Whenever I travel to a new place, one of the first things I research is local cuisine and food history. I’m a foodie, so I love exploring the food culture of a future destination. But, also, I have health concerns that mean I need to stick to a pretty strict diet to make sure my quality of life isn’t hindered by my food.
That being said, depending on the item, I might plan my day around having small tastes of exciting local cuisine, because I do feel food culture can be at the heart of experiencing new places.
When visiting Iceland, I was worried that I’d find myself struggling for things to eat. Man, was I wrong. Between some modern Icelandic staples, traditional Icelandic staples, lots of delicious international cuisine, as well as great grocery stores (Kronan is my favorite) and gas stations (yes, you can get tasty and reasonably priced food at many Icelandic gas stations), I did not want for food. Speaking of grocery stores and gas stations, eating out in Iceland can seem cost prohibitive to some. If that’s the case for you, but you still want to experience Icelandic eating, check out those grocery stores and gas stations. We found some of our favorite bites outside of traditional sit down restaurants. And it was so much more economical, as well.
Here are my top 10 things to try when you visit Iceland. I made this list with my husband, who is probably the most adventurous eater I’ve ever met. I’ll include his quotes at the start of every description.
What he says: “My second favorite hot dog. It’s a meal on a bun. I love it the Icelandic way, topped with potato salad. Great for car rides eating while you drive. They are everywhere in Iceland and I’ve never had one that wasn’t delicious. I could eat one everyday.”
What are the details: This hot dog will grace just about every top food in Iceland list and believe me when I tell you this is well deserved. What are they? This Icelandic hot dog is made from a blend of lamb, beef, and pork. And this isn’t just any meat. These are made with free range, grass fed, hormone free lamb, beef and pork. Icelandic sheep roam free through the summer until the weather starts turning and they are rounded up again to come home in the fall. Typically, pylsa are topped with fried onions, chopped raw onion, ketchup, pylsusinnep (which is a sweet brown mustard), and remoulade (which is a mayo-based condiment with capers, mustard and herbs). I prefer mine wrapped in bacon, as well. Before you make substitutions, definitely try it the way it is intended to be eaten. It will surprise you.
What are the alternatives: For non-meat eaters who want to join in the fun, there are more and more vegetarian and vegan options sprouting up around Iceland. Small islands mean fast change. Try Bulsur with the condiments of a standard pylsar that fit your dietary needs. Bulsur is an Icelandic vegetarian and vegan sausage that is yum!
Where to go: Most folks will tell you to go to the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. Their name literally calls them out as the town’s best hot dogs. They opened in 1937 and have been going strong since. They are absolutely delicious, but truly, I’ve had delicious hot dogs all across Iceland. Every place we stopped, we found a delicious hot dog. My favorite hot dog in Iceland, though? Orkan gas station in Hvolsvöllur.
What’s the cost: This is definitely one of the more economical treats to get while in Iceland. You can typically grab a hot dog for 400 ISK, which is under $4 USD. That’s very cheap for Iceland!
What he says: “A perfect snack to get you ready for a long day exploring Iceland. Better than greek yogurt and you just feel good about eating it.”
What are the details: Skyr is an Icelandic cultured dairy product that has been a staple of the Icelanders diet since the Viking age. Many people think it is yogurt, but it’s actually a fresh sour milk cheese. It is packaged like a typical Greek yogurt, though, so the confusion totally makes sense. Really, that’s where the comparison should end. It’s a tad sour and not nearly as sweet as traditional yogurt or Greek yogurt but so much smoother and creamier. As someone who is on a higher protein, lower carb diet due to my lupus and Hashimoto’s, Skyr is a go-to healthy snack for me while in Iceland.
Traditional, plain Skyr is used as a sweet or savory component depending on the application. Mix it with berries or jam for a dessert or top a tasty fish with some for dinner. Also, to produce one cup of Skyr, you need 4 cups of milk. Talk about vitamin-rich! Nowadays, there are a number of Skyr brands around. Here are the most prominent:
- Ísey (Iceland)
- Kea Skyr (Iceland)
- Siggi’s Skyr (United States)
- Arla (United Kingdom)
What are the alternatives: Some Skyr is branded as vegetarian friendly, but some do not make that claim. Likely because the rennet they use to make Skyr (remember, it’s a cheese) is from animal enzymes, not vegetable enzymes. Of the Icelandic Skyr, Ísey advertises as vegetarian friendly. There are vegan alternatives, but they are not from the above Iceland brands. Siggi’s makes a plant-based Skyr as an option.
Where to go: You can find Skyr all over the world now in local grocery stores. While in Iceland, you’ll find it at gas stations, grocery stores, on menus at restaurants. This delicious dairy product is readily available for you to try in a number of different flavors and applications. My advice? Head to Kronan, my recommended grocery store in Iceland.
What’s the cost: Skyr is another relatively low cost option for snacking while in Iceland. When we visit, we stock up at the grocery store or nearest gas station. Expect to pay 200 ISK or less (or under $2 USD).
Icelandic Ice Cream
What he says: “Not standout as far as worldwide ice cream goes but they do love their toppings. There isn’t a candy or cookie you can’t get to top your cone. Again, they are at almost every gas station around the country.”
What are the details: Everyone has their interpretation of this cold dessert. Iceland is no different. And, truly, they seem to really love their ice cream culture. You can find ice cream readily available across the island. There is even a word in Icelandic that basically means jumping in a car and driving around to get ice cream, ísbíltúr. While I agree with my hubby that Icelandic ice cream doesn’t rank highest in the world when it comes to this treat, I do think it needs to be on a top 10 list of treats to get in Iceland. Partially because it’s still really delicious, and partially because it’s part of the food culture here.
What I especially love is that ice cream is a year long tradition in Iceland. Summer or winter, you’ll find folks with a cone in their hand. I also love how high quality dairy products are in general in Iceland. If you’re looking for a taste of old Iceland, keep an eye out for gamli vanilla ice cream which is made with milk instead of the nýi vanilla ice cream which is made with cream. Finally, when I think of Icelandic ice cream, I think of soft serve in a cone given a hard shell of chocolate and coated in toppings. You’ll also find lots of cone and cup scoop ice cream shops specializing in different types of ice cream and gelatos, as well.
What are the alternatives: Modern Iceland is definitely more and more vegetarian and vegan friendly. Especially if you stay closer to Reykjavik, you’ll find amazing ice cream shops with vegan alternatives.
Where to go: For soft serve with a chocolate shell, you have to go to Ísbúð Vesturbæjar. They have a few locations and are always pretty busy. To order, you pick your cone type, pick your ice cream type, pick your shell flavor and then pick your toppings. I like Nóa Kropp, personally. Honestly, though, you’ll find delicious hardshell ice cream at gas stations, too, all over Iceland. Give it a try!
For a scoop in a cup or cone, I absolutely loved Skubb. Their ice cream tastes so rich and creamy and delicious, and I’m sure that’s in part because they source their milk from a local organic farm. They also offer vegan alternatives, which makes them inclusive and I love that, too.
What’s the cost: This tasty treat is fairly economical. Obviously, gas stations will be cheaper, overall, than shops in Reykjavik, but still, as food goes, splurge on an ice cream at least once. You can probably grab a basic cone starting at 300 ISK or so (which is less than $3 USD).
What he says: “A very tasty twist on a classic donut. The spices they use in this breakfast sweet keep it from being overly sweet like our donuts. I especially like the chocolate version.”
What are the details: A Scandanavian treat in origin, the kleina is a popular donut that is fairly ubiquitous in Iceland. Kleinur (the plural of kleina) are little knots of fried dough. Some people call them “twisted donuts”. Keep in mind, though, that they don’t have the same texture as what you’re likely expecting from a standard donut. They tend to be a little denser, and not as sweet. Kleinur have hints of cardamom, nutmeg and vanilla, typically, as well. You will usually find them plain, although I have come across powdered sugar, caramel and chocolate versions during my time in Iceland.
You can trace back this fried dough to Scandanvia in the 14th century, but they don’t make their way into Iceland cookbooks until the 1800s. Now, you’ll find them all over Iceland, from grocery stores to bakeries to gas stations to coffee shops to Icelanders homes. Once reserved for the Christmastime holiday season, Kleinur are an everyday treat in Iceland that you will not want to miss.
What are the alternatives: During my time in Iceland, I have not found a bakery offering a vegan option. If that changes, I will update this blog.
Where to go: Sadly, my very favorite place to get kleinur, Gamla Bakaríið, in Ísafjörður, the capital of the Westfjords, closed due to the pandemic. I can’t tell you how devastating that news is since this bakery was everything. It was delicious, steeped in history, family run, and really an institution in the area. Fortunately, for you, as I mentioned earlier, you can find these donuts all over Iceland. A good alternative is Björnsbakarí in Reykjavik.
What’s the cost: In general, baked goods are an economical way to eat through Iceland. Most bakeries served drinks and sandwiches, as well. Bakeries are a perfect breakfast and lunch spot if you want to eat out but don’t want to pay sit-down restaurant prices (and still get something authentically Iceland). You can usually grab one for 300 ISK or less (which is under $3 USD).
What he says: “Icelanders know how to make tasty bread. The bakeries are full of delicious baked goods. This rye bread is no exception. Really want to try the ground cooked version.”
What are the details: Baked good culture in Iceland is very strong. Rúgbrauð is a delicious native Icelandic straight rye bread you can find in more bakeries, restaurants, homes. This bread is crustless, very dark, dense, a little sweet and hearty. It has a more cake-like consistency, likely in part due to the leavening agents used (baking powder and soda instead of yeast). It also keeps for a long time, which if you’ve read my Iceland food history piece you’ll know is an important factor with traditional Icelandic foods. There are different varieties that add wheat or grain to create a less dense rye bread but they are still generally called rúgbrauð. If you want the authentic Icelandic experience, top your rúgbrauð with smoked salmon or lamb. That being said, I love it smeared with a little salted butter.
This bread is typically steamed either in a geothermal area or an oven, as opposed to standard baking. Low and slow baking can mimic the steaming method used in Iceland. Traditionally, you’d steam the bread in a wooden vessel by burying it near the natural hot springs and left to bake by the geothermal currents. Rúgbrauð using this method is called hverabrauð or “hot spring bread”. Another name, though, is þrumari or “thunderbread” since the high amount of dietary fiber means this bread is well-known for causing flatulence.
What are the alternatives: While I haven’t seen vegan rúgbrauð options, it is vegetarian-friendly.
Where to go: You can find rúgbrauð all across Iceland, as I mentioned, but my favorite can be found at Klausturkaffi in Egilsstadir, East Iceland. This delicious cafe makes so many yummy breads and cakes which you can try at a buffet they host daily.
What’s the cost: Baked goods are an economical food option, especially when bought from a grocery store or bakery. You can usually grab a loaf of rye for 1,000 ISK (or under $10 USD). If you want the lunch buffet at Klausturkaffi, it’s 3,900 ISK (or around $30 USD depending on the exchange rate).
What he says: “A great staple dish. Served at almost every restaurant. Very tasty, very hearty, very Iceland.”
What are the details: This traditional lamb soup is definitely Iceland in a bowl. Kjötsúpa, or Icelandic Lamb Soup, finds its roots in the early settlers of Iceland when it was more important than ever to make food stretch and create warm and hearty dishes. The core ingredients are simple, lamb and vegetables, typically potatoes, rutabagas, and carrots (since those vegetables are all easily grown in the Arctic Circle). More modern versions can include onions, leeks, and Icelandic herbs.
This perfect meal for a winter’s day might have some standard ingredients, but everyone who makes it puts their own spin on it. One controversial choice, though, is adding rice. Many purists will tell you not to add rice ever since that would’ve been scarce if available at all. If anything was added as a thickener, it might’ve been some kind of grain, like barley or oats, but again, this soup was all about fresh lamb and available vegetables. Want to make your own kjötsúpa, but just not getting the right flavor? The secret ingredient is a little packet of “soup herbs” you can find at any Icelandic grocery store, like Kronan. The herb mix included dried carrots, leeks and parsnips. Many feel the herbs are essential since they believe that’s part of the healing power of Icelandic Lamb Soup.
What are the alternatives: So, when it comes to lamb soup, there isn’t a real vegetarian or vegan option. That being said, you can find delicious soup all across Iceland and vegetarian and vegan options are becoming more prevalent. The Soup Company always has a vegan soup option available. Oh, and their bread is vegan, too.
Where to go: You’ll find kjötsúpa all over iceland and everyone will have their own spin to this traditional staple. My favorite version can be found at The Soup Company in Vik. And don’t just stop with the kjötsúpa. All of their soups and breads and paninis are delicious. Best part? You get refills of your soup!
What’s the cost: Costs will vary depending on where you go, but at The Soup Company, expect to pay 1,990 ISK (or under $20 USD) for a hearty bowl of kjötsúpa (with a free refill).
What he says: “Icelanders love paprika. It’s on fries, it’s on chips, they have it in little spice packets to season your food and I love it. The perfect little kick on almost anything.”
What are the details: I will preface this by saying that paprika (made from peppers which are nightshades) is an autoimmune trigger food and when I eat it, I deal with a lot of inflammation. That being said, I’m a paprika addict and definitely tried a number of paprika delights when I visited Iceland. And boy, Iceland did not disappoint. They have a love affair with paprika, as well. You’ll find it as a seasoning often, but especially with potato products. Served with french fries, you’ll find kartoflukrydd (often in little plastic packets) which is a “potato spice” that includes salt and paprika. But, really, you can put kartoflukrydd on just about anything. This spice is unique to Iceland and fairly old. Oh, and delicious.
Seriously, though, you will find paprika everywhere all over the grocery stores, like Kronan, in Iceland. The snack aisles are littered with paprika versions of chip and cracker brands you’re familiar with, as well as more regionalized brands. While bell peppers aren’t native to Iceland, thanks to modern technology and geothermal advances, they are grown in state-of-the-art greenhouses, along with other produce that doesn’t thrive in the Arctic Circle climate.
What are the alternatives: No alternatives needed, unless you are also triggered by nightshades. If so, make sure to be really clear about your dietary needs.
Where to go: You can head just about anywhere to find paprika.
What’s the cost: Cost varies based on item. Kartoflukrydd packets are often given for free with french fries.
What he says: “Most delicious store bought cookie I have ever had.”
What are the details: These biscuits can be found in grocery stores across Iceland. They are a tasty cookie that is one half coconut wafer and one half dark chocolate. I know it’s surprising to see a package cookie on this list, but seriously, it is that good. Manufactured by Fron, this cookie is a classic that can be quickly overlooked with so many more contemporary options available. Definitely give it a chance. It really is that good.
What are the alternatives: There can only be one.
Where to go: You can find these cookies at grocery stores, like Kronan. You can also buy them online from Grapevine Store.
What’s the cost: Around 600 ISK, or under $6 USD.
What he says: “Amazing pastry. Very hearty and filling. Not overly sweet. Like a combo of a coffee cake and a croissant.”
What are the details: As mentioned earlier, bakeries are relatively easily found all across Iceland. And you will see the same staples at every bakery you step foot into. Vínarbrauð, or “wine bread”, is Iceland’s version of Danish pastry. There are different versions of this tasty treat, but the traditional one is a flaky pastry filled with almond paste and vanilla custard and drizzled in icing.
Vínarbrauð is one of those perfect examples of history being reflected in your food. The origin of what we know as a Danish is a complex one. Were they created in Denmark? Likely. But did a Dane create them? According to the most believed version of this culinary history, an Austrian baker in Denmark actually brought the pastry to Denmark in 1850 when Danish bakery workers went on strike and bakeries had to hire their labor from Vienna. Unfamiliar with Danish pastry, they made traditional Austrian pastry. When the strike ended, though, due to the popularity of this pastry, the Danish bakers put their own spin on it and added more egg and fat to the Austrian recipe and that is the Danish we all know and love today.
If you go even further down the rabbit hole, legend has it that the Austrian pastry originated in France when an apprentice baker made a mistake while baking.
What are the alternatives: During my time in Iceland, I didn’t see a vegan version but there are some vegan bakeries in Iceland that might have a viable alternative.
Where to go: You can find delicious vínarbrauð all over Iceland, but my favorite can be found in a little bakery, Bakarí, in Ólafsvík on the northside of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland.
What’s the cost: Prices will range depending on what you get, but you should be able to grab a tasty piece of pastry for 500 ISK (under $5 USD) or under.
What he says: “Really tasty cheese. Mild flavor that goes with anything. Fresh baked icelandic bread and this cheese is a great mid day snack. Perfect for cheesy toast.”
What are the details: Iceland Bread Cheese, or brauðostur, is a mild gouda-like cheese that is made in Iceland. You’ll find this cheese at grocery stores and gas stations all across Iceland. They offer it pre-sliced as well as in block form. Brauðostur is also a staple of Icelandic sandwiches, especially the sandwiches you see at bakeries across the island. Me, though? I grab a piece of homemade Icelandic bread, some Icelandic butter and then a slice of brauðostur and it’s the perfect snack.
While Iceland may seem like a very small country, in terms of surface area and population, they don’t consume a small amount of dairy. Per capita, the only country to outdrink Iceland is Finland. And not by much at all. The dairy history of Iceland is a fascinating one. For instance, M.S. Iceland Dairies is a cooperative organization (that some would say is a legal monopoly) that includes over 600 of Iceland’s dairy farmers. They manage the majority of the country’s dairy market share.
Another interesting fact is that the milk produced is Iceland comes from “viking cows” that can be traced back to the settlement of the country. No other cows are allowed to be brought into Iceland. It is believed that the isolation of this breed has helped to give their milk a unique flavor in comparison to other modern day dairy cows.
What are the alternatives: Iceland is considered one of the world’s most vegan-friendly countries. While there isn’t an exact vegan equivalent to brauðostur, you can find other options.
Where to go: You can find brauðostur at grocery stores, like Kronan, and gas stations all over Iceland. It’s also commonly placed on sandwiches you can buy in bakeries all across Iceland.
What’s the cost: Brauðostur is a fairly inexpensive cheese in Iceland. You can probably grab a package for 800 ISK (under $8 USD) or less.
BONUS: I figured you might want to know about the drinks, too. Keep in mind, I primarily drink water every day. That being said, it’s fun to branch out and try different things while traveling.
What he says: “Quite simply the best tap water anywhere (Unless it’s in the Akureyri/Lake Myvatn area.) I’ve never had water straight from a flowing stream and it was as pure as it could possibly be.”
What are the details: Iceland is one of the cleanest countries in the world. When it comes to their water, that is definitely true. Icelanders will freely tell you that they have the best water in the world. They are blessed with having access to an inexpensive supply of pure natural spring water as their tap water. It’s naturally-filtered through layers of lava and rocks before ever reaching your cup. Additionally, Icelandic tap water contains no additives like chlorine, fluoride or any other chemicals. The water is so pure that it’s not necessary.
Tourists will often comment on the rotten egg smell of the hot water. The hot and cold water come from different sources. The hot water will occasionally have a sulphuric smell because of its geothermal origins – it comes from the ground and is supplied by geothermal power plants. The same geothermal plants that allow Iceland to be one of the cleanest energy producing countries in the world. The hot water is good for bathing, but not recommended for drinking. If you want to make a hot beverage, boil the cold water. Additionally, during winter, we experienced that you needed to run the cold water for a bit before drinking it from the tap to ensure that there was no hot water mixed in.
What are the alternatives: No alternative needed. Seriously, I wish I could drink Icelandic water for the rest of my life.
Where to go: Just about anywhere. We drank water straight from a glacial stream during a hike between two volcanoes. Best water we’ve ever tasted.
What’s the cost: Free. Don’t waste money on bottled water while in Iceland. Don’t create more plastic waste unnecessarily.
What he says: “Not my favorite clear liquor but an icon in Iceland. Goes well with whale and, I’ve heard, a must with fermented shark. I haven’t had the shark yet but I really want to. It’s an icelandic throwback to a time when food would get scarce. I find it fascinating.”
What are the details: Sometimes called “Black Death”, Brennivín is the signature spirit of Iceland. It is distilled from fermented grain mash and flavored only with caraway. It is also considered a type of akvavit, which is a flavored spirit of Scandanavian origin. It’s origins come from the 15th or 16th century when Danish merchants imported Danish akvavit into Iceland. The Danish king had a trading monopoly in Iceland and limited the resources available to them. If Icelanders wanted alcohol, akvavit was their only real option. Unlike beer, it didn’t spoil and could be sold at a higher price.
Brennivín means “burned wine”, which is fairly literal since the process to make it involves stills over open flame, as opposed to fermented beer or wine. The burning process of the spirits being imported did not produce the tastiest results, so Icelanders added caraway to enhance the flavor. And the rest, as they say, in history. As a note, Brennivín is best served cold and is used as a straight shot, as a base for cocktails, or as an accompaniment to beer. People also often pair it with fermented shark.
What are the alternatives: There are a few distilleries making a version of Brennivín, but they all pay homage to the original.
Where to go: You can find Brennivín all over the island wherever they sell alcohol.
What’s the cost: Depends on if you are buying a shot, a mixed drink, a bottle. If a bottle, you can grab a 1L bottle for around 4,000ISK (or under $40 USD).
What he says: “Best orange soda. I love orange and grape soda and this is better than anything I’ve had anywhere else. Even the diet version is delicious.
What are the details: If you are looking for an Icelandic soda, Egils Appelsín is it. Their slogan is “hið eina sanna” meaning ‘the one and only‘ which definitely tracks. This fizzy orange-flavored soft drink is that popular among locals and tourists alike. If you love orange soda, this one will remind you of a more carbonated Fanta.
Egils Appelsín is manufactured by the biggest brewery in Iceland, Ölgerðin. It first hit shelves in 1955 and is now part of the food landscape of Iceland. My favorite part is that it’s also a huge part of Christmastime. It’s Christmas tradition to combine the sweet Appelsín with Malt to create a popular ale. Oh, and make sure you mix them alphabetically otherwise the foam will likely become a problem.
What are the alternatives: Hið eina sanna
Where to go: You can find Egils Appelsín at every grocery store, gas station, lots of restaurants all across Iceland.
What’s the cost: Typically around 300 ISK (or under $3 USD).