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Will I starve in Iceland?

We are thinking of Iceland in the summer of 2020 and will most likely do a guided hiking/adventure tour with a company like REI Adventures or similar. So we will not have a choice of lodging, and will not be able to self-cater. I have been reading up on Iceland, particularly culture and customs. It seems like the diet there is quite limited as far as fruits and vegetables, and consists mainly of seafood and lamb, bread, and dairy (their excellent skyr, as well as local cheese). And then there are some local specialties like fermented shark meat, whale meat, and smoked puffin, all of which I would avoid like the plague.

I love seafood and could happily eat that every day, especially if it as fresh as Icelandic seafood. But I do not care for lamb at all (I managed to eat well in New Zealand for three weeks without every touching it). Beef and chicken are OK, but apparently very expensive (even more so than other food) and may not be offered on a tour. The biggest problem is I am gluten- and lactose-intolerant, although I can get by the latter with Lactaid pills. But my diet relies heavily on fruits (citrus, berries, pineapple, but not apples), nuts, and vegetables in addition to the seafood and meat.

Of course I can (and usually do when traveling) carry a supply of nuts and energy bars to fill my tummy at lunch, but my husband and I like to dine well, especially at dinner. We are prepared for the high price of wine there, but will we be able to enjoy our dinners?

Posted by
172 posts

Sure you can enjoy your dinner—if you don’t look at the price. The grocery stores and restaurants have all the fruits and vegetables you are used to, even gluten free selections. Everything is imported and there are so many tourists that restaurants don’t have to compete on price. So just accept that you’ll be paying 2 to 4 times more than you are used to and enjoy the most spectacular country on the planet. It is worth it!

Posted by
3961 posts

Lola, "Smoked Puffin?" Are you kidding me? I'd be happy with fresh fish every day, but like you I gotta' have my fruits & vegetables! That said, it sounds like a great adventure!

Posted by
1456 posts

If memory serves, rye bread and crackers were generally available at every meal. Not sure if it was 100% rye or otherwise gluten free but perhaps that is an option? Three years ago salad was also generally served as a side, but almost impossible to get as a meal substitute. The expanding use of geothermal greenhouses may have changed that.

Posted by
16915 posts

Janis, smoked puffin meat was specifically mentioned in my Insight Guide to Iceland, along with the other quirky foods. Seabird meat was part of their survival in the early years of settlement, and apparently they have retained a fondness for it, as a culinary treat rather than a dietary staple.

I was served a boiled puffin egg once in Norway, under circumstances where it would have been impolite to decline, and it was an ordeal to eat that. I am quite fond of puffins and love to see them in the wild, but I will not eat one.

Can’t anyone describe the typical breakfast in a hotel?

Posted by
3246 posts

Hi Lola:
I stayed at the Orkin Hotel in Reykjavik last December.
Breakfast was eaten by candlelight, as it doesn't get light at this time of year until 10:00!
I remember great bread/rolls with poppy seeds; regular bread for toasting; cold meat , ham, I believe; lots of cereals; skyr; juice, cheese; and boiled eggs.
And very good coffee.
Can't remember if there was fresh fruit.
No gluten free options.
The hotel was great; just basic, not luxury.
I bought things to eat in a Bonus grocery store, and there were lots of fruits and vegetables.

Posted by
16915 posts

Hello S J, thank you for your comments. I used to live in Alaska so I understxsnd the concept of eating breakfast in the dark. Can you tell me if "cereals" at breakfast included oats in any form ( granola, muesli, cooked oatmeal)?

Honestly, I hate to sound so picky about food, but I am underweight with dietary issues, and need to be sure I can eat enough to maintain my active lifestyle when we travel.

Posted by
15702 posts

I've been to Iceland a few times and have shopped in their supermarkets.

The first thing I would suggest is getting in touch with the tour operator and ask them about meals and your health issues. If you need to take Lactaid bring it with you. I'm not sure if it is available in Iceland.

Fruit and vegetables are available but not in the selection or quantities we are used to. My hotel breakfast had a choice of cereals for breakfast but I'm not sure if any were gluten free. They also had eggs, sliced meats, sliced cheese, smoked salmon, bacon, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh breads, jams, butter,etc. This was a buffet. The juices were from a carton. (I could taste the OJ wasn't fresh squeezed.)There were dairy alternatives for coffee. (Soy, I think.) There was some fresh whole fruit but not a lot.

All food in Iceland is expensive. You can easily avoid lamb, smoked birds, fermented fish. Regular fish is plentiful, chicken is often on the menu. So is beef. As someone else mentioned, except for root vegetables, all other produce has to be imported.

Posted by
16915 posts

Thanks, Frank II; that is very helpful. It looks like I will definitely find enough to eat at breakfast!

As for vegetables, I read that they grow tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses, which makes sense (they can be heated with geothermal heat). But do they really not grow anything other than root vegetables outside in the ground? Alaskans (at the same latitude as Iceland) grow wonderful vegetables in the summer--- broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, salad vegetables, peas, green beans, even sweet corn --- and also berries like raspberries and strawberries. That was my job when I lived there. Maybe I should move to Iceland and start a vegetable farm. . . .

Posted by
3246 posts

Hi Lola:
I think the cereals in the hotel were of the Rice Krispie variety, so not too healthy.
You could bring your own instant oatmeal, and heat it at the buffet in the hotel.
Just to add: everything is super expensive in Iceland, as most of it is imported.
I only ate one meal in a restaurant in four days.
I think the ground would be lava based, so not great for digging down to grow stuff!
Plus, it only gets to about 15 degrees C in the summer most years.
You will love Iceland!

Posted by
3363 posts

I understand horse meat is also on the menu. Ummm, no. I have only passed through Iceland, but would share your concern about foodstuffs available as I also do not eat Puffins, lamb, horse, shark.
Good luck!

Posted by
123 posts

Hi Lola,

We were just in Iceland this past summer. I think you'll be absolutely fine with the food. We had seafood every day, and it was outstanding, particularly the Artic char. There were always vegetables available for dinner, most often an arugula/tomato salad. That seemed to be on every menu. (Iceland is actually a heavy tomato exporter - their greenhouses are amazing).

There was also always a potato option, and often vegetable quiche or a vegetarian pizza option. Many times the seafood was served with a side of roasted potatoes.

I thought breakfasts were OK and plenty of gluten free options, including gluten free bread for toasting at every hotel we stayed in. Also always granola, Skyr (not sure if you could have that), some fruit like bananas, pineapple and oranges - but not a ton like an American breakfast buffet, eggs, sliced meat.

Fermented shark meat, whale meat, and smoked puffin were around, but definitely not prevalent.

I did eat a fair amount of lamb, but I promise there were tons of other options readily available.

I think cross this off your worry list and keep planning! Of all the places we've traveled, Iceland is one of our all time favorites.

Posted by
996 posts

I second the suggestion above to make sure that you contact your tour operator about your dietary restrictions. They can best help you with where you'll be traveling, and also be in the best position to make suggestions based on your specific itinerary.

Posted by
3392 posts

I was in Iceland for 5 days this past spring and had no problem with finding a wide variety of food to eat. We had everything from seafood (fresh, fresh, fresh!!), different kinds of land-based meats, amazing soup, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. There are many greenhouses on the island where they grow all kinds of fresh produce. If you can, try to go to Frioheimar on the Golden Circle...it's a tomato farm that has opened a restaurant in one of their large green houses - all the tomato soup and bread (well - maybe not you:)) you can eat. Beautiful and interesting!
You are correct that food is incredibly expensive there. The cheapest soup/bread combination I ordered was $19 but it was very good!

Posted by
16915 posts

We have done two REI Adventures tours (Julian Alps in Slovenia and Tour du Mont Blanc hiking this past August). I am familiar with their level of customer service, and on the Mont Blanc trip in particular the guides’ commitment to providing wonderful food for everyone, and gluten-free for me, was pretty amazing. Each day as we were hiking, the driver Marie would move our luggage to the next hotel or auberge, and then go shop for food to put out a lunch buffet (we packed our lunches from this). She was not always able to find gluten-free bread, as apparently under EU regulations it has to be baked in a dedicated gluten-free facility, not just made with gluten-free flour. I am not all that sensitive, but I know some people are. So on the final hiking day, when all that was on offer was sandwiches with regular (and excellent) French bread, she made sure to acquire mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes so I could pack a nice Caprese salad.

But they cannot do this everywhere. We signed up for their trip to Japan in November and the pre-trip information states they are unable to guarantee gluten-free meals, especially at the small ryokan in the countryside. Technically, even regular soy sauce has gluten. And all those noodles, batter-fried tempura, etc. So I will carry my regular supply of nuts, oatmeal, and energy bars, and eat lots of grilled fish and vegetables.

I have not looked into the REI Iceland trip far enough to see if they have the same caveat, since the date is more than a year away. Also I. Am thinking of a trip that is about half the price, with a British company. And we will probably do a home exchange for part of the time, so will be able to buy and cook our own meals. Actually this will be the subject of my next post: where to look for a home base for 4-5 days for lots of hiking. Stay tuned.

Posted by
2249 posts

When we visited Iceland, a couple places that we loved were Snaps Bistro, Icelandic Fish & Chips, and Stofan Cafe. Each of these has several great options that would work well for you. Snaps was the nicest place we went, and we still did not feel it was expensive at all, FWIW. Stofan Cafe is has a a lot of bread items, but we had a great salad there and they also had vegetarian soups. Enjoy, it is a great place to visit!

Posted by
2500 posts

I do not eat fish or lamb but eating in Iceland was not a problem for me. There was plenty of beef, chicken and turkey, bacon, ham. I don’t remember the veggies but I am sure there were plenty of those. I loved the skyr cake (like cheesecake) with rhubarb. You will not starve.

Posted by
4637 posts

For those not prepared (including me) for challenging Icelandic food there are several ethnic restaurants - particularly memorable was one with the Pakistani cuisine. I almost always try to eat local cuisine but with the Iceland case I ultimately ended up with the ethnic food.