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Encounter a kaleidoscope of creativity in otherworldly Iceland

Iceland, a land of breathtaking landscapes and ancient traditions, is not only known for its natural beauty but also for its vibrant arts and culture scene. Despite its tiny population, Iceland has made significant contributions to the global artistic and cultural landscape. Read on to find out more… 

Literature: The Sagas and beyond 

Iceland's literary tradition can be traced back over a thousand years to the time of the Vikings. The Icelandic Sagas, written in the 13th century but based on earlier oral traditions, are the cornerstone of Icelandic literature. These epic tales of heroes, battles, and feuds provide invaluable insights into the history and culture of the time. 

More recently, one of the most celebrated Icelandic authors is Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. His novels, including Independent People and Salka Valka, have been translated into numerous languages and have left an indelible mark on world literature. Laxness's works often explore themes of identity, independence, and the relationship between humans and nature, reflecting the unique Icelandic perspective. 

Contemporary Icelandic literature continues to thrive, with authors like Sjón, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, and Andri Snær Magnason gaining international recognition. Sjón's surreal and poetic storytelling has earned him a devoted global following, while Ólafsdóttir's poignant and humorous novels, like Butterflies in November, have charmed readers worldwide. 

Music: From Björk to Sigur Rós 

Iceland's music scene is as eclectic as its landscapes, with a diverse range of genres and artists making waves on the international stage. Perhaps the most iconic Icelandic musician is Björk, whose avant-garde and experimental approach to music has earned her a place as one of the world's most influential artists. Her album Homogenic is a cult classic and a prime example of her boundary-pushing artistry. 

Björk performing at an Björk Orkestral show in Paris, France in 2022
Björk performing at an Orkestral show in Paris. (Photo: Frédéric Vicomte, Bjork Orkestral Paris, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Another internationally acclaimed band hailing from Iceland is Sigur Rós. Their ethereal and atmospheric soundscapes, often characterized by the use of a made-up language called “Hopelandic,” have garnered a dedicated fan base. Their music transports listeners to otherworldly realms, much like the Icelandic landscapes that inspire them. 

But Icelandic music is not limited to these giants; the country boasts a thriving indie and alternative music scene. Artists like Of Monsters and Men, Ásgeir, and Júníus Meyvant have made waves with their distinctive sounds, combining elements of folk, pop, and rock to create music that is both innovative and accessible. 

Visual arts: A canvas of nature 

Iceland's visual arts draw inspiration from its rugged terrain, dramatic weather, and the interplay between light and darkness. The country's art scene has been shaped by the unique relationship between humans and the natural world. 

One of Iceland's most renowned painters is Kjarval, known for his landscapes that capture the essence of the Icelandic wilderness. His use of color and texture reflects the ever-changing moods of the environment. Contemporary artists like Ólafur Elíasson, whose works often explore the intersection of art and science, have also gained international recognition. 

Lava at Bessastadir, painting by Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval Icelandic artist painter
“Lava at Bessastadir” painting by Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval.

Iceland's commitment to fostering artistic talent is evident in the numerous galleries and museums found throughout the country. The Reykjavik Art Museum, the National Gallery of Iceland, and the Icelandic Phallological Museum (yes, a museum dedicated to penises!) are just a few examples of the diverse range of artistic experiences that await visitors. 

Unique traditions: Elves, Norse mythology, and more 

Icelandic culture is steeped in folklore and mythology, and many of these traditions continue to thrive today. The belief in elves, or "hidden people," is a prominent aspect of Icelandic folklore. Many Icelanders hold a deep respect for these supernatural beings, and it's not uncommon to hear stories of roads being rerouted to avoid disturbing elf habitats. 

Alþingi (World-s First Parliament) at Þingvellir, Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Alþingi, the world's first parliament, at Þingvellir.

Norse mythology also plays a significant role in Icelandic culture. The country's stunning landscapes are often associated with the tales of gods and giants from these ancient myths. Places like Þingvellir National Park, where the Alþingi (Iceland's national assembly and the world’s oldest democratic institution) was established in 930 AD, are considered sacred due to their historical and mythological significance. 

Cinema: A window on Icelandic life 

Icelandic cinema has gained recognition on the global stage for its unique storytelling and breathtaking cinematography. Films like Jar City and Rams have garnered critical acclaim and shed light on the complexities of Icelandic society. 

Director Baltasar Kormákur has also made a name for himself in Hollywood with films like Everest and 2 Guns. Kormákur's ability to blend Icelandic storytelling with international appeal has helped bring Icelandic cinema to a wider audience. 

Cuisine: A taste of tradition 

Icelandic cuisine is a reflection of the country's history and harsh climate. Traditional dishes like hákarl (fermented shark), skyr (a yogurt-like dairy product), and hangikjöt (smoked lamb) may be an acquired taste for some, but they are an integral part of Icelandic culture. 

Hákarl Icelandic food cuisine delicacy, fermented shark in warehouse at Bjarnarhoefn, Iceland
Hákarl in an open warehouse.

In recent years, Icelandic chefs have been embracing both tradition and innovation, creating a thriving food scene. Reykjavik, in particular, has become a foodie destination with restaurants offering a modern take on classic Icelandic ingredients. Diners can enjoy dishes like langoustine soup, arctic char, and lamb cooked to perfection. 

A cultural odyssey 

Icelandic arts and culture are a testament to the resilience and creativity of this small island nation. Whether you're exploring the vibrant streets of Reykjavik or the remote landscapes of the highlands, Iceland's rich tapestry of arts and culture is an essential part of the journey. This is a land where tradition and innovation coexist, where the past and present converge, and where the natural world serves as a constant source of inspiration for artists and storytellers. 

Experience Iceland’s inspirational landscapes and culture with SA Expeditions. Take a look at our sample Iceland itineraries here. Then speak to a Destination Expert about curating your own cultural odyssey. 

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