Puffin toys are the main souvenir of Iceland; but are they the best?

What is the best souvenir from Iceland? What represents the country most, and what will serve as a valuable reminder of your time here? Read ahead for the top ten souvenirs from Iceland, as well as the best places to look for something unique to yourself.

Walking down the main shopping street in Reykjavík, Laugavegur, the majority of souvenir shops focus on two things: stuffed puffins, and stuffed polar bears. Considering you only get one of these animals in Iceland, it is a little telling that much of the market is going for a broad appeal rather than one which speaks authentically to this country.

Icelanders, however, have a deep and rich culture, an incredible nature, and a unique sense humour, and there are a wealth of souvenirs that you can buy that represent these qualities; there are even some that you can find and take home for yourself without charge. Read ahead for the ten best Icelandic souvenirs, and continue for suggestions of places you can find items more unique to your tastes.

Icelandic woolwear is a very popular choice for a souvenir. Photo by Jorunn Sjofn Gudlaugsdottir.

Across the country, there is a range of souvenir and gift shops with a wealth of products on sale. While some of these goods are overpriced, low-quality, and designed and produced abroad, many are steeped in Icelandic culture and tell a unique story of the country's character. From knitwear to alcohol, literature to confectionary, you are sure to find something that speaks to you.

10. Omnom Chocolate

An example of the unique and delicious Omnom Chocolate. Photo by Miss Yasmina

Omnom Chocolate is one of Iceland’s leading chocolate brands, and their bars are excellent souvenirs. Conceived and produced in Iceland, the company procures the best beans from around the world and blends them with unusual flavours to make some of the country’s most delicious confectionary.

There is a wide range to choose from, but the most traditionally Icelandic is without a doubt the one flavoured with liquorice (written over here as ‘Lakkris’) and sea salt. Liquorice is a national passion, and mixing it with chocolate and salt is considered the best way to consume it. If such a combination repulses you, there are many other more palatable options, such as dried cherries and walnut mixed with Nicaraguan Chocolate.

You can find Omnom Chocolate in souvenir shops and larger supermarkets. You can also buy them at their factory, where they conduct tours.

9. Nature Condoms 

There are six types of Nature Condom, representing different parts of the country.

If you are looking for a more whimsical souvenir from Iceland, your best bet is probably a Nature Condom. Both useful and hilarious, they come in six different phallic designs that reflect the country’s landscape: lava formations, the northern lights, a steaming hot spring, and, fittingly, an erupting volcano and an erupting geyser

After winning the first Icelandic souvenir competition in 2010, the condoms have taken off as a classic gift that represents the great sense of humour and openness regarding sex that exists in ‘the Land of Explosions’ (their tagline, not my phrasing). While a more unusual souvenir or gift, they are a lot more entertaining than a fridge magnet, a stuffed puffin, or a postcard.



8. Icelandic 'delicacies'

Icelandic dried fish is usually eaten with butter. Photo Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons, photo by Richard Eriksson

Icelandic ‘delicacies’ are not to everyone’s taste, but are a true reflection of this unusual country and make for conversation pieces for when you return. One of the most palatable snacks is harðfiskur, or dried fish, even if it has quite a powerful smell; many visitors are surprised they enjoy it as it is supposed to be eaten, dipped in butter. For a more gentle taste, go for dried haddock; for something stronger, go for the catfish.

Another delicacy is hákarl, the aforementioned fermented shark. Its smell is a revolting mix of rotted fish and ammonia, and though the taste is marginally better, it is still overpoweringly briny. It takes the better part of a year to produce this product, and it is still prepared the way it has been for centuries.

Sharing this with friends and family when you get home will be a good way to remember your holiday, and let everyone know a little bit about this country’s quirky culinary culture.

If the above options do not appeal, then perhaps you could find something longer-lasting and more appetising, like a jar of Icelandic thyme, or else one of the fancy Icelandic sea salts, which come in different colours and are brimming with natural minerals. 

7. Icelandic Sagas 

The old manuscript of an Icelandic Saga. Photo Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons, photo by Gilwellian

The Sagas are incredible works, that detail the history, culture and folklore of early Icelandic society. They are also a perfect example of Icelanders’ deep, long-held appreciation for the written word; this is a nation where the greatest heroes are considered to be poets, not warriors.

There are dozens of Sagas to choose from, and the most popular can be found in souvenir and book shops all around the country. Several texts have a compilation of many of the best ones, which is perfect for those seeking to learn all they can of the history of early Iceland.

If you are simply looking for a taste of Icelandic history, however, the most highly recommended are the Saga of Njál and the Saga of Egil. These are widely considered the best written and the most influential, and were both compiled at the height of medieval writing in Iceland, in the 13th Century.

Snorri Sturluson is acclaimed with gathering many of the sagas and codifying them. Photo Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons, photo by GDK

Nobody is certain who compiled them (the events documented occurred centuries before and were passed down through oral tradition), but many suspect Egil’s Saga could have been written by Snorri Sturluson, probably the most important European writer in the medieval era. 

Snorri is most famed for writing the works Heimskringla and Edda. Without these works, we would not know a huge amount about Nordic, Celtic and British history, nor about the details of Asatru, the Old Norse Religion. As a side note, avid readers of fantasy should certainly seek out Snorri's Edda, as it has heavily influenced franchises such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.



6. Icelandic Alcohol

Craft beers are very popular in Iceland. Photo by morebyless

Although beer has only been legal in Iceland since 1989, the industry in its production has boomed since. Brewing craft beers has become somewhat of a national pastime, and now there is a wide selection to choose from. Einstök, Skuli, Borg and Kaldi are some of the most popular brands; all are brewed in Iceland and flavoured with local ingredients. 

A more historic Icelandic beverage is a caraway flavoured spirit called Brennevín. Its potent flavour is usually used to overpower the taste of Hákarl, a traditional dish of fermented shark, which is notoriously foul. While this does not seem to speak much for its taste, it is ever increasing in popularity, both at home and abroad.

Brennivin is an acquired taste, to say the very least.

Alcohol can only be bought in two places outside of the bars in Iceland: the government-run alcohol shop called Vinbúðin, and the airport. It is heavily recommended you buy all alcohol souvenirs at the airport, as you will not be paying taxes or duty on them and you can save near half the amount.



5. Icelandic Design clothing

Icelandic fashion is forward-thinking, practical, and stylish, with many established and up-and-coming designers producing beautiful and original pieces. Walking down Laugavegur and the surrounding area, you will see many boutiques selling garments that reflect this chic perspective. 

The store Herrafataverzlun Kormáks & Skjaldar, for example, on Laugavegur 59, features the high-end men's designs of Kormákur and Skjöldur. María Lovísa Design, meanwhile, caters only to women and offers pieces that stylishly combine fabrics not conventionally put together, such as mixes of leather and wool. It can be found on Skólvörðustigur 6b.

Another place to buy classic Icelandic design is the Geysir store. There is one at the Geysir Geothermal Area itself, in the Kringlan shopping mall, in Akureyri, and there are two on Skólvörðustigur in Reykjavík, at numbers 7 and 16.  There is a wide range of stylish pieces to choose from, from hats and gloves to coats and blankets. 

4. Icelandic fiction

Iceland's most famous novel of the 20th Century, Independent People

Iceland has more writers, books sold, and books read per capita than any other country in the world. Purchasing an Icelandic fiction, therefore, is a souvenir that encapsulates the literary tradition of this nation.

Halldor Laxness is Iceland’s only Nobel Prize Winner, and the quality of his literature, even in the translations, speaks instantly as to why. A man of many intrapersonal conflicts and an ever-changing ideology, Laxness’ works paint intricate pictures of Iceland throughout the 20th Century when it underwent the pressures associated with urbanisation, industrialisation, globalism and the Cold War.

His most esteemed work is without a doubt 'Independent People', but each of his novels is revered. The most popular are available in most souvenir shops around the country, as well as in bookstores where you can also find translations from a wealth of other Icelandic writers.



3. Mink Viking Portrait

A woman feeling the fantasy of being a shield maiden. Model: Agustina Sidders. Photo by Guðmunn Þór Bjargmundsson

At Laugavegur 11, the main street in Reykjavík, you can find the Mink Viking Portrait Studio. Here, Guðmann Þór Bjargmundsson has developed quite the name for himself dressing his patrons in traditional Viking regalia, and taking some incredible photographs.

A solo shoot takes from 45 minutes to an hour, with group sessions being up to two hours; this includes time for changing, modelling, and choosing the six photographs you want to go home with.

Regína at Mink Viking Studio, one of Guide to Iceland's bloggers.

Guðmann is an experienced in both photography and filmmaking, having worked on Game of Thrones and many other projects. He is also, however, an expert on old Norse life. The setting, costuming and weapons are all authentic, and he’ll tell you all about the pieces, their uses, and their history as you dress and pose. 

These Viking portraits are increasingly popular, so it’s a very good idea to book in advance. 



2. Lopapeysa           

The Icelandic Wool Sweater is probably the nation's most iconic souvenir. Photo by Jorunn Sjofn Gudlaugsdottir.

The lopapeysa, or Icelandic wool sweater, is probably the most classic, authentic souvenir you can get from Iceland, so long as, of course, it’s Icelandic made. Although they only became a symbol of the Icelandic national identity following their independence from Denmark in 1944, they now are an integral part of the culture and owned by just about everyone who lives here. 

The appeal of Lopapeysas in Iceland’s cold, wet climate is due to a unique quality of Icelandic sheep. Their wool has two different kinds of fibres; the outer layer is tough, long, and water-resistant, while the inner layer is soft and insulating. The sweaters are therefore perfect for keeping you dry and warm.

Icelandic sheep are a unique breed, and lopapeysas cannot be made without them.

Nowadays, there are a wealth of different colours and designs to choose from. Traditionally, however, the wool is undyed, thus either black, white, grey or brown, and each sweater has at least two colours.

The Lopapeysas are knitted in a ‘yoke pattern’, meaning there is a patterned ring around the neck opening, and the most classic have the same motifs around the hem and wrists. Though they originally did not have hoods or zippers, many do today.

You can find Lopapeysas in most souvenir shops and many clothes shops, but when souvenir shopping in Reykjavík for one, there are a few things to watch out for.

Firstly, some companies outsource work to China, therefore many of the sweaters on sale are not authentically Icelandic (some not even being made of Icelandic wool) and very overpriced. Secondly, the cost, in general, is quite disparate depending on where you shop.

The highest quality for the best price can be found at the Handknitting Association of Iceland, Thorvaldsen's Bazaar, and the Flea Market, Kolaportið

1. Icelandic Music

Iceland's music scene is incredibly diverse and increasingly popular internationally; therefore, there are many record shops around Reykjavík where you can browse for Icelandic music. Lucky Records at Rauðarárstígur 10, Smekkleysa at Laugavegur 35, and the Reykjavík Record Shop at Klapparstígur 35, for example, all have a great selection. 

While many have only heard of Björk, and perhaps bands like Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men, many up-and-coming artists and groups are also well worth listening too. For Icelandic music that is popular amongst the locals, have a look for the works of national icons such as Páll Oscar, ÁsgeirGusGus and Mugison

Regardless of what your taste in musical genre is, you are sure to find an Icelandic singer or band excellent at performing it. This is a nation full of musicians, and thus you can easily find Icelandic folk, metal, reggae, jazz, electronic and country music, as well as the expected pop and rock genres. Those working in the record stores are passionate about the incredible sounds that come out of this nation, and will be more than happy to help and recommend.



Unique Places for Souvenirs 

While the above choices reflect the diverse culture of Iceland, they are not the only options. There are many locations across the country where you can browse and find souvenirs more suited to your taste and budget. Continue reading for the best places to find other trinkets that will keep Iceland in your memory.

The Icelandic Nature

Kirkjufell, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

As mentioned above, Iceland’s nature is there to be appreciated, not to be broken into pieces for everyone to take a part home. That being said, however, there are some things you can take that will not damage the environment.

Across the country, you will find many unusual volcanic black sand beaches, such as Reynisfjara, and 'deserts', such as Solheimssanður. Taking a bottle or jar and filling it with this sand is completely fine, and represents the dramatic geological processes of the country as well as its stark, barren nature.

Black sands surround Dyrhólaey rock arch, and can be jarred and taken home at no cost to you or the nature.

Something else you can bottle for free in Iceland, without doing any damage, is the fresh, mountain air. This is sold in souvenir shops as a gimmick, but so long as you are happy missing out on the admittedly amusing packaging, you can save yourself some money. 

Outside of Iceland, this air is becoming very popular; in the polluted streets of Beijing, it sells for $8 a bottle to those desperate for a clean, fresh breath, and it has been sold much higher to eccentric millionaires.

Another quirky, free option is taking a bottle of tap or spring water. The country's naturally filtered water is some of the cleanest in the world.



Kolaportið

Postcards at Kolaportið

Kolaportið, the Icelandic flea market, is cluttered with a hugely diverse array of goods. With everything from Icelandic sweaters to fishmongers, it is the perfect place to go for the eclectic traveller. Here, you are likely to find less known Icelandic books and music, a wide array of clothes, as well as unusual and beautiful works from local artists.

Kolaportið can be found on Tryggvagata 19, by the Old Harbour.

Hrím

The front of Hrím in downtown Reykjavík. Photo courtesy of hrím.is

For the house proud looking to bring a sense of clean, unique Nordic style to their homes, Hrím is an excellent option for souvenir shopping. It has kitchenware and houseware designed in Iceland, as well as chic pieces from other parts of the world.

The prices here are also a lot more reasonable than in the rest of the country; for example, an Icelandic frying pan designed for pancakes can be bought at half the price than in competing stores. Their shops can be found at Laugavegur 25 and Kringlan. 

Icewear on Austurstræti

The interior of Icewear. Photo from Icewear.

For those looking for stylish, lasting winter-wear they can use for the rest of their life, clothes by Icewear and 66° North make for great souvenirs. The Icewear shop on Austurstræti 5 is a particularly interesting place to hunt for such garments, as it is somewhat of a historical site. The lower level used to be a bank vault, and the signs of its past make a shopping experience here more than just about what you are buying.


Regardless of whether you have come to Iceland for its nature, history, capital or culture, you will no doubt want some physical memory of the country to take home with you. The souvenir industry has developed as tourism has boomed, and now you can find a huge range of authentic goods that promise to reflect your personal experience here.

Whether it be as long-lasting, useful and historic as the Lopapeysa, or as whimsical, cheeky and disposable as a condom, you will no doubt find something that suits your tastes.