The summer of 2018 was a scorcher in New York’s Hudson Valley, where I live. What has happened to summers? There used to be plenty of lovely days in between the too-humid and rainy ones; now it seems like all-humid, all-rainy, all the time.
I felt fortunate that to have an escape from the heat when I received an artist residency in Reykjavík, Iceland (Sím) for the entire month of August.
But I was also worried. I knew little about Iceland (other than that it’s magical and beautiful and somewhat chilly — though I’ll take chilly in August any time). I heard from several friends that food is insanely expensive in Iceland, with limited options for vegans. I had no idea what Reykjavík was like, nor what it had to offer culturally and otherwise.
Reykjavík turned out to be filled with surprises for me, not the least of which is that it’s a vegan paradise. Eating out isn’t exactly cheap, but as someone who lives not far from New York City, I can’t say that the prices were in another league. I think the friends who told me that a dinner for two costs $100 must have either not learned to avoid the tourist restaurants, or ordered too many cocktails — or both.
I rarely spent more than $20 for a meal eating out (beverage included), and more often it was less than $15. In my case, eating vegan in Reykjavík was a ticket to eating well and doing so at a reasonable cost. And there’s no tax or tipping! Eating in was excellent, as well, and we’ll get to that. Let’s start the tour …
Gló is a popular vegan restaurant that specializes in bowls, though they also offer vegan burgers, wraps, lasagna, and pizza. It’s located in the center of Reykjavík with three additional locations in Iceland. The dining area has a warm, inviting atmosphere with lots of natural wood that seems to contribute to comfortable acoustics as well as eye appeal.
I had the Mexican bowl pictured above, featuring “Oumph” — a soy-based meat analog from Sweden. This bowl is priced 18.90 ISK, the equivalent of about 15 to 16 USD. Located at Laugavegur 20b, Reykjavík 101.
Veganæs bills itself as an all-vegan diner featuring cruelty-free fast food. Located inside a nightclub, it’s more like what we call a burger bar here in the U.S. While I appreciate their mission, I’d say this was my least favorite eatery.
A featured dish, for example, is the Spicy Seitanic Burger, a seitan and black bean burger served with vegan cheese, caramelized onion, and relish. This sounded like altogether too much food for me, as I was eating solo that day.
I ordered the Burnt Sandwich, which sounded delicious on paper but I found the meal heavy and salty. The shot I took of the meal came out looking unappetizing, so I’ll spare you. I did love the sign at the entrance, above! The vibe inside is dark and goth-ish, even during the day, so it’s possible that I’m just not the right demographic for this place. I wouldn’t dis-recommend it; it just wasn’t for me.
Photo: Kaffi Vinyl
Kaffi Vinyl is a bright spot with a youthful vibe — a café that boasts a large collection of vinyl records and plays them as patrons dine. I ordered the Teriyaki Bowl above, which wasn’t quite as good (or economical) as the bowls at Gló; for my taste, it was drowning in raw scallions. I might have chosen more wisely among some of the other offerings, including portobello burgers, salads, and lasagna. It is a very popular, well-rated place, so I would definitely give it another chance.
Also available is an array of coffee drinks, bar snacks, beverages, and desserts. Located at Hverfisgata 76, Reykjavík 101.
Rublan Book Café (Upstairs inside Mál og Menning bookstore) was one of my favorite places to eat and rest! There are lots of English language books in the store, and this soup and bread combo, always vegan, is a relative bargain at 1000 ISK (approximately 9 USD). You can add coffee, tea, hot cocoa, and dessert for a few extra bucks.
The black bean soup pictured above might not be the prettiest, but it’s delicious and will keep you full for hours. Oh, and the sourdough bread in Iceland is beyond description. I’ve never had anything like it anywhere. You’ll be seeing more of it in the photos ahead. Located at Laugavegur 18, Reykjavík 101.
Speaking of sourdough, my favorite mid-afternoon snack was oat milk latte (oat milk is more common in Reykjavík than the nut milks we use in the U.S.; it’s usually imported from Sweden and is excellent, especially in coffee) and fresh sourdough bread with avocado or jam.
Above, I’m taking a break at Kattakaffihúsið, Iceland’s first cat café. The cozy eatery features sandwiches, avocado toast, and yummy desserts, all vegan. The breads, cakes, and condiments are made by Braud, one of Iceland’s prominent bakeries. Located at Bergstadastræti 10a, Reykjavík 101.
And while we’re on the subject of cats, this one has nothing to do with food, but I just wanted to share this big fluffy kitty who was often outside on the 15-minute walking route from my residency to the center of Reykjavík. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but this cat is enormous!
Egill Jacobsen is a popular eatery that’s far from all-vegan, but like many other non-vegan places they really tout these options loudly and proudly on outdoor signs. The one up above is another street sign proclaiming its yummy vegan coffee option, and though I remember that it’s on Laugavegur, I neglected to record the name. I’m sure it’s easily findable.
I didn’t make it to a brunch, but I did have the kind of meal I became obsessed with — vegan soup and sourdough bread. The vegan brunch sounds amazing, featuring a bountiful tofu scramble with coconut bacon, among other choices. Maybe next trip … Located at Austurstræti 9, Reykjavík 101.
Bakeri Sandholt is one of a trio of prominent Icelandic sourdough bakeries. I stopped here a handful of times and always got the bread of the day with jam — even though I’m not generally a jam person, I loved the contrast of the sweet with the vigorous texture and flavor of the bread. This bakery-café also offers some vegan options among their sourdough sandwiches, salads, and pastries and is centrally located at Laugavegur 36, Reykjavík 101.
Braud & Co. has several locations, and also supplies many local restaurants and cafés with their crusty, earthy loaves. I’m pretty sure that many of my beloved soup-and-bread combos featured Braud slices. Their most central location is at Frakkastígur 16, Reykjavík 101.
Joi Fel Sourdough breads are just so beautiful and photogenic, even captured by someone who can’t do more than iPhone photos, like me. These beauties are in Joi Fel Bakery, which has two locations in Reykjavík. They also make a line of plant-based condiments including pestos, tapenades, and jams. With four locations, the most central is at Hringbraut 103, Reykjavík 101.
Shopping the supermarkets
It may seem like I ate out a lot, but during my month in Iceland it worked out to less than once a day, even including coffee snacks. Just as I’d been warned that eating out would be insanely expensive, I was cautioned that there was little fresh food to be had, since most everything is imported. This is also not true.
Reykjavík’s three main supermarkets are Bonus, Kronnen, and Netto. Bonus is probably the most economical, if the least interesting; Netto has more of a natural foods store vibe and is the priciest; Kronan is kind of in between, and for me, just right. I already don’t remember which shot below I took at which store. All three were in the same area right near my residency, so I could mix and match.
Maybe there isn’t as huge an array of fresh produce as we’re used to in the U.S. but it’s plentiful and fresh. And considering the fact that most of the produce is indeed imported, the prices are quite reasonable.
There are soooooo many more nondairy cheese options — blocks, shreds, and spreads! Most are imported from various European countries. There’s just so much vegan cheese I could sample but what I did try was very good.
For some of the meals I prepared for myself at the residency, I added these vegan burgers which come 6 to a bag and are incredibly tasty. Most of the time I just warmed them up and served them on top of simple salads.
I’m lazy and love all kinds of readymade sauces. They’re all available here on the supermarket shelves — Indian sauces, Thai condiments, salsas, chutneys, and more. Not pictured here, frozen vegan pizza! I sampled Veganz from Germany and Oumph from Sweden, and they were both excellent for solo meals with a salad.
Vegan options aren’t limited to Reyjavík. While I didn’t get to travel as widely as I would have liked, I did take a few day excursions. My favorite stop was Gullfoss Falls, pictured above, on the Golden Circle tour. A great feminist history behind the preservation and protection of these spectacular falls makes for an almost mystical experience.
Most of the popular scenic areas have facilities for tourists with gift and food. Everywhere I went, there were vegan options galore, including this banana cake at Gullfoss Falls. A place whose name I’ve already forgotten, but which looked like we were on a different planet, catered to tourists with an eatery offering delicious vegan burgers. In other words … it was no problem to find excellent vegan options just about everywhere.
Places I missed
Even within a month’s stay, I couldn’t have possibly sampled all the vegan offerings in Reykjavík and beyond. Also, mindful of my budget, I enjoyed making simple meals at my residency with the aforementioned groceries. Here are a few places that I missed, and that I’ll want to hit on my next trip:
Garðurinn is an established vegetarian restaurant in central Reykjavík with plenty of vegan options. When I finally managed to get there, it was closed for vacation that week. I hear it’s wonderful, and with a charming atmosphere.
Flatey pizza is a sourdough pizza place with at least a couple of delicious-sounding vegan options. There was often a line (of locals) out the door, which is always a good sign.
Súpa is a chain with several locations around the country. As its name implies, their specialty is soups. Regular offerings include two vegetarian, two vegan, and one soup of the week. This past summer, the vegan options were “Kenya,” with kidney beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and jalapeño in a coconut cream base. Tex-Mex is described as “a vegan twist on the classic Tex-Mex soup.”
Reykjavik is home to several mathölls (food halls; kind of like classy food courts) that have all kinds of local and global fare. I would have like to try the vegan banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) at one I strolled through while not at all hungry.
For another view on eating vegan in Iceland, see How an Unlikely Nordic Nation Became the Newest Vegan Hotspot by Stefanie Ellis. She found some places that I didn’t, and I’ll have to put them on my list as well!
Oat milk latte, vegan brownie, and not giving a f**k at Penninn Eydmundsen bookstore
I should end this overview and reverie, otherwise I’ll be too tempted to buy a ticket and pack my bags, especially with this nightmare of political absurdity in the U.S.
Seriously, the vegan food was but one thing that gave me so much joy in Iceland. There were also the beautiful bookstores and libraries, the incredible museums and institutions, and the gorgeous vistas. Plus, the lovely people, sense of safety, forward-looking feminist culture, and walkable, human scale of Reykjavik added up to one of the most enjoyable journeys I’ve experienced. I can’t wait to go back!