Where can you find the best coffee in Reykjavik? How much coffee does the average Icelander drink a year and what is unique about coffee culture in Iceland? Is there a special coffee roasting process used and where can you find free refills? Read on to find out everything you need to know about cafés in Iceland.
The miracles of the coffee bean have been well known to mankind since at least the 15th century. Ever since our first tentative sip of the hot stuff, we have relied on it for social lubrication, inner-warmth and a day full of energy. Collectively, we have drunk so much of that black, inky beverage that coffee is now the second most widely used commodity on the planet after oil.
Iceland has a great many cafés, all of which will readily profess that they alone serve the best coffee in town. Despite the sheer amount of bistros, there is no sign of the larger international chains such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee, meaning coffee drinking here is a thoroughly Icelandic experience.
Iceland is a small community and competition is fierce between different outlets; should one barista reach new levels of taste quality or find a unique roasting process, it isn’t long before the other outlets are forced to rethink and improve their own standards. Given this friendly contention, it should come as no surprise that the coffee in Iceland is high calibre, served with pride and well respected across the globe.
Coffee’s flavour depends largely on two factors; where the coffee bush was grown and the method in which coffee makers roast and blend the beans. The coffee beans used in Iceland are imported from southern hemisphere countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Columbia. This is due to the simple reason that Iceland’s harsh and northerly climate is inhospitable to the sun-loving Coffea plant.
Despite the unfit conditions, coffee has been historically central to Icelandic culture, a testament to global trade and culture. Anyone who has read ‘Independent People’—the most famous novel of Icelandic Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness—will remember the wedding celebration scene, where each character enjoys four or five cups of coffee just as international counterparts might celebrate with beer or wine.
One type of coffee the Icelanders aren’t quite so into is decaffeinated. In fact, trying to get your hands on a decaffeinated coffee is all but impossible; there is simply no demand for it here. The larger operators, Te and Kaffi and Kaffitár, both offer decaf coffees, though, by their own admission, only one or two cups are sold a day, almost always to tourists.
It would appear Icelanders prefer their coffee hot, steamy and full of erotic energy, as fully realised in the below advertisement for Icelandic television.
Coffee culture is so prevalent here that comprising a list of all of the cafés worth visiting in Iceland is practically impossible. Instead, we here at Guide to Iceland have picked out some of our own personal favourite coffee houses, as recommended below.
Café Babalú can be found along Skólavörðustígur, the road leading directly to downtown from the Lutheran Church, Hallgrímskirkja, and is instantly recognisable for its bright orange paint job and first-floor balcony. Glenn Barkan opened the establishment in 2004 after moving to Iceland to marry his long-term boyfriend.
Stepping into Café Babalú is a trip unto itself; the eclectic, eccentric and ebullient interior decoration is the epitome of ordered chaos. Vintage postcards, Icelandic flags, LGBTQ artworks, colourful flower baskets, ancient maps, dusty old books, tropical ornaments; Café Babalú is like stepping into the home—or imagination—of some bizarre and confused hoarder; thankfully, Reykjavík would have the place no other way! It certainly makes for some interesting surroundings whilst enjoying your java.
Café Babalú offers a wide variety of beverage options, as well as free refills for black coffees and plenty of choice for cakes and dessert. The café has a somewhat DIY approach to waiting on tables; don’t be surprised to find yourself pouring your own coffee refills, for instance.
In many ways, Vínyl Bistro doesn’t really feel like a café at all; with its DJ booth, delicious menu, and an enormous collection of vinyl records, the establishment fits somewhere between a hip urban restaurant and a rather delicious smelling music store.
Still, Vinyl is a place where visitors can enjoy a steaming coffee graced with cruelty-free milk alternatives, like almond, oat, soy or coconut milk.
Music aficionados will find Vinyl perfectly suited to their tastes; the owner, Ymir (aka; DJ Sir Dance A-lot) has been collecting vinyl records of almost every genre for over forty years. Enthusiasts will be able to pour through discount boxes of second-hand records and even get their hands on some new releases.
To top it off, there are even live DJ sets at night when the venue evolves from a café into a restaurant/bar. Above all else is Vinyl’s smooth and chilled out vibe; staff and customers alike cannot help but get wrapped up in the chic atmosphere.
Photo by Jakub Dziubak
Aside from the coffee, Vinyl is well-respected for its delicious vegan offerings, until recently the restaurant was completely vegan; now vegans, vegetarians and carnivores alike can enjoy the menu at Vinyl.
Also on the menu, guests will find other suitably scrumptious meals such as wraps, soups, lasagnas and veggie-burgers, amongst others. Lovers of the tipple will also be pleased to find Vegan whiskey sours and other humane alternatives to your favourite alcoholic beverages.
If you’re a connoisseur, Reykjavik Roasters is probably your surest chance to taste some of the most precious coffee in the country. The café was originally founded as Kaffismiðja Íslands in 2008 but later went through a rebranding in 2013, reappearing as Reykjavík Roasters. They now serve as a coffee retailer, café and educator.
Reykjavík Roasters continues to invest a lot of time and money in their coffee, picking out coffee farms abroad, importing only from the most ecological and humanitarian beans producers on the market. The cafe imports its coffee beans from Kenya, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru and Brazil.
Reykjavík Roasters also offers brewing and roasting workshops, ideal for those who want to improve their barista skills. Two instructors oversee the workshop, teaching their guests four methods of roasting coffee beans. One of these workshops has a maximum of six places and will put you back 7900 ISK. The café also runs professional courses for baristas and employers.
Te og Kaffi, named after the products it sells; Tea and Coffee, is Iceland’s largest coffee chain, boasting over thirteen different cafés across Iceland. Since being founded in 1984 by Sigmund Dýrfjörð and Berglind Guðbrandsdóttir, Te og Kaffi has tried to stay true to its humble, family-business origins, drawing together experience, innovation, passion and a deep knowledge to bring customers the best coffee on the market. Many have in fact argued that the founding of Te og Kaffi sparked a coffee revolution in Iceland.
Te og Kaffi operates its own roastery, as well as selling its own beans and coffee brewing paraphernalia wholesale. The café has proved more ambitious than most, delving deeper into the industry, and is now the only producer of coffee pads in Iceland.
By involving themselves in the entire process (minus the actual growing of Coffee), Te og Kaffi have proven themselves as one of the sincerest and unique chains in Iceland. In the same building as the roastery, the cafe also runs training courses for in-house baristas and customers looking to further their brewing skills and knowledge.
Like the majority of other Icelandic cafes, Te og Kaffi also serves food, including sandwiches, paninis, croissants and savoury soups. The company also proudly boasts The Muffin Bakery, producing “the best muffins in Iceland”.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Rheins
Flóran Garden Bistro is located five minutes drive from downtown in the Reykjavik Botanical Gardens. Situated in a greenhouse, the bistro is strongly inspired by the surrounding beauty and grows much of its own produce in the restaurant garden.
This relationship between the environment and the food culminates in Flóran’s ultimate goal; to provide a unique experience where both parties bring out the best in each other.
At 18, Marentza went to study food in Copenhagen and thus, returned to Iceland with a strong awareness and practice in Danish cuisine. Before opening Flóran Garden Bistro, Marentza worked as a restaurant at Oddfellow House and Hotel Borg.
The bistro is located just opposite Húsdýragarðurinn, a small zoo exhibiting Icelandic farm animals and a number of amusement rides. The bistro’s surroundings make Flóran one of the most aesthetically beautiful places to eat and drink in the city. The company also offers catering services, and readily accepts large groups and parties to enjoy its delicious menu and gorgeous scenery.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Rob Young
Stofan Café is a cosy, much-loved café found in central Reykjavik. Stofan is one of those perfect, romantic cafés that manages to bring together all of the right ingredients; fantastic coffee, comfortable seating, plenty of reading materials, board games and good company. In regards to meal options, Stofan is fairly typical, serving sandwiches, paninis, vegetarian soups and cakes.
The café offers specially brewed coffee, as well as a variety of Icelandic beers, it’s happy hour falling between 16:00 and 18:00. Unlike many other cafés and bistros’ in Iceland, Stofan tends to focus itself on serving coffee and light snacks, rather than doubling up in the evening as a bar and nightclub.
As a local favourite, Stofan Café is committed to entertaining its loyal guests; the establishment will often run swap shops, performances by local musicians and DJ’s, and pub quizzes on a variety of subjects. One thing to be cautious of with Stofan, however, is its incredible popularity; finding seating at certain times is difficult, but well worth it should be quick enough to plonk down.
In 1990, Aðalheiður Héðinsdóttir and her husband, Eiríkur Hilmarsson founded Kaffitár on the principles of compassion, multiculturalism and expertise. Since then, they have nurtured the company to become one of the leading coffee providers in Iceland, fostering a strong focus toward environmental protection, customer satisfaction and quality coffee.
One factor that sets Kaffitár apart from the other coffee outlets in Reykjavik is the company’s personal relationship with their overseas coffee farmers. Pulling in beans from Nicaragua, Brazil and Guatemala, Kaffitár relies on the talents and experience of its prize-winning farmers all the while investing in the most humanitarian and sustainable policies available.
Aðalheiður still travels the world each year to make lasting relationships with those in the industry and, of course, to purchase some coffee.
Photo by gamene
Kaffitár is also a wholesale provider of coffee, selling beans and ground coffee in a wide variety of flavours. Some of these include; chocolate and almond, coconut, "Summer Sun", Vienna Coffee and Dark Espresso. Many visitors to Iceland choose to purchase Kaffitar's beans before leaving as they make a fabulous gift for friends and family back home. Luckily, Kaffitár has an outlet right inside Keflavík International Airport.
Sipping java at one of Kaffitár many outlets—there is 8 in total, making it a large chain by Icelandic standards—feels quite different to the usual, Nordic decor that is so popular in Reykjavik. Instead, Kaffitár has kept their colour scheme bright and vibrant, creating a warm and comfortable vibe.
Kaffitár offers refills on black coffee.
Photo by pardani arden
Iða Zimsen is Reykjavik's finest book cafe, the perfect location to curl up with a warm mug, a fine read and a few hours to while away. Iða Zimsen is easily accessible to anyone lazily exploring the streets of the capital; the cafe is found right beside Reykjavik Art Museum and, in many ways, is the cherry on the cake for any cultured day out.
Iða Zimsen is one part cafe, one part bookstore, boasting an enormous collection of books ranging from art photography to Icelandic history. Nothing can quite beat that feeling of finding the perfect book, buying it, then sitting down with a coffee and light snack to enjoy your purchase. Even if you're not overly interested in buying any books, the cafe welcomes guests to come and enjoy browsing.
Iða Zimsen is popular with the LGBTQ community in Iceland. Every Tuesday, the bookshop serves as a meeting place for men and women to come and enjoy both good coffee and good company.
Photo by Jeremy Yap
Mokka Kaffi is one of Reykjavik's oldest cafes and is the first of many to make a name for itself in history; after all, it was the first establishment to own an espresso machine and the first to serve coffee in the Italian tradition.
Founded in 1958 by husband and wife team, Guðný Guðjónsdóttir and Guðmundur Baldvinsson, little has changed in half a century; the red, wooden and sophisticated decor stays the same, as does the family who owns it. It should then come as no surprise that Mokka Kaffi has a loyal customer base, with many of its patrons having kept it as a makeshift second-home for decades.
Mokka Kaffi is also a transient exhibition space for local and international artists alike. These exhibitions change every month and are purchasable, making visiting the cafe throughout the year a new experience each time. Aside from the fantastic artwork, patrons to Mokka Kaffi swear by the cafe's traditional Icelandic hot chocolate and famous waffles.
How was your coffee experience in Iceland? Which were your favourite cafés and beverages? Let us know in the comments box below!