If people know anything about Icelandic food, it's usually to do with a plucky population tucking into boundary-pushing dishes such as fermented shark or sheep's head. It's a pity the spotlight doesn't shine as brightly on Iceland's delicious, fresh-from-the-farm ingredients, the seafood bounty hauled from the surrounding icy waters, the innovative dairy products (hello, skyr!) or the clever, historic food-preserving techniques that are finding new favour with today's much-feted New Nordic chefs. Reykjavík, especially, has a burgeoning, creative food scene.

Food Heritage

For much of its history, Iceland was a poverty-stricken hinterland. Sparse soil and cursed weather produced limited crops, and Icelandic farmer-fishers relied heavily on sheep, fish and seabirds to keep them from starving. Every part of every creature was eaten – fresh or dried, salted, smoked, pickled in whey or even buried underground (in the case of shark meat), with preserving techniques honed to ensure food lasted through lean times.

Local food producers and chefs today are rediscovering old recipes and techniques with a renewed sense of pride in the country's culinary heritage, and the results can be quite special. From the capital to select restaurants, sometimes in the most improbably remote locations, you'll find rich, imaginative Icelandic fare. The strong Slow Food Movement prioritises locally grown food over imports, with restaurants proudly flagging up regional treats.

Staples & Specialities

Fish, seafood, lamb, bread and simple vegetables still form the typical Icelandic diet.

Fish & Seafood

‘Half of our country is the sea’, runs an old Icelandic saying. Fish is the mainstay of the Icelandic diet: you’ll find it fresh at market stalls and in restaurant kitchens, from where it emerges boiled, pan-fried, baked or grilled.

In the past, Icelanders merely kept the cheeks and tongues of þorskur (cod) – something of a delicacy – and exported the rest; but today you’ll commonly find cod fillets on the menu, along with ýsa (haddock), bleikja (Arctic char) and meaty-textured skötuselur (monkfish). Other fish include lúða (halibut), steinbítur (catfish), sandhverfa (turbot; non-indigenous), síld (herring), skarkoli (plaice) and skata (skate). During summer you can try silungur (freshwater trout) and villtur lax (wild salmon). Eldislax is farmed salmon; it's available year-round and appears on countless menus in smoked form.

Harðfiskur, a popular snack eaten with butter, is found in supermarkets and at market stalls. To make it, haddock is cleaned and dried in the open air until it has become dehydrated and brittle, then it’s torn into strips.

Rækja (shrimp), hörpudiskur (scallops) and kræklingur (blue mussels) are harvested in Icelandic waters; mussels are at their prime during the very beginning and the end of summer. Humar (or leturhumar) are a real treat: these are what Icelanders call ‘lobster’; the rest of us may know them as langoustine. Höfn, in Southeast Iceland, is particularly well known for humar and even has an annual lobster festival.

Meat

Icelandic lamb (promoted here: www.icelandiclamb.is) is hard to beat. During summer, sheep roam free to munch on chemical-free grasses and herbs in the highlands and valleys, before the September réttir (sheep roundup), after which they are corralled for the winter. The result of this life of relative luxury is very tender lamb with a slightly gamey flavour. You’ll find lamb fillets, pan-fried lamb or smoked lamb on most restaurant menus.

Beef steaks are also excellent but not as widely available, and are consequently more expensive. Horse is still eaten in Iceland, although it’s regarded as something of a delicacy; if you see ‘foal fillets’ on the menu, you’re not imagining things.

In East Iceland, wild reindeer roam the highlands, and reindeer steaks are a feature of local menus. Hunting is highly regulated; reindeer season starts in late July and runs well into September.

Birds have always been part of the Icelandic diet. Lundi (puffin) used to appear smoked or broiled in liver-like lumps on dinner plates, although it’s a rarer sight these days following a worrying crash in puffin numbers. Another seabird is svartfugl; it’s commonly translated as ‘blackbird’ on English-language menus, but what you’ll actually get is guillemot. High-class restaurants favouring seasonal ingredients may have roasted heiðagæs (pink-footed goose) in autumn. Ptarmagin is a Christmas delicacy, though their numbers fluctuate.

Bread

Rye flatbread (known as flatbraud or flatkökur) has been made since settlement and is still served, often topped with smoked lamb, salmon or trout.

Sweets & Desserts

Don’t miss skyr, a delicious yoghurt-like concoction (though technically a cheese) made from skimmed milk. Despite its rich flavour, it’s actually low in fat and high in protein. It's often mixed with sugar, fruit flavours (such as blueberry) and cream to give it an extra-special taste and texture. Skyr can be found in any supermarket and as a dessert in restaurants.

Icelandic pönnukökur (pancakes) are thin, sweet and cinnamon flavoured. Icelandic kleinur (twisted doughnuts) are a chewy treat, along with their offspring ástarpungar (love balls), deep-fried, spiced balls of dough. You’ll find these desserts in bakeries, along with an amazing array of fantastic pastries and cakes – one of the few sweet legacies of the Danish occupation.

Local dairy farms churn out scrumptious scoops of homemade ice cream, often featured on menus of nearby restaurants.

Drinks

Nonalcoholic

Life without kaffi (coffee) is unthinkable. Cafes and petrol stations will usually have an urn of filter coffee by the counter, and some shops offer complimentary cups of it to customers. Snug European-style cafes selling espresso, latte, cappuccino and mocha are ever-more popular, popping up even in the most isolated one-horse hamlets (the coffee isn't always good, though). Tea is available, but ranks as a very poor second choice – the brands sitting on most supermarket shelves make a feeble brew, though that is slowly changing with the increase in tourist demand.

Besides all that coffee, Icelanders drink more Coca-Cola per capita than most other countries. Another very popular soft drink is Egils Appelsín (orange soda) and the home-grown Egils Malt Extrakt, which tastes like sugar-saturated beer.

It isn’t a crime to buy bottled water in Iceland, but it should be. Icelandic tap water generally comes from the nearest glacier or spring, and is some of the purest you’ll ever drink.

Alcoholic

For some Icelanders, drinking alcohol is not about the taste – getting drunk is the aim of the game. Particularly in Reykjavík, it’s the done thing to go out at the weekend and drink till you drop.

You must be at least 20 years old to buy beer, wine or spirits, and alcohol is only available from licensed bars, restaurants and the government-run Vínbúðin liquor stores (www.vinbudin.is). There are roughly 50 shops around the country; most towns have one, and the greater Reykjavík area has about a dozen. In larger places they usually open from 11am to 6pm Monday to Thursday and on Saturdays, and from 11am to 7pm on Fridays (closed Sundays). In small communities, the Vínbúðin store may only open for an hour or two in the late afternoon or evening. Expect queues around 5pm on a Friday. The cheapest bottles of imported wine cost from 1500kr. Beer costs about a third of what you’ll pay in a bar.

Petrol stations and supermarkets sell the weak and watery 2.2% brew known as pilsner, but most Icelanders would sooner not drink it at all. The main brands of Icelandic beer – Egils, Gull, Thule and Viking – are all fairly standard lager or pils brews; you can also get imported beers. In recent years a slew of good local distilleries and breweries has sprung up all over Iceland, concocting whisky, vodka and dozens of high-calibre craft beers – check our cheat sheet for your next barroom order. Look out, too, for seasonal beers – the ones brewed for the Christmas period are especially popular.

Reports of astronomical prices for boozing in Iceland arise because a pint of beer in a bar or restaurant costs around 1100kr to 1900kr. In Reykjavík, many venues have early-evening happy hours that cut costs to between 700kr and 900kr per beer. Download the smartphone Reykjavík Appy Hour app to gladden your drinking budget.

The traditional Icelandic alcoholic brew is brennivín (literally ‘burnt wine’), a potent schnapps made from fermented potatoes and flavoured with caraway seeds. It has the foreboding nickname svarti dauði (black death) and it's essential drinking if you're trying any tasty traditional titbits. There are also other local spirits producers, especially of vodka.

Where to Eat & Drink

Restaurants

Iceland’s best restaurants are in Reykjavík, but some magnificent finds have also mushroomed up beyond the capital, catering to travellers looking for authentic local flavours. These restaurants are tapping into the network of unsung local producers: barley farmers, mussel harvesters, veggie growers, sheep farmers and fishers. At many places, your meal's food miles will be very low.

Bear in mind that the price difference between an exceptional restaurant and an average one is often small, so it can be well worth going upmarket. Often, though, in rural Iceland you may not have a huge choice – the town’s only eating place may be the restaurant in the local hotel, supplemented by the grill bar in the petrol station. And in peak summer, you may struggle to get a table without a reservation, and/or face long waits.

À la carte menus usually offer at least one fish dish, one veggie choice (often pasta) and a handful of meat mains (lamb is the star). Many restaurants also have a menu of cheaper meals such as hamburgers and pizzas. Soup is a mainstay – either as a lunchtime option (perhaps in the form of a soup-and-salad buffet) or as a dinnertime starter. Fiskisúpa (fish soup) comes courtesy of various family recipes, while kjötsúpa (meat soup) will usually feature veggies and small chunks of lamb.

In Reykjavík, and to a lesser extent Akureyri, there are some ethnic restaurants, including Thai, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Indian and Chinese. You can also stumble across some welcome surprises – Ethiopian in Flúðir and Moroccan in Siglufjörður.

Opening hours for restaurants are usually 11.30am to 2.30pm and 6pm to 10pm daily. Note that even in summer, restaurants may stop serving meals around 9pm.

Cafes & Pubs

Downtown Reykjavík has a great range of bohemian cafe-bars where you can happily while away the hours sipping coffee, people-watching, scribbling postcards or tinkering on your laptop. Menus range from simple soups and sandwiches to fish dishes and designer burgers. Recent years have seen cafe menus morph into more restaurant-like versions (with an attendant hike in prices). The cafe scene is spreading, too, with cool new spots scattered around the country.

Many of Reykjavík’s cafes morph into wild drinking dens in the evenings (mostly on Fridays and Saturdays). DJs suddenly appear, coffee orders turn to beer, and people get progressively louder and less inhibited as the evening goes on, which is usually until sometime between 4am and 5am. Outside the capital, things are considerably more subdued, although Friday and Saturday nights do see action in Akureyri.

Hot Dog Stands & Petrol Stations

Icelanders do enjoy fast food. If you see a queue in Reykjavík, it probably ends at a pýlsur (hot dog) stand. Large petrol stations often have good, cheap, well-patronised grills and cafeterias attached. They generally serve sandwiches and fast food from around 11am to 9pm or 10pm. Some also offer hearty set meals at lunchtime, such as meat soup, fish of the day or plates of lamb. Cafeterias at N1 service stations anywhere along the Ring Road are invariably busy.

Supermarkets & Bakeries

Every town and village has at least one small supermarket. The most expensive is 10-11, but it's generally open late hours. Bónus (easily recognised by its yellow-and-pink piggy sign) is the country’s budget supermarket chain. Others include Hagkaup, Kjarval, Krónan, Nettó, and Kjörbúðin, formerly known as Samkaup-Strax. Opening times vary greatly; in Reykjavík most are open from 9am to 11pm daily, but outside the capital, hours are almost always shorter. Sunday hours may be limited or nonexistent.

The old-school Icelandic bakarí (bakeries) can't be praised enough. Most towns have one (it may be part of a supermarket), which is generally open from 7am or 8am until 4pm on weekdays (sometimes also Saturdays). These sell all sorts of inexpensive fresh bread, buns, cakes, sandwiches and coffee, and usually provide chairs and tables to eat at.

Iceland has to import most of its groceries, so prices are steep – roughly two or three times what you’d pay in North America or Europe. Fish (tinned or smoked) and dairy products represent the best value and are surprisingly cheap. Some fruit and vegetables are grown locally, and these tend to be fresh and tasty, but imported vegetables sometimes look pretty sad by the time they hit supermarket shelves.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Vegetarians and vegans will have no problem in Reykjavík – there are some excellent meat-free cafe-restaurants in the city, and many more eateries offer vegetarian choices (you'll probably want to eat every meal at Gló). Outside the capital most restaurants have at least one veggie item on the menu – this is routinely cheese-and-tomato pasta or pizza or a salad, though, so you could get bored. Vegans usually have to self-cater, though restaurants are becoming more aware of this food choice.

The Basics

Reykjavík has an astonishing array of eating options. High-end restaurants should be booked in advance. Outside the capital, options can sometimes be limited.

  • Restaurants Across the country, the emphasis is on farm-fresh, local produce.
  • Cafes Open usually from lunchtime into evening, serving simple fare.
  • Accommodation In rural areas, guesthouses and hotels may offer meals (some have restaurants open to all).
  • Grill bars When all else is closed, head to the local grill (often found at petrol stations) for hot dogs and burgers, plus simple soup, fish and lamb dishes.
  • Self-catering A good way to keep costs down, but check your accommodation has cooking facilities.