An American in Reykjavík: 10 things I have never done before I came to Iceland
Matt Eliason has just moved to Reykjavík, Iceland from Chicago, Illinois. In his regular column for Iceland Magazine he chronicles his first impressions of the country, its people and traditions.
1. An appetizer of whale with a side of horse
Unconventional dinner This was my first taste of whale when I visited Grill Market in downtown Reykjavik.
The Icelandic cuisine is a unique assortment of food to say the least. I knew I would have to adjust from the fast food culture of the United States to the “fish-filled” diet of the Viking Nation. However, there are a few Icelandic menu choices that I would describe as, “outside of the box,” which have kept me on my toes during my stay here in Reykjavik. The first of which is their consumption of some animals I previously considered “inedible.” Dining at Grill Market, a classy establishment located on the main street in downtown Reykjavik, I was shocked to see Minke Whale on the appetizer menu. Now for all you animal rights activists out there, the Minke Whale is not endangered, and there is no animal cruelty involved in the preparation of the meat, however, I was still hesitant to pull the trigger and actually order the massive mammal.
After coming to the realization that - I am in Iceland, I´ve got to at least try it - I “manned up” and made the order. As if that wasn’t enough, I also saw “hestur” on the main course menu, which translated to English means, “horse.” If I was going to try the whale, might as well “go all in” and try another non-traditional animal meat. While getting over the initiate resentment of eating two “unconventional” dishes, I quickly shifted my mindset to the amazing quality of both meats. The whale is a rich cut of meat, which I really enjoyed. Likewise, the horse was amazing, kind of similar to a high quality lamb cut. I never would have predicted my Icelandic adventure would turn me into such a ravenous carnivore, devouring such delicacies as horse and whale, yet the meal has me looking forward to my next “side of horse.”
2. Bathe in a natural hot tub
Misty Existence Despite being a "bit touristy" the blue lagoon lived up to the hype with its neon blue waters and black volcanic rock.
As a foreigner coming to Iceland, you hear of lot of speculation about the Blue Lagoon. Like a movie that is eagerly awaited and constantly over discussed, I was worried that my trip to Iceland’s natural hot tub would not live up to the hype. With the exception of the pricey admission fee, the overall experience exceeded my heightened expectations.
Regardless of how you feel about the “touristy” nature of the facilities, the amazing scenery cannot be overstated. The neon blue of the water, next to deathly black color of the volcanic lava rock, creates an amazing juxtaposition worthy of every tourist’s time and energy. Make sure that if you are visiting Iceland, you make time to get down to the Blue Lagoon, for a relaxing natural bath at natures expense.
An important detail about the Blue Lagoon that most foreigners don't know is that you don't have to swim to actually visit the facility. In fact, there is a walking path that allows visitors to explore the amazing scenery without paying the entrance fee to swim in the water. Thus, don't let your desire to remain dry prevent you from visiting one of Iceland's great destinations.
3. Play a soccer game next to a glacier
What a view I felt like a tourist rather than a football player, traveling to some of Iceland's scenic stadiums around the country.
In addition to contributing for Iceland Magazine, I play football for local club, Þróttur Reykjavík. One aspect of the Icelandic league that I have really enjoyed is the amazing backdrops surrounding the local stadiums. We had the chance to play Vikingur Olafsvik near Snæfellsnes glacier, overlooking the town of Ólafsvík as well as the coastal cliffs along the Atlantic Ocean. Warming-up it was difficult to focus due to the breathtaking landscape that engulfed the surrounding town, which was a view that I don't think I will be able to find when I return to the United States.
I am now four months into my football season and I look forward to playing our "away" games more than our "home" games because of the amazing travel experiences I have had visiting other villages around the country. Akureyri in the North of Iceland and BI in the Northwest fishing village of Bolungarvík are small towns with great footballing traditions that I have had the privilege of visiting.
4. Walk around naked in public
Comfortable in their own skin Etiquette expected at Iceland's public pools is a bit different than the expectations in the USA.
Icelanders are very comfortable with their bodies, almost too comfortable if you ask me. But since I am in their country, I must obey their strict public pool etiquette; no matter how uncomfortable I may feel. In addition to not allowing shoes in the locker room area, all men are expected to strip, and clean themselves in the public shower before heading out into the main pool area. I’m assuming this is also true for women in the ladies locker room, but I’ll just have to take their word for it.
Most public pools also have hot saunas, and the same behavior is expected regarding a post session wash. Icelander’s take these rules very seriously because they have natural geothermal swimming pools often heated by my mother nature. Due to this unrelenting desire to keep their pools and locker rooms clean, they will have no problem bluntly telling you to strip. I remember my first time to the Laugardalur community pool in which I was scolded for not participating in the necessary public strip tease. However, I have since adjusted to this uniquely “European” behavior and now show no shyness when following the public pool etiquette.
5. Wear a winter jacket during Summer
Bundle Up This is not the typical summer attire I am used to wearing in my native Chicago, Illinois.
While Icelandic winters are more moderate than my hometown of Chicago, I still have had trouble dealing with the temperate weather here in Iceland during the summer. I feel like my clothes are in a constant state of “dampening” due to the consistent rain showers and the chilly temperatures that rarely tops 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit). Furthermore, the weather is constantly changing because of the ocean-front weather patterns that make picking an weather-appropriate outfit almost impossible.
The ironic part of the Icelandic climate is that the further south you go, the colder it gets. Driving south down Highway 1 presents a noticeable difference in temperature from Reykjavik down to Selfoss or Vík town. And vice versa, the further north you go, the warmer the temperature rises. On a soccer trip to Akureyri, the most populated city in North Iceland, the temperatures reached 22 degrees Celsius ( 72 degrees Fahrenheit), which almost felt like a "chilly" Chicago summer night.
The biggest lesson I have learned from all of Iceland's irrational, and often unpredictable weather, is that you need to really take advantage of the nice days, because they don't come that often.
6. Seen and experienced a Volcano
Danger Zone It has been crazy experiencing the pending eruption of Bárðarbunga volcano system first-hand.
Visiting a volcano seems like such an exotic adventure for an American, however, in Iceland, this is just a typical day driving through the rural countryside. Eyjafjallajökull volcano is a sight to behold that elicits both fear and wonderment. Driving past this beautiful, monstrosity is something that I just can’t compare to anything I had previously experienced in an American setting. Even on a day-to-day scale the volcanic presence can be felt here in Iceland. While driving around the island you are constantly looking at lunar-like structures made of volcanic rock. Over 1/3 of the world’s lava that has erupted since 1500 AD was produced in Iceland, making the deathly black rock a common occurrence for all of those who choose to experience the Icelandic culture.
Additionally, Iceland's most recent volcano activity has made global news as the sub-glacial volcano called Bárðarbunga threatens to spew its red-hot magma. The world has taken notice due to the significant consequences to the air travel industry that resulted Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. At the moment, Iceland is still in a state of emergency as they prepare for the pending eruption of another one of their magnificent beasts.
7. Walk out of a bar at 4am in daylight
Sorry, no pictures for this one. But it's true, the geographical location of Iceland´s Nordic island situates itself in such a way that most summer days yield over 22 hours of sunlight. This presents an interesting dilemma when you are walking out of the club on a Saturday night (Sunday morning) and you take a step outside the dimly lit club into the broad daylight.
In Chicago, if you are out drinking when the sun rises you are perceived to be an alcoholic. In Reykjavik, if you are NOT out when the sun rises you are perceived to be heading home early.
Therefore, walking out into the daylight at 4am is definitely "a first" for me. It's something that I don't think I should get used to, but for my brief time here in Iceland, I think that I can make an exception.
8. Watch glaciers floating around a lagoon
Out of a movie scene The Glacier Lagoon offers views that simply cannot be replicated anywhere outside of Iceland.
It may sound odd, but Iceland's Glacier Lagoon offers the unique opportunity to see once mighty glaciers float around as a "shell of their former self" in the breathtaking waters of Glacier Lagoon. I was able to visit Vatnajökull glacier with my family in order to view the lagoon, and despite the five hour drive, the sites made the trip well worth my time. The pictures of the lagoon are magnificent, but it doesn´t do the in-person experience any justice. Seeing the glaciers "up-close and personal" helps illustrate the true power of mother nature and left me with memories that will last a lifetime.
For all those interested in visiting Iceland I would put the Glacier Lagoon down as a "must-see" in your trip itinerary. Although it presents a bit of a drive, the scenery on the trip down highway 1 will keep you busy and make the five hour car ride fly-by. I believe Iceland's south coast rivals any scenic drive in the entire world as far as beauty and eccentricity.
9. Lived without big box chains
No More Big Macs Metro replaced McDonalds when the American fast-food company left Iceland after the economic collapse.
With stores like Whole Foods, McDonald’s and Starbucks engrained into the psyche of all Americans, being stripped of these cultural consistencies has an effect on your day-to-day life for good and for bad. No longer can I just stroll out at my own leisure and get a McDouble at my immediate convenience, which I view as both a positive and a negative.
Outside of Domino Pizza and a couple KFCs, Iceland’s economic environment encourages upscale classy restaurants, and forces out big box chains, due to the economics of importing cheap fast food. McDonald did have a brief spell in Iceland, but the business plan proved to be economical inviable.
Thus, I am now forced to experience the Mom and Pop shops of Reykjavik, which are slightly more expensive, but provide a certain authenticity and experience that is lacking from your typical McDonald´s run.
10. Used my feet as a primary mode of transportation
Speed Walkers Icelander's enjoy walking or biking to their intended destination. Photo/Sara
In America I was used to driving everywhere. Metropolitan areas are spread out, and most major cities have a plethora of surrounding suburbs that require a car in order to survive. Iceland, along with most other Scandinavian countries, view automobiles as a "luxury" rather than a "necessity." A significant portion of the population rides their bike or walks to work, in an effort to save money as well as the environment.
I have found this new mode of transportation, both relaxing and healthier, not to mention a lot cheaper. Gas prices in Reykjavik are near $8.25 per gallon, therefore, walking to work not only benefits your health, but your wallet as well. The capital city is relatively easy to get around in, and walking down the main street of Laugavegur give any tourist, or local, plenty to do during a night out on the town.
Overall, I enjoy walking around Reykjavik, Iceland, which provides an invigorating break from the "hustle and bustle" of your typical American city.
10 beautiful Icelandic churches to visit
5 Questions you should avoid asking an Icelander
Foundations of Well-being: Iceland ranks fourth on the Social Progress Index
Seven interesting facts about one of Reykjavík’s best known landmarks, Hallgrímskirkja church
Food & Drink
The best lunch in Reykjavík
Word On The Street: What not to miss while in Iceland
13 Reasons to visit North Iceland in the Spring
Whaling is not an Icelandic tradition
Warning: Vatnajökull's ice caves have begun to deteriorate and crack
Food & Drink
Five Bars to Visit In Down-town Reykjavík
Follow Iceland Mag
Join our weekly hand curated newsletter to have all the latest news from Iceland sent to you
Don't worry, we won't spam you. Promise!
Travel blogger cleaned up Seljavallalaug pool in South Iceland
The British tourist has been found hungry and tired
The National Met Office warns of strong southern gusts of wind on the south and west coast
The ewe Móra surprised her owner when she gave birth to five lambs last week
400 million krónur to be spent to better facilities near popular tourist spots
Watch: Iceland’s interior is one of the country’s greatest treasures
James Arterberry and his friends danced their way around Iceland - and the result is brilliant
Watch amazing aerial footage from the volcanic eruption
Breathtaking video of ice climbing on Vatnajökull glacier gives you a view of the glacier like no other