Iceland is a country of fascinating contrasts. Known as “The Land of Fire and Ice”, Iceland has some of Europe’s largest glaciers and some of the world’s most active volcanoes. Endless summer days are punctuated by long winter nights, with the Aurora Borealis performing the only light show visible for miles. Iceland is known for its untouched nature and its progressive people. While the otherworldly terrain of Iceland draws in visitors from around the world, the culture and hospitality continue to make this island nation one of the world’s premier vacation destinations. Read this insider’s guide to Iceland to prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime.
Iceland is the second-largest island in Europe, encompassing an area of about 40,000 square miles. At its longest point, the country stretches 305 miles from east to west. At its widest point, Iceland measures 185 miles from north to south. It is possible to drive around the entire, scenic coast of Iceland during a week-long vacation.
As of 2016, the population of Iceland was 332,529. Two-thirds of that population live in the capital city of Reykjavik or the surrounding area. Nearly 80 percent of the country is uninhabited.
Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream, the climate of Iceland is more temperate than other places located at the same latitude near the Arctic Circle. However, the weather is notoriously fickle. There is a saying in Iceland that goes, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”
On average, the country boasts relatively mild winters and invigorating summers. In Reykjavik, the average low in January is 26.5 degrees Fahrenheit, while the average high in July is 55.9 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, the south coast of Iceland is warmer and wetter than the north coast, while snowfall is more common in the north than in the south.
When packing for a trip to Iceland, bring a waterproof coat and a few lightweight sweaters or cardigans. If you plan on exploring the numerous national parks, bring a comfortable pair of boots and thicker socks. Finally, don’t forget your swimsuit. A trip to Iceland wouldn’t be complete without a stop at some natural hot springs.
Icelandic is the official first language of Iceland. It is a Northern Germanic language and a descendant of Old Norse. Due to the extreme isolation of the country, Icelandic has largely been untouched since the medieval time period. The people take great pride in their language and make immense efforts to preserve it.
That said, the majority of people in Iceland speak English. English is the official second language taught in schools throughout the country (Danish is the third). Speaking to locals and navigating a restaurant menu are rarely issues in Iceland.
The currency in Iceland is the Icelandic krona, which is sometimes written ISK. However, debit cards and credit cards are widely preferred over cash. Iceland is a mostly cashless society, except for some city buses. If you do need cash, there are banks and ATMs in all cities and at Keflavik Airport.
Tipping isn’t mandatory in Iceland, as service fees and VAT are almost always included in the final bill. However, locals are generally well-traveled and are familiar with the concept of tipping. For exceptional service, simply round up the bill. Similarly, feel free to tip tour guides after thoroughly enjoyable excursions. There is a misconception that tipping is considered rude in Iceland, but this isn’t the case. It’s not necessary, but locals will not frown upon your gesture.
Icelandic culture is deeply rooted in Scandinavian customs and traditions, but the people are also progressive and modern. The culture is largely shaped by geographical isolation and the spectacular environment. Icelandic people are resilient, and family and community play a large role in everyday life. Iceland offers a high standard of living and extensive political freedom. Preservation of the unique landscape is also of the utmost importance.
Iceland has a strong literary tradition. There are more books published in the country per capita than anywhere else in the world. Reykjavik was also named a UNESCO City of Literature in 2011. It was the first non-English speaking city to earn this designation.
Equality among people is important in Iceland. People are addressed by their first names, without using titles or ranks. Locals are proud of their country, so expect to answer the question, “How do you like Iceland?” often. The allure of Iceland is largely due to the breathtaking scenery, so use common sense when visiting national parks and other areas in the pristine countryside. Do not trespass on private land, and only drive on roads. Simply put, leave no trace of your presence behind.. Finally, always shower before entering a public pool, spa, or hot spring.
Due to the geographic isolation, Icelandic cuisine emphasizes the quality and freshness of the food, rather than the variety. The cuisine showcases high-quality, animal-based ingredients that are farmed or bred in a clean environment. Lamb, fish, and dairy products are staples in Icelandic cuisine. On average, a single person in Iceland will consume 100 gallons of dairy products per year. Similarly, while fish consumption is decreasing, it is still more than four times the average of other developed countries.
Skyr, a dairy product somewhat similar in texture to yogurt, is popular and has been consumed in Iceland for over 1,000 years. It is consumed throughout the day, every day. Seabirds, such as puffin, are also part of the cuisine. Iceland is notorious for hakarl, or fermented shark meat. This “delicacy” is usually served with brennivin, a local schnapps. Vegetable consumption is slowly increasing. Greenhouses are popping up, and new varietals are being introduced. However, Iceland still relies on imports for all sweet fruits, other than berries.
The meal structure in Iceland consists of breakfast, lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, dinner, and a bedtime snack. Breakfast is generally bread, oatmeal, skyr, coffee, and milk. Lunch is a hot meal of fish or meat, accompanied by another glass of milk. In late afternoon, open-faced sandwiches and/or pastries are enjoyed with coffee. Dinner is another hot meal, similar to lunch. Finally, an evening coffee and more pastries are enjoyed before bed.
Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world. There is an extremely low crime rate, but it is still best to use common sense. As with any destination, do not leave belongings unattended. Natural threats due to volatile weather and the geologically active landscape are the biggest risks. Don’t venture off roads, and stay behind marked boundaries.
The greater Reykjavik area makes up about 1% of Iceland’s total land area but is home to 60% of the population. Reykjavik is a vibrant city with plenty to offer visitors. It is also the perfect base for exploring Iceland. For shopping, head to the main street of Laugevegur. For an absolutely breathtaking view of the city, head to Hallgrimskirkja. Hallgrimskirkja is a working Lutheran church and the tallest structure in the country. Finally, a trip to Reykjavik must include a stop at the iconic hot dog stand of Baejarins Beztu Pylsur.
Located just under Reykjavik in southwestern Iceland, the Southern Peninsula is home to the Keflavik International Airport and the world-famous Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. The Blue Lagoon is rich in mineral salts, blue green algae, silica, and sulfur, which nurture the body and soul. The turquoise waters of the spa attract visitors year-round. Bathing in the hot springs, while surrounded by the natural beauty of Iceland, is near the top of most visitors’ must-do lists.
Though only 12 miles from Reykjavik, the Western Region remains off the beaten path. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula features the Snaefellsjokull glacier and a national park perfect for bird watching, whale watching, and hiking over lava fields. If you venture further inland, you’ll find the second-largest glacier in Iceland. Langjokull glacier features man-made tunnels and magnificent ice caves.
The Westfjords is a large peninsula jutting into the Denmark Strait in northwestern Iceland. The Westfjords region is mountainous, and the coastline features dozens of scenic fjords. This area offers picturesque villages and the longest bird cliff in all of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Plan your trip accordingly during the winter months, as many of the roads are blocked by snow and ice due to the rugged topography. However, there is a tunnel, which has made travel in the area a bit easier.
The Northwestern Region offers a sharp contrast to the Westfjords. The area is blanketed by rolling meadows and farms, with mountain peaks providing a picture-perfect backdrop. This region is home to important historical sites, including Pingeyrar. Pingeyrar was the site of an ancient monastery where notable pieces of medieval literature were assembled. The longest fjord in Iceland is also located in the Northwestern Region.
The Northeastern Region’s largest town is Akureyri, which offers reputable restaurants and bars. For tourists seeking traditional Icelandic folk culture, this is the city for you. Just an hour away from Akureyri, you’ll find the stunning lake Myvatn. The lake is surrounded by visibly active geothermal features. There is also a wonderful geothermal spa, and for those seeking peace and quiet, it is much less crowded than the aforementioned Blue Lagoon.
The Eastern Region is dotted with picturesque coastal communities, including the port village of Seyoisfjorour. This port offers a weekly ferry to the European mainland once a week during the summer months. Snaefell, the highest peak in Iceland, is also in this region.
Last, but not least, the Southern Region is considered by many to be the most beautiful area in Iceland. This region packs in dramatic waterfalls, magnificent glaciers, black sand beaches, timely geysers, and important historical sites. The Golden Circle is one of the most popular sightseeing routes in the country. If you have time, take a ferry to the Westman Islands for even more breathtaking scenery.
The scenery in Iceland is unsurpassed, and the ease of travel make this island nation a perfect vacation spot. From lounging in geothermal spas to hiking up glaciers, the attractions in Iceland are completely unique. Use this insider’s guide to Iceland to help plan your trip to Reykjavik and the surrounding areas or your journey all the way around the Ring Road.