What are some of the best-kept secrets in the city of Reykjavík? How do you avoid visiting only crowded venues and tourist traps? Where are all the hidden gems, and how do you find them?
Despite its relatively small size, Reykjavík City is a capital bustling with activities and events throughout the entire year. The city offers an array of music venues, restaurants, cafés, clubs, museums and parks, guaranteeing something for everyone to enjoy.
With so much to choose from, because of the ever-expanding traffic of travellers, it’s no wonder that some spots gain fame and acclaim while others tend to fall under the radar.
For this guide, we have selected the most enigmatic of hidden gems in the capital area within different categories. Some might be more "secret" than others, but all are for those inclined to experience the local, rather than the predominantly pre-packaged.
So get ready to trail off the beaten path and unveil a treasure trove of places and activities in the greater capital area. Get in the mood for adventure and read on to discover our selection of the top hidden secrets of Reykjavík.
A multi-cultural dance-art studio in the very heart of the city centre. For over three decades, Kramhúsið has served as a venue for international artists to host classes and events for enthusiastic locals. The spot has always been a pioneer when it comes to conveying of the arts, with numerous well-known local establishments such as Sirkús Íslands having begun there before branching out.
The house itself, once you locate it, strikes one as a well kept secret oasis, hidden in plain sight. Sign up for one of their classes or workshops, or simply stop by for a cup of coffee or a look-a-round. Kramhúsið is listed at Skólavörðustígur, but to locate it you have to go through the back-alley entrance at Bergstaðastræti, next to the Red Cross store.
Photo from Bio Paradis
Parallel to the main shopping street Laugavegur lies the less-traversed Hverfisgata, which up until a couple of years ago was pretty much desolate in comparison. It did, however, host a beautiful cinema called Regnboginn, which ran from 1977-2010.
Downtown film fanatics rejoiced when Bíó Paradís became the successor of the venue; with the admirable goal of showcasing independent and international films, along with special screenings out of the treasure chest of all-time classics and cult hits.
This charming cinema is so much more than a movie house. Their collection of alternative posters is to die for, their café sells beer by the tap (a rarity in Icelandic cinemas), and their array of events offers something for every type of movie-buff there is; ranging from an interactive screening of The Room, to a sing-along of an Icelandic musical from the 1980s.
Venture past Harpa Concert Hall and duck under the cluster of selfie sticks at the Sun Voyager and you'll arrive at Laugarnestangi, a considerably remote spit of opulent nature and home to a true oddity of private property. The abode of renowned Icelandic filmmaker Hrafn Gunnlaugsson is unlike anything you'll ever see, appearing from afar like a citadel of rusty remains.
This three-storey marvel consists of monuments, sculptures and various doohickeys made of rusted scrap metal and timber, in the style of a fairytale junkyard. Gunnlaugsson allegedly welcomes visitors to his grounds, so approach with care and who knows, you might get the full tour.
The establishment of the Nordic House in 1968, located in a nature reserve right by the University of Iceland, set out to place some of Iceland's cultural focus back on our Scandinavian neighbours―instead of the predominant Anglo-European and North American influences that seem to dominate local entertainment.
What's special about the Nordic House Library is that all its books and films are in the Nordic languages of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Faroese and West Greenlandic, with none to be found in English or Icelandic. My personal favourite of this cultural hub is in the basement, where you'll find Artótek; a collection of Nordic art available for rent with nothing but a regular library card.
Check out the resident Aalto Bistro for some fine dining, or the resident greenhouse every Sunday of the summer season for an outdoor concert and picknick.
Reykjavík is renowned for its wild weekend night-life, but how to know where to go? It might seem simple enough to stay on the main shopping street Laugavegur and follow the music, but for a real local scene, we suggest you venture a bit further.
Once you've passed the bars on Laugavegur and Bankastræti, make a right at Ingólfstorg to locate Naustin; the primary location for afterparty-scouting at 5 am.
At the corner, you'll find Gaukurinn; an old concert venue that hosts a multitude of alternative events such as cult movie screenings and a weekly drag cabaret. Right next door is Húrra, a hip nightclub frequented by dedicated local regulars, and between Húrra and Irish Pub Dubliner nests Paloma; the mecca of Reykjavík's underground techno scene. Enter if you dare―dance til you drop.
Reykjavík has recently seen a growing surge in the cabaret and burlesque scene, with a weekly show taking place every couple of months. In 2017, there were a string of shows at Café Rósenberg and Þjóðleikhúsið (The National Theatre).
Each performance varies in being wholly unique, and the assembly regularly receives guest stars from all over the world. You can sign up on their website in order to catch the next show.
A cabaret is an age-old form of adult entertainment that intermingles music and dance with drama and narration. Expect a raunchy sense of humour and performers all-but in their birthday suit. Established only in 2016, Reykjavík Kabarett is a dedicated bunch that is sure to deliver a memorable show each time around.
Seeking something alternative, yet immensely cultural? Modelled after ‘The Poetry Brothel’ in New York and housed in the antiquated IÐNÓ that nests right by the Reykjavík Pond, 'Rauða skáldahúsið' ('The Red House of Fiction') seeks to intermingle poetry, theatre and music with avant-garde entertainment, dress-up and even tarot card readings.
There is a ‘Madame’ to introduce the local poets, who each operate within an attentively constructed character throughout the night. Guests are encouraged to arrive dressed for the occasion, furthermore enhancing the feeling of travelling through time.
The event is both in Icelandic and English and takes place approximately every three months, so follow Reykjavik Poetry Brothel's page for updates.
Photo by Cullen Smith
Keep this one under your hat, as this is an event as independently run as they come. The sweat lodge in Kjósin is a unique and indescribable experience inside a mud-igloo in the backyard of a couple of locals, being free-spirits that have a knack for Native American traditions and the cleansing of the soul.
The events aren't exactly regular but go by demand or requests made by small groups or individuals. The spiritual experience seeks to burn away the barriers of the soul, where guests partake in chants and prayers to the earthly spirits. Visit the lot's homepage for an enquiring phone number, or join their group on Facebook for news on the next sweat.
The people at Improv Ísland make an art out of the passing moment, where no two shows are ever the same. Each performance is approximately an hour-long and entirely unrehearsed, as audience participation at the beginning of each night determines themes for the actors to work with.
The nature of the show also varies, with the ‘The Harold’ being the most popular form, followed by Evente, Twoprov, Monoscene, Follow the fun and others. Catch one of their unique shows every Wednesday in the basement of Þjóðleikhúsið, for a memorable night that is guaranteed to leave you in stitches.
Photo from Richard Chapman
Drag-Súgur is a group of talented creatures that have been taking the Reykjavík night scene by storm. The dedicated bunch puts on a regular show of drag cabaret at the cultural hub of Gaukurinn bar, located on the tiny street Naustin in downtown Reykjavík.
The show has recently begun to sell out so they might not be considered underground anymore, never the less, this is a truly local event for everyone to enjoy.
The group encourages its audience to show up dressed according to the theme advertised each time around, so discover your inner king or queen amidst the most colourful crowd of Reykjavík, where regularity need not apply.
Photo by Jórunn Sjöfn Gunnlaugsdóttir
Elliðaárdalur Valley is something of an urban oasis, where it rests right in the city centre, east to the neighbourhood Breiðholt and west of Árbær (home to the Árbæjarsafn Museum). To us city kids, it has always been a paradise of wilderness, where you could play by a brook, climb a waterfall or pick wild berries to take home to mum.
Rather than heading to the central public parks of Klambratún or Hljómskálagarður, guaranteed to be crowded on a sunny day, the valley of Elliðaárdalur might just be the perfect spot for a picnic. To get there, search for the bus stop Blesugróf, or make the 10-minute drive from the city centre, south to the edge of Kópavogur town.
As a kid who grew up in the inner-city neighbourhood of Hlíðar, my absolute favourite Sunday activity was to go hiking in Öskjuhlíð; a hill adorned with pine trees in the very heart of Reykjavík. The plentiful hiking trails offer a relaxing scenery of forestry, so essential to clear one’s head of all the urban hustle and bustle.
Hidden within these woods are the remains of WW2 bunkers built by US military forces, and on top of the hill rests Perlan; the landmark building built on top of six water tanks. After trailing through the forest, we recommend enjoying the panoramic view from the top of Perlan’s platform.
Kársnes is a peninsula located between the bays of Kópavogur and Fossvogur in the greater Reykjavík area. The trail Kársnesstígur lies all around it, dotted with playgrounds and brooks, providing for one of the finest cycling routes in the capital area. At the end of the trail, you’ll find a beach and a small harbour, adorned with small boats and schooners.
The peninsula also hosts Borgarholt; a small lava field with Kópavogur Church in the centre, Sundlaug Kópavogs; a geothermal swimming pool and Hlégerðisvöllur; the town’s first playground, constructed half a century ago. If you want to escape the vast ocean of tourists in the city centre, Kársnes might just be the perfect spot.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Rfreysteins
You may have heard of the common belief of Icelanders that elves make their homes in our rocks. Nowhere is this as eminent as in the harbour town of Hafnarfjörður, located about 10 kilometres south of Reykjavík, but considered as belonging to the greater capital area.
Hellisgerði, or the Hafnarfjörður Lava Park, is a gorgeous little retreat of a fairytale-like scenery, home to mystical beings of ancient folklore.
Whether you believe in the hidden folk or not, you are sure to enjoy a stroll through these charming grounds. It's the perfect excuse to get out of the city, and the perfect hidden gem to suggest to your friends who want to visit The Viking Village in Hafnarfjörður's centre.
To go berry picking, or 'berjamó' as the locals say, has long since been a summer tradition with Icelandic families. Although people usually make their way to the country for such an activity, you don't have to leave the city to locate those mouthwatering blueberries and crowberries.
The municipal conservation area of Heiðmörk consists of 3,200 hectares gorged with berries, birds and birch trees, where it rests on the outskirts of Garðabær, south-east of lake Elliðavatn. It might classify as a popular city resort but is mostly attended by locals, which means you will indeed escape the tourist trail by venturing to these friendly woods.
Let the past embrace you in this cultural hub of music, arts and history, tucked away at Grundarstígur in central Reykjavík. The location is the former home of the late poet and Iceland's first Minister of State, Hannes Hafstein, and encourages its visitors to look back to an age long gone. Central as it is, it is considered a true hidden gem of the city's dining scene.
The food at Hannesarholt is attentively crafted to standards of tasteful elegance. Enjoy cakes and coffee during the day; go for breakfast during weekdays or their renowned brunch on weekends; or treat yourself to the fish of the day or a vegan special, all within the setting of this beautiful and historical building.
Photo by Lyonel Perabo
Right next to The Family Park and Zoo in Laugardalur you'll find the less frequently visited inner-city paradise of Grasagarðurinn; the Reykjavík Botanical Gardens. The park is home to over 5,000 different species of plants, as well as an idyllic pavilion-with-a-pond café.
Enjoying refreshments at Flóran Garden Bistro feels like dining in a secret garden, where colourful Koi fish swim leisurely by your feet and the aroma of your coffee blends with a flowery fragrance. Make a day out of reconnecting with nature and finish off your garden stroll with a visit to this scenic café, open til 10 pm every night during the summer season.
Escape the city centre and make the trip to the municipality of Garðabær, part of the greater Reykjavík area. At the town's centre Garðatorg you'll find Mathús Garðabæjar, a family-friendly gem of a restaurant guaranteed to treat you like royalty.
The establishment comes equipped with a lounge and a specialised kid's room - perfect for groups and families that want to escape the packed restaurants of such calibre in the centre.
The specials for each day adhere to the freshest of ingredients, while the main menu offers such highlights as brazed duck, shellfish soup, risotto and beef tartar. Their brunch is also to die for. An added gratuity is that its prices are actually very modest, so venture into suburbia for a fanciful, yet affordable, dining experience.
This family-owned restaurant has nested in the same spot downtown since 1989, and its decor has barely changed since its opening. With all the shiny new seafood places in the city, a visit to this joint feels like stepping back to a time before the immense popularity of Iceland as a travel destination.
The menu consists of various traditional seafood dishes, where you can enjoy a local experience in an intimate setting. The authenticity of Þrír Frakkar is what makes it shine, so head on to its location at Baldursgata for a night of old-fashioned inner city dining.
With a name that translates to 'The Student's Basement', that's exactly what you'll find when you walk down the steps next to the main building of the University of Iceland, west to the city centre of Reykjavík.
The prices fall nothing short of amazing, and their menu is wonderfully varied, equipped with several vegan and vegetarian options.
The decor of the place is marvellous, with neon led-lights lighting up retro living room corners, in which you'll find undergrads cramming for tests with a pint on the side for added focus. Stúdentakjallarinn also hosts various events, ranging from stand-up comedy to movie screenings and concerts. Go check it out―it's not just for students.
Despite the decade-old popularity of local reggae band Hjálmar, the Jamaica-originated music genre has all but gone unpropelled in the Reykjavík music scene. Meet RVK Soundsystem, the ultimate reggae promoters of Iceland.
The group consists of seven local DJs and musicians, being DJ Elvar, DJ Kári, Kalli Youze, DJ Cyppie, Teitur Magnússon, Arnljótur Sigurðsson and Gnúsi Yones, the latter three belonging to celebrated local reggae groups Ojba Rasta and Amaba Dama.
Their fantastic monthly sets at local bars Paloma and Boston include a wide array of authentic reggae music, local and international alike, along with dub, dancehall, guest vocalists and live performers.
For any lovers of throbbing house music out there, the Vibes collective falls nothing short of brilliant when it comes to underground nights of high energy and good, well, vibes. The collective consists of six enigmatic local DJs, being Masi, Ezeo, KrBear, KES, Máni and Johnny Disco, each with their own flair for the subgenres of house.
As well as having a weekly radio show every Thursday, different combinations of the group's members play most of their nights at, you guessed it, Paloma Bar. When asked about the specific genre of their sets, their on-point answer was "we just play good stuff".
So what are you waiting for? Leave your Blue Lagoon voucher behind and go explore the hidden treasures of the local scene in Reykjavík.
Do you know of any additional city secrets you would care to share? Let us know in the comments below!