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The Escapism guide to Reykjavik, Iceland

Iceland's biggest city Reykjavík is a haven of geothermal spas, arresting architecture, great restaurants and, er, a museum about penises. We've got the low-down on getting the best from a stay

Reykjavik is an exercise in contrasts. The capital of Iceland has a population of around 150,000 (almost a third of the total population of the country as a whole), and yet, in 2023, it is expected to see more than 1.5 million visitors arrive through its doors. That's a whopping ten tourists for every local. 

With this dichotomy between resident and traveller comes a city that feels at once local yet cosmopolitan; friendly yet busy; lively yet calm. There is an inordinate number of bars per capita, presumably hoping to cater to thirsty internationals, but inadvertently brewing a vibrant after-dark culture that attracts an energetic and creative young population. There seems to be an undercurrent of humour and friendliness with most people you encounter, perhaps best personified by one of the city's highlights: the phallological museum, which plays host to innumerable members and penis-related paraphernalia. 

The food scene makes an incredible job of the limited culinary resources in Iceland, cooking local cuisine well but also offering up pretty much every international option you could be after too (including a surprisingly large number of Vietnamese restaurants) plus two Michelin-starred restaurants to boot. There are many fluffy, intellectual ways we could describe Reykjavik, but it is perhaps most fitting to simply call it what it is: cool (and we don't just meant the temperatures).

If you're anything like us, it's likely you leave every trip with a plan pontificating your intention to permanently return to whatever destination you were in, but with Reykjavik it's likely this will become a legitimate and strong desire. The city is highly liveable, with comically easy access to the country's otherworldly natural spoils while still keeping you well fed, watered and entertained when you're there. In the meantime; a visit will have to suffice, and we've rounded up the best spots to eat, stay and play in this wonderful city. Just don't forget your raincoat. 

Where to eat

Braud & Co

16 Frakkastígur, 101 Reykjavík

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Baker Ágúst Einþórsson learned his trade in Copenhagen at some of the city’s best bakeries, before bringing that knowledge back home to Reykjavík in 2016. It’s evident the locals were in the market for something new in the baked goods market, because the bakeries quickly took off, with multiple spots popping up across town (quite a feat for a place where the population is around 125,000). With just one bite of the bakery's cinnamon rolls (or, to be fair, its cheese sticks, danish pastries and, well, you get the picture) it becomes fairly easy to see why. This really is Scandi baking at its best, with a distinctly Icelandic twist. Grab something sweet to go, along with an excellent coffee from Reykjavík Roasters and your day in the capital will be off to a flying start.

braudogco.is

Óx

Laugavegur 55, 101 Reykjavík

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Michelin finally arrived in Reykjavik in 2017 when the first star was awarded to Dill restaurant. Five years later, they came back, with the very well deserved star for Óx. Opening in 2018 in a space at the back of their other restaurant, Sumac, Óx moved to a new location hidden in the back of their already speakeasy-style cocktail bar, Amma Don, in late 2022. The cooking is exceptional; elevated takes on classic Icelandic dishes with a few international influences to boot, wine glasses remain topped up at all times, and service is convivial and informative, but it’s the experience that really takes this up a notch. Kicking things off in the bar itself, snacks and champagne are served in the more casual environment, before you move through a hidden door into the chef’s table. Chatting with your neighbours is encouraged, and having a nightcap with them may be a given. Óx may only have one Michelin star, but there’s no doubt that number will jump up, and quickly.

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Skal!

Laugavegur 107, 101 Reykjavík

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Sitting within the Hlemmur Foodhall, Skal! is part-wine bar, part-drinks supplier for the many diners in this space, and an all-round good time. The laid-back location belies what is, at its core, exceptional cooking with an interesting wine list to match. Where many diners simply pop up for one dish or two (or to take a drink back to their table to have with food from elsewhere in the market) there's a lot to be said for pulling up a stool at the bar and settling in for the long haul. The menu is ever-changing: on our visit, delicately sliced, cured Icelandic scallop came in its shell, with a horseradish cream, redcurrant granita and hazelnut oil, while grilled leeks were doused with a punchy preserved lemon and pistachio brown butter. Chat to the guys behind the bar about what you like to drink, and they’ll proffer you a bottle from the extensive, natural-leaning selection.

skalrvk.com

What to do

Visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum

Kalkofnsvegur 2, 101 Reykjavík

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While it may induce some childish snickers, the Icelandic Phallological Museum is as informative as it is hysterical. With an astounding collection that ranges from penis-related paraphernalia, including phallic cartoons and larger-than-life sculptures, to actual preserved phalluses from all areas of the animal kingdom – plus a section dedicated to the nether regions of fictional creatures – it is unlike any exhibition you have ever seen before. Beware, though, it’ll take a few days to shake seeing phalluses in everything you see – including the city’s famous church, Hallgrimskirkja.

phallus.is

Soak it up at Sky Lagoon

Vesturvör 44-48, 200 Kópavogur

Given the country’s less than tropical climate (the clue's in the name), it should come as no surprise that the Icelandic people have long utilised the country’s immense geothermal activity to operate warming natural pools all around the country (and to provide power for the whole of Reykjavík, to boot). And while The Blue Lagoon may be the most famous, newcomer Sky Lagoon is a plucky new contender on the scene – and a whole lot closer to Reykjavík centre. Our tip is to opt for the Pure Pass which includes the ultra-relaxing seven step ritual, involving a sauna, steam room, cold plunge and full-body exfoliation, before relaxing with a drink in the main lagoon and soaking up the views of the ocean beyond.

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Head out on a tour

Various destinations

While there’s more than enough to keep you busy in Reykjavík itself, one of the best things to do when visiting is to get out of the city. It would be criminal to visit this beautiful island and not see incredible waterfalls, astounding sweeping landscapes. While you could hire a car and do it yourself, there are a bunch of small group tours that take the driving stress away and throw in some necessary historical and contextual information to boot. Our pick? Eschew the monstrous bus tours and opt for Your Day Tours, which offers minivan trips to a variety of locations. The Golden Circle trip takes you to some of the country’s hottest tourist spots, while the South Coast option goes a little more off the beaten path.

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Bar hop around the city

Various venues

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If there’s one thing Reykjavik does well it’s nightlife. The city is awash with after-dark destinations, be it lively taprooms, pubs that turn up the tunes and spin the disco ball after dinner or all-out dance destinations that play host to a rotating selection of amazing live acts and DJs. Make the most of it with a bar hopping tour, kicking off with the city’s best happy hour at Prikid, before wandering to Vinstúkan Tiu Sopar for a natural wine or two. Grab a quick cocktail at Bingo (or their sister venue Jungle) or a pint from the rotating selection on tap at Skúli Craft Bar. Head to Hús máls og menningar, a bookshop that doubles as a cafe, bar and music venue, for one song from the live band, and inevitably stay for five. Swing by Lemmy or Röntgen to get moving to whoever they have on the decks, dip into Kaffibarinn for a boogie, before coming full circle and finishing up back at Prikid, where any day of the week there’s usually someone getting the crowd moving until the wee hours.

Where to stay

Sand Hotel

Laugavegur 34, 101 Reykjavík

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There are hotels, and then there are hotels opened by a famed bakery that allow you to have warm cinnamon rolls delivered to your front door every morning. It is for this reason alone that Sand Hotel – opened by the team behind much-loved bakery Sandholt – is worth a stay. But this hotel has so much going for it than just easily accessible baked goods. Rooms are plush in a kind of homely way that makes them immensely difficult to leave, and the downstairs lounge is packed full of Icelandic books so you can brush up on your local knowledge. Plus points for a cracking central location in view of Hallgrimskirkja.

Rooms from £188 per night; keahotels.is

Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre

Smiðjustígur 4, 101 Reykjavík

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Just steps from the main street and all its shops, restaurants and bars and a short stroll from the harbourfront, it's hard to beat the location of the Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre. Add in Scandi-chic interiors and boutique vibes elevated by all the comforts you’d expect from a standard Hilton and you have the perfect base for your adventures around Reykjavík. Rooms are spacious and, while we imagine you’ll be spending your time uncovering every corner of this wonderful city, we wouldn’t blame you for sneaking back for an afternoon kip – the beds are simply that comfortable. A small gym allows you to keep your fitness routine up (and work off all the pints of Viking lager), while the sizable, multi-floor lobby and lounge are great for settling into with a nightcap.

Rooms from £204 per night; hilton.com

The Reykjavík Edition

Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavík

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The Edition hotels are by now a worldwide brand, known for pared-down rooms that pull on Nordic style for influence, city-defining drinking and dining options and an array of facilities no matter the location. The Reykjavík iteration is no different, but comes with the addition of floor-to-ceiling windows that offer either panoramic views of the harbour, the city or the Harpa concert hall, the grand dame of the city’s waterfront. The arrival of the hotel – and much-anticipated food and drink venues Tides, Tides Café and Tolt – seals the deal that this recently regenerated part of the city is officially the hottest place to be. Opt for a waterfront room – if you’re lucky and the sky is putting on a show you might catch the aurora borealis from the comfort of your bed.

Rooms from £934 per night; editionhotels.com

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