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

130 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
      • Christina

        Makes it even more appealing now. :)

  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
  6. Melinda

    I would agree with the majority of your insights – no interest in fermented shark or whale, won’t eat puffin and foal carpaccio? We saw all of the stunning horses all over the island and I’m just not willing to eat foal or horsemeat.

    What I would strongly recommend the next time you go is rent a truck (not a car), a truck with 4 wheel drive and drive around the island. We went for a week and did the Blue Lagoon on our first day to get acclimated to the time zone and get over the red eye from DC.

    Then we left and went to the Snafellnas Peninsula (got stuck in a spring monsoon) and hung in out hotel in a fishing village and went exploring at 10pm since the sun was still up and the rain had finally ended. We then went to Lake Myvatn (amazing), Akureyri, Hofn (on the way to Hofn we took the unpaved gravel road and found some phenomenal waterfalls and beaches that no one goes too) and Vik before finally spending a day or so in Rekjavik.

    We’re also planning to go back and hit the Western Fjords since they weren’t open yet when we were there.

    Reply
    • Nikki

      Hi! Matt, thanks so much for posting this!! Melinda, I am looking to rent a 4×4 and was wondering what road you took by Akureyri to see the waterfalls and beaches?

      Thanks!:)

      Reply
  7. Kate M

    I’m going this summer on my honeymoon. I can’t wait to go…any suggestions for places that I must see in August?

    Reply
  8. Ana T

    Hello ,I’m going on November any suggestions to best places to visit? thanks

    Reply
  9. Gary

    I really liked your interesting comments about Iceland. I’m thinking of going next year. However, I do have one quibble, if I may. Why should a society modify itself to cater to tourists? Isn’t it then erasing part of what makes it unique and attractive (to some, not all) in the first place? I’m talking about your complaints that they serve fermented foods and whale meat in “tourist restaurants”. First of all, I don’t really know what you mean by that designation. Secondly, I would imagine that the shock of seeing such items on the menu promotes it’s uniqueness to the tourists and gives them something to talk about, as if they were real explorers. If you want familiar food rather than local, go to a McDonald’s.

    Reply
    • Fraulein

      There’s always one ‘over-thinker’, isn’t there! Lighten up, Gary. . .

      Reply
      • Suvin

        I agree with Gary.
        And Fraulein, there’s such a thing as an ‘under-thinker’ too you know ;)

  10. Nhac cha trong tu

    I alway like travel in winter

    Reply
  11. Sandeep

    Hey what language do they speak there , is it easy to interact , do they speak english

    Reply
    • Helgi Rúnar Jóhannesson

      Yes, everyone up from the age of 15~ speaks english in Iceland and we speak icelandic.

      Reply
  12. Lane

    Funny, I am the world’s most finicky eater but food wasn’t a problem for me. I spent eight days in Iceland (having traveled a long way to get there) and published a piece about it. What I liked was the common sense — no speed limits, no locked doors (though the woman who owned my bed and breakfast broke into my suitcase and went through my possessions). I loved the black beach in the driving rain (and the beautiful stones I brought home because dull ordinary rocks after their transport); the blue lagoon was blah and Disneylandesque; the sheep were (supposedly) identifiable by their faces; reindeer fur is the softest thing I have ever felt; Icelandic is enjoyable to speak (yes, I practiced before I went); the churches and Viking homes were really interesting; the less-famous waterfall was prettier the the iconic one; the glaciers, volcanoes and geysers were less impressive than those I’d seen in the U.S. The cliffs where we watched the puffins (and where I fell into a puffin burrow) were beautiful, and riding the horses was enjoyable. My main takeaway, though is — if I had known about the trees, I never would have gone to Iceland. Yes, hundreds of thousands were planted in the late 1990s, to replace all those that had been cut down; but when I was there, the terrain was like a moonscape. It was really really depressing, these little clumps of newly-planted trees surrounded by desolate ground. There was nowhere to hide, and I felt so sorry for the habitat. Uncontained wind. Unblocked sun. I love Bryce and Arches and other treeless places, but I didn’t expect that in Iceland, and it was a major downer. The Australians I talked with made me wish I’d gone on to Greenland.
    And yes, food is really expensive there. But I saw my first Yaris, and it was really cute.

    Reply
    • kevin

      Lane-What a drag you. One of the greatest spots on the world, and this is all you took away. My word.

      Reply
  13. Todd B

    Great list, I’m returning to Iceland after 25 years, I can’t wait! I bring gifts from California also, I usually bring a good bottle of wine, Cali pistachios, almonds, Kona coffee, if I find nobody to give items to, I will eat and drink them with my wife. Win Win!

    Reply
  14. Julien

    I travel to Iceland 4 years ago and will come back again for sure. Like very much !

    Reply
  15. Kevin Cardoza

    An important thing to account for regarding #2 – eating whale meat is actually not traditional at all, and the vast majority of Icelanders actually don’t even eat it, and those that do eat it don’t do so that often.

    Almost all modern whaling is done for exporting the meat to countries like Japan and since that has dried up considerably, the whaling industry has tried to present it as if it was a unique Icelandic delicacy in their homeland. So nobody should feel guilty about condemning the practice as it exists on the menu for no other reason than to appeal to tourists.

    http://news.discovery.com/animals/iceland-whale-wars-110720.htm

    Reply
  16. Amy

    Probably my favourite country!

    Reply
  17. Natasha Amar

    Thanks for sharing. I really cannot wait to go to Iceland, it’s been on my wishlist for the longest time. But I’m not looking forward to the food experiences there. I’m a picky eater too who does not eat seafood. Fermented meat does not sound good. Oh and I cannot imagine eating horse meat and other unconventional food like they do there.

    Reply
  18. Kay T

    This year will mark my 5th summer trip to Iceland, and I will be making a trip in the winter soon too.
    I have made many friends there, and have seen a lot (not yet all) of the country. Let your spirit of travel and adventure lose in this fine country. It is it’s own reward, do not compare it to other places, nor the foods and traditions to others. Enjoy it for what it is!
    I have eaten many of the local foods, and look forward to trying the winter ones too. I might not have a second helping, or eat it ever again, but I can say I have tried it. Food is expensive yes, but remember, when eating out the tax and tip is already included in the price you see. Also, at least from the US, you are allowed to bring a reasonable amount of food with you in your luggage, true, thee are some restrictions, but not enough to fret over. Enjoy the trip!

    Reply
  19. Pete

    Nice post Matt. What surprized me most about Iceland is the number of surprizes. I had a 4WD and drove around the island and took several small dirt roads off the main road and every little road had amazing surprizes. Out of 110 countries I have photographed Iceland ranks #7 and on my 2015 list of “50 incredible destinations” it (Iceland’s Glaciers and Icecaps) ranks #19. Lovin’ Iceland! ;)

    Reply
  20. kevin

    My wife and I just spent a long weekend in Iceland, and fell absolutely with the entire country, going back in a month. and a few points not covered in other posts–no tipping, nearly the entire country is powered by geothermal energy (which is why Matt, it doesn’t matter that a power plant irrigates the blue lagoon) and yes, the whale, and puffin and horse eating was a bit off putting at first, but we got over this really fast, largely because the Icelandic are so direct and honest in dealing with the outer world. Sorta surprised no one mentioned the Icelandic personality–as far removed from the endlessly-smiling American scene as you can get–projecting at first a certain coldness or even indifference. But as every good tour book explains, this is just the surface, and with a little patience you encounter a people that are warm, kind, intelligent and funkingly imaginative. Imagine, the mayor of Reykjavik comparing his city to a a cheerful, intelligent dwarf and extolling the wonderful sounds of drunk people laughing and talking. I have to admit I don’t get seafood-hating tourists going to a fish-driven island culture, but that’s just me. Nor do I get people who obsess over not eating puffins or whales, while scoffing down endless burgers, chicken and cold cuts. My wife and I are mostly vegetarians, but on vacation we indulge in the indigenous menus (except for whales). For those with worries the food is fantastic, and every restaurant has some sort of vegetarian dishes. But if you don’t want to pay high prices for great food, maybe Iceland isn’t your bag. And two final points. I’ve never understood the point of ranking countries. In fact, it seems almost self-defeating, for isn’t the point of travel to experience cultures on their own terms. And maybe discarding the Sports Center mentality for just a bit. To me, and I think I’m probably much older than the other posters, I don’t believe that there is another place in the West that can take you to a primal level of existence, geologically and psychologically, as Iceland can. To walk on a land mass that is still evolving, and changing and altering. You can see it in all the fissures in the land, you feel, almost, the world move beneath your feet. Which is why my favorite spot is Pingvellir national park running over the midatlantic fault between the eurasian and American teutonic plates. It’s truly magical. No wonder the majorityof the Icelandic believe in elves!

    Reply
  21. Betsy

    Can anyone give me an example of what an “expensive meal” would cost? Thanks

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Well like any place, it would cost as much as you want to pay. :)

      Reply
  22. Karyn Dornemann

    Yes, the Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap. But it’s a lovely, warm one. On my trip to Paris and France via Reykjavik back in 2007 (thanks to Iceland Air who suggested we stay over a couple of days), the Blue Lagoon was our last activity (we were only there three days). We enjoyed and relaxed in the water so much that we missed our bus to the airport – there went our luggage! After a somewhat frantic taxi ride to the airport, we were reunited with our bags at the check-in – only to discover that I had left my laptop (!) in the taxi! The airport personnel were so amazing and helpful. They were able to track down the taxi driver (she was female, so it was made easier this way) and she zipped right back to the airport to hand-deliver my laptop and to give me a huge warm farewell hug. Yes, the Blue Lagoon rendered my gray matter non-functional for awhile, but the sincere and helpful Icelanders made this short visit a memorable one.

    Reply

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