Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic. Its closest neighbors are Greenland, approximately 180 miles away, and Norway, about 930 miles away.
As a result, Iceland’s cuisine reflects what it has close at hand: a lot of seafood, some local seabirds, and lamb (the sheep that roam the island are the main source of meat). Food tends to be organic (since Iceland is very ecologically aware), unassuming, and seasonal.
In days past, during the harsh winter months, Icelanders had to live off the infamous fermented shark and dried and salted fish because it was all they had. Nowadays, freezing and long-term storage are possible, so the locals don’t tend to eat rotten fish anymore!
In Reykjavik, many first-class restaurants serve international cuisine and fusion dishes, but Iceland’s fresh and local ingredients always shine through.
So, when you are visiting, you can look forward to fantastic fish dishes, indulge in the odd local take on junk food, and top it all off with some sweet treats you won’t get back home.
Here are just a few local specialties to try when you’re in Iceland.
Ask a local what food to try in Iceland, and before they recommend fish, they’ll likely recommend a hot dog. Though I’m not a hot dog person, I decided to try this local specialty because I knew I would be asked about it later.
On my first day in town, I convinced my husband to buy one, planning to take just a few bites. Once I had tried it, I promptly ordered myself an entire one. While hot dogs in other parts of the world are bland and only made edible by lots of sauce and bits and pieces, here the sausage was the star. Made from a blend of lamb, beef, and pork, it was the tastiest hot dog sausage I had ever tried. While I had a plain hot dog (pylsa), my husband asked for one med ollu (with everything), or topped with crunchy deep-fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, and a sweet mustard sauce. We went back for more the next day.
Most say that Baejarins Beztu Pylsur on Tryggvagata 1 is the best stand, but we found that even at service stations outside of Reykjavik, the dogs are well worth trying.
Fish And Humar
Iceland is an island, so it’s no surprise that many of its local specialties involve fish. There are some 340 saltwater fish species in the surrounding ocean waters, and three types of salmon are found in the country’s rivers and lakes. The most common fish are cod, haddock, monkfish, and halibut, and you’ll find them on menus in a variety of dishes. One especially popular dish is plokkfiskur, boiled cod in a creamy sauce with potatoes -- proper comfort food for a cold day. You will also come across salted, dried fish, which was once a way of preserving fish.
Once you’ve had your fill of fish, try the local lobster or langoustine (humar). These are delicious in soups or sandwiches. Before you go out of your way to try both, know that Icelandic lobster is in fact a langoustine, but each restaurant calls it one or the other.
The day we arrived in Reykjavik happened to be Iceland’s annual Beer Day. Not so long ago, it was illegal to drink beer in the country. Back in 1915, Prohibition was introduced, and all alcoholic drinks were prohibited. The ban was lifted in 1935, but for some unknown reason, beer remained illegal until March 1, 1989, when for the first time in 74 years, residents could buy and drink beer once more.
Today, that day is celebrated with all-day happy hours and special beer-tasting events. After 1989, the locals had to learn to brew beer again, but they seem to have done well, with Iceland having experienced a veritable microbrew revolution. Today there are some 26 breweries, serving up everything from mass-produced lager to craft beer, across the island.
Whether you’re visiting Iceland on Beer Day or not, spend some time in the cozy MicroBar, where you can sample four or five local beers before deciding which one to order.
Skyr has taken the world by storm as a yogurt alternative, but in fact it is classified as a soft cheese. The Vikings started making skyr 1,000 years ago, and it has since become a staple in Iceland.
Skyr is made by skimming milk from the cream, pasteurizing the milk, and adding live cultures from previous batches. The thickened, creamy mixture is then filtered and either eaten plain or with added flavors, just like yogurt or fromage frais. Personally, I prefer it to yogurt, since it is less sour and acidic.
Buy your supply at any supermarket, where the choice is vast, and have it for breakfast in your room as a healthy and affordable option.
Ice cream is eaten in Iceland throughout the year and is very popular with locals. It is a bit of a tradition to have an ice cream after your dip in a warm thermal pool, and you’ll find ice cream parlors open even during the winter.
Vanilla soft-serve is the most popular option, but there are plenty of others, from gelato to vegan choices. A creative choice is bragdarefur, or Tricky Fox -- a mix of ice cream and crushed candies. It’s a sweet, soft, and crunchy treat!
Pro Tip: If you are visiting in the winter and would like an ice cream but would prefer warm surroundings, go to Valdis. They offer boxed takeout options.
If you’ve visited Scandinavia before, you’re likely already familiar with the region’s salty licorice. In Iceland, the Nordic obsession with the strange treat has reached new heights. In any supermarket, you’ll find numerous varieties of salty, strong licorice in the candy aisle: bonbons, licorice powders, chocolate-covered licorice gummies, licorice-coated raisins, licorice sauces, licorice-flavored ice cream, and more.
It all comes back to what grows in this harsh climate. Licorice is made from the root of a plant that grows quite happily here. It is also said to help soothe sore throats and coughs.
Pro Tip: Buy a bag of the salty fish-shaped licorice. They’re not as strong, and I started to like them after a while!
You might be wondering why Iceland’s famous fermented shark, hakarl, didn’t make this list. First, even Icelanders don’t often eat it anymore, as it was simply a way of preserving the fish and making sure it lost its natural toxicity. Second, it’s truly horrid!
Svid, or boiled sheep’s head, used to be a traditional feast dish, and important visitors were invited to eat the eyes. Ram’s testicles, or hrutspungar, were also eaten. These are obviously up to you, but I, for one, prefer a hot dog!
Puffin and whale meat were other staples in days gone by, when times were hard and you had to eat whatever you could catch. Nowadays you can still try them, but they are heavily regulated, and, telling enough, the vast majority of the meats are served in tourist-oriented restaurants.
You will also find horse meat on some menus, as you would in countries like France, and again, it’s up to you to decide whether that’s something you’d like to try. But if you do, be assured that the local slaughter horses are raised organically and mostly wild, so at least you’ll get good quality.
Planning a trip to Iceland? Check out our other pieces on the country here.