Updated: 6 days ago
Icelandic food sometimes makes headlines for the wrong reasons – we’re talking about you, hákarl (fermented shark!). However, you’re likely to enjoy plenty of delicious fares while you’re in the country. This mid-Atlantic nation really punches above its weight when it comes to cuisine, and you’re sure to experience certain dishes which will stick in your memory long after you return home.
You could book an Iceland food tour, where your guide will help you sample the most iconic Icelandic foods on a mouth-watering culinary journey. Or, since you’re touring the country in your campervan rental, you might prefer simply to go it alone, calling in at roadside cafés and harborside restaurants to try what local specialties the country’s chefs have prepared that day.
You don't need to go to the best restaurants in Iceland to enjoy its delicacies, so don’t pass up any opportunity to try Iceland’s favorite foods. From takeaway pots of hearty meat stew to shareable bags of fish snacks, find out what food you must sink your teeth into during your next trip. Read on below for our guide to the best food in Iceland.
Best place to try it: Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum
If there’s one Icelandic food that’s guaranteed to provoke a reaction, it’s hákarl. Tasting a cube or two of this pungent snack is almost a rite of passage for first-time visitors, but what’s all the fuss about?
Hákarl is a processed Greenland shark. When the catch is landed, the meat must be cut into chunks and hung to allow time for the toxins to drain away – in its fresh state, the meat contains dangerously high levels of urea and trimethylamine.
After the Greenland shark has been hung for long enough, it’s dried and fermented. Though the ammonia-like smell takes a bit of getting used to, if you can stomach it, hákarl is actually edible. Nevertheless, some of the world’s most famous television chefs, Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey among them, have struggled to keep it down.
The bottom line is that hákarl is the food to try in Iceland. Only one question remains: are you brave enough to tackle it?
Best place to try it: Baejarins Beztu Pylsur in Reykjavík
Far more palatable are the hot dogs Icelanders are obsessed with. They’re arguably the most popular food in Iceland and if a business is any good, you’re likely to see a line snaking down the street. One such place is Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, which has been a fixture close to Reykjavik’s Old Harbour since 1937.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is firmly on the tourist trail and some big names have sunk their teeth into this delicious meaty snack – past customers include former US President Bill Clinton, movie legend Ben Stiller and reality star Kim Kardashian.
Ask for "ein með öllu", which translates to "one with everything". Here, that means ketchup, fried and raw onion, mustard, and remoulade sauce. You soon see why people think it’s worth queuing for.
Best place to try it: in a takeaway pot from a gas station or at Íslenski Barinn in Reykjavík
In a country that farms so many sheep, it’s hardly surprising to find lamb on most Icelandic menus. Farming is highly regulated in the Land of Fire and Ice, meaning that you can expect high-quality meat reared to exacting standards.
You’ll find it as the main ingredient in meat soups or stews – ask for kjötsúpa, which combines chunks of lamb with a flavorsome broth and vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and onions.
An alternative to stew would be roast lamb or fall-off-the-bone lamb shank from a traditional restaurant such as Reykjavík’s Íslenski Barinn. Unless you’re a vegetarian, it’s also worth seeking out something called hangikjöt.
This kind of Icelandic smoked lamb is first salted and then cooked over a fire (traditionally fuelled by sheep dung). It’s cut into thin slices to serve and it’s delicious. If you’re a fan of cured meats, you’re not going to want to miss this. The locals eat hangikjöt during Christmastime, but you’ll probably be able to find it out of season as well.
Now svið is one food that might take some convincing to scarf down. Consisting of half a sheep’s head, to prepare it, you remove the brains and then boil it. These days, it’s gone out of fashion and is pretty much only eaten at the Þorrablót mid-winter festival. Honored guests will be offered the cheek or the eye, which are considered the best bits.
Best place to try it: anywhere with a harbor
Seafood’s a huge deal in Iceland. After all, its island status gives rise to lots of fresh catches. Anglers will be keen to land salmon, brown trout, and Arctic char, though a permit’s essential to do so.
Sea fishing’s also big business, with some of the most commonly eaten types of fish being cod, pollock, haddock, halibut, and monkfish. Try it in plokkfiskur, Icelandic fish stew, where chunks of fish are slow-cooked in fish stock and a béchamel sauce with potato and onions.
You’ll increasingly find battered fish and chips in Iceland, or another must-try: Icelandic langoustines sold as lobster rolls. However, for the ultimate on-the-go fishy snack, try harðfiskur.
Sold in bags just as crisps are, this dried delicacy varies in taste according to what fish has been used, some resulting in a milder flavor than others. You might also like to eat it spread with some Icelandic salted butter which offsets the dry texture.
Best place to try it: Friðheimar
Now, this is an unusual one, because you’d think the climate of Iceland is hardly suited for growing healthy tomatoes. But in fact, geothermal heat makes it cost-effective to grow a bumper crop of this tasty red fruit under glass.
If you visit Friðheimar, handily situated on the Golden Circle route, they will surprise you with just how versatile the humble tomato is. Alongside tomato soup, their menu contains tomato pie, tomato pasta, tomato cheesecake, and even tomato ice cream.
Best place to try it: Simbahöllin in the Westfjords
If you have a sweet tooth, you could well argue that waffles are the best food in Iceland. Light and fluffy, served with heaps of whipped cream and warm, homemade rhubarb jam, it’s a firm favorite with both locals and tourists. Waffles are the ideal reward after a day’s hike or as a pick-me-up to lift the spirits if it’s raining outside.
Best place to try it: Brynja in Akureyri
Year-round, Icelanders love to eat ice cream. There are ice cream parlors all over Iceland where you can choose from a variety of flavors. At Brynja in Akureyri, they do things a little differently, making ice cream from milk rather than the usual cream. Among the many toppings they offer, licorice is really popular in Iceland.
Best place to try it: parked up in front of a waterfall in a camping chair beside your campervan
A healthier option for dessert – or breakfast, of course – would be a pot of skyr. This is a dairy product similar to thick, creamy yogurt, and is normally served with freshly picked blueberries. Icelanders have eaten it for centuries, though it’s only just getting a reputation outside the country.
Protein-rich and fermented with the use of traditional active cultures, it’s easy to see why it’s been consumed with gusto since the Viking era.
Best place to try it: any bakery, anywhere
A kleina is a kind of deep-fried Icelandic doughnut, crispy on the outside and super fluffy on the inside. These twisted pastries (you’ll need to know the plural, kleinur, as you won’t be satisfied with just the one) can be flavored with anything, but most commonly cardamom or vanilla.
They are found across Scandinavia, and while they’re more of a festive season treat elsewhere, in Iceland, they are served at any time, the ideal accompaniment to a mug of coffee.
Best place to try it: Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal spa
The food of Iceland often has a close connection to its landscape and baking is no exception, especially when it comes to rye bread or rugbrauð. This type of bread is cooked underground to take advantage of geothermal heat.
Tins are covered and buried in hot sand for around 24 hours; when the bread’s unwrapped, it tastes absolutely delicious, especially if you eat it while it’s still warm.
Rye bread is commonly seen in bakeries selling sandwiches – a smart choice for a picnic. When it’s fresh, it’s no exaggeration to say that the dense texture and strong flavor of the bread, paired with thickly spread butter and thin slices of smoked trout or salmon, is one of the best things you’ll eat in your life.
Top Food in Iceland
The good news is that since you’re roaming around in your campervan, there’ll be a million opportunities to sample some dishes, desserts, Icelandic beers and snacks that we’ve covered here. From the fanciest restaurant in the center of Reykjavík to the simplest of country kitchens, the best food in Iceland takes many forms. Bring a hearty appetite and an adventurous spirit to get the most out of your trip.