Thinking about visiting Iceland, the land of fire and ice? There are several travel tips for Iceland that you should be aware of before you visit. Some are Iceland fun facts that will surprise you, some are useful travel tips to make your trip to Iceland that much more efficient. We’ve put together a list of Iceland travel tips that are by no means definitive, but they will get you on your way to a memorable Iceland getaway.
Iceland has been enjoying a tourism boom for some time now. Budget airlines make it easier and less expensive to get there. You can now fly directly to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, from many cities on Icelandic Air, and the much-lauded Iceland stop over allows you to stop in Iceland on the way to your final destination at no extra cost. Why not spend two, five or more days in Iceland on your way to the UK, Spain, Italy or points beyond? Or travel the the other way around from Europe to US cities like New York or the majestic Canadian Rockies.
Travel within Iceland has also evolved. It is now easier to fly from one end of the country to the other, although driving around and exploring Iceland is a much more enjoyable option. Accommodation options and places to stay in Reykjavik in all price ranges abound.
Travel tips for Iceland
Make sure to visit the waterfalls.
One of the best things to do in Iceland is to see the waterfalls. Iceland is a waterfall lover’s paradise.
Three waterfalls that should be on every visitor’s Iceland itinerary are Gullfoss on the popular Golden Circle route; the majestic Skogafoss, 25 meters high and 60 meters wide on the southern side of the island; and Seljalandsfoss where visitors can walk behind the falls and experience the water’s power from a completely different perspective.
Delve into the Viking history of Iceland
I usually head for the local museum first when I arrive in a new country. Here is where you learn those quirky Icelandic fun facts you can relate to throughout the trip. For example, did you know Leif Erikson was Icelandic? He was born in Iceland around 970 CE and went on to explore the North American coast 500 years before Columbus. I always thought he was Norwegian.
One of the top things to do in Reykjavik is seeing the statue of the famous Viking in Hallgrimskirkja Square in the city’s center. Most major streets in the city will lead you to this pretty square. On the way, you will pass quirky street art and shops selling beautifully designed warm woolen sweaters, Iceland’s specialty craft.
Check out The National Museum of Iceland to get a solid background on the country’s history and culture.
Be aware that taxes on liquor are among the highest in the world (around 90%).
With liquor taxes so high, it pays to learn how to enjoy your little cocktail without breaking the bank. A glass of wine will set you back quite a bit. Even a glass of beer can go for almost US$18. One alternative is to purchase liquor at the government stores, Vinbuden, which are scattered all over the country. Another option is to purchase liquor at the duty-free stores you find in the airports as you enter the country.
I enjoy sampling the local liquor specialty of a country. If you do too, you may want to try Iceland’s signature liquor, Brennivin, a type of schnapps made from fermented potato pulp and flavored with caraway seed. It is strong and actually quite tasty.
Sample Iceland’s unusual but delicious dishes.
One of the best travel tips for Iceland is to make sure you taste the abundance of unusual foods including whale steak, fermented shark, puffin, fish jerky, and others. A delicious treat is smoked sheep head, served during celebrations. More common Icelandic specialties include fresh seafood and lamb. Excellent restaurants, from ultra-chic high-end to tasty street food abound. A couple of restaurants we really enjoyed include Messinn and Icelandic Street Food both in the center of Reykjavik.
What made “Icelandic Street Food” such an appealing restaurant is the owner, a friendly, funny, pleasant guy in a bowtie who explained the characteristics of Icelandic food and treated us to a sample of his grandmother’s pastry. Notable mention goes to Seabaron or Sægreifannon in the harbor for a wide selection of savory seafood skewers. Sampling Iceland food will help you make the most of your visit to Iceland.
Taste the (self-proclaimed) best hot dog in the world.
Here is an Iceland travel tip you can’t miss: When in Reykjavik, try their world-famous hot dogs.
There is a little hot dog stand in Reykjavik known as Baejarins Betsu Pylsur, which loosely translates into “the best hot dog in the world.” Bill Clinton sampled dogs here, and Anthony Bourdain confirmed the hot dogs were out of this world. I have to admit they were pretty good. It is said the secret is a bit of lamb in the stuffing. The stand is downtown near the harbor where its been since 1937! There is never a time when there is not a line to get a hot dog so, just get in line.
Soak in the thermal waters and Icelandic lagoons.
Another of the best things about Iceland is the thermal waters. Remember that when taking a dip in Icelandic lagoons, there is some etiquette you must follow just as you would in a Japanese onsen spa.
When in a pool or hot tub, the last person into the water is expected to greet the other bathers and chat amiably. When in a sauna or steam room, proper etiquette dictates that one remains completely silent.
The Blue Lagoon is a great place to experience the thermal waters culture in the Land of Fire and Ice. It is such an unusual experience for most visitors with its floating massages, skin-softening mud masks and swim-up bar all in a steaming cauldron of misty fog. Definitely add it to your Iceland itinerary. The Lagoon is close to the airport so you may want to program your visit when you arrive or just before you leave Iceland.
Admire the beautiful and iconic Icelandic horses.
Icelandic horses were first imported from western Norway about 1000 years ago. At that time they were so beloved that they were frequently buried with their owners (poor horse).
Today the horse population is so insulated that they have lost immunity to certain diseases. Consequently, the government prohibits the import of horses and certain horse gear to protect these beautiful creatures.
Walk on black sand beaches.
One of the highlights of Iceland is the black sand beaches. Due to volcanic residue deposited over the centuries, Iceland’s beaches have black sand and unusual rock formations creating stunning landscapes.
One example is Reynisfjara beach where the contrast of white ice on black sand is somehow otherworldly. Massive basalt stacks encircle deep caves on the beach where the cold North Atlantic waves rush on to the black sand. Reynisfjara is so beautiful it was voted one of the 10 must-see beaches on earth in 1991 by National Geographic.
Drive the Ring Road.
Probably the # 1 Travel tip for Iceland is to drive the Ring Road. Also known as Route 1, it is a national road that encircles the island and connects most of the inhabited parts of the country. The total length of the road is 821 miles or 1,322 kilometers.
You can see most of the can’t-miss sights of Iceland mentioned hereby traveling this road. You will also see other spectacular sights of natural beauty including Thingvellir and Vatnajokull National Parks as well as the magical Iceberg Lagoon.
The ideal time required to drive the Ring Road is 5 to 7 days depending on your schedule but it is also possible to do it in less time, though you’ll have to cut out some highlights.
Watch the Aurora Borealis
Arguably one of the most amazing sights in nature is the aurora borealis. There is nothing like the sight of the shimmering lights dancing across the sky in neon colors.
The best way to see the sights is in winter and with a guide although even then seeing the aurora is never guaranteed. All you can do is increase your chances of seeing it.
Touch two continents while snorkeling underwater.
The Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the site of Iceland’s first Parliament, The Althingi, first organized in June 930 CE.
This majestic national park is also where two tectonic plates, European and North American meet. People can snorkel and dive between the plates and touch them underwater or walk above them touching the plates without going underwater. Talk about your unique experiences in Iceland!
Explore Magical Crystal Ice Caves
Something you are unlikely to see anywhere else are the crystal Ice caves of Vatnajökull glacier.
When the sunlight filters through the ice, a magical vision of blue ice is created. This is another one of the Icelandic attractions that are best seen with a guide. For safety reasons, these can only be visited in the winter.
It’s worth visiting Iceland in the winter if only for the sight of the ice caves.
Connect with the locals
Icelanders are among the nicest and most helpful people. Ask for directions and don’t be surprised if the locals take you themselves to where you want to go. The country has a reputation for safety and its cities are among the most walkable. Many European languages are spoken by the tourism industry. The roads are well maintained and infrastructure is efficient.
Make sure to stop at the local tourist office for maps, tips and other travel information. You won’t be disappointed.
Iceland fun facts
- Iceland’s wildest – and yummiest -animal is a sheep. The country has no native land mammals. They have all been imported over the years. The local sheep roam free most of the year and are almost considered wild rather than farm animals, although they are owned by local farmers. Some visitors say they can almost taste the wild berries and sweetgrass the sheep feed on in the local lamb dishes.
- The Icelanders are picky about who they date. The population of Iceland is very small, approximately 340,000. The vast majority live in the capital, Reykjavik. With such a small pool of potential mates, a local company offers genealogical services to determine if the object of your affection is actually related to you.
- Iceland was the last place on earth to be settled by humans.
- Over 60% of the Icelandic population live in the capital city of Reykjavik.
- Iceland has the longest workweek in Europe, 45 hours.
The land of fire and ice is different. You are likely to have experiences here that you have never had before and cannot enjoy anywhere else. It is a great option for a two-week jaunt around a beautiful island or a weekend stopover on the way to or from Europe. Either way, this place will charm you. And here is the perfect itinerary for the ultimate 3 days in Iceland.
Think these are useful Iceland travel tips? What do you think are the best things about Iceland? Did we forget anything? Let us know in the comments!
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