Key rule of thumb: “consider Iceland a giant stadium”. The prices are stadium prices – 10 dollar beers, 7 dollar hot dogs, 7 dollars for a slice of pizza.
The most important tip I can give you on Iceland local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“.
When visiting Iceland, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water (the Icelandic tap water, that is) is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Iceland
Icelandic cuisine has changed a lot in the last few decades from involving mainly lamb or fish in some form or other, as the popularity of other types of food has increased. A vegetarian diet is more tricky to maintain but there are several vegetarian restaurants in Reykjavík and vegetarian dishes widely available at other restaurants.
Distinctively Icelandic foods include: fish harðfiskur, dried fish pieces eaten as a snack with butter (also good with coleslaw) skyr, a yoghurt-like dairy product available in flavoured and unflavoured varieties all over the country.
Low in fat and high in protein. hangikjöt, smoked lamb svið, singed sheep’s head Slátur, consists of lifrarpylsa, a sausage made from the offal of sheep, and blóðmör which is similar to lyfrapylsa only with the sheep’s blood mixed into it.
Iceland is famous for its whale meat, and is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to eat Minke whale. The common assumption is that whale meat is a traditional dish in Iceland, and while it is available in restaurants this is generally for the tourist experience. Whaling has long been a tradition in Iceland, albeit it has become an controversial issue in recent times.
However, most restaurants that cater to tourists will sell whale meat, and if you are feeling a little more adventurous some places will serve grated puffin with it if you ask. During the Þorri season (late January-Early February) many Icelanders enjoy Þorramatur, a selection of traditional Icelandic cuisine which usually contain the following: hákarl (putrefied shark cubes), Sviðasulta (brawn [head cheese] made from svið), Lundabaggi (Sheep’s fat) and hrútspungar (pickled ram’s testicles).
Þorramatur is usually served at gatherings known as Þorrablót. If you find yourself invited to a Þorrablót do not be afraid to (politely) refuse some of the more unpalatable delicacies, as many Icelanders chose to do so as well. Don’t worry about going hungry, though, as many of the more “normal” foods mentioned above are almost always available too. If uncertain which is which, do not be afraid to ask the caterers for assistance. A similar event to Þorrablót is Þorláksmessa, celebrated on 23 December each year.
During this day you might find yourself invited to skötuveislur where cured skate is served. As with Þorrablót, you can politely refuse to partake in the skate (other type of fish is usually served alongside it for the less adventurous). A word of warning though, the pungent smell that accompanies the cooking of cured skate is very strong and sticks to hair and clothing very easily. Do not wear formal (expensive) clothing at these gatherings, especially not clothing you intend to wear during Christmas.
Any Icelanders’ first choice of fast food is usually the pylsa or hot dog. It is usually served with a choice of fried onions, fresh onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade. It is cheap compared with other fast food staples at around 250 kr, and is sold in every one of the small convenience stores/eateries/video rentals/sweet shops that litter Icelandic towns.
Food prices are particularly high in Iceland – the following sample prices were accurate as of summer 2017: ISK 800 – 2000 for a hamburger. ISK 250 – 400 for a hotdog ISK 3000 – 8000 for a three-course meal in a restaurant.
What to Drink in Iceland
Tap water is safe to drink in Iceland and it has some of the cleanest water in the world.
Coffee is easy to find and is comparable to what is found throughout Europe. Juices are generally imported and made from concentrate.
Alcoholic drinks are very expensive compared to the UK and USA – as an example, half litre of Viking beer in a bar will cost approximately ISK 900 (9 USD). Liquor can be purchased at licensed bars, restaurants, or Vínbúðin , the state monopoly (locally known as Ríkið: “the state”) liquor bought there is much cheaper than at bars, there you pay kr 350 for the same beer you paid kr 900 for at the bar.
The local Icelandic drinks such as Brennivín (“Black death”) contain a fairly high alcohol content, so pace yourself while at the bars.
The local beer brands are: Egils : Lite, Gull (I’ve seen this one everywhere), Pilsner, Premium, El Grillo Vífillfell : Thule, Gull, Lite, Víking Bruggsmiðjan : Kaldi Ölvisholt Brewery : Skjálfti Ölgerð Reykjavíkur : Gullfoss Mjöður Brugghús : Jökull, Skriðjökull.
Visitors arriving by air should note that there is a duty-free store for arriving passengers where they can buy cheap alcohol (at least cheap compared to Iceland).
To find the duty-free store, just follow the Icelanders. No Icelander in their right mind will pass the duty free store upon arrival! Import allowances, as found on the airport customs website:
- 1 litre of spirits, 1 litre of wine and 200 cigarettes (1 carton) or 250 g of other tobacco products; or
- 1 litre of spirits, 6 litres of beer and 200 cigarettes (1 carton) or 250 g of other tobacco products; or
- 1.5 litre of wine, 6 litres of beer and 200 cigarettes (1 carton) or 250 g of other tobacco products; or
- 3 litres wine and 200 cigarettes (1 carton) or 250 g of other tobacco products.
Spirits comprise alcoholic beverages having 22% alcoholic content or more; wines comprise alcoholic beverages, other than beer, below this alcohol content. The minimum age for bringing alcoholic beverages into Iceland is 20 years, or 18 years for tobacco.
The drinking age in Iceland is 20 for all alcoholic beverages; while there are no penalties for under age possession or consumption, any alcohol possessed can be confiscated.
While it is not recommended to break the law in any country you visit, please note that the ‘de-facto’ drinking age in bars appears to be 18, with staff asking for identification being an almost non-existent phenomenon. That said, you will almost certainly be asked for identification in any store when trying to purchase alcohol.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.