We ended our 10-day road-trip across Iceland with two nights in the quaint, colourful city of Reykjavik on Iceland’s south west coast. Having spent the previous week exploring the vast, isolated Icelandic countryside, it was nice to end it off with some city energy and bustle. We’d seen so few people on our road-trip that being back in civilisation almost felt a little bit odd.
Reykjavik is home to 280 000 of the country’s total population of 300 000. It was established in AD 874, however no urban development took place until the 19th century. In 1786 the city was classified a trading town and it grew steadily over the decades. Reykjavik is among the cleanest, greenest, and safest cities in the world.
The city is small, colourful and totally navigable by foot. A great way to see the city is through a walking food tour; we booked ours through Wake Up Reykjavik and set off one rainy afternoon to explore this picturesque little place with our smoking-hot tour guide, Gabriella. The tour covered some decent ground and we ate 6 mostly traditional meals along the way. Our starting point was Harpa, Reykjavik’s unmistakable concert hall and conference centre, and we walked a short distance to our first meal, traditional Icelandic lamb soup at one of Reykjavik’s oldest pubs, Íslenski Barinn. Gabriella obviously reckoned we were three badass babes (that, or she wanted to mess with us), because she quickly gestured to the waiter to bring us what we’d later find out she reserves for only a few of her guests, those she feels are brave enough. A little glass jar containing small white blocks of meat and toothpicks arrived and was placed, ominously, in the centre of the table. The jar contained blocks of fermented shark meat and we were about to experience our first truly Icelandic food tradition. Fermented shark has been around for centuries and is not commonly eaten by youngsters, however you’ll find it at traditional celebrations and is a firm favourite among the older generations. I can safely say fermented shark is probably the worst thing I’ve ever eaten; it seems okay at first and then your senses are assaulted with ammonia. As Natalie very accurately put it, “it tastes like you’re eating highlights”.
Gross, but totally worth the experience.
Next we set off up Skólavörðustígur towards Hallgrimskirkja, the Cathedral atop the hill in the middle of Reykjavik. Skólavörðustígur is a quaint little street lined with boutiques, restaurants and shops selling cheesy Icelandic souvenirs (avoid those with polar bears outside, Iceland doesn’t even have polar bears!). We nipped into a little delicatessen, Ostabúðin, on the high street where Gabriella made herself right at home behind the counter and took us through a cured meat and cheese tasting. It’s near impossible to leave this little shop empty-handed; I bought myself some black volcanic salt, home-made in Iceland.
A short walk up the hill towards the Cathedral we found ourselves inside a funny little restaurant called Café Loki, eating some sort of unidentifiable ice-cream topped with cream. Turns out this delicious, textured, malty ice-cream is made from the bits of rye bread that go unused in the baking process; delicious!
We descended the city through the colourful suburbs of Reykjavik, past the school Gabriella went to as a kid. It was so wonderful to be with a guide born and bred in Iceland (Reykjavik, in fact), as it gave us an opportunity to ask the hundreds of questions we had and to gain a little clarity on the country and culture. For example, we learned that Iceland has its own version of Tinder to ensure you don’t end up shagging your cousin. As you can imagine, with a population this small, incest is rife.
Back into the hustle and bustle of it all, we were led to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for one of Reykjavik’s best hot-dogs. Iceland is famous for its gas-station hot-dogs. And they’re not the nasty kind you might find in a South African petrol station next to a 4 day old sausage roll, either. These bad-boys are gourmet and will cost you about R350; eventually this will feel cheap in comparison to general food and drink prices.
We walked along the misty, moody harbour to Kopar for belly laughs and creamy lobster soup with freshly baked bread. As we sat in this old wood-paneled fisherman’s haunt warming the cockles of our hearts with piping hot feel-good fare, we asked Gabriella to help us pronounce the Icelandic words and place names we’d been butchering along our trip. These were some of the biggest laughs we had on our adventure.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to tell you that I’m extremely proud of myself for somehow successfully learning to pronounce that volcano’s name: Eyjafjallajökull.
Note to self: add skill to LinkedIn profile.
No progressive party is complete without a little something sweet, no? Apotek is a magnificent restaurant and patisserie where desserts, chocolates and macarons are handcrafted daily. Inspired by all things apothecary, the space is super sexy but warm and inviting too. I can’t even begin to describe the dessert we had; the imposing ball that sat in the centre of my plate was like nothing I’d ever seen or eaten before. I believe pastry chef Axel Þorsteinsson uses a spray technique to achieve a tennis ball like texture across his desserts with white chocolate. OMG. I would’ve loved to have had a meal at Apotek, however time was limited. They also offer half-price drinks and cocktails daily between 3-6PM which is a great way to make that sad little Rand go a little further.
I recommend exploring Reykjavik this way as you get all the insight of a local foodie, plus you have a dedicated tour-guide for four hours AND you’re having 6 meals along the way. Wake up Reykjavik also offer a bar crawl and a beer tour if that’s better suited to your thirsty needs. You can book a daily tour with Wake Up Reykjavik here.
Two excellent meals we had independently of our food tour with Wake Up Reykjavik were:
This was a real treat on our trip and we decided to go the whole hog (almost quite literally) and experience the famed Tasting Menu for a cool KR10,900 per person. Steep, but so worth it if you have an adventurous palette and enjoy the theatre of food. Their cocktails are excellent, as is the design of this magnificent restaurant. I felt like we were sitting in a turf house from the future, grassy walls n’ all.
We found Noodle Station by chance on our last night in the city; it was around the corner from our apartment and it was packed, always a good sign. They offer 3 soups only: chicken, beef and vegetarian. That’s it! Simple, but packed with flavour. We took ours home and relished our final few hours in this magnificent place as soft snow fell outside.
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