Iceland, also known as the land of ice and fire, lies in the middle of Atlantic Ocean, at the edge of the Arctic Circle. While being one of the wildest and least populated countries in the world, it is home to stunning natural sights and to Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull. The glaciers in Iceland cover 11% of its landmass.
Whether you come for nature, to see the beautiful wildlife or simply to relax, Iceland is guaranteed to provide the experience of a lifetime.
Click on the small arrow from the map (top left corner) to expand the map legend and visualize some important places from Iceland.
The next 5 categories contain things to know before visiting Iceland:
- Tips for travelling on a budget → how to save money
- Did you know? → details related to country’s geography, history etc.
- Good to know → useful things to consider when organizing your trip (e.g. currency, climate, volcanic activity etc.)
- Advice → tips&tricks
- Pay attention to! → important things to take into account
According to Numbeo’s Cost of Living Index, Iceland is among the most expensive countries in the world. Prices of restaurants are almost 1.5 higher than the European average and the alcoholic beverages cost more than double the same standard.
Here is a list of tips&tricks for staying on a budget:
There are different types of lodging with prices ranging from 25€ to more than 500€ per night (hotels, hostels, cottages, guesthouses, apartments etc). Make sure to book your room with at least a few months in advance to make sure you get a good deal. However, the cheapest option (which is mainly available throughout summer) is to camp across the entire country. Camping allows you to stay closer to the nature and you don’t have to reserve it in advance. Check out the most comprehensive map of all campgrounds in Iceland here and a nice article describing why it’s a good idea to camp in Iceland.
RENT A CAR
If you want to save money, rent a car instead of using taxi or the public transportation. It will also give you flexibility to organize your trip as you want. Ring Road, also known as Route 1, is a ~1300 km (~800 miles) national road running around the island and connecting most of the inhabited regions.
As the majority of natural attractions are free and easy to access, organize alone the entire trip. Check out our itinerary here.
For example, a puffin watching boat tour costs about 45 €. But you can spot those small and cute birds from land (even though not that many as you can see from the sea) in places like Dyrholaey Rock Arch, Ingólfshöfði, Latrabjarg Cliffs etc. More information about those places on icelandtravel.is and guidetoiceland.is.
Avoid taxing the taxi from Keflavík Airport to Reykjavík because it costs more than 100 € while taking the Flybus to the Central Bus Station only costs 17 €.
FOOD & BEVERAGES
A lamb shaorma or a falafel (street food) is about 10 €, while a pizza is double that price in a restaurant. Take advantage of lunch hours in restaurants and buy your food from a supermarket for breakfast, brunches or lunch-packs. The supermarket chain 10-11 is the most expensive grocery store in Iceland. Cheaper options are chains such as Bónus, Nettó, Krónan. Check out this map to see where the stores are located.
The locals advise tourists not to buy bottled water because it’s in fact tap water. Their tap water is one of the cleanest in the world, so it’s safe to drink. Restaurants offer tap water free of charge, so you don’t have to buy a beverage. If you bring your own bottle, they can even fill it up for you.
If you want to buy an Icelandic woolen sweater, known as lopapeysa, or something vintage visit Kolaportið Flea Market (the market is only open in weekend between 11h-17h). If it has a high price (~200 €) make sure at least it’s an authentic product handcrafted locally. If you go to the market on Sunday, just before closing, you might find very good prices.
Even though you visit Iceland in summer (June-August), in some regions temperatures may fall down under 5ºC (41ºC) , especially in the evening and during the night. Make sure you dress according to the weather have enough warm clothes with you, a raincoat and good hiking boots to stay comfortable and avoid buying any articles from there. Also, don’t forget your swimsuit!
Instead of going to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa where the entry fee starts from 48 € for an adult, choose the Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river which is free. From the parking lot to the river there is a 3 km long trail which is always crowded. The hike is not difficult and the scenery is very beautiful, with boiling hot pools and stream rising in the air. The river is long enough to offer plenty of space for all the people coming to have that interesting experience.
How much money do you need to visit Iceland?
Check out this article for some estimated budgets for different travelling approaches: the backpacker, the minimalist, the traveler, the big spender.
The information below is a combination of our own experience and other useful details gathered from several external sources. Make use of this information and start planning your own tailor-made, ideal holiday in Iceland ♥
THE HISTORY OF ICELAND
Iceland was the last European country to be discovered and settled by men. Irish monks are believed to be the first people to have settled in Iceland around 800 AD. During the 9th century, the Vikings coming from Norway established the first permanent settlements in Iceland.
The capital of Iceland is Reykjavík, the most northern European capital.
Iceland, the most sparsely populated country in Europe, has a small population of around 350,000 people. Two-thirds of its people live in the capital’s area.
Most of the people are of Norwegian origins and some have Celtic blood from their Irish or Scottish predecessors.
Icelanders’ native language is Icelandic and nearly all the locals speak fluent English.
Icelandic is one of the oldest living languages in Europe. It is very similar to the language spoken by Iceland’s first settlers.
Hvannadalshnúkur is the highest mountain, with an elevation of 2111 m (6925 feet). It is located in Öræfajökull glacier.
Iceland is located on the mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) which is the boundary separating the Eurasian and North American plates in the North Atlantic. The ridge has an average spreading rate of about 2.5 cm (0.98 in) / year. In Iceland the Mid-Atlantic Ridge passes across the Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir).
As the tectonic plates on which Iceland sits are divergent (they are pulling away from each other), magma from the mantle rises to fill the space between them in the form of volcanic eruptions. Iceland is the most volcanic island in the world. The volcanic forces have created a vast and unique landscape.
When the Vikings first arrived in Iceland, much of the land was covered by forests. The first settlers cleared the trees for wood and to provide farmland. The introduction of sheep to the island has had devastating effects on the fragile topsoil. The overgrazing increased the speed with which the vegetation was cleared, causing at the same time soil erosion. The livestock press the subsoil into fine soil which can be carried easily by wind and water.
Since the 12th century, the desert has beginning slowly to spread out across the country. Nowadays, almost 1/3 of the island is vegetation free rocky terrain.
Icelanders get the electric energy from geothermal power which is a renewable energy source. In addition, more than 90% of their homes utilize geothermal heat. This natural resource doesn’t have the harmful polluting effect of coal.
About 10% of Iceland’s surface is covered with glaciers, lakes and rivers, so the country has an immense reserve of pristine spring water.
The main season lasts from mid-May until early-September due to the long daylight hours.
In summer (mid-May to mid-August) there is round-the-clock daylight.
On the opposite, there are only 4h of sunlight daily in winter.
Akureyri is the biggest town in Iceland after Reykjavik and the one which has heart-shaped red traffic lights.
There are people doing Iceland’s tour by bike, mainly on paved roads with occasional gravel surface, with lots of level riding. Some of them are slipping in campsites.
There is a total of about 800,000 sheep and lambs in this country, meaning there are more than 2 sheep per human. 🙂
Due to soil’s poor quality, Icelanders have been explored the ocean. Iceland has rich fishing ground which makes it a great fish exporter. Nowadays, fishery remains one of the Icelandic economy’s pillars.
During the summer months, the horses roam free across the country. But right before winter season, they are gathered in shelters. This is an Icelandic major event enjoyed by locals and tourists.
You will not encounter polar bears in Iceland. There are just a few exceptions when polar bear come from Greenland on ice-floes and land in the Westfjords, but they are starving or killed upon arrival. It is too expensive to capture and return them in Greenland (≅ 75,000 Euros).
The beautiful lupine fields are very often encountered along the roads in Iceland. The most common flower is the purple lupine, but it can also come in colors like pink, white, yellow.
HOW TO GET TO ICELAND
You can get to Iceland either by plane or by ferry.
Iceland´s Keflavik International Airport is located 45 km away from the capital, Reykjavik.
The second option is to take the ferry from mainland Europe. A ferry sails from Hirtshals (northern Denmark) to Seyðisfjörður in (east Iceland), via the amazing Faroe Islands. Check out this website for more information.
Iceland is not a member state of the European Union, but it is a party to the Schengen Agreement.
Check out this website for visa and passport requirements.
Iceland’s currency is the Icelandic króna (1 € ≅ 140 ISK).
Paying by credit/debit card is very common.
A purchase amount of minimum 6,000 ISK qualifies for tax refund for all visitors in Iceland (goods like clothes, souvenirs etc.; food and drinks are excluded).
Make sure you take your tax-free receipt at the time of purchase and then visit the customs office at the Keflavík International Airport to apply for your tax refund.
Tipping is not required. But, if you are very pleased with a certain service, Icelanders don’t feel offended if they are offered tip.
The emergency phone number (24 hours) is 112.
Siminn and Vodafone are the largest GSM operators in Iceland and cover most of Iceland’s surface.
Speed limits are:
- 30-50 km/h (18-31 mi/h) in populated areas
- 80 km/h (49 mi/h) on gravel roads in rural areas
- 90 km/h (55 mi/h) on paved roads
The electrical standards are European (50 Hz, 240 volts). In conclusion, devices brought from North America require converts. Plugs are generally two-pin, so electrical devices from the UK and North America will require adapters.
Icelandic tap water is one of the cleanest in the world, so it’s safe to drink it.
Iceland has a tough northern climate, but milder than in Greenland. However, it is not very harsh for its latitude due to the North Atlantic Drift, an oceanic current which flows along the southeast coast of Iceland bringing warm water from the Equator.
The mean annual temperature in the capital of Reykjavik is 5˚C (41˚F). In summer, the daily average is between 10-13˚C (50-55˚F). It’s a good temperature for an island located just 40 km (24 miles) south of the Arctic Circle.
Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, is more than 800 m (2624 feet) deep, covers about 8000 km² and sits on top of several active volcanoes. There are great glacier tongues of ice flowing out through deep valleys. Due to the global warming, the glacier is melting at an alarming rate, so the pression on magna is not that high anymore, which can unleash a massive eruption. One hundred years ago there was no lagoon. Today the glacier has many lagoons which are filling up fast. The most known is Jökulsárlón lagoon.
It is the country with the most extreme geothermic activity in the world. Volcanoes are permanently monitored and in case of urgency the residents are evacuated.
One of the greatest eruptions (craters of Laki) in history lasted 8 months between 1783 and 1784, killed almost fifth of Iceland’s population and 80% of the nation’s sheep (because of the poisonous fumes) and created the vast Eldhraun lava field (“Fire Lava“, 565 km²). Another result of that eruption is a very complex lava tube system counting more than 200 caves with a total length of 5 km (3 mi).
Last eruption occurred in 2010 on Fimmvorduhals and in Eyjafjallajokull glacier. After an eruption, the ashes creates new soil.
Despite the harsh climate, there are many animals living in Iceland or in the waters surrounding the island. Before the first settlements, there was only one land mammal, the Arctic fox, a very adaptable creature. The other animals were either birds or marine animals. The first humans who arrived on the island introduced the domestic livestock to keep themselves alive.
There are about 800,000 sheep in Iceland and the most classic dishes that do not have fish contain lamb meat. Their wool is used to handcraft the famous Icelandic sweaters, also known as lopapeysa.
The Icelandic horses are an isolated native breed, so an important part of the country’s identity. They were also brought by the first settlers from Norway. Because of their appearance and unique gait, these beautiful creatures are sold abroad for dressage.
Icelandic cattle is another example of native breed. From their milk, the Icelanders are producing diary products, one of them being their famous Skyr, a sort of yogurt.
Reindeer were brought much later in Iceland, around 18th century. They are most commonly found in the east, around Snæfell Mountain.
Icelandic waters are home to different species of whale and dolphin. Iceland is a great place for whale-watching, especially in summer when the whales migrate here to feed.
There are two species of seal living permanently on Iceland’s shores: the harbour seal and the grey seal. They don’t fear the humans, so photographers can take very close shots in places like Westfjords or the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
In case you are wondering, you will not encounter polar bears in Iceland. There are just a few exceptions when polar bear come from Greenland on ice-floes and land in the Westfjords, but they are starving or killed upon arrival. It is too expensive to capture and return them in Greenland (≅ 75,000 Euros).
Iceland is home to many bird species among which are the common gulls, Arctic terns, eiders, oystercatchers, common ringer plovers, guillemots, and the most appreciated of them, the North Atlantic puffins.
The puffins spend most of their life at sea, but around 60% of the world’s population breed in Iceland’s cliffs. They have colorful beaks which glow under UV light and their short wings are adapted for swimming using a flying technique under water. There are many puffin tours organized and vessels are getting close to the rocky shores to see those fascinating birds. Check out this website for best places in Iceland to see the puffins.
The Arctic tern is another example of fascinating bird specie. They have the second-longest migration route of any animal in the world. Every year they do a round trip from Iceland to Antarctica, so up to 80,000 km ≅ 49,709 mi. The Arctic terns nest in burrows on flat ground and if you get too close to their eggs and young, then fly down toward your head.
RESTAURANTS IN REYKJAVIK
Some of the best places to eat in Reykjavik are:
- The Lobster House – one of the best lobster in the town;
- Restaurant Reykjavik – the Seafood buffet has something for everybody, delicacies from the sea, carved lamb and turkey, homemade desserts and coffee and tea;
- Geiri Smart – chic sophistication;
- Glo Restaurant – raw vegan / vegetarian /gluten free;
- The Steak House
- Ostabúðin– half restaurant, half gourmet deli;
- OSushi – enjoy the sushi;
- Essensia – casual atmosphere;
- Satt Restaurant – located inside Hotel Reykjavik Natura;
- Vox Brasserie&Bar – where relaxed elegance meets refined hospitality;
In order to stay comfortable, make sure to have warm and waterproof shoes and garment, a hat, gloves and sunglasses (the reflection of the glacier for example is very strong).
When visiting a waterfall, don’t forget your raincoat because you might have drizzle.
Do not but bottled water because it’s in fact tap water. Their tap water is one of the cleanest in the world. If you bring your own bottle, restaurants can fill it up for you.
Visitors should use marked camping sites and restrooms.
Because of the round-the-clock daylight, a blindfold might be very useful.
Don’t forget to take your binoculars with you on holiday, especially if you go on puffin and whale-watching tours, so you can see the animals even more clearly.
Iceland leaves on constant thread of eruption.
Be aware of the waves! Some are very large and come with no warning! (especially at Reynisfjara black beach)
Be aware of the falling rocks and never go to the edge because it can collapse. Always follow the paths and never go over lines.
For their own safety, people should never go on a glacier without a certificate guide because the ice is always changing. There are many hidden crevasses and icefalls.
Iceland has many mud-pots, bubbling hot-pools, hissing fumaroles and exploding geysers. Make sure to stay on the marked trails in those areas as the temperature rises up to 100°C.
Icelandic main vegetation is the moss which has colonized the old lava fields. Do not walk on the vegetation. Once destroyed, it’s difficult for it to re-establish itself.
Many small bridges are single lane bridges. Before reaching that kind of bridge, there are traffic signs. Make sure to carefully consider the oncoming traffic. The rule is that the closest car to the bridge has priority over the other vehicles.
This bird specie, the Arctic tern, is abundant in the Icelandic coastal areas. They nest in burrows on flat ground. If you get too close to their eggs and young, all the nesting birds will rise into the air, then fly down toward your head.
Keep on reading IDR’s articles to discover more about the amazing Iceland.