Explore the oddest things about the people in Iceland and Icelandic culture. Learn what's behind all weird things written about Iceland online. Find out why Icelanders are so friendly. Like any country, the inhabitants of Iceland have some distinct traits others may find peculiar. Read on to find out why these quirks only add to the charm of Icelandic people.
When you read about strange things in Iceland, you'll notice that they mainly focus on how many native Icelanders still believe in elves, how they have 13 terrifying trolls instead of one jolly Santa, and how they still eat disgusting food.
Although all of this is true, at least to a degree, these facts are becoming old news at this point. Also, people in Iceland are tired of foreigners constantly referring to their cuisine as "disgusting." They prefer to say, "it's an acquired taste."
Therefore, this list will delve into some lesser-known and more recent Icelandic oddities.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by The Blanz. No edits were made.
How weird you'll find the items on this list will, of course, depend on your country of origin. Travelers of different nationalities often have entirely different concepts of what makes Icelandic people and culture unusual.
However, this top 13 list should help show the traits that make Iceland and Icelandic culture seem odd the world over.
There are a few exceptions to this, as anyone who knows of the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness can attest, but as a general rule, this is the case. Although a few family names exist in Iceland, primarily Danish, they're rare and usually originate from foreigners marrying into an Icelandic family.
For most people in Iceland, their last name is patronymic; in other words, it's composed of their father's first name with the suffix of -dottir (-daughter) or -son attached. This system means that a family member will have a different last name from both parents and siblings of a different gender.
Women also do not change their name when they get married (because they don't become the "son" of their husband's father).
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Max Naylor. No edits were made.
Matronymic names have become more common in recent years. More and more native Icelanders have a last name that refers to their mother rather than their father.
Everyone in Iceland is called by their first name, including teachers, doctors, celebrities such as Bjork (Gudmundsdottir), or even our presidents and prime ministers. While calling everyone by their first name lacks formality, it does help foster a dialogue with a less stuffy hierarchy.
Using titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Dr. is uncommon, even for foreigners. Do not get offended if an Icelander doesn't know your last name or continues to call you by your first name even if they do know it; we're just not used to anything else.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Dontworry. No edits were made.
If you haven't heard or read anything about Jon Gnarr, we encourage you to do so. He is one of the most famous people from Iceland. This former comedian/actor/punk rock bassist formed the Best Party in 2009 and won Reykjavik's mayoral election in 2010, defeating the established Independence Party government.
Since then, Jon has been the subject of numerous articles worldwide for his fun, eccentric style. He most notably draws attention at Gay Pride, which he always attends in full drag. Jon had no political background when he became mayor; however, that didn't stop him from winning hearts while in office and after that.
For a country whose inhabitants seem to love their alcohol, it's a surprise even to younger residents that beer was banned in the whole country for nearly 75 years until March 1, 1989.
The end of this dark chapter of Iceland's history has been forever immortalized in holiday form. Iceland's "Beer Day," Bjordagur, is celebrated annually on March 1 when it seems everyone in Iceland hits the town for a few pints of liquid gold.
Beware that the only traffic jam you'll find in Iceland nowadays is in front of Rikid late on Friday afternoons. And that is the only proof you need that alcohol is an inseparable part of Icelandic culture.
Ask any Icelander what the national drink is, and you'll unanimously receive the same answer: Brennivin. Brennivin is an Icelandic liquor distilled from grain mash and flavored with Icelandic herbs. The original bottles featured a white skull on a black label, resulting in a nickname that has stuck ever since: Black Death.
Primarily served in a chilled shot, Brennivin is also consumed with beer and used as a base in cocktails, often replacing gin. It's often accompanied by "hakari," a type of fermented shark meat, and one of those "disgusting" Icelandic foods people always mention.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. No edits were made.
Icelanders love to coat all their food in sauce, especially gravy, bearnaise sauce, and whatever other various dipping condiments are within arm's reach. Sauce truly is part of daily life in Iceland.
Believe it or not, there's a unique sauce for everything in Iceland. Even though the meat, fish, and vegetables are of a high standard, they get even better when covered in your favorite dressing. Icelandic people have specific sauces for pizza, pitas, fries, chips, vegetables, hamburgers, hot dogs, and different sauces for fish, meat, and poultry. There are also a few tomato, cheese, mushroom, Coca-Cola, bearnaise, paprika, and brown sauces.
As for sauces on ice cream, Iceland has those, too! Chocolate, luxury chocolate, caramel, licorice, and one for almost every fruit are the most popular choices.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Richard Eriksson. No edits were made.
Sure, people use and abuse sauces in other countries, but not to the same degree as Icelandic people. Even the Brits, who love their gravy and ketchup nearly as much as their tea, may find the number of sauces in Iceland overwhelming.
The toppings for a mere hot dog in Iceland include three different sauces: ketchup, hot dog mustard (which is different from other mustard), and "remuladi" (remoulade), a mayonnaise-based sauce that is almost exclusively used for this tasty treat.
Additionally, people in Iceland put two types of onion on hot dogs, raw and crunchy. For a traditional Icelandic hotdog or "pylsur," simply answer "everything" when asked about garnishes. You won't be disappointed!
People in Iceland frequently speak on inhalation - that initial breath we unconsciously take when opening our mouth to speak. This habit is most common when Icelanders say "Ja" or "Jaeja," which means "yes" and "well," respectively.
Perhaps not particularly Icelandic, as it occurs in other Nordic countries, this quirk is something most foreigners will notice and mention when they visit for the first time. There's no need to act surprised if you hear it; it's just a way of the tongue, not an offended gasp.
It's surprisingly challenging for people who have never spoken this way, although that is hardly unusual for the Icelandic language.
It may be freezing and stormy outside, but people in Iceland are known to enjoy a barbecue in any weather, almost behaving as if they lived beneath the blistering Australian sun instead of the chilly Nordic sky.
Come rain or shine, Icelandic people want to enjoy lamb, fish, and kebabs grilled over proper coals, and a stove or oven simply will not suffice. And then, of course, smothered in their favorite sauces.
Beyond simply barbeques, ice cream is also a part of daily life in Iceland (and not just because it has "ice" in the name). That's right. We can also eat ice cream all year round. When the weather is as volatile as it is in Iceland, there's no point in waiting until a hot and sunny day in July to enjoy your favorite treats with family and friends.
It's also a frequent tradition of Icelandic people to partake in "Ice Cream Runs." These are usually cute dates for couples or parents taking the kids out of the house to an ice cream parlor for a tasty bite. However, ice cream is most often eaten in the car instead of while running.
Photo by Siarhei Plashchynski
What would be considered irresponsible and possibly even criminal in other countries is surprisingly common in Iceland. Often you'll see mothers or fathers meeting up with their friends in cafes and catching up on the latest gossip while leaving their baby in the pram outside, completely unattended.
It's just as common to see babies left outside in open gardens or on porches. That way, the baby can sleep in the fresh air, and the parents can get on with what they want without waking them. This practice may seem neglectful and unsafe to people from countries with higher crime rates or more sensational media.
However, the truth is that babies are at virtually no risk in Iceland. Even in Reykjavik, the crime rates are incredibly low, particularly violent crime (and ignoring financial crime rates). Child abductions and the like are extremely rare.
This tradition of outdoor babies originates from when Icelandic people lived in turf houses, which were mainly buried beneath the earth. Their interiors were very unpleasant places, filled with filth, cluttered with people and often animals, and had terrible ventilation, making these primitive houses very smoky.
Keeping your baby outside, therefore, was beneficial for its health. As a result, this custom is frequently practiced in Iceland to this day by modern Icelandic people.
While this tradition is likely to die out as the world changes and people become more cautious, it's still seen throughout the summer today. Don't worry if you see it happening; no doubt, the infant is still under the watchful eye of a nearby parent.
"Per capita" is one of the most used phrases in Iceland. With just over 340,000 people, Icelanders suffer from a small nation complex. To make up for it, we claim we are, in fact, "The Best Country in the World" for various reasons.
People in Iceland will claim that this statement is true and get mockingly upset if you disagree, reciting one article or another in which Iceland comes out on top, always citing statistics "per capita."
Icelanders have the most beautiful women in the world per capita because we won the Miss World competition four times (a fact that Icelandic men love to boast about.). Icelanders also have the strongest men per capita, having had two individuals win the World's Strongest Man contest. Icelanders even have the world's most Nobel Prize winners per capita, despite only having one – 1 in 360,000 is still the world's best ratio of Nobel laureates compared to other populations.
Thank Halldor Laxness for that.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Nobel Foundation. No edits were made.
Icelanders also have the best handball team in the world per capita, produce the most music and bands per capita, and read and write the most books per capita. The list goes on and on. It's even a catch-phrase: "Island, best i heimi" (which translates to "Iceland, best in the world").
Though mostly said in jest, there are ways that Icelanders can say their nation is the best in the world without needing to add any rushed per capita under their breath. For instance, Iceland regularly tops lists for the most gender-equal country in the world and least engaged in international fighting, the most LGBTQ+ friendly, the cleanest, the most naturally beautiful, and more.
The people of Iceland are pretty proud of this.
Foreigners that come to Iceland seem to be very perplexed by the scale of many of the vehicles. While you have many little two-wheel drives skirting through the streets, there are a disproportionately large number of massive Super Jeeps with enormous tires. You might only expect to see oversized personal vehicles such as these in places like Greenland, Alaska, and Texas.
These monster trucks do not exist because of their owners' inferiority complexes (although it's fair to be suspicious of those who keep them just to travel around Reykjavik). They're needed to cross the harsh terrain of Iceland's rugged landscapes, particularly in winter.
If you leave the paved Ring Road of Iceland, you might find yourself on a dirt track littered with pot-holes, glazed in ice, or broken up by glacial rivers. Only in these circumstances will you feel the value of having a Super Jeep; they're just a spectacle for everyday domestic urban life.
In summer, they're essential for getting into the Highlands and traveling along F-Roads, those unpaved gravel paths in remote, mountainous regions. This necessity is particularly true if you're planning on visiting places in the Icelandic Highlands.
Individuals own many Super Jeeps, but tour operators own more. Super Jeep tours are very popular in Iceland, heading to otherwise inaccessible places such as Landmannalaugar, Thorsmork, and Eyjafjallajokull (the volcano that erupted in 2010).
Of course, it's not only the size of the cars around Iceland that visitors notice; it's also the fact that people seem to park anywhere and everywhere. While many locals would like to blame the worst of this on tourists, it's a problem that comes from all corners.
Perhaps it's because people in Iceland are so used to having a lot of space that they're notoriously sloppy parkers in confined urban situations. An Icelandic Facebook page posts pictures of the country's worst parked cars daily.
One place you'll not (or rather should not) see monster trucks is off-road. Off-road driving in Iceland, across the lava, moss, even the snow and black sands, is illegal, with enormous fines and a possible prison sentence attached.
Ensure you never leave the road or path you are driving on, lest you take a massive hit to your wallet and have to endure a thorough shaming from any Icelandic people who see you.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Maria Eklind. No edits made.
Nudity is normal in Icelandic culture, and this routine nakedness may not surprise other Northern Europeans, particularly Nordic, Baltic, or German readers. Still, many others, particularly those from North America, should be given fair warning.
While showering before swimming is standard worldwide, few places insist you do it naked and, in some cases, publicly. This requirement is because most of the pools in Iceland are not chlorinated, so fellow bathers and swimmers need to be confident that the waters they will be entering are clean.
There's nothing sexual or perverse about it. Most people just get naked, shower, and move on.
If the thought of it embarrasses you, the best course of action is to simply grit your teeth, close your eyes, and do it. There are few things more humiliating than an Icelander demanding that you take off your clothes and wash more thoroughly in front of a room of strangers.
Thankfully for the reserved, in the most popular pools, such as the Blue Lagoon, there are places you can wash and dress privately.
Photo from Hot Spring Hike of Reykjadalur Valley
The inhibitions of locals are not only absent in the changing rooms. Many Icelandic people bathe naked in certain hot springs or jump naked in the sea. If you want to immerse yourself in Icelandic culture and do the same, make sure that the hot pool you are going to doesn't have anyone else in it and is safe for bathing (you can't expect everyone to be as free-spirited as yourself).
Some geothermal waters have harmful bacteria, while others, such as Grjotagja, have unpredictable temperatures, and entry is forbidden. Of course, swimming in the sea should only be done in safe areas, as the North Atlantic waters are notoriously treacherous. Think about heading to Nautholsvik in Reykjavik, rather than Reynisfjara on the south coast, where the waves have taken many lives.
Again, if strangers are also trying to enjoy the area, it's best to stay dressed. If you feel like you want to take in Icelandic culture to the max, you can, however, ask those around you if it's okay to bathe or swim naked in their company.
Nudity in Iceland also has a political bent. On March 26, 2015, a big "topless revolution" under the hashtag #freethenipple (which originated in the USA) swept across the country.
Sick of images of breastfeeding and innocent nudity being censored and of female nipples only appearing in the media in gratuitously sexual or violent situations, thousands of women walked through the streets and took to social media with their chests bare.
This movement wanted to earn the same social standards held by men because men could show their respective parts almost anywhere at any time.
Though it was a contentious campaign, it was successful and continues every year. Therefore, it may be best to leave any excess modesty at home when coming to Iceland.
Try to accept this aspect of Icelandic culture and know that you may witness an exposed breast or two. It's hardly the worst concession one can make while traveling.
Norse Vikings first settled Iceland in the late ninth and early 10th centuries, and for the next thousand years, the population hovered between 10,000 and 50,000. Only in the last century have those numbers increased, but even so today, there are only around 340,000 native Icelanders.
The result is that modern Icelandic people have descended from a relatively small gene pool and, as such, are genetically homogeneous. That, combined with their detailed genealogical records (including their unique last name methodology), have made Iceland a favorite among geneticists.
In the early 1900s, researchers first became interested in the physical traits of Icelandic people; however, only recently, with digital technology and genome mapping, have scientists been able to maximize their research.
So, what do Icelandic people look like? Light hair and blue/green eyes are two of the most common physical traits of Icelandic people. However, once you spend a little time in Iceland, you'll notice those subtle, oh-so-hard to describe qualities that comprise an Icelandic face.
A wise man once said that Icelandic people's sense of humor is as dark as their winters, and you'll realize the truth of this as soon as you make a couple of Icelandic friends. When it comes to Icelandic jokes, nothing is too dark; there are no taboos in Iceland. If anything, the darker jokes are often the most humorous; it's just part of the Icelandic lifestyle.
Hugleikur Dagsson is arguably the country's greatest comedic artist and one of the most famous Icelanders outside of the country. His satirical comics are full of black humor and offer a great glimpse into the mindset of Icelandic people before ever stepping foot on this island nation.
If you've been saving any jokes that you thought were too dark for public consumption, perhaps consider testing them in Iceland first.
What did you find most unusual about the culture in Iceland and Icelandic people in your travels? Are any of the oddities on this list that are similar to your home country? What traits of your nationality would people in Iceland consider bizarre? Let us know in the comments below!