It’s 3pm local time. We’ve been up since the previous morning, and are sat in a pair of chairs next to our arrival gate in Reykjavík. Our Airbnb key is somewhere in Düsseldorf due to some classic Airbnb confusion, and I’ve decided I just want to go home. I don’t care how great the coffee is, how close we’ve come to seeing Radiohead play live, how near we are to four days away. I’m done. Let’s turn back.
Iceland was far and away the strangest place I’ve ever been. I’ve worked with Icelandic people for nearly five years, often as the only English member of the team, finding the language impossible to pick up even in the tiniest phrases, learning that the Icelandic schnapps, Brennivín, is the best way to get someone talking. Making light of their football team is the worst. I heard about 24 hour daylight during summer and Solstice parties and volcanos. Waterfalls, elves and a population the size of Leicester. So when we couldn’t make it to Primavera to see Radiohead this year, we decided to head north instead. We caught a flight to Iceland, spent more money than usual on an Airbnb that actually looked quite cosy: No terracota tiles and linen curtains that our other summer holiday trips were full of. We needed blackout blinds, decent blankets and a coffee machine.
Our time in Reykjavík was a strip of singular, wonderful, dream-like days. I don’t mean that purely in a romantic sense- I mean they were eery, the dead of night bleeding into morning, huge, massive skylines and the never leaving awareness that you really were walking about a rock on top of the world.
I know it’s not my usual style, but I’m going to include loads of tips on being in Reykjavík in general, because it’s really worth the extra research to get everything you can out of your time away there.
General tips about Iceland from a total novice that can still maybe help other novices
Choose to go in the winter or summer
Plan your holiday around what Iceland can offer during those times- in winter the Northern Lights are the main attraction. In summer, you’ll be able to go chasing waterfalls, hiking and trekking about more, but the Northern Lights will be almost impossible to find. There’s little to no point trying to do it the other way around.
Get ready to not sleep...
... If you're going in summer. We went right over Summer Solstice (that’s when the Secret Solstice Festival) was on, meaning the darkest it got at about 2am was about a 7pm during the height of summer in the UK. As someone who’s always resented sleep a bit, I loved a reason to come home at 1am and start cooking dinner- maybe watch a film… but it messed up my boyfriend’s sleep big time. If you’re sensitive to daylight, bring eye masks and make sure you’re staying somewhere with decent curtains. It is really disorientating.
Plan your activities before you go
Both my boyfriend and I love winging stuff when we’re away. Truth be told we’d usually rather drink an extra coffee in a sidestreet cafe than rush off to fit in another museum. But in Iceland the activities are AMAZING and if you don’t plan enough time to travel or wait for coaches, you might have to miss out on something legitimately life changing. It's that kind of place. We decided to have a chill few days and didn’t do any of the nearby waterfalls or other outdoor lagoons, which we’ll definitely be doing next time.
A lot of things are really, really expensive, but you can still get by on about £60 a day
Iceland was the most expensive holiday my boyfriend and I have been on, and we only went for four days. Although I’m a huge fan of budgeting and doing things on the cheap, if you’re going with any less than £50 each per day, you’re probably not going to be able to do all that much. We decided to only eat out for lunches and make our dinners at home. By the end of the trip we were barely wincing at brunch coming to £30 each- if it were dinner it would have been double with all the drinks we would have wanted.
Bring alcohol with you
As we were off to a festival, we decided to pick up a bottle of tequila (lol) in Duty Free before flying out to Iceland. We also bought some wine in Duty Free when we got to Iceland- the main thing to avoid is buying it when you’re in Reykjavík- it’s really expensive and the government-run shops that sell it are hard to find. There also didn’t seem to be a culture for roaming around drunk in the centre of town so use your own common sense and don’t be that guy.
There’s loads of secret stuff to do in Iceland. We already had our times full with going to the festival, the Blue Lagoon and checking out lots of vegan places in Reykjavík, but it was only when I got back that I read about the secret park, Elliðaárdalur, as well as loads of nearby waterfalls we could have found. If you have time, have a look on the Reykjavík geotags and see what other locals and tourists are up to- it’s a good way of making sure you’re seeing as much as you can.
I had been quite worried about how much it would cost to eat vegan food in Reykjavík, but my friend Phoebe of @phiberlinalou assured me the supermarket produce would be affordable, it’s just when you’re trying to buy imported items that things get expensive, and she was totally right.
Bonus is the cheapest supermarket, but it still has plenty of health food options and there’s a vegan frozen food range, so it’s really easy to eat vegetarian and vegan even if you’re just cooking in your Airbnb kitchen. We had things like pasta with roasted vegetables, salad and homemade garlic bread that we made ourselves for dinner- which might not be the most authentic of meals in Iceland, but it meant we could then eat out and try all the local delicacies at breakfast or lunch. The main thing to watch out for is the fresh produce in supermarkets- we nearly spent £4 on one cucumber, £3.50 on red peppers. Think about it- Iceland is an island set way out to sea, over 1100 miles from London, it’s not easy to get a lot of produce there!
Look out for the currency conversion
The currency is not easy to convert into sterling and things are priced so differently that it’s easy to buy something for £4 thinking it was only 40p, or £22 thinking it was £2.20! Even when you’re shopping in the supermarket, have your phone’s calculator out handy so you can make sure you’re really only spending £1.20 on dry pasta, and even write out a little conversion table if you’re headed out drinking so you can make a quick rough estimate of how much your round will cost.
And now, time for some vegan recommendations!
There was so much choice in Reykjavík. It totally blew me away. Even for vegetarians- I think you’d probably find it easier going vegan for a few days - there were signs everywhere in the centre of Reykjavík, vegan crepes, pizza toppings, tofu, brunch plates- loads. Considering the city is quite affluent and there’s a fair amount of business travel and tourism through the capital (compared to the size of the population), I think if anything the options for vegans will just get better as word spreads. It is possible to be vegan in Reykjavik- and damn you’ll get to eat well.
Kaffi Vinyl was top of my to do list and I loved coming here- it’s on a road running parallel to the main street, Laugavegur, in Reykjavik, and they’ve recently turned into a totally vegan cafe. This place reminded me a lot of East Berlin joints- vinyl and coffee, a few cakes and a nice succinct menu. We had strong flat whites and shared a cookie- we didn’t get to eat a meal here but if you’re looking for a vegan base while you’re away, I think Kaffi would do nicely.
The Old Harbour is going through loads of regeneration- it felt a lot like walking around parts of Brick Lane in London or even Copenhagen’s Meatpacking district. I’m sure in a year or so it’ll be even more so. When we visited there were shipping containers being transformed overnight into playgrounds, and there are lots of new warehouse spaces and bars like Bryggjan Brugghús opening up. Inside, it’s warm (v important), cosy and had that down-lighting, kinda Shoreditch House vibe that makes you feel like writing off the rest of the day’s plans. You’ll find that if you’re in Reykjavík over the weekend, a lot of places will swap out their usual menu for a simplified brunch menu- so make sure there are vegan options for brunch too. For our first trip, I went with the Wave Brunch Plate of avocado toast, tomatoes, dill, homemade hummus, melon, grilled mushrooms and sweet potato with pecans and kale, and the shoestring fries my boyfriend couldn’t finish. For the second trip, I had a vegan club sandwich and sweet potato fries- also great- and could have gone for some mushroom tacos too.
We arrived at Hannersaholt, Iceland’s first Prime Minister’s house and a UNESCO world heritage site the day after we saw Radiohead- bleary eyed, headaches en route, ready for a huge brunch. I’d Googled ‘Reykjavík vegan brunch’, and, as I’m beginning to see, ended up in another unlikeliest-of-places. Just one street off the beaten tourist track, you arrive at a stately-ish home feeling a little under-dressed. There’s a meat and dairy brunch plate or a totally vegan one, with blueberry pancakes, maple syrup, fruit salad, roasted root vegetables, scrambled tofu, aubergine bacon, pickled onion, beetroot and walnut dip and a mini smoothie- as well as Icelandic bread. For our entire meal, we were only joined in the restaurant by one other group- and when we left it felt like we’d dreamt it. It felt like the brunch of requirement.
When I’m staying self-catered, I love waking up knowing there’s good bread in the place, maybe some juice and some peanut butter- and it’s also nice to find out where the good local bakery is, as opposed to just eating out in restaurants or cafes. Sandholt is on Laugavegur, the main street, and while it is really expensive, the freshly baked bread is great and the coffee was spot on. We made seitan chicken schnitzel sandwiches and had it for breakfast the next day.
Like Denmark, Iceland takes its coffee very seriously, and there are some brilliant roasteries in the city. One of the best coffees we had was at Kaffitár’s branch in the National Museum of Iceland, which is also a great place to walk to if it’s raining or you’d like to understand a bit more about what makes Iceland such a unique country! My boyfriend and I stayed for nearly two hours reading everything we could about the country’s past, and it gave us loads of context to everything else we saw and experience in Iceland.
Other places to try
If you’re travelling with non-vegans, it’s likely they’re going to want to try the seafood and freshly caught fish on offer, so if they’re the persuadable types, see if you can steer them to a fish restaurant where they also have a feasible vegan option- like Reykjavik Fish and Chips, where I had a zoodled beetroot salad and chips, and although it wasn’t the most exciting vegan option ever, it meant my omni boyfriend ate the food he wanted to for that meal, and we could look for somewhere totally vegan the next time we ate out.
Places I didn’t get to try but looked great
Reykjavík Chips were recommended to me by Kish from @tinietempeh as being a really good budget meal if money gets tight, who also recommended Passion Bakery, where you can pick up vegan croissants! Eldur & ÍS original kept on tempting us with vegan crepes on the main high street, but it was never quite cold enough for it, so definitely look out for them if you go in winter. Gló, another place Kish recommends on her Insta, is one of the best known vegan places in Reykjavik- they had a stand at the festival we were there for, although I didn’t get to try them, everything I’ve read has said they’re great!
Bring snacks to the Blue Lagoon! There was nothing for vegans to eat in the cafe there, and it was super expensive. Remember how hungry you’d get as a child after swimming lessons? Yeah, bring snacks.
There were quite a few options for vegans at the airport, but it was also super expensive. It makes me wince to say it, but the meal above was our most expensive the whole time we were in Iceland- I think mine cost £15, which for what I got, is absurd. I stupidly got tempted into the idea of a breakfast buffet, before realising I definitely couldn't eat much more than salad and bread...
What you can find in the supermarkets
As mentioned, Bonus is the most affordable supermarket while a few others will do more of the kind of produce you might see in Whole Foods or Planet Organic. Bonus as great though- I found vegan ice cream, seitan chicken steaks, soy yoghurt and soy milk.
Things we made ourselves
It’s one thing saying ‘oh, just self-cater if you’re looking to save money’, but I know it’s also easy to get carried away when you’re having to cook without any supplies. On our first whole day we made a big, simple pasta sauce with roasted vegetables of courgette, mushroom and carrots, plus bread rolls, salad and our Duty Free wine.
For another night in, I made chickpea and cauliflower curry with turmeric rice, salad leaves and vegan yoghurt.
For breakfasts I bought a pack of frozen berries which I ate a handful of each day with some plain muesli and soy yoghurt.
The night before we left we also made seitan chicken schnitzel burgers with a french bread loaf, the remaining salad leaves and a little ketchup, which were also ideal drunken munchies.
Iceland was a total adventureland. I thought it would feel way more Scandinavian, but the main high street in Reykjavík feels more like a cosmopolitan ski town, with hardly any chain shops and a lot of independent businesses that you can tell are flourishing. Reykjavik is a great base for other travels you might want to do around the country, so I’d say if you are going on a road trip, use it to stock up on vegan supplies and try out a few restaurants and bars while you are there. I can’t wait to come back to Iceland to explore more of the island- this was an unforgettable start to our adventures there.