A Month in Reykjavik
February 16, 2015 9:20 AM   Subscribe

I will be in Reykjavik, Iceland, to study during the month of March. Please help me anticipate what daily life will be like there. I'd like to anticipate my culture shock (if any) before I go.

I'm an American with plenty of foreign travel under my belt, including extended stays overseas.

What are some of the delights and some the hassles (if any) of living in Reykjavik? I am not a club or pub goer.

Given March's potentially cold, windy and wet weather, what are some fun weekend activities?

What surprised you the most about your experience there? If you had it to do over, what would you do differently or more or less of?

What's grocery shopping like there?

As an American guest and visitor to Iceland, is there anything I should to or avoid doing in order to respect Icelandic sensibilities?
posted by ADave to Travel & Transportation around Reykjavik, Iceland (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
As an American guest and visitor to Iceland, is there anything I should to or avoid doing in order to respect Icelandic sensibilities?

(My bona fides: I was most recently there last week.) Cultivate an appreciation for their wonderfully dark sense of humor. Don't wear jeans all the time, and please not if you go out at night to dinner. Never use an umbrella when it rains. Don't tip. Be extra nice to the children (it's not uncommon for Icelanders to have 3 or 4 kids). Be on time to events. Don't frantically ask the shopkeeper for help because you see a baby napping in a stroller parked outside on the sidewalk in the middle of winter-- don't worry, that baby is perfectly fine. Before you enter a pool or "hot pot" you'll need to first take a shower, naked, and use soap. Be interested in Icelandic music.

What surprised you the most about your experience there?

I'd heard incorrectly on the internets that Iceland is not a "foodie" destination. Wrong. It is foodie heaven. Awesome, nicely-seasoned food is served everywheres. Perfectly-cooked fish is the norm. Langoustine soup, and smoked puffin, and skyr are my jam. I was surprised that excellent artisanal cocktails are served everywhere, but they are not made every strong. They'll also set you back around $20 each. Relatedly, I'd heard the food is expensive, and this is generally true. However, higher end food (for lack of a better term, think: 9-course tasting menu at an upscale Reykjavik restaurant) is not that much more expensive than their mid to low-range priced food options, and as such it actually turns out to be somewhat of a bargain compared to what a higher-end meal would cost in the US. I know you're a student, but maybe treat yourself to one really nice meal out before you go home.
posted by hush at 9:58 AM on February 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

It is considered rude in Iceland to blow your nose:

I remember the first time I witnessed it and I felt it was just a bit embarrassing for the person blowing their nose, like they’d just farted in public or something.

In public, the snot goes in, not out; alternatively, you go to the bathroom and blow your nose and dispose of your tissue there.

And pack lots of nice socks - you take your shoes off when you come into someone's house.
posted by rada at 10:07 AM on February 16, 2015

I shopped at Bonus for groceries on a recent visit. Apparently you can just pull off a can of beer at a time for purchase (from the six pack), but everyone in the store told me repeatedly that it was lower alcohol beer and then looked at me like I was nuts when I bought it anyway, haha. I believe if you want *real* beer or liquor to consume at home you have to go to a store that's outside of the city. Oh, and plan to dress in layers. Everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful if I asked for it. Many were also extremely proud of Icelandic power supply, horses, etc., so respect and appreciation for those things will go a long way. Have a wonderful time!
posted by PaulaSchultz at 10:13 AM on February 16, 2015

If you don't like that they kill and eat whales, just keep it to yourself.
Go get a hot dog at least once.
Go hike on a glacier.

I took the Viking Sushi boat tour (haha) and they dredge up huge piles of scallops and sea urchins onto a table with knives and let you go to town...that was seriously the best meal of my life.

I think every single person I ran into there spoke English pretty well. Like I walked to a gas station convenience store in a non-tourist little town somewhere and the guy spoke English.
posted by Huck500 at 11:58 AM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

My wife and I went to Iceland last March for about a week and half. I took some pictures and wrote about the experience if you're interested.

I'm assuming you'll have a rental car since you'll have trouble getting around otherwise. Given that, I highly recommend snow tires at this time of year! Reykjavik has a cool system which pipes used hot water under roads and sidewalks, so most of the roads around the city are pretty clear. But I still hit a couple slippery spots.

And if you have a car and all this time, I highly recommend checking out the surrounding area! I found the Thingvellir park beautiful, but really the whole country is small enough that anywhere can be reached and returned from in a (long) day. But in March, some of the mountain passes were a little hairy and you'll definitely want snow tires for some portions.

Also: my recommendation - if there's any day that's completely clear, set an alarm to get up in the night and look for the Northern lights! They're soooo cool! We went in March to see them, but it was cloudy every day except for part of one. But fortunately, that brief bit of clear sky was enough to see them for a couple minutes. I used this site every day to determine how disappointed I should be that the sky was overcast.

Oh, and lastly. If you eat a hamburger, use a fork and knife. That's what the locals seemed to be doing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by losvedir at 12:19 PM on February 16, 2015

I haven't been, but greatly enjoyed Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss in which she accounts living in Reykjavik for a year (with husband and two children). Lots of commentary of everyday stuff: housing, clothing, grocery shopping, etc.

There is also a pretty interesting chapter on Icelandic culture in The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. Both would make for great airplane reading.

ooooo, have fun!!
posted by jrobin276 at 1:17 PM on February 16, 2015

Just noticed that No Reservations - Iceland is free on Hulu right now.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:35 PM on February 16, 2015

There are no laundromats. Plan accordingly.
posted by zennie at 8:29 PM on February 16, 2015

Best answer: I've spent about six weeks total in Iceland. It is a slightly disorienting country: egalitarian and wealthy, but also extremely remote, which means anything that has to be imported is super-expensive, and some things are just flat-out unavailable. Everybody knows each other (only 300K population total), and the climate means people look out for each other more than they might otherwise. There's a Nordic understatement / flat affect thing happening too.

-- Most grocery stores carry the same goods, same brands, similar prices. There's not much point shopping around, either for quality, variety, or price. Compared with the United States fish and lamb are cheap and excellent. Fruits and vegetables are expensive. It's hard to find stuff like basil, avocado, cilantro -- if you do, it will be expensive and not as good as what you're used to. It's a middle-class country and so the food is also middle-class: there is just not the wide range of highs and lows that you get in the U.S.

-- I found the Icelandic style of cooking bland and restaurants expensive. There were a few good places in Reykjavik: the Sea Baron is good for lobster soup, and there's a terrific fish and chip restaurant just north of it, near the Volcano Museum. But you'll be more satisfied, probably, if you cook for yourself.

-- Iceland is weird about alcohol. The northern counties tend to drink a lot, and I gather as a matter of public policy Iceland wants to discourage that. That means most alcohol is sold only at the state Vinbudins (alcohol stores), which have limited hours. You'll find prices for (European) wine are reasonable, but spirits are extraordinarily expensive: roughly a hundred dollars/bottle. Icelandic people told me they fly to Greenland to stock up, in the same way Canadians used to drive across the U.S. border for cheap gas. If you drink spirits, buy them at the airport duty-free when you enter the country. Oh and a friend there told me Icelandic people tend to drink only on the weekends: drinking on a weeknight might raise an eyebrow (kind of like if you ordered a cocktail at 4PM in the United States, I think). That said, Iceland is also famous for bar crawls that last the entire weekend, in summer when the sun doesn't set.

-- The best thing about Iceland by far is its natural beauty. Try to rent a car and just go driving, particularly towards the southeast. You don't need a specific destination. There is nothing you *need* to see, and everything is stunning.

-- Yes, everybody speaks English. In general the people I met seemed tolerant and pragmatic and unpretentious. They don't smile as much as Americans and in general seem to me more introverted/private than Americans. They tend to be quieter in public places too, like in restaurants and on the streets.

-- Definitely go to any public baths, and definitely go to the Blue Lagoon. The baths are everywhere and all are awesome. There are steam rooms, saunas, hot and cold pool, and when you come out there is usually a cafeteria selling lamb stew with good bread. It's a lovely way to relax.

-- Oh and people drive kind of weird. Absolutely every single person tailgates like whoa. That was super-strange.

Enjoy it -- it's awesome :)
posted by Susan PG at 12:59 AM on February 17, 2015

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