Iceland is one of those places where you can have a great time in a couple of days, or spend forever if you really want to dig into nature.
What to Do: Reykjavik
For nearly everyone, a day exploring Reykjavik city is a must. Some two-thirds of the population and almost all of the infrastructure is in town.
Laugavegur, the Coolest StreetImage Source: Iceland Mag
Laugavegur is Iceland’s single coolest street. It’s where you’ll find shops selling local products such as the famous wool sweaters, camping gear and souvenirs of all types. You will also find tourist information centers and places to book tours and excursions. Everything is clean and organized and safe — there are no “bad parts of town” in Reykjavik. Keep in mind the city is not flat, and a fair amount of up and downhill walking is required.
Iceland’s Geothermal PoolsImage Source: Adriana Durian Blog
Icelanders love their geothermal pools. The whole country sits on a layer of geothermal activity, and the people put it to use heating their homes, making tea with water straight from the tap, and public baths.
The baths are more like swimming pools. You’ll have the most fun in a local, neighborhood one (ask; every Icelander will know where to point you.) You pay a small fee, shower thoroughly (divided by gender) and then soak as long as you like. There is a large pool for swimming and series of hot tubs with signs marking the warm ones from the hot ones from the very hot ones. And yes, everyone keeps their bathing suits on, thank you. The neighborhood pools are also a great way to meet local people.
Bars and NightlifeImage Source: Iceland Naturally
Nightlife is varied. There are a lot of bars, but many fill up late and many are crammed with tourists who drink too much and behave badly (looking at you, Brits.)
You can make friends with other Europeans of all nationalities, but Icelanders may be hard to find. When you do encounter them out on the town, they are very likely to be drunk. People say that because alcohol is so expensive in bars, pregaming is an Icelandic tradition. Best to shop around, look online for places that match the vibe you’re looking for and talk to as many still-sober locals as you can find to find just the right spot. And as the U.S. State Department
Best to shop around, look online for places that match the vibe you’re looking for and talk to as many still-sober locals as you can find to find just the right spot. And as the U.S. State Department warns, “Be aware that downtown Reykjavik can become disorderly in the late night to early morning hours as people are leaving bars and clubs.”
Whale WatchingImage Source: Visit Iceland
A good thing not to miss in Reykjavik is whale watching. Tours leave constantly from the old harbor, a short walk from downtown. During the summer you are most likely to see porpoises and minke whales; the big guys prefer the colder waters north of Iceland. The guides are great onboard and offer a running commentary on Iceland, whales and local history.
The water can be rough, so those prone to seasickness should take Dramamine or something similar ahead of time, and remember larger boats are generally more stable. You probably don’t need reservations or advance tickets, and prices among the several companies offering tours are similar, expanding and contracting based on tour length. Longer tours go into deeper water and give you greater chances of spotting something. The tours are eco-friendly in that they do not use sonar or otherwise “attract” the animals.
What to Do: Outside Reykjavik
There are many nearby options, and you owe it to yourselves to take advantage of at least one of them to get a glimpse of Iceland’s famous rugged environment.
Blue LagoonImage Source: Wunder Pix
One of the most popular day trips is to the Blue Lagoon. Though considered by some too touristy, the Lagoon is a well-developed thermal lake, with water reaching close to 90 degrees, with a smooth bottom and all the amenities. Showers and lockers, bars and restaurants, even free mud and algae face packs. Just outside are some awesome lava fields you can make minor explorations into. Buses, or your rental car, bring you right to the front door. The Lagoon is crazy popular, and buying tickets in advance is usually a good idea.
Golden CircleImage Source: Expert Vagabond
The other almost-required journey outside Reykjavik is the so-called “Golden Circle.” This 200-mile round trip takes you a bit further into the countryside, past some ancient volcano cones and more lava fields than you knew existed.
The typical stops along the way are to Europe’s largest waterfall, Gullfoss, the rift valley at Þingvellir, which separates the Eurasian tectonic plates and which is the historical/spiritual home of Iceland, and the Geysirs. The later are a field of bubbling mud and water, and eruptions are guaranteed about every 10 minutes. Remember to stand upwind or you’ll get wet.Image Source: Iat
Golden Circle tips: all locations involve a lot of walking, sometimes on uneven ground and hills. Also, stairs. They are not very friendly to disabled folks, though there are tourist companies that specialize in the needs of less mobile people. The other tip is that the places are considered national parks and while admission is free, toilets are not, and only take 200 Icelandic kronur coins as payment. Bring change. Each place has a gift shop, and a cafe or restaurant.
For those with limited time, the Blue Lagoon is the most relaxing and closest. History and geology fans will enjoy Þingvellir, and nature lovers the awesome waterfall at Gullfoss. Geyers, well, they are what they are and for geyser lovers, they are where they are.
Glacier, Mountains, Seascapes and Isolated TerrainImage Source: Business Insider
Outside of these popular places is the other 90 percent of Iceland, and its glaciers, mountains, seascapes and isolated terrain. Exploring all that requires a vehicle, either camping gear or clever reservations at a limited number of hotels and guesthouses, and time. For some travelers that all adds up to the best of things, for others, maybe not. Be advised this is a poor way to test an existing relationship, and maybe not the best start to a new one.
Speaking of vehicles, consider a rental car even for the short trips outside Reykjavik. The many available bus tours are great for some, as they are convenient and the driver does all the hard work. However, the tours run on a tight schedule and when they say you have only 30 minutes to see the waterfall, that is what they mean and it’s a long walk home. With tours you also cannot stop along the way, say at that interesting overlook or the place where you’d like to take some photos.
The famous Northern Lights are not visible during most of the summer. The main season is roughly from early fall through spring. Viewing depends on clear skies and getting away from ground light pollution.
Game of ThronesImage Source: Mpora
For those who’ve heard of a little show called Game of Thrones, Iceland has some special treats for you.
Though the entire country looks like Westeros (or maybe Middle Earth), specific locations were used to film parts of the series. Travel to North Iceland to visit the areas where Night’s Watch men, including Samwell Tarly and Lord Commander Mormont, were attacked by the White Walkers.
You can also walk the land that Jon Snow, Ygritte, and the Free Folk cross to reach the Wall, and drop by the cave where Jon Snow and Ygritte have their first intimate encounter. Thingvellir, a location from season four, can also be on your list. Drive yourself with a good map, or take a guided tour.
DiningImage Source: Andrew Zimmerman
Iceland is not a budget destination, and meals out can be a significant expense; think New York City prices, plus. Most places have their menus posted outside, and almost always include all taxes and service charges in the listed price. No tipping is expected. You can easily spend $40+ per person on a simple meal. Alcohol is heavily taxed and thus expensive.
You can save a bit by stepping off the main streets, and by eating your biggest meal at lunch when many places have specials. Bars offer food cheaper than proper restaurants. Most supermarkets sell pre-made sandwiches, and an impromptu picnic can be quite romantic. Icelanders love their hot dogs, usually served with fried onions, sometimes mayonnaise, sometimes curry-flavored ketchup. You can buy them fairly cheaply at outdoor stands.
As you imagine for an island nation, seafood features heavily on the menu. Cod and salmon are common (and delicious.) A local food is evil fermented shark meat, Hákarl. It smells like ammonia and tastes worse (image above). The goods news is it is often served with a shot of strong Icelandic liquor to kill the taste. At least until (sorry) that first burp. Don’t expect your partner to kiss you for a day unless s/he has eaten the stuff too. You’ve been warned.
A final warning: Icelanders eat whale meat, Iceland being one of the few nations left that still hunts whale. As a gesture to these wonderful mammals, consider not ordering whale, and consider telling the restaurant why you are not ordering it.
A Few More Things Before You GoImage Source: Iceland blog
Iceland is one of the most cashless places on earth. Other than those pesky national park restrooms, we spent five days without using any cash at all. Be sure your credit card has a chip on it; very few places swipe. VISA was accepted everywhere; most places also took Mastercard, but many would not accept American Express.
Check with your bank, but you can most likely use your ATM card if you wish. If you do withdraw Icelandic kronur, keep in mind they can be hard to convert outside of Iceland. Best to change them before you depart. A handful of very touristy places will accept Euros, but at an unfavorable exchange rate.
Almost everyone you encounter will be friendly and speak English. Things are efficient, clean and safe. The scenery is breathtaking.
You will have to work very hard not to have a great time in Iceland. So what are you waiting for?
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XpatNation is a Social News and Lifestyle magazine, focusing on the insights and experiences of expatriates living in The United States.
XpatNation brings together the voices, thoughts, perceptions and experiences of the people of the world who have made the USA their home. Using their insight and unique understanding of the global world we live in to discuss culture, lifestyle, Geopolitics and the day to day ongoings of this proud and powerful nation.