After my first trip to Iceland in 2012, I shared on this site a series of tips and insights into what has since become one of my favorite countries to visit. The problem with that was that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I knew about Iceland when I wrote that post. Reading back through it, the information is still sound (mostly) but it lacks a certain level of nuance, of insight which is why I want to provide an updated version today. In addition to reexamining my main points, I want to share some new thoughts and my always-evolving impressions of what it’s like to travel in Iceland.
Easy to Visit
Just as the close proximity of Iceland impressed me 6 years ago, it still does today. From the East Coast, it takes about 5 hours to reach Iceland, depending on the tail winds. That’s faster than I can travel to many places on the West Coast. That ease of travel makes visiting convenient and practical. Since I last wrote about this, new air options have popped up, budget airlines that have dropped already affordable prices even lower. With multiple air options it’s never been easier to reach Keflavik International Airport, whether you’re passing through on a stopover or spending your entire vacation in Iceland.
Not only is getting there easy, but once you arrive it’s a fairly easy country to navigate. My preferred mode of transportation is a rental car. There is just so much to see and do, many of the sights tucked away off the Ring Road and you really need a car to properly enjoy them. But if you don’t want to rent a car, Iceland is also the most organized country I’ve ever seen in regards to tours. A well-oiled machine exists making a visit to Iceland as well planned as you want. Tours exist for everything, almost all of them picking up from Reykjavik hotels.
If you’re smart though, you’ll rent a car and thankfully getting around the country is simple. There is one main road encircling the island country, the Ring Road, off of which you can find everything you want to see and do. One word of caution though is the weather. Be sure to stay abreast of conditions both on the Ring Road and on the subsidiary roads and be cautious. Traveling in the north recently, I battled blizzards and white out conditions in what was a nerve-wracking drive to Akureyri.
This is where I messed up in my original evaluation of Iceland. Honestly, I was angry at seeing whale and puffin on the menus of tourist restaurants. However, this is a more nuanced issue than I had first thought. It’s important to note that the average Icelander does not wake up in the morning craving fermented shark meat. Sorry, it just doesn’t happen. However, like many countries, they do have very unique culinary traditions of which they are understandably proud. A few times a year, friends and family gather for important holidays and it’s then that the more traditional Icelandic food is on the menu.
Fermented shark, sour ram’s testicles, sheep’s head and more are all included in this feast. In chatting with a local though he put it into great context for me. He said that he doesn’t particularly like or dislike the food, instead it’s an important way for him to remember those who came before him and made his life in the 21st century possible. For many centuries, living in Iceland was not for the weak-willed and surviving throughout the year meant eating these more traditional foods. These celebrations recognize that. However, whale and puffin are consumed more often, although not very often to be honest. The whale in question is the minke whale and the hunt is carefully regulated. I don’t love the fact that this is done, but at least it’s done responsibly. No matter your thoughts though, eating in Iceland is actually a lot more familiar than you might think. Lamb cooked in any number of ways (but especially stew), hot dogs, ice cream and so on constitute Icelandic cuisine in the modern era. Actually, they have a strong preponderance towards junk food, which I love. Hot dogs, burgers, pizza and chocolate are omnipresent in case you don’t want to try that shark meat.
Iceland lies on a part of the Earth that is bubbling with activity. Its incredible geothermal reserves powers the country and as a fun by-product also offers locals and tourists alike plenty of opportunities to soak in relaxing thermal pools. In my initial review of the Blue Lagoon, I was too harsh. I was naïve and too wrapped up in my own notion of avoiding touristy places. I have since evolved though not just in regards to Iceland, but in all travel experiences. It’s fine to be a corny tourist sometimes, in fact, it’s usually fun. Nowhere is that more true than at the Blue Lagoon. By far the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland, spending some time here is a rite of passage for any visitor.
Relaxing at the Lagoon before my flight home, I enjoyed the perks associated with the luxury package including a private room and bath for changing and an exclusive lounge with a swim out pool to the Lagoon itself. Sure, the Blue Lagoon welcomes hundreds of thousands of people a year, but it’s also an experience I just enjoy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whether it’s the bright blue color of the water, the mud masks I generously applied to my face or the beauty of the surrounding landscape, it’s an experience that simply clicks with me. So when you visit definitely plan on soaking in a few of Iceland’s many geothermal spas, including this one and enjoy the bathing experience for what it is; a chance to relax and decompress in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.
Small Town Feel in Reykjavik
I have been to Iceland four times and on each trip, no matter what I decide to do, I always make sure to include at least a day or two in one of my favorite global capitals, Reykjavik. Before my first visit, I didn’t truly appreciate just how small Iceland’s population is and what the effect of that has upon the travel experience. The entire country has around 334,000 inhabitants. That’s about the size of St. Louis, Missouri or Anaheim, California. Reykjavik and surrounding suburbs account for 216,000 of that number, leaving a lonely 100,000 hardy souls strewn about Beyond the Wall. 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 policeperson the entire time I was there. Or security. Or anything bad happen to anyone. There’s practically no crime, the entire country currently has fewer than 150 prisoners. 150?! The parliament, prime minister’s house, president’s house all are essentially open with no obvious signs of security, not even a fence. Being in Iceland isn’t just nice, it is a vacation from distrust, paranoia and fear and I always love every second of my time there.
Cold and Dark Is Fun
Of the four times I’ve visited Iceland, three have been in the chilly winter months. Some may cringe at this, but it’s really not as bad as one would think. Thanks to the jet stream and other meteorological quirks, in general Iceland is more temperate than such a northerly country should be. That does not mean, however, that they don’t experience harsh winters. As I learned recently, they most certainly do. The first stop on my latest trip was to the northern town of Akureyri, a place I’d long wanted to visit but never had the opportunity until now. Checking the weather, temperatures looked cold, and they were. But in Iceland the real story is the wind. Winds can gust to 80 miles per hour and more at times, not only making the actual temperatures much lower than what the thermometers say, but also making driving conditions nearly impossible. Iceland receives snow, but in general a daily accumulation will be in inches and not feet. Although the weather may not always be cooperative in winter, it’s a beautiful time to explore Iceland. One reason why I’m so attracted to cold-weather destinations in the winter is for their raw beauty. I’m sure they’re also nice in the summer, but there’s nothing quite like seeing a frozen lake or snow capped mountains to enjoy these special places in the way they were meant to be enjoyed. Yes, Iceland is gorgeous when everything is green, but it’s just as lovely to admire in the winter when everything is awash in drifts of snow.
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