The remote and beautiful island of Iceland is surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. This cold ocean is thriving with healthy marine life, which has been one of the basic sources of food for the Icelanders (Íslendingar) and their very own fermented shark, for hundreds of years. Apart from delicious seafood, grass-fed organic sheep or lamb (that was brought to the island by the first settlers, mostly from Norway) and dairy have also been key ingredients of the traditional Icelandic cuisine.
It’s safe to say the Icelandic cuisine is leading when it comes to naming the world’s healthiest cuisines. Even though most of Iceland’s land is barren, so they didn’t have a chance to grow grain and lots of vegetables, but some hearty ones did survive, mainly root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and kale. Combine that with healthy seafood, tender lamb meat, and fresh dairy products, and their diet has been perfectly able to feed these strong and well-built people, for generations.
Nowadays the world is one big globally connected economy, and the ability to easily import food to any part of the world disrupted many traditional cuisines. More and more foreign ingredients started to appear in every culture’s ancient dishes. Today’s Icelandic cuisine is a combination of traditional food and the modern twist on it. Icelandic cuisine quickly became known as one of the healthiest on the globe, resulting in many tourists seeking out these delicacies for themselves.
In this Icelandic foodie guide, we gathered the best places in Reykjavik where you can experience these authentic tastes. We divided the article into 7 sections: lamb, seafood, street food, sweets, exotic, and traditional.
Grilled Lamb Chops in Grillmarkaðurinn
The Icelandic lamb or sheep is one of the healthiest in the world, thanks to the fresh Icelandic air, the grass, and moss they feed on. Also, the sheep farmers let them free graze in the highlands of Iceland for half of the year, resulting in the animal growing naturally and stress-free. Thus the very healthy and tender meat.
The restaurant serves this dish with crispy potatoes, glazed carrots and spiced nut crumble.
Lamb shoulder in Sæta Svínið
After cooking the lamb shoulder for 12 hours, the tender meat almost melts in your mouth. The restaurant offers this dish with chorizo & bacon ragu, butter beans, and green peas.
Lamb Fillet in Forréttabarinn
The lamb fillet, or tenderloin, comes from a part of the animal that barely gets used, which results in the meat is extremely tender and soft. It has no fat and no tissues, and it’s very rich in protein, vitamin B12, iron, and zinc.
Arctic charr in Matarkjallarinn – Foodcellar
This type of fish is part of the Salmonidae family, which means it’s closely related to one of the most popular types of fish, the salmon. It’s found in the freshwaters (rivers, lakes, streams) of Iceland. Arctic charr has a rich buttery taste, some would say somewhere between salmon and trout.
Langoustine soup in Saegreifinn
The Icelandic Langoustine (meaning small lobster) soup of Sægreifinn has been called by many people the best lobster soup in Iceland, or even in the whole world. Icelandic lobster is caught in the wild (and never farmed) in the South Coast waters of Iceland. It has very tender meat, rich in taste. This creamy and salty langoustine soup is an ideal cold winter dinner, but it can also be consumed anytime during the year. It’s served with either toasts or baguette slices.
Cod in Fiskmarkaðurin – The Fish Market
Perhaps after salmon, cod is easily the most popular and known type of fish in the world. Cod has always been a very important and main marine resource of the Icelanders. Cod in the Atlantic Ocean can grow to be quite large, thanks to the healthy and rich marine life it is able to consume. By the time they grow so large, they don’t have many natural predators left, hence they multiply fast and it’s easy for fishermen to catch them. It’s highly likely that you are already familiar with cod, being a popular product in every supermarket around the globe. But trying fresh, locally caught Icelandic cod is a must when visiting Reykjavik.
Icelandic Lamb Hotdog in Bæjarins Bestu Pylsur
You cannot leave Reykjavik without trying the notorious Icelandic Hotdog (that is, in case you are not into lamb in the first place). For the most authentic experience, we recommend the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand (which translates to “best hot dogs in town”). This place has been serving the best hotdogs in town since 1937. The hot dog is made mostly out of fresh, grass-fed Icelandic lamb, served on a warm bun, with raw white onions, crispy fried onions, topped with ketchup, remoulade (mayo, capers, mustard, herbs), and pylsusinnep (a type of brown mustard) on top.
Plokkfiskur in Kaffi Loki
What’s a nation without its signature stew? Iceland’s own national stew (a fish stew, of course) is called Plokkfiskur and we recommend trying it at Kaffi Loki. This dish is so simple yet so great. It’s a mix of cooked and mashed cod, flour, milk, and vegetables (potatoes and onion), seasoned with salt and pepper. The restaurant serves it with homemade rye bread, which is another speciality of Iceland (or ask if they have the famous fish jerky as a side).
Burgers in Hamborgarabúllan or Búllan – Tommi’s Burger Joint
Although this is not a centuries-old traditional Icelandic food, it quickly became so popular among the Icelanders (and tourists also), that it’s now kind of considered part of the Icelandic cuisine. They only use the best quality ingredients they can find (mostly locally), such as beef, iceberg lettuce, tomato, chopped onions.
Rye Bread Ice Cream in Kaffi Loki
Kaffi Loki makes the most delicious, creamy, and caramelized rye bread ice creams.
The sweet rye bread (Rúgbrauð) is traditionally very common in Iceland, and this restaurant took it to a whole new level with a modern ice cream twist.
Kleina in Sandholt bakery
Everyone loves donuts. Kleina (Icelandic donut) is a well-known pastry on the island, if not even their favorite pastry. It’s light, fluffy, and moist, seasoned with cardamom, vanilla, or nutmeg. It’s originally a Scandinavian sweet, served on the Christmas menu, but it has since become an everyday delicacy.
Góður snúður in Braud & Co
Some say if the Góður snúður (you might know this as a chocolate bun or cinnamon roll) is not as big as your head, it’s no good. This Icelandic sweet is beloved, simple, and extremely in-demand.
Codhead in Matur og drykkur
Will the brave and adventurous travelers please stand up? Cause this one’s definitely for you. Yes, they actually cook the whole head of the cod, but it has a lot of meat on it that you can easily eat. The Michelin rated restaurant Matur og drykkur is an expert at making this unique plate (and other superb traditional dishes). Their cod is entirely fresh and locally caught.
Hákarl (fermented shark) in Islenski Barinn
The fermented shark is something truly quirky and special, a traditional dish found only in Iceland and Greenland. It’s not recommended for everyone. It has an immensely fishy taste with a little bit of ammonia. Also, sharks are known to be high in mercury, and even though this unique fermentation process does get rid of some of it, we still urge you to be cautious. Try it in case you are really curious, but consume it responsibly. After you bite down on this bizarre food, the traditional way is to drink a shot of the Icelandic spirit called Brennívín, meaning Black Death. How else would you call a Viking drink?
Minke whale meat in 3frakkar
Only certain types of whales are allowed to be hunted in Iceland, whaling being strictly controlled by the Icelandic Directorate of Fisheries. Minke whale meat is the most common in Iceland, but we have to let you know that although it’s a traditional Icelandic dish, it’s not being consumed so widely anymore on the island.
Skyr is a traditional dairy product, consumed as yogurt. It is compared to Greek yogurt by many, but Skyr is thicker, creamier, higher in protein, and lower in sugar than Greek yogurt. You can find this delicate cream in any Icelandic supermarket, or ask for it in any restaurant with your main dish.
Hangikjöt (Smoked lamb) during Christmas time
Icelandic smoked lamb is the Icelanders’ favorite Christmas dish. It can be eaten as a warm dish, traditionally served with cooked potatoes, white bechamel sauce, peas, and pickled red cabbage. But it can also be consumed cold, as an alternative to ham.
Kjötsúpa (lamb soup) in Íslenski Barinn
Ask any Icelander, and it’s highly likely they will say that Kjötsúpa is the number one traditional and national Icelandic food. It has been part of the culture since the first settlers came to Iceland (in the 9th century). It’s made from the already mentioned organic, grass-fed locally bred lamb and some Root vegetables (Carrots, potato, onions, and more). Just like your grandmother’s chicken soup, Kjötsúpa is also said to cure hangovers.
About the Author
Valur is the founder and chief memory maker at the tour company, Your Friend in Reykjavik. He’s a certified guide, musician, and history nerd with a passion for food & drink. He’s your guide to everything Iceland has to offer.