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Iceland Culture

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Icelandic culture seems to be as extreme as the weather of the country itself: kind and soft spoken men can quickly turn into ranging vikings plowing through a crowd on the way to the bar, and otherwise astute women can transform into raging beasts on the prowl at the turn of a switch. While this metamorphosis in national character is stark, but, almost always, alcohol is the catalyst. For five days a week Iceland is a quiet, quaint sort of country, but on Friday and Saturday nights the streets go manic and the party rages. Watch out, this is a country that takes partying seriously.

To put it bluntly, the people of Iceland are cultured. At 99.9%, Iceland boasts one of the highest literacy rates on the planet.  Icelanders are highly educated people, and it is estimated that over 90% can speak English — let alone the high percentages that can speak Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. The streets of most of the country’s cities are lined with libraries, art galleries, cafes, theaters, bookstores, and museums.

Icelanders tend to not be ashamed of their Viking ancestry, and speak of such not only as a point of humor, but pride as well.

Icelandic people playing music at a festival

Religiously, Iceland is a Christian country, but, in reality, practice seems to be lax among the lay populace. Although paganism is suppose to be a belief system of the past, there are still remnants of it today, found mostly in nature and solstice based celebrations. A belief in elves and “hidden people” is also present throughout Iceland, and very few people will say that they outright don’t believe in them. There has even been noted cases where modern construction projects were rerouted to avoid damaging areas where elves are reputed to live.

Nightlife in Iceland

Friday night, otherwise known as “bottle night,” is the big drinking night in Iceland, while, to quote the movie 101 Reykjavik, “Saturday nights are Friday nights, part II. Everyone is talking about last night, like it’s a sequel. Except that everyone who died in part I dies again in part II.” Real beer (over 2.5% alcohol) and other spirits are highly taxed by the government, so most people can only afford to drink on the weekend.

The party nights usually start with drinking at the home of a friend, and then slowly escalates as everyone gets drunker. Once everyone is feeling good, you only then go out to the bars. It is my impression that few people in Iceland can really afford to get all the way drunk in a bar (at $8 per beer, who could?) so the house party warm up is essential.

Around midnight, the streets begin to fill with people walking between bars, drinking, and getting merry. By 2 AM the nightlife districts of cities are rocking — things are being smashed, crowds are singing, and some girls may be yelling. With only 50 cops total in Iceland’s largest city, the police presence in this country is extremely limited. By 4 AM, people begin to pair up and go home. Only those who have not yet found a mating partner are still out in the streets by 5 AM — it is a real sad scene.

Bottle smashing

A tourist handed a bottle of beer over to an Icelander he was drinking with on a Friday night rager. He tasted it, the beer was warm. Without another thought he smashed the nearly full bottle of beer on the sidewalk. Not only did he waste an $8 beer, but he smashed the bottle right in front of a cop. The cop did nothing, of course — he was probably wishing that he could be drunk and smashing bottles too.

“What did you do that for?” the American asked.

“I don’t know,” the Icelander replied, “that is just something we do.”

It is. All throughout the “bottle nights” you can hear a resounding chorus of bottles being smashed in the cities of Iceland.

“It is illegal to break bottles,” I was once told as a warning by an Icelandic woman.

“But isn’t that your national pastime?”

“Yes, but it is illegal.”

“Do the cops arrest people for it?”

“Not really.”

Sex

Iceland is one of the most sexually liberated countries I have ever traveled in. Relatively speaking, neither women nor men seem to get much slack or bad reputations for engaging in “one night stands.” From 101 Reykjavik:

“The boozer-loser-blues piss-up pick-up place. Old meat served on every table. Recycled jawbones kissing, pickled bollocks in pussy juice. Everybody’s had everybody. It’s like the waiting room at the VD clinic. Everybody locked up in the same DNA chain. Abortions floating between the tables. This place is haunted by unborn children. It’s like the family reunion of a non-existent family.”

If you do bed down with an Icelander during your travels there, consider it a rare catch, as there are only 300,000 of them on the planet.

Iceland culture conclusion

In general, Icelandic society is incredibly honest, trust worthy, direct, upright, genuine, and hospitable. Icelanders tend to treat travelers respectfully, and they are some of the best people in the world to travel among.

Read more about Iceland culture on Vagabond Journey

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Europe, Iceland

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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