My recent trip to Iceland was truly memorable. This post highlights a few things I learned that might be helpful to you either in planning for your own trip or for learning more about Iceland. To see details of my 4 days 3 nights Iceland trip, read Adventuring with 3 days in Iceland.
1. You don’t need a car
So you’ve booked a trip to Iceland and now have started looking at the map for directions from the airport to Reykjavik. Yikes! It’s a 40 minutes drive! Don’t worry; you don’t really need a car. Public transportation in Iceland is pretty sweet. Big and comfortable tour buses come all the time to take you from the airport to Reykjavik, but you should book the transfer ahead of time. Flybus is the most popular but you could also go with any of the other options.
Once in Reykjavik, you can book tours to all the main attractions outside of Reykjavik. For attractions within the city like Hallgrimskirkja, you can walk to them with ease. Think of Reykjavik as a “little” big city.
If you must book a car, you’ll soon realize that you need to know how to handle a manual – this is pretty standard in European countries. The best car rental deals might be found by booking in combination with your airfare. This is a great way to go if you’re flying with Icelandair as they offer a wide selection of automatic vehicles. For your first time in Iceland, I would recommend not having a car to force yourself to walk around and enjoy the city. Outdoor adventures can be had with the many tours available. Let the Icelanders do the driving.
2. The Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap
Yes, fear of missing out is real. And you’ve no doubt been brainwashed into believing that the Blue Lagoon is a MUST destination. All your friends who’ve been to Iceland have pictures of Blue Lagoon, so why not you, right? If you absolutely must have a picture and check a box that says you’ve been to Blue Lagoon, go for it. If not, I would recommend skipping this attraction.
It is highly commercialized. No actual Icelanders go here. It’s far from Reykjavik but only 5 minutes away from the airport. Buses stop here regularly with visitors directly from the airport. You can check your bags at the front so it’s pretty convenient. Unless they’re going to the airport a lot, Icelanders won’t be found in the pool here.
As it is a highly commercialized location, you can expect the service and that Icelandic hospitality everyone talks about to be rather lacking. The layout is also confusing as the restaurant isn’t accessible from the pool. You have to trek there by walking back through the front desk, in front of people waiting to get in while wearing a robe with not much underneath.
The water isn’t even blue. It’s more of a teal green color. Also, the “blue” water isn’t natural. It’s a result of the geothermal plant close by. If you’re doing any of the tours, you may ask your guide how the color of Blue Lagoon came to be. It’s not toxic but it’s definitely man-made.
3. Local swimming pools are where all the Icelanders are at
Every city, region, or country has its unofficial spots where locals hang out. In Vietnam, coffee/beer shops (some with girls to hang out with you) are where people hang out. In Iceland, it’s the local swimming pools.
People get memberships to swimming pools like they do the gym. People often come at the same time. Over time, the same people get to know each other and swimming pool “communities” are made. Why not join this culture? If you want the real experience of a thermal pool, go to these instead. There are several in Reykjavik like Laugardalslaug, Árbæjarlaug and Sundhöllin. Look them up and go soak/socialize with the local Icelanders. These public swimming pools are also super cheap, at least as compared to Blue Lagoon.
4. Stay in Laugavegur area in Reykjavik
Laugavegur is the main shopping/party/bar/restaurant street in downtown Reykjavik. If this were your first time to Iceland, you’d probably want to be close to all the action. Many of the top 10 restaurants on TripAdvisor are on this street or really close to it. The picture below shows you Laugavegur and the attractions around it including City Hall, the old harbor and Harpa Hall – all cool places to visit by foot. The map looks pretty big but you can walk the whole thing in a few hours. Downtown Reykjavik isn’t that big.
Everything is within walking distance so you’ll have plenty to do, especially when the weather isn’t as nice. Also, if you’re looking for the night scene, this is it. The area is full of tourists so you’ll be able to meet a lot of fellow travelers and you can share your travel stories. Yay!
5. When to go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights
I’m definitely not an expert in this field. We didn’t get to see the Northern Lights during our visit to Iceland, but that’s just the weather being unpredictable. We visited in mid-October. We booked a boat tour to see the lights but it was cloudy, windy, and nasty the duration of our trip. It was clear the morning we went on the Golden Circle tour though – so not all was lost. Most sources recommend visiting Iceland from November to February for the best show, but this is also the time when the weather is the worst.
To see the lights, you’ll need clear skies – so the best thing to do is to stay in Iceland longer. Weather is unpredictable so you might hit a bad stretch but it could be ideal condition the following few days. You can see the Northern Lights from September all the way to May. I would recommend October and March but any of the months mentioned is good. I like October and March because these months aren’t as cold, they’re less crowded, and you’ll find amazing deals as this is considered the offseason.
6. The easiest way to see the Northern Lights
If you want the no-hassle, stress-free, set-it-and-forget-it Northern Lights experience, book a tour. Let the Icelanders who know where to go for the best pictures do the work. You’re on vacation, aren’t you? Why stress yourself out driving in the dark, cold, lonely night? Also, most tours come with extra jackets, hot beverages, tripods, and tour guides ready to take your pictures. You’ll probably be disappointed with selfies in the dark.
You can book a land tour or a boat tour, but most places will let you reschedule if the weather is bad. AND if you don’t see the lights the first time you go out with them, most places will give you a second attempt for free. This is so simple, even a caveman can has cheeseburger.
If you must venture out in the dark, cold, lonely nights, this website will be your favorite friend: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/. It’s the aurora forecast! Yay! With the forecast, you’ll actually know where to go OR if you should go at all.
Sometimes you can see the Northern Lights from Reykjavik but that really depends on how lit up the area you’re staying at is.
7. You don’t have to book tours ahead of time in the offseason
If you’re traveling in the offseason, you can book your tour while in Iceland a day or two before the day you’d like to go. There are plenty of tour companies in Iceland. They are all relatively good and do basically the same tours. Some companies have more unique tours so you may want to look up the specifics.
You’re not really going to know what the weather is going to be like months in advance so booking tours ahead of time is a risky proposition. Get to Iceland, spend a day or two getting to know downtown Reykjavik, check the weather forecast and the aurora forecast, then book some tours. You’re more likely to find the best weather for your tours this way. If you’re not sure who to book with, you can find help at any visitor center – they are super helpful (see more on this below).
We were there 5 days and had booked 2 tours ahead of time. Those tour dates also coincided with the worst weather. The tour we booked while in Iceland turned out to be the best because we knew what the weather was going to be like the next day.
8. The water in Iceland is pure and fresh
“Mommy, what’s chlorine?” “Chlorine? There is not such thing.” I’m pretty sure that’s the conversation Icelandic moms have with their children. And I can only fathom that it’s true because the water in Iceland is so freaking awesome. Thank to the glaciers, snow, rain, and springs all over Iceland, Icelanders enjoy fresh, pure water all year round.
I was skeptical at first when the hotel hostess said we can drink water from the bathroom, but I tried it and it was fabulous. This only applies to cold water though. The moment you turn on the hot, it’ll start smelling like sulfur. This is because hot water in Iceland is produced from geothermal plants, which make excellent use of the naturally occurring volcanic tears all around the island.
There really is no need to buy water. You will need a water bottle though to refill whenever you need. Don’t be shy. Use the cold water straight from the tap to liberate your thirst.
9. Iceland is entirely renewable
Thank to the abundant geothermal pools and volcanic activities on the island, Icelanders enjoy renewable energy every day. It’s quite a spectacle to see plumes of smoke rising out of the ground everywhere you go. These plumes are gashes in the Earth where one could harness its power to turn to electricity; though, obviously, some aren’t strong enough to economically make viable.
But geothermal energy production only accounts for 30% of the electricity produced, the rest comes from dams, and there are plenty of those to be had as well. On a side note, if you love waterfalls, Iceland will keep you entertain forever.
It’s no surprise that Iceland has the highest power consumption per capita in the world, but even then, the power produced from these renewable sources far exceeds the demand. It’s been speculated that perhaps Iceland could produce green power for Europe. That would necessitate some really long electrical lines though. So unfortunately, the abundant power available in Iceland can’t be shared. Boo-humbug!
For a basic lesson in how geothermal energy work, head over to http://geo-energy.org/Basics.aspx.
10. Get used to the smell of sulfur
You can’t escape it. Want to take a hot shower, be prepared to be assaulted by the sweetest sulfuric fragrant ever. As mentioned before, hot water is produced by geothermal plants using energy from geothermal pools. If you don’t know exactly what that smells like, it’s on par with eggs gone wrong. It’s actually not that bad. You’ll get used to it. And soon, you’ll be longing for that smell. Introducing Geotherm Eggfresh, a new fragrance by Hung Thai. I’m going to make millions… of negative investment dollars.
11. The weather in Iceland is unpredictable
Weather forecast can only do so much. And oftentimes the reality isn’t what shows up on your app. Because of this, you should pack accordingly and always be prepared for the worst or the best. Much like the Island of Hawai’i, you can avoid bad weather by driving a little bit, but much of the country isn’t inhabited. And unlike Hawaii, you can’t expect to find warm beaches to escape the rain.
You also shouldn’t be depressed if the forecast shows rain all week because it’ll probably change by the time you get there. And even if it does rain, it might pour all at once with sunshine to follow. Before you get to Iceland, don’t stress yourself out too much by obsessively looking at the forecast. You’ll realize that even in the rain, Iceland is still awesome because of the activities you can still do.
12. Things to do when it rains
Going to Iceland and expecting sunshine the entire trip is like going to a Japanese restaurant expecting hamburgers. Rain is part of the experience. Honestly, soaking in the thermal pools is way better when it’s cold, rainy, or snowing. My visit to Iceland was all about rain – it rained 3 of the 4 days we were there. We figured that the rain is beautiful and a critical part of the overall experience. Here are a few things you can do if it rains:
- Swimming pool – by far the best thing to do when it’s cold
- Enjoy a cup of coffee and people watch
- Visit the Harpa Hall or the local flea market
- Learn about the history of Iceland by visiting the many museums and galleries in Reykjavik
- Go out anyway – why not? If you’re geared right, the rain won’t bother you
- Get drunk and get to know the locals
13. What to pack for Iceland
The weather forecast says it’s going to be sunny the entire time you’re there? Pack as though it’s going to rain anyway. You never know what’s really going to happen there so be as prepared as you can. Obviously, if it’s summer, don’t pack heavy jackets but it’s a good idea to always have a rainproof outer layer. If you’re going to Iceland around late autumn to early spring, rain gear is a must.
As I mentioned before, it rained the majority of the time we were in Iceland but we weren’t bothered by it because we packed with rain in mind. Here is what we brought over there:
- Waterproof jacket with a hood, not a water repellant jacket but a waterproof jacket – something like this will do. You’re also not going to use an umbrella too much because it’s windy and unless your umbrella is strong enough it’ll be a burden more than a saving grace. You may also get waterproof pants if you want to be completely dry. I find that the waterproof pants are a little overkill but you may want to invest in some if water is your nemesis.
- Waterproof hiking shoes – something like this will do. I don’t know about you, but having socks and feet is about the worst thing on a trip. These will keep you dry. If you’re going to be walking on snow or ice, you might upgrade to snow boots. But if you’re doing it as part of the tour, the guide will provide you with the necessary boots so don’t bring those unless you’re going to strike out on your own.
- Layers, layers, layers. You don’t need to go buy a super thick jacket because you’re going to be in and out of restaurants, shops, and indoor spaces all the time. You’ll be too hot inside and lugging around a thick jacket in the stores is a pain. Bring what you already have. Your base layer should be something tight against your body and then work your way out until you’re warm.
- Scarf – you’ll need it, especially in the wind. It’ll protect your neck and face, and you’ll look fashionable with it.
- Sunglasses – even if the forecast is rain.
- Gloves – any pair rated for freezing temperature should do; you don’t necessarily need snowboarding gloves as they might be overkill for most conditions.
- A good attitude and a sense of adventure!
14. Icelanders don’t expect tips
They’ll accept them, but it’s not required. This is true of most European and Asian countries. Although in Japan, tips might be rejected. If you feel the service or meal was especially awesome, then tip away but don’t feel like you HAVE to tip. As you’ll soon notice that food isn’t cheap in Iceland so maybe the “tips” are already included. This is probably just hearsay on my part because they have to import a lot of products from surrounding countries.
15. The inside lane in a roundabout has the right-of-way
A roundabout is a circular intersection where traffic flows continuously in one direction and drivers can turn into the street they want by exiting the roundabout. Busier roundabouts will have more than a lane circling them. You would think the cars on the outer ring will have the right-of-way to exit the roundabout and you’d be wrong in Iceland. The inside lane (the lane closest to the circle) has the right-of-way. If the driver exits and you happen to hit that driver, you’re at fault. If you rented a card, take extra care going through roundabouts in Iceland.
16. Iceland’s landscape is changing
Ever wonder what it was like to live in a land before time? You’ve come to the right place. If you want to talk in terms of age, Iceland is the equivalent of an infant compared to other landmass. Iceland is around 20 millions years old whereas the American continent is billions of years old. Because Iceland is so young, its landscape is in flux, constantly changing as new landmass is formed, sunken, and raised. It’s hotbed for scientific inquiries as measurements are taken every year to see how much the landscape has changed.
You can see how young the island just by looking at the porous volcanic rocks that form the ground. I suggest not walking on them because they might collapse – there could be lava tubes underneath.
17. There are dozens of earthquakes every day in Iceland
Yes, it’s true. The great majority of them are small tremors so you probably won’t feel anything on your trip, especially if you’re staying in Reykjavik. If you don’t believe me, visit http://en.vedur.is/earthquakes-and-volcanism/earthquakes/. This site tracks earthquakes in Iceland in the last 48 hours. You’ll notice that the vast majority of these earthquakes happen along the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates split down the middle of Iceland so you’ll be okay in Reykjavik.
18. Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are pulling Iceland apart
You’ll get first hand exposure to this phenomenon if you book a Golden Circle tour with any tour company. You’ll inevitably end up at Pingvellir or Thingvellir National Park. Pingvellir means “Great Gathering” and is the gathering place of Iceland’s government dating back to the first settlement.
Here you’ll be wowed by the incredible gashes, crevices and canyons created by the opposing movement of the two tectonic plates, literally pulling Iceland apart. Besides from walking around to admire the beauty of this wonderful park, you can also book a diving tour to explore these canyons flooded with water.
19. Iceland is basically a big volcano
There is a giant topographic map you can touch by the Pingvellir gift shop. Every peak on that map is a volcano, and there are a lot of them. Some of them are more active than others but the sheer amount makes it seems as though Iceland is a land of volcanoes. Or is it the land of waterfalls? Or is it geothermal swimming pools? All the things!
20. Iceland is incredibly safe
Never once did I feel in danger while traveling in Iceland, and this includes walking around at night through dimly lit neighborhoods. According to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, there are approximately 147 prisoners in Iceland – about 45 persons per 100,000 of the 300,000+ inhabitants living there. For more interesting statistics, visit http://www.prisonstudies.org/country/iceland. In comparison, the US has 698 persons incarcerated per 100,000 people or 15 times the rate in Iceland. This might not really be meaningful statistics, but it does show that you’re going to be safe traveling around Iceland. The real danger comes from overconfidence in the natural environment.
It probably sucks to be in jail in Iceland though because there’s probably a small list circulated around the island and everyone will know that you’ve been to jail. I suppose it’ll be super easy to keep tabs on criminals when there aren’t that many to keep tabs of.
I like to take pictures of the local enforcement wherever I go. Is that weird? I guess so. But in Iceland we couldn’t find any enforcement to take pictures of. Maybe they’re all hanging out at the swimming pools sipping on some Brennivin (Iceland’s signature hard alcohol) and juice.
21. The government is in plain sight
You might pass by the prime minister’s house or the parliament building without realizing it because they are so unassuming. There’s also little to no security anywhere to be found. Furthermore, the buildings are within walking distance from Laugavegur with no fence or anything special to indicate that they were official buildings. They just kind of blend in with the rest of the city.
We had a map of downtown Reykjavik and walked around looking for the Parliament Building and walked right past it. Only after walking too far and circling back for a closer inspection did we realized which building was it. It seems as though we could have walked straight inside thinking it was a bar.
We also stumbled into City Hall. There was no indication that it was City Hall until we got inside and saw a sign. There wasn’t much going on that day except for a backgammon championship being streamed online. Yes, you heard me: backgammon championship.
Before we got to City Hall, we found an interesting sculpture in one of the gardens. After reading the scripture on it, it turned out to be a gift from Latvia. That’s when we realized we were walking around the ambassador residences. And again there were no security or fences that we could see.
22. Expect to pay a lot for food
Even with abundant green power available, green houses aren’t entirely commercialized for mass production yet in Iceland. Believe it or not, Iceland can grow a great variety of crops but greenhouses are still a private enterprise and privately owned by farmers. As such, Iceland depends heavily on import. It’s not a short distance to get bananas from South America to Iceland. On average, a sit down restaurant will cost somewhere between $35-$80 dollars per meal for 2 persons, including drinks and 2 entrees. Thank goodness tips aren’t expected.
23. What is Icelandic food?
I don’t know if I can really summarize Icelandic food into a cuisine like Szechuan. But here are a few dishes you’ll learn to love or hate in Iceland:
- Lamb/meat soup – this is a staple on the island. It’s especially delicious on a cold day and sometimes can be served in a bread bowl. You’ll realize soon enough that lamb is the equivalent of chicken in America because there are more sheep on the island than Icelanders.
- Skyr is like mild version of yogurt that has been a part of Icelandic cuisine for a thousand years. It can be enjoyed anytime of the day as a snack or a side with any meal. You must try this.
- Pylsur is hot dog made mostly from lamb with some beef and pork. It is not considered “fast food” or “mystery meat, don’t eat this more than once a year food” as in America. Pylsur is enjoyed by Icelanders anytime of the day. It’s a cheap option and is delicious because the meat is organic as it has been for as long as Icelanders have been eating lamb – free range, grass fed, and hormone free.
- Seafood is plentiful and for obvious reasons. Iceland is an island and fishing is one of the most popular activities there. Almost every restaurant will have a “fish of the day” option.
24. Whaling is legal and you can order whale at the restaurants
I don’t know how you feel about the whole whaling thing, but it’s still legal in Iceland as long as it’s for “scientific purposes.” Scientists only use a small part of the whale for experiments or whatever it is they use the whale for and the rest is made available to the public. It’s not really an Icelandic experience that you have to try. It’s more a novelty than anything.
But it’s available if you want to try. I did. I’m not going to lie, it was delicious and probably one of the best dishes I had while in Iceland – though I felt a little guilty for eating it. About 40% of whale consumption in Iceland is from tourists. And I believe only Minke whale is available. If there’s any solace, Minke whale is supposed to be abundant and not at any risk.
25. Iceland is not diverse
Supposedly when the first settlers arrived in Iceland, they could find the artic fox living there. Other animals living in the wild were introduced later: reindeer, mink, rats, and rabbits. Because the weather is so cold, these animals survive only by staying close to hotspots found on the island such as geothermal pools.
Diversity is such a problem that wild animals are not allowed to be imported to the island for fear of disrupting the ecosystems or bring diseases that could wipe out entire populations. Horses that leave the island, for example, are not allowed to come back. If you’re moving to Iceland and have a dog or a cat, expect a lengthy quarantine period before you’re allowed to bring them home (on the order of months).
As a matter of fact, Iceland is divided into 4 quadrants. Livestock within one quadrant are not allowed to be sold to any other quadrant. In the event of a disease outbreak, it would be able to limit the damage to just one quadrant.
26. Iceland is a small country (population wise)
Iceland currently has about 330,000 inhabitants and not growing all that fast. The population in 1960 was less than 200,000 people. The majority of the population (about 65%) lives in Reykjavik capital area with smaller pockets living throughout the island. So even though Reykjavik is considered a big city, it retains that small city charm.
27. There is no homelessness
At least none that we could readily see while we were there. It is a common problem for a lot of the major cities around the world but not here. I’m a sure there are some homeless population in Iceland, but like the prison population, you can probably name all the homeless people.
28. You can donate to send Icelanders on vacation
The latest GDP per capita for Iceland is somewhere around $45,000 as compared to $53,000 for the US; however, the distribution of wealth is a lot better in Iceland. And because of this, most Icelanders are doing all right. On our flights to/from Iceland, there is an option to donate to the local population. Right away I thought it’d be for something like education or to feed the homeless or housing for the poor or something along that line, but this was for sending people on vacation who normally can’t afford vacations. What?! That’s freaking amazing! Just think about that for a moment and what it means for the people living there.
29. The welcoming party at the airport is pretty awesome
I don’t know if this is a routine thing or a fluke. We arrived in Iceland on a red-eye flight. It was around 7 AM and people were tired. We were herded to the security checkpoints at the airport. Along the way, people were handing us bottles of water and chocolate to welcome us to Iceland. Seriously? I’m used to the TSA yelling at people so this didn’t feel real, but it was real. And it was awesome.
30. The Vikings were the first Europeans to come to America
We should really think about changing Columbus Day to Eriksson Day. Lief Eriksson was truly the first explorer to visit America. You can see his statue in front of Hallsgrimskija in Reykjavik. His story is especially interesting and I invite you to learn more by heading over to http://www.history.com/news/the-viking-explorer-who-beat-columbus-to-america.
31. Enjoy Icelandic nature, but don’t be a douche
I became aware Iceland and became obsessed with visiting the country because of the natural beauty of the island. After visiting the country, I am left in awe of it and planning to come back in the near future. I hope that as you make your way to Iceland that you respect the fragile and beautiful island and help to preserve it for all who’ll come. Use common sense and pick up after yourself. Don’t be selfish and obsessed with taking pictures that you endanger yourself, others, and the environment. I didn’t see litter while in Iceland and I hope when I come back it’ll be the same.
32. The visitor centers are super helpful
There is one in Laugavegur and it has a ton of information as well as attendants who will help you with all things Iceland. They can even check and tell you which tours are canceled and which are still on. We came here just to see what was going on and one of the attendants tipped us off that our tour was canceled. We immediately went back to the hotel to confirm and it was indeed true.
Don’t fret too much if you haven’t done tons of planning, go to a visitor center and they’ll help you plan your entire trip if needed.
33. Iceland is green, Greenland is ice
You might want to ask a tour guide or local Icelander why this is the case. I don’t think anyone really knows but here’s your chance to speculate. You may review the article on history.com linked above to formulate your answer. Or maybe visit this page to find out why http://anitasnotebook.com/travelstories/how-iceland-and-greenland-ended-up-with-such-messed-up-names/. This is on par with what was explained to us on our Golden Circle tour.
I hope I’ve given you enough cursory information about Iceland that either piqued your interest or make your planning a little easier. As I said before, I am planning to come back here soon. There is so much more to see and learn. To see details of my 4 days 3 nights Iceland trip, read Adventuring with 3 days in Iceland. If you’ve been to Iceland, please let me know what your fondest lesson or memory of it was.