Iceland Travel Guide
The chilly island of Iceland is home to some hot natural attractions such as volcanoes and geysers. Europe’s most expensive prices are tempered by rugged natural beauty, a rich history, folklore traditions, huge glaciers, never-ending summer nights and a quirky naming system.
Why You Should Go
What’s Cool: Ice, glaciers, geothermal pools, lots of lava, midnight sun, Viking legends, no traffic jams, clean air, everyone speaks English, fantastic waterfalls, active volcanoes, black sand beaches, Northern lights, Reykjavik nightlife and glacier snowmobiling.
What’s Not: Steep prices, rotten shark meat, few cultural attractions outside of Reykjavik, depressing weather, little vegetation, roaming animals, treacherous roads, low speed limits, weird alcohol laws and whaling.
When to Go
Iceland is not as cold as its name suggests, with the passing Gulf Stream warming things up.
The sun doesn’t set in June and July, the best months to visit.
Autumn (August to October) sees temperature drop and the end of the tourist season.
Winter (November to February) is long, cold and dark.
Spring (March to May) sees longer days and mild temperatures.
From September to May, much of the tourist infrastructure outside Reykjavík goes into hibernation.
Getting There & Away
Reykjavik is the main air hub, and domestic flights are the only alternative to driving on gravel roads. In the interior, roads are often only negotiable by four-wheel drive, unless they’re completely closed off. Ferries operate services to various islands and fjords. Buses are efficient and cheap, linking all parts of the island during the summer.
Health & Safety
Iceland is just about the safest travel destination on earth. The main danger is the roads, which can be unpaved and slippery; speeding Icelanders and roaming sheep. The unpredictable weather can leave you stranded without suitable clothes and make you a prime candidate for hypothermia.
Food & Hospitality
There’s lots of fish and lamb on the generally pricey menus, while in coffee shops, you only pay for the first cup after which the following are free. Long before Starbucks, Icelanders embraced the art of sitting in a café, chatting with friends and leisurely sipping a steaming cup of java. Hotels are of high quality across the board and so are room rates. Rooms can also be found in private houses with breakfast included in the price.
Five days is the minimum to take in some of the main highlights.
One or two days to see the capital’s highlights and sample the nightlife.
Three or four days to do the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Thingvellir, the site of the old Icelandic parliament, Gullfoss waterfall and the original hot spring Geysir.
Three days to see Westfjord’s rugged coastline and Latrabjarg, the westernmost point of Europe.
Two days at Lake Myvatn’s eerie landscape, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
Two or three days in Landmannalaugar, the gem of the Central Highlands.
Three days to visit Akureyri. Situated south of the Arctic Circle and near to Grimsey, it is the only piece of Iceland in arctic territory.
Reykjavík: with lively cafés, high-energy nightlife and a brightly colored Old Town with rows of wood-and-corrugated-tin houses.
Blue Lagoon: the famous geothermal pool might be crowded and expensive, but there’s no place like it in the world.
Geysir: is the original spouting hot spring after which all the others around the world are named. Blasting a jet of water up to 262ft into the air, it erupts two to three times a day.
Gullfoss: waterfall splashes 105ft into a steep gorge. When the sun is gone, the spray creates glittering rainbows over the canyon.
Skaftafell National Park: is Europe’s largest national park with a remarkable collection of peaks, glaciers and wildlife as well as the largest icecap outside the poles.
Jokulsarlon: is where 007’s Aston Martin turned invisible. The giant floating icebergs form a surreal landscape.
Soaking: in the cloudy turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon, famous for its mineral-rich, geothermal seawater and healing properties.
Hiking: from Skaftafell National Park to the Westfjords among lots of interesting geological features.
Horseback riding: on the strong but gentle Icelandic horse (don’t call it a pony!) over lava fields and deserted beaches.
Whale watching: mink, blue, fin, humpback and sperm whales can frequently be sighted just off the coast.
Snowmobile riding: on the glaciers or speeding through the white wilderness guarantees a shot of adrenalin.
Festivals & Events
Summer is festival time in Iceland, with celebrations lasting throughout the night. June is the busiest month, with continuous celebrations.
June: Independence Day features colorful parades, street music and dancing, outdoor theater and universal glee.
June: Sjómannadagurinn celebrates seafarers, with participants competing in swimming competitions, tugs-of-war and sea rescues.
June: Midsummer Night’s dew has miraculous healing powers and rolling in it nude will cure a range of health problems.
August: Verslunarmannahelgi features barbecues, horse competitions, camping, excessive drinking and general mayhem.