- 13. People in Iceland Have No Surnames or Family Names
- 12. Icelandic People Elected a Comedian as Mayor of Reykjavik
- 11. Icelanders Banned Beer
- 10. People in Iceland Have a Fondness for Black Death
- 9. People in Iceland Are Passionate About Sauce
- 8. Icelandic People Speak on Inhalation
- 7. Icelanders Grill All Year Round
- 6. Parents Leave Their Babies Sleeping Outside
- 5. People in Iceland Have a Unique Sense of Humor
- 4. People in Iceland Have a Lot of Monster Trucks
- 3. Icelanders Are Naked and Unafraid
- 2. The People of Iceland Come From Viking Settlers from 1000 Years Ago
- 1. Iceland Is the Best in the World! (per capita)
Explore the oddest things about the people in Iceland and Icelandic culture. Find out if there's truth behind all the weird things written about Iceland online. Explore our wide selection of culture tours in Iceland. 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 during Christmas, and how they 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 traditional and that "it's an acquired taste."
Therefore, this list will delve into lesser-known and 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.
13. People in Iceland Have No Surnames or Family Names
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. Meaning some 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.
- See also: The Björk Saga
12. Icelandic People Elected a Comedian as Mayor of Reykjavik
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 comedian became a household name in Iceland with his hugely popular sketch comedy TV show, formed the Best Party in 2009, and won Reykjavik's mayoral election in 2010, defeating all the established political parties.
Since then, Jon has been the subject of numerous articles worldwide for his fun, eccentric style. His election promises included bringing a polar bear to Reykjavik Zoo, free towels at swimming pools and that corruption would be transparent (yes, he promised there would be corruption). Jon had no political background when he became mayor; however, that didn't stop him from winning hearts while in office.
11. Icelanders Banned Beer
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 a day of celebration. 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.
10. People in Iceland Have a Fondness for Black Death
Ask any Icelander what the national drink is, and you'll unanimously receive the same answer: Brennivin. Brennivin (literally: burning wine) 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 "hakarl," a type of fermented shark, and one of those "disgusting" Icelandic foods people always mention.
- See also: Thorrablot, the midwinter feast
9. People in Iceland Are Passionate About Sauce
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 quite 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 a type of sweet 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 "pylsa," simply answer "everything" when asked what you want on your hot dog. You won't be disappointed!
- Book a Reykjavik by Food Walking Tour now!
8. Icelandic People Speak on Inhalation
People in Iceland sometimes speak on inhalation - that initial breath we unconsciously take when opening our mouths to speak. This habit is most common when Icelanders say "ja" or "nei," which means "yes" and "no" respectively, or "jaeja," which is a flexible word with multiple meanings depending on the situation.
This quirk is something most foreigners will notice and might 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.
Most often, Icelanders speak on inhalation when they're saying something they assume is obvious or should be taken as a given. Like if someone asks if you got the house keys as soon as you step out the door, you can answer on the inhale "ja". Almost as if it's something so obvious it barely deserves to be spoken out loud.
It's surprisingly challenging for people who have never spoken this way, although that is hardly unusual for the Icelandic language.
- See also: How Hard is it to Speak Icelandic?
7. Icelanders Grill All Year Round
It may be freezing and stormy outside, but people in Iceland are known to enjoy grilling 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 skewers grilled over a burning hot grill. A stove or an oven will simply not suffice. And then, of course, smothered in their favorite sauces.
Beyond simple 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. Icelanders 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 "isbiltur" or an "Ice Cream Joyride." 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. The ice cream is then mostly eaten inside the warmly heated car. If you want to go for that authentic feel, we recommend renting a car in Iceland and going for an "isbiltur" of your own!
6. Parents Leave Their Babies Sleeping Outside
Photo by Siarhei Plashchynski
What would be considered irresponsible in some 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, which helps the development of their respiratory and immune system, while 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 very low, particularly violent crime. Child abductions are, likewise, 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 damp and unpleasant, 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.
- Find out more from our comprehensive guide to turf houses in Iceland
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.
5. People in Iceland Have a Unique Sense of Humor
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 not many taboos in Iceland. If anything, the darker jokes are often the most humorous. It's just part of the Icelandic lifestyle.
Some of Iceland's most popular humorists include Jon Gnarr (mentioned above) and Hugleikur Dagsson, who are famous for their dark humor. The comic books of the latter are available widely in Icelandic bookstores and are a romp to flip through.
Even during the Viking era, Icelanders would make jokes to light up the dark days and circumstances. A well-known example is when the famous outlaw Gisli Sursson (from Gisla saga) stabbed his nemesis Vesteinn to death with a spear. Instead of screaming in pain, Vesteinn simply says "hneit þar" before dropping dead, which roughly translates to "you got me there." To put it in context, "hneit" is similar to the word "touché" used in fencing (and general banter) when acknowledging a hit by one's opponent.
So if you've been saving any jokes that you thought were too dark or morbid for public consumption, perhaps consider testing them in Iceland first.
4. People in Iceland Have a Lot of Monster Trucks
Visitors coming to Iceland seem to be very perplexed by the scale of many of the vehicles. While you have many little two-wheel city cars 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.
- Explore our wide selection of four-wheel drive vehicles for rent
Photo from Landmannalaugar Super Jeep Tour
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.
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.
Many Super Jeeps are owned by individuals, 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.
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 live with destroying the pristine nature of Iceland.
- See also: The Ultimate Guide to Driving in Iceland
3. Icelanders Are Naked and Unafraid
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, but in Iceland you are required to do it naked and, in some cases, publicly. This requirement is because most of the pools in Iceland are not heavily 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. Just keep in mind that this is a communal experience and everybody is in the same boat and can't wait until they get to soak in the warm waters of the geothermal pool or lagoon.
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 natural 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.
Now you should know that Icelanders are not squeamish when it comes to nudity in pools and showers. Additionally, breastfeeding is also not frowned upon in public. A member of the Icelandic parliament made international news headlines a few years ago when she breastfed her child while attending a session of parliament. This was not considered a big deal in Iceland but raised a lot of eyebrows worldwide.
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.
2. The People of Iceland Come From Viking Settlers from 1000 Years Ago
Norse Vikings first settled Iceland in the late ninth and early tenth 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 today, there are only around 370,000 native Icelanders.
The result is that most modern Icelandic people have descended from a relatively small gene pool and, as such, are quite genetically homogeneous. That, combined with its detailed genealogical records (including the unique last name methodology), Iceland is a favorite among geneticists.
In the early 1900s, researchers first became interested in the genetic traits of Icelandic people; however, only recently, with digital technology and genome mapping, have scientists been able to maximize their research.
There's a common misconception about Iceland circulating online that Icelanders use a dating app that shows how related people are to each other. That's simply not true. What Iceland has is a very extensive genealogical database that was created using the extensive genealogical records that Icelanders have diligently kept since settlement times.
Additionally, in 1703, the world's first complete census of a country was compiled in Iceland, with 10 additional censuses compiled in the 19th century. These historical records give invaluable information about genealogy, which Icelanders can conveniently look up online if they're curious about their ancestors. This database, called Islendingabok (The Book of Icelanders), was opened to all Icelanders in 1997.
1. Iceland Is the Best in the World! (per capita)
"Per capita" is one of the most used phrases in Iceland. With just over 370,000 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. Icelanders also have the strongest men per capita, having had three individuals win the World's Strongest Man competition, winning it nine times in total.
Icelanders also have the best handball team in the world per capita, the best soccer 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, bezt i heimi," which translates to "Iceland, best in the world" (using the letter "Z" as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the past, as the letter was abolished from the Icelandic alphabet in 1973).
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, the most peaceful country in the world, the most gay-friendly country in the world, the cleanest energy in the world and, of course, the most natural beauty in the world.
The people of Iceland are pretty proud of this (despite having to add the qualifier "per capita" every time)
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!
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