What is Icelandic Culture?   Skip to content
Reykjavík at dawn
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík skyline.

What is Icelandic Culture?  

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Despite being home to just under 400,000 people, the Nordic nation of Iceland has a compelling, ancient, and fascinating island culture, one enriched by the Icelandic people’s passion for music, art, literature, and sport.

Iceland’s natural landscapes are what the country is known for, at least as far as its millions of foreign visitors are concerned. But many do not expect how intricate and deeply rooted the culture here is. 

There are signs of it everywhere, from its historic architecture to the great variety of live music and comedy events dotted across the capital, Reykjavík

Then there is the local film and television, not to mention the veritable treasure-trove of literature, all of it intertwined with and celebrating the foundation of this young and vibrant nation – the Icelandic language!

So, what are the origins of Iceland’s cultural heritage, and how do they continue to shape the country we know and love today?

Icelandic History & Heritage 

power lifting in iceland
Photo: Golli. A power lifter in Iceland.

The history of Iceland began with early settlers from Norway. While they might have arrived as the iconic vikings, they settled into the lives of farmers and fishermen, deriving sustenance from the frigid waves of the surrounding seas, and using the once-abundant forests for fuel and ship-building.

Developing an independent and self-sufficient society was no easy feat in Iceland’s earliest days. With a lack of food, bitter disputes between clans, and inhospitable weather, the odds were stacked against any person daring enough to call this new found land home. 

At various points in history, Denmark and Norway both held power over Iceland. The Icelandic Commonwealth came to an end when the Norwegian monarchy urged the Icelanders to swear fealty in fealty in 1262. This agreement was known as the Old Covenant. Formally, Iceland was owned by Norway until 1814, but in actuality, the Kalmar Union meant that the Crown of Denmark had enormous political sway from as early as 1380. It was only in 1874 that Iceland gained home rule from Denmark. 

During the Second World War, in 1940, Great Britain occupied Iceland to protect its people, and to deny Germany an important tactical position between the United States and Europe. After only one year, the Americans took over this responsibility. While the occupation was a contentious issue in Iceland, it was largely peaceful and cooperative, with much urban development achieved in these years.

The Alþingi – Iceland’s historical government

Þingvellir
Photo: Golli. Þingvellir National Park

The Alþingi is often touted as the first democratically-elected parliament in the world, having formed in 930 AD. In Iceland’s formative years, various clans from all across the country would join to discuss new laws, solve disputes, and form new alliances.

Visitors can discover where the historical Alþingi was held, every two years since its formation, at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Þingvellir National Park. This unique and gorgeous area is an important part of the famed Golden Circle sightseeing route in west Iceland. 

The Icelandic Language 

 

Fairly unchanged from the Old Norse spoken by Iceland’s earliest settlers, Icelandic is a North-Germanic language. It is part of the Indo-European language family, but thanks to Iceland’s isolation, many words and grammatical rules from Old Norse are still used in day-to-day conversation. 

Icelandic has many distinct characters – á, é, í, ó, ú, ý, and ö – each of which has a distinctive pronunciation. As such, Icelandic writing is particularly phonetic. It is also a conservative language, meaning that there is a big resistance to changing it among local speakers. For example, the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies is one such body that pushes for inventing new Icelandic words rather than adopting those from other languages. 

Icelandic Literature 

A man reading in a book shop corner.
Photo: Golli. A man reading in a book shop corner.

By and large, Icelanders have a deep love of literature, brought about through a great tradition of written stories, and enforced as a beloved pastime in the winter months. During Christmas, the community engages in Jólabókaflóð (Christmas Book Flood) where many manuscripts are published, ready to be shared as gifts between family members and friends. 

In 2011, Reykjavík joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. In collaboration with the Icelandic Publishing Association, the City of Literature office holds the Reykjavík Book Fair, which allows locals and guests to take part in readings, workshops, and discussions about the nation’s latest literary offerings. This wholesome event is great for adults and childrens alike, so check it out if you have an interest in storytelling.

The Icelandic Sagas

Goðafoss waterfall
Photo: Golli. Goðafoss waterfall

While challenging to read, and even more difficult to understand from a cultural and thematic standpoint, the Icelandic Sagas provide, perhaps, the greatest insights into the development of Icelandic culture throughout history. The sagas were written by many different people, but most commonly, Snorri Sturluson is cited as one of the more prolific of their scribes. 

Many sagas were written during Iceland’s mediaeval period, so they can be broken down into various categories. The sagas of the Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) document the daily lives and stories of local people, emphasising their familial relationships, and place within Icelandic society as a whole. Arguably, Njála (Njála saga) and Egil’s Saga (Egils saga) are the best known examples from this category. 

Then there are the legendary Sagas (Fornaldarsögur). These focus on tales from Norse Mythology; of Odin, Thor, Frigg, Loki, and many others. A few sagas divulge more about Icelandic folklore in particular, mentioning the supernatural creatures said to dot this island. Trolls and elves. Hidden people. The Völsunga saga would be your first point of reference for learning more about the body of myths first written about in Iceland.  

Kings’ Sagas (Konungasögur) trace the lives of various Norwegian kings, as well as others across Scandinavia. These are, more likely, of interest to academic historians. But they still offer an interesting look at the political reality of life in Iceland between the 9th to 11th centuries. 

Modern Icelandic Literature 

book bookstore Icelandic literature bækur
Photo: Golli. A book store in Reykjavík

As history moved on, so did Iceland’s contribution to the world of literature. The late Halldór Kiljan Laxness is considered to be Iceland’s most esteemed writer, having won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel, Independent People (Sjálfstætt fólk,) first published in 1934. 

Two of Laxness’ other important novels are The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannáll, 1957) and The Atom Station (Atómstöðin, 1948). While the first is beloved both here and abroad for its simple, yet lyrical style, The Atom Station caused quite a stir upon publication for its description of an abortion and supposed communist sympathies.

Another bonafide Icelandic classic is The News From Home (Fregnaðurinn er að heiman, 1952) by Guðrún Baldvina Árnadóttir; better known as Guðrún frá Lundi. This keenly observant novel tells of Icelandic immigrants in North America, detailing the cultural shift they face as they adapt to living in the new world.

Naturally, with so many Icelandic authors published each year, the list of writers worthy of a mention grows at an almost exponential rate. Both Icelandic culture and its nature are subjects rich for exploration as far as prose is concerned, so it is little wonder that many names have become recognised outside of its borders. Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are both known for their crime-fiction, while Sjón has made a name for himself in not over novel-writing, but also screenwriting, music, and poetry.

Icelandic Music

Dancing in an Icelandic nightclub
Photo: Golli. People enjoying Iceland’s nightlife.

Iceland is well-known globally for its music, bringing to the listening public an artistry and technical skill that has gained many die hard admirers. Despite that, Icelanders have an enduring love for the Eurovision Song Competition, despite never having won themselves. Still, their optimism is admirable, and over recent years, acts like Hatari and Daði Freyr have brought them ever closer to the victory they so crave. 

Back when punk music was breaking new ground, the Icelanders were quick to add their own spin on this anarchic genre. To this day, punk remains an important part of Iceland’s musical history. One only need look at Iceland’s Eurovision entry a few years ago – the demonically stylish Hatari who blend punk with industrial and techno music in what is this country’s latest adaptation of the genre. 

The most authentic location to learn more about it is at the Icelandic Punk Museum (Pönksafn Íslands), a small and quirky establishment built inside an abandoned public bathroom on Bankastræti in downtown Reykjavík. 

Those who do not have the time to fit a visit into their schedule should seek out the 1982 documentary, Rokk í Reykjavík, directed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson. This cool and fascinating catalogue of musical acts captures early footage of Björk when she was part of her original band, Tappi Tikarrass, as well as many other local favourites. 

Who are the most famous musicians in Iceland? 

björk 1997
Björk in concert, 1997. CC. Wikimedia Commons

Some of Iceland’s musical acts have received more recognition abroad than others. In that regard, the country has no more famous musical export than Björk

Avant-garde. Experimental. Eccentric. All of these words could be used to describe Björk’s approach to music. With her willingness to push the boundaries of what is expected in terms of tracks, album art, and stage presence, it is no wonder that her early roles in various punk bands quickly transcended to one of the most acclaimed solo acts of all time. 

Another huge Icelandic name abroad is Sigur Rós, popular for their ethereal tones, minimalist approach to classicism, and sometimes nonsensical lyrics. Speaking of their lyrics, the lines in many of Sigur Rós’ tracks are known to be a strange blend of Icelandic and English, coined as Vonlenska by the lead singer, Jónsi. 

In the world of blues-inspired rock n’ roll, it is Kaleo who dominates the scene. Led by the handsome, charismatic, and immensely talented Jökull Júlíusson, this band’s take on americana has garnered fans across the world. 

 

The indie/folk rock band, Of Monsters and Men, recently celebrated the ten-year anniversary of their debut album, My Head Is an Animal. The band has achieved huge levels of success, both at home and abroad. Quite the leap since they first won Músíktilraunir – Iceland’s very own Battle of the Bands competition – in 2010. 

Who are other popular Icelandic musicians?

Outside the world of pop music, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson was among Iceland’s better known composers. He created soundtracks to many acclaimed movies, including The Theory Of Everything (2014), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), and Mandy (2018). 

2024 Grammy-winner, Laufey Lín Bing Jónsdóttir – known simply as Laufey – is the latest big star out of Iceland. At fifteen years old, she performed as part of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on the cello before making a name for herself on talent-based reality shows, Iceland’s Got Talent and The Voice: Iceland. She has since released two acclaimed soulful-jazz albums, Everything I Know About Love (2022) and Bewitched (2023).

Music Festivals in Iceland 

Iceland Airwaves 2018
Photo: Golli. Iceland Airwaves 2018

By now, we’ve covered that the Icelanders not only have a great passion for music, but also an innate talent. No wonder then that this island puts on many excellent festivals throughout the year. Some are focused on local artists. Others pul in bigger acts from around the world. 

Iceland Airwaves is a mix of the two. For four days in early November, both new and beloved acts grace venues all across Reykjavík. It’s an event that provide festival-goers with more intimate performances than they might otherwise find elsewhere. Previous stars from abroad include Fatboy Slim, The Kills, Ratatat, Yoko Ono, and Sinéad O’Connor. As far as local talent goes, the bigger names from form line-ups include Björk, GusGus, Hatari, and Daði Freyr. 

Fans of electronic music – experimental, techno, or house – will want to book tickets for Sónar Reykjavík. On the other end of the musical, and geographical, scale, Eistnaflug Festival showcases the best of Icelandic Heavy-Metal, held in the tiny eastern town of Neskaupstaður each year. 

There are many other small festivals that take place throughout the year, counting Reykjavík Folk Festival, Reykjavík Jazz Festival, and Nordic Music Days.

Icelandic Film & Television 

Still shot from 'Against the Ice'
Photo: Icelandic Film Centre. Still from ‘Against the Ice’

Compared to other countries, Iceland has what is still considered to be a burgeoning film and television industry. But, of course, that’s not to say there are not a wealth of locally-made films and shows worthy of a mention.

Cinema in Iceland 

 

Nowadays, Baltasar Kormákur is considered Iceland’s most-acclaimed film director. Breaking through, his first major film was 101 Reykjavík, a dark romantic comedy set in Reykjavík, and released in 2000. Two years later, he directed another Icelandic film called The Sea, which dealt with the personal issues of a wealthy fishing family. 

Following these local productions, Kormákur began to direct films for international audiences. A Little Trip to Heaven, starring Forest Whitakker and Jeremy Renner, was released in 2005. One year later, he directed the crime-film Jar City (Mýrin), based on the aforementioned Arnaldur Indriðason novel. 

More recently, viewers will know him as the director of films like Everest (2015) and 2 Guns (2013), as well as the creator of the show Trapped and the Netflix-production, Katla

 

Another important Icelandic director is Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, who shot such local classics as Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar, 1991,) the only Icelandic film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. He is also the mind behind the influential music documentary, Rock in Reykjavík (Rokk í Reykjavík, 1981.)

In the last couple of decades, there have been other notable films out of Iceland, including Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss, 2013,) Rams (Hrútar, 2015,) Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, 2018,) Metalhead (Málmhaus, 2013,) and Under the Tree (Undir trénu, 2017.)

Iceland in Hollywood movies

Many Hollywood films have used Iceland as a filming location. Some have even gone so far as to make it the major setting. Two great examples where Iceland played a major role are the Ben Stiller comedy drama, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) and the Will Ferrell – Rachel McAdams comedy, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020.) 

However, in terms of pure setting, you can spot Iceland in such films as James Bond: Die Another Day (2002,) Justice League (2017,) The Fate of the Furious (2017,) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015,) and many, many more. 

The Best TV Shows from Iceland 

Ráðherrann The Minister Ólafur Darri
Photo: Sagafilm/Facebook. Actor Óafur Darri of “Trapped” fame in 2020 TV series “The Minister”

One of the best known television dramas to come out of Iceland over the last few years is the crime-noir series, Trapped, starring the trio of acclaimed locally-born actors, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson. The show was developed by Baltasar Kormákur, and ran for three seasons. As of now, there is no word as to whether the show will return, but fans across the world are eagerly awaiting news. 

In the meantime, there is another beloved crime show that does not stray far from the Icelandic ambience. The fourth season of US-drama, True Detective, stars Jodie Foster and used Iceland as its primary shooting location, standing in for the US state of Alaska. Thanks to the dark ambience and snowy setting, only eagle-eyed viewers will be able to discern which places in Iceland the show was filmed.

Film Festivals in Iceland

 

We now know about Iceland’s contributions to the big screen. Little surprise then that there are many great film festivals held throughout the year. Founded in 2004, Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF) is the biggest, running for 11-days each year. The festival awards the prestigious Golden Puffin to the discovery of the year, as voted for by an international jury. 

Other important cinematic events that take place each year include: Stockfish Film Festival. Northern Wave International Film Festival.  Akureyri International Film Festival (AKIFF).

Icelandic Art 

 

There are a number of famous artists who have lived and worked in Iceland. These include the pop-art maestro, Erró, the expressionist painter, Nína Tryggvadóttir, and the acclaimed sculptor, Einar Jónsson. Frankly, there are so many Icelandic artists in circulation that writing them all here would be impossible. A better option would be to get involved in Iceland’s art scene yourself.

One way to do this is to pop into the many galleries and art shops found around the country. Also, Reykjavík Arts Festival (Listahátíð Reykjavíkur) is a fantastic stop for those seeking to know how the Icelanders creatively express themselves. Founded in 1970, the festival is a biennial event held in June. 

Art Museums in Iceland 

Hafnarhús art museum
Photo: Golli. Hafnarhús is one of the museums in Reykjavík

Art-lovers will find many places across Iceland to appreciate the beauty of local work. For example, the National Gallery of Iceland, Reykjavík Art Museum, and the Living Art Museum are all fantastic locations to appreciate classic and modern art pieces. 

When it comes to sculpture, visitors should stop by the Einar Jónsson Museum (Listasafn Einars Jónssonar). It is located nearby to the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church, making it a quick stop downtown. 

And for those interested in how the camera makes its own contribution to Icelandic culture? The Reykjavík Museum of Photography boasts a collection of over 6-million images. Many of these document the development this nation from the 17th century to now. 

In North Iceland, pay a visit to places like Akureyri Art Museum or the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum.

Icelandic Architecture 

Reykjavík from above, housing crisis Iceland
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík from above.

Many of Iceland’s most well-known buildings were designed by the State Architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, who studied in Copenhagen. As such, there are many different styles of architecture found in Iceland. Almost all of thenm have been inspired by fellow Scandinavians.

While sovereign over the island, the Danish brought classical timber construction techniques. The Norwegians brought the Swiss chalet style. The vibrant, corrugated iron homes in the capital had their materials imported from England. The suburbs, dense with boxy, Soviet-style residences, are quick and cost-efficient to build. 

But if you’d like to take a step back in history and see how the Icelanders took to architecture themselves, one excellent place to visit is Árbær Open Air Museum (Árbæjarsafn.) It is a permanent exhibition hosted by the Reykjavík City Museum. This cool outdoor attraction presents the chance to see how buildings and homes in Iceland might have looked in earlier centuries. Both inside and out.   

Traditional Turf houses in Iceland 

Turf mounds in Iceland
Photo: Golli. The remains of turf houses in Iceland.

Many Icelanders once lived in abodes built symbiotically within the landscape. These are known as turf houses, or torfbaeir. Their sloped rooftops are composed of grass. Their structure timber and stone. All of which helps to insulate the interior and provide much-needed warmth during the freezing Icelandic winters. 

The hobbit-style homes were primarily used during the Settlement Era. Between the 9th – 11th centuries. But they were still built as far as the 1700s. Oftentimes, they were used as shelter by farming families, demonstrating just how resourceful the early Icelanders could be when faced with the adverse environment in which they lived. 

Today, many turf houses are preserved as part of Iceland’s cultural heritage. Many have even been converted to local museums. You can appreciate these quaint hovels at the Árbaer Open Air Museum in Reykjavík, at Laufás in North Iceland. On the South Coast, you could stop at Skogar Museum or the picturesque Commonwealth farm, Þjóðveldisbærinn. 

Hallgrímskirkja 

Hallgrímskirkja lutheran church in Iceland
Photo: Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík

Dedicated to Iceland’s most beloved poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson, Reykjavík’s best known landmark is Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church. 

Designed by the acclaimed State Architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, work began on the church in 1945 and ended in 1986. It towers over the quaint corrugated-iron houses of downtown, its curving basalt columns and large clock face a permanent presence. 

Admission to the main church building is free. Climbing its 74.5 m steeple costs an additional 1000 ISK for adults. 100 kr for children between the ages 7-16. Those who remain at ground-level can appreciate the building’s exquisite interior, as well as its gigantic pipe organ. Only those in the tower are privy to panoramic views of the city and its surrounding mountains and ocean. 

Harpa Concert Hall 

Harpa building in Reykjavík
Photo: Golli. Harpa concert hall.

Hallgrímskirkja captures a beautiful fusion of nature-style architecture and regal prestige. Harpa Concert Hall sits at the other end of the spectrum. Almost as though it was snatched directly from some science-fiction movie. As such, it is one of Reykjavík’s most recognisable boxy-blue designs with a glittering glass-paned exterior. Harpa Concert Hall has won countless architectural awards since first opening its doors in 2011.

Harpa not only attracts a wide range of international stars to its stages, but it is the permanent home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Icelandic Opera and Reykjavík’s Big Band. Aside from these acts, Harpa also hosts various conferences and awards shows throughout the year.

Sports in Iceland 

Football team
Photo: Golli. Jóhann Berg

Many Icelanders prioritise fitness in their lives, with some – such as the titan-like strongmen, Jón Páll Sigmarsson or Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson – taking their passion for health to mind-boggling extremes. But aside from bodybuilding, there are many other forms of athleticism that are widely popular across the country.   

Glima – Iceland’s version of wrestling 

 

The ancient combat sport, Glima, originated in Norway, travelling with migrants to Iceland during the Settlement Period. Opponents grip a specially-made belt that wraps around the waist and thigh. Then they attempt to wrestle each other to the ground by tripping and throwing. As popular as when Icelanders were first learning to live in this new land, tournaments are still held every year. 

Handball in Iceland 

Handball
Ómar Ingi trying to break down the Danish defense (HSÍ / Facebook page)

To the laymen, handball looks to be a peculiar, some might say, overtly European version of basketball. As Iceland’s national sport, handball continues to be of great interest to the Icelanders, and is often touted as the game they are the most skilled at when facing off against international competitors. 

The national governing body is the Icelandic Handball Association, organising leagues for both men’s and women’s teams. The Icelanders’ greatest achievement in the sport came during the 2008 Summer Olympics where they earned a Silver medal.

Football in Iceland 

 

Football is also popular in Iceland. A great number of local teams compete as part of the Football Association of Iceland (Knattspyrnusamband Íslands, KSÍ.) 

Representing the men’s team, Iceland national football arguably had its heyday in the late 2010s, defeating England 2-1 in the 16th round of Euro 2016. It was during this time that a thunderous football chant, the Viking Clap, was popularised. It has since been adopted by many international fans supporting other national teams. 

Modern Politics in Iceland 

Alþingishúsið
Photo: Golli. Alþingishúsið parliament building

Iceland is a democratic republic, with the President being Head of State and the Prime Minister acting as the Head of Government. Among the planet’s younger nations, Iceland gained its independence from Denmark on June 17 1944. 

The major government building, the Alþingishúsið, stands at Austurvöllur square in central Reykjavík. The iconic white building that is the Prime Minister’s office, known locally as the Stjórnarráðið, sits on the major thoroughfare, Lækjartorg, near to Harpa Concert Hall. 

Equality 

Rainbow flags Höfði homophobia iceland
Photo: Golli. Rainbow flags at Höfði House

Modern Icelanders place a great emphasis on equality measures, looking to legally protect those often considered disenfranchised by society. 
In the global rankings, Iceland ranks well in terms of gender equality; a result not only of government initiatives, but also the thousands of women who have refused to accept unequal pay. It is little wonder Iceland was the first country to democratically elect a female President, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980. 

The famous Women’s Day Out protest occurred October 24 1975. It marked the first time that women walked out of the workplace to fight for their rights. Every year since, the tradition has been continued, shining a light on issues that still need to be resolved. 

Iceland was also one of the first countries to allow gay marriage, legalising it in 2010. Today, Iceland is considered a world leader in regards to LGBTQ+ policies and representation. Have you seen the colourful and accepting Pride Parade that takes place in Reykjavík annually? Rainbow flags aplenty!

Iceland also has a strong unionised workforce. These unions have guaranteed rights in regards to parental leave, both for the mother and father. In doing so, they promote a more egalitarian approach to dividing domestic responsibilities and child care. 

In Summary 

Reykjavík skyline
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík from the water.

Let’s finish this rather meaty overview of Icelandic culture. There is nothing much left to say except that reading will only get you far. So, make sure to break up your time seeing Iceland’s natural wonders by exploring its culture too.  You might learn more about why it is such an engaging place to visit and live. 

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