Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Iceland

Iceland flag

I recently got back from a surprise trip to Iceland for my birthday. Since it was a surprise, I didn’t know a whole lot about Iceland before my first visit, although I had some ideas. More than anything though, I wish I knew a few things before my first visit.

1. Easy to visit - I remember writing the same thing about Puerto Rico and at the risk of being repetitive, I think it’s an important fact to emphasize. We were able to have a well-rounded and full trip to Iceland in the span of just four days because the flight was less than five hours from the East Coast. I got to Reykjavik faster than I could’ve reached Seattle. Who knew? Well apparently Icelandair had a good idea, because they have turned the four-day long weekend into a well-oiled, travel machine. The experience was easy, well priced and I can’t wait to take advantage of the proximity again. Soon, I hope.

 

2. Unconventional food - I have some food limitations, as I spelled out and defended in “Travel Diary of a Picky Eater.” I realize that visiting islands can be a dicey proposition since I don’t eat seafood, but it wasn’t just the seafood that stymied me. Just as the Scottish have a propensity to deep fry things, the Icelandic apparently think that fermenting food is a good idea. Amongst the more traditional, AKA tourist restaurant finds, were fermented shark, fermented lamb (why oh why) and such. But it wasn’t just the sour meats, it was the unconventional meat that troubled me. That’s right, I’m talking about whale and puffin. I understand the food is traditional, I understand some people like to eat it, fine, I guess. But there is no reason to promote it in the touristy areas thereby growing the trade. If locals want to eat whale, fine, I don’t like it but it’s not my culture. However, I really wish these meats with which many have significant problems weren’t offered at every tourist restaurant in town.

 

3. The Blue Lagoon is kind of lame - I’m going to discuss this in a separate post, but I really don’t understand what all the hype over the Blue Lagoon is about. It’s not even really a naturally occurring phenomenon, it’s a result of the power plant next door. Ignore the power plant for a second, and instead let’s focus on the massive publicity machine that lies behind the Blue Lagoon. Tourism officials have catapulted the spa into an internationally recognized attraction to the point that any self-respecting tourist feels like a loser if they skip it. More people visit the Blue Lagoon each year than actually live in Iceland. It’s a fact, use it as you will. Other than the fact that the water is blue, which it is, it’s a geothermal spa, not unlike those found in many other places around the world including Canada, the US, Jordan, New Zealand, etc. But people seem to enjoy it, so who am I to judge?

4. Big-Small Town - I don’t think I fully appreciated just how small Iceland’s population is and what the effect of that has upon the travel experience. The entire country has around 317,000 inhabitants. That’s about the size of St. Louis, Missouri. Reykjavik and surrounding suburbs account for 200,000 of that number, leaving a lonely 100,000 hardy souls strewn about the land of fire and ice. So instead of a colossal capital city, Reykjavik has the size and feel of a small town; or at least not a very big town. But it’s more than size, it’s the mentality of Reykjavik that’s so endearing. I never once saw a cop the entire time I was there. Or security. Or anything bad happen to anyone. There’s practically no crime, the entire country currently has 150 prisoners. 150?! The parliament, prime minister’s house, president’s house all were essentially open with no obvous signs of security, not even a fence. Since I live in the heart of a police-state, being in Iceland wasn’t just nice, it was a vacation from distrust, paranoia and fear and I loved every second of it.

Geyser Field in Iceland

5. Dark and rainy can be fun too - Iceland isn’t always dark and rainy, I know that. In fact, in the summer it’s almost always light out. But we went in the middle of winter and expected to find a cold, wet dark country. And we did, but it wasn’t a bad thing, not at all. The dark wasn’t excessive, the sun rose around 9:30 AM and set around 6:00 PM or so. A respectable day really for a country grazing the edge of the Arctic circle. There’s also something to be said for huddling around a warm fire, or enjoying a rich coffee while warming up in one of the city’s many cafes. I’ve been a major winter tourist this year and I love it. Anyone can travel when it’s sunny and warm, but to find the real city and enjoy it in a completely different way, there’s nothing like winter travel.

Have you been to Iceland? What surprised you on your first trip?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

106 Responses

  1. Vee Nicholette

    I went to Iceland in July of 2012 as a solo female traveler. It was one of the most phenomenal trips I have ever experienced & much of it remains ingrained in my mind.

    The country itself is abundant with natural beauty, friendly locals & endless possibilities. With the midnight sun in full force during my 12 day stay I was able to enjoy much more during my days of exploration.

    I choose to skip the blue lagoon. When I flew out to Akureyri (Northern Iceland) it was there that I enjoyed a natural bath at Lake Mývatn. I also felt conflicted about eating puffin, whale or shark so I stuck w the amazing but not so healthy free range burgers & lots of fresh smoked salmon. Thank goodness I do not have an aversion to seafood.

    Iceland is a magical country. They don’t call it the land of fire & ice for nothing. Hike volcanoes, glaciers, ride the Icelandic horse which has remained virtually unchanged since the Viking era, drink water straight from a waterfall because, well you can. Virtually no pollution, no crime & plenty to explore.

    One of my favorite quirky surprises was located in Reykjavík. The Icelandic Phallological Museum aka The penis museum. The largest collection of penises and penile parts from animals such seals, whales and even one from the human donor. Not for everybody but found it unique & inexpensive experience while on my way to get Thai food. Yep & it was AMAZING. That was another surprise. I was caught off guard by the Thai population in Iceland (I’ll let you research why) but I will say the food was authentic & all ingredients were shipped fresh from Thailand.

    It’s possible to do Iceland on a budget. The hostels are clean, safe & affordable. I recommend Kex or Reykjavik Backpackers. Also a great place to meet people. Booze is expensive best to purchase at the airport.

    Anyone dreaming of Iceland should go! Hope this helps :)

    Reply
  2. Denise

    I’m going to Iceland in two weeks. I want to bring some little gifts for the hotel front desk and other people I run in to like chocolates or something. I’m from Southern California. Any ideas?

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      What a sweet idea! I think it’s nice to bring something you can carry on the plane, won’t get smashed and is a treat. So is there something special that you all are known for? Also, be careful with food items. Check the current customs rules for Iceland to make sure you aren’t bringing in forbidden items.

      Reply
      • Page

        Matt, I will be leaving for Iceland for the 4-day package offered by Icelandic Air, this coming Monday. This package is called the “In search of the Northern Lights & Blue Lagoon package.” I have three questions/concerns: 1) Were you able to see the Aurora Borealis at anytime during your trip and if so was it from a Harbor Cruise boat or did you do any special excursions to try to see it (perhaps your time of year wasn’t conducive to seeing it?)? 2) Did you wade/soak in the waters of the Blue Lagoon and if so, was the temperature tolerable – like bath water — or are there some areas hotter than others ? I’m concerned I won’t be able to tolerate the hot waters. I couldn’t find your further blog on just the Blue Lagoon. 3) Should we dress in layers as if it is winter in New England? (Currently, it seems our Boston-area March has been the same temperatures as Iceland this month!)

  3. Christina

    Thanks for this article. I really like your honest point of views.
    I am thinking about some time to visit Iceland and I am glad I found your article.
    I am wondering if there is any food you can eat if you are vegetarian/vegan? :D

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thank you! Iceland is such a great place, I do hope you find that time. While a meat-centric culture, there are believe it or not options for both vegans and vegetarians. So enjoy!

      Reply
  4. Mike of Mapless Mike

    I’m planning on stopping over in Iceland with Iceland Air on my way to Spain in September. I’m glad you shared these things about the little known country. I’m really looking forward to visiting it.

    Reply
  5. Yana

    I agree with all five things!
    In my case I would have to say VERY DARK AND RAINY can be fun too – I went in January when the sun rose at 10-11 am and set at 16-ish…But it was still an incredible trip!

    Reply

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