Local traditions and culture in Iceland

  • Concert on Arnarhóll hill.
    Concert on Arnarhóll hill.
    by Regina1965
  • Dikes on bikes.
    Dikes on bikes.
    by Regina1965
  • Concert in Lækjargata.
    Concert in Lækjargata.
    by Regina1965

Most Viewed Local Customs in Iceland

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    The Icelandic rescue team.

    by Regina1965 Updated Apr 7, 2014

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    During the Festival of the Sea The Icelandic search and resque organizations display jeeps and other resque equipment. On Fishermen's day the coast guard’s helicopter demonstrates rescue operations from the sea with the search and resque organization. Their resque achievements both at sea and on land are beyond words and we are VERY grateful for their work.

    If you ever find yourself in need of help, be it lost at land or sea, or need the police (Lögreglan) or the fire-brigade (Slökkviliðið) call 112 which is our emergency number (Neyðarlínan).

    The Icelandic search and rescue organizations are men and women from all walks of life who rush to help when ever they get a call that somebody is in danger or has gone missing. This is voluntary work made by unselfish people, so let us not take advantage of them. Always let other people know of your plans when travelling and always check the weather report before travelling in Iceland. The rescue operations are very expensive and the rescue force risks their own life and limbs to help other people. Every year a number of tourists go missing here in Iceland, and throughout the whole year Icelanders need help on several occasions from these great people. Ca 4.000 people are on call for the rescue organizations.

    In January 2011 three experienced German hikers came to Iceland to hike up to Eyjafjallajökull glacier and volcano (remember that one, travellers, the volcano which gave us so much trouble while we were travelling in 2010?). Why do people come to Iceland in high wintertime and go unaccompanied on a glacier? Of course one of them went missing in fog and then there was a blizzard (very common here in wintertime). 150 rescue people had to risk their live and limbs to look for this man and they found him alive. These kind of rescue operations are very expensive and who pays for them? Not the travellers, that is for sure. In my opinion the rule should be that those who by foolhardiness get themselves into trouble should pay for their rescue.

    The rescue organizations partly fund their operations by selling firework in December for the New Year's eve celebrations.

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    Rye-bread baked in hot springs in Iceland.

    by Regina1965 Updated Apr 7, 2014

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    It is an old tradition to use hot springs here in Iceland to steam/cook rye-bread. The photos I include are from bread-baking in the hot springs by Geysir and by Laugarvatn.

    The recipe for the rye-bread is 2 kilos rye, 300 gr sugar, 2 table-spoons salt, 5 tea-spoons dry yeast and 1,75 litres water. Knead the dough and put into an empty milk-carton. Let it set for an hour. Put the cartons into the hot spring and let it bake for 24 hours. Be careful as the hot springs are like really hot and use oven mittens ;) The hot spring is then covered with a piece of wood.

    Nowadays the rye-bread is baked in the oven for 24 hours as not all of us have got our own private hot springs. But those who live in the country side and have access to hot springs use them for cooking and the taste of the rye-bread baked in hot springs is stronger than of the one baked in a normal oven.

    At the restaurant by Geysir the bread is served with herring and strong Icelandic "brennivín" spirit. TV-programs from many countries in the world have filmed the rye bread being steamed in the hot spring by Geysir, f.ex. from the USA, Italy and India :)

    Steamed rye-bread is best eaten with butter. You can buy it in bakeries and the super-markets. The rye-bread in my last photo was bought in the bakery at Hveragerði "hot spring town".

    A word of warning though, the Icelandic name for rye-bread is "rúgbrauð", but another name for rye-bread here in Iceland is "þrumari" - you will have to find out for yourself what that means ;)

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    Íslenski hundurinn - the Icelandic dog.

    by Regina1965 Updated Mar 31, 2014

    The Vikings brought the Icelandic sheep-dog with them to Iceland back in ca 874. The Icelandic dog is unique. It is obedient, playful, kind, active, curious and does have a know-how.

    The Icelandic dog is a sheep-dog, so the only drawback for it being kept as a pet is that it barks a lot when guests come for a visit. The Icelandic dog is trained for finding people buried in avalanches.

    The Icelandic dog was exported to England, where it was very popular amongst the upper classes.

    The Icelandic dog has got a curled up tail, bicoloured - mostly yellow or light in colour.

    I 1869 it is believed that there were ca 24.000 Icelandic dogs here in Iceland, but in 1883-1887 the number of Icelandic dogs was down to ca 10.000. And ca 3/4 of the Icelandic dogs died in epidemics in Iceland in the last part of the 19th century.

    About 50 years ago the Icelandic dog almost became destinct, but back then organized breeding of the Icelandic dog began. Now there are ca 500 Icelandic dogs in Iceland, and a lot of them are abroad.

    All of the dogs are registered in the Icelandic Kennel Club (Hundaræktunarfélag Íslands).

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    Þorramatur - The old Icelandic food.

    by Regina1965 Updated Mar 7, 2014

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    The period we call "Þorrinn" starts in the 4th month/thirteenth week of winter somewhere between the 19th and 25th of January. Then it is a tradition to eat the food our ancestors, who didn't have a refrigerator, had prepared for the winter.

    "Þorramatur", the food, consists of singed sheep-heads, sheep-head-jelly, smoked lamb, blood-pudding and liver-pudding (like haggis), various soured meat, made sour in whey, like ram-testicles, breast-of-lamb, and seal-flippers. Then we have dried-fish, rotten shark, and beaked whale, cooked rye bread and rye pancakes.

    The younger generation usually only eats dried-fish, rye pancakes, rye bread and smoked lamb out of the whole selection of Þorramatur, but there are exceptions to that (when I was a little girl I loved rotten shark).

    "Þorramatur" is an aquired taste, so if ever you are visiting Iceland at this time of year, end of January-beginning of February, and somebody asks you to "Þorrablót", i.e. when we gather together and eat "þorramatur" or you go to a restaurant and want to try "þorramatur", you are hereby warned what you are getting yourself into ;) Þorrablót as we celebrate them today started in the latter part of the 19th century amongst the upper class.

    But if you are up for trying something "new" here are the names in Icelandic and English:

    Svið=singed sheep-heads
    Sviðasulta=sheep-head-jelly
    Hangikjöt=smoked lamb
    Blóðmör=blood-pudding
    Lifrarpylsa=liver-pudding
    Hrútspungar=ram-testicles
    Bringukollar=breast-of-lamb
    Selshreifar=seal-flippers
    Hákarl=shark
    Hrefna=beaked whale
    Flatkökur=rye pancakes
    Seytt rúgbrauð=cooked rye bread
    Harðfiskur=dried fish
    Ýmis súrmatur=various soured meat.

    Þorri was a winter wight who was worshipped in the old Norse religion. When Icelanders converted to Christianity it was forbidden to worship Þorri. Þorri is described either as being fierce and hard, but in other tales as being an attentive supervisor of the farmers´ hay. He was greeted with generous amounts of food.

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    Whaling in Iceland.

    by Regina1965 Updated Feb 10, 2014

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    There is a lot of controversy on whaling in the world. And some misinformation. Icelanders hunt some types of whales, f.ex. the small mink whales. We have a quota for hunting 145 finbacks (langreyður) out of 20.000 around Iceland, but haven´t used that quota. Finbacks are now on the watch list of IUCN, as there was massive overfishing of finbacks around the South-pole in the last century.

    Iceland is close to the North-pole and these finbacks are only of the same under-species and don´t travel from the South-pole to the North-pole. But still we get a lot of grieve because of this.

    Finbacks are increasing in number around Iceland and humpbacks around Iceland have increased in number ca 10-15% a year! Mink-whales have decreased in number though. Not because of whaling though as our quota is only 216 mink-whales yearly, but we never even hunt so many whales. And the number of mink-whales has decreased from 40.000 to 20.000.

    It is not sure why, but the stock of sand-launce, which they eat, has collapsed dramatically - also causing the artic tern problems, so that their chicks died of starvation for the past couple of years here in Iceland. So the mink-whale, which also eats cod and krill, has probably moved to other locations.

    All in all Icelanders (some of us) have caught ca 15.158 leviathans since 1948. Out of them 2.644 have been sei whales (sandreyður), 2885 sperm whales, 2707 mink whales and 9461 finbacks. And 159 blue whales, but it hasn´t been caught since 1959. And "we" stopped hunting humpback in 1954.

    Some of these whales can become 100 years old.

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    SKYR - a fat-free dairy product.

    by Regina1965 Updated Dec 10, 2013

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    Skyr is a dairy product which used to be unique to Iceland and very popular here. The Vikings settlers brought the knowledge of skyr-making with them when they came over from Norway in ca 874.

    Skyr is really thick, made from pasteurized skim-milk which is cultured and concentrated. It contains no fat, but a high percentage of protein. It comes with all kinds of different flavours now, see my photos. When I was younger we bought a very thick chunk of skyr, unblended, and added sugar and water or milk to it and mixed it. It was traditionally eaten with milk or cream and sugar on top and it was/is a stable in the Icelandic diet. Sometimes skyr is called the Icelandic cheese ;)

    There are always new and new skyr products coming on the market, the latest idea being sea-weed/blueberry/honey skyr :) It is made with 100% Icelandic ingredients.

    And now there are assorted chocolates made from skyr, white chocolate with skyr fillings.

    Skyr can now be bought in some places in the USA now, have a look at their website for information on where it can be bought. And Icelandic skyr is becoming increasingly popular in Norway, from where the Vikings came to Iceland. In 2009 Norwegians ate 284 tonnes of skyr, but last year they ate 2.000 tonnes of skyr!! It seems like skyr making died out in Scandinavia, but stayed strong in Iceland (maybe it stopped being popular and the Vikings didn't hear about it, seeing that they were so isolated here on this island).

    Now skyr is being sold in the USA under the name of Greek Yogurt.

    "We" Icelanders eat ca 2.000 tonnes of skyr annually and export ca 5.000 tonnes of skyr. In the year 2013 skyr export increased by 56% in Scandinavia.

    Skyr is either exported from Iceland or produced abroad with a special permisson from Iceland.

    Do try it, it is both healthy and yummy. Unfortunately I became allergic to dairy products when I was 19, but I remember the taste well.

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    Icelanders are called the book-nation.

    by Regina1965 Updated Nov 26, 2013

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    We Icelanders love reading books and are called "bókaþjóðin" or the book-nation. Ca 2.500.000 books are sold here each year - and we are a nation of only 318.200 people (give or take a few). So that means that Iceland sells more book per capita than any other nation in the world.

    Most of the books are published before Christmas - we call it The Christmas Book Flood" and a thick booklet is sent to each home with all the new book-titles. That list is devoured by Icelanders. Ca 700 books are published each Christmas. Everybody must get a new book (books) as a Christmas present. There is nothing like reading a new book on Christmas night.

    There are many book-markets here, especially at Perlan (see my tip on that) and at Grandi. You can see people leaving the book-markets loaden up with books.

    Our book-heritage are the Sagas of the Vikings and they can still be read by modern Icelanders - our language hasn't changed that much since the Vikings were alive here in Iceland.

    When I was younger I read a new book every 3 days and finished reading the children's section at the library.

    There is a 100% literacy here in Iceland (although a lot less young people read for pleasure now). And in 2011 UNESCO appointed Reykjavík as The Literary city.

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    Iceland is the best place in the world for a woman

    by Regina1965 Updated Nov 26, 2013

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    According to a research Newsweek made Iceland is the best place in the world for a woman to live in.

    We got 100 out of 100 for justice.
    90,5 for health.
    96,7 for education.
    88 for economics.
    92.8 for politics.

    In Iceland is the lowest infant deaths in the world (it didn't used to be this way though).

    And 14,7% children in Iceland are born by a Caesarean section, which seems to be a lower percentage than in other places.

    We had a gay female Prime Minister for 4 years (2009-2013) and we had the first woman president in the world, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir who was our president from 1980-1996. And now (2013) we have a female bishop.

    There are ca 1.000 more men in Iceland than women - 163.000 men and 162.010 women

    But even if women have it good in Iceland there still is the difference in salaries... when is that going to change, and honestlly what is that about!!??

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    Icelanders and foreigners.

    by Regina1965 Updated Nov 4, 2013

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    Until ca 1998 there were few foreigners in Iceland. Iceland is remote and foreigners living here were mostly spouses of Icelandic people, whom Icelanders had got to know while studying abroad. And there were fugitives here from former Yugoslavia and Vietnam.

    Then ca 12 years ago Iceland experienced a big wave of migrant workers. Times were good and Iceland was blooming (or so we thought) and the construction industry plus many other industries needed more work-force. All of a sudden Iceland was crowded with foreigners. We got quite dazed by this and in Bónus supermarket at one time only Polish people were working at the check-out (and are still working there) and people started talking about that they needed to start learning Polish to be able to buy their groceries.

    8,2% of the nation are immigrants (2010) or 26.171, most of them Polish immigrants (10.058). In 2013 there were 9.363 Polish people in Iceland, or 3% of the nation. They are 44% of all the immigrants in Iceland.

    The second largest group of immigrants are Lithuanians. The highest percentage was in 2009 when 9% of the nation were immigrants. Since the crisis in October 2008 a lot of them have moved away. In 1996 immigrants were only 2,1% of the nation (5.357).

    In 1996 0,1% of the nation were second generation immigrants, but in 2010 this number had raised to 0,8% or 2.254.

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    Brennivín - "Black Death"

    by Regina1965 Updated Nov 2, 2013

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    This alcoholic beverage is our local ... It is called Black Death and is made from potatoes and seasoned with Caraway seeds. It is a very strong drink and always served chilled. The bottle is put in the freezer. The taste is very strong and it is traditionally drunk with fermented shark at Þorrablót.

    When I was younger and partying down-town Brennivín used to be the last resort, we preferred anything to that drink. It was then drunk straight out of the bottle and not chilled. If it was mixed with Coka Cola it made the Coka Cola "almost" undrinkable.

    I have noticed though that visitors find it cool to taste Brennivín :)

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    The diet of the Vikings.

    by Regina1965 Updated Oct 23, 2013

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    There is a new research (winter of 2010) which shows that the diet of the Vikings seemed to have been both healthy and slimming. They apparently lived on fish, especially salmon and trout from the rivers and herring. They ate reindeer meat and wild-berries and they grew cabbage.

    Now this new research doesn´t seem to fit what the Vikings ate here in Iceland. Here there were no reindeers until they were imported in the 20th century. And in the Sagas there are tales about the farm-animals which the Vikings brought with them to Iceland. The Vikings brought with them sheep, so there have been free-roaming sheep here since the Settlement. And they brought goats with them as well and cattle and eating beef was very common back then. And they brought horses with them and horsemeat was eaten. And they brought with them wild boar as well.

    For sure they had salmon and trout, but living on an island at least the people living close to the coast also had cod, haddock and halibut plus many more species of fish from the ocean. Yes, and whale and seals.

    They also brought with them colourful chicken, which we now call "Landnámshænur" or Settlement chicken. And they ate ptarmigan and puffin as well and bird eggs. Goose bones have been found in old Viking graves. And the Sagas tell about them eating all kinds of birds apart from birds of prey and the raven (which is a passerine). The raven is a very common bird here in Iceland.

    They Vikings ate wild-berries, which are in abundance here in Iceland and they grew some kinds of vegetables and ate Iceland moss, angelica and dulse. And of course they had milk and dairy products from the cows.

    And there was grain-farming in the first centuries of the Settlement. The climate was milder back then so it was possible to get a decent harvest back then. Maybe the climate back then was similar to the new climate (caused by global warming) here in Iceland, where we experience warmer summers. It wasn't until 1980 that it was possible to grow grain here again.

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    Religion in Iceland.

    by Regina1965 Updated Jun 22, 2013

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    The Icelandic nation is mainly Christian, we are not avid church-goers on the whole though. Apart from going to funerals, Christenings and weddings. But there are some more devout than others.

    Here is a list of how the nation is divided in their beliefs (2010 and 2011):

    The Established church: 183.697 (77,2% of the population in 2011)
    The Catholic church: 6.366 (in 2011)
    The Free Church in Reykjavík: 6.008
    The Free Church in Hafnarfjörður: 3.735
    The Independent parish in Reykjavík: 2.196
    The ones who belief in the old Nordic gods (Ásatrú): 2.148 (in 2013)
    The Pentacost church Fíladelfía: 1.043
    The Buddhist society: 646
    Adventists: 619
    Jehova´s Witnesses: 545
    The Free Church Vegurinn: 537
    Krossinn (The Cross): 559 (in 2011)
    Bahái: 374 (in 2003)
    Muslims: 289 (in 2003)
    The Church of Jesus Christ, Mormons): 190 (in 2003)
    Zen: 40 (in 2003)
    Baptists: 10 (in 2003)
    Home church (Heimakirkja): 9 which is the smallest one
    People not belonging to any church: 11.868 (in 2011)

    This list is far from being complete, as there are more indepenent church divisions. And there are a lot of Muslims here now and they are getting permission to build a mosque now.

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    The belief in the old Nordic gods.

    by Regina1965 Updated Jun 22, 2013

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    The Vikings who came to Iceland in ca 874 were mostly "ásatrúar", i.e. they were pantheists and believed in the gods Óðinn, Þór etc. In the year 1000 Christianity was adopted here in Iceland, and the belief in the old Nordic gods was forbidden by law. But even now there is an authorised religious organisation called Ásatrúarfélagið which practices the belief in the old Nordic gods. They have several rituals and can perform a marriage, which I have heard is quite popular. They have regular rituals which are called "blót" in Icelandic.

    There are now (2013) 2.148 people which belong to Ásatrúarfélagið - 10 years ago they were 636, so more and more people are taking up the old belief.

    We get information on the belief in the old Nordic gods from our Sagas, especially Edda saga, and Hávamál and Völuspá. There are so many gods and goddesses and characters in the old Nordic belief. We learn about them in school here in Iceland.

    I have made a tip on a very interesting gallery just outside of the town of Hafnarfjörður called The Viking Circle. It is a gallery on the belief in the old Nordic gods and most of my photos here are from that gallery. The first photo of Óðinn is from the Viking village in Hafnarfjörður.

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    Iceland and swimming

    by jojes Updated Jun 17, 2013

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    Iceland has a real 'bathing-culture'.
    No matter how small a town is, there's bound to be a swimmingpool with a hotpot.
    Whereas in other countries people meet up in bars/pubs, Icelandic people tend to go to the pool and soak in a hotpot to exchange the latest news and chitchat.

    Almost all of the pools we've seen so far were outdoor, sometimes with a small indoor secton. The only exception here is the Asvallaug in Hagnarfjordur, which is indoor with in- and outdoor hotpots.
    But as Iceland is zo rich in geothermal energy, the water is always nicely warm. We've were sitting in the Myvatn nature baths in april 2013 ... it started snowing ... I must admit that it was a very special feeling.

    There are some "rules" you have to keep in mind when going swimming/bathing in Iceland.
    Before entering the changing-room you have to take your shoes off. You can either leave them in a provided rack or you can take them to the locker in a plastic bag.

    Changing-rooms are always strictly seperated for men and women. Kids can join either parent.
    The changing-rooms aren't divided in individual booths ... everyone gets (un)dressed in the same area.

    No need to get your bathingsuit on already, since you are obliged to shower naked and wash with soap before you enter the pool. The showers aren't private either. So just wrap your towel around and take the bathingsuit in your hand. Soap is mostly provided. There are racks where you can leave your towel and soap behind.
    When returning from the pool, one has to dry off in the shower area before entering the changing-rooms again.

    When you're not used to this washing-ritual (as most foreigners aren't) it might be strange to have to do this. But trust me, no one even gives you a second glance when standing there in 'birth uniform' ... the Icelandic are used to this from when they were still toddlers ... People who are looking around with an awkward look on their face are always tourists and are as 'uncomfortable' as you are. But this is also something you get used to, so after a visit or 2 you don't even give it a second thought any more ...

    In some pools you can rent towels and a bathingsuit if you happened to have forgotten those.

    Related to:
    • Water Sports

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    Washing before bathing

    by adelinemmc Updated Jun 14, 2013

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    Icelanders love nothing more than chatting in an outdoor hot tub so there are pools & spas everywhere. You must strip & wash thoroughly in the shower before being allowed in.

    This will not surprise anyone from Denmark, Norway or Sweden but it may come as a surprise/shock if you're from the UK, France or Italy. None of that 1/2 second 'shower' with your swimming suit you may be used to!

    Also note that you may be required to leave your shoes on a rack at the entrance of the changing room. This is to ensure perfect cleanliness of the floor.

    Related to:
    • Spa and Resort

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