10 Unique Aspects of Icelandic Culture

Iceland is a fantastic place to visit. The geography is what attracts most people, but the Icelandic culture only adds to the allure of the island. Click through to see 10 unique aspects of Icelandic Culture.

Iceland is a fantastic place to visit.  The geography is what attracts most people, but the culture of the Icelandic people adds to the allure of the island nation.  Icelandic culture

DISCLAIMER – I am in no way an expert on Iceland, simply an enthusiast.  These observations are based on a weeklong trip; I’m fully willing to admit that some of the things may not be Icelandic, which is why I am leaving the comments on. If I am misattribute something to Iceland that you know is wrong, I apologize, and please let me know in the comments below.  Icelandic culture

1. Names  

I learned that most Icelandic last names do not carry on from generation to generation, but instead carry on the name of the father (or mother) with the suffix son or daughter attached (son and dottir).

Let me explain.  If my father’s name was John Smith, then my name would be Claire Johndottir, and my brother named Alex would be Alex Johnson.

Obviously the names there are Icelandic sounding rather than the western examples I’ve used.

2. English spoken

Not only did everyone I meat (yes, literally everyone) speak English, the spoke it incredibly well.  Evidently it is mandatory for children to learn English in school.

Related: Top 10 Things To Do In Iceland

3. No McDonalds

For some reason my husband enjoys eating at a McDonalds in every country he visits.  He finds the local changes to the menu fascinating.  He was NOT able to do this in Iceland as all McDonalds on the island closed years ago. Supposedly this is because the cost of importing the food was too high, and not because Icelanders weren’t willing to eat burgers, fries, and shakes.

Northern lights over a church in Vik, Iceland!

Northern lights over a church in Vik, Iceland!

4. Almost Crime Free

The island is almost entirely free of crime, especially violent crime. It is so safe that mothers are comfortable leaving their babies in the car while they quickly run into the store (saw this)! Soon after our trip there, an unfortunate situation required the police to shoot an armed assailant.  The reason this made international news was because this was the first time this had ever happened!

Even more shocking is that the island remains nearly crime free, even though there is a high incidence of gun ownership.

5. Minke Whale on Menus

Even though I didn’t eat whale while there, it is on the menu in many restaurants as a steak or stew.  The serving of whale is controversial (and is supposedly largely supported by tourists).  I find it ironic that many tourists spend the day whale watching, and the night eating them.

Ocean and mountain view in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Ocean and mountain view in Reykjavik, Iceland.

6. Nice Customs Officials

Customs officials have a hard job. Their job is to decide if visitors are a threat or not, and whether they should let them into their country.  Routinely customs officials around the world are gruff and ask questions as if they are interrogating you.  In Iceland, this was NOT the case.  The customs officials warmly welcomed us to Iceland, and genuinely seemed happy to have visitors.

7. Night Clubs and Music

Reykjavik has no shortage of night clubs featuring electronic music booming late into the night.  Metal is also really popular among locals.  Icelandic culture

8. Many workers from other places

Due to a recent tourism boom, Iceland has had to import more and more workers.  The island’s entire population is only about 300,000.  I was surprised to meet many people from across the entirety of the European Union.

Related: The 15 Best Waterfalls In Iceland

9. Small Portion Sizes of Condiments and Drinks

I am fully willing to admit that this could be an aberration, but at multiple restaurants when I requested condiments and drinks the portion sizes were tiny.  I know that Americans are known for our humongous portion sizes, and you can expect a lot less across Europe, but this scale was the smallest I’d ever seen.  Maybe this helps keep the Scandinavians fit and good looking.

Also, Icelanders seem to enjoy their dining experiences, as the process of ordering and receiving food seems to take a long time!

10. A Land of Authors

I’ve read that Iceland features more books written and more books read per person than anywhere else in the world.  I definitely witnessed many Icelanders reading.  This likely contributes to each Icelander appearing incredibly smart.

Bonus: Belief in Elves

Supposedly a good number of locals still believe, or at least won’t deny the possibility of elves, or huldufolk.  Regardless of belief, Icelandic folklore is full of stories of elves that helped shape and care for the beautiful geography of the Island.  Seeing the picturesque landscapes makes you wonder if some supernatural beings are caring for it.

Elf houses in Iceland!

Elf houses – Flickr

Read Next: 

Top 10 Things To Do In Iceland

Visiting the Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Why You Need To Visit Vik Iceland

Exploring Reykjavik, Iceland

The 15 Best Waterfalls in Iceland

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Iceland is a fantastic place to visit. The geography is what attracts most people, but the Icelandic culture only adds to the allure of the island. Click through to read 10 things you didn't know about Iceland.


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  • Ref J says:

    Loved this article. I have wanted to visit Iceland for years and this only further fuels my desire to visit.

  • It’s great to learn more about Icelandic culture. Information about the country has appeared in many travel blogs recently so it’s wonderful to read about what makes it unique.

    • Claire Kennedy says:

      Thanks Mary! Iceland is getting so much attention these days. The culture is definitely less talked about so I am glad you liked the post. 🙂

  • Vladu says:

    Fantastic resume of your experience! I´ve known knew things. Thanks for that!

  • renee says:

    Englush us an option in higher end of primary school. Not mandatory,but because of the USA Army base that was here for 40 years many people have learned English and now with more travel, media and a self motivated public nearly everyone speaks English.

    Danish IS mandatory in schools though.
    It is also possible to have a mother’s name with -son or -dóttir. This might happen if the relationship between father and child fails to develop.
    I’m a Canadian who has lived in Iceland since 2012. I have children in the school system.

  • renee says:

    Apologies for the spelling errors above.
    ALSO, there is no tipping of anyone in Iceland. You may see a tip jar at cafes but its not required to tip at all.
    Almost all public places to eat offer free refill on coffee. Only time you don’t get that option is if you get one to go. Average price for normal filtered coffee is around 400 ISK.

    You can go to any open bank and get money exchange. They offer similar rates to the airport.

    Lots of people still smoke in Iceland. It is not permitted in restaurants or shops but there are no restrictions on smoking just outside of doors to these places.

    • Claire Kennedy says:

      Wow, that is super interesting! Thanks for the awesome comment. It is nice to get some input/clarification on the English thing. I was just SUPER impressed with how well everyone spoke English. I also had no idea that you did not need to tip. How was the adjustment moving from Canada to Iceland? That is a big change!

  • Þengill says:

    English is actually a manditory subject in school. Danish is as well but the real reason we speak english so well is because of television. We have subtitles but no dubbing and because there are so few of us we don’t really make alot of our own television. The result is that most of the material we watch is either British or American.

    • Claire says:

      That makes total sense! I mean, here in the US we have to take language classes in school but we come out no where near fluent. Loved visiting your country so much! And watching your soccer team, you guys have the best chant! Haha.

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