At the beginning of this month, we spent a wonderful week in Reykjavik Iceland. A vacation we’ve always been interested in taking, the off-season prices combined with an easy direct flight from Baltimore made December the perfect time to visit.
We arrived, bleary-eyed and jet lagged, at 5 a.m. local time. After a much-needed nap at our hostel, we hit the town in the afternoon. Reykjavik is an interesting city. Interspersed amongst the adorable brightly painted houses (that you see in all of the travel books and brochures) is a little bit of a run-down, dirty feeling. Abandoned lots, graffiti, and crumbling buildings were not an uncommon sight. Not to say we didn’t like the city, our love for New Orleans should show a little grime doesn’t bother us, but Reykjavik was just a bit rougher around the edges than we expected. It’s a case of remembering everything is not always as it appears in Instagram. Throwing aside all expectations, Reykjavik was a beautifully unique city. You could be walking along a regular street, glance up, and realize that there are magnificent mountains just waiting to be gazed at. Amongst the (undoubtedly) illegal graffiti, were dozens and dozens of murals. It seemed like every neighborhood or section of the city had their own art thrown onto shops, houses, and government buildings.
There are also hidden treasures in the city like Thufa hill, which offers amazing views of Reykjavik and is quite an adventure to get to, or the hot spring where the birds hang out next to the Sculpture and Shore Walk.And outside of Reykjavik, thanks to day tours like the Game of Thrones Tour and the Silfra Snorkeling adventure, you can see the amazing beauty of Iceland’s landscape. Whether it’s by tour bus or rental car, everyone should take at least a day to get out in the wide open countryside.
But now to get onto what every vegan likes to research before a big trip: Where to eat.
I will warn you guys, the food photography is not great here because wintertime Iceland has sunlight for only about six hours. Combine that with low-light restaurants, and you’ve got some less-than-stellar photo ops. But I promise everything I pictured was delicious and beautiful when I was served.
Iceland was apparently the land of defying expectations. Meaning: every blog, book, or website I read said Iceland was one of the hardest places to eat vegan. I’m happy to say there was no shortage of yummy and satisfying vegan food, which was not hard to find at all. Honestly, Reykjavik was much more vegan-friendly than any place in the Southern U.S.
My only warning is that dining out in Iceland is expensive. A cheap meal for two people is about $20, and that’s if you’re getting something like chips (fries) and a soda. Since a lot of foods (especially fresh produce) have to be imported, it makes sense. But be aware that the majority of your vacation budget can easily be blown on a night out of fine dining. Because of this, Peter and I stuck to more casual eateries, though according to Happy Cow there are many more choices available in the city for those willing to drop some cash.
Here are some of the amazing places we dined at:
Totally vegan and with a wealth of menu options, Kaffi Vinyl was our first stop for food. The restaurant, which also doubles as a record shop and music venue, had a relaxed vibe with servers changing the records as they ran out. We both got coffees, Peter’s was cold and mine was hot, in an attempt to help our adjust to the time change. They offered several non-dairy milk options like soy, oat, and coconut.Peter ordered the lasagna, which was an extremely hearty meal filled with rich marinara, veggies, and a sprinkling of vegan parmesan atop. It was served with rustic bread, olive tapenade, and salad.
I took a chance on a bizarre sounding combo, and ordered the black bean burger, which came with blueberry jam, kimchi sauce, some type of cream cheese, pickled veggies, and a slice of pineapple. I just have to say, this burger was so good. I never would have thought to put a sweet jam on a burger (I guess I didn’t learn from that episode of Spongebob) but the whole thing just worked. Sweet, salty, creamy, tangy, every bite had a big burst of flavors.
Cultural note though, Icelanders tend to avoid eating with their hands. For example, I was given a fork and knife to eat this burger and watched two locals at another table cut theirs apart too. So just keep that in mind when you get a “hands on” food.
A restaurant entirely dedicated to potatoes is my kind of place. Serving only (you guessed it) chips, Reykjavik Chips is a cute little shop that you shouldn’t miss out on. Their large pile of potatoes next to the cash register (see below) should attest to how popular it is.
The chips come in two sizes, small and large, and I highly recommend getting a small. Because when they say large, they mean it. The container is roughly the size to hold two American large fries, so stick with a small (which is about the size of one American large fry) unless you’re sharing.
The crispy on the outside, but soft on the inside, chips are made fresh-to-order and topped with whatever sauce you desire. Vegans have the options of ketchup or rich peanut-y satay sauce. Best part? Since Icelanders don’t eat with their hands, when they toss the chips in a sauce it’s served with a skewer to eat with.
Just what you need when the cold wind is whistling into your face, Nudluskalin is the place to go for a meal that will warm up your frozen body.
Very easy to eat vegan at, you can substitute tofu for any meat and several of their menu items are already vegan. I choose the Green Throughout (below, right), a rice noodle soup that is heavy on the veggies and features fresh garlic and chilis for a thorough sinus cleansing.
Peter got the vegetarian option of Bamm Al Pomodoro, a less-brothy hybrid dish that had a bit of Asian and Italian influences. With a tomato broth base, it featured fresh egg noodles, peppers, carrots, Italian herbs, and a hearty handful of beansprouts atop.
Joylato is one of those places you’d never expect to have vegan options, and I’m pleasantly surprised every time I turn out to be incorrect. Using liquid nitrogen, you can mix-and-match ingredients for you own custom bowl of ice cream.
You have the options of the base being coconut or dairy milk, then choose the flavor of ice cream you want, add in sweet bits like fresh fruit or chocolate bits, and finally decide if you desire a sauce to drizzle atop. Besides the dairy milk, the only non-vegan add-in was white chocolate chips. I went with a coconut-based salted caramel ice cream with chocolate fudge sauce.
Despite the oxymoron of eating ice cream in cold weather, it was a great sweet treat. But if you’re wanting something a bit warmer, they also make vegan hot chocolate or chai tea that is perfect for sipping while exploring the city.
Icelanders seem to love their sausages and hot dogs. I was thrilled to be able to try a vegan version of the local favorite at Pylsa/Pulsa, which was only made better by the fact that it was in the same building as our hostel.
We both got the Bulsur Sausage, which was labeled as “100% vegan” and sat at the bar to eat. If you’re interested in local Icelandic brews too, they had several options on tap. The sausages were crisp on the outside and slightly soft on the inside, with a heavily spiced flavor that was balanced out by the herb gravy. On the side was mashed sweet potatoes and a green salad.
Right off the main street of Reykjavik, Glo is the best place to stop for a healthy afternoon meal. With about half a dozen mostly-vegan salad options, along with wraps and soups, you can mix-and-match until you’ve got the perfect plate.
I ordered some ridiculously creamy cauliflower soup, which came with a dense (in a good way) piece of wheat bread, and three salad of my choice, which were cabbage, potato, and quinoa. Peter got a slightly spicy hummus wrap and the same salads too. Each of left feeling totally full, but not weighed down at all, by the veggie-packed meals.
Although they’re usually a safe bet for vegans, the falafels at Habibi weren’t just your average meal. I ordered the falafel wrap, asking for no dairy sauces, and the lovely guy behind the counter quickly began frying them up. The soft wrap was just the right balance of crunchy falafel, mild veggies, and silky hummus, and definitely beat out anything falafels I’d eaten before. If we’d had more time in the city, I definitely would have returned to try their falafel plate too.
Due to construction, the entrance to The Deli isn’t the easiest to find, so just look out for the spray painted pictures of pizza. Peter, a severe pizza fiend, was hankering for some when we found The Deli.
He got several of their vegetarian slices, like margherita and white garlic, which were displayed behind the counter. I was a bit more difficult, and ordered the pasta alla noplentana, without cheese or garlic bread, and was pleased that the staff didn’t seemed puzzled at all by my dairy-free request.
The pasta and pizza, which we got to-go, were both great. Peter was a happy camper, and I was pleased by the pasta tossed in a rich marinara sauce and dotted with fresh cherry tomatoes, basil, and black olives. Their drink selection was vast too, so keep an eye out for Icelandic brands. I got an interesting bitterlemon soda that was a delightful balance of bitter, sour, and sweet.
It may seem strange for me to include a convenience store at the end of this list, but it’s here for a good reason. 1011, which has branches throughout the city, boasts a large section of pre-made foods. A shocking amount of these dishes are vegan, and clearly labeled so.
Vegan sandwiches, salads, falafel meals, rice bowls, curries, and daals, are available in the refrigerated section for very decent prices. Peter and I shopped their several times for meals to take on long day tours and everything we tried was fantastic. This wasn’t run-of-the-mill gas station grub either, everything was properly prepared and about as good as the food we ate at the nearby eateries.
As a bonus, keep an eye out at 1011 for the “Cool American Doritos”. They’re not vegan, just very funny.