So you’re thinking about visiting Iceland — for the starkly beautiful landscapes, a glimpse at the Northern Lights, or to learn more about the Viking sagas. But Iceland as a culinary destination?
Well, you should visit Iceland for all of the reasons above, including some of the freshest and best food you’ll ever eat.
Brown break baked in a geothermal vent! (Cafe at Fontana.)
You can even get ice cream in Iceland! (Gelato from Valdis)
Some foods consumed traditionally in Iceland may be worth trying for novelty’s sake, but you don’t need to be roped in by fermented shark, pickled rams testicles or sheep’s head. Others you might not want to try for personal or ethical reasons (puffin or, yes, whale, which you will find on some restaurant menus).
I can’t say for sure what these will be used for or recommend that you eat them.
What should you try? Anything involving their locally-raised lamb or fresh-caught fish, dairy products, including cheeses, whipped cream and the yogurt-like Skyr, and an abundance of pastries and freshly baked breads. There’s also a bounty of fresh produce, from creamy new potatoes to sweet hothouse tomatoes; kale, cucumbers and rhubarb in everything.
GOD, this CAKE. (The cafe at Gullfoss.)
Go ahead, try the chocolate-covered licorice (it’s surprisingly addictive), eat that unrecognizable fish, and forget about Keto for a week (soup without brown bread and rich, Icelandic butter is just sad).
Here are a few suggestions for how to get the most out of eating Iceland:
First, let’s get real. Iceland is expensive, and the costs of eating and drinking out in Iceland may shock you. The combination of geography, taxes, and the Icelandic Krona’s strength against the U.S. dollar means that a casual restaurant meal for two with drinks could cost you well over $50/person. If you want to keep your eye on your cash flow and still eat well on your trip, you can employ a few simple tricks:
First stop — the airport duty free
Alcohol is not available in grocery stores, state liquor stores in Reykjavik charge up to 84% tax, and cocktails are costly. Stock up at the duty-free on specialty Icelandic liquors, liqueurs, wine and beer and have a pre-func tipple or a nightcap when you get back to your lodging. Or stow that tiny bottle of Black Death (aka Brennevin, Iceland’s signature liquor) in your pocket to keep you warm while you’re freezing your boots off looking for Northern Lights.
Stop #2, the grocery store
Stock up on breakfast goodies, snacks and picnic makings (try Bonus or Euromarket, not the 10/11 stores, which are convenient but more expensive). Skyr is Iceland’s version of yogurt, which makes a yummy breakfast. Eggs, cheeses, smoked salmon and meats are delicious and relatively affordable. Grab a loaf of bread and some fruit, and you can get by with one restaurant meal a day. A tube of caviar, cheese and crisp rye crackers, paired with a Crowberry liqueur and soda make for a pretty sweet hotel-room happy hour.
I KNOW, we don’t have cheesy onion Lay’s in the U.S.
Make lunch your main meal
You can find the same delicious dinner options in a lunch portion in many restaurants. This beautiful plate of grilled salmon with potatoes in a white wine sauce from Meze was around $17, while the dinner portion runs around $35.
Hit a Happy Hour
Happy Hours are a great way to kick off your evening with a cocktail and a snack without frying your wallet. Most will offer discounts on beer, wine and appetizers, or feature a special daily cocktail.
Limoncello Spritz and salty bites at Cafe Paris.
And when you’re ready for a splurge, here are a few food experiences that are worth dropping a dime:
Fish and Farm
Fishing is one of Iceland’s top industries, and you’ll find fresh options in most restaurants. From redfish to Arctic char to Atlantic salmon, they’re all worth a try — you won’t find fresher unless you catch it yourself. My favorite was the fish buffet at Messinn at the Old Harbor, which is offered daily from 11:30AM-2:00PM. For around $28, you have a choice of at least eight different types of fish and preparations, potatoes and salads. If you’ve ever wanted to try wolffish, this is your chance!
Messin Fish Buffet
Lamb is another dish that usually won’t disappoint. Icelandic lamb is free-range, and the sheep graze on wild grasses, thyme and berries, which gives their buttery meat a distinctive flavor. One of the best meals I had was the grilled lamb at a gas station diner in Borgarnes.
Lamb special from Grillhusid.
So Much Soup
Many cafés and family restaurants will offer soup and freshly-baked bread (with refills) as an affordable and substantial meal. These aren’t your salad-bar soups — think rich lobster bisque, lamb and lentil, and borscht made with locally-grown beets and cabbages, topped with a dollop of Skyr.
Lobster soup at Cafe Bryggjan in Grindavik….
…served with a side of fish tales….
Food Halls and Street Food
There are a number of great food halls in Reyjkavik, which offer “street food” and socializing options for less out-of-pocket than a fancy restaurant. Hlemmur Food Hall on Laugavegur St., and Grandi Food Hall in the Harbor District are two excellent venues to try different Icelandic specialties.
Crushed potatoes with Arctic thyme salt, Grilled Kale with Koji butter and almonds.
At Grandi, located in a refurbished fish factory, try the right-off-the-boat fish and chips from Frystihusid, and wash it down with some on-tap Prosecco from LAX, all with a view of the harbor. When you’re done, check out the fish market in the back, then grab a tin of Icelandic sea salt to carry home the taste of the Arctic sea.
You can also get street food on the street in Iceland. While most food carts are around only in the summer, the famous hot dog stand, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (which translates to “best hot dog”) has served its weiner sandwiches to the likes of Bill Clinton, Metallica, and me, on a late night between Iceland Airwaves shows.
Weiner, weiner, hot dog deener!
Served with raw and crispy fried onions, ketchup, caper mayo and a sticky-sweet mustard sauce, it’s worth the wait in line (you might need to get two, if you’re really hungry). I’d prefer it without all the sauces because it’s such a good dog….
If you’re afraid your friends won’t believe how good Icelandic food is, take home some food-venirs, like black lava crackers, rhubarb preserves, smoked salmon or chocolate-covered licorice. Just remember to pack any treats into your checked baggage — especially if you’re entering the U.S. and transferring to a different flight. My bag of perfect, flakey Icelandic salt (meant as a gift) got taken because TSA insisted it needed to be opened for testing, and my crowberry liqueur (also a gift) set off the explosives detector (it’s strong, but not THAT strong).