After first arriving in Iceland, you might feel the traveler’s well-known, knee-jerk reaction to head to the nearest museum, art gallery, or historical landmark to get yourself deeply acquainted. With over 20 museums in the capital alone, you’ll find no shortage of pleasing cultural tributes, ranging from art and music to Vikings and archeology and including quirky exhibits that perfectly capture the island’s unique sense of humor.
Should history fall short in providing you with a sense of wonder, just step outside and look around– Iceland is touted as one of the most beautiful countries on Earth for its dangerously elegant ice caves, its lush canvas of vibrant natural colors, and its impossibly green fjords. Even in the depths of a frigid winter, Iceland glistens like pristine glass under the aurora borealis.
The real majesty of this almost otherworldly place, however, is the local atmosphere. How do Icelanders live their lives from day to day? What makes this natural wonderland a place to call “home” for over 300,000 people? Authenticity is more often found in the streets, among the sights, sounds, and locals that bring Iceland to vivid life.
How to Eat like a Local
The country’s largest city and capital, Reykjavik, provides a vast mural of activities for anyone to enjoy. Described as “compact,” this colorful swatch of Iceland is not just a haven for tourists, but an active local hangout that provides entertainment of all types. Most notably, however, is the large range of excellent quality cafés and restaurants in this area, some tucked away and hidden from plain sight.
One such eatery, the Laundromat Café, combines both excellent food and a busy environment, as well as featuring an actual laundromat in the lower section of the building. Their menu is as colorful as their venue, boasting delicious meals like Pulled Duck Burger, described as, “duck legs confit on brioche bun, mixed salad, dijonnaise, pickled red onions, and Cheddar cheese,” and a wholesome “clean vegetarian brunch” for its non-meat eating patrons (loaded with vegetables, hummus, and gourmet cheese, and served with seasonal fruits). The unique combination of laundry, Internet, and comfort food draws in a varied crowd and the café proudly invites its guests to let their little ones enjoy the playroom while their parents enjoy a fine meal.
Gelato and ice cream are, unquestionably, an Icelander’s favorite desserts, and the locals are proud of it. Some favorite parlors include Eldur and Is, a coffee and ice cream shop located on Skólavörðustígur that serves 4.8-star rated crepes, ice cream (with specialty flavors like sweet custard, banana, and apple) and a locally famous Toblerone hot chocolate. A short distance away on Laugavegur is Bada Bing, selling a wide variety of frozen treats that include unique flavors, like licorice and Daim (a popular Swedish candy bar made into a delectable ice cream).
Finally, with reviews that mark it as, “the best ice cream in Reykjavik,” Paradis Ice Cream on Njálsgata takes the “scoop,” so to speak, for the number one ice cream parlor to visit in the city. Their menu offers well over 100 different gourmet flavors of ice cream, each created from scratch, making a simple trip for dessert into a gastrointestinal adventure. Some of the most tantalizing flavors include Blood Orange Sorbet, Forest Berry Cheesecake, and Piedmont Roasted Hazelnut, all handcrafted with fresh, organic ingredients that day. Best of all, their online menu offers detailed information about each flavor and its nutritional content, ingredients, and a delectable description of the taste.
How to Shop like a Local
A hot spot for both locals and tourists alike, Reykjavik boasts a special shopping district located on the famous streets called Skólavörðustígur, a main roadway in the capital that combines art, history, and shopping, and Laugavegur, one of the most historical streets in the city. Skólavörðustígur leads directly to the largest church in the entire country, Hallgrímskirkja, a powerful and angularly elegant church that can be observed from every area of the city.
A notable shop in the district is The Handknitting Association of Iceland, where those who are particularly crafty will find a heavenly display of Icelandic wool, knitting supplies, and gorgeous, handknit goods for sale. Just a short walk from Hallgrímskirkja, this cozy shop has everything from yarn to completed blankets, and holds an excellent visitor rating. Their handcrafted sweaters feature traditional Icelandic patterns, allowing you to look like a local, too.
For those who are musically inclined, a trip to Reykjavik’s 2006 Shop of the Year 12 Tónar is a must– with amenities like books about rock music and free coffee, weekly concerts, and a welcoming atmosphere, this record shop is equal parts hang out and music venue, with a splash of literature. Customers tout it as, “the best store in Iceland,” and a bad review is not to be found, earning it a consistent 5-star rating. Aside from its lively day-to-day activities, 12 Tónar is also an independent record label that holds regular meetings with artists on-site, often a spectacle in and of itself.
How to Play like a Local
After a long day of adventuring up and down the bustling streets of the shopping district, take a wallow in the locally famous Vesturbæjarlaug, a community pool featuring hot tubs, sauna, and steam rooms for your enjoyment. According to locals, this spot is perfect for mingling in the intimate details of the city, often home to lively political discussions and group outings. Its central location is the perfect nearby respite for those looking for a way to unwind, simply a short walk from what is called the “city center,” and visitors of all ages are welcome. Vesturbæjarlaug is just one of 17 community pools located in Reykjavik, and purchasing a Reykjavik City Card is highly recommended, as it allows one free access to any of the area’s thermal pools.
Nauthólsvík, the capital city’s geothermal beach, is the Icelander’s very own piece of Xanadu. This gorgeous beach has been engineered to filter in geothermal water to keep the water warm in the summer, providing the islanders with a toasty paradise of around 66 degrees. The nearby “hot-pot” averages a steamy 100 degrees year-round, perfect for rest and relaxation. If you seek an extra level of authenticity, try cold-water swimming in the winter with the locals, an intense activity that originated in ancient times.
If you’re up for more than a swim, you might try the ancient Viking sport of kubbu. This summer game is a local favorite all through the season, and is almost always described as “a combination of horseshoes and bowling.” On a beautiful day, you might see a few games in action at Klambratún, a large, serene park near the city, where locals of any age go to enjoy the fleeting rays of summer sunshine.