Iceland is probably one of the most mythical, and in part, misunderstood countries in the world. With only about 350.000 inhabitants—more than two-thirds of whom live in or around the capital—, Iceland has the smallest population (relative to its size) of all of Europe. While officially a part of Scandinavia, Iceland is not attached to the mainland and, thus, geographically isolated, as it’s not even notably close to any other state. Based on this, you might assume life on the island to be rather boring. Believe it or not, though, Iceland is anything but.
Home to a vibrant creative scene, breathtaking landscapes and warmhearted, adventurous people, Iceland should most definitely be on your radar if it wasn’t before—and not just because it’s where avant garde music icon Björk grew up.
Nonetheless, the country’s citizens have differing opinions when it comes to their homeland. In an attempt to find out more about the fascinating country—particularly its pulsating capital Reykjavík—, the Icelandic way of life, and why or why not it’s a trip worth taking, we talked to a handful of island-natives and had them share some insider-knowledge.
Brynhildur “Bryn” Sigurðardóttir – a 21-year old dancer and choreographer
Þórður Ingi Jónsson, a.k.a. Lord Pusswhip – a 24-year old Icelandic musician and journalist
Eygló Margrét Lárusdóttir – a 36-year old fashion designer and owner of the shop “Kiosk“
Kría Daníelsdóttir – a 28-year old barista/environmental activist, who left his home country at the young age of 18 and has—after lots of traveling and re-settling in Reykjavík for a few years—since set camp in Berlin
What are a couple of adjectives to describe the overall “spirit” of Reykjavík and its people?
Bryn: People find Reykjavík to be very welcoming and warm. Night Life can be wild—Icelanders love to party.
Þórður: Pretty laid-back to the point of passiveness.
Eygló: Spontanious, fun, expensive, artsy, not scandinavian.
Kría: Optimistic, hard working, ignorant, friendly, drunk but also defeated by the political situation and torn because of the booming tourist industry and its affect on the city, especially the center.
Where are the places to be in Reykjavík? Are there any parts of the city younger people naturally gravitate towards?
Þórður: The downtown area. It’s very small though.
Bryn: Downtown Reykjavík is the most active and vibrant part of the city. During the day you can find us in our local coffee houses—Reykjavík Roasters, for instance—and by night we come together at bars or events in and around the city. What makes Reykjavík so special and unique is that everything is within walking distance. So, going from one place to another is very easy. If you are looking for fun places to go out for dinner you’ll find the locals at restaurants like Sushi Social, Tapasbarinn, Grillmarkaðurinn and Apótek restaurant, and Hlemmur food court. If you have a sweet tooth go check out Brauð&co. They are known to have the best cinnamon bon rolls in Iceland.
Eygló: Agreed, the city center. But it’s pretty damn small, so all ages come together. Prikið for younger people and Kaffibarinn for older people seem to hold up well. Whenever I go out I like to look for and attend new art openings or the like, which usually occur between Thursdays and Saturdays.
Kría: Younger people tend to hang out and live mostly downtown and towards the east and west side of the center, although people were forced to move to the outskirts in recent years because of the increasing tourism. I remember I would drive to those outskirts to have a view of the city lights from afar to have that feeling of being in a bigger city.
What are popular activities for people living in Reykjavík and/or visiting?
Þórður: The swimming pools. Here in Iceland, they’re a bit different than elsewhere, even though some people go there to swim I think most people go to chill in the hot tubs or Saunas.
Eygló: Hiking or biking I would say. Just joined a hiking group myself. I can feel the midlife crisis entering my life [laughs].
Bryn: During the winter give yourself time to visit Akureyri, it’s the heart of the north. Hiking during the summer is very popular in Iceland because there are so many places to see that you can’t reach by car. For example, a very popular place in Iceland is Reykjadalur it is a one hour walk down into the valley to a geothermal river. Horseback riding is also a very popular sport amongst Icelanders. If you have time go see local ranches.
Kría: Swimming pools, day-tours, hikes, trips to natural hot springs, drinking third wave coffee and walking around Downtown Reykjavík in GoreTex mountain wear.
Is Iceland expensive compared to other European countries?
Eygló: Iceland is expensive compared to the whole world. I was surprised at how cheap Tokyo was when I went there a year ago. That says a lot.
Bryn: Exactly. Be prepared to have to spend a lot of money in Iceland. Food, Gas, clothes, transportation and other expenses are very high. Eating out is very expensive, that’s why I always recommend to people to rent an apartment rather than stay at a hotel because then you can cook some days rather than eating out every night.
Kría: Iceland is most definetely expensive. Prices are similar if not the same for everything in the whole country. That’s a problem, particularly for young People living there. Returing to Iceland a couple of years ago, before coming to Berlin, it was already a struggle for me to find housing and food felt really expensive. I’d say the struggle has only increased since then.
Dos and Don’ts when out and about?
Kría: Do: Leave town. Don´t: Walk on the main shopping street downtown in GoreTex with walking sticks and wander into peoples living rooms in dirty hiking boots and ask for directions. This legit happened to a friend [laughs].
Þórður: Don’t: succumb to the sex tourism myth – Icelandic girls don’t want to fuck you more than girls in other countries, even if you read it on the internet. Also, try to be safe downtown late at night as it can get rowdy and violent.
Bryn: When traveling in Iceland it’s very important to be aware of the weather conditions. Always look at the weather forecast before planning the day and always dress appropriately when traveling. It is important to also take extra clothes because you really never know what to expect in Iceland. Follow directions and signs when driving in the Highlands country; they are there for a reason. Also, we Icelanders love and respect our island and wish tourists do the same. If we want to preserve and protect the beautiful nature we have to act accordingly.
Eygló: Just don´t be an asshole, everything else is fine.
How do Icelanders feel about emigration and immigration, respectively?
Bryn: I’d say most people are very welcoming toward immigrants but there has been talk about taxes being used to help people in the first stages of moving to Iceland and that has stirred up some controversy amongst people. Especially since both our education system and health system need to be taken care of.
Emigration is not uncommon in Iceland and it is normal for people to move to other northern countries like Norway or Denmark. It is, in some way, even a part of our culture.
Þórður: My generation is very open towards immigration but there’s a lot of both closeted and open racism. The Immigration Department was originally founded by Icelandic Nazis and they keep breaking the promise of the Dublin Regulation, making it very tough for immigrants.
Eygló: It just really depends who you talk to. If you talk to a young person who lives downtown, for example, there’s a 90% chance they’re very pro-immigration. A lot of people in Iceland are surprisingly afraid of foreigners, though. We basically have the lowest unemployment rate ever and I heard somewhere that we need about three to four thousand people to come to Iceland to work. The tourist boom has been so immense that we need a lot of people to work in hotels and restaurants.
How would you describe the overall political climate?
Eygló: Icelanders have a bit of a goldfish memory when it comes to politics. Following a financial crisis a couple of years ago, we’ve been electing and re-electing constantly. It seems to be rather stable now, though, with the left and right working together under the 41-year-old prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir who is one of the most liked politicians over here.
Þórður: I’d call it disappointing. We have right-wing oligarchs that have controlled the country for a century and continue to control it even though the myth is that we are some sort of left-wing feminist paradise.
Bryn: True. The politics in Iceland are quite corrupt in a sense. The government has been controlled by the same people year after year. It seems, too, that people of Iceland, especially our younger generation, have lost all interest in politics.
How do Icelanders position themselves towards LGBTQ+-related topics? Does Iceland have an LGBTQ+-scene?
Eygló: Yeah we do. Drag shows are hosted regularly downtown. We have gay pride every year and I think people are very open minded towards LGBTQ+-topics. Our 2008-elected prime minister is a lesbian and no one thought it to be a big deal. It wasn’t until it attracted foreign press that it was even talked about.
Bryn: I agree. Iceland has a very positive outlook towards LGBTQ+. The National Queer Organization of Iceland, samtökin ´78, have a great influence on the Icelandic community and have done a great job at informing the public about LGBTQ+-issues. They often hold seminars and have a strong relationship with the Icelandic school system. And Gay Pride feels like one of the most celebrated days in Iceland. Everybody comes together downtown to watch the parade and loves it.
Þórður: However, it does tend to feel quite homogenous and non-intersectional, as you can probably imagine. I’m hopeful for my generation but I can’t help but feel like a lot of people are still pretty backward about a lot of social issues, even though performatively they would like you to think otherwise.
What are some cult places, like galleries, clubs, etc?
Bryn: You can find stuff all around the city. Gallery-wise, the most popular places would be the Art Museum of Einar Jónsson, the Art Museum of Reykjavík, National Museum of Iceland and the National Gallery of Iceland.
Bars and Clubs are easy to come by in downtown Reykjavík. The most popular places I’d say are B5, Austur, American Bar, Kaffibarinn, Pablo disco bar, Hverfisbarinn, and more. Prikið is home to great music and live shows. It’s small but they always know how to throw a party and the locals love it. Kiki the queer bar is also a local favorite they have the best dance floor in the city and always know how to have a good time.
Þórður: Yeah, Prikið is the go-to place downtown – it’s a bar/café and the hip-hop hub of the city.
Eygló: For galleries, I’d say Gallery Port, EkkiSens. Mengi for music, Vinyl for vegan food, Bismút for coffee. BarAnanas is a tropical-themed bar—because we need that here. [laughs] I’m also super excited about a new bar called Miami.
Kría: The harbour area has been developing and re-appropriated from old fishing and net repair sheds to café´s and restaurants and is worth checking out. The techno and electronic music scene have been blossoming lately, but the lack of proper club spaces is definitely a hindrance and a lot of musicians have consequently decided to leave the country. Berlin is especially popular for music producers.
Are there any Reykjavík-based artists popular in- and/or outside of Iceland that come to mind?
Bryn: Baltasar Kormákur, the director and filmmaker has worked on a lot of movies in and outside of Iceland. Internationally well-known artists from Iceland would be Björk, Of Monsters And Men, Sigurrós and Ólafur Arnalds. Locally famous artists would be Aron Can, Emmsjé Gauti, Jói pé & Króli and Ásgeir Traustia, and famous painters would be Argunnur Ýr, Jón Sæmundur Auðarson and Heimir Björgúlfsson.
Þórður: Ragnar Kjartansson is probably the most interesting and successful visual artist at the moment. Bjarki is popping off in the techno scene and Icelandic black metal as a whole is worth mentioning, too.
Eygló: I’ve been listening to a lot of Vök and Samaris lately. One of my favorite fine artists would have to be Þrándur Þórarinsson. He paints in this “older”, more traditional kind of style but enhanced with a modern, even humoristic twist. I love his piece he did with the comedian Hugleikur Dagsson of men looking at unicorns fucking behind a bush. Viðar Logi and Anna Maggý are extremely talented young photographers.
So, would you consider Reykjavik to have vibrant creative Scene?
Eygló: Yes definitely. We have a huge design festival in March called DesignMarch—totally worth coming to Iceland at that time. Plus, we have 3 huge music festivals every year: Iceland Airwaves, Sonar and Secret Solstice Festival.
Kría: It definitely does. A lot of artists and musicians reside downtown where most venues and galleries are. It´s almost impossible to earn a living as an artist, though, so most people are forced to work other jobs on the side. But people are very active in organising events and independent art and music festivals.
Þórður: Sure, but I feel it might be going through a low period now. A lot of artists have moved away from Iceland.
Bryn: In my opinion, yes, absolutely, we have a very vibrant creative scene. Iceland has a strong relationship with the arts and there are many other festivals that are held by the city such as Reykjavík International Film Festival, Reykjavík Fashion Festival, Reykjavík Arts Festival and Reykjavík Dance Festival. Our creative scene is vast and we have a lot of talented people working in all fields. I find our creative scene to be progressive and original and we show a lot of appreciation towards the different crafts.
What about some sort of an underground movement?
Þórður: I’m sad to say there is no underground and no real club scene in Iceland. The last place that could constitute as the both, Faktorý, was torn down to make ways for a tourist hotel. Let’s face it: the party scene here sucks, aside from a couple of good music festivals. The only promoter trying to do something interesting is Geoffrey at Prikið. But other than that, I think it’s pretty awful.
Kría: A lot of what you’d consider ‘underground’ happens outside of Reykjavík. Lunga is a workshop and art festival held in the east, in the town of Seyðisfjörður, mid-summer. An electronic music festival called Extreme Chill used to be held in a beautiful village on the Snæfellsnes-peninsula under a glacier.
Bryn: Iceland is so small that it would be hard to maintain an underground movement because it would break the surface really quickly.
Eygló: Unfortunately, anything underground-esque happens quite rarely, if ever. Most of what happens is advertised and promoted through Facebook. It´s just such a small place, you know? I like that about it, but, at times, it can feel like a blessing and a curse.
Photography by Viðar Logi