June 2019

40 Things to Do in Iceland

Author: Becca Edwards

Black balloons, an open coffin with a skeleton dressed like a woman, a large sign that read, “Lordy, Lordy, Ellen’s 40!” and a look of total dismay on her face is what I remember when my mother turned 40 and everyone threw her a surprise party. An impressionable eight-year-old at the time, I vowed when I turned 40 I would go someplace far, far away.

I recently turned 40 and kept my promise to myself, going 3,309 miles (as the crow flies) to Iceland. The months leading up to my 4-0, my husband Lee and I researched Iceland and made a list of 40 things to do under the categories “Eat,” “Drink,” “Stay,” and “See/Do.” As we set out to cross each item off our list in only nine days, we felt daunted by the task at hand, but—like true Vikings—we were ready for birthday battle.

1. Fermented Shark
Kæstur hákarl, or fermented shark, is a national dish that tastes as nasty as the name implies. As the unappetizing hákarl appetizer was placed on our table, both Lee and I involuntarily plunged our noses into our palms afraid to breathe or we might pass out. But, before we could lose our nerve, we gulped in a large breath, clenched all airways, speared the cubed cured fish with toothpicks, and popped a bite into our mouths. The texture, surprisingly, was that of a firm brie, and the taste reminded us of Stilton cheese.

EAT

2. Whale
Fiskmarkadurinn, or The Fish Market, is a must for all you foodies. We had tried whale in a pub earlier and savored its filet mignon-like texture and flavor, but at Fiskmarkadurinn, the jalapeno minke whale nigiri made the biggest splash on our taste buds.

3. Puffin
No, puffin doesn’t taste like chicken or even duck or quail. Beef filets are to filet mignon as puffin is to minke whale. With puffin, you need to actively use your dinner knife and be prepared to chew a few seconds longer than whale, but both have an iron-rich, buttery-like quality.

4. Icelandic chocolate
Much of the food in Iceland is imported—it’s just the nature of the beast with remote, subarctic islands. Look for chocolate that has Icelandic sea salt in it.

5. Icelandic sea salt
Icelandic sea salt, in all its varieties, proves salt is more than just salty. Our favorite purveyor, Saltverk, gets its salt from the Westfjords region and offers Arctic thyme salt, birch smoked salt, lava salt, licorice salt and seaweed salt.

6. Skyr
Icelanders love their Skyr, or yogurt. At every breakfast (which, quite often, is served buffet-style and means going elbow to elbow with Europeans who rarely exhibit spatial awareness), Skyr is accompanied by an array of health-boosting ingredients like flax, pumpkin seeds and berries. This creamy, cultured Icelandic staple is not sour like most plain yogurts and contains more protein and less sugar.

7. Smoked fish
If you like smoked salmon, Iceland offers some form of it at every meal—from smoked salmon omelettes to Nordic salad with smoked salmon, to smoked salmon smørrebrød (i.e. open-faced sandwich). In short, you will definitely get your Omega 3 on in Iceland.

8. Salmon caviar
Likewise, salmon caviar is plentiful in Iceland and sometimes added to dishes as an obligatory garnish, like parsley. Its vibrancy bespeaks its freshness, and each little egg bursts deliciousness in your mouth.

9. Pickled herring
This was another misfire. Pickled herring is also served at the “every man for him/herself buffet breakfasts” and comes löksill (herring with onions), kryddsill (herring with spices) and senapsill (herring with mustard). The morning after my birthday, on which I was either jet lagged from getting there the day before, or hungover, or both, I tried one of each. They were all disgusting and haunted me for much of the morning; consider yourself forewarned.

DRINK

10. Brennivín
Also known as Black Death, brennivín is the most traditional (and popular) Icelandic spirit and has been for centuries. It is made from fermented grain and potato mash and is flavored heavily with caraway. At first sip, Lee spit it up. I, however, hung in there for five, face-contorting sips and then opted for beer nuts and white wine.

11. Icelandic wine
Not much to write home about here, but most places serve wine in mini bottles (like the ones you get on airplanes), and if you are a “wino,” it gets expensive real quick.

12. Icelandic beer
There are, however, some breweries in Iceland and some pretty out-there ingredients like algae. Lee’s favorite was from the Bryggjan Brewery. Note: Icelanders do not mind letting you sample different styles/options before ordering.

STAY

13. In an affordable hotel
Sorry, this place actually does not exist in Iceland. Get ready to spend some króna (Icelandic money).

14. In a bubble
This actually does exist. Nuzzled in a forest is a series of secluded, 360-degree view rooms in Reyholt. Note: In the winter, you can see the Northern lights, and it actually gets dark (unlike the summer when it is light 24 hours a day).

15. In an Icelandic AirBnB
This is the closet option to “affordable lodging” with the added bonus of living like a local.

SEE/DO

16. Icelandic sheep
Lounging roadside and in impossible conditions, these comical fluff balls are historically an integral part of Iceland and one of the first sights you will check off your list.

17. Icelandic horses
Do not be fooled by these pony-sized horses—they’re hardy and hardworking. Try riding one through the countryside.

18. Arctic Fox
In the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, you can spot these cute canines’ bushy tails and hear their squeaky bark. On our hike through the reserve, one little guy followed us for a few miles. You can also visit the Artic Fox Center in Sudavik. Note: In Iceland, words like “center” and “museum” translate into “one-roomed exhibits with lengthy plaques and very few artifacts.”

19. Puffin
We intended to go to the Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords, one of Iceland’s best puffin watching places, but our ferry broke down in Stykkishólmur. Thankfully, we spotted one bobbing in the ocean off the coast of Ísafjörður.

20. Whales
Sure, Iceland offers several whale watching excursions, but we wanted to see one on our own. In a beautifully macabre way, we did. Much like we find horseshoe crab shells on our beaches, you can find whale bones on Iceland’s sandy shores. These bones range in size from a ribcage you can walk in, to small white vertebrae lying in black sand.

21. Trolls
Many Icelanders believe in trolls, as well as elves and other mystic beings. It is quite common to find a troll sculpture, and many of the land formations are believed to be formed by trolls. The basalt rock formations in Reynisdrangar, which are situated along a scenic must-do drive along the southern coastline, are said to be trolls frozen in time.

22. Waterfall
Over ten thousand waterfalls flow through and carve out Iceland’s rugged and yet ravishingly beautiful terrain. You can hike around or picnic below many; I recommend doing both.

23. Lava field
The vast Eldhraun lava field in the south of the Icelandic highlands was created in one of the greatest eruptions in recorded history and is of the largest of its kind in the world. This is yet one more reason to drive along the southern coastline.

24. A black beach
Also in the south, you will find Reynisfjara, which is located near a large volcano that is currently under ice and has been dormant for nearly 100 years. The black sand of the beach was formed when the volcano was still active, the lava floated across the beach, cooled down when it came into contact with the icy seawater, and broke apart. Between the grittiness of the black sand, the brine of salty air and the imposing mountains engulfing you, this beach walk is one to remember.

25. Glaciers
Along some of the beaches, you will actually see glacier chunks. The juxtaposition between the beach and the ice is quintessential Iceland.

26. Cool old structure
Surprisingly, you will not find many interesting old structures like castles in Iceland. Ísafjörður boasts some of the oldest (as in 1800s) dwellings, and occasionally you will find an old abandoned sheep farmer’s hut.

27. Reykjavík
The capital of Iceland, Reykjavík provides you with the most action, as most cities and towns in Iceland are fairly quiet. We stayed in the Center Hotel Plaza on Aðalstræti and highly suggest you do, too. It is centrally located, moderately priced (by Icelandic standards), and really quite posh and plush.

28. Hallgrimskirkja church
Architecturally awesome, this church was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson 1937, who was inspired by the funky shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock. Construction of the church began in 1945 and ended in 1986. Make sure to ride the elevator to the top and treat yourself with a panoramic view of Reykjavík.

29. Þingvellir
Only 40 kilometers from Reykjavík, Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) reminds us of Mother Nature’s sheer power as we venture between the rift valley created by the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Rightfully a tourist destination, start here and complete the Golden Circle.

30. Gullfoss
Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, completes the Golden Circle—a tour you can do in one day. Of all the waterfalls, this one was my favorite because of its massiveness, power, and stunning geological components. Note: Wear a raincoat.

31. Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Not far from the Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes hosts an array of varying landscapes. Stay in Stykkishólmur, cross the expansive Breidafjörður Bay via ferry, and arrive in Brjánslækur to explore northern Iceland.

32. Ísafjörður
Two gloved hands down, this was my favorite maritime town in Iceland and one of the best meals I have ever eaten was at Tjöruhúsið.

33. Westfjords region
If you want to absolutely get away from it all and wear out your camera with stellar snapshots, this is your place. Note: Pack a snack.

34. Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
We signed up for an 11-hour, moderately difficult hike on Hornstrandir with a guide company. Ever since the 1950s, Hornstrandir has been devoid of permanent human residents—mainly because the climate and terrain are so formidable. However, you will find a plethora of flora and fauna.

35. Dynjandi
This was Lee’s favorite waterfall, because it is the largest waterfall in the Westfjords and seemingly endless, as it consists of six other waterfalls.

36. The Blue Lagoon
Literally a tourist hot spot, here you will be corralled like a school of krill in a strong current to the geothermal pool, get a mud mask applied to your face, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with half of Europe (who are also wearing mud masks), while sipping alcohol. Option two: Find a “hot pot” while seeing other parts of Iceland.

37. Jökulsárlón
All the subarctic scenes in Die Another Day were filmed here, and taking a Zodiac tour in the ice lagoon was our favorite tourist activity. Note: The color blue never looked so good as it does here.

38. Skógafoss
Another fantastic waterfall, Skógafoss froths with lore and often flaunts a rainbow.

39. The World Cup in a local bar
Everywhere we went, Icelanders sported World Cup paraphernalia. In Reykjavík, we lucked into a street viewing party of Iran versus Spain, complete with gigantic TV screens and ample beer and cheer.

40. Speak Icelandic
We learned 16 words:
Bær—Farm
Bjór—Beer
Brekka (sounds like Becca)—Slope
Borg—City
Drykkir—Drink
Floss—Waterfall
Góðan daginn—Hello
Hvítvín—White wine
Jökull—Glacier
Nettó—Cheap grocery store
Kaffi—Coffee
Rauðvín—Red wine
Takk—Thank you
Te—Tea
Vatn—Water
Vínbúðin—Liquor store

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