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 national costume.

    by Regina1965 Updated Oct 11, 2012

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    The historical data of the Icelandic national costume date back to the 16h century. There are 5 types of national costumes here for women; the bodice (upphlutur), "faldbúningur", "peysuföt", "skautbúningur" and kirtle (kyrtill). I think the "skautbúningur" is so beautiful, my mother got married to my father in such an a beautiful blue "skautbúningur".

    Women wear these costumes only on special occasions, like the 17th of June which is our national holiday. My grandmother wore her national costume, the bodice, to weddings and major events in the family. And the older generation wore the costume much more often than we do. I have only worn the bodice once. I went to a business college called Verslunarskólinn and there we have a traditional day called "Peysufatadagurinn" or the traditional costume day where all the women students wear the traditional costume for a whole day. We go down-town and dance, go to dinner and to a ball, dressed all day long in the traditional costume. So if you are ever down-town Reykjavík and see a group (maybe 100 people or more) dressed in the traditional costume, then the group is from Verslunarskólinn.

    But it doesn´t come cheap and a national costume can cost ISK 1.000.000! The price ranges from ISK 500.000 and it gets more expensive with the adornaments of silver. So if one is only going to wear it once for a special occasion, one has to get it on loan from a person who has invested in one or inherited it from a grandmother or a mother.

    The traditional costume for men is not that recognised, I guess men don't like that much to dress up, but there are two costumes, one called the farmer's costume and the other one was designed in 1994 (on the 50th birthday of the Icelandic republic) and is called regalia (hátíðarbúningur) and is very beautiful and fitting I think.

    My 1. photo is of different national costumes: faldbúningur, upphlutur (bodice), peysuföt, upphlutur (bodice).
    My 2. photo is taken on our Cultural night and the women are wearing the bodice and the men are wearing the regalia.
    My 3. photo is of: upphlutur (bodice), skautbúningur and kyrtill (kirtle).
    My 4. photo is of peysuföt.

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    The most common Icelandic names.

    by Regina1965 Updated Oct 9, 2012

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    The most common male name here in Iceland is JÓN and the most common female name here is GUÐRÚN.

    Other male names on the top of that list are: Sigurður, Guðmundur, Gunnar, Ólafur and Einar.

    And other female names on the top of that list are: Anna, Sigríður, Kristín, Margrét and Helga.

    Now the younger generation is giving different names to their children, Aron and Alexander are very popular f.ex. now.

    There is a Name´s Committee here in Iceland that decides on which names are allowed and which names are not - imagine that!

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    Pure Icelandic water.

    by Regina1965 Updated Oct 9, 2012

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    Although our hot water is geothermal water and has a distinctive smell, our cold water is very pure. You can drink our cold water from the tap and we have big reserves of pure cold water. Iceland has got the biggest water reserves in the world.

    So you really don't have to buy bottled water here, if you have bought a bottle at the airport f.ex., just refill it with water from the tap.

    Sodastream is big here in Reykjavík, you just fill your bottle with pure water from the tap and "sodastream" it and get your own homemade fizzy water :) I use that a lot.

    But despite the clean water we have in abundance, we Icelanders drink a LOT of soda pop here, gigantic amounts of soda pop really. In 1960 we used to drink 18,7 liters of soda pop a year, but now we drink 173 a year per person over the age of 10. I guess we do not always appreciate what is right in front of us.

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    Many more custom tips.

    by Regina1965 Updated Jul 31, 2012

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    I have only added a few Icelandic custom tips here on my Iceland pages. But I have added many, many custom tips on my Reykjavík pages f.ex.: drinking habits, homosexuality in Iceland, Icelandic, gender equality, different festivals, Christmas traditions, big trucks and many more.

    So please look up these pages if you want to know more about Icelandic customs.

    Seeing that my Reykjavík page is getting very big I transferred a lot of Icelandic tips from there to this page.

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    Icelandic surnames.

    by Regina1965 Updated Mar 5, 2012

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    Icelandic surnames are a bit confusing to foreigners as our surname derives from our father's first name plus "-son" (son) and "-dóttir" (daughter). F.ex. my father's name was Ragnar so my surname is Ragnarsdóttir (daughter of Ragnar) and my brother's surname is Ragnarsson (son of Ragnar). So in my family only my sister and I have the same surname.

    When we Icelandic women get married we keep our surname, so my name will always be Ragnarsdóttir. But when foreign women get married to Icelandic men it becomes a little confusing as they often change their maiden name to their husband´s surname, and are thus called f.ex. Hjálmarsson (son of Hjálmar)!! Married couple not having the same surname, and their children not having the same surname as their father and mother, used to cause confusion abroad and I remember my Uncle telling me that when he went abroad once, many years ago, with his wife the hotel reception didn't want to give them the same room as they didn't have the same surname ;)

    This is the most common custom, but there are some variations to this, you can f.ex. get your mother's name if the mother is a single parent, my son would then be called Regínuson ;) There are also some family names in Iceland, my mother's family name is Thomsen, as her great-grandfather was Danish. But she had to be Christened by this name or else she would have been Pétursdóttir as her father's name was Pétur Thomsen.

    There are ca 9.000 family names in Iceland and ca 27.000 people are registered with family names. The most common ones are Hansen, Blöndal and Thorarensen.

    So when looking up an Icelandic person in the phone-directory you look them up by their first name.

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    A few facts about Iceland and the Icelandic nation

    by Regina1965 Updated Jan 29, 2012

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    Our main export is not fish but aluminium.

    Iceland is in the 17th place of the largest fishing nation, catching 2% of all the fish caught in the world. 39% of our export earnings come from fish.

    6,8% of the population in Iceland were foreign citizens (January 1st, 2010).

    Most foreign citizens travelling through our international airport are British citizens.

    95% of all 16 year olds are in college.

    Two out of three graduates from University are women.

    79% of all our electric power usage goes to the heavy industry.

    7 Icelandic movies premiered in 2008.

    91% of the nation uses the Internet daily.

    5% of the Icelandic nation support UNICEF, which is the highest percent of supporters per capita in the world.

    Icelanders are the 4th fattest nation in Europe (some of us).

    0,01% of the nation is deaf - ca 300 people.

    8,2% of the nation are immigrants (2010) or 26.171, most of them Polish immigrants (10.058). 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.

    Iceland is in the second place for the countries with the best democracy, right after Norway.

    83% of Icelanders are on Facebook.

    There are ca 147.000 horses here in Iceland which is the highest number of horses in the world per capita.

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

    Icelanders have the longest working hours compared to Scandinavia and many other European countries.

    The Cost of living in Iceland

    I have added this tip under general tips as well, as I never know which tips to add there, and I will be adding more facts in time as I come by more facts about Iceland and Icelanders.

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    The Icelandic language.

    by Regina1965 Updated Jan 29, 2012

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    Icelanders speak Icelandic, a language so similar to what the Vikings spoke that the Vikings and the modern Icelander could easily have a conversation. The Vikings who came here in ca 874 were from Norway, so Icelandic is old Norwegian. The Norwegian spoken in Norway today is quite different from the language which has been preserved here, and we can only understand Norwegian today as we have to study Danish in school (and Danish and Norwegian are very similar). But the Scandinavian nations cannot understand Icelandic.

    The Norwegian Vikings kidnapped some Irish women on their way to Iceland, so there is also some Celtic influence, I would say.

    The remoteness of the island for decades and decades made it easy for us to preserve the language. Of course there have been some Danish influences on Icelandic seeing that we were a Danish colony, but the language is very well preserved. We even have a special committee on the preservation of the language. Their role is to make up a new word for loanwords. F.ex. computer=tölva, lap-top=fartölva, police=lögregla, design=hönnun. This makes it harder for foreigners to learn our language, but I think these words are a lovely addition to Icelandic.

    The first foreign language we learn here is Danish, when I was younger we had it at school when I was 10 and then started learning English when we were 12. So almost the whole nation speaks English, we are not so keen on speaking Danish though, seeing that the pronunciation is somewhat difficult. Then some of us have German and French at college.

    We use some letters in Icelandic which are not commonly seen: f.ex. the letter "æ" which is a and e put together. And "ð" which I have only seen in the Serbian language, but pronounced quite differently. We also have "þ" which is pronounced "th". We also use "ö" like the Swedes and the Germans.

    Here are a few phrases in Icelandic:

    Góðan daginn = good morning or good day. This is what sales-people in the stores will say to you.

    Góða kvöldið = good evening
    Góða nótt = good night
    Hafðu það gott = have a nice day
    Bless = good bye
    Skál = cheers
    Takk (fyrir) = thank you
    Gjörðu svo vel = please eat, please enter, please take this.
    Takk fyrir matinn = thanks for dinner. These two sentences are quite necessary in Iceland, always say "gjörðu svo vel" when inviting people to eat at your place, and "takk fyrir matinn" when standing up from the table.

    Velkomin = welcome
    Fyrirgefðu = I'm sorry
    Afsakið = excuse me
    Ég tala ekki íslensku = I don't speak Icelandic.

    And yes, we say "ha" a lot if we don't hear what you say :)

    The website I add is from Youtube - pronounciation of a few common Icelandic phrases.

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    Cod liver oil - a good source of Vitamin D.

    by Regina1965 Updated Nov 17, 2011

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    Seeing that Iceland is so far north and that the winters are dark - and not too much sunshine during the summer time - we need to take cod liver oil to get our Vitamin D. When I was little cod liver oil was given to us in school, everybody had to stand in a row and wait their turn for their daily dosis of Vitamin D.

    Nowadays Icelanders eat less fish than before, I would say as it has become very expensive...

    We export cod liver oil and strangely enough a lot of cod liver oil pills were found in 2 cars going to Lithuania with loot from Iceland. The factory Lýsi exports cod liver oil to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Denmark to name a few.

    And it is known here that the Chinese and Japanese tourists buy up the stock of cod liver oil during their visit here in Iceland.

    I would recommend everybody moving here to start taking cod liver oil, or eat a lot of fatty fish - I don´t think that foreigners coming here are aware of this.

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    Head-lights on 24/7 and more traffic rules.

    by Regina1965 Updated Nov 7, 2011

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    The highway code here in Iceland is that the head-lights need to be on 24/7. Even during the bright summer time the lights must be on. This is a good thing, cars are more visible like this and we are so used to this that I have noticed that if a driver has forgot to switch on the lights I don't notice the car.

    There is a fine for driving while speaking on your cell phone, but everybody does it anyway.

    There is also a fine for not buckling up, i.e. using seatbelts.

    There are speed bumps all over the place and cameras in many places so don´t drive too fast here in Reykjavík. In residential areas the speed limit is 30-60 kph.

    Drunk driving is all too common here and you will be charged with DWI if the blood level alcohol is .05.

    I was asked about the rush hour recently. Even though Reykjavík is a small city then there is a rush hour at 7:30-9:30 and from 16:00-18:30.

    Parking is not easy to find in Reykjavík, but there are covered car parks in many places in Reykjavík. When we go down-town we use the parking lot by the University, there are usually a lot of free parking spaces there on the gravel parking lot. Or we park the car on a gravel parking lot close to Grandi and walk to the center. In both cases it is only a 5 minutes´walk. There are meter maids all over town, so even if you find a parking spot with a parking meter, the chance is that you will get a fine, so better walk for a short distance.

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    The old children toys.

    by Regina1965 Updated Oct 7, 2011

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    The old Icelandic toys for kids are in Icelandic called "leggur og skel" animal bones and shells. These included also stones, sticks and horns. I include a photo of a poem in Icelandic about how these things were turned into horses, dogs etc. Bones were used for horses, jaw-bones were used for cows and guns, conches were used for dogs etc.

    I saw these toys outside of Nonni´s house/museum in Akureyri.

    Compare these simple toys to the toys today...

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    Take off your shoes

    by Krumel Written Aug 1, 2011

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    In all the guesthouses and hostels that we stayed in you were expected to take off your shoes at the door to help keep the house clean, and everyone is walking around on socks or flipflops. This was a bit strange at first and can be a bit inconvenient if you have just laced up your hiking boots only to realise that you have forgotten something in your room, but you quickly get used to it and it is nice not to have muddy bootprints all over the place.

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    Icelandic weather.

    by Regina1965 Updated May 6, 2011

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    What is said about Icelanders is that they never get tired of talking about the weather. Which is no wonder seeing that we very often have a kind of a sample's weather. So one never knows how to dress - in one day you can get sunshine, wind, clouds and rain, then sunshine, clouds, heavy rain again etc. So on clear and sunny days we bring a coat just in case. And we hardly ever carry umbrellas here as when it is raining, most of the time it is too windy to carry an umbrella. We could always spot foreigners here as they were carrying umbrellas ;)

    There is an Icelandic word gluggavedur, meaning window-weather. This is when the sun shines and you cannot wait to go outside and then it is windy and freezing, so you flee inside again, feeling frustrated that this wonderful weather, you thought were outside, was only nice as seen from inside the house.

    Iceland would be almost uninhabitable if it were not for the he warm Gulf stream which travels around the island, so the winters here are warmer than in New York.

    The weather is changing here due to global warming (or that is what we think) and nowadays we have much less snow here in Reykjavík than we used to have when I was a child. There is a huge difference. And the summers are much warmer, for the past few years we have been having temperatures above 20 degrees C in the summer for many days in a row. When I was younger the highest temperatures here would be ca 14 degrees C, which was on a very good day, and the winters were long winters with heavy snow. We are very happy with this change.

    When I was younger and it was sunny some shop-owners closed their shops putting up a note saying that it was closed due to it being sunny outside! This doesnt happen anymore though. I think it is in our genes to go outside when it is sunny, so that we can get some Vitamin D. I know that we get very frustrated if we cannot go outside when it is sunny, as if an invisible force were pushing us outside. So this must be a genetic thing.

    The weather-bureau hardly ever gets it right as the weather is everchanging. I have made the mistake too many times of listening to the weather forecast and gone on a trip - only to be greeted with a totally different weather than was expected. I remember way back then when a lot of young people went on a camping trip in the high-lands. The weather forecast was sunny and no wind. That was far from it, it was cold and rainy, too cold for a camping trip in in the high-lands. I know it is only a forecast, but it can be irritating that it is hardly ever accurate and nobody is responsible. But my advice is to check it out anyway, nobody should go on a trip when the weather-bureau tells us a blizzard is coming. I add the website to the official Icelandic weather-bureau in English. But it has pissed me off too many times, recently saying that it was rainy and 4 degrees C outside when it was snowing and frost all day and they didn´t even change it the whole day! This example I am talking about happened in mid April and the winter tires shall by law be off before April 15th. I went to the airport (40 km away from Reykjavík) on summer tires and it snowed so much that the car skated on the road. And the weather-bureau claimed all day that it was raining and plus 4 degrees C!

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    The reason for the Beer ban...

    by Odinnthor Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    I was asked to clarify the reason why there was alcohol in Iceland, but beer was banned until 1989. Here is my reply:The origins of the ban are somewhat murky. I know that when I was growing up in Reykjavik, the "Good Templars" were an organization whos main apparent issue was alcohol prohibition. They were adamant about the prohibition of beer. This was a political issue for years, and a lot of people with political powers were members of the "Templars". There was even a slang word back then, if someone did not drink, he was a "templari" - a word used to describe a non drinker. Over the years, as more people travelled and as the political power people became younger, the organization's power base waned, finally resulting in a reversal in 1989, and the beer boom was in full effect!rding had to do with allowing such brew only to contain less than 1% of alcohol. We actually had a pilsner product put out by a soft drink company. It tasted like lite beer, but with almost no alcohol. It was named "Pilsner"

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    Modern Art

    by caslu Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    We visited a lot of museums while in Iceland and it became apparent that the Icelanders have a great love of modern art. It was all quite nice but some of it left me scratching my head - especially the Erro collection (whoa!!!). Anyway, the Reykjavik Museum of Art has many sites, each displaying different art forms so I'd recommend that and also the Culture House which gives some great insight into Icelandic history and culture.

    Related to:
    • Museum Visits
    • Arts and Culture

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    The Icelandic horse

    by Bjorgvin Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    The Icelandic horse is unique and much admired. It is descended from the horses the Norwegian viking settlers brought with them to Iceland in the 9th century. There are many good websites on the Net containing information on the Icelandic horse. Here is a small list: Horse colours, Icelandic horse magazine Online (Eiðfaxi), iceryder.net, Eldhestar - riding tours in Iceland, Icelandic Horse Connection, Database on Icelandic horse breeding.

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Iceland Local Customs

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