A Book Lover’s Reykjavik — Bookstores, Libraries, and Book Culture
By Nava Atlas | On March 18, 2019 | Updated August 3, 2023 | Comments (4)
Before my first visit to Iceland in the summer of 2018, when I spent the entire month of August at a writer/artist residency, I knew very little about the country generally and even less about its capital — especially that I’d find so many lovely bookstores and libraries in Reykjavik.
And prior to that trip, I’d been so busy that I had no time to do much research. I relied on word of mouth from friends who had visited and took a leap of faith that it would be a good experience.
Of course, I had seen photos of the otherworldly landscapes, but I would have only the shortest time in which to explore them; my stay was mainly within the confines of Reykjavik. And that turned out to be absolutely beyond fine. In fact, for a nerd and bookworm like myself, it was blissful.
Any time I had a chance, I would explore the myriad bookstores and libraries in Reykjavik, in addition to other aspects of its very rich book culture.
I’m hardly what you call the rugged outdoorsy type; I’m more of a books-and-art-and-coffee type. Iceland offers incredible pleasures for both of these kinds of travelers. If you happen to be a combination of the two, don’t even think about spending less than two weeks there.
It’s a small country, to be sure, but it is so dense with culture, history, and natural beauty that a short hop of a few days would be (at least for me) frustrating. Even after having spent a month there, I feel like I just scratched the surface, and am ever plotting a return.
A few things I learned that came as a surprise to me:
- Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature, designated in 2011. There are some 28 as of this writing.
- More books are published per capita in Iceland than any other country (though this is relative in a small country of about 350,000 citizens; but still …)
- Reykjavik honors its literary figures with street signs, park benches, and more, that can be explored all around the town.
Even though I didn’t get to every book-related site during my month in Reykjavik, I did get to plenty of them. This promises to be a lengthy post, so let’s get to it! Note that all the places on this list are centrally located and you can literally walk from one to another, as I did.
Bookstores in Reykjavik
A relatively small bookstore, but an exquisitely curated one, Bókabúðin Bergstaðastræti focuses on design, culture, and food. Truly, my kind of place.
The only downside is that it’s one of the few bookstores without a café, but that shouldn’t preclude a visit. After all, it’s steps away from numerous cafés, including the cat café practically across the street. The selection is unique, and most of the books are English language. Bergstaðastræti 7, 101 Reykjavík.
This appealing bookstore-café-gift shop has such an unassuming exterior that even though it’s right in the center of the downtown area, I managed to ignore it until my last day in Reykjavik. About half the books are in Icelandic and half in English.
This place manages to be both expansive and cozy at the same time, including charming books and bookish gifts for children, and a nice table area to have coffee or work on one’s laptop (with coffee, of course). There’s also a menu of light fare and pastries. The photo above doesn’t nearly do it justice, nor do many of the photos online. So I guess I’ll have to return, and take some better shots! Vesturgata 2a, Grófin, 101 Reykjavík.
Mal og Menning
Located in the center of Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street, Mal og Menning won a place in my heart in 2018. It featured a good selection of English language books as well as a café upstairs that served delicious soups and sourdough bread. Alas, the café is gone.
Now, Mal og Menning is a bar (upstairs and down!) and performance space, with lots of tables inside for socializing and/or quiet contemplation. Shelves upon shelves of Icelandic and English second-hand books for sale line the capacious walls.
Though they don’t brand themselves as a bookstore, exactly, books have remained part of an identity. It’s a cool place to meet friends to have a drink and listen to music daily. Laugavagur 18, 101 Reykjavik.
Iceland’s largest bookstore chain (with 15 stores around the country), Penninn Eymundsson has three locations just blocks from one another in central Reykjavik.
It’s also the oldest of the bookstores in the country, established in 1872. Though these bookstores may lack the visual charm of a smaller, cozier establishment, they make up for it with a great depth of offerings in both English and Icelandic.
What I found interesting is that many of the English language books seem to come from British publishers, so they were a bit different from what I see at home.
There were also British editions of American bestsellers, so I got to see alternative covers and descriptions. I also loved seeing all the beautifully designed books — as well as the many books on design.
Within the stores are cafés run by the chain Te & Kaffi. Above, you’ll see that I treated myself to an oat milk latté and a vegan brownie, enjoyed on the outdoor terrace in the Austurstræti location.
Three locations in Reykjavik 101: Austurstræti 18; Skólavörðustígur 11; and Laugavegur 77.
This bookstore is almost the opposite of the others on this list — it deals mostly in used books, 95% of which are in Icelandic. Piles and piles of books are everywhere, some seeming to totter almost to the ceiling.
So if your interest is in poring through older books in this fascinating and challenging language, this is the place for you. Klapparstígur 25-27, 101 Reykjavik.
National and University Library of Iceland
This beautiful library on the campus of the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, is a repository of manuscripts, archives, historical documents, and of course, books. There are also beautifully mounted exhibits, mostly about Icelandic history and culture, throughout the building.
As you can see, it’s a serene setting both inside and out, and for the book-loving traveler, this just-off-the-beaten-path site is well worth visiting. Arngrímsgötu 3, 107 Reykjavík.
Reykjavik City Library
Reykjavik’s public library has six branches around the city, with the main branch located right in the heart of the downtown area. Visitors are welcome to browse, though you need a library card to be able to borrow books.
The main branch is a has several floors, all flooded with natural light, with an array of books in Icelandic, English, and other languages. One quickly expanding area is their collection of global comic books.
The library hosts a variety of multicultural events throughout the year. Keep an eye out for the guided literary walks that begin at the entrance during the warmer months. Make sure to visit the Reykjavik Museum of Photography on the top floor of the same building. It’s small, but quite impressive!
Okay, I have to do a bit of a brag here. My dear friend and literary agent, Lisa Ekus, visited Reykjavik a few months before I did, and just happened to spot one of my books on display on the ground floor.
When I went, it was still on display, but on one of the upper floors near the cookbooks section. That’s my book in the center, above — Vegan Holiday Kitchen. That was a pretty cool sight to see! Tryggvagata 15, 101 Reykjavík.
There are several city library branches scattered about the city; more about Reykjavik Libraries and Culture Houses.
More Reykjavik book culture
Reykjavik City of Literature Self-Guided Walking Tour
All around the city, you’ll come across signage pertaining to Icelandic Literary Figures. The signs contain a QR code which allows visitors to partake in a self-guided tour right from their smartphones.
Find out more about how to download the app here.
International Literary Festival
Every other spring, Reykjavik is home to the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. From the website: “Set in cozy venues in downtown Reykjavík every two years, the festival offers interesting and entertaining programs for literature enthusiasts.
Over a span of more than 30 years, the festival has welcomed Nobel-prize winners, novelists, historians, political activists, philosophers, cartoonists and more to take part in lively programs. All programs are in English and there’s no admission fee to the events.”
Iceland Writers Retreat
This annual retreat runs concurrently with the literary festival when it’s going on. From the Iceland Writers Retreat website:
“Join us for a series of workshops and panels led by an esteemed team of international writers. Between intimate workshops and lectures we’ll offer the chance to tour the spectacular Golden Circle, sit in the cozy cafes of Reykjavik, soak in geothermal hot springs, listen to new Icelandic music, meet contemporary Icelandic writers, and learn about the country’s rich literary tradition.
… IRR is an event for avid readers to delve into the oeuvre of an internationally recognized author, as well as the extensive literary traditions and heritage of Iceland.”
Though this post is already mile long, I have a feeling I’ve hardly scratched the surface of Reykjavik’s bookstores, libraries, and book culture. For me, it’s a subject of endless fascination and a good reason to return to this enchanting place. Updates are on the horizon …
- Here are more literary travels on this site.