Being Vegan in Iceland

I’ve heard on several occasions that being vegan in Iceland was nigh on impossible, even to the point where the phrase “if you can be vegan in Iceland, you can be vegan anywhere” was created. This seemed like a challenge I would love to take on, and amazingly I was given the chance to do so when my university course announced an Erasmus partnership with Iceland. I jumped at the chance to see such an amazing country and examine the vegan scene and was on a plane to Keflavík as soon as possible.

I was to stay in Reykjavík for around six months to study at the University of Iceland, so I had plenty of time to explore and see how vegans, if there were any, lived in Iceland. What I found was completely unexpected, and I’m happy to say that the surprise was pleasant! Not only was I able to survive (uh, obviously) but I found the experience largely enjoyable; veganism is very much alive and kicking in Reykjavík. Now just so I don’t get caught out for misleading anyone, I am talking almost exclusively about the Icelandic capital Reykjavík here, I honestly cannot guarantee that it is as easy to be vegan anywhere else in Iceland. 

Firstly I was very pleasantly surprised by the ready availability of non-dairy milk alternatives in all of the supermarkets (soya, rice, oat, coconut, you name it they had it), even the ‘cheap’ market Bónus had a great selection. It was also easy to find all the vegan essentials such as plant based spreads (without palm oil!), peanut butter etc. There were loads of great things like chia seeds, vegan burgers and vegan cheeses such as Violife that were surprisingly cheap, well compared to the UK anyway.

However, and this is quite a big however, the fruit and veg situation is quite disappointing. It’s actually understandable since the climate is really not the best for growing things, and the geothermal powered greenhouses can only produce so much. Therefore the stuff you get from the fruit and veg section of the supermarket that has had to be shipped in is a little expensive and looks quite pitiful. Many of the more delicate items, like tomatoes and peppers, had to be used promptly or else they would go bad extraordinarily quickly, but as a vegan, eating through your food inventory fast is to be expected! Just to go back to the greenhouses though, they are actually very impressive and can produce some amazing crops such as coffee and tropical fruits because of the heating capabilities of the geothermal energy, so hopefully we’ll be seeing more from Icelandic greenhouses in the future.

As for eating/drinking out, there are actually several great places to go. Most cafés stocked non-dairy milks and many had snacks that were suitable for vegans, one of my favourite spots was an artsy little coffee shop called Café Babalú near the iconic Hallgrímskirkja. Not only did they have friendly staff and a welcoming atmosphere, but they had an amazing vegan carrot cake! I even went out several times for evening meals in Reykjavík, since there were a few places to choose from. A couple of my favourites were: Núðluskálin, a Thai noodle bar that could make any of the menu items vegan by using tofu and vegetable broth, and Gló, a restaurant that not only had a full vegan menu, but had raw options, yes you heard right raw options (including raw desserts!).*

vegan in Iceland - 'Cafe Babalu, Reykjavik' by anja_pfeiffer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

My usual spot, Cafe Babalu

So I had a full belly and a fully stocked fridge, but what about other supplies such as clothing? Many traditional Icelandic items are based on animal products, since plants weren’t very abundant and animals were kept by most people. Clothing such as woollen jumpers (sweaters) were common and fashionable, and leathers and furs seemed to be widespread, but I am happy to say that there were many places to kit yourself out with synthetic materials that worked just as well (besides most people realise Iceland is cold and turn up with their own gear from home anyway, but it’s reassuring to know all the same).

So all in all I would say that being vegan in Iceland is indeed possible and isn’t really hard at all. There are many options and lots of vegan friendly things available, which is really impressive considering the population of Reykjavík is around 120,000 (the whole country of Iceland has only 300,000 people!). Just a few warnings for anyone considering a visit, make sure to avoid any establishment that serves whale meat as a special dish (which is unfortunately quite common), this is to send a message that whaling needs to stop. I honestly find it quite sickening that some tourists will pay to go on a whale watching cruise to ‘connect with nature’ and will step off the boat straight into a restaurant and order whale meat as a delicacy! Also, be prepared to completely avoid the meat section in the supermarket unless you want to see piles of frozen sheep heads… seriously people, wtf.

[Edit: I was recently reminded of a great little café in Reykjavík called Kaffi Vínyl, just of the main shopping street Laugavegur. I visited on several occasions and thought it was a super place to hang out, as the name suggests they play LPs (and sell them?). The very same person who reminded me of Kaffi Vínyl also let me know that they are currently travelling across Iceland and are having no trouble.]

*I was doing some research and found a thesis from 2015 that was trying to evaluate the prospective success of a vegan restaurant in Iceland (read it here), and I guess the idea has been proven somewhat successful with the opening of Gló, isn’t that something!*

Thanks for reading boys and girls, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about being vegan in Iceland, and maybe you would like to visit now right? Honestly though it is an amazing place, so beautiful and unique it was painful to leave. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below!

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Featured Image by The Fox Eyed Man

Cafe Babalu, Reykjavik‘ by anja_pfeiffer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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