YOUR GUIDE TO: ICELAND

Contents

The basics: practical information about renting & driving, average budget and booking an accommodation

Nature & wildlife: random facts on how cold it is, animals and the science behind volcanoes

Things to see: the Golden Circle, the Black Beach, waterfalls, turf houses, glaciers and many more

Activities: the Northern Lights & hot springs

Food: some of the traditional Icelandic dishes to try & restaurants to visit

Iceland is one of those countries that stick in your mind for a while. Exploring the spectacular scenery, out of this world waterfalls, mystic beaches, numerous hot springs and active volcanoes, often feels surreal and as if this is another planet. Seeing the Northern Lights light up the sky in all sorts of colours is magical and a once-in-a-lifetime experience which I hope everyone gets to experience.

In this ultimate guide to Iceland, I’ve tried to include all the exciting places I discovered, along with practical info on budgeting and finding a car and accommodation. The info below is based on a 6-day epic self-drive trip in South and West Iceland, organised by 4 friends and me in October 2018.


THE BASICS


GENERAL INFO

Language: Icelandic

Time: GMT (no daylight savings time)

Plugs: European

Currency:  Icelandic Króna

Payments: Cards are widely accepted. We took out cash once and forced ourselves to use it towards the end of the trip.  ATMs are usually found in larger cities and around petrol stations. Monzo and Revolut both worked fine.

Working hours: Shops and supermarkets open at 9h and usually close around 20-21h. They work on weekends too. Vínbúðin, the state-run shops for alcohol and tobacco, have special opening hours between 11-18h. Restaurants in larger towns are open until 22-23h.

MOVING AROUND

Keflavík International Airport (KEF) is the largest airport in Iceland and the main international transport hub; hence it is very likely that you’ll be landing there. E-passport gates were somehow quicker than traditional border checks, so make sure you bring your passport if you have one. The airport is located 50km away from Reykjavik. Iceland is an extremely car-centric country, so renting a car straight from the airport might be better than paying the ridiculous fees for a private transfer (~£100 pp).

After researching different options, we decided to use Blue Car Rental. Some people in the group left mid-way through the trip, so we hired two separate vehicles. We rented a Kia Sorento 4×4 (7 seats but fits 5 people max) for 4 days for £410 including a second driver and insurance, and a Kia Stonic 4×4 for 2 days for £94.  Both cars were in excellent condition, and we didn’t experience any issues. Upon arrival, the staff might prompt you to purchase sand and ash insurance if you haven’t already done so. I didn’t find a good reason to do this, but it’s up to you.

Even if you decide to rent through another company, keep in mind that the majority of the collection offices are clustered 10min away from the airport. There is a regular shuttle bus which stops just next to the airport’s exit.

Renting a car is not the only option, but I highly recommend it because it will be cheaper and more flexible, especially if you plan to venture beyond Reykjavik. An alternative would be to take the Keflavík Airport – Reykjavik shuttle bus and then use Reykjavik as your base to book tours. In addition to being significantly more expensive, tours are just not comfortable. Distances in Iceland are long, and the last thing you need is being stuck on a bus with 40 strangers throughout your whole trip.

DRIVING

A road in Iceland

The Ring Road (or Route 1) is the main highway in Iceland and runs across the whole country. Its length is more than 1,300km, so you’ll need at least 7-10 days to see everything around the route. Secondary roads, especially as you go further away from Reykjavik, are less well maintained and more attention is needed when driving. While the Ring Road should be open all year round, other routes are closed during the winter season. Check road conditions regularly as the weather tends to be temperamental.

The condition of most roads is pretty good. A 4×4 vehicle is a necessary investment (especially in the autumn/winter season) given that some sights are located in places where you have to drive on ice or gravel or cross rivers. Consider chipping in for an option for a second driver, as driving more than 4 hours every day is not fun.

Even though Iceland has a population of around 300,000, it’s surface area is 103,000 km². For comparison, Bulgaria has a population of 7 million and a surface area of 111,000 km². These aren’t random facts, my point is that although Iceland looks deceivingly small, the distances are very VERY long. The things you’ll see are totally worth it but be prepared for long hours in the car and make sure you have your road trip playlist ready.

ACCOMODATION

Icelandic accomodation

The number of tourists Iceland receives is 3-4 times larger than its population. This means that accommodation outside Reykjavik is limited, more expensive than in other places in Europe and that early booking is a must.  Since we essentially did a road trip around half of Iceland, we had to book 3 different accommodations. The number of places on Airbnb was so small that for the first time in ages I had to go to Booking.com. To give you an example, I was arranging the bookings a month and a half before the dates, and there were only 2 available cottages on both websites close to Kirkjubæjarklaustur village.

Pro tip: If you’re travelling between September/April, book a place far away from light pollution to increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights.

BUDGET

Be mentally prepared that Iceland is an expensive country to visit. While Airbnb accommodation in other European places might cost around £20pp per night, we often had to pay more than £50-60pp for not-so-amazing apartments.  A meal in an average restaurant would be ~£40pp. Since you’ll spend a lot of time in the car,  a smart way to save some money and time would be to buy food from supermarkets like Cronan or Bonus and eat on the go as we did. 

Pro tip: Buy alcohol from the airport. The Vínbúðins (the state-run shops) have weird opening hours and were often closed by the time we reached a town at night. Because of Iceland’s springs, drinking tap water is perfectly safe. Bring a reusable bottle and avoid bottled water.

RESOURCES

Guide to Iceland has endless articles and recommendations

Vedur (Android/iOS) will give you the real-time weather forecast, something you should always check before you hit the road.

My Aurora Forecast (Android / iOS) provides a pretty good estimate of your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. It will even send you push notifications when visibility is expected to be really strong.

SIGHTSEEING MAP


NATURE & WILDLIFE


IS IT REALLY COLD?

Yes, it is. I mean when a country’s name contains the word ice, you know you must come prepared. Icelandic weather is known to change quickly, so no matter of the season warm clothes are a must. Ideally, you should wear layers which you can easily take off as the weather changes or you get in the car. A lot of sites advised against jeans but I decided to go for waterproof overpants which I wore when needed.

During the whole trip, I was wearing four layers:

  • A thermal base layer – leggings, wool socks & shirt
  • Sweater and jeans
  • Waterproof jacket & boots
  • Warm scarf, hat and gloves
An example of what to wear in Iceland

Iceland has four seasons. Spring and summer (April – August) offer mild temperatures and long hours of sun and are the peak tourist seasons. The months of June, July and August are the periods of white nights when the sun doesn’t set for more than 3 hours. In autumn and winter, the days become shorter and chillier. Precipitation peaks between October and January. Also, some of the roads (especially in the Central Highlands) are closed, so make sure you check the conditions before you go anywhere.

It seems like there is a big online debate about when is the best time to visit Iceland. I went in October because it wasn’t full of tourists and because that was a good time to take time off work. The average temperature was between 0-5 °C. We experienced everything from rain and snow, to wind, sunshine and an amazing rainbow. It sounds like a cliche, but I imagine Iceland is as beautiful as it was then during all seasons and as long as you come prepared the weather won’t be an issue. When you visit will mostly depend on your preferences. Things you might want to consider include:

  • Do you like the green colours of spring/summer or are you a red/yellow autumn person
  • The number of tourists you’re comfortable with
  • What animals are you keen to see
  • What roads do you need to use
  • Do you want to see the Northern Lights
  • Will the length of the daylight be enough for you

Image by Extreme Iceland

WILDLIFE

One of the most extraordinary things about Iceland is the variety of wildlife it has compared to other countries I’ve visited. Like, you wouldn’t go on a boat trip to Venice and just casually spot a whale. Also, this was the first time I saw a seal in its natural habitat. EXITING!

Horses
Icelandic horses

If you venture beyond large towns, horses are everywhere. I can bet you that you won’t drive for more than 30 minutes without spotting a herd. Iceland has its breed of horses which are smaller, often pony-sized but surprisingly strong.

Icelandic horse

A lot of horse riding tours are promoted online. If it’s your thing and you have the time to spare, go for it. If not, just make a random stop when you see horses. They are very friendly, and most of them are used to humans approaching them. However, be careful if you decide to pet them or give them food as they might bite.

Sheep

The land that is not occupied by horses is usually occupied by sheep. According to the Icelandic Lamb Marketing board, around 2,000 farmers are engaged in sheep farming in Iceland.

During the whole trip, I watched the sheep go around care-free and secretly wondered who the hell takes care of them. I did some research and it turns out the sheep are sent to run free and graze from May until autumn. Farmers start to gather their flocks in the autumn and use unique earmarks to identify their sheep. This process can take up to one week and is usually followed by large traditional celebrations. Now you (I) know.

Seals

Two types of seals are most common across Iceland – the harbour (common) seal and the grey seal (pictured below). Grey seals could be quite shy and tend to stay away from the shore, so you can expect most seals on dry land to be harbour seals.

A grey seal at the Ytri Tanga beach in Iceland

In earlier times, seals were seen as a valuable resource and a crucial survival resource for the long, dark and cold Icelandic winters. Meat and fat were eaten, oil extracted from the fat was used as a lightning fuel, and the skin was repurposed for shoes and clothing. Seal fur was a valuable international commodity but soon after measures against seal hunting were introduced the markets plummeted. This caused a dramatic change of attitude towards seals – hunting activity increased to reduce seal population due to their negative impact on fishing numbers. As a result, the harbour seal population in Iceland went down from 43 000 in the 70s to an estimated 4 000 in 2014. It is, therefore, more important than ever to consider your actions when observing these fantastic creatures.

Seals can be seen along the Icelandic coast any time of year. They are best viewed at low tides and in mild and calm weather. As a general rule of thumb, you should never block the seal’s access to the sea, and you should keep a distance (~50m), especially if there are pups around. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is a popular spotting location where seals are often seen hunting among the glaciers. We managed to see seals at the Ytri Tanga beach – a much calmer and less touristy place on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

Whales *

Icelandic waters are abundant in sea life making them an attractive location for a variety of whales and dolphins.

Image by WDC via Guide to Iceland

If whales are high on your bucket list, dedicate enough time for a whale watching tour. There are various starting points for the tours, so you’ll have plenty of choices. The majority of companies run tours throughout the year, but some of them are closed in winter. In general, summer seems to offer better conditions for whale spotting but that comes at the price of large tourist crowds. You should expect an average price of around ISK 10,000.

If you’re interested, here is an article from Guide to Iceland which basically tells you everything you should know.

Puffins *

When I visited Iceland, I was determined to see a puffin. I was so optimistic that one of the days we spend around 2 hours walking around a beach known for its puffin colonies nervously waiting for the little birds to appear from somewhere. We went back to the car feeling disappointed only to find out that puffins come to land to form breeding colonies in spring and summer and spend the rest of the year in the water (duuh).

April to September (not October) would then be a good period to visit Iceland if you are keen to see the puffins also known as the ‘clowns of the sea. Iceland is home to millions of puffins which amount to around 60% of the world’s Atlantic puffins population. This means that you should have a pretty good chance to see them without taking part in an organised tour assuming you have not chosen a location reachable only by boat.

Guide to Iceland has another very useful article with the best spots to spot puffins.

Arctic foxes *
Image by Paul Nicklen

The arctic fox is a magnificent creature and the only native land mammal in Iceland. The foxes, grey in summer and white in winter, hide in the Westfjords which is why unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to see them. The Westfjords is also the only place in Iceland where the arctic fox is under full protection from hunting.

The foxes are active mainly in the night hours, which is when they hunt, so dawn to early mornings will be the best time to spot them. If you’re travelling in this direction, do pay a visit to the Arctic Fox Centre in Súðavík. This is a research institution but also an exhibition centre promoting knowledge in the area of sustainable tourism.

*NB. While I didn’t have the chance to see whales, puffins and arctic foxes, I did some research before travelling and thought it might be worthwhile including it here.

FIRE AND ICE (+H2O)

Yes, some parts of Game of Thrones (my favourite show by the way) were filmed in Iceland, but that’s not what I’ll be talking about here. Iceland is geologically unique, and much of its breathtaking natural wonders are a direct result of this. It often feels like you are walking in a magical made up world. This is why I decided to dedicate a section to some brief scientific explanations of why does Iceland look the way it does today.

Image by Khan Academy

The Earth’s crust and upper part of the mantle are broken into constantly moving large pieces called tectonic plates. Iceland is centred on the Mid – Atlantic Ridge – an active spreading rift between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. As the two tectonic plates slide apart, magma seeps upward and erupts from the seafloor as lava which then hardens and accumulates into a new crust on top of the ridge. This is precisely how scientists believe Iceland was created around millions of years ago, and the evolution of the island continues through the same process.

Volcano in Iceland

As a direct result of being a geological hotspot, Iceland has a high concentration of volcanoes. Eyjafjallajökull is probably one of the famous ones. It erupted in 2010 and caused delays in air travel, as well as disruptions in weather patterns, felt in many areas around the world.

Icelandic geyser, Golden Circle

Geothermal activity is another distinctive feature of Iceland. Geothermal heat fumes are produced by water (usually rain) seeping down into the ground to a level where it heats up. The heated water then finds a crack and leaks to the surface again along with soil gases such as hydrogen sulfide (the one that smells like eggs). Some of the steam evaporates. The rest forms hot springs, also known as geothermal pools. Geothermal activity is a source of renewable energy now representing more than half of the island’s primary energy. 

Finally, 11% of Icelandic land is covered with glaciers. These are formed from snow compressed to a thick body of ice. Vatnajökull is the largest icecap in Iceland and in Europe. Other notable ones include Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and Snæfellsjökull. The last one is a glacier-capped volcano used as a setting for Journey to the Centre of the World by Jules Verne (my favourite author!).

More info at Science4all and Iceland Monitor


THINGS TO SEE


REYKJAVIK

Reykjavik is the capital and principal city of Iceland, also used as the main starting point for most Icelandic tours. To be honest, you should not spend too much time there because it’s not very exciting. If you’re determined to see the city, 1 day will be more than enough. Some places of interest include the port area where you can find a variety of restaurants and Hallgrímskirkja Church.

THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

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The Golden Circle is a popular one-day circular route close to Reykjavik. The route itself is around 300km long and covers three main sights – Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and the most impressive waterfall I’ve ever seen – Gullfoss. Don’t worry about getting bored as there are plenty of sights along the route (see this map). My favourite ones were Kerið volcanic crater lake and the Secret Lagoon. If you have some time to spare, try diving at the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates at Silfra. It is said that the water there is so clear that the visibility goes down to around 100m!

Pro tip: As with everything in Iceland, there is a lot of driving involved. Early start is a must, especially in the seasons with shorter days. Explore the Golden Circle clockwise unless you want to soak in the Secret Lagoon before you’ve seen everything else (yes, that’s what we did 🙁 ).

SNAEFELLES

The Snaefelles Peninsula is a less popular, beautiful region in Western Iceland, only a two-three hour drive away from Reykjavik. Snæfellsnes is mostly known for its beautiful scenery and Snæfellsjökull glacier – a glacier hiding a volcano underneath it. Snæfellsjökull is also the starting point of Jules Verne’s Journey to the centre of the world. Other key exciting places include:

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  • Ytri Tunga Beach for seal spotting
  • Bjarnarfoss Waterfall
  • Budhir Black church
  • Arnarstapi’s amazing views
  • Londrangar Cliffs
  • Saxhólar Volcanic Crater
  • Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall & Kirkjufell Mountain featured in Game of Thrones
  • Grundarfjörður, a popular starting point for whale watching tours

Many visit Snaefelles as part of a day trip from Reykjavik, but I recommend staying near Borgarnes so that you have enough time to explore the area and truly enjoy it.

SOUTH & SOUTHEAST

If you have limited time in Iceland, driving around the South coast should be your main priority. Southern Iceland is exceptionally diverse and will give you the stunning landscapes you came for. Here are some of the highlights:

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  • Keldur Hall & Turf Houses – preserved as they were 1000 years ago. To reach them you need to get off the Ring Road and get on road 264. Take the first turn after Hella instead of the second one. It’s slightly longer, but the scenery is fantastic
  • Seljalandsfoss waterfall. For a small adventure follow the walking path to its neighbour waterfalls – turn left when you’re facing
    Seljalandsfoss. Walk until you see an information table for Gljúfrabúi. The waterfall itself is hidden between two cliffs so you’ll need to follow the river and enter the small canyon. Enjoy!
  • Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool – a free geothermal pool hidden in the mountains. This is Iceland’s oldest human-made pool that is still standing and given that it’s maintained by volunteers the hygiene in the changing rooms is questionable. The natural surrounding is stunning, so do go even if you only dip your feet. Here are some instructions on how to get to there.
  • Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach or the coolest and most mystical beach in Iceland. The sand is not sand but lava from a nearby volcano that is no longer active. The striking basalt columns are a result of cooled magma.

If you have another day to spare, you should continue to the Southeast. The distance between Reykjavik and Hofn is 460km, so I suggest you sleep somewhere close to Kirkjubæjarklaustur town to split the journey.

Mountains and glaciers at Vatnajökull National Park

This way you can start your day with a hike at Vatnajökull National Park. Just drive to Skaftafell national park’s parking. From there you can take two routes – to Svartifoss waterfall or Skaftafellsjökull glacier & lake. We chose to go to Skaftafellsjökull, but both hikes are relatively easy (~ 1h in each direction, low elevation).

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in Iceland

From there you can drive to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, situated at the edge of Vatnajökull. Jökulsárlón is a lake filled with the meltwater from an outlet glacier and with icebergs breaking from the glacier. You can explore the lagoon by walking, or you can take a boat tour that will take you among the glaciers.

Diamond beach, Iceland

The Diamond beach is another beautiful black volcanic sand beach just across the bridge close to Jökulsárlón. The name of the beach comes from the icebergs which sit on the beach after they’ve drifted away from the glacier lagoon. You can reach it on foot from Jökulsárlón, just follow the riverbank and pass underneath the bridge.

Your final destination could be Hofn – a small fishing village known as the lobster capital of Iceland (see the food section for some delicious recommendations).


ACTIVITIES


CHASING LIGHTS

Northern lights (aurora borealis) display in Iceland

There are four things I’ve always wanted to do – see the pyramids in Egypt, swim in the Great Barrier Reef, see the Northern Lights and go to Lapland. Well, one down, three to go!

We saw the lights even before we landed in Iceland. We were flying with a night flight from London to Reykjavik and mid-way through the flight the sky was suddenly illuminated in all sorts of colours. It was magical!

Pro tip: Book a night flight and fight for the window seat

The Northern Lights (or Aurora borealis / australis) is a visual presentation of the interaction between particles from the sun and the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. Storms on the sun’s surface send solar particles (solar wind) across space, and if the Earth is in their way, magic happens. The lights could be seen above the magnetic poles of the northern (borealis) and southern (australis) hemispheres. Interestingly, scientists believe that in most instances northern and southern auroras are mirror-like images that occur at the same time. The colours are largely determined by the gas that electrons collide with. Oxygen emits greenish-yellow or red light, while nitrogen generally gives off blue light.

Although the Aurora Borealis is generally visible from September to March/April, the Northern Lights are highly unpredictable. The visibility is dependent on a number of factors such as solar wind strength, cloud coverage and light pollution. This means there is no guarantee you’ll see the lights even if you spend weeks in Iceland.

Pro tip: Don’t go to Iceland just because you want to see the lights.

If you want to increase your chances, darkness should be your new best friend. The second time we saw the Northern Lights was in the middle of nowhere on our way to Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We deliberately booked our accommodations away from large towns and light pollution, so we enjoyed the Aurora borealis a couple of nights. Don’t think displays last for the whole night, the strongest ones last from seconds to a couple of minutes. You might need to spend a couple of hours outside – look towards the North. Bring company, warm clothes and some warm drinks. It gets cold very fast, especially if you are not moving.

Pro tip: Don’t book special tours, they are expensive and won’t increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. You can do it yourself.

HOT SPRINGS

The secret lagoon hot pool, Golden Circle, Iceland

The high levels of geothermal activity in Iceland provide a plentiful choice of hot pools, rich in a variety of minerals, in which you can soak for hours. Some of them like the Secret Lagoon (~£20) and Seljavallalaug (free) are human-made and are often referred to as geothermal pools. Others, known as hot springs, are entirely natural. Whatever you choose, a bath in naturally warm water is said to boost your immune system, take care of your skin irritations and improve your stress levels, so treat yourself!

I would recommend starting by mapping your route around Iceland and then spending some time to research some of the good hot springs and pools along the road. One of the most famous ones is the Blue Lagoon, located close to Keflavik airport. Almost all travel websites would tell you it’s a must-visit in Iceland, but I somehow felt there are tons of other less touristy ways I can spend $100+, so we opted for some of the other options like the Secret Lagoon. Myvatn Nature Baths sound like a far better northern alternative. I was quite keen to check them out, but unfortunately, they were way off our route.


FOOD


Similar to other countries, Icelandic cuisine is inspired by the ingredients Icelanders have around them. Iceland is an island, so it comes as no surprise that seafood is a major part of the Icelandic diet. Some traditional dishes include lobster, salmon, cod, fish soup, lamb as well as some more extravagant plates such as fish jerky and fermented shark.

Skyr оr Icelandic yogurt

Skyr is probably the best known Iceland food. It has a yoghurt-like consistency, but I was surprised to read it is a type of cheese. Originally produced from sheep’s milk, skyr is now predominantly made from cow milk mixed with skyr cultures. Skyr mixed with fruits makes an excellent protein-packed breakfast, providing you with the much-needed energy for your adventures!

Icelandic cheese plate

Local cheese plates are quite common in supermarkets, so I decided to treat myself with some. To be fair, they were quite similar to some French cheeses I tried while living in Grenoble. I would still recommend giving them a try since cheese seems to be an important part of Icelandic culture. While writing this post, I found out that there is a good cheese shop in Reykjavik called Búrið. If cheese is your thing, the shopkeeper offers 1-2 hour seminars on Icelandic cheese culture that might be of interest.

Kleinur (Icelandic doughnut) is another popular treat and the perfect companion for your coffee. They are usually sold in every supermarket and bakery. Liquorice (the extract from the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a popular ingredient for Northern countries, but Islanders seemed quite keen to combine it with chocolate. I am not a big fan of the taste of liquorice but who knows you might appreciate it more than me 😉

In terms of beverages, Iceland has to offer a variety of beers, vodka, wine and brevinn. The last one is a clear schnapps and Iceland’s signature drink.

Must try next time

  • Hverabraud – rye bread (rúgbrauð) baked in a hotspring

RESTAURANTS

Kaffi Hornid (Höfn)
A bacalau dish from Kaffi Hornid in Hofn, Iceland

Höfn is a famous fishing town on the Southeast coast of Iceland. It is primarily known for lobster which is why some people would call it ‘the lobster capital of Iceland’. A few restaurants ranked high online, including Pakkhús and Humarhöfnin, which I recommend exploring if you have the time. However, we decided to try out Kaffi Hornid, and we weren’t disappointed. The food was excellent!  

Braud & Co (Reykjavik)

A good place for a delicious breakfast. The bakery sells everything from bread to muffins, cinnamon rolls and delicious almond and vanilla pastries. There is a nice coffee place just next to it. Some pastries sell out fast, so go early to avoid disappointment. 

Salt (Reykjavik)

Situated on the harbour, this is one of the few restaurants in Reykjavik with good quality food which will not charge you a fortune for a dinner.  The set menus – a three-course meal – were in the range of £35. The bacalao was amazing, the staff was very helpful and the setting was quite nice!

Must try next time

  • Gamla Rif (Rif) – well-known for its fish soup
  • Fish&Co (Reykjavik) – a food truck offering affordable seafood

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