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.
What to Pack? Before traveling to Iceland, make sure to read my Iceland Packing List guide so you so that you are prepared for the unique elements this nation has to offer.
Unique Aspects of Icelandic Culture
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.
Note – If you are planning a trip to Iceland and are not sure what to pack no worries, we got you covered! ;) Read our Iceland Packing Guide and avoid the mistakes that we made when planning and packing for Iceland.
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.
More on Iceland: 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.
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.
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.
11. 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.
What to Pack for Iceland
- Warm Fleece Jacket (without hood)
- Fleece Hoodie This will be great for adding extra layers when needed.
- Warm Winter Hat – Shop my favorite winter hats from Nordstrom. I also really like this one here, it comes in a ton of different color options.
- Thermals for layering – These come in a ton of different colors!
- Fleece lined leggings – These fleece lined leggings were AMAZING to have on this trip. Not just warm, but so comfy and affordable! (You will thank me for these ;)
- Warm scarf – I always like to bring a couple scarves for photos.
- Touch screen gloves – There is nothing more annoying than having to continually take off your gloves so that you can use your phone to take pictures or videos, especially in the freezing cold. It’s because of that that these touch screen gloves are my favorite. These are also an awesome choice. They will work with the iPhones, Android phones and iPad and are wind proof.
- Warm socks – I have been loving these Heat Holder socks.
Pin this article it for later. Thank you so much for sharing! :)
Loved this article. I have wanted to visit Iceland for years and this only further fuels my desire to visit.
Thanks! I hope you get there, it is an unforgettable trip!
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.
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. :)
Fantastic resume of your experience! I´ve known knew things. Thanks for that!
Thank you so much!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
These unique aspects of contemporary art that will be studied as examples of life of our age.
Great post. I have seen so many posts on things to saee and do in Iceland recently, but this is the first post that actually explains a bit more about icelandic culture. It was a joy to read.
Hey Ellis! Thank you so much, I am so glad you liked it! Iceland has been super trendy online recently, lots of information out there. Are you planning a trip there?
Wow…never knew about all these things. Thanks for sharing all these facts about culture of iceland.
Great post! For such a small country, Iceland has a very unique and special culture. I love Icelandic literature and read dozens of books by Icelandic authors every year. I always chuckle at the fact that there are thousands of books about murders and violent crimes in Iceland when there are hardly ever in real life (thankfully). It is almost a case of having to fantasize about it because it never happens. In any event, I’m happy Icelanders have a fetish for murder novels because Nordic Noir is my favourite genre, and Icelandic authors do it best. :)