What is the essence of Icelandic culture? How can you immerse yourself in Icelandic culture in a way that is authentic to the history of the people? Continue reading to learn about the culture and culture tours of this richly historic nation.
Over the millennium that they have existed, Icelandic people, isolated on a faraway polar isle, have created a fascinating and storied culture.
Folklore that has inspired fantasy franchises, such as the Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the Elder Scrolls, originated in Iceland; the nation’s intrinsic value for literacy has created some the world’s greatest writers for centuries; and the country is becoming as world-renowned for its musicians, food and drink as it is for its volcanoes, landscapes and hot-springs.
Thankfully, as more and more people recognise Iceland for its art and history, more and more tours are emerging that allow you to immerse yourself in that department.
Today, you can take excursions to introduce you to the world of the medieval sagas; to learn how Reykjavík transformed from a sheep farm into a cultural capital; to eat and drink your way through an evening; and to walk through Westeros and the lands North of the Wall in many of the Game of Thrones shooting locations.
Iceland is unusual, nuanced and fascinating, so even if you are vacationing mainly for the adventure or nature, you should not overlook embarking on a culture-tour or finding another way to immerse yourself in the society during your stay.
Cities with less than 200,000 people in their metropolitan area are not usually internationally known or renowned, but as with many things in Iceland, Reykjavík is an exception. Its architecture, festivals, museums and cuisine draw an immense amount of visitors the world over.
Reykjavík, according to ‘the Book of Settlements’, which recorded the country’s earliest days, was the first place in the country to be permanently inhabited. When Ingólfur Arnarson, the first ever Icelander, tossed his High Chair Pillars off his ship, promising to settle wherever they washed ashore, he could not have depicted just how great his farm would become.
The city is now the host of the world’s longest-running, ongoing democracy; a concert hall with some of the best sound engineering on earth; and unmatched street art and murals for all to enjoy. Tours allow you to admire all of these features and more, and these come in many different forms.
If you are planning on spending a lot of time out of Reykjavík, but want to see its major attractions in the company of a local expert, a walking tour around the city may be the best bet. For two-and-a-half hours, you will be taken from Hallgrímskirkja church to sites such as the historic Tjörnin, the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Museum, the Alþing, Harpa and the Sun Voyager artwork.
A walking tour can also be useful for receiving a brief introduction to the city, allowing you to return to your favourite spots to make even more out of them.
If you have one or two full days to enjoy Reykjavík, a hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus tour may have more appeal. This way, you can travel around the city at your own leisure, spending as much time at each destination as possible, while still receiving fascinating tidbits of information in one of seven languages via headphones.
Of course, you need not take a tour to properly enjoy the city of Reykjavík. With just a little prior research, you can discover which sites have the greatest appeal to you, and plan your own personal sightseeing route.
If this is your preferred method of immersing yourself in the culture of the capital, it may be a great idea to buy a Reykavík City Card. This will provide you unlimited access to almost all of the city’s museums, galleries, swimming-pools and sites for 24, 48 or 72 hours, as well as unlimited transport via city buses.
It is possible to buy a card online, or from the Guide to Iceland office in Reykjavík City Hall, where a member of staff can provide you with recommendations and answer any of your questions. Those under sixteen receive a significant discount on a city card, so this is a great option for families travelling together.
To colour how much freedom the City Card provides you, below are a list of some of the greatest places it will give you access to.
It will also give you a discount on many other museums and galleries; you will, for example, get 30% off any ticket to the Whales of Iceland exhibition, and 20% off a ticket into the world’s only Phallological Museum. Furthermore, many shops, restaurants and bars also provide discounts, a full list of which you will receive when you purchase your card.
Photo courtesy of Grillid
Considering Iceland is on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, its land is barren and volcanic, and its plant and animal life is unique but limited, you may think it’s cuisine would be narrow and basic; you would, however, be very wrong.
Considering its winters are long, dark and cold, and its summers are endlessly light and full of energy, you would also probably think its drinking culture is thriving; this time, you would be absolutely right.
Foodies and party-goers alike flock to Reykjavík to indulge in Icelandic restaurants and bars. While it is more than possible to plan which restaurants and bars you will go to, based on reviews, recommendations and your tastes, certain tours will take you to the most authentically Icelandic establishments, in the company of a guide who knows the best places for a bite and a tipple.
Photo courtesy of Von Mathus Gastropub
Take, for example, this tour for foodies. You will walk to several different cafés and restaurants in Reykjavík to taste a diverse selection of Icelandic dishes, including delicious classics such as the traditional lamb soup.
No food tour would be complete, however, without a few delicacies that do not suit the international palette; the daring can try the notorious hákarl, or fermented Greenlandic Shark, to see how the taste of ammonia and decomposition sits with their non-Icelandic stomach.
You can also ‘enjoy’ hákarl on a Reykjavík bar crawl; after all, it comes recommended to be washed down with a hearty shot of Iceland’s own spirit, Brennivín. These outings, however, are more focused on touring you around Reykjavík’s hippest bars and pubs, allowing you to try their many craft beers and unique cocktails. You will be treated as a VIP, jumping the queue, wherever you go, until you end up in a bustling nightclub where you can dance until dawn.
Reykjavík might be dense with diverse culture, but it is far, far from the only place in Iceland where you can enjoy cultural sites. Every village has its own stories; every farm its history; and even far-flung rocks and lava fields are tied deeply to the folklore of the country.
There are tours in the North, East, South and West, all of which will introduce you to different faces of Icelandic culture. In the North, for example, you can take a tour from Akureyri to Siglufjörður, which was once the fishing centre of the entire island. Today, it is best known for housing the Herring Era Museum, Iceland’s only museum to win an international award: the European Museum Award for the best new museum for industry and technology.
The Herring Era Museum allows visitors to witness just how vital the fishing industry has been for the survival and development of the Icelandic people. It has a huge array of historic artefacts, such as traditional tools, heavy equipment, and a boathouse with eleven old fishing ships.
The tour in question will also allow you to witness the incredible coastal scenery of Eyjafjörður and the majestic mountains of Tröllaskagi.
You will leave from and return to Akureyri, the largest settlement in Iceland outside of the capital area; it, too, has many cultural sites to enjoy, such as the Aviation and Motorcycle Museums of Iceland and the Akureyri Art Museum. Your northern experience, therefore, will provide you with a perfect balance of culture and nature.
Photo from Bjorbodin Beer Spa in North Iceland
If travelling in the East, it is possible to explore the villages and farms surrounding Norðfjörður, and the region’s largest settlement, Egilsstaðir. Further afield, you can visit several fishing villages, furthering your understanding of the historic relationship between Icelanders and the ocean.
At one of these, Eskifjörður, you will get to visit ‘the seafarer’s lodge’, Randulfssjóhús, which has been left unchanged since 1890. While here, you have another opportunity to try hákarl and Brennivín.
The south of Iceland has several settlements bursting with culture. Hveragerði is a centre of food culture in Iceland; its geothermal greenhouses are where the vast majority of Iceland’s fresh produce is grown, and reveal how modern Icelandic culture is shaped around ecology and responsibly in harnessing the earth's power.
The tiny settlement of Skálholt, meanwhile, was once one of two centres of power in Iceland when it was the Episcopal See of the South. Kirkjabæklaustur also is steeped in religious history, being the site of Iceland’s first Abbey.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdöttir
For something quite different altogether, you can join a yoga tour to the black sand beaches of Þorlákshöfn. Yoga is an increasingly popular phenomenon in Iceland, especially out in the beautiful, peaceful nature, due to the fact that many people here are openminded to and enthusiastic about eastern philosophy, as well as valuing exercise, fresh-air, and mindfulness.
If you want to enjoy culture outside of the downtown capital area, without travelling too far afield, you could enjoy visits to the nearby towns of Mosfellsbær or Hafnafjörður, each packed with their unique charms.
Photo from Golden Circle Tour with the Secret Lagoon
With geothermal energy and boiling water literally bursting from the ground all around Iceland, it is little wonder why bathing in hot tubs and heated pools is a national pastime and an intrinsic part of Icelandic culture.
There are swimming pools all over the country. Even settlements of a hundred or less are likely to have a pool, even in the most rural of areas. Some of these are very well-known, such as the Blue Lagoon and the Infinity Pool at Hofsós, while others, like the beachside hot-tubs in Drangsnes, are a better-kept secret.
Within Reykjavík, there are many pools; the largest and most popular is Laugardalslaug in Laugardalur Park. If you want to get out of the city, however, there are many popular day tours to those nestled out in the country.
You can, for example, take a tour to visit the Secret Lagoon, in Flúðir, which is surrounded by natural hot-springs and even has a little geyser on site. You can book a simple transfer from the capital, which includes entrance, or else combine the activity with Golden Circle sightseeing or with Northern Lights hunting.
Another popular pool there is the Fontana Spa in Laugarvatn, which sits conveniently on the Golden Circle sightseeing route. It is possible to tick a number of items off of your ‘to-do list’ by taking a tour that includes the spa, the Golden Circle, Northern Lights hunting and a traditional Icelandic meal.
If you are in the North, but still want to immerse yourself in pool culture, you can visit the Mývatn Nature Baths. This tour will allow you to see the greater sites of the Mývatn area as well as features such as the historic and awe-inspiring Goðafoss waterfall before you recharge in the healing waters of the baths.
Of course, it is possible to bathe in Iceland’s natural hot-springs, out in the nature. The most convenient of these including a pick-up from Reykjavík are those in Reykjadalur Valley, which can be reached with a relatively easy, hour-long hike from Hveragerði. Here, there are boiling pools which spill into a cool river, and the mix of the two temperatures means you can easily find the perfect place to bathe in.
During summer, you can also take a super jeep tour to the incredible Highland region of Landmannalaugar. Other than witnessing and hiking the beautiful rhyolite mountains and lava fields, you will get a chance to bathe in the natural hot pools as well.
Very few television shows are as talked about, as controversial, as popular or as influential on culture as the HBO’s Game of Thrones, based off George R. R. Martin’s novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The series has not just been acclaimed for its nuanced direction, perfect casting, incredible acting and unpredictable story; it is also credited with having breathtaking, otherworldly cinematography.
Much of that is thanks to Iceland.
If you do not want Game of Thrones spoilers, feel free to skip this section.
The scenes North of the Wall, where the wildlings and wights roam, are shot around Lake Mývatn. In the seventh series, Mount Kirkjufell on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula represents the mountain the Hound saw in a vision in the flames, and the Reynisdrangar sea-stacks are pictured near Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.
The Moon Gate that leads into the Vale of Arryn was filmed in Þingvellir National Park. The largest lake in Iceland Þingvallavatn is also featured, its vastness and surrounding peaks providing a great place to film Arya setting sail for Braavos (with a little editing used to make it appear the lake opens into the ocean).
Even in scenes shot outside of Iceland, its nature often makes an appearance; an Icelandic mountain range may, for example, be edited in for a scene shot in Croatia. Particularly complex action scenes, like when Daenerys loses a dragon to the White Walkers, will be shot partly in a studio, partly on a specialised set, and partly on one of Iceland’s glacier regions.
As such, several tours have been created that will allow you to explore the sites, within the framework of the show. The best from Reykjavík will take you to sites such as Þingvellir National Park, the Settlement Era Viking Lodge in Þjórsárdalur Valley, and the waterfalls Þórufoss and Hjálparfoss.
On this self-drive tour that includes a visit to the South Coast, you could also head to the Höfðabrekkuheiði hiking area, known in Westeros as the Fist of the First Men.
It should be noted that we can expect to see a lot more of Iceland in the franchise’s final season, due to the fact, as the Stark banner reads, Winter is Here. If you come in the winter months of 2017 and 2018, you may even run into some cast members across the country, as plenty of locals have already experienced.
The commonly laughed about statement about Iceland that over ninety-percent of Icelanders believe in fairies is, in fact, untrue; as far back as 1975, a survey of Icelanders over the age of thirty reported that no one with a college education outright believed in supernatural beings, and only five percent saw it even as a possibility.
In spite of this misconception, however, the people still feel a spiritual connection to their folklore like few other places on earth. Some see the elves as a mere representation of the Icelandic nature, which is just as dangerous as it is beautiful.
In Iceland, great boulders and lava formations are still described as trolls petrified to stone when caught out in the morning light; the stories of how they got there, and who they were, are also well known to the locals of this volcanic island.
Many smaller rocks are seen as the magical homes of ‘Huldufólk’, or hidden people, and are still said to appear as houses to those with second-sight abilities. It is also true that roads have been redirected and construction projects have been scrapped to ensure these are not disturbed, both for cultural heritage reasons and as a superstitious precaution.
Until the 20th Century, life in Iceland was hard, to say the least. Icelanders largely lived far apart from each other, on farmsteads all across the island. Without electricity, the winters were lit only by candlelight. Travelling across the country on a horse or by foot, considering the bandits, terrain and most importantly the weather, was a highly dangerous affair.
It is little wonder, therefore, that the way people entertained themselves and each other was through telling stories about the land around them and conjuring stories of a magical world they could fear, love and escape into.
Tales of the powerful and mysterious hidden people have no doubt bled into the creation of George R. R. Martin’s ‘Children of the Forest’; and the violent but stupid trolls being tricked into staying out in the sun in J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘the Hobbit’ are directly influenced by the Icelandic night troll tales, where the sun always and eventually turns the horrid creatures into eerie boulders.
Even the tales of apparitions, ghosts, giants and sorcerers have influenced much of the fantasy and adventure genres across all forms of entertainment media.
Many tours out into nature will take you to sites with folk stories that your guide will then tell you. As trolls used to live in caves, you will hear all about them when taking a tour in lava tubes such as Leiðarendi, Viðgelmir and Raufarhólshellir. The ‘Yule Lads’ of Iceland’s Christmas tales, thirteen terrifying trolls who substituted Santa Claus in bygone days, were said to live in Dimmuborgir, so you are likely to hear about them on any Lake Mývatn tour.
Petrified trolls can be found all over as well; in the north, for example, the bizarre but beautiful Hvítserkur rock formation, which is visited on excursions such as this super jeep day tour, can be seen standing out in the shallows of the ocean. The Reynisdrangar sea-stacks on Reynisfjara Beach are also believed to have been a pair of such beasts.
Besides the folklore, which was largely maintained by oral tradition, Iceland is also known for its written Sagas. Epic poems from the early medieval era capture perfectly the values and culture of the times they were written, telling huge amounts about Iceland’s history and character.
Works such as Njál’s Saga, Laxdæla Saga and Grettis Saga are still read with pleasure to this day and are rife with betrayal, conflict, romance and fantasy. All are set in real places, that can still be visited, and omitting some of the more fantastical details, are actually based on real people and assumingly real events.
All Golden Circle tours go through Þingvellir National Park, which is featured in a large chunk of the Sagas; it was, after all, the original site of Iceland’s parliament from 930 AD, and the place where most conflicts were settled (or in some cases, created). If you head to Borgarnes, you can see a full exhibition on Egil’s Saga at the Settlement Centre; Egill himself was the first person to claim the area.
In West Iceland, you can visit the hot spring Guðrúnarlaug, the oldest one known in the country, which is named after Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, a leading character from Laxdæla Saga. In the North, you could visit Grettislaug, which is said to have warmed the hero Grettir after a long, cold swim.
A discussion of Iceland’s folklore cannot be complete without a mention of Snorri Sturluson. Europe’s greatest medieval writer, Snorri has many claims to his name, but none greater than compiling the work of the Poetic Edda.
Edda is the Bible of Old Norse Mythology; it details how many Nordic people, and many in other Germanic regions, believed the world was created, and described the origin, existence, and fated demise of the heathen gods.
While Edda does not refer to Iceland specifically, it was written here, in the town of Reykholt. Within Reykholt today you'll find the Snorrastofa Centre, a centre of learning about Snorri and his works, which is visited on tours such as this private tour of West Iceland.
Of Monsters and Men, GusGus, Sigur Rós, and, of course, Björk, are Icelandic bands and musicians internationally known. Iceland is a country that encourages its artists to express themselves, has many venues that will allow them to, and thus has a thriving musical culture that visitors can immerse themselves in.
Of course, this is at its height during the major music festivals. Throughout Iceland Airwaves in November, almost every establishment across Reykjavík - from cafés to bookshops - has musicians playing, and there are enormous, packed shows every night in Harpa.
Sónar, now conducted entirely within Harpa, is the number one time to listen to the most current electronic music, and during Secret Solstice, local and international acts alike perform for huge crowds in Laugardalur Valley.
Throughout the rest of the year, there is no shortage of performers either. Bars such as Gaukurinn, Dillon and Kex are renowned for regularly bringing diverse acts onto their stages, although they are best known for metal, rock and blues respectively.
If you are interested in seeing live performances but are not necessarily set solely on seeing musicians, Iceland has many others acts that may interest you. There is a successful Reykjavík Kabarett, a Drag collective called Dragsúgur, a Reykjavík Poetry Brothel and the Icelandic Circus, all of whom regularly put on shows around the city.
You can see what is happening over the weeks you will be in Iceland by referencing the Festivals in Iceland article, as well as seeing what other annual events are occurring throughout the country.
Iceland is a winter-wonderland with a long history of blending pagan and Christian traditions, meaning no article on the culture of the country can be complete without mentioning how delightful the nation gets over the holiday season.
Every city and town becomes decked out in lights, helping to brighten the days around the winter solstice; the smells of traditional Icelandic cooking waft through the streets; and people in costumes, reflecting the history surrounding the celebrations, can be seen all around the island.
The Advent Festival officially begins in Iceland on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve; on this night, trees around the country are lit for the first time, with many visitors and locals in attendance. In Reykjavík, this occurs in Austurvöllur. Following that, the nation becomes engrossed in the annual spirit, with shops open late, restaurants serving a special menu, and festive concerts occurring across the towns and villages.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Those who want to fully immerse themselves in the holiday should head to the Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum, which, throughout the weekends of December, becomes a haven of Yuletide joy, selling souvenirs and confectionary in a traditional, historic setting.
Visitors in the North should also head to the aforementioned Dimmuborgir in Mývatn, where men dressed as the Yule Lads will likely be frolicking about, setting the festive atmosphere.
If you want a full introduction to Icelandic Christmas traditions but located in the rural South of the country, you can opt into this immersive tour for an enjoyable and informative night in the village of Eyrarbakki.
After December 25th, the celebrations are far from over. Very few countries celebrate New Year’s Eve with the fervour of Icelanders, particularly those in the capital of Reykjavík.
Tens of thousands of people buy dozens or even hundreds of fireworks each in preparation for the night, then, without order or planning, set them off from the stroke of midnight. The sky above the city becomes lit with colour, more vibrant than the most intense Northern Lights; the air fills with the sound of celebration; and observers stare, jaws dropped, at the unrehearsed but unbelievable show put on before them.
The best place to enjoy this unbelievable display is from a high vantage point, such as by Hallgrímskirkja church on top of Skólavörðustígur Hill.
The culture of Iceland is broad, historic and fascinating, with tenants that appeal to people of all interests. Whether you are a foodie or bookworm, fascinated by folklore or the music scene, eager to experience the pools or walk through ruins of ancient sites, you will find what you seek in this mysterious little country.
Thankfully, culture tours are becoming more and more common, allowing visitors coming to Iceland to educate themselves on how such a small civilisation became such a cultural epicentre. More and more with each passing year, Iceland is finally becoming appreciated for its history and its people as much as it is for its natural features and wild landscapes.