Icelandic cuisine relies on anything that could be harvested from the barren landscape. It is simple in that its ingredients are what can be pulled from the ocean or what can live off the earth. That means fish, sheep, and the few things that do grow in Iceland – potatoes, blueberries, rhubarb, and caraway seeds. Once upon a time, Icelanders ate a greenish porridge made from boiled moss. Lifestyles have since improved, but there is still a blend of what nature provides and whatever can be shipped from Scandinavia.
Learn your Icelandic fish and you’ll know something about what’s on your plate. Cod (thorsku) is a mainstay and on every menu. Traditional throughout Scandinavia is fiskbollur – fried balls of fish and herbs – though the quintessential Icelandic dish is plokkfiskur: flaked white fish (typically plaice) cooked in white sauce with onions and mashed potatoes. Icelandic salmon (lax) is some of the best in the world.
Drying fish is a traditional method of food preservation in Iceland © Daria Medvedeva, Shutterstock
With so many sheep around, lamb is the red meat option most preferred by Icelanders. They use their cows for dairy, so beef is not traditional (though steak is now listed on every menu). The same goes for horse meat, which was once taboo, but is now a common tourist dish. Whale is unfortunately not taboo, and is still more common than people think. Both the meat and the blubber are eaten, often heavily salted or pickled.
Vegetables and fruit were never Iceland’s forte, but potatoes did catch on in the 19th century. Icelanders avoided getting scurvy by eating scurvy grass and blueberries. Bláber are actually bilberries and they grow so ubiquitously that you can get filled up just by picking them as you walk. The berries are sweet, juicy, and tart (and blue) and are best from August and into September.
Compared with the rest of Europe, Icelanders devour an alarming amount of dairy products. Icelandic butter, milk, yoghurt and ice cream are some of the best you’ll ever taste, and the truly unique skyr is downright addictive. Traditional Icelandic cheese is little known outside the country, but ranges from very soft brie-like cheese to harder Edam-style cheeses.
The first thing that anyone should drink in Iceland is the water, which is incredibly pure and tastes so good that upon returning home, you’ll feel disappointed by your tap. In most places, it is quite safe to simply dip into the clear rocky streams, waterfalls, and lakes and drink the cool water. Almost all the cold water you encounter is glacial run-off and free from the sulphur smell that comes with naturally heated groundwater. When searching for a spot to drink from, look for clear water flowing over rocks. If you are somewhere remote and there’s nothing animal or human upriver, the water is safe. Otherwise, use caution if drinking water near farms, cities and dams. Mineral springs dot the countryside, some of which are naturally carbonated and bottled Icelandic water is sold everywhere.
The Icelandic national religion that is coffee has been in force ever since the Danes first brought it here. No matter where you go, you will be offered a cup of coffee, typically with lots of sugar and lots of milk. Even when people speak of ‘tea’ they usually mean coffee. Finding a good cup of tea in Iceland isn’t that easy.
Accommodation is the number-one expense for travel in Iceland: where you lay your head determines just how expensive your trip will be. The good news is that Iceland has a lot of variety in accommodation (hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and homestays); the not-so-good news is that standards are not at all standard. Iceland follows its own sense of service.
Iceland’s most formal accommodation ranges from the passably decent to sleek design hotels to woody country lodges and a few stalwart classics. To make the most of the seasonal shift, a lot of Iceland’s schools and colleges are outfitted as tourist hotels in summer and this is the prime habitat for most large groups – if your room feels like a dormitory, that’s because it is. To help outsiders know what they’re getting, the tourist association has its own five-star classification system that grades tourist accommodation annually. For now, it is only relative internally: the only hotels to advertise their status have three or more stars, and at present, there are no five-star hotels in Iceland. A four-star hotel is the international standard for a ‘nice’ hotel and this is exactly what most people expect in Iceland, but don’t get. On the upside is an emerging class of creative boutique hotels that now dot Iceland’s towns and countryside. These are original, unique, and truly pleasant.
The Icelandic gistiheimilið combines traditional Icelandic hospitality with the demand for something more personal and local. Some guesthouses look and act more like boutique hotels and others like grandmotherly bed and breakfasts. Obviously, prices are higher than the concept of a guesthouse might imply, but there are also some real gems out there that are definitely worth every penny. The best part about staying in a guesthouse is that you get to meet local Icelanders and really connect with the area you’re in. It’s worth doing the research to find a good guesthouse and book in advance.
Once you’ve been to Iceland, you’ll be too spoiled to stay in a hostel anywhere else. Icelandic youth hostels are top quality – clean, efficient, user-friendly, and affordable. Because the cost of hotels is so prohibitive, the clientele at hostels tend to be more mature and even family-oriented. Hostelling International Iceland oversees 25 privately owned hostels, all of which are better quality than you’d find in mainland Europe. If you are planning on staying in several hostels, it is definitely worth becoming a member of YHA.
Farmstays are still the most authentic way to see Iceland, and in certain parts of the country, you won’t have any choice but to stay on a farm. Amenities are what they are – some might offer private cottages with hot tubs, others might be a re-converted barn with a single bathroom for 20 people. For more information, contact Hey Iceland.
If you’re camping in Iceland make sure you have the right tent for the elements © Visit West Iceland
Camping in Iceland is for masochists, even in the summer – not only for the wetness, cold and wind (which are admittedly bad) – but also for the crowds and general chaos that surround the practice. In Iceland, every town, village, national park and nature preserve has a designated campsite in order to keep travellers from ruining the countryside. Some campsites are very plush (hot showers, kitchens, drying rooms, clean toilets, etc); others are pretty basic (toilets and cold water only). The Icelandic government should be applauded for its efforts to provide a safe and comfortable place for campers, and kudos to the locals who go to great lengths to keep these sites clean. Alas, the main threat to campsites are the campers themselves, who, as a whole, can be downright obnoxious and untidy.
The Icelandic Touring Association manages nearly 40 mountain huts (skálar) located throughout the remotest parts of Iceland. This is not luxury accommodation by any means, but a place for hikers to unroll a sleeping bag and get out of the weather. Guests are expected to contribute to the upkeep of these cabins by paying a fee, paid into a lockbox in the cabin. While some huts are left virtually unused, others (like Landmannalaugar and Thórsmörk) get booked out solid. If you’re planning a mountain hike, then guarantee a space by booking in advance.
You know things are bad if you’re staying in one of these. Iceland’s emergency huts are painted bright fluorescent orange and are situated in the most isolated and dangerous parts of the country: think barren coastlines, high mountains, empty deserts, and the tops of glaciers. Almost every decent map of Iceland will show all the locations of emergency huts (normally a red house symbol). Inside the huts you’ll find emergency rations of food, bedding, and a radio to contact emergency help. If you are caught up in terrible weather, then the huts are there to help you survive. They are not there to camp out in and non-emergency use is illegal.