Reykjavík Iceland is the perfect winter vacation for vampires with insomnia.

From September to April, few places on earth are friendlier to undead bloodsuckers.

Reykjavík Iceland doesn't get a lot of sunlight after Autumn. Thanks to the city's location just south of the Arctic Circle, that fiery orb in space barely makes an appearance most days. So, if you're hunkered down with a wooden cross in the Church of Hallgrímur waiting for sunrise to flambé a few fiends, my friend, you're probably effed.

What not to do in Reykjavík in the winter.

bloody vampire mouth
Vampire by @cottonbro studio
  1. Go outdoors before 11 AM. 
  2. Go outdoors after 3 PM.
  3. Leave home without a scarf.
  4. Announce that you hate garlic.
  5. Invite strangers into your room.
  6. Harass people wearing capes.
  7. Act suicidal.
  8. Bleed a lot.
reykjavik at night
Midday on main street, Hallgrímskirkja in distance.

What to do in Reykjavík Iceland in the winter.

reykjavik during the day
Photo taken at 11 PM, but it could've just as easily been 11 AM.

If you're like most human mortals, you typically eat, drink, and go about your business during the day and sleep at night. It's an approach that has, historically, worked better than the inverse—just ask anyone who's worked the night shift (if you can wake them up).

reykjavik at night
It's dark a lot in Iceland.

Yet in Reykjavík, you don't have that option, at least not during the winter. For eight months a year, you have to make hay while the sun shines. And that ain't much.

So you're not going to make a lot of hay unless you work really fast because Iceland only gets 3-5 hours of sunlight a day. Alternatively, you could wait until summer and make it up working when the sun shines literally 24-hours a day. 

icelandic horse
Icelandic horse.

But Icelanders are not trying to “make hay,” either literally or figuratively. First, Iceland already has so much of the stuff lying around that they feed it to their horses.

And second, Icelanders don't attach much significance to sunlight. They go about their waking hours working, shopping, and running errands, regardless of whether they can see vampires or not.

Reykjavík Iceland is a “night-owl” town in winter.

reykjavik on new years
Okay, it was New Year's Eve…

With our circadian clocks about as messed up as possible, we were still walking the streets at 11 PM. But then, so was everybody else—the place was borderline hectic. Apparently, most clubs and bars stay open until 2 AM, and 4 or 5 AM on weekends. That's because, much like the Cubans in Miami, Icelanders don't even head out to party before midnight

reykjavik under snow
I mean, the weather's not not harsh.

What's the weather like in Reykjavík Iceland?

gulf stream map
The Gulf Stream ocean current carries warm water up the eastern of the United states to Iceland. @NOAA

Frankly, it's not good. At least, not in the winter, when we went. But Iceland's weather is not as harsh as its name might lead you to believe (read How Iceland got its name). The country is not made entirely of ice, though it is covered in a lot of .

The country of Iceland is, for me at least, intolerably close to the Arctic Circle. Granted, its polar climate is tempered somewhat by the tail-end of the Gulf Stream, a current which brings up heat from the tropics. But that's cold comfort while you're waiting for a bus and freezing your ass off—pack your heaviest coat and wear it over your second heaviest coat.

Don't try to catch up on sleep, you will fail.

Garðakirkja church at night
The creepily lit Garðakirkja church.

As a tourist, you're going to be doing a lot of sleeping when you first arrive. Between jet lag, the time difference, and Iceland's winter days, we never felt well rested or even minimally alert. That is, until the instant we stepped outside.

Even wearing our winter coat, scarf, hat, and gloves, Iceland's polar climate hits you like an electric shock. F#########CK! Okay, NOW, you're awake! I mean, you're having a near-fatal pulmonary event, too, but at least you're not sleepy anymore. With our racing hearts quickly warming us up, we ventured out into Reykjavík Iceland as the sun started to rise.

Downtown Reykjavík
Downtown Reykjavík

The best thing about Iceland in the winter is not Northern Lights or the Lobster Tacos, it's the fact that the day starts promptly at 11 AM. Not since I awoke in Paris France at 10 AM on a Sunday morning to find the streets still empty, have I experienced a town devoid of “morning people.” It was amazing.

park outside reykjavik
Reykjavík, Photo taken at 5 PM.

I got up at sunrise and still missed the 10:30 AM cut-off to get a McDonald's Sausage McGriddle® sandwich. Or I would've, but Iceland doesn't have a single McDonald's restaurant. (With the devaluation of the króna and high tariffs, the cost of importing beef, cheese, and vegetables were too high for franchisees to turn a profit, so they all closed.)

There is, however, a single Taco Bell in Iceland. And that feels right for a country with such short days. I mean, who goes to Taco Bell when it's light out? You might actually see what you're eating. Gross. (UPDATE: Iceland's only Taco Bell has been turned into a KFC.)

woman disgusted face expression
“I wouldn't go in there for a while, if I were you, lady.” Photo @P. Zimmerman

Why every bathroom in Iceland smells like farts.

reykjavik energy power station
Reykjavík Energy's Elliðaárstöð power station. Charming, right?

One of the few advantages of living on a highly active volcanic hotspot is the availability of plentiful geothermal energy. The local power company, Reykjavík Energy, exploits Iceland's enormous underground water reservoirs and free-flowing hot magma to keep islanders from freezing to death. 

A borehole outside reykjavik
A borehole at Hellisheiði – aerial view

Boreholes drilled into these reservoirs release super-hot (750° F) sulfurous water and steam that reeks of rotten eggs. The steam turns high-pressure turbines which generate electricity.

faked perfume bottle
A touch of flatulence.

The superheated, rotten-egg smelling water next flows to heat-exchangers which pass the heat to less-smelly fresh water that's then piped to most of the country's homes and, thankfully, Thingholt by Center Hotels where we stayed.

And while the heat-exchanged hot water no longer reeks of burnt matches and ass-gas, it still maintains a touch of flatulence (the name of my next eau de parfum). So, whenever you leave a bathroom, you have to remind people, “Hey, that wasn't me. I swear!”

Iceland's electricity is from renewable geothermal (30%) and dams (70%).

Most of the food in Reykjavík was top-notch.

like Tahiti, Bali, Puerto Rico, and a few others, haven't really had stellar cuisine—St. Martin being the exception, at least on the French side. So my expectations for Icelandic cuisine were achievably low. I didn't expect an isolated island like Iceland to have any decent food. Happily, I was wrong.

Lamb Hot Dog Delight
Damn, Icelandic dogs are good.

Iceland is justifiably famous for its hot dogs.

First, the hype about Iceland's “pylsa” is not overblown, their are amaaaaaazing! The folks at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsurwhich means, “The Town's Best Hot Dogs” (Icelanders aren't super-creative with naming)—have been living up their name since 1937. And you can get their dogs from about seven street-stands, or even in Keflavik Airport.

Known as the “Lamb Hot Dog Delight”—again, naming stuff is not an Icelandic strong suit—the hot dogs are made from, you guessed it, lamb. But also pork and beef, for some reason. The flavor isn't too strange, but the hot dog does taste a bit different. More lamby, if I had to guess.

Hot Dog kiosk at reykjavik airport
Lamb Hot Dog Delight at Keflavik Airport

Yet where Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur scores the most points is in its toppings, and more importantly, its assembly. Instead of slapping a dog on a bun and slathering it with ketchup and mustard, Icelanders load up the bun a bit differently.

First, they start with fried onions as a base, then they add raw onions and ketchup. Finally, they put the hot dog on top, squeezing curry-flavored remoulade on one side and sweet mustard on the other. Bam! One Lamb Hot Dog Delight with everything! (“Eina með öllu!”) You can also buy the makings of an Icelandic Lamb Hot Dog Delight on this website, but not the hot dogs themselves because, you know…listeriosis).

Other places to find food near the Arctic Circle.

fish stew
Plokkfiskur (aka, “plucked fish stew”)

We took a food tour when we first arrived in Reykjavík Iceland to sample the presumptively disgusting local cuisine, and to get some walking in after our long transatlantic flight. We figured it was an easy way to taste what passed for food in this frozen wasteland without committing to eating any of it as a full meal. Surprisingly, almost everything we had was delicious—I said, almost (see below).

meat soup
Kjötsúpa is traditional Icelandic meat soup.

We met our group at Iceland's attractive and well-heated Opera House. We then walked to Messann, a very good seafood place. Sadly, I have no recollection of what we ate there—Artic Char, maybe? But I remember liking it. Then we walked to the hot dog kiosk (you already read about that above). Next up was the Sjavargrillid Seafood Grill, where we had lobster tacos. They were nothing short of amaaaaaaazing, and still haunt my dreams.

rye bread ice cream
Rye bread

At Íslenski Barinn—an Icelandic pub sort of place—we had the comfort-food known as Plokkfiskur (aka, “plucked fish stew,”) which almost tastes like Mac 'n Cheese with potatoes. Traditional “meat soup” (aka, Kjötsúpa) is basically a savory broth with very tender lamb. On a dare, we even tried Hákarl and Brennivin (see below).

Lastly, we finished off the tour at Cafe Loki, a restaurant with an upper floor that has a nice view of the Church of Hallgrímur. We had rye bread ice cream, and while that may not sound appetizing, understand that Icelandic rye bread (aka, Rúgbrauð) tastes far better than the normal rye bread you know and hate. 

Some of the food in Reykjavík was disgusting.

shark image
A representative shark.

Of all the traditional dishes we had at Íslenski Barinn, Iceland's infamous Hákarl (“fermented Greenland Shark”) had to be the least appealing. But that didn't stop me from trying it. When in Iceland, amiright?

Having now eaten Hákarl, I can say with some authority that there's a reason sharks eat people instead of the other way around. Hákarl is far worse than it sounds, and, in Icelandic, the word for it sounds like someone throwing up (go ahead, say “Hákarl” out loud). And that's before you find out how it's made.

How to make the Icelandic dish, Hákarl.

First, catch a Greenland Shark. Then, gut and behead it. Next, place the shark in a shallow, sandy grave, with the cleaned cavity resting on a small mound of sand. Cover the shark with sand, gravel, and heavy stones to press all the urea out of its body. That's right, the stuff in urine—yeah, and sharks are full of it, apparently! Gross, right?

bottle and shot glass
Brennivín means “burning wine.”

Shark kidneys excrete urea (the main ingredient in urine) throughout its skin and body.

—Follow me for other gross facts about sharks.

Leave the shark to drain out any remaining urine…er, urea, and ferment for four to five months. Afterwards, cut the shark into strips and dry them for several more months. Finally, remove the gross brown crust that has developed, and cut the strips into cubes.

Serve cubes on toothpicks. Follow immediately with a shot of Brennivín Iceland's version of moonshine—to get the taste of shark urine out of your mouth. Then find a place that sells Iceland's licorice-filled chocolates to get the taste of Brennivín out of your mouth. 

try of sushi
Icelandic roll at Social; Brennivín-cured salmon, dill, avocado, mango, cucumber, dill mayo, rye bread crumble.

Why does Reykjavík have so many good restaurants?

In a word, tourism. The locals, I've been told, rarely eat at restaurants. It's just not part of their culture like it is in Europe and the United States. Plus,  it's fairly cost prohibitive for them. Iceland ranks as one of the world's most expensive countries behind Bermuda, Switzerland, and Hong Kong.

Due to Iceland's isolation and harsh climate, farming is challenging and the types of crops grown are limited. As a result, Iceland imports much of their fruits and vegetables.

Taxes and tariffs add to the costs, as do labor wages, all of which are passed down to consumers, who are mainly tourists that can afford $16 cocktails.

tray of whale meat
Whale meat at The Grill Market.

The restaurant, Sushi Social was very good, but very pricey, too. The Sushi Social experience is a unique fusion of Icelandic, Japanese, and South American cuisines. Though the sushi just tasted like sushi.

The Grill Market—which is spelled how you'd slur its name after seven cocktails (“Grillmarkaðurinn”)—was an elegant, upscale Icelandic experience. Its dark wood interior design made it hard to find your way around the place, so if you go, just stay seated. They will bring the locally sourced food to you. Recommended, but reservations are a must.

exterior of reykjavik restaurant
Outside 101 Reykjavík Street Food

101 Reykjavík Street Food makes great soup, and that's saying something as I am not a huge fan of watered-down stews. Everyone in our group raved about their soup. The restaurant specializes in soup-based cuisine and international favorites, like Fish & Chips.

This place puts the lie to the old saying that, of the three possible options—Fast, Good, or Cheap—you can choose two. 101RSF was fast, good, and cheap, especially for downtown Reykjavík. Highly recommended.

interior of reykjavik food hall
Pósthús Food Hall & Bar

Only the ROK restaurant had reindeer (cured) on the menu. Apparently, reindeer is a special occasion dish or seasonal, because nobody else offered it when we were there.

The Pósthús Food Hall & Bar is a great place for a meal that won't break you. The place is a wide open floor plan with nine different restaurants, kinda like a mall food court only without any deep-fryers.

The shockingly honest truth about Icelanders.

woman smiling while holding a mug
Too honest: “My hat is made with slave labor!” | Photo @A. Gepp

At first, the people of this frigid island reminded me of Canadians, nice to a fault. But it's not that they're just nice—and they most definitely are—they're incapable of lying, too, it seems.

If you ask an Icelander a question, any question, they simply answer it. With the truth! They don't think about why you are asking it, what your motives might be, or how the answer might make them look bad. They simply answer the question, often to our shock and surprise.

lobster bisque
The Lobster Bisque in question.

For example, when I asked a waiter at 101 Reykjavík Street Food which soup was better—the lobster bisque or the chicken noodle—he quickly answered, “The bisque.” Yet when I ordered it, he said they were out of it.

So I joked “…but the chicken noodle soup is just as good, right?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “No, the lobster bisque is much better.”

Who does that? More to the point, who doesn't realize how that sounds? Icelanders are like a lost tribe of people who've never heard of marketing. It was…refreshing.

Blue-lit building at night
Reykjavík's Opera House at night

So would I go back to Reykjavík Iceland?

Even though I detest the cold with every frozen fiber of my being, I would go back there, just probably in the summer. Sure, I'd like another shot at the Northern Lights, but I think most of the natural in Iceland would look better when they aren't all gray. Waterfalls, for instance. And crevaces. Beaches, too.

No, I'd go back in summer because with almost constant sunshine, I could play golf 24-hours a day and never have to worry about vampires.

Like these words?

Get notified when I post more of them—once a month, at most).