By Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
Cuisine is a huge part of a country’s personality and cultural identity. The food of a place can really tell you a lot about its history, its people and its general vibe. Often when people are planning to visit a country, one of the main items on their to-do list is to try the local cuisine and special delicacies.
It would be nice to only eat in restaurants for the entire time you stay in a holiday destination, but it’s not the most practical thing in the world if you want to save a bit of money, plus there will always come times where you need to grab things that you can’t eat. Most people know what it’s like to suddenly run out of toothpaste or deodorant, and when you’re in a foreign country, this can pose an almost existential question, ‘Where do I go to buy this?’
Welcome to the world of international grocery tourism. I’m kidding; that’s not actually a thing (although it probably is a series to watch on TikTok). When you’re experiencing the brilliance Iceland has to offer, it’s also good to know where you can go if you want to cook for yourself or you run out of something you need for everyday life.
Grocery stores can be overwhelming even in your own country, let alone in a new land where everything is in a different language. Luckily we’ve got you covered with this complete guide to groceries in Iceland. Read on to find out more.
Where to Buy Groceries in Iceland
Iceland might sound like a big wide wilderness, and in some cases, it is, but it’s actually really easy to find groceries in most places, especially when you consider how small the country’s population is. In the capital city of Reykjavík, there are grocery stores all over.
Most neighbourhoods also have a local ‘corner store’, or in Icelandic, it is called ‘Kaupmaðurinn á horninu’ (the shop guy on the corner) or ‘Kjörbuðin’ (the casual word for supermarket). Many Icelanders believe in supporting local businesses, so they often try to shop at their local store as much as they can.
What Groceries Are Available in Iceland?
Although Iceland is an island and relies on imports for a great deal of its grocery items, most things you need to survive daily life are here. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, importing does mean that the selection is less affected by the seasons. To make an example, in mainland Europe, often it’s hard to find something like spinach in the springtime because it’s not the season for it, but you are likely to find it all year round in Icelandic supermarkets.
Iceland does have its own greenhouses for producing some fruits and vegetables, so it’s definitely possible to buy local tomatoes, cucumbers, berries and leafy greens.
One thing you may be surprised by is the lack of variety in milk. If you go into an Icelandic supermarket, there will be many different kinds of milk, but usually, they are all the same brand. This is because there is one company that has a bit of a monopoly on the dairy industry. This is an interesting conversation that’s probably best saved for a chat with a local over a few drinks. But on the other hand, Icelandic supermarkets have a huge variety from different international brands of plant based milk. If you do not want to support the dairy monopoly in Iceland, think twice and buy plant based milk.
There are some things you won’t find in Icelandic supermarkets. Alcohol is not allowed to be sold in the supermarket in Iceland. If you see beer in the grocery store, it is either alcohol-free or lite beer. Icelandic law prohibits the sale of alcohol outside of special government-owned stores called ‘Vinbúðin’ (or the ‘wine store’). These are located all around the country and are usually only open from Monday to Saturday.
If you suddenly have a headache, don’t rush to a grocery store for some paracetamol or ibuprofen because they won’t have it. In countries like the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, these are easily available in grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations. In Iceland, paracetamol and ibuprofen are only sold at pharmacies, and they are usually closed on Sundays, so if you think you might end up having a headache on a Sunday, it’s best to plan ahead.
Some supermarkets also don’t stock tobacco products; this isn’t necessarily because they’re not allowed to; it’s just a choice the business makes. Service stations and corner stores usually always have cigarettes for sale.
What Are the Best Grocery Shops in Iceland?
The answer to this question really depends on personal preference. There are a number of grocery store chains in Iceland, and each has its specific quirks or benefits, so here’s a brief summary of a few of them.
Bónus is the most popular budget supermarket chain in the country. Some could say the store’s pig mascot is a bit of a national icon, especially when a small update to his appearance sparked a national conversation. The general feeling of Bónus is basic items that everyone needs at a lower cost. It’s a favourite for people who want to stock up on essentials for their travels around the country.
Krónan is similar in price to Bónus, but it is known for having a larger variety of speciality items and health foods. Krónan is one of the safest options for shoppers who might be looking for vegan food items.
Similar to Krónan and Bónus, Nettó offers budget groceries but also other household items. One of their big selling points is that quite a few of their stores are open 24/7.
Hagkaup is generally perceived by Icelanders to be a little bit more expensive than the other grocery stores. This is the store where you are more likely to find something you haven’t seen anywhere else. Hagkaup is the kind of grocery store you would go to if you want some nice upmarket items for a picnic. Hagkaup is also known for having longer opening hours and even having some 24/7 locations.
10-11, or ‘Tíu Ellefu’ as it is known in Icelandic, is basically a convenience store which means that most of the things there will be at typical ‘convenience store prices.’ To put it simply, back home, you probably wouldn’t do your weekly grocery shop at 7/11, but if you run out of toilet paper on a Sunday, it’s nice to have one nearby. This is basically the same case with 10-11.
Iceland has a Costco! Yep, in 2017, Costco opened its first Icelandic store. The warehouse is located in Garðarbær, about 13km outside of Reykjavík, just opposite Ikea. The goods available at Costco Iceland mirror the kinds in other countries; a mix of household goods, groceries and discounted items like clothing, shoes and camping supplies. Remember you must have a membership to enter, and its distance from the capital means it’s probably better for those who have rented a car.
Where Can I Stop For Groceries Outside of Reykjavik?
For those travelling to Iceland for vacation or adventure, it’s nice to know that the capital has grocery stores, but in reality, that’s not where they’ll be spending most of their time.
Outside of the capital, most towns have at least one major grocery store and several smaller local supermarkets. In really isolated places, often the local service station also sells general groceries and sometimes even has an alcohol store attached to it.
To make sure you’re never left without food or items you need, it’s a good idea to look at where you might be heading and check ahead. See where the nearest grocery store is and when it closes. Most of the country has pretty decent cell phone service when driving along Route 1, so this can even be done by a passenger en route.
What Traditional Icelandic Foods Can I Buy?
Iceland has most of the foods the world has to offer. It’s easy to grab some fish and chips or Lebanese food most days of the week in bigger towns, especially Reykjavík, and the country has an incredibly thriving restaurant scene; there are, however, some very uniquely Icelandic delicacies you should try to sample while visiting here.
Some of them are delicious, some aren’t for those with weak stomachs, but all of them are as Icelandic as the volcanic hills.
There aren’t really any native land mammals in Iceland. For this reason, when the first settlers arrived, they relied primarily on the ocean to provide them with sustenance. Today, the people of Iceland still have a strong relationship with fish and the fishing industry.
Locally caught fish is one of the freshest and most cost-effective meats you can buy in Iceland.
Kleinur is a pastry that’s a little bit like a fried doughnut and is often flavoured with vanilla or cardamom. Most cafés will have a beautifully stacked cake tray filled with these treats that all Icelanders go crazy for.
This is a desert that asks the question, ‘Why choose between candy and ice cream when you can have both, all mixed together. The name Bragðarefur literally translates to ‘Tricky Fox’, and it’s a soft serve vanilla ice cream with any number of combinations of candy mixed in. Basically, it’s like a McFlurry, but bigger and with no limitations on what you can add.
Although Iceland is a rather cold country, ice cream is a pretty popular dish; in fact, it’s considered one of the most common meals shared on a first date in the land of fire and ice.
This is that food that you’ve probably already heard about. Yep, it’s the fermented shark. Hákarl is actually just the Icelandic word for shark, and this particular delicacy dates back a really long time.
In the early days of settlement, there wasn’t a lot of food, so the first Icelanders had to think of inventive ways to not starve to death. One way was to eat the Greenland shark; there’s just one problem, this particular meat has such a high concentration of uric acid in it that eating it is fatal unless it’s fermented.
The shark is fermented for a considerable amount of time, and the end result is a taste and smell you’ll never forget. It’s normally served as a small cube on a toothpick with a side of Brennivín (Icelandic Aquavit) to wash it down.
Some Icelanders say they actually enjoy the taste; the rest call them liars. Either way, this is one of those foods you kind of have to try if you come to Iceland just so you can say you did.
Svið: Sheep’s Head
If you love lamb, this particular dish is delicious but might be a little hard to look at. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a full sheep’s head, cooked to perfection and served on a plate with some mashed potato and salted peas.
This is the Icelandic equivalent of a Sunday roast. It’s not something people eat every week, but a lot of Icelanders see svið as a very special meal filled with beautiful family memories.
Pylsa: The Icelandic Hotdog
This isn’t what most people would expect when it comes to local delicacies, but the hot dog is as Icelandic as hot springs, Björk and loving Eurovision. The Icelandic word for hotdog is Pylsa, the influences of the modern Icelandic weiner are believed to have originally come from Denmark, but the modern Icelandic sausage is its own recipe. What sets them apart from regular hotdogs is that they are made from a blend of beef, lamb and pork.
The best place to grab one is from the most famous hotdog stand in the country, ‘Bæjarins Betzu’, just near the Harpa Concert Hall. For a truly authentic experience, ask for ‘Einn með öllum’ (one with the lot).
Skyr is Iceland’s own version of yoghurt. This dairy snack is filled with protein and is a great source of protein. It can be plain or flavoured and can even be used in cooking in place of cream as a healthier alternative.
Flatkaka með Hangikjöti: Flatbread with Sliced Smoked Lamb
This is the most Icelandic sandwich you will ever try. Flatkaka is Iceland’s version of flatbread, it’s sort of halfway between a tortilla and a pita, but it has a very smoky flavour. The most common way people enjoy it is with a kind of preserved lamb called ‘hangikjöt’, which literally means ‘hanging meat’ due to the way it hangs as it is cured.
If you’re a meat-eater, this is one of the most typical local things you could possibly try. It’s also great for travel because it doesn’t take up a lot of space and is good for a snack on the go.
Harðfiskur: Dry Fish with Butter
Harsh living conditions have given the world some of the most useful and common foods and food storage practices. Pickling and canning are all innovations that came out of trying to make food last longer, and the early settlers of Iceland tried their hand at getting the most out of their fish. The end result is Harðfiskur which is basically like jerky that’s just dried fish fillets.
Harðfiskur is chewy, flakey and salty all at the same time. It’s normally enjoyed with butter as a snack or something to nibble on. It’s packed with protein and has a strong fishy flavour. It’s also adored by cats and dogs, so it’s a treat the whole family can enjoy.
Kjötsúpa: Lamb Meat Soup
Kjötsúpa is a quintessential Icelandic dish. It is a hearty stew made with broth, root vegetables and small cuts of meat, usually lamb. This is the kind of soup locals crave as comfort food, and many bars and cafes will serve it with crusty bread as an easy lunch special.
What Are the Cheapest Grocery Stores in Iceland?
Generally speaking, the cheapest supermarket in Iceland is Bónus. It regularly comes up as the least expensive option for visitors and locals in surveys.
One other way to save money when grocery shopping in Iceland is to plan ahead. Make a list of the items you need, and try to be realistic about what you think you’re going to be able to find when you get here. Perhaps you’re not going to easily find organic portobello mushrooms, but there are usually Icelandic white mushrooms ready to go.
It can help to google the translations of certain foods, so you know what to look for when you get there, and don’t be afraid to take a brand you’ve never seen before, brand loyalty might give you comfort, but it can often mean that you spend more on a product simply because you prefer that brand.
How Expensive Are Groceries in Iceland?
Iceland has a reputation for being an expensive country to visit, but this doesn’t mean that every single thing here is priced much higher than everywhere else. In general, regular daily grocery items like bread, milk and toilet paper aren’t that much different in price to what you would see in the US, UK, Australia or New Zealand. You would probably notice a bit of a difference coming from mainland European countries like France or Spain, where food is cheaper in general.
Alcohol and tobacco are definitely going to be noticeably more expensive here. For example, if you’re a wine lover, you’re probably not going to find a bottle of decent white or red for less than 1700 isk (12€/$13USD/£10).
The biggest tips for grocery shopping in Iceland are to plan ahead, don’t shy away from budget brands like Euroshopper, and when it comes to fresh produce, choose local.
Does Iceland Have a Good Variety of Food?
Compared to a lot of other countries in Europe, Iceland has a pretty decent variety of food. The influx of immigrants from all over the world in the past few decades has brought with it different culinary needs that supermarkets are always trying to cater to.
Icelandic businesses also understand how much tourism the country receives each year, and supermarkets reflect the needs of tourists in what they stock on the shelves. You will also find that most supermarket attendants speak some level of English, and it’s very likely they might also speak other languages like French, Spanish, Thai, Polish, Chinese, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and German.
As for vegetarians and those with special dietary requirements, Iceland is a nation of people who know what’s going on in the world. Many tourists have been shocked to find that it’s much easier to find things like gluten-free bread or vegan cheese in an Icelandic supermarket than it is in a big city like Paris in France.
Not everyone loves shopping for groceries, but when you’re lucky enough to do it in a foreign land as you prepare for the adventure of a lifetime, it has a whole new feel to it. Shopping for your own food when visiting Iceland isn’t just something that will save you money; it will allow you to get to know the everyday elements of life for this little island nation and its fascinating people.