Guide to Vegan and Vegetarian Travel – Iceland
Iceland has a lot to offer travelers (particularly travelers who appreciate scenic, desolate landscapes, vast expanses of strange terrain, and surreal spaces as if not from this earth). Geisers, glaciers, fumaroles, volcanoes, and craters. Lava fields, boiling mud pits, and thermal springs. Towering rock formations, giant waterfalls and wide iceberg lagoons. And when weather conditions are right, one can see the aurora borealis, beautiful cloud patterns, and huge rainbows spanning the entire sky. Local residents take a lot of pride in their country’s natural beauty and their large scale reliance on renewable energy. Hydroelectric and geothermal power supply Iceland’s primary energy and water sources. Sound incredible? That’s because it is. Iceland is the type of place that makes you feel small and fragile – powerless when engulfed by all this nature. It’s really an amazing place to see with spectacular scenery you won’t find anywhere else, so take your time. At least a month is probably necessary to get a good appreciation for all the country has to offer – more time if you’re relying on catching rides (autostop) or using public transportation.
So in summary, Iceland is a great travel destination. But is it a great travel destination for vegans? Well…that that question requires a more detailed response.
A quick glance at a guidebook would probably tell you no.
Typical regional specialties include harðfiskur (dried fish pieces), hangikjöt (smoked lamb), svið (boiled sheep’s head), hákarl (putrified shark), sviðasulta (head cheese), soured ram’s testicles, blood pudding, and skyr (a thick yogurt-like dairy product).
Iceland is notorious for its commercial whaling industry, marine products account for a large percentage of the country’s exports, and animal products dominate the region’s food culture. Many restaurants specialize in seafood because the ingredients are fresh, local, and easily accessible. And some restaurants, particularly ones that cater to tourists, even serve whale meat and other threatened species. “Adventurous” travelers who don’t want to miss out on the country’s edible delights, fuel this “exotic” foodie tourism and order threatened species like grilled puffin and minke whale steak.
It’s hard to fathom how someone can appreciate the beauty of these powerful, intelligent creatures during a wildlife or whale watching tour….then enjoy that same animal for dinner without any hesitation. But hoards of tourists do that every day. The Reykjavik Grapevine has a good article about this (read: Whale Watching Tourists Eating Whale).
Another thing that can make Iceland a particularly tricky destination for vegans is that its fruit and vegetable supply (particularly in the more rural areas) can be pretty meager. Since Iceland is an island destination with a cold climate and the majority of the country’s land mass is mountainous and volcanic, only a fraction of Iceland’s land is arable. Most vegetables are imported or grown in greenhouses, so the selection isn’t always great and prices very drastically.
Despite some of the obvious obstacles Iceland poses for veggie travelers, it is definitely a place worth exploring and vegan and vegetarian travelers will do just fine.
Iceland is certainly no vegan paradise, as it is not well known for its veg-friendly cuisine. But most places can at least adapt one menu item to be made vegan. Foods incorporating locally grown barley are pretty common. And fresh rye (rúgbrauð) is popular throughout the country. Brennivín, another local specialty, is a traditional liquor made of potatoes and flavored with caraway seeds. Crowberries, blueberries, rhubarb, Iceland moss, wild mushrooms, wild thyme, lovage, angelica, and dried seaweed are also local ingredients that make up Icelandic cuisine. Locally grown vegetables most commonly available in markets are the more hardy vegetables that can survive cold climates (things like cabbage, turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes). Good travel foods like tomatoes, cucumbers, paprikas, and avocados, can often be found too. But they can often be quite expensive.
In the larger cities like Reykjavik and Akureyri, there are actually quite a few restaurants and health food stores that cater to vegetarians (listed further down in this article). Since you likely won’t spend all your time in Reykjavik though, you’ll want to stock up on supplies while you’re there.
In more isolated areas (which is basically most other places)…it becomes a bit more difficult to find fresh ingredients. And you’ll have to be more creative and resourceful. This isn’t difficult to do – it just requires a bit more work. I have a more general list of vegan travel tips that will probably be useful as well, but here are some tips that I think apply specifically to vegan travel in Iceland.
Tips for Being a Happy & Healthy Vegan in Iceland
- Stock up in Reykjavik. Any trip you go on will probably start from the capital city, so use this opportunity to visit some specialty stores or large supermarkets and pack what you can based on the details of your itinerary. You won’t find this variety anywhere else in the country. Reykjavik has several health food stores (listed here) with a large selection of vegan and vegetarian products (including veggie burgers, marmite, vegan cheese, tvp, tofu, vegan pestos, peanut butter, dried fruits and nuts, instant veggie mixes, grains, seaweeds, and much more). Obviously some of this stuff won’t last during a long trip if you don’t have a cooler, so keep that in mind. But a lot of it (like dried soya chunks, red lentils, granola, and shelf-stable, travel-sized soymilk cartons) are perfect for a backpacking trip.
- Plan ahead. Make a list of all the veg-friendly shops in an area and circle them on your map (this only applies to the capital and a few of the larger cities) and find out where the large grocery stores are. If you spot a small supermarket along the road, it’s probably best to stop and get what you can from there. It’s unlikely you’ll see another one for many many kilometers (unless you know for sure that you’re near a relatively larger town). The selection of fresh produce will probably be limited, but most small grocery shops at least have some grains, spreads, breads, and a selection of dried fruits, nuts, and seeds.
- Self cater. Pack some things from home if you want to save money or think you’ll miss them, bring a few trusty spice mixes to spruce up otherwise boring meals, and choose foods that can be tossed into a backpack and eaten raw as snacks. It’s obviously easier to gather a large food supply if you’re traveling by car. But if you’re busing and backpacking your way around the country, you’ll have to put more thought into what you pack (think lightweight, versatile foods that can be combined in many different ways). You should also bring a few basic travel utensils (like a compressible bowl, a spork, and a knife at the very least).
- Custom order. Eateries in smaller, rural settlements will often serve Icelandic specialties or typical fast food items like hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, and pizzas. While these types of places aren’t vegan havens by any means, they might be the only places around if you don’t plan ahead. In this case, it’s usually possible to custom order something or get a pizza without cheese and add whatever vegetables are available on the menu (sometimes there aren’t a lot, so this is when it’s nice to have packed a few veggies and spice mixes to flavor things up). English is widely spoken in Reykjavik and most other cities, but in the really rural areas of Iceland…this won’t be the case. You’ll probably have brought your own food in these situations anyway, but if you get stuck in a place like this with nothing to eat…you’ll have to play charades, draw pictures, or better – learn some basic Icelandic words.
- Use a kitchen. Iceland has quite a few guesthouses (old houses converted into bed and breakfasts) and guests are usually provided with their own room and access to a shared bathroom/kitchen. Obviously if you have the means to prepare your own food, you’re set.
- Bring a travel stove. This is my preferred way to travel, as it allows me all the flexibility and independence I want. With a travel stove, you can cook wherever/whenever you’re hungry and you don’t have to rely on anyone else to eat. I own the MSR Whisperlite International, which I’ve used quite a bit on other trips. For this particular trip though, I borrowed a travel stove and other camping equipment from some couchsurfers (Couchsurfing.org is a valuable global travel network and an indispensable resource for vegan travelers).
- Forage food. It’s fun when you find your own food in the wild! On a hike through Ásbyrgi, we managed to find huge fields full of wild blueberries. Mushrooms also grow everywhere in Iceland (many of which are edible). If you aren’t sure which ones to pick, try to find a walking tour of edible wild plants (there was a free mushroom picking tour offered when I was in Reykjavik).
- Meet other vegans. As mentioned above, Couchsurfing.org is a great resource for this. So are other hosting/hospitality sites, Vegan Around the World Network, and various forums mentioned on tip 4 of this page. With Couchsurfing, you can do a keyword search for “vegan” or “vegetarian” to see if there are any other like-minded folks in a particular area you’re going. You’ll probably find some new friends to hang out with and might even find some travel buddies or a free place to stay. In Reykjavik, I stayed with a vegan couchsurfer I met earlier that year in Japan. He was a very generous host. We made tasty meals every night, he let me borrow his camping equipment, and he introduced me to the Reykjavik chapter of Food Not Bombs (a worldwide, global activist organization that shares free vegan meals to protest war, poverty, and environmental destruction).
- Speak up! Vegans and vegetarians who travel to Iceland should not be apologetic and timid about speaking their minds. They should instead be honest and upfront about their dietary needs, but speak up in a polite and non-confrontational way. This will help set a good example for other vegetarians, but it will also show local establishments that there’s an increasing demand for veg-friendly foods and activities that don’t harm the local wildlife. Along the same lines, you should make absolutely sure that you boycott any places serving whale meat (the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has a handy list here and you can learn more about how to support their anti-whaling campaign here).
Vegan/Vegetarian Food in Iceland
Iceland has several restaurants that specifically cater to vegans and vegetarians. A more extensive list of vegan-friendly restaurants & health food stores in Iceland can be found on the Happy Cow Web site (with reviews, price ranges, etc.) but mentioned below are the few I managed to check out while I was there.
Veggie Places I Visited in Reykjavik
Address: 20b Laugavegur (the main shopping street)
Tel: 552 8410
Mon-Fri: 11.30-14.00 and 18.00-22.00
Vegetarian whole foods restaurant with daily vegan specials, hearty rye bread, hummus, and chutneys.
Address: Skolavordustigur 8B (Reykjavik) Tel: 552 2028.
Open: Mon-Sat 11-30-21.00.
Sunday: 16-00 – 21.00
Healthy, whole foods vegetarian restaurant with great wheat-free and vegan options and pitchers full of fruit-infused waters.
Small vegetarian cafe with daily soup and entree specials each day and always at least one vegan option. Soup is served with homemade bread and hummus.
Cozy cafe with wifi and some great veggie and vegan options (like vegan carrrot cake, chamomile soy latte, soups).
Cozy vegetarian coffee shop with vegan baked goods, nice coffee, wifi, community computer, a book library, and a room downstairs reserved for various classes/workshops/meetings/meditation. Good stuff!
Veggie Places I Visited in Akureyri
More Info For Vegans Traveling To Iceland
Guides and Articles:
Restaurants and Stores:
Blogs & Articles:
Vegetarian Travel Companies
Phrases for Vegans in Iceland:
Ég er grænmetisæta (I am a vegetarian)
Ég borða ekki kjöt (I do not eat meat)
Ég borða ekki _______ ( I do not eat _____)