Ready to walk on fire and ice? Iceland is the place. If you are headed to the capital, don't miss our list of not-to-miss places to visit in Reykjavík, including our favorite beer and cocktail lounges. —INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019
STORY / Kirill Taranouchtchenko
I was looking for someplace different, someplace exotic. If I could have afforded a trip to space, I would have done it. I didn’t want it to be too hot or crowded, so I started asking some of my well-traveled friends for advice. It seemed like everyone and their mother was raving about Iceland. And now my friends were raving about the place. For a nerd like me, it didn’t hurt that it had been featured in the Star Wars saga, Batman Returns, AND Game of Thrones. Plus, I had never seen the Northern Lights, and I hate mosquitoes. Iceland it was.
From the moment my plane touched down at six in the morning, I was enthralled. During the hour-long drive from the airport to Reykjavík, we stared at a steaming, rocky moonscape, and we stopped at the Blue Lagoon before we even reached the hotel. A soak in a spa right after a flight? Amazeballs.
However, I learned, and quite abruptly, that a lot of the Icelandic people are a little...how should I say it? Aloof. It was a revelation when I stumbled upon the secret formula to winning their hearts. It went a little something like this:
Icelandic Person: “Fuck you.”
Me: “Fuck me? Fuck you!”
Icelandic Person: “Okay, you’re all right.”
Once I had the local jargon down, I was made in the shade and had one of the more magical travel experiences I’ve ever had.
DID YOU KNOW…
If there were a contest for the most misconceptions and the “did-you-know-that?” facts about a country, Iceland would take first place. Tuck these trivia nuggets in your back pocket to pull out as you sip on an Icelandic brew.
—DID YOU KNOW that even though Iceland is considered part of Europe, roughly half of it lies on the North American tectonic plate? The island is torn apart as the plates move farther away from each other, which also explains its frequent earthquakes and numerous active volcanoes.
At Thingvellir National Park, the site of ancient parliament (and where some scenes in Game of Thrones were shot), you can stand with one foot in Europe and another in North America.
—DID YOU KNOW that Iceland had its own Prohibition era? It went into effect in 1915, and even though beer was an Old Norse staple, it was not legal to produce at full strength again until 1989. (Paradoxically, spirits were legalized in 1935, but beer had to be less than 2.25% ABV.) To mark the end of Prohibition, March 1 is celebrated in Iceland as Beer Day. Hit a few craft beer bars to celebrate any day of the year.
—DID YOU KNOW that although much of Iceland is covered by ice (even in summertime), it was named for the ice floating OFF its coast, like those icebergs first spotted by a Viking named Flóki Vilgerðarson? Make the scenic drive (380 km, about five hours) from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón, the Glacier Lagoon in southern Iceland, and you’ll be rewarded with once-in-a-lifetime views of the region where the ice from Europe’s largest glacier meets the warm(ish) Atlantic Ocean.
—DID YOU KNOW that the word "Viking" is derived from the term used by the Scandinavian tribes (ancestors of the modern Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes) to describe those who were going off on a raiding expedition? So technically, to say the “raiding Vikings” is tautologous, like saying the “raiding raiders.” See if that doesn’t get you into a bar brawl.
—DID YOU KNOW that the Icelandic dialect is the closest language in use today to the original Old Norse that was spoken by such Scandinavian tribesmen as the infamous Vikings Ragnar Lodbrok, Björn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, and Eric the Red?
Hundreds of English words are rooted in Old Norse, including four days of the week (named after Norse gods Tiw, Odin, Thor, and Frija). The English word "geyser" is derived from the Icelandic geysir, the name of a particular spring east of Reykjavík (Haukadalsvegur) that spouts boiling hot water. About 150 feet south of Geysir is Strokkur, one of the most popular tourist sites in Iceland. It erupts every few minutes.
—DID YOU KNOW that the glacial spring water that is sold abroad is the same quality water that comes (free!) from local taps? Iceland’s cold water is from springs, and the hot stuff comes from geothermal wells; because it is not treated with additives (yet perfectly safe to drink), the hot tap water smells of rotten eggs, thanks to its hydrogen sulfide. That same hot geothermal water is used to heat homes, produce electricity, warm sidewalks (no need to shovel snow in winter), create spas like Blue Lagoon, and make beer and brennivín, the local spirit.
Also known as svartidauði (“black death”), brennivín (“burning wine”) is a style of schnapps made from fermented potato mash or grain and flavored with caraway seeds. Similar to aquavit, the unsweetened spirit has been distilled in Iceland since the 15th century. In the 1980s, when the beer ban was still in effect, a cocktail called (literally) “beer-like” was popular (a mix of the 2.25% ABV local beer blended with hard alcohol like brennivín).
TRADITIONAL ICELANDIC BITES
Beyond the freshest fish, cured meats, and pickled vegetables that can endure the icy climate, Iceland is home to some unusual food finds.
Smoked puffin (lundi) Local, readily available, and naturally sourced puffin is about as sustainable as meats get. You can pick up smoked or broiled puffin meat in gift shops and find the fresh, dark breast meat (similar to duck) at some fine-dining restaurants. In the summer, puffin watchers can take a boat tour from the old harbor to the islands of Lundey (“Puffin Island”) and Akurey. (The largest colony of these birds in the world lives south of Vestmannaeyjar, a cluster of 15 islands.)
Fermented Greenland shark (hákarl) Fermented shark is definitely an acquired taste. (To make it, fresh shark is buried in the region’s rocky, sandy soil for a period of several weeks or months and then air-dried.) Urine, ammonia, and fishy blue cheese are common descriptors. To make it even less of a tourist attraction, the fresh meat is poisonous; the pressure of the stones and the aging process squeeze out the toxins. It’s served in small bites or cubes.
Minke whale (hrefna) Though controversial today, minke whaling has gone on since at least the 9th century in Norway and Iceland. (When the population declined in the 1980s, Iceland respected the general whaling moratorium for several years but resumed the practice in 2006.) The dark meat is often served raw, like sushi, or lightly seared.
Fish jerky (harðfiskur) Wind-dried fish (typically cod, haddock, or similar) is to Icelanders as potato chips are to Americans. The snack is widely available at supermarkets and eaten like toast with a little butter.
Hot spring bread (hverabrauð) Rye bread baked in a sealed metal pot for 24 hours by burying it in sand near a hot spring. Try this dark, dense, and sweet crustless bread with butter and mushroom soup at Laugarvatn Geothermal Baths and Bakery, about an hour east of Reykjavík.
Horse meat (hrossakjöt) Icelandic horses, which are purebred descendants of Norse workhorses, are highly prized. (No existing horses are allowed off the island, and no new breeds may be imported.) You might see a few walking down the streets, and, certainly, if you drive outside the city you'll see some roaming the mountainsides. The meat, which has a flavor similar to beef and a very tender texture, is seared like a steak.
Smoked lamb (hangikjöt) Smoked lamb is often served as a starter, used as a sandwich meat, or carved up for Christmas dinner with all the fixings: béchamel sauce, potatoes, peas, and pickled red cabbage.
Sheep’s head (svið) Nose-to-tail eating was once a necessity. In Iceland, sheep’s head is split down the middle, boiled, and served (eyeballs, tongue, brain, and all) with mashed turnips or potatoes. For a less eye-popping experience, try sviðasulta, a headcheese made from svið.
Ready to pack? Check out our other INGRAIN Travel stories.