Icelandic Culture

Icelandic Culture

Perhaps it is the extreme landscape or the eccentric ancient heritage of the Vikings that make Icelandic culture so quirky. Indeed, some elements of the culture of this land feel like the stuff of imagination. But at heart, Icelandic culture is just as down-to-earth and warm as any other. A liberal Nordic country on the outside, Iceland holds its Viking roots and customs very dear. Over the years, Icelandic folk hasn’t allowed their language to diverge from the original Old Norse too much, as a result of which, most of the folklore and literature remained intact. They form the basis for most social conceptions and customs today.

Believe it or not, the size of the country has one of the strongest influences on Icelandic culture. The small population has led to the family taking the first place of importance in society. Families are usually large and everybody is welcome, including travelers. You will see that people are resilient and take pride in their thriving in extreme conditions. The most vivid part of Icelandic culture is the myriad rituals and habits that cherish the cold.

With the highest literacy rate in the world and some of the most modernistic approaches to the issues of gender, law, and education, Iceland is more about innovation and sophistication. Once you immerse yourself in Icelandic culture, it is hard not to feel enlightened.

Icelandic culture
Icelandic culture

Eating & Drinking

“Traditional at heart and far-out in style, Icelandic food is the most happening cuisine of the 21st century.”

You can tell from the looks of the Icelandic land that its cuisine doesn’t depend on fruits and veggies. The pillars of Iceland’s gastronomical scene are fish, meat, and dairy. Skillful domestic cooks have developed countless ways to preserve meat over a thousand years. The result is a mouth-watering selection of fermented, dry, and cooked meat dishes. They always come with some classic Icelandic rye bread, and not to mention the good old skyr. Scandinavian and Viking culinary traditions help make this relatively simple diet satisfyingly juicy.

One of the specialties of Iceland that you won’t come across in the rest of the world is the entire flatbread scene. It is pure Icelandic culture finding shape and taste. Before there were ovens and firewood in Icelandic cuisine, the islanders developed the ingenious leaf and pot bread. Bread baking in the hot springs was also a huge scene. You will get to try most of these creative bread all across Iceland, accompanying some more edgy dishes. Mostly consisting of meat, Icelandic dishes may seem a little bit intimidating. The smoked sheep’s head, as iconic as it is, counts as one of them. Fermented sharks are also common, hanging from drying bars all around the country. If you are a vegetarian, no worries. More recent renovations in Icelandic cuisine present a handful of fresh veggies growing on the land.

In a country that experiences the harshest national conditions, you would expect some hearty strong liquors. There is no doubt that Iceland has them all. Brennivín, the national liquor of the island, is the famous black death that will give you the shivers. The caraway flavor is exquisite, topping every meal with a joyous touch.

Unique Crafts & Shopping

Iceland is not exactly the shopper’s ultimate dream. More invested in marketing its natural beauties than its commercial products, Iceland defines the concept of authentic shopping and crafts. Without falling into the pit of overpriced touristic souvenir shops, you will have the best experience buying original gifts for your loved ones. Reykjavik is a natural center for all kinds of shops, from worldwide luxury brands to locally-owned crafts shops.

When in Reykjavik, head to the marvelous Laugavegur, where you will lose yourself in the boutiques. If you are looking for more bohemian and authentic stuff, Kolaportið is your address. This is the largest flea market in the country. It finds its true mojo at the weekend. Some unique crafts to buy in the market are wool Icelandic sweaters and local food. As you go down to South Iceland, the number of handicraft shops will increase dramatically. Local art and design pieces are in high demand, reflecting the best of Icelandic culture. You will find unique sustainable items made with a focus on ecology. From handmade candles and herbal soaps to wooden and woven goods, the giftable items you can buy are very diverse.

  • Takeaway: Small and independent shops are the best for a shopping spree for Iceland’s most popular goods. Avoid the pitfalls of expensive tourist shops, and you will have the best shopping experience in Iceland.
Icelandic culture
Icelandic culture

Religion & Etiquette

The dominant religion in Iceland has been Lutheran for centuries, and other Christian denominations made it into the society in recent decades. Iceland is one of the few countries in the world where religious freedom is valued both in society and in law. Minority religious groups exist peacefully with Christianity. Nordic and Viking roots are also kept alive, manifesting in daily rituals, art, culture, and food. One of the old Nordic beliefs that are still very present in society is the belief of the “hidden people”. A majority of the Icelandic folk believe in marvelous nature-dwelling people who are invisible to mortals. They also believe in trolls and elves roaming the forests. One key piece of advice would be not to make fun of these beliefs, as they are taken seriously in Icelandic culture.

Icelanders are casual when it comes to expressing gratitude or kindness. You won’t hear the word ‘please’ a lot, and don’t take it as a command rather than a request. It is hard to offend the people in Iceland. Some rare topics that they may take personally are beliefs in folklore and insulting nature. Nature in the country is in a very raw state, and great effort goes into preserving it. So, the worst thing you can do in Iceland is to harm anything in nature. Pay close attention to the signs on the road if you are driving, most of the time they are about protecting animals or the surrounding vegetation. Leave no trace, no trash, no sign of humans in this untouched place.

Everything weather-related occupies a huge part of daily life and talk. Complaining about the weather may be considered rude by some people. And if you are looking to start a conversation, there is no better subject. The fascinating Icelandic horses are not ponies, calling them so would also be offensive for some. Last but not least, practicing personal hygiene is a must when entering the geothermal pools.

Festivals & Events

“Iceland’s festivals and special events are as extreme as the forces of nature prevalent on the island. You will find this seemingly lonely country crackling with incredible art and music shows.”

In the land of fire and ice, both elements are celebrated with surreal events all throughout the year. Every year on the Summer Solstice, people pour into the streets to welcome the midnight sun after a long winter of no sunlight. The festival is truly hectic, with all kinds of drinking, playing games, and socializing happening on the streets until dawn. Another festival that celebrates the coming of daylight is the Winter Lights Festival. Continuing for days, it is a combination of cultural events that bring people from all around the country together. It is truly an astonishing occasion to experience Icelandic culture. During Museum Night, every museum opens its doors to visitors for free, and Pool Night is for enjoying the geothermal pools with a free pass.

One of the most important dates on the international music calendar is the Airwaves Music Festival, brought to you by the one and only Reykjavik. It is truly legendary, and if your travel itinerary coincides with it in any way, you will be swept off your feet in a frenzy of music shows. Traditional events are also a dime a dozen in Iceland. The most iconic is arguably the Thorrablot, dating back to the Viking days in honor of the Norse god Thor. There is, of course, and entire festival that pays tribute to the Nordic heritage: the Viking Festival held in June. This is an ideal time to experience the Viking aspects of Icelandic culture to the fullest.

Holy days of the Christian world, such as New Year’s Eve and Easter, are also great spectacles in Iceland. However, if your trip doesn’t coincide with any of these special events, there are still hundreds of cultural occasions from food days to design shows that you can attend.

Icelandic culture
Icelandic culture

Iceland Food Guide

Check out our Iceland Food Guide for the tasty local dishes and drinks you must try.

Icelandic culture

Iceland Travel Advice

Everything you need to know about traveling to Iceland is in our Iceland Travel Advice guide.

Icelandic culture

Solo Travels

Are you traveling alone? Check out our Solo Travels page for detail.

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