Few places on Earth are more enigmatic than Iceland – home of volcanoes, historic Cold War chess games and the thunderclap – but how vegan-friendly is its capital? Richard Webber finds out…
Published on 10 Sep 2019
It’s vibrant, hip and just three hours’ flying time from the UK, so no wonder that Reykjavik is on many people’s bucket list. The world’s northernmost capital sits on the edge of Faxafloi Bay with views towards Snæfellsjökull, a glacier- capped volcano. With its brightly-painted buildings, relaxed atmosphere and friendly locals, it’s an ideal base for exploring Europe’s most expensive country. Richard Webber examines the Icelandic capital’s vegan credentials…
Where to eat
I’ve visited Reykjavik many times and it’s a delight to see so many vegan and vegetarian restaurants/cafés popping up. Traditionally, Icelandic cuisine is based around meat and fish, including dishes comprising sheep’s head and fermented shark. Thankfully, there are now places to suit everyone’s taste. Here are some of my favourite vegan eateries, all sampled during a recent trip to the city.
Tip! Download the app Vegan Iceland to help find delicious vegan food with recommendations, reviews and directions to the restaurants and cafés.
I have a soft spot for Gló since visiting with my wife and daughter over 14 years ago when it was called First Vegetarian. Situated on the first floor of an historic house on the main shopping street, it’s where Iceland’s first veggie restaurant opened. Now, it’s totally vegan and the food is delicious. Gló was founded by vegan raw chef Solla Eiriks. While the company owns three restaurants, this is the only one dedicated to veganism.
In this airy, bright space, a range of meals are served, including salad bowls, burgers and lots more. Try spinach lasagne or black bean burger served with sweet potato fries and spicy mayo and, if it hasn’t sold out, berry cheesecake.
Open: Mon-Fri 11am-9pm, Sat & Sun 11.30am-9pm, Laugavegur 20b, glo.is
Among the first bars to sell beer when prohibition ended in the late 1980s, Veganæs is a popular music venue and bar which, since 2018, has sold vegan meals. It has certainly won many plaudits: the spicy seitanic and black bean burger was voted best burger in Iceland by English language magazine Grapevine.
I tried Indian-style chickpea, red lentil and yellow split pea soup served with sun-dried tomato focaccia bread topped with melted Gydja cheese, followed by a chocolate cupcake with coffee whisky buttercream. Awesome.
Open: Tues-Sun 4pm-9pm (closed Monday), Tryggvagata 22.
Sparkling in the sun like a beacon above the city, dome-shaped Perlan is an intriguing exhibition centre (see Places to Visit section on page 112) sitting atop the city’s reserve hot water tanks. It also houses a fine-dining restaurant and café on the fourth floor. So when you visit, indulge in coffee and cake while admiring panoramic views of Reykjavik and beyond. The main vegan option, which I enjoyed, was black bean burger with chips. For dessert, I opted for almond cake and an oat milk coffee.
At Utiblainn, the restaurant alongside the café, you can enjoy a weekend brunch or in the evening go back to your hotel feeling replete after choosing the vegan three-course meal: beetroot, endives, fennel, oranges, walnuts and dill sauce as an appetiser, followed by a main of grilled pointy-headed cabbage, truffle crème, fried oyster mushrooms and puffed quinoa, rounded off with a dessert of baked plums, hazelnuts and coconut ice cream.
Open: Café 9am-6pm, restaurant 5pm-9pm, Varmahlið 1, perlan.is
Cat Café (Kattakaffihusið)
Just off one of the main shopping streets, Iceland’s first cat café opened in 2018 offering simple, wholesome options, including grilled pesto sandwich and avocado on sourdough bread. There are plenty of desserts, too – try the lemon cake.
The cat-loving owners aim to create a warm, cosy atmosphere where customers can relax, enjoy good food and meet their cats. To date, 27 cats have been re-homed.
Open: Mon-Sun 10am-6pm, Bergstaðastræti 10a, kattakaffihusid.is
This friendly little café off the main shopping street is family-owned and offers tasty homemade food. Menus change weekly and, while the majority of dishes are vegetarian, an increasing amount of vegan options are appearing to cope with increasing demand.
All the staff study meditation and aim to create a peaceful atmosphere in their café – they certainly achieve that. It’s a simple set-up with only one main dish and soup offered each day. There is a bank of 30 dishes which rotate, so no week is the same.
Open: Mon-Fri (except Wed) 11am-6.30pm, Wed 11am-5pm, Sat Noon-5pm, Klapparstígur 37, kaffigardurinn.is
Eldur og Is
This small, family-run ice cream and crêpe shop in the heart of Reykjavik is run by artist and actress Rafaella and her mother, Patricia. Its colourful, inviting interior sums up the overall atmosphere here.
Their vegan crêpes, using buckwheat flour, are delicious and their selection of vegan ice cream is increasing all the time. You’re certainly guaranteed a warm welcome and great food at Eldur og Is.
Open: Mon-Sun 8.30am-11pm, Skólavörðustígur 2.
Just a stone’s throw from Iceland’s tallest church, ROK offers several vegan dishes. Although not exclusively vegan, the owners – one of whom is Magnus Scheving, creator of kids’ TV show Lazy Town and who played the character Sportacus – have increased the number of plant-based dishes since opening in 2016. It’s not hard to find this rustic restaurant, thanks to its distinctive black exterior and turf roof. Its tapas-style menu is popular with locals, so it’s best to book; and if you’re visiting in summer, ask for a table outside.
I enjoyed vegan tacos and roast potatoes washed down with homemade rhubarb lemonade. Other green options include chestnut mushrooms and garlic with pesto on roasted rye bread and salad with avocado dressing, olives and caramelized hazelnuts.
Open: Mon-Sun 11.30am-11pm, Frakkastígur 26a, rokrestaurant.is
Top five places to visit
Tip! Buy a Reykjavik City Card (24, 48 and 72-hour cards available) for free travel on buses and complimentary entry to many attractions.
1. Gullfoss, Geysir & Thingvellir
A taste of what Iceland offers is experienced on the beautiful Golden Circle Tour. In one day, you can visit three of the country’s most popular attractions. Thingvellir National Park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is where the Icelandic government was formed in 930AD. Sulphur fills the air on approaching Geysir and its spouting vents. Smaller Strokkur delights admirers by hurling plumes of hot water 100 feet into the air. And the mighty Gullfoss – the ‘Golden Waterfall’ – where water tumbles over the three-tiered fall into the 230-foot gorge.
You can catch a free bus to Perlan from Harpa Concert Hall on the sea front – it’s definitely worth it. Built atop Reykjavik’s reserve hot water tanks, iconic Perlan is full of exhibitions, including a 330-foot ice cave made of real snow. In the planetarium, a show displaying the country’s natural wonders, including the mesmerising Northern Lights.
This is Iceland’s tallest church and one of the country’s most visited landmarks. If you’re ever lost strolling the capital’s streets (highly unlikely), just look for this church. Buy a ticket and take the elevator up the 220-foot tower for a bird’s-eye view of the city and beyond. hallgrimskirkja.is
4. Blue Lagoon
Hire a car or book a coach trip to the Blue Lagoon, near Keflavik Airport. Arguably Iceland’s most popular attraction, you need to pre-book, but it’s worth the entrance fee. Despite the hot, mineral-rich, turquoise water being a by-product of a nearby geothermal power station it’s a ‘must’ on your itinerary. Set amid windswept lava fields, walk through eerie swirling clouds of steam and rub silica mud, renowned for its healing qualities, on your skin. bluelagoon.com
5. The Sun Voyager
Reykjavik is easily explored on foot and there’s no better walk than along the seafront, where paths run for miles. Among the most-photographed spots is the striking Sun Voyager steel sculpture. While it resembles a Viking ship, it’s actually a dream boat and ode to the sun.
The scene at sunset, with the epic view of Mount Esja behind, makes for the perfect photo.
Where to stay
One of the city’s newest boutique hotels, it’s situated in the heart of downtown – in fact, it’s slap bang in the middle of the action, being that it’s on Laugavegur, the main shopping street. Offering 66 rooms, including 11 suites, it’s plush, convenient, tastefully kitted out and boasts Art Deco influences. Laugavegur 34, sandhotel.is.
Radisson Blu Saga Hotel
This 4-star hotel has 235 bedrooms and is a 10-minute walk from the city’s main shopping street. Built in the 1960s, it’s undergoing a makeover and, unlike some city hotels, has a large, free car park. Its many facilities include a spacious gym and Egyptian-themed spa to help you relax after a day’s exploring. Hagatorg, radissonblu.com
Reykjavik’s original style icon, 4-star Hotel Borg has Art Deco glamour, custom-made furniture and state-of-the-art technology. If you stay here, you’re following in the footsteps of celebs and dignitaries, including Marlene Dietrich. This 99-room hotel opened its doors in 1930 and commands an enviable position, overlooking beautiful Austurvöllur Square, across from the Icelandic parliament and cathedral. Pósthússtræti 11, keahotels.is
British Airways (ba.com), Icelandair (icelandair.com) and easyJet (easyjet.com) fly direct to Keflavik, the international airport covering Reykjavik. Several companies run shuttle services between the airport and city, which takes about 45 minutes. Superbreak (superbreak.com, 0800 042 0288) offer three nights’ B&B from £409pp, including return flights from Luton. Flights available from some regional airports. For car hire, try Holiday Extras (holidayextras.co.uk, 0800 1313 777). For more information on Reykjavik, go to visitreykjavik.is.
Journalist Richard Webber writes for, among others, The Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Weekly News and Wedding Ideas magazine. An avid traveller and keen walker, he lives on the edge of Exmoor with his wife and two kids. email@example.com