Bakeries are made for early risers. In a city with a vibrant nightlife, they’re an ideal alternative for those who want to see the morning from the other side, and they offer a delicious glimpse into the baking traditions of Iceland. For the early bird, the jet-lagged, and those catching a morning bus, these are the best places to enjoy a fresh kleina and cup of coffee, or carton of kókómjólk (Icelandic chocolate milk), as the city wakes up.
Sandholt (Laugavegur 36) is the bakery at the centre of town. With a freshly refurbished exterior, wide windows looking onto major shopping street, and prodigiously cushioned seats, it’s got a comfortable blend of bustle and relaxation. It’s also one of the first bakeries to open in the morning — 6:30 am every day sees the doors flung wide and the smell of fresh-baked sourdough wafting on the breeze.
The front counter is generally deluged with people from early in the day, but luckily, the seating area is separate from the main rush. With a variety of breakfast sandwiches and excellent pastries, as well as a lunch menu for later in the day, the bakery has been part of the Reykjavík scene since 1920. It was around this time that cakes suddenly became popular — at the turn of the century, the Icelandic kitchen increasingly included an oven.
Much of Iceland’s bread-and-pastry culture comes from mainland Europe, as the growing of grain has historically been difficult as climatic conditions fluctuated. Barley was grown for porridge and ale, but leavened breads especially were rare. This is fortunately no longer the case: although most flour is still imported, the variety of breads available has grown with increased access to international recipes and ingredients.
Sandholt’s blend of culinary influences includes Italian flour, South American grains such as quinoa, and French delicacies such as macarons. Vínarbrauð, the flaky pastry filled with custard and almond, is so common in Iceland as to be considered a local recipe, although the name means ‘Vienna bread,’ and in English it would be a ‘Danish’ — reflecting the storied history of the recipe.
Classic pastries, including snúdur on the far right.
The oldest bakery in Iceland, dating from 1834, Bernhöfstbakarí is inconspicuous in its location at Klapparstígur 3. Although the city has built up around it, this patisserie and bakery has continued to use Icelandic ingredients in its cakes and breads, and to win awards for its sweet offerings. It is home to perhaps the best soft kanilsnúður (cinnamon rolls) in the city — ask for the one with real chocolate, instead of icing.
Snúður exist in two forms, one small, hard and biscuit-like, the other soft and doughy, the latter being more commonly found in bakeries. Both go best with a hot cup of coffee, but the soft variety especially are respectable on their own, and suitable for vegans.
Kleina, an Icelandic classic, and Napóleonshattur, named for their shape.
Built more for making a quick purchase than lingering, the only seating in Bernhöftsbakarí consists of a row of stools by the window, although these do allow a view towards the mountains. Its small storefront belies its capacity, however, as the variety of breads and pastries behind the counter proves.
It is here that one can obtain the rúgbrauð (rye bread) that is considered one of Iceland’s traditional recipes. When the bakery first opened, this was the only kind of bread sold, and it has stood the test of time as a sweet, dense, flavourful loaf. Get there at 7:30 am on weekdays, 8:00 on weekends, for the freshest bread.
For local staples, try Kornið or Björnsbakarí , two chains with locations throughout the city and its environs. Both are good places to get classic Icelandic baked goods such as kleinur, excellent for dunking in coffee, and often equated to donuts.
These deep-fried knots of dough are eaten at Christmas throughout Scandinavia, but it is in Iceland that they have attained the status of an everyday treat, and Björnsbakarí may in fact have the best ones in town. They can be dipped in chocolate, but they are better plain, beside a mug of something hot and caffeinated.
The downtown branch of Kornið (Lækjargata 4) specializes in cakes, but at all locations, the range of breads, pastries, and sandwiches is pleasingly broad. The Borgartún 29 location offers a stunning sea view, and the sight of mountains in the morning ought to wake anyone up faster than the bottomless coffee. The opening hours vary by location, but generally hover between 7:00 and 8:00 am.
The Björnsbakarí location in Seltjarnarnes (Austurströnd 14) has a similarly beautiful prospect, but for something a little closer to downtown, look for the one in the Vesturbær neighbourhood, at Fálkagata 18: a few hundred metres west of the University of Iceland campus, it’s a tiny place with a cosy atmosphere ideal for early mornings. Like Kornið, opening hours depend on location.
The newest bakery in town, Brauð & Co. , has no official opening hours — but their website claims that the doors of their shop at Frakkastigur 16 open ‘early.’ Regardless of the specifics, curiosity alone should be enough motivation to give them a try, as two new locations are set to open this spring.
Already its cinnamon buns have gained renown, and it’s fast become a popular spot, a fact no doubt aided by its wildly colourful exterior. A small range of high-quality sourdough breads, made with local ingredients, as well as buttery pastries, has quickly given them a place among the city’s best bakeries.
Along with kleinur, snúður, rúgbrauð, and vínarbrauð, Iceland’s baking traditions have given us tebollur (biscuits often dipped in chocolate), súkkulaðibitakaka (chocolate chip cookies), and pekanhnetuvínarbrauð (pastry with pecans). Flatkökur and skonsur, two varieties of flat, half-moon shaped breads, are likewise found throughout Iceland, and can be eaten sweet or savoury. At every bakery you’ll also find kókómjólk — cartons of chocolate milk that go with everything.
Cinnamon croissant from Brauð&Co.
So, what is there to do in Reykjavík before 9:00 am? Explore the tantalizing world of Icelandic baking, enjoy some peace and quiet downtown, and, even in March, get outside early enough to catch the earliest rays of the sun on the mountains. With the smell of cinnamon, coffee, and fresh bread, you can be ready to face the day ahead.