First Timer’s Guide to Iceland

Iceland

It was dark as we arrived in Reykjavik, it would be dark for most of our stay, but I didn’t care. I was excited and charged to finally be in the capital of cool, Iceland. In recent years Iceland’s popularity has exploded, thanks to great airfare deals and its proximity to both Europe and the United States. It’s also a fun, easy place to visit and I think makes a perfect long weekend escape for anyone who wants to get away from it all, if only for a few days. So if you’re planning your own quick trip, here are some tips to get you started.

How to Get There

Flying time from the East Coast of the US is less than six hours, making it one of the shortest flights to Europe available. Intellectually I knew the length but it’s quite another thing to experience it firsthand. The one negative to this speedy flight is that you really don’t have time to sleep, which makes the first day in Iceland a challenge unless you want to spend it sleeping. Note, do not spend your first day sleeping. From Europe it’s obviously even more convenient and there are frequent deals on both sides of The Pond usually in conjunction with hotels and activities. When I visited we took advantage of an Icelandair package that combined flight, hotel and a few tours for one price. It was easy and made the trip seamless from start to finish.

 

Where to Stay

If you’re coming from the United States you will arrive very early in the morning. Keflavik International Airport is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik city center and most tourists take advantage of the tourist bus that runs throughout the day with optional transfers to your hotel. Even though Iceland is small, the options for lodging are pretty good and range from the ultra-budget hostels to high-end luxury accommodations. When choosing your hotel or hostel, be sure to look at a map of Reykjavik. Not all hotels are located near the city center so if this is important to you then you need to choose accordingly.

We stayed at the Centre Hotel Thingholt, which was a higher end option offered through our Icelandair package. The hotel has several advantages including its location adjacent to the city core, a hearty complimentary breakfast and of course the comfort level. I was overall very happy with the hotel but was a little put off by a check in policy that clearly takes advantage of tourists coming off of redeye flights. A placard at the front desk announced that check in time is 3:00 PM but early check in was available for an extra fee of 50 Euro. We arrived to the hotel at 9am after many hours of travel and the thought of waiting another six hours to bathe and change clothes was almost too much to take. So we grudgingly paid the extra money and were in our room before noon. Nowhere else have I seen this before and it really irked me that the hotel has a policy in place to take advantage of travelers. If they can arrange the room to be ready before 3pm then they should just let guests in without extra fees. Hotels around the world do that and I don’t see why they can’t. I’m also not sure if it’s a widespread policy in Reykjavik or not, but it is something of which to be aware just in case.

 Reykjavik Iceland statue

What to Do

Iceland is much more than just a quick weekend getaway, weeks could be spent exploring this shockingly beautiful island nation. That being said, many tourists do not spend a lot of time in the country so it’s important to prioritize activities. Getting around is easy thanks to a well-developed day tour industry. I’m usually against large group tours, but the ones in Iceland were different, at least for us. We booked three tours and all were mid-sized groups and not once did I feel like a sheep being herded around. Still, if this isn’t your thing then renting a car is certainly an option.

Northern Lights – There are several spots around the world where one can witness the natural spectacle known as the Northern Lights and Iceland is one of them. While you should book this excursion in advance be aware that the lights are highly dependent on the weather and time of year. For the four nights we were in Iceland it wasn’t possible to see them at all. I’m told the Northern Lights are amazing and they should absolutely be on your bucket list, but don’t get too disappointed if the weather cancels this once in a lifetime experience.

 Geyser Field in Iceland

Golden Circle – Most first time visitors to Iceland spend at least one day touring the so-called Golden Circle. The Circle is made up of three important sights that in large part define the Icelandic experience. Geysir and the valley of Haukadalur is usually the first stop on the tour and a great introduction to the land of fire and ice. The geysers are just some of many found around the island, testimony to its highly active geothermal qualities. Some of the geysers only erupt once in a very long while, but at least one erupts every few minutes guaranteeing amazing photos. The second stop is the Gullfoss waterfalls, a beautiful natural wonder that is breathtaking to see in person. The final stop is more about the history of Iceland, Thingvellir. This is the site of the 1,000 year old parliament, the oldest in the world and is truly the heart and soul of the nation. The Golden Circle is a daylong activity and in addition to the three sites is a great way to see the dramatic interior of Iceland.

 Humpback whale, Iceland

Whale Watching – Iceland has a long history with whales and even today is one of the few nations where it is sadly legal to hunt them. But in an effort to introduce more humane access to whales a thriving whale watching industry has popped up. We left early in the morning, bundled up and ready to combat the freezing cold temperatures. Within a few minutes on board the ship though we had spotted our first whale, a beautiful humpback. There’s nothing quite like being out on the water and watching these beautiful animals in their home waters.

 Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik City Tour – Many tourists to Iceland tend to forget that Reykjavik itself is a great city to explore and about which there is plenty to learn. There are several great tour options led by locals that offer a lot of insight not only into the city, but the people as well. Walking around town you start to get a feel for what makes it so great and the people so very warm and friendly. We spent a full day exploring Reykjavik but if that’s too long for you be sure to at least plan half a day walking around the capital city.

To make it easier for you to navigate Reykjavik, I put together this short walking tour for you:

 

Blue Lagoon – The most popular tourist activity on Iceland, the Blue Lagoon spa attracts a stunning 80% of all travelers to Iceland. Although not strictly speaking a naturally occurring phenomenon, the waters are said to have remarkable medicinal qualities and thousands journey to Iceland just for the water therapy. But for the rest of us there’s just something magical about floating in the murky waters, steam rising up in billows as it meets the chilly air. Surrounded by mountains and steam you feel like you are truly in an otherworldly place. Be forewarned though, the Blue Lagoon is a money making machine. There are myriad options to part you with your money so do some research in advance to see what best suits you and your interests.

Reykjavik, Iceland

The Rest

In addition to these standard tips, there are a few other things to keep in mind. The first is cost. At the time of writing, traveling in Iceland is a little more expensive than many other European destinations. Iceland is the only European country (so far) that went through bankruptcy during the height of the financial crisis and the economy is still struggling to recover. For travelers this means that you should expect to pay a little more than normal for the essentials. (Yes, Diet Coke is an essential)

The weather tends to confuse most first time visitors, but it really isn’t extreme. In the southern part of the island temperatures range from the 30s Fahrenheit in the winter to the 50s and 60s in the summer. The highest temperature ever recorded is 86 degrees Fahrenheit. It does rain a lot though throughout the year and the sun may be elusive at times. Actually, the weather reminded me a lot of Scotland. But it’s definitely not extreme, bring a jacket but leave those Arctic parkas and sunglasses at home and do make sure to bring an umbrella.

Don’t overplan your stay. I’ve mentioned that Iceland has fully embraced tourism and has made it very easy for visitors to preschedule all of their activities. While it’s fine to do this for part of your stay, don’t book every second. Allow yourself some time to wander and explore on your own, to allow for some travel spontaneity.

Reykjavik Iceland

Don’t wait. Iceland is a great travel destination now, particularly if you explore the Ring Road and the harder to reach interior. But it’s also a very popular tourist destination, which always changes a place. Go now while it still retains its inherent charm and before tourism has changed it forever, if it hasn’t already.

Iceland is one of my favorite destinations not just because it’s easy to visit, but because there’s nothing quite like it. As I’ve learned it has a certain infectious quality to it that is impossible to describe until you visit. Be forewarned though, once you do you’ll want to keep going back again and again.

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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

12 Responses

  1. Curt

    It’s been almost seven years since I visited Iceland, and I’m itching to go back. My wife and I agreed years ago to attend the Iceland Airwaves music festival in 2013 to coincide with our fifth anniversary. As the date draws nearer, it remains to be seen whether we’ll pull the trigger and go.

    Reply
  2. Arnar

    Iceland is a lovely place to visit..one of most memorable experience to stay and enjoy at northern lights, blue lagoons and spend happier moments on nightlife of Iceland.

    Reply
  3. GRRRLTRAVELER | Christine

    Thanks for this post! Iceland is definitely a country on my list but I know almost nothing about it other than the Blue Lagoon. This is helpful. 50 Euro for an early checkin? That’s not cheap at all. Seems like if anything I’d have to research my accommodations. If they offer free luggage storage and if they’re central.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      There are a number of alternatives in and around city center, just be sure to ask the right questions first :)

      Reply
  4. Sofie

    Informative post!
    I’m wondering: do you think Iceland is expensive? I’m asking because that’s something I’ve read a couple of times already.

    Also: in Vegas a lot of hotels ask you to pay extra if you want to check it before 4pm. When I went there with a friend we also arrived in the morning, but we just left our luggage with the bell boy and checked in later.

    Reply
  5. Auður - I heart Reykjavík

    Bring an umbrella may be the single worst advice I’ve heard for anyone visiting Iceland :) It’s useless most of the time due to the strong winds, you must have been very lucky with weather when you were here :)

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      All I can do is share what I experienced which was rain and not too much wind.

      Reply
  6. Red Hunt

    Helpful post here as I haven’t been to Iceland yet, but it’s high on my list (as with everyone else it seems!)

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      it’s a remarkable place, no doubt about that

      Reply
  7. Evelyn

    I went to Iceland last month to see the northern lights and had a blast staying in Rekjavik.
    I’ve fallen in love with the place and it’s people and I plan to go back this year, but this time for a tour around the island.
    This is a great article and I agree with everything you said, except the umbrella part.
    There were days when there was almost no wind (probably what you experienced) and days when you merely had to stand on ice and let wind move you (wether you wanted to or not).

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      You’re the 2nd person to mention the wind, but we didn’t have that. I guess we were lucky :)

      Reply
  8. maRia

    Just went to Iceland on Jan. 10 of this year and it was a dream come true! Coming from Boston we also arrived early but our hotel (Hotel Odinsve) checked us in with no extra fee.
    If you wear contacts and go to the Blue Lagoon I highly recommend bringing contact solution w/you in case you get the mud in your eyes like a dummy. Not that I know anyone that had that issue…
    Can’t wait to go back in the summer!

    Reply

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