I have issues with the word tourist. In this travel soaked world we live in where cross continent airfares are often less then the cost of a good meal, the idea of tourists infiltrating your city can be a harrowing concept. When I accepted a long term project that would move me to Reykjavik, my immediate priority was to blend in and be a local. It would prove more difficult then I could have imagined, but with the help of local Guðmundur Einarsson, I would get a rare inside look at this heavily touristed city.
“Reykjavik is quite small. There is just over 100 thousand people that live here,” Guðmundur tells me with a smile, “then we receive about 2 million tourist a year. So, you can understand we are drowning a bit in foreigners”. Having 20 times your population be tourists can make it difficult to have anything authentically local, but luckily Guðmundur lets me in on a secret, “90% of all tourists only go to the same 3 places, so, if you stay clear of that, you can see the real Reykjavik.” So here is a perfectly local day through the eyes of a perfect local.
Our first stop was coffee, which lead us to Reykjavik Roasters (Kárastígur 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland). “It’s definitely well known”, Guðmundur says with a sigh, “but it is the best, and if you go early, you will beat the line. Better yet, there is a second location in Brautarholt that is not as busy” The coffee here is rich and delicious, and they import the bean and roast it locally which gives it a unique savory taste.
Taking our coffee to go we swing by Brauð (16,, Frakkastígur, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) which you need no directions for, as you can just follow your nose. The butter-sweet-and-salt filled fragrance of this tiny bakeshop will lure you in like a siren to a rock. While they are famous for their cinnamon buns, we also tag on two croissants per Guðmundur’s suggestion “I’ve been to Paris many times, but I still always crave my Brauð.”
We head down toward old town, where we duck down a side street and into a little house with a single key for a sign. This is Fischer (Fischersund, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) which is more then a cosmetic/parfume store, it is a sensory experience. Here hand made scents and botanicals are created from local ingredients, offering you a local experience like no other. “When I visit friends overseas I always stop here, because these gifts are truly unique and truly Icelandic.” Says Guðmundur.
Keeping on a truly Icelandic path we head down to the newly developed Grandi section of town, down by the wharf. “This is my favorite part of town,” my host tells me quietly, “they’ve reclaimed this industrial area, and really none of the tourist have discovered it yet. Theres a great brewery, some really cool shops, and many places to eat, but I like to come here for the chocolate.” When I think Iceland, I don’t immediately think chocolate, but that was about to change quickly. Omnom Chocolate Factory (Hólmaslóð 4, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) is located at the very far end of the district, but you can smell it a good kilometer away. “We are the northern most producer of Chocolate from actual fresh cocoa beans,” Óskar Þórðarson one of the founders tells us. “We know our providers personally, and we roast our beans in house. That’s what makes it like no other chocolate.” And he was right. Madagascar dark chocolate with black volcanic Icelandic salt is something that needs to be tried to fully understand.
Next we hopped a bus just outside the city to visit G man’s favorite distillary, Floki (Lyngás 13 , 210 Garðabær. Phone 6989691). “I’m going to give you true Icelandic whiskey, it’s unlike anything you’ve had before. It’s smoked with sheep dung!” He says with pride like a mother would say “its made with real butter” offering a cupcake. Surprisingly the sheep dung whiskey was sublime; smooth and complex, and unlike any other spirit I have subjected myself to before. “Alcohol was banned in Iceland for many years,” explains Páll one of the distillers, “so most Icelandic people have been distilling in their homes since forever.” Floki takes that mentality and scales it up, making traditional homemade whiskey only with truly all Icelandic grain. The result is a whiskey like no other.
At this point it was time for a rest, so we headed down to Reykjadalur hot springs. “This place is magic,” Guðmundur says with a tipsy smile, “most tourist head straight for the Blue Lagoon, which, between us, is man made. Reykjadalur is totally natural, beautiful, and best of all, free.” When we get there there is a pleasant 45 minute hike through the countryside which terminates and a picturesque serpentine stream shrouded in steam. There is a well manicured boardwalk and changing areas, and you can see people here and there climbing in at various points, the higher up the stream you go the warmer it gets, so you can drift up and down all day if you like. This was pure natural pleasure.
After our soak we headed back into town for dinner at ROK (Frakkastígur 26a, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland). “This place is new, but the food is excellent.” Guðmundur assured me. The restaurant’s interior is sleek and modern in a positively ancient building, and this beautiful contradiction resonates in the menu. You can try classic dishes like reindeer but with the modern twist of it being served on a bed of local blue cheese foam, or local salmon prepared in sweet mango sauce with avocado. Rok truly will rock your palette.
Afterwards we needed something sweet and the only place to go is Valdi’s. “This place has been here forever. My father used to go as a kid.” Valdi’s longevity obviously comes from the fact that their ice-cream is absolutely delicious and their flavors wild. Guðmundur insists I get the salted licorice which sounds like a punishment to an Italian raised on gelato, but I’m sure glad I committed to it, because it was extraordinary.
Next it was time for a little entertainment. “The bars here can get crazy, and usually packed with tourists,” my Icelandic Virgil warns me, “Pablo Discobar, B5, Kiki’s, Kaffibarin, are all amazing good times, but, packed. Best to go to them at 5am, that’s the golden hour.” We had some time until then, so Guðmundur took me to a Poetry Brothel hosted by Reykjavik Kabaret. “The burlesque scene here in Reykjavik is actually quite amazing,” he confides, “and the shows are not to be missed. I won’t tell your girlfriend you went to a brothel either, that is not the Icelandic way.” He says in all seriousness. The brothel was like walking into a Bar Luhrmann fever dream. The host Miss Mokki greeted us at the door in a hurricane of pears, beads, and feathers. “Gentlemen. Right this way to have your minds blown.” She said grabbing my hand and whipping me into the main room. The show was all around us, cabaret, singing, poetry recital, anything artistic you could imagine with a thick patina of sexual energy over it. As the drinks flowed freely the night heated up and the acts became more boisterous. “Many people think Icelandic people are often stiff and very cold,” Guðmundur says, “most people are often very wrong.”
In need of something salty and fatty to soak up the fun of the evening I was brought to the greatest secret of Reykjavik. “You have to promise not to tell anyone about this place. It’s special.” Here inside a little dive bar that will remain nameless, there exists the greatest burger north of the 60th parallel. It is not on the menu, and you have to ask for it by name, but if you do you will receive what has been called “the hangover cure before the hangover”; Icelandic blue cheese, gold onion, and soft bun holds this perfectly grilled patty, that is just perfect to wrap up a perfect day.
Full from all the delights from this gem of a city, I walked home in the still lit summertime hours of the early morning. Guðmundur had one more surprise for me, a little sculpture park that is always open, adjacent to the Hallgrimskirkja (Eiríksgata, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland). “People walk right by this park, and never know it’s here. It’s my favorite place in all of Reykjavik.” This is the life’s work of Einar Jónsson, all from the early part of the last century, are unlike anything I’ve seen before. Half deco, half Phoenician, all crazy, they were particularly moving in the glow of the midnight sun through the morning Icelandic mist. Here you can sit or stroll, or perhaps meet another wandering stranger, and share the experience that you had, which if you were lucky, were truly local, and truly Icelandic.
“Roberto, please just do me one favor,” Guðmundur quietly says with a deep gravitas.
“Of course Guðmundur. What?”
“Please change my name for the story. I would hate for anyone to know it was I that let the cat out of the bag, so to speak.”