Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Iceland

Iceland flag

For my birthday I had a surprise I could hardly believe – a trip to Iceland. 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 obvious signs of security, not even a fence. 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?

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.

265 thoughts on “Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Iceland”

  1. 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!

    1. 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.

      1. Hi Ryan!
        Florida-based scuba diver here. I’m about to be in Iceland September 2nd to the 8th and would love to know more about your trip itinerary details and how you managed to keep costs so low. (I ask because my partner that was supposed to join me had to cancel at the last minute so I’m looking for ways to save money while still enjoying my time there). Thanks!

      2. Well I’m not a budget traveler, so I may not be the best person to ask. But finding accommodations with a kitchen would certainly help!

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

  3. 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

    1. 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)

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

    1. Hey, my sister and I are travelling to Iceland next week, and just wondering who you booked your car rental with or if you have any suggestions? Thanks!!

    2. Hi Alexandra. I love hearing that you enjoyed your trip. We are planning a trip there in March. Would you be open to sharing your itinerary that you followed? My husband and i prefer not to have to use a travel agent, and want to see some cool places – but don’t know where to start. if yes, you can message me through my web page:


    3. Hi Alexandra, sounds like you had a great trip! My sister and I (two broke university students from Canada) are looking to go to Iceland for 10 days this June, could you send me an email about your trip, where you went, how much a rental car is, etc? I would really appreciate it!
      my email is [email protected]

  6. 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!

    1. 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.

      1. Great information, it helps so much to hear about the opinion of Iceland. I am a
        so interested to know about the culture and what the island has to offer. Will checkout Icelandicair and Travel Zoo.
        Thank you

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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

    1. 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 :)

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

    1. 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.

  12. 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?

  13. Hey guys!

    I am going on a trip to Iceland in October for just under 3 weeks. I know thats a long time to be in Iceland but we wanted a nice relaxed trip. We will have a car for about 18 of those days and i wanted to know if anyone has any ideas of what or how to plan a trip with that many days. Also knowing that it is October and many things will be closed off. Please let me know!

    1. Hey Cory

      Your plan is probably to drive the ring road , route 1 that goes all around the country except the westfjords (which you shouldn’t miss since you have 3 weeks).
      On you can see alerts about weather conditions, a detailed map of every roads status (Open, closed, slippery, etc) and more.

  14. What surprised me on your first trip?
    I was traveling along a deserted unpaved road when in the distance I saw a car sitting by the side of the road. I said to my wife look another tourist. No I was wrong it was the police he pulled me over and did me for 7 MPH over the speed limit and that cost me £150.
    Still this has not put me off I am going back over in November 2015.

    Bill from Scotland

  15. Hi I ll be visiting Iceland in the beginning of January. I would like to do the whale watching tour. Is it possible at that time

  16. Hi, great post! I am currently planning a 5 day trip in the end of January and have a couple of questions. Do you know of any good itinerary for this time period? I know we won’t be able to travel too far and I’m fine with just staying in the south. Also I would like to do some hiking. Are there any hikes that are possible in winter? I can’t seem to find many that seem accessible. We are planning on renting a 4WD vehicle of some sort in hopes that it might help.



  17. Hi there,
    First SOLO international traveler July 2016. I have about 10 days in Iceland, should I rent a car or is there a bus to the mountains? I’d like to hike and catch some of the awesome waterfalls. I’m so overwhelmed with taking notes of “cool spots” and where to stay/go I thought I would ask for help! I want to enjoy the time I’m there, but be realistic to setting only so many spots to see. Also anyone else having problems with the cost of flight continuing to increase!? :(


    1. Hi Sam, when about were you planning on doing the trip? I’ve been wanting to visit Iceland for over 10 years now but something always comes between us.
      My plan for the 2016 was to visit with a friend of mine but I’ve just learned she won’t be able to make it so I thought maybe if we team up and do the trip together? Might reduce our costs? :) Especially since we seem to be interested in similar activities there.

  18. This is pretty neat! I missed my chance of visiting Iceland a couple of years back…next time I make a plan, this will remain my bible.Thanks for this information..

  19. Hi!

    We are booking our honeymoon to Iceland and feel a little overwhelmed. We are planning to go around the new moon in March (for aurora purposes). We are seasoned hostel/drive ourselves around travelers, but want to be pampered a bit as well, and in general have an amazing, beautiful, unique experience. The trip would be March 7 2016 – departing the 15th. Does anyone have an itinerary they used that they can share? Would prefer to avoid a travel agent.

    Thanks so much! Jessica.

  20. I am turning 40 in the later part of April & i told my boyfriend i’d like to go to Iceland for ten days for my birthday…
    I also invited my sister and her hubby & may invite my almost retired (farmers) parents.
    If my parents come we would probably stay in a hotel, however a guesthouse sounds fun. We would also rent a vehicle…
    If my parents come and this is my 40th birthday experience, i want to do as much possible & share it with my family….
    The blue Lagoon is a must and whale watching (what is best time of year), Glaciers & aurora if possible (we might be going to late)…. Please any advice….

  21. Hello!

    I am so infatuated by Iceland. It’s been #1 on my list for so long. I have some wanderlust in my blood and was planning on going in April/may. I am lost though. I love to hike and explore beautiful places and I want to know how much money I should bring for a week’s stay. Also where I should stay in Reykjavik and where I should hike/camp in the more mountainous parts. How should I get to the hiking? I am only 19 and can’t rent a car there because I’m not 20. Thanks !

  22. We are planning on taking approximately 12 days to drive the complete Ring Road and some of the side trips.
    We are wanting to do this in either May or August of next year. Which month would be best for travel/weather?
    Is this do-able in a 3-4 person motorhome?
    I did a similar kind of trip a few years age in New Zealand.

  23. Hi All,

    Thank you for many insightful comments on Iceland. My husband and me are going tomorrow night to Reyjavik, on a 4 day trip. Its his birthday on Sunday 22 Nov, so we planned to spend it well in a fantasy place, and Iceland seems jsut the right one. We booked for tours 2 whole days to cover Golden Circle, Aurora Borelias aka Nothern Lights, and the South balck sandy beaches and falls. Last day is dedicated to local walking around and blue lagoon. We hope to come back with tons of memories and see if we should go back in summer time again for a longer trip. Found some interesting foood articles … posting them for the benefit of all.

    I will comment again once i am back from this trip… Wish us good times!


  24. Great post! Off to Iceland the first week of January for my bday :)

    I loved this statement:
    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.

    It should be posted everywhere! :)

  25. Hi,
    I’m planning a trip to Iceland in March 2016. More like it’s among one of the many destinations in my consideration set right now. A major concern I seem to have is that I’m a vegetarian. Though I’m not very fussy or picky about food, it is still a problem considering I will be travelling with a group of 20(most of whom are vegetarians) distributed across age groups…Could you tell me how easy/difficult it is to find vegetarian food in Iceland?

    1. I am also travelling to iceland in March with one of my friends. What r the places you are visiting ? We are there for 4-5 days and are a little confused about the budgets as car rentals or tours available are looking on a higher expense side. Do u have any suggestions to get the best of iceland in a comfortable budget , specially south of Iceland?

  26. When do you think is the least expensive time to visit? My 13 year old daughter has been saving up her babysitting money for over a year in order to visit…over $500! I don’t mind “roughing” it with her…hostels, etc. She wants to visit Geothermal areas, volcanoes and west fjords. Thanks!

  27. Hey all!

    Lots of great information here; I’m planning a hiking trip to the highlands (Mt. Snaefell/Lonsoraefi Trail) this coming May. I was curious if anyone was able to give me an idea of how much snow to expect this time of year. Thanks!!

    1. Hi, Caleb,

      Hiking trip is a great choice. Deffinitely gives you a chance to feel the real Iceland, rather than Reykjavik.
      Snow is a tricky thing, depending on the place. May in the North of Iceland was filled with snow. Even on June I was driving a snowmobile. Highlands are usually snowy. But not cold. Only waterproof outfit is needed.

  28. I am leaving for Iceland on the 13th of January, 2016. How is it best to handle money there? Will I be able to get ISK at ATM machines? Are ATM’s available in the airport or do I have to find a bank to get currency? Thanks for your help.

  29. Hi Matt,
    I’m traveling to Iceland in two weeks. This will be my 4th visit. I love it there.
    I’ve done all the touristy stuff and want to try something new. What would you suggest?
    I’ll also be there to plan my 50th birthday party for the following year (2017) so I’ll be trying out some things to make the trip exciting for my 25-30 friends who will be going for the first time to help me celebrate. I’ve always stayed at the Hilton but may need a hotel suggestion for my guests also.
    Please let me know what you think.

    PS…im a picky eater also (LOL)

  30. I am planning to travel to Iceland in March 2016 by myself. What is an adequate number of days to spend there to be able to see the more interesting things in winter? Thanks.

  31. Hello my traveling souls,

    So I booled my flight to Iceland for May 6th-14th of this year. I am having a hard time finding excursions that are available for this time. Seems like everything is opening up on the 15th of May. I wanted to do some hiking in Landmannalaugar and visit the Thrihnukagigur volcano. I know I should probably have a guide for the volcano. I was wondering how I could possibly do some hiking while I’m there. Any suggestions on hiking in that area without a guide? I will be traveling alone as well. Just having a hard time finding things to do, seems lik I’m a week to early. :( Help please?!?

    1. I am also thinking of travelling that week (May 6-12), alone. I just saw a deal for a flight so figured I might give it a go. The only thing that I had looked at was whale watching which is running. Thanks for the heads up, I will have to look at some other things before I book. Maybe we could brainstorm together if I end up booking!

  32. Good advice & insights! My husband & I are thinking of taking our 4 year old to Iceland mid-July. We’ll rent a car– is that enough to see volcanoes, glaciers, etc. without having to do long hikes? Would love to get any recc’s from anyone who has traveled to Iceland with small kids, please! We are open to any accommodations except for hostels and camping.

  33. I’m going to Iceland with three other friends June 15-20. We’re renting a house and got tickets to the Secret Solstice festival. I don’t think I will go all three days to the fedtival b/c I don’t want to miss seeing the beautiful country. Any thought on what I should prioritize for my short stay in June? Thank you,

  34. Considering a ten day trip to Iceland in mid September 2016. We are two 60 yr old women ( friends since childhood & celebrating our 60 year birthdays with this trip). I have heard that Sept is the beginning of rainy season- concerned- thoughts? Not sure if this is the kind of trip where we need tours or can just do it on our own. Ideas for a good balanced itineary would be greatly appreciated.. while we want to explore and take in all that nature has to offer, we’re not looking to any real hiking or any other activities along those lines. Open to renting a car, … just want to plan a great trip. Thank you to all who respond!!!

  35. Hi Matt,

    I was planning to do the ring road drive in May but my travel buddy just bailed. I don’t think I’ll be able to find someone else to commit to a 10 day trip before I go. Do you think Iceland is busy enough in May that it is possible to meet solo travelers in hostels? Thanks so much for your opinion!

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