Two days in Reykjavik, Iceland: A hip hostel, outstanding Scandinavian food, interesting theme bars, a fabulous flea market, and a penis museum. Yes, a penis museum.
Excerpt from original post Iceland 2015: Reyjkavik & the South Coast
We arrived in Iceland’s Keflavik airport just outside of Reykjavik at 6:45 in the morning in a windstorm that made the plane swerve back and forth when landing on the runway. I had pre-arranged a Grayline bus to Reykjavik through Kex Hostel, which was very easy– they just told us they would add it to our room bill when we arrived, and emailed me a voucher for the bus. It was $15 per person one way, and took us right to the front door of the hostel.
After a 45 minute drive, fighting sleep while watching the sky lighten over the lava fields and listening to a group of American college frat boys talk about all the “clubbing” they were going to do in Reykjavik, we arrived at Kex Hostel.
Stepping out of the bus onto compact snow that was now essentially a big wavy sheet of ice, we collected our bags, “skated” carefully across the slippery sidewalk, and hauled them up the two flights of stairs to reception.
Kex Hostel is the quintessential hipster hostel of Reykjavik. It is probably the nicest hostel I’ve ever been to, however I can’t vouch for the dorm rooms–we reserved a private room. Because of our early morning arrival, I had booked the previous night as well so that we could check in right when we arrived (unlike the frat boys, who were trying to figure out how to keep their energy up until 2:00 PM when they could check in to their dorm). It was well worth it, we were dog tired and got no sleep on the plane.
Check in was easy, we pre-paid at the front desk and were given a key to our room on the third floor. It was a corner room at the end of the hall, and after seeing the photos of tiny private rooms on tripadvisor, I’m pretty sure we got the best one. It was huge, with an ocean view, large private bathroom with a tub, and a sitting area with antique furniture.
Don’t let the word “hostel” fool you, private rooms at Kex are not cheap like most hostels. Our room was about $150.00/night, just like a mid-range hotel room. In the summertime, the rate sky-rockets up to $350.00/night along with most hotels in Iceland. This is one of the biggest reasons we chose to travel in the winter.
**Money-saving tip: If you want to see Iceland in the summertime and are on a tight budget, consider bringing camping gear for the many campgrounds throughout the country, or at least a sleeping bag and a towel–many hostel or cabin accommodations charge less if you have your own sleeping bag vs them providing bedding and towels.
Our room included breakfast, and since we paid for the previous night we were welcome to eat at the breakfast when we checked in. The breakfast spread was typical of Icelandic hotels/hostels, but was probably the highest quality that we encountered. Included were several types of fresh baked bread, crackers, skyr (Icelandic yogurt, which is super creamy like Greek yogurt), muesli, tuna salad, deli meats, cheese, liver pate, tomatoes, cucumbers, little jars of fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, juice, tea, and coffee.
**Money-saving tip: We found the Icelandic breakfast buffets to be so hearty that we were able to eat enough to last us all the way until dinner. We didn’t really eat lunch the whole trip.
After breakfast, we headed up to the room and crashed for most of the day. We finally got up around 3:30 to head out and explore. Normally we wouldn’t sleep so long in an effort to regulate our schedules and combat jet lag, but we had heard that Icelandic weekend nightlife doesn’t get good until around midnight, so we figured we might as well be up late that night.
First we explored the rest of Kex Hostel and had lunch at the bar downstairs.
We were hungry, and I’d read great reviews on the Kex Hostel restaurant, so we decided to check it out. We found a table by the window (made from an old sewing machine table). It didn’t look like there was table service, so we ordered at the bar. I had the baked goat cheese and pickled onions on grilled bread with a side of the sweet carrots, and Paddy had the grilled chorizo. Both were about $18 each, which is actually a pretty good price for Iceland.
We were impressed with the quality of the food. There seemed to be quite a few locals at the bar as well, and I had read that the good food and good prices bring a lot of locals to the hostel. Several tables in the bar area had reserved signs on them. Overall, the prices are good (compared to other restaurants in Reykjavik) and I would recommend coming here for a meal even if you aren’t planning on staying here.
**Money saving tip: Tipping isn’t part of the culture in Iceland, so while the restaurant prices are expensive, you don’t have to factor in a gratuity at the end. Restaurant servers are paid a decent living wage, but if the service was really excellent, it isn’t rude to leave something if you feel like it.
After we ate, it was around 4:00 PM, and we had about three more hours of daylight left. We ventured out to walk around the city and take stock of our surroundings. We headed a couple blocks up to Laugavegur Street, the main shopping street in Reykjavik.
We found the “Bad Taste Record Store:”
The Chuck Norris Grill:
Instructions on how to tie a tie:
And some interesting grafitti:
After exploring some of the little shops (most of the ones that stay open later are souvenir stores), we reached the city center and were getting a bit cold and ready for a break. We stopped into the Laundromat Cafe for some hot tea and beer. It was a funky little spot with a laundromat in the basement, lots of book shelves around the bar, maps on the walls, and a good looking menu. We weren’t hungry yet but we enjoyed the atmosphere and friendly service.
We continued walking around a bit more and eventually got hungry for dinner. It was around 9:00 PM and most restaurants seemed to be either packed or touristy. We were also making a solid attempt to avoid tourist restaurants with whale and puffin on the menu, two animals that are close to being on the endangered species list. While whale was a traditional food in old Icelandic times, it is no longer sustainable or necessary to eat. The really sad thing is that most Icelanders don’t eat whale, a good 60% of the whale eaten in Iceland is consumed by tourists. With tourism exploding in Iceland in the past few years and only continuing to grow, it is worrysome to think of what this could mean for whales.
Fortunately there is a growing local movement against whaling in Iceland, IceWhale.is which discourages consumption of whale meat in Iceland and promotes environmentally friendly ways of enjoying the whales of Iceland with their slogan “Meet us don’t eat us!”. Their website also provides a list of whale-friendly restaurants.
We eventually stumbled into a Scandinavian restaurant (Called “Scandinavian,” fittingly enough) that had been packed all evening and was now starting to thin out. We were in the mood for local food, so we ordered some Icelandic beers and the marinated salmon with mustard sauce appetizer. We weren’t super hungry, so we had soup for our entrees, which was delicious. Paddy had the Icelandic lamb soup special of the day, and I had the lobster soup. The lobster soup was very tasty, although very rich. I couldn’t quite finish all of it and I’m probably better off not knowing exactly how much butter and heavy cream I consumed.
**Money saving tip: Icelanders make great soup, and just about every sit-down style restaurant has it. It usually comes with fresh bread and makes a great inexpensive meal.
After dinner we were ready to check out the nightlife. I’d read up on a few places and received a few suggestions from my friend Daniel, who has been to Iceland three times. Our first stop was a new bar I’d read about, Bar Ananas. I’m a sucker for theme bars, and this one had a tropical theme (ananas means pineapple in Icelandic). We walked in to what appeared to be someone’s birthday or bachelorette party, as it was filled with women and balloons. It didn’t appear to have any cocktail menus with specialty tropical cocktails, and the bar was completely blocked by gabbing ladies. We moved on.
Our second stop was the Lebowski Bar, which is a bar with a theme dedicated entirely to the movie The Big Lebowski. It was packed, but we found a couple of bar stools at the end next to a local guy at the bar by himself. On the cocktail menu were 13 different kinds of white Russians, but after all the cream I had just eaten in the lobster soup, I opted for a cosmo. It was weak and expensive.
We made conversation with the local guy who was kind enough to move over for us to sit together for a little while, until two staff members showed up and told us they had to take away our bar stools because it was “turning into a pub.” Deciding that it wasn’t really our scene, we finished our drinks and moved on. We thought we might try coming back the next day before it got busy.
Paddy wanted to go to a rock bar, so we walked up to the next block and went to Dillon Whiskey Bar, which I’d read is a good place to see live bands. There was a live local rock band playing in the upstairs bar, and it being around midnight I figured we were arriving right when things were getting going. Unfortunately, the show ended shortly after we arrived and no one came on after that. The songs we did see were good, and the bar cleared out a bit afterward and we were able to have a table. The atmosphere was nice and much more our style, and the bartenders filled my wine glass almost to the brim each time.
We stayed out until around 1:30 AM, and then figured we should probably get to bed so that we could start getting on some sort of a more normal schedule. We thought that Kex Hostel bar would be busy at that hour, but there was just a couple people at the bar talking to the bartender by candlelight. I think the “party gets going at midnight” rule applies mostly to dance clubs and bars like the Lebowski.
The next morning we ate breakfast at the Hostel and headed out to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yes, it’s a penis museum.
The penis museum was founded by local historian and teacher Sigurður Hjartarson. His fellow teachers who worked summers in the whaling industry used to bring him whale penises as a joke. Eventually he began preserving and collecting penises of other mammalian species, and in 2011 he opened the museum. His collection includes 282 penises from 93 different species of mammals, including a human donation. Sigurður Hjartarson maintains that no animals are killed for the sole purpose of collecting a penis.
While we were looking at the exhibit, I overheard a little British boy ask his mother, “Mummy, why are we at a pee-pee museum?” I didn’t hear her answer.
There is a recent documentary called “The Final Member” that came out about Sigurður Hjartarson’s quest to obtain a human speciman for the museum, that waffles between hilarious and a little disturbing. We would highly recommend it. Trailer below:
**Note: Just about everywhere in Iceland takes credit cards, except this museum. Be sure to stop by the cash machine to withdraw some kroner before visiting. Admission is 1250 kr, or around $9.50.
After the penis museum we continued down towards Reykjavik‘s main harbor to the Kolaportið Flea Market. I’d read that this market is a great place to look for an authentic used or new Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa). The flea market had all kinds of booths selling everything from antiques and trinkets to rock t-shirts and funky sunglasses. There was also a large grocery section of Asian food imports, and a little cafe area selling open-faced sandwiches and other snacks.
There were many booths selling sweaters, and some were used. I didn’t find any that I thought I would really wear that much though to justify the $80-$200 price tag. The wool is thick, and I think that it would be too hot for Seattle weather except for the one or two weeks every December where we have a big freeze and the weather drops into the 20’s. If you are looking for a good price on a lopapeysa, however, this is the best place to look. The market is only open on weekends.
Another great place to shop for an authentic hand-knit lopapeysa is the Hand Knitting Association of Iceland, which also has a shop in Reykjavik.
We wandered around the city a bit more, finding lots more interesting and detailed graffiti:
We were starting to get a little cold and tired so we stopped into Te og Kaffi for some tea and coffee, just off the main square.
After warming up, we headed back up Laugavegur street to do some souvenir shopping, with a quick side detour to take a quick peak at Reykjavik‘s iconic church, Hallgrimskirkja. The winds were picking up, and it was getting pretty cold.
We finished our souvenir shopping and went back to the room for a nap.
For dinner that evening, we had made reservations far in advance for Dill, which is arguably the best upscale dining restaurant in Iceland. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason takes Nordic cuisine to new and innovative levels, using local ingredients–much along the lines of the world-renowned restaurant Noma in Denmark.
We may not ever be able to afford Noma ($300 per person for a seven course meal), but we were able to make room in our budget for Dill (much more reasonable at just under $100 per person for a seven course meal). Don’t get me wrong, it was really expensive, but worth it. In this culinary realm, food begins to cross from sustenance to art, bringing new flavors and textures and ideas to the dining experience that have not been done before.
Wine pairings with all seven courses were also offered at an additional $100 per person, but we stuck with one glass of champagne and one glass of red wine each. Our bill at the end was $250, which was slightly less than we had budgeted.
The meal came with four small amuse bouche starters and house-made sourdough rolls. I don’t eat lamb, so I was going to do a 5 course meal instead but the server said that the chef could make something different for me instead of the lamb tartare course, so I went ahead and did the 7 course meal as well. The chef did a scallop tartare dish for me which was very good and extremely nice of the chef to make a substitution.
Each course was small and complex, and dinner took two hours total. We left full and happy, and the experience was worth every penny.
Afterwards we walked up to the Lebowski Bar to try one of their White Russians and get a look at the place before it got crowded. It wasn’t that crowded yet, but when we approached the empty tables, there were reserved signs on all of them. As much as I love the theme bar idea, it wasn’t really our crowd so we decided to move on to Dillon. That night they had a local Icelandic folk singer singing traditional Irish and Gaelic songs. The singer was pretty good, and the whole upstairs bar was singing along after awhile.
The downstairs bar was full of rowdy drunk Brits with neon glow stick raver glasses singing along to Oasis songs on the jukebox. We stayed upstairs.
My friend Daniel had suggested his favorite club Dolly (named after Dolly Parton–Dolly also has a sister bar in Copenhagen called Jolene), which we were curious about but it was in the opposite direction of our hostel, and we were enjoying the live music at Dillon. Maybe another time.
It started snowing quite a bit, and we walked back to the hostel around 1:00 AM in the falling snow, stopping for a couple quick tipsy photo-ops
Reykjavik is an interesting city and a hub of modern Icelandic culture. There is much more to see and we would love to go back. If we were to return to Reykjavik, we’d like to see more local music and art, and check out some of the suburban areas away from the main shopping street. Reykjavik isn’t a very big city, but it has a lot going on.