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The 10 Weirdest Things About Icelanders
The double standards of whose nipples you can see when does not sit well with many Icelanders

The 10 Weirdest Things About Icelanders

Verified Expert

Are the Icelandic people strange? What are the oddest things about them? The inhabitants of Iceland, like of any other country, have some distinctive, quirky traits that others around the world may find peculiar, but add to the charm of the people.

Most of the time, when you read about strange things in Iceland, you'll notice that they mainly regard how many Icelanders still believe in elves, how they have thirteen terrifying trolls instead of one jolly Santa, and how they still eat disgusting food.

Although it's all true, at least to a degree, these facts are becoming a bit clichéd.

Sheep's head is but one of many foul foods Icelanders still enjoyPhoto from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by The Blanz

This list, therefore, will delve into some lesser-known, as well as some more recent, Icelandic oddities.

It depends, of course, where you are from as to how weird you'll find some things on this list.

When researching this article, I discovered people of different nationalities often have completely different concepts of what makes Icelanders unusual.

This top ten, however, should serve to show the traits that make them odd the world over.

1. There are No Surnames or Family Names in Iceland

An Icelandic family in 1900; although all related, they do not carry a single common name.Photo by W. W. Howell, of Cornell University

There are exceptions to this, as any who knows of the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness can attest, but as a general rule, it is the case.

There are a few family names in Iceland, mostly Danish, but they are rare and usually originate from foreigners marrying into an Icelandic family.

For the majority, people have the last name that is a patronymic; that is to say, it is composed of their father's first name with the suffix of -dóttir (-daughter) or -son attached.

For example, my father's first name is Gunnar, I am a woman, and thus my last name is Gunnarsdóttir (Gunnar's daughter).

This means that a member of a family will have a different last name to both of their parents, and their siblings of a different gender.

Women also do not change their name when they get married (because they obviously don't become the 'son' of their husband's father).

This diagram makes the naming process clear

Of course, in recent years, matronymic names have also become a thing. More and more Icelanders have a last name that tells who their mother is, rather than their father.

In Iceland, we call everyone by their first name, be it our teachers, our doctors, our celebrities such as Björk (Guðmundsdóttir), or our presidents and prime ministers.

While calling everyone by their first name lacks in formality, it does help foster a dialogue with a less stuffy hierarchy.

Using titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss or Dr. is not common either, even for foreigners.

Don't get offended if an Icelander doesn't know your last name or calls you by your first name even if they do know it; we're just not used to anything else.

2. Icelanders Elected Jón Gnarr as Mayor of Reykjavik

jon gnarr taking a shower

If you haven't heard or read anything about Jón Gnarr, we encourage you to do so.

This former comedian/actor/punk-rocker formed the Best Party in 2009 and won Reykjavík's mayoral elections in 2010, defeating the established Independence Party government.

Since then, he has been featured and written about all over the world, for his eccentric and fun style.

He particularly used to draw attention at Gay Pride, when he would always wear full drag.

Jón had no background in politics when he became mayor, but that did not stop him from winning hearts while he was in office and after.

3. Icelanders Banned Beer

With the selection currently on offer, it's quite a shockPhoto by Roman Gerasymenko

For a country where the inhabitants really do seem to love their alcohol, it's a surprise even to younger residents that beer was banned in the whole country up until the 1st of March 1989.

The end of this darkest chapter in Iceland's history is celebrated annually; on the first day of the third month, it seems everyone is hitting the town for a few pints of liquid gold.

Alcohol can still only be purchased at Keflavík International Airport and in Víbuðin, the state-run alcohol store, often given the Orwellian nickname 'Ríkið', or 'the government'.

Beware that the only traffic jam you will find in Iceland nowadays is in front of Ríkið on late Friday afternoons.

4. Icelanders Are Passionate About Sauce

At the hot dog - or pylsur - stand, prepare for your meal to be drenched in delicious saucesPhoto from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Bryan Legdard

Icelanders coat all of their food in sauce, especially gravy, bearnaise sauce, various dipping sauces and condiments.

Basically, there is a unique sauce for everything. Even though the meat, fish and vegetables are to a great standard, they're only going to be better when covered in your favourite dressing.

Icelanders have a specific sauces for pizza, pita, fries, chips, vegetables, hamburgers, hot-dogs, and various different ones for fish, meat and poultry.

There are also a few types of brown, cheese, mushroom, coca-cola, bearnaise, paprika and tomato sauces.

As for sauces on ice-cream, the list goes on further: chocolate, luxury chocolate, caramel, liquorice, and one for every fruit.

Ice cream is a favourite dessert in Iceland; try it was liquorice sauce for a traditional taste

People do this in other countries, but not to the same standard; even the Brits, who love their gravy and ketchup, will find the choice overwhelming.

The toppings for a mere hot dog in Iceland includes three different types of sauces: ketchup, hot-dog mustard (different from other mustard) and remúlaði (mayonnaise-based sauce, almost exclusively used for this meaty treat).

In addition, we put two types of onion with hotdogs, raw and crunchy. For a traditional Icelandic hotdog or pylsur, simply answer 'everything' when asked about garnish.

5. Icelanders Speak on the In-Breath

Icelanders frequently speak on the in-breath. This is most common when they say ‘Já’ or ‘Jæja' which means ‘yes’ and ‘well’ respectively.

Perhaps not particularly Icelandic, as it is done in other Nordic countries, this quirk is something most foreigners will notice and mention when they come to the country.

There is no need to act surprised if you hear it; it is just a way of the tongue, not an offended gasp.

For people who have never spoken this way, it is surprisingly challenging, although that is hardly unusual for a facet of the Icelandic language.

6. Icelanders Have Barbecues All Year Round

Perfect weather for a BBQ and some ice cream!Photo from Things To Do During Storms in Iceland

It may be freezing and stormy outside, but Icelanders are known to have a barbecue in any kind of weather, acting as they live in the blistering Australian sun.

Come rain, come shine, we still want to have our lamb, fish and kebabs grilled over proper coals. And then, of course, smothered with sauce.

Strangely enough, we can also eat ice-cream all year round. When the weather is as volatile as it is in Iceland, there is no point waiting until a nice day in July for your favourite treats.

It is also a frequent tradition of the people of Iceland to partake in ‘Ice Cream Runs’. These are usually cute couple dates or mums and dads taking the kids out of the house, to an ice cream parlour for a tasty bite. The ice creams are, however, most often eaten in the car.

7. Parents Leave their Babies Sleeping Outside

Fresh air is good for everyone, especially those at such an important time of development

It's a common sight to see mothers or fathers meeting up with their friends in cafés, catching up on the latest gossip, and leaving their baby in the pram outside when they do so.

It is just as common to see babies left in open gardens, or on porches. That way the baby can sleep in the fresh air, which can only do it well, and the parents can get on with what they want to without waking them.

For countries with higher crime rates or at least more sensationalist media, this may seem neglectful and terribly unsafe.

However, the truth is, the babies are at virtually no risk in Iceland. The crime rates, even in Reykjavík, are incredibly low, particularly violent crime rates (and ignoring financial crime rates).

Abductions and the like are therefore almost unheard of.

Turf houses, like these, were the reason this tradition beganPhoto by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir, from The Majestic Grenjaðarstaður Turf House in North Iceland

The tradition originates from when Icelanders lived in turf houses, which were mainly buried beneath the earth.

They were very unpleasant places within, filled with filth, cluttered with people and often animals, and had terrible ventilation, so would get very smokey.

Keeping your baby outside, therefore, was beneficial for its health. This custom, as a result, is frequently practised in Iceland to this day with modern Icelandic people.

While this tradition is likely to die out as the world changes and people become more cautious, it is still seen throughout summer today.

Don’t worry if you see it happening; no doubt, the infant is still under the watchful eye of a nearby parent.

8. Iceland is the Best in the World, Per Capita

'Per capita' is one of the most used phrases in Iceland.

Icelanders, with just over 360,000 people, suffer from a small nation complex, and to make up for it, we claim we are in fact 'The Best Country in the World' for a number of reasons.

Icelanders will claim that this statement is true and get mockingly upset if you disagree, reciting one article or another where Iceland comes out on top, always citing statistics 'per capita'.

Icelanders have the most beautiful women in the world per capita because we won Miss World four times.

Icelanders also have the strongest men per capita, having had two individuals win the World's Strongest Man.

Icelanders even have the world's most Nobel Prize winners per capita, in spite of only having one - one in 360,000 is still the world's best ratio of Nobel laureates compared to normal people. 

Thanks to Halldór Laxness for that.

Halldor Laxness won the prize for literature in 1955

Icelanders have the best handball team in the world per capita, produce most music and bands in the world per capita, and read and write the most books per capita.

The list goes on and on. It's even a catch-phrase: ‘Ísland, best í heimi’ (which translates to ‘Iceland, best in the world’). 

Though largely 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 fights with just a few other nations to be the safest, most LGBTQ+ friendly, the cleanest, and the most naturally beautiful.

9. Icelanders Have a Lot of Monster Trucks

Only such vehicles can battle the terrain and snowPhoto from M´ývatn Off Road Super Jeep Tour

Foreigners that come to Iceland seem to be very perplexed over the scale of many of the vehicles.

While of course, you have many little two-wheel-drives skirting through the streets, there are a disproportionately large number of massive super jeeps, with enormous tyres, you may usually expect to see only in places like Greenland and Alaska.

These monster trucks are not due to inferiority complexes of their owners (although for those who keep them just to travel around Reykjavík, I have my suspicions).

They are, in fact, needed to cross the harsh terrain of Iceland's rugged landscapes, particularly in winter.

A super jeep in the HighlandsPhoto from Landmannalaugar Superjeep

If you leave the paved ring-road in Iceland, you might find yourself on a dirt track littered with pot-holes, glazed in ice, or broken up by glacial rivers.

Really only in these circumstances, you feel the value of having a super jeep; for normal domestic urban life, they’re just a spectacle.

In summer, they are essential for getting into the Highlands and travelling along F-Roads. This is particularly true if you’re planning on visiting places in the Icelandic Highlands.

Many super jeeps are owned by individuals, but more by tour operators.

Super jeep tours are very popular in Iceland, heading to otherwise inaccessible places such as Landmannalaugar, Þórsmörk and Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010.

Two super jeeps on the crest of a snowy hillPhoto from Iceland's Top Sites | 3-Day Super Jeep Winter Holiday

But it's not only the size of the cars around Iceland, however, that visitors notice; it's also the fact that people seem to park everywhere and anywhere.

While many locals would like to blame the worst of this on tourists, it's actually a problem that comes from all corners.

Maybe it is because Icelanders are used to having a lot of space, but they are also notoriously sloppy parkers. 

There is even an Icelandic Facebook site that posts pictures of the worst parked cars around the country on a daily basis. 

One place you will not, or should not, see super jeeps is off-road. Off-road driving in Iceland, across the lava, moss, and even the snow and black sands, is illegal, with enormous fines and a possible prison sentence attached.

Ensure you never leave the track that you are driving on, lest you take a massive hit to your wallet and have to endure a thorough shaming from any Icelander who sees you.

10. Icelanders are Naked and Unafraid

A sign showing what you need to wash thoroughly and naked before entering an Icelandic pool.

Nudity is a very normal thing in Iceland. This may not come as a scary surprise to other Northern Europeans, particularly Nordic, Baltic or German readers, but others, particularly those from North America, should be given fair warning.

While showering before swimming is a normal exercise around the world, few places insist you do it naked and, in some cases, publicly.

This 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 is nothing sexual or perverse about it. In fact, most people just get naked, showered, and on with it.

If the thought of it embarrasses you, the best course of action is definitely to simply grit your teeth, close your eyes and do it, as there are few things less humiliating than an Icelander demanding you take your clothes off and wash more thoroughly in front of a room of strangers.

No need to be shy; everyone else here has done itPhoto from the Blue Lagoon Transportation from Keflavík Airport

Thankfully for the reserved, in the most popular pools such as the Blue Lagoon, there are places you can wash and dress privately.

Bathe in the warm river of Reykjadalur Valley.Photo from: Horse Riding in Reykjadalur Valley | Hot Springs Day Tour

The inhibitions of Icelanders are not only absent in the changing rooms. Many people also bathe naked in certain hot springs or jump naked in the sea.

If you want to immerse yourself in the culture and do the same, make sure that the hot pool you are going to doesn't have anyone else in it (you can't expect everyone to be as free-spirited as yourself), and that is safe to bathe in.

Some geothermal waters have bacteria that are harmful to your health, while others, such as Grjotagjá, have an unpredictable temperature and entry is forbidden.

Of course, sea-swimming should only be done in safe areas, as the waters of the North Atlantic are treacherous.

Think about heading to Nauthólsvík in Reykjavík, rather than Reynisfjara on the South Coast, the waves at which have taken many lives.

Again, if there are strangers also trying to enjoy the area, it is best to keep your clothes on. If you’re feeling like you want to take in the Icelandic culture to the max, you can, however, ask those around you if it’s ok to bathe/swim naked in their company.

Nudity in Iceland also has a political bent. In 2015, on March 26th, there was a big 'topless revolution' under the hashtag #freethenipple (which originated in the USA), which swept across the country.

Sick of images of breastfeeding and innocent nudity be censored, and of female nipples only appearing in the media in gratuitously sexual and/or violent situations, thousands of women walked through the streets and took to social media with their chests bare.

This movement was done to earn the same social standards men hold. This is because men are more able to show their respective parts almost anywhere at almost any time.


The double standards of whose nipples you can see when does not sit well with many Icelanders

Though it was a contentious campaign, it was successful and continues every year.

If coming to Iceland, therefore, it may be best to leave any excess modesty at home.

You may well have to accept the fact that in your travels through the incredible Icelandic nature, you may have to endure seeing an exposed breast or two. It's hardly the worst concession one can make while travelling.

What did you find most unusual about Icelanders on your travels? Are any of the oddities on this list the same as the oddities you find at home? What traits of your nationality would be considered bizarre out here? Let us know in the comments below!