The 10 Things That Surprised Me Most About Iceland

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I had no idea of what to expect of Iceland. Thanks to Instagram, I knew of Iceland’s wild, rugged beauty. But beyond that, I assumed Iceland would be like Scandinavia: cold, blond, and organized.

Little did I know, Iceland is quirky, unique and unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland

Normally when I go to Europe I’m most interested in the history – the Gothic cathedrals, the Baroque chateaus, the medieval villages. But Iceland doesn’t have much visible history. What Iceland does have is stunning landscapes, friendly locals, and delicious food.

So to kick off my Iceland coverage, I wanted to share what surprised me most about Iceland.

Iceland was something of a backwater until recently.

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland

Until recently Iceland was a bit behind the times. Which makes sense – after all, Iceland is very remote and isolated.

While in Iceland, I learned alcohol was only legalized in 1989, and for most of the ’80s Iceland only had one TV channel. What?!

Bizarrely, dogs were illegal in Reykjavik until the 1980s – evidently the 1980s were quite the decade in Iceland.

Genetically, not much has changed since the Viking Age.

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland

I found it super interesting that the Vikings came to Iceland about a thousand years ago and genetically, not much has changed. It’s almost like traveling back into time.

Even the horses are genetically the same as when the Vikings came over. This is because it’s illegal to import horses to Iceland, and once an Icelandic horse leaves, it can never come back.

My adorable Icelandic horse Gloth, who nearly bucked me two minutes into the ride.
My adorable Icelandic horse Gloth, who nearly bucked me two minutes into the ride.

The food is amazing.

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland
A delicious plate of lisk, a new favorite fish. Kind of like cod by not flaky.

I was thoroughly impressed with the food in Iceland. The seafood is unbelievable, especially if you like smoked fish. We splashed out for a nine-course seafood extravaganza at Fiskmarkadurinn and loved every course. (Well, except for the minke whale, which was stinky, gamy and chewy – not recommended.)

And the lamb we tried at Apotek was some of the best I’ve ever had. Apparently most lamb in Iceland is free-range which allows the lamb to eat local grasses and herbs – hence its amazing, unique flavor.

if you’re like me and are a huge fan of lamb and seafood, you’re going to love Iceland’s food scene.

Iceland is incredibly safe.

I figured Iceland would be safe, but I underestimated just how safe. When we arrived at our Airbnb, our host told us, “We rarely lock the apartment, so don’t even worry about it.”

And while walking around Reykjavik at one a.m. we felt perfectly at ease. This was partly because it was still light out – the midnight sun is no joke!

Reyjavik is tiny.

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland

Reykjavik, the capital, is the largest city in Iceland. That being said, it’s tiny – even tinier than I had imagined. My travel buddy from the East Coast said, “This could honestly be a fishing village in Maine.”

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland

Granted, it’s a really nice fishing village. It was clean, parking was plentiful, and the locals were friendly. And although it was touristy, it was cute and artsy – I’ve never seen more boutiques, wool shops, and galleries. We even spotted a shop entirely devoted to puffins. #OnlyinIceland

A capital that is stylish, modern, and puffin-obsessed – what’s not to love about that?

It’s very hipster-friendly.

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland

Reykjavik is super hip. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more bikes, man buns and Edison bulbs in one square mile. 

Our Airbnb especially gave me hipster goals. Our hosts had Chemex coffee makers, brass lamps, and stacks of Kinfolk. It almost felt like we were staying in the Hipster Barbie’s dream house.

Surprising Things Iceland

Not all of Iceland is beautiful.

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland
Iceland looks like this…
The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland
and this.

Newsflash – some parts of Iceland are kind of ugly and desolate. But due to Instagram, I had super unrealistic expectations of Icelandic landscapes.

Some parts of Iceland look like the moon, particularly the fields near the airport. I don’t know what I was expecting – waterfalls off every exit? But I was surprised by the barren lava fields and windswept plains I often saw.

The people are super creative.

Reyjavik Food Tour

It seemed every Icelander we met wore many hats. For example, our food tour guide was an architect, artist, and tour guide. She also mentioned that she got a governmental stipend because she was an artist. What?

Did you know that per capita Iceland has the most authors in the world, the most Nobel Prize winners, and the most musicians? It also has the highest literacy rate and the best gender equality (this is a fascinating article about motherhood in Iceland).

I wish all countries placed such a high importance on art, literature and women’s rights.

The architecture is mostly depressing.

The 10 Most Surprising Things About Iceland

Despite Iceland’s rich artistic heritage, I didn’t love the architecture. The architecture in Reykjavik’s suburbs was depressing, grey and blocky – think Soviet Union meets IKEA.

Reykjavik itself had a certain charm but was still vaguely industrial. You can paint corrugated sheet metal as many colors as you want, but it’s still corrugated sheet metal.

The one highlight? HARPA, Reykjavik’s concert hall and conference center. HARPA was a photographer’s dream. The exterior draws inspiration from basalt columns, and the inside looked to me like fish scales.

HARPA

The tap water is vile.

I was surprised by how gross and sulphuric the tap water in Iceland was. But considering how much geothermal energy Iceland produces, it’s not surprising.

And the gas station hot dogs are as good as the say.

Um guys – if you’re looking for a cheap meal in Iceland, go to the gas station. There you can have a delicious bacon-wrapped hot dog made mostly with lamb and topped raw white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, and sweet brown mustard.

And the gas station ice cream was some of the creamiest, most divine soft-serve I’ve ever tasted. (Words I never thought I’d say).

Surprising_things_iceland_16

Have you been to Iceland? Did you notice any of the same things I did?

Reykjavik travel tips:

Where to eat: Our favorite restaurants in Reykjavik were Fishmarkadurinn, Apotek, and Old Iceland Restaurant. We also LOVED our Reyjavik Food Tour. Full review coming soon!

What to see: Check out beautiful HARPA and the views from the top of Hallgrimskirkja, Reyjavik’s modern and very tall cathedral.

Where to stay: I absolutely loved my one-bedroom Airbnb apartment. It’s no longer available but it seems like you can get a much better deal with Airbnbs in Reyjavik than hotels or even hostels. Get $35 off your first Airbnb stay here.

What to read: To better understand Icelandic culture, I’d recommend reading The Geography of Bliss. It helped me understand why Iceland is one of the happiest and most creative countries in the world.

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

45 thoughts on “The 10 Things That Surprised Me Most About Iceland”

  1. I actually liked the architecture! I thought the houses were simple and each had their own flare depending on wood details and color. Yes they did seem a little dreary, but it was overcast most of my time there so I figured it was a general theme of the place. I definitely saw a lot of street art, and everyone can appreciate that. I can also agree that Reyjavik is tiny, but all the amazing shops can keep you busy!

  2. Papa Lou and I were fascinated with your text and pictures.
    It is so amazing that seemingly good people have established
    their lives there, and because of your reporting of the character
    of the population there is a feeling of peacefulness. Without
    pressure they must grow up with high standards of living and it
    sounds like an enviable way of life. The little horse is a storybook
    Character in looks. It is one of the most different places you have
    been in your travels, at least one we have known littJunetle about. Glad you wrote in such detail and filled us in about a place unknown.

    Love,

    Gamma

    • Hi Gamma, I’m so glad you and Papa Lou enjoyed the post. I do think it’s an enviable way of life – the people seemed very happy and it’s such a creative nation. And how cute was that horse?! Love, Ashley

  3. Iceland has always been a big dream of mine, but to get there all the way from Australia is a crazy expensive ordeal!
    And you’re right! All the instagram posts I’ve seen of Iceland look so surreal and magnificent, so it’s cool to hear that even the most beautiful countries have their flaws!

    • I wanted to be honest about what surprised me – I find a lot of blogs are 100% positive all the time which I find disingenuous. And yeah, Iceland is definitely really far from Australia! From photos I’ve seen, it seems New Zealand has similar landscapes so that would be a good substitute :)

  4. Oh no, shame to hear you didn’t like the water, I think it is the best tasting cold water I have ever had. The only time I sometimes notice the sulfur is with super hot water. But I will take a bit of the sulfur smell for those amazing hot springs :)

  5. Iceland has always been on my list of travels (really, every where is) but this definitely bumped it up! Sounds lovely.

  6. Thanks for being so honest about what you liked and disliked about Iceland. I think this type of travel blogging where honest opinions are allowed is pretty rare on the internet today. Of course, I would disagree with you on a few points. I love the desolate spaces of grey bumpy lava land that cover a large of the island. To me, it has its own beauty and charm. Still of course, to each his own. It is important that people have realistic expectations when they visit. Thanks!

  7. Haha – I’m so glad I’m not the only one whose Iceland knowledge comes from Instagram! That said, everything I do know about it is pretty much good stuff. Which is why it’s so high on my travel list: a country with stunning natural beauty and lots of creativity and artsy people. Right up my street! (Btw – love your reference to Hipster Barbie!!)

  8. Such an interesting read about your travels in Iceland! I love the country and even the ‘ugly’ landscape fascinates the heck out of me… probably the result of growing up on the East coast where nature was not in abundance :) I agree with the hipster scene there- definitely alive and well. I had excellent water there on my last two trips… sad to see it may have changed since. I was coming from Scandinavia where water is so pristine and I noticed no change from there.

    I had no idea dogs were illegal! I knew beer was… but I am not sure what my life would be without a dog or a beer. Great recap!

  9. Great post about a country I never had an interest in visiting. Years ago we wound land Boeing 707s there to refuel on transatlantic flights. I remember flying over frozen bleak areas and landing at midnight with the sun still up . We never left the airstrip or even exited the plane. Just topped off and departed. Things have changed!

  10. There’s a lot of places to visit in Iceland. Take a look on their Geothermal spa and The Geyser. I’m pretty sure you’ll love the place.

  11. Lovely post on Iceland! It seems everyone’s heading there these days (Reykjavik’s been on my friends’ snap stories, insta feeds…) and it’s been on my bucketlist for a while. Really liked your perspective of the country! :)

  12. Awesome recap! I enjoyed how you pointed out the things that you didn’t like, which made the entire post seem very genuine. And Reykjavik gave me majorrrr hipster goals when I was there!

  13. A great summary on Iceland. Nah…I have never been to Iceland, but I’d love to! I appreciate your honest review of Iceland. You wrote exactly how you found it.

  14. What a lovely-looking place! I’ve thought once or twice about going to Iceland, but hadn’t given it any serious consideration until reading this. Delicious seafood, small, safe towns, and nice scenery? I’m there!

  15. ‘Lovely post Ashley!

    I haven’t yet been to Iceland but would really like to. I love the fact that you wrote about Iceland as you saw it, which is pretty alright in my book. Of course, we can’t all agree and why should we lol!

    One of the reasons for me to visit is for the very reason that some people might not like it – it has hardly changed over hundreds of years, the landscape is wild and gritty, the unusual architecture, Viking history and Nordic food.

    ‘Brilliant photographs as usual, especially of your Icelandic horse – Gloth!

  16. My husband has always wanted to visit Iceland and I have to say after all the buzz it’s gotten in the travel blogging world as of late, it’s definitely moved up on my travel wish list. I was always like you as well-more interested in the cities and historical bits of Europe but after trips to Utah and Norway (i.e. totally scenery/outdoors oriented), I really dig the trips where the landscapes are the prime attractions.

    I’ve also heard great things about the food too, and so a food tour in the capital would definitely be on my to do list as well (I went on my first food tour in Europe earlier this month and loved it).

  17. Hipster Barbie, LOL!

    I was just wondering about Iceland people and now the horses – wouldn’t it all get terribly inbred after a few generations? I don’t imagine there’s a lot of new people moving to Iceland…and no horses are allowed to be imported…hmmm.

    • I think there are enough horses where it doesn’t get inbred, but I’m not an expert. And I know there’s a hookup app for Icelanders so they can avoid hooking up with their cousins… lol

  18. I personally liked the desolate landscapes when I was in Iceland, but to each their own. Also, I’m surprised you found the tap water bad. I thought it was quite good, at least compared to the tap water in Austin, Texas.

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