dorm), the place is secure (with plenty of lockers), kitchens on every floor, and generally cool vibe. I found the bathroom situation to be a little lacking though, and the dim, moody lighting can make things feel a little dirty. And while the slightly fringe location makes it a little off the beaten path for your typical tourist, getting to other places downtown (in a fairly small city) will cost you in walking time.
I didn't stay in this hostel, so I have no right to an opinion about it, but it's located very centrally on a main commercial street and every time we passed the downstairs bar/restaurant looked trendy and lively.
FOOD & DRINK
Til recently, I doubt many people would think of good food when they think of Iceland, but the influx of tourists to the country and specifically the capital city means that there's no shortage of options for actually great meals.
cafe/bar/restaurant // $
Very chill bar & restaurant with a local vibe, great place for a casual meal and a beer. The fish burger here was great.
cafe/restaurant // $$
Laundromat is lauded by just about every visitor to Reykjavik, and reasonably so. It's laid-back and cool, think diner in Portland, Oregon. Great spot for breakfast/brunch.
restaurant // $
Asian food in Iceland is fortunately better than the Mexican food. Super casual with counter service, this place is relatively cheap. Chicken ramen is just the thing to warm your cold, cold heart.
restaurant // $$$$
For a fancy, modern meal complete with cocktails incorporating traditional Icelandic ingredients, check out Grillmarkaðurinn, hidden behind Caruso at the corner of Lækjargata and Austurstræti. The interior is beautiful and chic, and while the food is a splurge, it's fun, innovative, and delicious. As tourists we had to try whale and puffin, and Grillmarkaðurinn offers an appetizer of sliders featuring both as well as langoustine.
cafe // $
If you're a hipster coffee snob, Reykjavik Roasters won't disappoint. Their coffee, while it took forever, was hotter than the sun. And tasted pretty good, I guess. The scone with cheese and jam was excellent.
bar // $$
If you like traditional Irish pubs with traditional Irish/British bartenders, this place definitely sells alcohol.
bar // $$$
Wanna pretend you're in Hawaii instead of frigid Iceland? Wanna pay too much money for a bad tiki drink prepared by a 15-year old? Sure you do, it's vacation. While the drinks leave a lot to be desired, the DJ here on a Saturday night was on point (if you like classic 80s and 90s hits.)
bar // $
As of the time I'm writing this, every Monday night at Gaukurinn is open-mic night in English, featuring mostly Icelandic performers committed to making you laugh in their second language. It's definitely worth checking out for the uniquely Icelandic perspective, "reasonably" priced beers at happy hour (comparatively speaking) and refreshing lack of frat boys. And I believe Tuesday nights are karaoke - trust, Icelandic people can sing.
beer bar // $$
This bar is small, as the name suggests, but offers a wide selection of craft and local beers. The atmosphere almost feels more like a hotel cafe, they really make a point of not playing music, so don't come here with boring people.
SIGHTS & ATTRACTIONS
Stay tuned for an in-depth post about Iceland as a whole, as the best parts of it are found in nature far from the cities. Below are a few things in or very near to Reykjavik, easily do-able without a rental car.
People will sometimes talk shit about The Blue Lagoon, because it's touristy, but like, duh. It's also awesome. If you like swimming, spas, hot tubs, etc. The Blue Lagoon is a great way to spend a day, especially if you're hungover. And it's big enough that even if there are a lot of people, it doesn't feel crowded. You'll need to take a ~1 hour bus ride from Reykjavik to get there, but they run quite often.
Golden Circle Tours
The most popular sight-seeing option for tourists staying just in Reykjavik, I think these depart quite often and include sights within Þingvellir National Park such as Gulfoss Waterfall as well as Geysir.
The Settlement Exhibition
An indoor display of an ancient longhouse settlement excavated in Downtown Reykjavik. If you like vikings, history, really old stuff, it's something to do.
Whale Watching & Puffin Tours
We didn't do one of these! They are a little pricey, and time-consuming, so plan in advance and leave early in the day.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
We didn't check this place out, though we really wanted to. From their website: "The Icelandic Phallological Museum contains a collection of more than two hundred and fifteen penises and penile parts belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland".
This is a really cool church in the center of Reykjavik. For something like $6 you can take an elevator to the top for a pretty nice view of the city spread out below.