For a long time the cuisine of Iceland was spoken about in hushed tones, if at all – they eat what? Fermented shark? Sheep’s head? But these days, travellers looking for fine food experiences are spoiled for choice: super-fresh seafood, succulent free-range lamb and creamy, innovative dairy products are among the treats being showcased in a burgeoning foodie culture.

Thanks to booming tourism and a skyrocketing number of flavour-seeking mouths to feed, local chefs are busy celebrating farm-fresh fare and bounty from the surrounding sea. There’s been a flurry of creative food producers experimenting with time-honoured local ingredients and techniques. The output is first-rate and fun, from artisanal chocolate sprinkled with sea salt harvested in a remote fjord to craft beer flavoured with wild-growing herbs like angelica and Arctic thyme. Food miles can be incredibly low – ice cream served only hours after the cow was milked, or lamb reared on a neighbour’s farm.

Alfresco dining by the marina in Reykjavík © Antonio Saba / Getty Images

Reykjavík and the journey

Reykjavík is a city that knows how to eat well. The capital is home base for much of Iceland’s creativity and has an astonishing assortment of restaurants for a town of its size. But don’t think for a moment that all the best food is in the capital. If you’re circumnavigating Iceland via its super-scenic, 1300km-long Ring Road (Rte 1), there are excellent pit stops where you can get a true taste of the country. Some are fun, some are fancy, and a number of them won’t break the budget. We’re here to help.

(First tip: grab some cinnamon buns from Reykjavík’s Brauð & Co bakery, for the journey. You won’t regret it.)

Menu at Friðheimar restaurant, focused on greenhouse-grown tomatoes © Carolyn Bain / Lonely Planet

The Golden Circle and the Southwest

The southwest boasts many of Iceland’s most legendary natural wonders plus proximity to the capital, so it’s popular with day trippers and home to some busy (and touristy) refuelling stops. Lakeside Lindin, in Laugarvatn, is among the region’s best restaurants, with top-tier Icelandic fare from reindeer burgers to seasonal wild game. Not far away is Efstidalur II, a working dairy farm that draws passers-by with the promise of uber-creamy ice cream and a barnyard view.

Iceland’s renowned geothermal energy is put to good use in this area, in greenhouses growing an assortment of fruit and veg (even bananas). In Flúðir, horticultural ingenuity delivers year-round tomatoes at Friðheimar (fridheimar.is), where visitors dine in a huge greenhouse among tomato plants. The perfect lunch: tomato soup, fresh bread, and green tomato and apple pie (added bonus: equally perfect Bloody or Virgin Mary).

One of the south coast’s most worthy culinary (and puffin-watching) detours is the archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar. In Heimaey, stylish Slippurinn offers inspired tasting menus showcasing local fare, and desserts and cocktails loaded with native herbs – skyr (cultured dairy) with sorrel granita is a fresh green delight.

The 'skyr volcano' dessert at Pakkhús restaurant in Höfn © Carolyn Bain / Lonely Planet

Southeast Iceland

The 200km stretch of Ring Road from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Höfn is endowed with icy, otherworldly vistas, but forget about towns! Eating options are limited here – look for Jón Ríki, a farmhouse restaurant with its own mini-brewery (worth a visit both for the stylish decor and the wonderfully presented dishes), and stop by Brunnhóll for a scoop of farm-fresh ice cream.

Save your appetite (and dining budget) for Höfn, where locally caught humar (langoustine) features on every menu in town. At harbour-side Pakkhús, provenance is everything and the menu is an ode to goods delivered by local farmers and fishers (the red boat moored outside hauls in the star crustaceans). End on a high note with the ‘skyr volcano’ dessert: skyr comes adorned with ‘lava and ash’ candy and syrups.

Dishes featuring delectable humar tails dripping in butter don’t come cheap. On a budget? Order humar in cheaper pasta and pizza dishes, or drive up to retro diner Hafnarbúðin for a langoustine-filled baguette on the go.

Icelandic seasonal vegetable salad with duck © WR36 / Shutterstock

East Iceland

The Ring Road (and many tourists) pay short shrift to this region, but there are some tasty pit stops. Take Havarí, for example – a farm owned by musicians that’s literally in the middle of nowhere. Stop by its cafe (in a converted cowshed) for farm-produced specialities such as vegan sausages and crispy chips made from turnips; if you’re not in a hurry, be sure to ask about live music events.

For a flavour-packed distillation of the region, visit Eldhúsið in Egilsstaðir – it’s inside the lakeside hotel on the town’s eponymous farm. The restaurant’s speciality is farm-reared beef, or you can sample seasonal game (reindeer or goose, for example) hunted in the nearby highlands. Too meaty? Vegetarians will love Vallanes, an organic farm southwest of Egilsstaðir. Here, the bounty is barley, herbs and vegetables, and the rustic cafe serves up wholesome, just-picked fare.

Do yourself a favour and detour to a fjord. The scenery on the 25km drive from Egilsstaðir to Seyðisfjörður will rock your world, and at the journey’s end is Norð Austur Sushi & Bar, serving sublime sushi carved from fish that were swimming in the fjord mere hours before you picked up your chopsticks.

Sign for Vogafjos cowshed restaurant in Mývatn region © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

North Iceland

The Ring Road takes you past some astonishing geological oddities en route to the Mývatn region, where the local speciality is a moist, cake-like rye bread known as hverabrauð (literally ‘geyser bread’). It’s slow-baked underground using geothermal heat. Try it, along with various other rural dishes such as delicious smoked trout, at friendly cowshed restaurant Vogafjós. For more farm-fresh goodness, Kaffi Kú – set among fertile farmland with idyllic pastoral views about 11km from Akureyri – serves tasty roast-beef bagels followed by waffles with cream.

Enough farms? You can get a taste of big-city treats in Akureyri, Iceland’s second city. Given it has a population around 18,000, its dining and drinking selections are quite impressive. Berlin is a cosy, hipsterish cafe serving great all-day breakfasts, while fashionable, fusion-style Rub23 is acclaimed for its sushi.

Head a little north of Akureyri to tour the Kaldi microbrewery, where crisp, in-demand beers are concocted and a brand-new ‘beer spa’ (bjorbodin.com) has opened, inspired by the beer baths of Prague. As you press on westwards, a pit-stop opportunity combines photogenic history with a sugar rush. Glaumbær is an 18th-century turf-farm museum; its quaint cafe serves homemade tarts, cream cakes and pancakes. The menu explains the history behind the traditional recipes.

 Fresh Icelandic mussels, highlight of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula © mz-photo / Getty Images

West Iceland

As in the east, the Ring Road doesn’t linger long in the west, and the lure of Reykjavík not far down the highway means that some will hit the accelerator. At Borgarnes, the west’s hub, the excellent Settlement Centre restaurant offers a history lesson alongside top-notch food. For destination dining, the chic restaurant at Hótel Húsafell has a locavore menu and art-inspired interior.

Oodles more culinary treats lie west off the Ring Road, along the 100km-long Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This is where seafood reigns supreme, fish-soup recipes get a workout, and locally harvested blue-shell mussels draw diners to charming Stykkishólmur. To sample the produce plucked from local waters, head for Narfeyrarstofa, the town’s fine-dining favourite.

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