Food in Iceland: What to Know and to Eat
Dominated by lamb, potatoes and an abundance of seafood, Icelandic food might be simple, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s boring. Surrounded by Arctic waters, it’s little surprise to see Icelandic menus filled to brimming with haddock, lobster, salmon, cod and more, and while these dishes are spiced and dressed in modern trappings, the base diet of many Icelanders hasn’t changed substantially since the age of the Vikings.
Cultural ties and proximity to Denmark have also influenced Icelandic cuisine. The first cookbooks published in Iceland simply contained Danish and Norwegian recipes—often with an “upper-class” version and a “common” version that used cheaper ingredients.
Icelandic food today is noted for being almost shockingly free of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. Chicken and livestock often roam free and eat steady diets of grass, and this healthy, natural lifestyle comes through prominently in the quality and taste of the meat you’ll get here. Traditional methods of drying, fermenting and pickling are still used today, but the modern plate focuses more on high-quality local fare than traditional preparation methods.
The Dining Experience in Iceland
Until recently, Iceland’s culinary scene wasn’t anything to write home about, but that’s changed in a big way over the last few decades. Especially in Reykjavik, exciting, modern and innovative restaurants are leading the charge, and local chefs (and even waitstaff) are practically giddy with what Iceland brings now to the global food game.
For the best of this relatively new food wave, stick to Reykjavik. It can still be hard to find exciting grub in smaller, more remote towns.
Iceland offers a range of dining experiences—from the fanciest restaurants to the most modest food stands—so you’ll never be without options here, and each experience represents an important piece of the full Icelandic food picture.
Typical Icelandic Dishes
No matter where you are on the island, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Icelandic delicacies:
- Skyr - Similar to Greek yogurt in consistency but milder in taste (and technically a soft cheese), skyr is a staple of the Icelandic diet. Eat it with berries, other fruit or milk. For a sweeter treat, make it into skyrkaka, which is Iceland’s answer to the cheesecake.
- Lamb - Slow roasted or in stew, lamb is a must-try in Iceland. The lambs aren’t raised with growth hormones or fed on grain, so you know you’re getting some of the finest meat available. For the most authentic experience, have it served with Arctic thyme and slow cooked in a geothermally warmed pit.
- Hákarl - Fermented shark meat is a distinctly Icelandic dish, but it’s more traditional than popular in the modern day. For those who dare, eat it in cubes or on skewers, and take heart: the smell is much stronger than the taste!
- Fish - Not surprisingly, seafood is huge in Iceland, and nearly 350 different saltwater fish species are known to frequent Iceland’s waters. Don’t miss the cod, haddock, halibut, Atlantic salmon and more.
- Rúgbrauð - Cooked in wooden casks near underground hot springs, this traditional rye bread is dark, dense and quite sweet (the slow cooking process near high heat leads to caramelization). Try it cooked the traditional way, or pick up a quick loaf in just about any grocery store.
- Harðfiskur - Dried fish might not sound overly appetizing, but this Icelandic delicacy is a favorite among locals. Eat it plain as a healthy snack loaded with protein, or smother it in salted batter as an alternative to chips or popcorn.
- Ice Cream - It might seem unexpected, but Icelanders love ice cream. Whether it’s summer or the dead of winter, you can grab a scoop at a gas station, café or any number of specialty ice cream parlors. You’ll even see these ice cream shops open well past midnight to ensure people can get their fix at any hour of the day.
- Brennivín - A distilled schnapps brand, Brennivín is clear, unsweetened and widely considered Iceland’s signature drink. Many locals drink it as a shot for special occasions.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you’re visiting Iceland during the long, cold days of winter, fill up on lamb stew. A combination of lamb, potatoes, carrots, rutabagas and spices, this hearty, rich, delicious stew is practically ubiquitous, and it helps stave off the winter blues when you only see the sun for less than six hours a day.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Iceland’s relatively small size means most local foods are available in most places on the island, but there are some region-specific specialties to check out:
- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur Hot Dog - This Reykjavik-based chain of hot dog stands might not seem as if it warrants a stop, but the wieners here are world famous. Thanks to a popularity boost from then-president Bill Clinton’s visit and subsequent praise, these hot dog stands have become a national tourist attraction. Thanks to the notoriety (and the addition of lamb to the beef mix), they were named the best hot dog stand in all of Europe in 2006.
- Reindeer - Raised in environments as healthy as the chicken, cows and lambs enjoy, Icelandic reindeer is lean, mild and surprisingly not gamey. While you can get it in Reykjavik, it’s most commonly found in the eastern regions of Iceland.
Backroads Pro Tip
To eat puffin or not. It’s a debate that rages among locals and tourists alike. While puffin can still be found on menus—particularly those in the northern parts of the island—their decreasing numbers give many pause about putting them on the plate. The same debate exists around minke whale, which is also widely available here. Ultimately, the decision to partake or not rests with each individual tourist.
Icelandic Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
- Harðfiskur: dried fish
- Rúgbrauð: traditional dark rye bread
- Hákarl: fermented shark meat
- Pylsur: hot dog
- Lundi: puffin
Words to Know When Dining Out
While most Icelandic people speak impeccable English, it’s always appreciated when you try your hand at a few of the local words and phrases. Here are a few to get you started at a local restaurant:
- Could I have the bill, please?: Gæti ég fengið reikninginn?
- I’m a vegetarian: Ég er grænmetisæta
- One with everything (use when ordering a hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur): Eina með öllu
- Waiter: þjónn
- Water: Vatn
- Restroom: Salerni
- Bon appetit!: Verði þér að góðu!
Tipping is not compulsory in Iceland because a restaurant bill will generally already include a service charge. However, Icelanders are generally quite well traveled and will be aware of (and appreciative of) tipping. If you notice no service charge on your bill, an extra 10 percent is more than sufficient.
Tipping, in any capacity, is more common in upscale restaurants; don’t feel obligated in casual eateries or bars.
When dining in Iceland, many US visitors have to adjust their eating schedules slightly. Don’t expect dinner to happen until 8:00 p.m. or later, and don’t be surprised if you can’t find an open restaurant in sight until 10:00 a.m. on weekends.
As you’ll find in much of Europe, the waitstaff doesn’t want to disturb you while you’re eating and enjoying the dining experience, so you might have to flag down your server and ask for the bill if it’s not offered up.
Want to Know More about Iceland?
Read the full “Iceland: Travel Guide Overview”.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Iceland adventure!