We traveled to Iceland during winter, and we didn’t get to go all over the island. As I know even people from tiny countries (I’m from Portugal!) get pretty specific about the things that apply to one region but may not apply to another, allow me to clarify that the observations I am about to pen down apply mostly to Reykjavík and Southern Iceland. These are the areas we visited and, as such, I can’t say for sure if these random things that caught my attention apply in the north of the country. But I’m pretty sure men and women are equal all over the country, and that folks both in the north and south have at least one cousin in the band Of Monsters and Men. Yes, the country is that small.
But Iceland is proof that size doesn’t matter. This island nation packs in natural wonders that have made it world famous, but also so many other little surprises that will keep curious travelers engaged as they
explore beyond the most touristic spots.
In no particular order, these are some of those random things we noticed, learned and saw during our stay in Iceland:
Gender equality here and now!
Before traveling to Iceland, I didn’t know that much about the country. But a few things would come to mind: ice, volcanoes, epic road-trips, and a progressive mentality. Gender equality in Iceland is a result of this progressive mentality. For instance, in Iceland, it’s literally illegal to pay men more than women. Back in 1850, Iceland was already the first country in the world to grant equal inheritance rights to both men and women. In 1881 women were allowed to vote in local elections and, 20 years later, they could run for local politics.
24th of October of 1975 marked a before and an after in women’s rights in Iceland. Women decided to take a Day Off from their paid jobs, from housework and from child caring. 90% of women all around the country stopped their work for a day, and took to the streets in the form of protest, demanding equal rights. Earlier that year, my country had just fought to end the dictatorship, so that just shows how Iceland is ahead! The day that Iceland almost came to a stand-still because women weren’t working, was the day the country realized how important the contributions of women are. Five years after this date, Iceland had the world’s first democratically elected female President. Respect!
Relieve yourself in gender-neutral bathrooms
If at home we have no separate bathrooms for the males and females of the family, why is it that this happens in public restrooms? As a woman who’s had to stand in line to pee many times, I’ve often thought how inefficient it is that the male bathrooms are empty while girls have to wait to relieve themselves. Well, not in Iceland! Have I mentioned how I think these guys are ahead? That’s right… even when it comes to bathroom practices. All-gender bathrooms are more common than separate ones these days. Furthermore, it’s super common to encounter baskets of sanitary napkins and tampons available for free inside the loo or, in some establishments, signs that tell you that you can request these for free from the staff.
10% of residents in Iceland are immigrants
More than 10% of the people living in Iceland right now are foreigners. Attracted by high wages, the safety of the country and the availability of jobs, especially in the tourism sector, these immigrants contribute to making the country more and more multicultural. Icelanders are also known for being accepting of migrants and see the influx of people from others countries and cultures into their country as a positive thing. That’s not only what they say when it comes to surveys, the fact that many Icelanders welcomed Syrian refugees into their homes a few years ago is a living proof of this mentality. Other than that, the largest group of immigrants to Iceland are Polish, followed by Lithuanian and Filipino.
There are no celebrities
Like a local guy who we talked to one night at a bar said, “We don’t have celebrities here in Iceland. We just have well-known people”. Iceland is so small that everybody seems to know everybody else. So much that, we heard another story about a guy who once went bananas in the head and decided to rob a store. The teenager put on a balaclava and entered the establishment he wanted to take money from. The lady behind the counter immediately recognized his voice and firmly said “What’s wrong with you? Do you want me to call your mom, or what? Get the hell out of here right now!” Living in a country with a little over 300,000 people can lead to charming situations like these!
Icelanders have no surname
The population of Iceland used to be even smaller and, perhaps because of that, the country never felt the need for the use of surnames. Your given name is simply followed by “son of” or “daughter of”. So my name is Zara and my Dad’s name is Jorge. If we were Icelandic, my name would be Zara Jorgedóttir. Considering the status of women in Icelandic society, it did surprise me at first that people are still known as sons and daughters of the father, and not of the mother. But I later read that names can be matronymic, and if the family prefers to put the name of the mother that is also allowed. Every now and then, a specific governing body votes to approve the introduction of new given names into the culture of Iceland.
Icelandic names? Thor rules!
Talking about names, we often laughed at how common the name Thor actually is in Iceland. I know, silly us. But when you book an Airbnb and your host’s name is Thor all sorts of fantastic imagery can start crossing your mind. Icelanders can only name their babies with names that appear in the Personal Names Register.
Is everyone in Iceland related?!
Remember the dude with the balaclava mentioned above? Like I said, Iceland is small and folks tend to know each other. So much that we’ve heard of remote areas with just one farm and one family being called “a village”. But what happens when that closeness becomes a little too weird? Even though there are 330,000 people in the country today, historically the population was much lower. The settlers that gave origin to today’s population in Iceland were a mix of Norse and Celtic people. While this mix was “healthy” enough, the current nationals of Iceland are direct descendants of these people, and little has been added to the country’s genetic pool. If to this you add the fact that folks have no surnames, the chances of you sleeping with a cousin aren’t so rare. This is exactly why there’s even an app to avoid accidental incest!
Locals are surprisingly friendly
I’m not proud to admit it, but I found Icelanders to be surprisingly friendly. And I say that I am not proud, because I shouldn’t have ever assumed otherwise. Perhaps because there aren’t that many people, I found locals super welcoming and always eager to chat a little. For instance, we were once sitting at a bar in Reykjavik, and a guy named Hans simply walked up to our table, high-fived everyone in the group, pulled up a chair, sat down and said “So, guys… what’s up?!” It was so nice to be able to spend a little time with a local and, later on, his wife, learning about little things from local life that we wouldn’t necessarily get to experience during our visit. And so Iceland keeps accumulating points…
Icelanders like making babies
Hans and his wife were in their early 30s and they already had 3 babies. They told us how they were out for a company event, but because of their family responsibilities, they rarely get to go out at night these days. They are no exception. There are tons of babies all around in Iceland! Young folks seem to be reproducing quite alright. You’ll see Dads with babies “strapped” onto their backs going about their daily errands, and Moms rolling baby strollers up and down the snowed in sidewalks of Reykjavik. Let’s just hope all of them used the app!…
Iceland loves coffee
The number of babies you see in Iceland these days may be a direct result of how much caffeine Icelanders’ consume. Who knows?! They drink so much coffee that they do anything but sleep at night… Jokes aside, coffee shops are everywhere in Reykjavik and, even in smaller places, you’ll easily get your fix too. Coffee is expensive though! Be ready to spend 5 USD for an espresso, and 6 or 7 USD for a latte or cappuccino. Want in on a little secret? The supermarket Bonus has FREE coffee and milk which you can help yourself to.
Supermarkets have walk-in refrigerators
Talking about supermarkets in Iceland: going grocery shopping can be such an adventure in this country! Apart from the usual aisles with products on display, Icelandic supermarkets feature huge walk-in refrigerators where products like meat, fish, veggies, and dairy are kept. Instead of using fridges for these, the entire rooms are cold and so these products are displayed in regular looking shelves. But it’s obviously freezing in there. I wonder if they just pump in the air from outside, or if they actually spend money and energy cooling down these sections. It feels like that would be quite a waste!
Icelandic food does not suck!
Another thing that surprised me in Iceland and that I am not necessarily proud to admit is that the food wasn’t as terrible as expected. I read so many uninspiring articles about Icelandic food, that I was ready for anything, really. But now my experience makes me feel that many travelers end up talking sh*t about the local food because eating in Iceland is so expensive that they mostly buy the cheap stuff and, as such, they don’t end up having such a memorable foodie time.
Traditional preparations like soups and stews are tasty and fulfilling. For an island with such extreme weather, Icelanders are not particularly shy when it comes to the use of seasonings and spices, and we appreciated that. We didn’t end up eating the “funky” dishes people often mention when they talk about Icelandic cuisine. Fermented shark and Svið, a sheep’s head sliced into two, are probably the most famous of Icelandic delicacies. But I can’t comment, because I didn’t have those. Instead, I kept busy with deliciously fresh fish, such as cod and Arctic char. By personal foodie thumbs-up goes to Plokkfiskur, Icelandic fish stew made with potatoes, onions and bechamel sauce. This dish is truly comforting in the cold weather, particularly with some slices of rúgbrauð, rye bread traditionally cooked inside caskets placed in the ground near hot springs.
Iceland did live up to the “hot dog obsessed nation” reputation I had read about. Not only are hot dogs everywhere, from petrol pumps to street stands in the cities, they are also by far the cheapest option for a quick hot bite. In spite of this, you’ll tend to find vegetarian options in Iceland, particularly in Reykjavik, where there are a fair share of entirely vegan restaurants.
Alcohol is ridiculously expensive
If food is expensive in Iceland, booze takes the price! For a bottle of wine that would cost about 5 USD in a Portuguese restaurant, get ready to pay 50 USD in the Icelandic equivalent. Yet, this doesn’t seem to stop locals from indulging into drinking, particularly when it comes to beer. To buy alcoholic drinks, you need to head to a restaurant or bar. If you want to enjoy them at home, you can only purchase them from Vínbúðin, the State Alcohol and Tobacco Company of Iceland. This alcohol monopoly is enforced by the Icelandic government in order to restrict sales and hopefully reduce the effects of harmful alcohol consumption.
Locals told us that it is very common for folks to start drinking at home, get happy, and only, later on, come out to hit the bars and clubs. Drinking a night’s worth of alcohol outside would be prohibitive for most. I guess this is also a great excuse to visit friends at home and bond over a few drinks.
Reykjavík’s nightlife is legendary
If during the day the capital of Iceland feels like a charming town, at night things really heat up. Who would have thought Reykjavik’s nightlife would be this happening? You’ve got restaurants, bars, clubs, live music venues, open mic nights, stand up comedy events, and more. Things start late and end up early… in the morning!
During a night out in the city, we met some friends of Jesus. We don’t even need to specify what religion or church they belonged to, because they were all from different backgrounds. In their own words “That doesn’t really matter! We all follow Jesus, and that’s what’s important”. These friends of Jesus endured the negative temperatures in Reykjavik to serve free coffee and hot chocolate to party people coming up and down one of the main streets in the city, while spreading a message of love. Quite a contrast but, once again, something that made us feel warm fuzzy feelings for Iceland and its people.
Is Iceland safe?
Judging by the photos the Police of Iceland posts on Instagram I’d say yes! Not only do the members of the police force seem like they have a great sense of humor, they also look like they don’t often have to come face to face with gruesome murders or super dangerous situations. Our friend Hans joked that criminals usually dispose of bodies in volcanoes so there are no gruesome scenes to clean up. If we were to look at the laws of the country, one could marvel at the fact that they even had the time to create specific rules about not honking where flocks of sheep are, as this can be highly disturbing for the animals and make them run away from where they’re supposed to be. There are also laws that prevent tourists from stopping their car by the road-side, which is something you tend to feel like doing when you come across a group of incredibly cute Icelandic horses. Pretty specific laws, for a country with a pretty specific safety situation!
Snow and bad weather don’t make anything stop!
Talking about safety in Iceland, it’s important to highlight how remarkably well the infrastructure is set and taken care of, particularly during winter. It doesn’t matter if it’s snowing, life doesn’t stop in Iceland. Only when the storms are very, very extreme. Even though monster trucks are rather common across the country, if you’re mostly driving along main roads, a regular vehicle will suffice, as streets are constantly being plowed.
Away from the city centers, the fact that there is snow during a big part of the year makes it possible for tourists to enjoy sports they probably don’t have many other chances to indulge in elsewhere. While locals have figured out that Snow Golf is something that can actually be fun, snowmobiling is one of the coolest things tourists tend to love doing. Riding a snowmobile will give you a kick when it comes to speed, but also allow you to explore natural areas such as glaciers, that you simply don’t tend to go take a stroll around.
100% Renewable Energy
Iceland runs 100% on renewable energy. Of course, they have it easier than most nations, as the country is literally on top of a volcano. Most of the energy consumed in Iceland is geothermal and hydropower. The glaciers and mountains of Iceland’s interior are perfect for hydroelectric generation, while the fact that Iceland is a highly volcanic island with more than 600 hot springs makes the usage of geothermal energy fairly easy too.
In the big picture, this translates into clean use of energy. When it comes to individual enjoyment, this also means that you can have floor heating 24/7 and it’s guilt-free. It may not necessarily be cheap (nothing in Iceland is!), but at least you don’t feel like you are contributing to the world’s pollution by heating your home to the max. In the Airbnb property we rented near Selfoss, we had an outdoor hot tub filled with warm water straight from a nearby hot spring. We didn’t have to use any source of power to warm the water, the tub kept on flowing like a natural swimming pool. This meant that little by little, it was being filled with fresher water and letting the older water out. Anywhere else, this would be crazy wasteful!
Pure glacier water is not a luxury here
If you can have naturally hot water in Iceland, you can also enjoy the naturally cold pure water, straight from the glaciers. The water melts in the glaciers in the interior of the country and the volcanic soil filters any particles that may come along with it. This ensures the cities receive natural water, chemical free, which is super tasty too. Buying a bottle of water in Iceland would be the single most ridiculous thing to do. Unfortunately, you still see silly tourists without a refillable bottle, willing to spend their króna in something that mother nature makes available to us all for free.
Icelandic horses are everywhere
Before coming to Iceland, we were hoping we’d get lucky enough to see some of these beauties. But during our trip, we realized that it is actually super common to spot Icelandic horses by the road-side. Rain or shine, they always look gorgeous! Don’t you think?
The art of Iceland sure feels like Iceland!
It’s hard to explain, and when you see a music video from an Icelandic artist you may not necessarily see Iceland represented in the images. But it may still feel like Iceland! At least when it comes to the Icelandic music I know, it feels like the sounds and ambiance reflect the weather of the country and the natural surroundings. Think of musicians like Björk, Of Monsters and Men or Sigur Rós. They all play different kinds of music, but there are certain atmospheric elements that they certainly do have in common. For me, that’s what Iceland sounds like.
Icelandic Radio has a feel of its own…
Even though Iceland seems to be very prolific when it comes to the arts and, at least to my knowledge, contemporary music, I found the public radio stations rather disappointing. Not only they rarely play local music, the song-to-voice ratio in local channels is messed up. When you want to listen to music you keep switching channels and, sometimes, everyone seems to be speaking! In between songs, the chit chat is almost as long as the music itself. Retro music is also a little too popular for my personal taste.
Iceland needs trees
Even though Iceland is known for the immense richness of its natural landscapes, the country is currently enforcing a reforestation program. Traveling around Iceland, one may be inclined to think that trees do not naturally grow here because of the weather. That is actually not true. The reason why Iceland doesn’t have any forests these days is because of the historical use of these resources, at a speed faster than they were able to renew themselves. More than a thousand years ago, when Vikings were settling in, they used the limited amount of wood that existed and because of this, and also because a considerable amount of the land is covered by glaciers, Iceland ended up with barely any trees. Even though the reforestation efforts seem to be paying results very slowly, Iceland will keep working on this, as they believe forests are important to improve the country’s harsh soils, to help agriculture and also to fight climate change.
Iceland has the longest running parliament in the world!
Even though Thingvellir is mostly known as a National Park and one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, the relevance of this place dates back to 930 AD. This was the original site of what is now the longest-running parliament in the world! Parliament sessions were held here until 1798 when the Icelandic parliament finally moved to the current capital – Reykjavik. The founding of the Icelandic parliament is said to coincide with the founding of the country of Iceland itself.
Cards are accepted everywhere
So, after 10 days traveling in Iceland, I didn’t even get to touch any Icelandic cash! Debit and credit cards are accepted everywhere, even food trucks. I once saw a beggar asking for money in Reykjavik and couldn’t help but wonder who’d give this person money, considering carrying cash in Iceland is so very rare.
As you can probably tell, I loved spending time in Iceland. Not just because the natural sites lived up to the hype, but mostly because I found it culturally quirky and captivating. Between ancient history and todays lifestyles, the country and especially the capital Reykjavik are fascinating. I could totally picture myself living in Iceland, and that’s the biggest compliment I can ever give to a place.