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? (I have since updated my opinion in this post about the Blue Lagoon)

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

228 Responses

  1. Elyse

    I am planning a 10-12 day trip to Iceland and am exploring the option of a self driven tour via Ring Road. How much do you think I should budget for everything including car, gas, meals, accommodations. I am more likely to stay in a hotel than a shared guesthouse with a sleeping bag. Is $4000 enough? Too much? Not enough? Thanks for your advice!

    Reply
    • Ryan Bruce

      Hi Elyse!

      Including a SCUBA dive (which was 240 EUR itself), I was able to get by for less than a 1000 EUR (~1100 USD) excluding flights when I was up there for 12 days in April. That included hostels (I prefer an opportunity to meet new people), 2 nights in a guesthouse (built like a hotel), and a 3 day rental car + petrol.

      I realize that everyone values comfort differently, but I’d suggest saving money by not going with a hotel. If you’re feeling really adventurous, check out the Camp Easy camper rigs. Next time I’m in Iceland (weather permitting) that’s what I’m going to do.

      The one thing I would suggest is stocking up on your food at a place like Bonus before heading too far out, because you’ll start noticing that grocery stores can be few and far between.

      Feel free to Tweet at me @brucerpdx if you have more questions! Iceland was great and I’m looking forward to going back.

      Reply
  2. Todd @ Visit50

    Thanks for sharing – Iceland is high on my list, and considering how easy it is to get there, I really need to make it happen!

    Reply
  3. Rob

    First time visitors should utilize a Travel Agent that knows Iceland. We went from US and without their help would have missed many things.

    Reply
  4. eugene

    can my wife and i enjoy great country as we have not seen a food we would eat,so much we may change trip to sicily. i see iceland as awesome.only problem food. thanx

    Reply
    • Jonina

      I had to reply to this question concerning the cuisine in Iceland. I spent many summers in Iceland as a kid so I do love the unusual meats they eat. Iceland’s lamb is the best in the world and their fish is the freshest. I wouldn’t let the food deter you from visiting. Their bakeries are fabulous. Delicious breads and pastries. Icelanders insist on high quality food that is completely organic and you will never find GMOs in anything! Their Ag industry simply does not allow it. Their dairy products are superior to any around the world. Their yogurt (called Skyr) is delicious as well as their cheese and their ice cream is guaranteed to be the best you ever taste. You will find American foods in the grocers and they have subway and Pizza Hut and KFC. The American food you eat there may have a slight different taste than what your used to though because of their restriction of artificial and harmful ingredients. Example, they just recently allowed Mountain Dew but it has no caffeine and no artificial coloring. Since they insist on natural dyes it tends to stain your tongue and teeth a slight yellowish green. (just saying)

      Reply
  5. CB

    How much time is it worth allotting to Reykjavik itself? I am arriving on a Friday afternoon, planning to do a Northern Lights tour on the Friday night, planning to do a day tour on Sunday, then leaving Monday afternoon (flight is around 5pm) – I’m debating doing a whale watching tour on the Saturday but that would take me out of Reykjavik from about 12-4pm – would you suggest spending that day walking around the city, instead?

    Reply
  6. Alexandra

    Went on a week trip to Iceland and it was absolutely the most breath taking experience I’ve had so far. We headed right on the brink of spring so a lot of the easier travel routes were blocked for a little 4 door hatch back. If I could recommend anything to those looking to go, it would be to plan out how you’re wanting to travel. They have tours from Reykjavik that stop in a lot of the major areas around the Golden Circle, but if you’d rather go at your own pace, renting and driving around wasn’t too expensive for 3 broke college students traveling abroad from their studies in another country. We plotted our entire week there ourselves, didn’t feel the need to use a travel agent. I could never change that experience for the world at all. This article actually helped us be prepared for certain things.

    Reply
  7. Christine

    Hi:
    Glad I found your blog post. I am a photographer (not so much a landscape one though) but a client wants to take me to Iceland for a private workshop. We are looking at 9 days in April because of our other life commitments and are considering a camper. (we would like to do the school accommodations but they aren’t in operation then). She really wants to photograph the blue ice chunks in the water as well as the Aurora B if it is present then (I do hear that it is a possibility still in April) I also have taken a liking to Milky Way shots (this is where the camper would come in handy). So my question, I do hear that some roads are still closed then and thus it may be harder to get to some cool waterfalls etc but since you went in April, is there enough to do for the 9 days photographically? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Well there’s always something to stunning to photographic, the subjects just shift throughout the year. :) Some roads may indeed be closed, rental car companies are great in keeping you informed and they have a web site in Iceland with live updates for road closures.

      Reply
  8. Morgan

    Icelandicair has a HUGE sale going on right now. Check it out through Travel Zoo. We are leaving from Seattle in December for 4 nights + airfare and a couple of extra tours for 2 people for less than $1400! TOTAL! The sale is going on until July 3rd, I believe.

    Reply
  9. Kristy

    Hi,

    Quick question to anyone who has visited Iceland…I have a very brief layover there on my way to Manchester and I am planning on visiting the airport gift shop just to say I’ve been. I’ve checked it out online and I see prices like 25.400 and I’m having a tough time figuring out whether that is like just over 25 krona or just over 25,000 krona. Basically the decimal is throwing me off. I just don’t want to get 1,000 icelandic krona and try to buy something that costs 25,000 :) Silly question but just want to be prepared!

    Thanks in advance for your help!

    Reply
  10. Martin Rigby

    Treat the period like a comma, and if you are lazy, just move the decimal over two to the left and subtract about as third and you are at US Dollars (25.400 Iceland Krona equals about $170 US). By the way, I just got back from a week in Iceland with family and can’t say enough about the country. I have traveled a lot and this is the safest place I have ever traveled in. Not only did I never lock any room I stayed in, I generally left the key in the door on the OUTSIDE of the door so I wouldn’t loose it – this is for all day long while I visited museums, beaches, glaciers, etc. Literally left the places I stayed unlocked the entire time I was there. Also never locked the car even with expensive camera gear in it. I grew up in inner city Los Angeles and am street wise and normally very alert. Crime just isn’t an issue here, which was a wonderful change from just about everywhere in the US and elsewhere in the world. People there are the nicest in the world – speak Icelandic but also English. For food, we shopped a lot at Bonus and prices were reasonable. Cooked up some great fish dinners in the hostels. Also enjoyed many incredible breads and fish soups. My college-age son now wants to study abroad there now, but not sure if that is for academic reasons or because he was in love all of the time with all of girls his age and the thriving pub/coffee house scene. My daughter actually so fell in love with the place that she literally decided to stay on another month there on her own, working on farms and staying in hostels. On one of the farms her job is to work out the horses all day. I had to come back to actually work but already plan to go back as soon as possible. I almost didn’t write this comment because I kind of want Iceland to stay the same and not be overrun with snooty tourists, which it isn’t (yet). …Marty

    Reply
    • Kristy

      Thanks Marty!! I was assuming it was to be treated like a decimal, but wanted to make sure. Unfortunately I won’t be staying in Iceland for longer than a few hours, but wanted to at least check out the airport gift shop. I’m flying over from Toronto and shocked to see it’s only a 5 hour flight…definitely opens up some vacationing possibilities! I promise not to be a snotty tourist though :)

      Reply
  11. Dave

    Marty. I read Njal’s saga years ago and knew I wanted to go. Now I am considering a job there! Thanks for the tips.

    Reply
  12. Rosie

    Just booked a post- Christmas/ new year 5 day trip yo Iceland, staying central in Reykjavik. I was a bit worried about the darkness, and gave niyuced a lot of excursions don’t run in the ‘off peak season’ (after September). Any recommendations. We love the great outdoors, glaciers, volcanoes and hiking etc,but my partner has never been skiing before, and I don’t feel comfortable huring a 4 by 4 and driving with chains in the snow! Any tips woild ge welcomed, thanks.

    Reply
    • johnson

      Iceland is a great place to visit. I was born there live in the states now but can tell everyone that is curious that given the chance you will love Iceland. The fire works display on new years eve with huge bonfires are awesome. There are all kinds of activities all year round just ask an Icelander what they recommend. you don’t have to rent the truck there are many tour companies with experienced off road drivers but check availability. You can go out to sea on a boat tour and see aurora borealis but again check to be sure conditions are good for that time of year. Anyway for you and any one else that reads this please don’t be afraid of the food or the language most speak English as well and there are many wonderful and modern dishes to be had. Icelanders have a warm heart for visitors and love showing off their country and all its wonders. also I think the blue lagoon is a beautiful place to see if nothing else and I believe they are open most of the year if not all year I cannot remember have a wonderful trip.

      Reply
  13. Anixa

    I want to visit Iceland the week of labor day. What area/town is best to stay.

    Reply
  14. Milena

    My boyfriend and I are planning a trip to Iceland next september.Do you think 1 week would be enough or should we extend it to a two-week trip?

    Reply

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