I first went to Iceland about 20 years ago and I've been back at least 12 times since -- I'm obsessed with the place! I even wrote a book, Iceland on Screen, which is published in 2022.
So I offer a few tips for other visitors. Of course you might get better recommendations from an actual Icelanders!
Note: some places might have closed during the pandemic so doublecheck before going out of your way….
EATING & DRINKING
My fave restaurant in town is a not-extremely-fancy but delicious place called Messin – they do a great lunch deal where you get choose a fish pan with different options of fish and sauce and potatoes. Just the best seafood!
Love the bakery called Brauð & Co great for cinnamon buns and cake. Maybe the best cinnamon buns in the world (and I have tasted them all) Owned by an Icelandic film producer too (Thor Sigurjonsson). Several branches in Reykjavik.
Sandholt bakery is another great one. A French guy I trust says their croissants are better than in Paris.
Deig tryggavagata 18 – amazing bagels and donuts. You can get a bagel sandwich, donut and a drink for a very low price (but carb heavy) meal deal! Attached to the hotel which also has a cool bar.
Sushi Social is best sushi
Flatey is best pizza
Ramen Momo – Iceland’s first Ramen joint.
La primavera – regional Italian. Great veal. Also a new branch inside HARPA. Expensive.
Locals recommend brunch at Coocoo’s Nest
Apotek is a good restaurant in town mostly famous for grilled meats and such – the lamb is particularly good. would be good for birthday dinner
Snaps is like a bistro, has a good lunch deal every day too.
Dragon Dimsum. Prawn gyoza and the shitake dumplings are mind-blowingly good
Hornid is the old-school Italian restaurant in the city. Laid back and good.
There is a branch of UK brewery BrewDog in downtown, too.
Dill is Reykjavik’s only Michelin star restaurant, expensive but lovely for a special occasion
Down by the harbour is a newish great seafood restaurant called Kopar, we had a great set menu with lots of little dishes but they might just do normal a la carte too.
There are two fun foodhalls – one at Hlemmur (old bus station) and one at Grandi
The SeaBaron has famous fish/lobster soup (also by the harbour)
Hverfisgata 12 used to be a great pizza restaurant with a branch of Danish beerhall Mikkeller too. But I think the pizza place is closed, although there is something good usually in this space!
Reykjavik's most famous hot dog stand – get one with everything!
another good one is Icelandic Fish & Chips, Tryggvagata 8 (down by the harbour) organic, really good, some of best fish & chips
best burgers Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar a divey little burger spot by the harbour
Cafe Rosenberg GREAT place for cafe style music. Good bar, too:
Good café and wine bar at Hverfisgata 18 called Mikki Refur. Lots of organic wines. Owned by a screenwriter!
Kiki – the best gay bar in town.
Session Craft Bar – one for craft beer lovers
Kafebarinn is the famous bar that was once partly owned by Damon Albarn of Blur. it’s small and fun! Famously Featured in Baltasar Kormakur's 101 Reykjavik
KEX Hostel is a very cool place to grab a drink (not very hostel-y in the traditional sense, it’s cooler than that and has a more mixed age crowd) they might also have some live music like jazz on Tusday
Boston is a fun bar, it’s upstairs on the main shopping street Laugavegi 28b – it’s probably one of the most popular bars in RVK
if you want to see actually Icelandic people (without tourists) in a downtown bar try a classic divey boozer called Olstofa
SIGHTSEEING & ACTIVITIES
If you’re going to do a lot around town, you might want to buy a Reykjavik City Card, which gives you free buses, museum entries, and visits to public pools!
going to the public pools in Reykjavik is fantastic. a social tradition for locals who go most every day, not just for lap swimming for sitting in the 'hot pots' too. several are walkable from downtown.
Vesturbaejarlaug is on the west side. Great hotpots (hot tubs) and a sauna and steamroom too. A lot of filmmakers go to this one (and Bjork sometimes too).
Laaugardalslaug is the biggest pool and the one with a slide for kids. Also has good hotpots (hot tubs).
There is recently refurbed pool called Sundholl that’s just behind the big church on the hill (nice steam room there as well as huge hot tub). But pool itself is a bit smaller than those other two
the Bio Paradis cinema, is a really cool hangoutspot in Downtown Reykjavik anyway (cafe/bar). they sometimes also show icelandic classics with English subtitles
Reykjavik Art Museum is worth a wander around, I kind of prefer the branch that’s got outdoor sculptures too (Ásmundarsafn)
Olafur Eliasson’s studio may or may not be open (around Grandi foodhall)
Maritime Museum also interesting
All the international flights go into Keflavik which is about an hour from Reykjavik, transfers are very easy. The famed Blue Lagoon is near the airport so you should do it either coming into Reykjavik or departing on your way home. They are used to tourists doing this and have places you securely store your luggage, etc. while you go into the Lagoon. It’s crowded so they’ve started selling tickets with an hour of entry, you buy one at Blue Lagoon website. The best tour companies in Reykjavik are Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line, they both do day tours and also trips to the Blue Lagoon.
Newly opened in 2021 is Sky Lagoon, a similar experience to Blue Lagoon but in Reykjavik suburbs so MUCH closer. Can do a tour to there with the bus companies or just take a taxi. I think the whole package experience they offer is good to stump for (amazing views from the sauna), otherwise you are just in the water the whole time. Which isn’t bad in itself, mind you.
We haven’t gone whale watching, I read some reviews that lots of people get seasick but who knows some people also told me it was good.
The Harpa concert hall is really cool just to go in and see even if you’re not going to a concert. nice café and bar areas, and great views from the top floors. Nice (expensive) restaurant too.
out of town the day tours are really great that go to the Golden Circle, and I’d recommend the one that also stops at Fontana Wellness Spa too, it’s a nice geothermal spa place. http://www.fontana.is/
Settlement Museum is interesting history.
Shop like the locals at Kronan or Bonus the discount supermarket, also there is a big Netto down by old harbour that’s open late.
There are several minimarts called 1011 around Reykjavik, very handy for snacks and stuff. Like 7-11 I guess! Make sure you eat the Icelandic skyr, like yogurt but even better for you
There is a flea market every Saturday I think down by the harbour
Best Record store in Reykjavik is 12 Tonar, where Johan Johansson used to hang out. They give you free coffee while you shop!
is the top cold-weather gear (coats, etc). very expensive but lasts a lifetime. Also they have an outlet – last season’s coats and stuff - Faxafen 12, 108 Reykjavik
Icelanders love their books and Eymundsson is the best bookstore
I’ve stayed at a nice hotel called Iceland Air Reykjavik Marina (doesn’t sound nice but it was, although we had one room there that was tiny and one that was much better ) Centerhotel Plaza is fine and in good location but nothing too fancy
Hotel Centrum is next door to that good location might be slightly better rooms
Hotel Holt is a really classic hotel, a bit old fashioned but I loved it, great leather sofas in lobby, amazing art on the walls, probably my fave hotel I've stayed there, excellent location. (has had a recent refurb I think)
Exeter is a trendy hotel near the harbour, I liked it. Fun bar downstairs too… (they do sort of nachos with potatoes. Sounds weird but delicious) and Deir bakery in the lobby too.
Centerhotel Grandi is over by the old harbour, near Maritime museum. Currently overlooks a building site BUT it’s pretty affordable and rooms are large and nicely decorated.
OUTSIDE OF REYKJAVIK
One summer we also flew up to Isafjordur, which was STUNNING and remote. Flights only take an hour, quite cheap and it’s so beautiful up there. (HARDER TO REACH IN WINTER)
there are only two basic hotels there and a few guesthouses. There is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten in the world- Tjoruhusid
amazing fish dishes, only open certain times of year. really stunning restaurant and place. definitely plan to do one of the 'golden circle' tours that take you to tectonic plates, waterfall, etc. great way to see lots in one day from Reykjavik.
down south there is a cool farm/music venue/hangout called Havari (and maybe guest house?)
Glacier Lagoon is probably the most amazing place I’ve ever seen on earth. There are some day trips there from Reykjavik but it’s far, like a 14 hour tour in total. Better to probably do a south coast day or two.
Vik/Reynisfjara – really amazing to visit, on the South Coast. Famous rock formations and black sand beaches.
Where Will Ferrell shot the Volcano Man video for the Eurovision film on lavafields on the Reykjanes peninsula. Also a dramatic spot on the coast to visit. Of course the film also shot up in Husavik which is famous for whalewatching.
Selfoss is a happening little town (big waterfall nearby that you can walk behind) less than 1 hour drive to Reykjavik. Great food hall with bars, really buzzing. Skyr museum is better than it sounds.
The local English weekly newspaper Grapevine is great -- they have good tips on food and drink and everything else, and listings for live music, etc. you will find free copies all over town.
Iceland’s most famous novel is Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, a family saga about a farmer and his daughter. I have it on my bookshelf but havent' delved into it yet.