One of the first things I noticed in Iceland was that were no chain restaurants anywhere. No Starbucks, no Dunkin Donuts, not even a 7-11 (which is the lifeline of Japan). It truly has retained its island culture and food is no exception to that.
Like the landscape, food here was unlike anything else I have seen. There are the terrifyingly unique dishes – whale, puffin, horse liver, and fermented shark – and the more approachable delicious plates – fresh fish of the day, well done lamb soup, comforting morning pastries, and even hot dogs. Iceland has its own take on everything, and like it or not, there are no substitutions.
Some trends I noticed with the food:
- Lamb is WAY better tasting here – probably because the animals all roam free, and so “organic” is the norm instead of the exception. Lamb soup is a very popular dish, but some places make it better than others so see if you can find out if it’s a specialty of the restaurant before ordering.
- Icelandic tapas are a thing and they are delicious (see my favorite tapas place below).
- With weather never passing 65 degrees and only 3 hours of sunlight during winter, it makes sense that coffeeshops are everywhere – gotta stay awake somehow!
- There are surprisingly a ton of vegetarian options in Reykjavik, including vegetarian-only restaurants. Outside of the city though, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything but fish from the morning’s catch or lamb soup.
Here were my favorite spots to nom on as I traversed the country – all very affordable and worth a visit!
Sandholt Bakarí: Located in the heart of the shopping district, this is a no brainer to start your day. Cinnamon rolls, apple cake, and strong coffee – I came here very morning without fail to sample everything in the pastry case.
Mokka Kaffi: This was my favorite coffeeshop. It is the oldest café in Iceland, and not much has changed since it opened – dim lights, retro furniture, and old photos line the walls as I sat, peeled off every layer of clothing, and ordered a cappuccino. For breakfast, their waffles with jam and a mountainous mountain of whipped cream can do you no wrong.
Reykjavik Roasters: Although there always seems to be a line out the door, this café reminded me a lot of places in San Francisco – tons of natural light, artisan coffee beans for sale, and single brewed cups. It’s fun to check out, but not the most unique places in my opinion.
Café Babalú: Everyone recommends coming here to hang out and stay warm. I say only come here for a quick latte or chai and check out the Star Wars themed bathroom; what the food lacks in quality is more than made up with the amazing décor.
Foretta Barinn: There are a few tapas places you can choose from, but I particularly liked this one. Tucked away a little off the main streets, all the dishes are unique yet approachable. The arctic char and lamb were easy favorites.
Pizza with No Name: Now, I know you shouldn’t travel to different countries and wind up eating pizza there (unless you’re in Italy), but when it’s pouring rain and you’ve spent the entire day hiking around waterfalls, geysers, and national parks, a few slices of cheesy goodness are the best thing you can ask for. At PWNN, the pizza toppings are not what you’d see in the US, but fun to taste. And save room for dessert, because the panna cotta will melt in your mouth.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur: Everyone swears by this hot dog stall in downtown. It’s a very nonchalant-looking place with a line for the “best hot dogs in Iceland.” Are they good? Yes, definitely. Are they the best hot dogs I’ve ever had? No. Should you still go? Yes, because it’s a staple of the country and hey, it’ll be your cheapest meal in the land.
See Part 1 of what to do in Iceland here!