Eating the North: The Curated Feast Iceland Travel Guide
I felt instantly at ease in Reykjavik. The city itself was legible as a storybook — familiar yet still filled with surprise. In contrast, the landscape beyond was more like an impossible and lucid dream. The otherworldly feeling of the landscapes — from the swaths of mossy volcanic rock to the geysers, glaciers, and waterfalls — was like the setting for an epic journey.
This is the land of the Saga after all; you can feel the stories.
And so herein lie the stories of my own journey to Iceland. If you're planning a 5- or 6-day trip to Iceland, and are curious about the unique food, culture, and geographic gems of this beautiful place, then this Saga-blog is for you.
Iceland's non-city landscapes seem to have been painted out of typical scales of time itself. Maybe it's all the Norse Mythology i've been reading lately, or maybe it's that I have seen lots of movies with iconic scenes shot on Iceland. Rogue One, Interstellar, Stardust, Batman Begins, and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty are some of my favorites. My whole time on this island, I could not shake the feeling that those stories were still tucked into the mossy, rugged pockets of the rocks.
The Geology + Icelanders
In geological terms, Iceland is still very young, and in fact, it is still being formed. The volcanic plume beneath it formed around 100 million years ago, and if we look at the timeline of evolutionary life, that's not that long ago. Today the island is being split in two where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are crawling apart.
Regardless of how many exceptional and aspirational pictures you have seen of Iceland, the landscape maintains a romance and mystery about it as you go through. It is more raw and powerful and textured than any photo can accurately describe.
My impression is that the Icelanders themselves are among the kindest people. They are open and reflective, sharing their knowledge with confidence and grace, and often a touch of humor.
Everyone knows everyone else here, which is no surprise for a nation of about 335,000 people.
For my trip, I arrived without a connection to the national food historian and writer of Iceland, but I wound up meeting her (full story below) because of a new mutual connection through a friend I met at a bar, one day. And I went to that bar because of another new friend I met at her art gallery. So ya know what, I would say that my own experience can stand as proof enough of the connections in this community — and yes, also of my incredible luck and sociability.
Every great journey starts with a great breakfast.
After a nearly sleepless 8 hours on the plane, a rental car snafu (i.e. I forgot to book one ahead of time and thus had to really press for help in the matter and got very lucky — thank you to the folks at Budget), and a 45 minute drive from Keflavik International Airport with Icelandic talk radio on, I had finally arrived.
I was still sleepy despite the crisp, bright morning. Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world, was welcoming and uncomplicated from the first moment I arrived. I parked next to the modest Cathedral at Dómkirkjan í Reykjavík. It is one of only three Lutheran Cathedrals in the country, and the bell tolled just as I stepped out of the car. I mused to think that it was my own private welcome to the city — or perhaps a breakfast bell calling me dine. And dine I did!
I stepped down to the sunken café of Bergsson Mathus.
BREAKFAST, DAY ONE: What I ORDERED
The Bergsson Brunch: Yogurt with muesli and berry compote, a soft boiled egg, prosciutto, cheese, salad, fruits, hummus, bacon, fried potatoes, fresh orange juice, sourdough bread and Bergsson baked beans and sausages.
The eclectic breakfast I had was a welcome and intriguing start to contemporary Icelandic cuisine. The meal came with an orange juice and a slice of pineapple, which was an instant reminder to me of how important the international food commodity trade is for a northern island nation.
The plate was filled to the edge with hearty fare: cheese, meat, bread, potatoes, beans . . . but still not too heavy to ingest, as a hungry and curious traveler. My favorite bit was the muesli over a yogurt and berry compote, and the fresh bread topped with prosciutto and cheese was an easy second.
The endless coffee refills were a bonus as well, since I still had five hours until I could check in at my Airbnb. The café is right next to picturesque Tjörnin Lake (really a pond), and a 10 minute walk to the Culture House museum (photos below).
So fueled by my hearty breakfast, I was off to explore some art.
Dinner, DAY ONE:
My first Icelandic dinner was delicious. I am not vegan, (if you couldn't tell by the bacon, cheese, and egg on my first breakfast plate), but I do love trying the new latest and greatest foods in contemporary vegan cuisine.
Gló did not disappoint, but I would not say you should go with a high bar for it, either.
The atmosphere was not as refined as it looks in the photos (fake plastic plants remind me I may now claim to be a sun-spoiled Californian), and the bowls that Gló is known for have a kind of salad bar feel, so nothing was out-of step. I asked the girl at the counter what she recommended and she said the burger, so I went for it. I was impressed to learn that Sólveig Eiríksdóttir, founder of Gló, had both opened up the first vegetarian restaurant in Iceland and founded an organic foods product line called Himneskt.
What I ORDERED:
The Oumph Burger: An open face sandwich with preserved peppers, arugula, nutritional yeast, dense, spongy rye bread below, fries, and spicy "mayo" sauce.
Breakfast, Day Two:
Jetlagged, I woke up at 5am so I wanted coffee and pancakes as soon as Sandholt Bakery + Eatery was open.
They are one of the oldest bakeries in Iceland. With cacao pods stitched to their uniforms, you can see that they pride themselves on their chocolates, but their bread is also wonderful. In addition to a loaf of bread or sandwich, a bonus take-away is to get a jar of jam — always made from scratch.
What I ORDERED:
Pancakes with bacon, candied pecans, and syrup. Latte.
After that yummy start to the day, I hopped in my car to chase a bizarre-sounding food experience recommended to me thanks to a friend at Atlas Obscura: geothermal bread.
To taste this bread cooked by the Earth, I was off to Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal wellness spa situated on a cold water lake with a view of Mount Helka. Helka has long been shrouded in superstition, and was called the gateway of hell. It is slated to blow any year now.
But on my way there, I stopped to see a bit more of what was going on in the landscape. This meant that I pulled off the main road to marvel at a small airplane landing strip, and for some time with the iconic and beautiful Icelandic horses.
And finally, I arrived at the spa and I tried the Geothermal Rye Bread, or Hverabrauð. The experience deserves its own blog entirely. The sweet cakey bread they make at the spa was a treat, for sure—baked for 24 hours in the bubbling ground, it's also loaded up with enough sugar to qualify it as a cake. It is also as spongy as a cake. The awesome guide Veronika (a super nice gal from the Czech Republic) was not the normal bread experience guide, and she couldn't find the bread because someone had moved the stone which typically marked it! This snafu resulted in her having to leave the group, run back to the main building for help, and come back with another helper. And so the tour group that I temporarily merged with and I just just stood around the bubbling earth, all of us just wondering if there was bread below, or if maybe we would not get to taste it that day. After lots of smiles and laughs about the lost bread, we found it! The adventure of almost not finding it made the slices of rye with heaps of Icelandic butter that much more delectable. It also felt particularly special to try this treat, which was baked in the sandy boiling oven of Mother Earth, on Earth Day.
I made one solid promise to myself before traveling to Iceland, and this was it: I would try the geothermal bread. I am so glad I did.
Sigurður Rafn Hilmarsson, who typically hosts these bread events, was not in the day I visited. This bread has been covered by other outlets like the BBC Travel, who called him "something of a national icon" for his rye bread. Rye has a fascinating history in Iceland, too. It has always been imported, and was never commercially grown here.
My last full day in Reykjavik was probably my best; I think I found my own Cheers bar.
Really, though. Skál means both cheers and bowl, and is thought to be a reference to when Vikings would drink from giant bowl-like vessels. But I also found my Cheers bar because I stayed for hours, worked on a book proposal, and chatted with the staff, chef, and owners through lunch, then dinner, and beyond. The intention of leaving never even crossed my mind.
I found this little slice of Valhalla because I woke up and followed the signs. Literally. The little sign on my desk in my Airbnb said "There are many great cafes in Reykjavik. We like Bismút." And with that, I was off. I met the sweet owners of Bismút Cafe and we chatted about the Reykjavik art scene (they are super knowledgeable) as different guests came in and out, each a character wanting to chat more. I had just missed a really interesting exhibition at Bismút: they had just hosted Bjorn Steinar, an artist who is also involved with very cool project called the Ministry of Icelandic Vegetables.
I got two nice mochas at the cafe, and after a long chat with co-owner Katla, she pointed me straight to the the Food Hall at Hlemmur Square Bus Station for my lunch. I would not have gone there without this push, but I could not be more glad I did! This is the most un-missable stop for a foodie in Reykjavik, by far.
And here's how it became my favorite spot: I sat down at the bar at Skál. The staff saw me snapping photos, and since I didn't introduce myself, they looked at me from across the bar inquiringly. One young cook came up and politely made conversation, and also started asking me some questions about who I was, what I was doing... and sharing lots of great information with me in return.
Then the bartender and another cook were taking iPhone photos of their cocktail of the week for an instagram story, and I just said... "I have a camera, do you want me to take a photo for you?" The answer was yes, and from there, I was whisked into a fantastic food and cocktail experience. This is how my new friendships were formed and how everybody got to know my name, like the Cheers jingle.
What I ORDERED:
Everything. But in particular, the BBQ pork cheek, vegan buffalo cauliflower, cod flakes with brown butter and pickled dulse (a seaweed very typical of traditional Icelandic fare), and a couple of amazing cocktails — one with chartreuse, another highlighting elderflower and Arctic Thyme. I also walked away with a box of this amazing salt by Saltverk, which is made sustainable harvesting techniques and geothermal energy — and which produces a stunning irregular and flaky salt.
While sitting at my new Cheers spot, I met the creator of the Icelandic Vegetable Calendar, the Chef of Skál itself (her name is Fanny, and she rocks), and one of the owners of the restaurant who is also a co-owner of Saltverk. The Saltverk connection (his name is Gísli) was the one who suggested that I contact Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, whose book I was reading throughout the trip.
One other experience on my list was to see the Icelandic banana production for myself. One of my new friends from Skal had a friend who worked with the bananas, so I got a screenshot map with a circle sent to me, over Messenger, and off I went.
The Banana Grows in Iceland:
Yes, this is Bananas, and yes, you're still reading a blog about Iceland. In Hveragerði there are bananas. They are not something you would just come upon, but they are unquestionably there. Exploiting the local geothermal energy, its greenhouses are heated by hot water from volcanic hot springs underfoot. The Icelandic Agricultural University conducts research in Hveragerði, and some of its greenhouses are for bananas.
After seeing the bananas for myself, I got to try my first Icelandic "meat soup." I met some more nice folks who own a rose greenhouse operation, and then I headed back to Reykjavik to meet Nanna.
Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir has a very special perspective on Icelandic food. She is the country's premier culinary historian and a prolific contemporary cookbook writer, as well. Meeting her deserves its own blog, but I was floored at how gracious she was to open her home to me. She let me ask her bunches of questions, browse her amazing book collection, and then eventually she also invited me to have dinner with her and her son. The whole night was a delight — and I forgot that the sunlight lingers at this time of year until nearly 10pm, so we talked until quite late.
Then just like that, my last day of adventures was upon me. I went down the coast to Vik, and back to Grindavik.
I finally got my remote shutter working, so I have one photo of me, in the moss. I love the book "The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert, and being in the moss made me think of that story, which is about a female Victorian-era plant taxonomist and moss expert.
For my last proper dinner in Iceland, I was in the fishing town of Grindavík. Naturally, I ordered the fish and chips. The restaurant is a block from the dock where the fish are unloaded, and half a block from the Icelandic Saltfish Museum! I didn't order saltfish, instead I went a little in the irreverent side, and got the iconic British fish and chips. I am glad I did, because that was certainly the butteriest and best battered fish I have ever tasted.
I also ordered the Brennivín and fermented shark . . . but said hold the shark. The whole shot of caraway-spiced "black death" proved too much for me, so I asked for a beer to cut it, and then wound up sneaking the rest out in my pocket, taking it to the hotel for later, but I never got back to it.
To the last bite:
Condé Nast calls it the one dish to eat while in Iceland. So at the airport, when I realized that that food experienvce box was un-checked, I got a hot dog!
My final meal had to be the Icelandic hot dog (pylsur), I guess. The one I got, from the airport food court, was actually perfect to end the trip with. It had literally everything: “ein með öllu”! This means it was donned with fried and fresh onions, mustard, and remoulade. Sometimes boiled in hot springs (by campers/backpackers), the Icelandic hot dog is what everyone from Bill Clinton to the Kardashians try in Iceland. And if you order “the Clinton” at Bæjarins Beztu, the famous Reykjavik stand, that you’ll get it with only mustard. I am glad I went for the whole she-bang.
Thank you for following along in this Saga with me! I hope you enjoyed it, and again please comment below to tell me what you would like to learn more about, in the future. Thank you!