Let me start off by saying: Island is incredible.
I’ve seen photos of Island—especially more frequently recently as it seems to have become a travel hotspot as of late—and have thought simulatenously: this is amazing and this can’t be real. I’ve wanted to visit for decades, and all the social media flourish has only intensified that desire. There’s always been something about Island that has called to me: the rawness of it, the starkness of it, the surprisingly greenness of it. How’s there’s at the same time so much and so little life.
Unfortunately, my first visit is an aperitif, a preview of a longer journey through a fascinating island. I had a collective three days in Reykjavik, stopovers from our “destination” of France. So, instead of showing you photos of verdant fields and cliffs, massive waterfalls, flocks of sheep, or black sand coasts… I’ll show you photos of charming Reykjavik, which I can only describe as a cosmopolitan seaside town… and some of the incredible food we ate.
Yes, there was hákarl (fermented shark). Yes, there was harðfiskur (wind-dried fish). Yes, there was rúgbrauð (rye bread) and brennivín (schnapps) and hangikjöt (smoked lamb) and skyr (strained yogurt). No, I did not eat whale. (Please don’t eat whale.) There was a lot of fish. And a hot dog. It was all what I wanted. I even liked the hákarl.
If Reykjavik was just a primer of what’s to come from a longer trip to Island, I imagine a long and epic trek into the rest of the country soon. I imagine renting a small van and spending a few months driving around the classic Ring Road, but taking my time to explore what’s obvious and what’s not. I imagine Island has so many secrets, and it’s up to me to uncover them.
I happened to visit Reykjavik during two important times: the national day (17 June) and near the solstice. Which means that the sun virtually never set. When it did, technically, the sky never truly darkened past dusk. I loved it. For someone who chases the sun and feels the seasons so acutely like me, everlasting daylight was a gift. One day we didn’t get around to dinner until 21:00, and by the time we finished it was nearly 23:00. But, that was no problem: the sun was still in the sky.
Conversely, though, I’d like to go to Island in the winter. Not just for the aurora borealis (Northern lights), which obviously are best seen when it’s dark outside, but for the cosiness that comes with winter. What’s the Islandic version of mysig? Is it actually cosy?Whatever it is, I learned that Islanders are still social in the winter, coming together despite the cold and the darkness, perhaps out of sheer necessity, but resulting in a wonderful sense of community and family. (Chicagoans could learn a lot from Islanders, instead of hibernating as so many of my friends and neighbors do, to enrich those friendships even more.)
There’s actually a third reason it was special to visit Island during this time. Island had qualified for the first time ever for the Euro Cup (which we planned our trip around in France) and the spirit was definitely in the air. At least for the first stopover. The second stopover was the day after France decisively beat Island*. But Island put up an excellent fight throughout the entire tournament. The first days we were there, it was obvious the whole country rallied around the team. Island is a small country in population, but it has a lot of heart. Viking spirit, you know?
The Viking spirit is apparent in the food that Islanders eat. Island, in case you didn’t know, is an island full of volcanoes. Where it’s not a volcano or a lava desert, it’s a glacier. Only about 1% of the country is cultivated, though 20% is for grazing. (And did you know there are more sheep than people in Island?) It’s not exactly a hospitable place most of the year, meaning that to survive, Islanders had to be resourceful and creative. Hence, various ways of preserving food—wind-drying, smoking, salting, pickling/curing, fermenting—were necessities rather than choices. Þorramatur is the traditional Islandic food, served as buffet during the month of Þorri in January and February, though the concept of Þorramatur was essentially invented in the 1950s and 60s to capture the ancient culture during massive waves of ubanisation to Reykjavik. There are signs that this tradition is fading, but the mainstays of the diet (lamb, fish, and diary) still are staples.
Greenhouses in the modern-era have helped diversify the Islandic diet, as have imports (with exception of raw meat), and today Islandic cuisine is exciting. Chefs focus on quality local ingredients, sometimes made with traditional methods but oftentimes without. Everything I ate was delicious and kept me wanting more. One particular recommendation is Kopar in the Old Harbor, where we had a rave meal.
Even the pylsa (hotdog), which was more intense than I’ve had in other Scandinavian countries.
- Kopar: high-quality, local, sustainable food; excellent service; beautiful location and atmosphere
- Café Loki: this is where we ate the traditional food (hákarl, harðfiskur), catered mostly to tourists I think; nice location by Hallgrimskirkja
- Icelandic Fish & Chips: one of many fish and chips restaurants in Reyjkavik; good fish and excellent chips, nice array of dips
- Kofinn (coffee house): On the corner of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur, I stopped in for coffee, but apparently it’s a bar too; cool vibe and nice change from the two national chains Te og Kaffe and Kaffitár, which aren’t bad, but are have that coffee-chain-vibe you find everywhere; (we went to a Te og Kaffe, and it was decent)
- Pylsuhúsið (hot dog house): The hot dog house on Ingólfstorg
- At grocery stores, get your fill of the usual Scandinavian bulk bins of godis (gummies and candy), chocolate, sea salt (including lavasalt), skyr, lakrís (licorice), and many other local goods.
* We actually stumbled on an Island rally the night before the France-Island match in Paris. Maybe it was a rally, maybe it was just what Islandic people do for fun. It was incredible! Abby had learned that about 10% of the Islandic population (30,000) was in France to support their team, and they were all there it seemed. So many people were out in the street in Montmartre, chanting and drumming and this Viking clap that we quickly learned and took part in. We even saw some of the people from the gathering on television during the match the next day. I was supporting France, of course, but it was so convivial to take part in Island’s pre-match celebrations.
** Be aware that if you are a wine drinker, Iceland doesn’t offer a lot of variety… at least by the glass. This is true for both bars and restaurants, I found. I ended up almost always drinking a sauvignon blanc. Other choices were chardonnay, pinot grigos, and a few reds.
*** If you didn’t know, Reykjavik is a party hot spot. Friday night bar crawls are also seemingly a national past-time. If you can be in Reykjavik for this, especially in the summer, I highly recommend making sure you partake in this. You’ll meet some incredible people, and it’s a great way to try to local brennivín and opal, the latter of which is an Icelandic liqueur and is oddly produced by the Icelandic confection manufacturer Nói Síríus… which makes delicious chocolate.
PS: If you want to see more of my travel photos beyond food, head over to this site.