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An Icelandic Guide: Know Before You Go

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Iceland is filled with glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, great music and amazing people. As you are preparing for your trip, you will soon know that you will want to tour The Golden Circle, Jokulsarlon, and enjoy many wonderful waterfalls. This post is not about what to see but instead includes a few things that you should know before you start packing. Whether you choose to visit during the summer season of the midnight sun or in the darkness of winter, you are sure to love your time in this magnificent country of Fire & Ice.

When to Visit During the winter, daylight is very limited and you will need to plan your days carefully to take advantage of the short daylight hours and hopefully catch the Northern Lights on a clear night. On the other hand, the midnight sun of the summer provides long hours to explore to your heart's content. Many hotels and guesthouses will have black-out curtains for those bright summer nights but if you need darkness to sleep, I suggest a sleep mask. We found the long daylight hours allowed us to explore more widely and with more energy. Most flights from North America will arrive during the very early morning. You will need to have a plan to fill your time before you check in. Many travellers will stop at the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is famous and spendy. If you choose to visit, drop in on your way to/from the airport. The Blue Lagoon will store your luggage while you enjoy the amenities.

Money Iceland is virtually cashless. Debit and credit cards (not American Express) are used extensively, even for small purchases. You will need very little, if any, cash. Carry just enough for tips. Tips at restaurants are generally not required or expected. Tour tips are usually modest.

What to Wear

You will need thermal undergarments... no matter the season but especially in the winter months. Wear layers.... not cotton - choose wool, silk, or bamboo. You will want waterproof hiking boots, coat, gloves, and toque. Weather is very unpredictable. It is not uncommon to experience several different weather patterns within a single day. Pick up a homemade sweater at the Saturday market in Reykjavik. Don't buy one at the tourist shops... many are imported, machine-made and are not 100% Icelandic wool. An authentic lopapeysa is knitted using natural colours on circular needles: there will be no seam. Expect to pay a fair price ... these sweaters are pure wool and take many hours of handwork to produce.

Language and Culture

The Icelandic language is a blend of several Scandinavian and Norse languages (some extinct) and is rarely spoken outside of Iceland. Virtually all Icelandic people speak English which is a good thing for tourism since Icelandic is a very challenging language.

The history and culture of Iceland is taught and shared through a combination of myths, legends, and stories originating from great Sagas of Vikings, plus stories of monsters and elves with much blurring of fact and fiction. Any tours and excursions you take will include these tales of fantastic deeds and events.

Don't be surprised to see babies sleeping in prams outside of stores or teens sleeping outside at campsites. Iceland is very safe and this is a very common practice to ensure lots of fresh air and is believed to build health. These babies are not abandoned or neglected, they are being watched through a store or cafe window. Take some time to visit some of the many small-town museums dedicated to interesting subjects including Reykjavik's Phallological Museum, the Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum in Hólmavik, and the Sea Monster Museum in Bíldudalur. Most will require no more than 30 minutes of your time and present their exhibits using a combination of fact, fiction, and a healthy love of story-telling.

Virtually all towns have a festival of some sort with different festivals throughout the year. Some celebrate art, film or music, others are focused on food and fun. Take some time to research what's going on before choosing your travel dates to take advantage of the best. The Guide to Iceland's top 10 list is a great place to start. As we drove into each town during the summer months, we enjoyed seeing the fun decorations in yards and along the roads.

Visit the Pools and Hotsprings

A regular daily activity for many Icelanders is a soak in their local pools (every town has at least one). These pools always include multiple "hot pots" of different temperatures, a regular pool, and a cold plunge pool. Most have hair dryers and spinners or mini-dryers for your bathing suit. Many also include blue light therapy stations. Drop by and chat with locals while soaking. Spot the groups that meet here daily. A daily dip is a great way to start or end your day, especially when camping along the Ring Road. Be prepared to shower nude before entering the pool. There are instructions on the walls. You will be judged as rude, if you do not shower naked and wash. The locals will notice, don't even consider keeping your bathing costume on. It's a culture that is very comfortable with their bodies and sexuality.... all sizes and shapes are celebrated, if anyone is looking, it's just to check that you've washed your naughty bits, head, and feet!

There are hot pots everywhere in Iceland. Ask a local for their favourites. A few will be fancy like the Blue Lagoon and Myvatn in the north. Others are much more humble. Some will have change rooms, some will be in the open. Many are local treasures and won't be found in guidebooks.

Protect the Environment Be environmentally aware. Sort your recyclables and dispose of your rubbish in bins, which are easily located. If you smoke, do not leave cigarette butts on the ground. Don't walk on the moss when out in the countryside. Icelanders love their natural surroundings and are passionate about protecting them. Drink the water. Refill at any tap, spout or creek. Throw a chunk of iceberg in your water bottle.

Go Camping Perhaps one of the most important camping tips for visiting Iceland is that you must always camp at designated campsites. This rule is largely enforced in an attempt to preserve Iceland’s natural landscape. Camping in Iceland is very popular and inexpensive. Every town has a campsite, most with amazing amenities. Check out my post about camping along the Ring Road

Check out the Wildlife Iceland has its own unique breed of horse. To avoid unintentionally insulting a local, do NOT call these horses "ponies". These horses are small and have a unique gait said to be so smooth a rider could drink a cup of tea while trotting. No horses can be imported to the country, so this breed is very pure. If an Icelandic horse leaves the country, it can never return. I didn't try drinking tea but can assure you that it was a wonderful excursion.

Whale watching is an excellent way to not only see some incredible whales (we saw minke, humpbacks, fin, and pilot whales on our excursion from Husavik). Many former whale hunting ships have converted their purpose to whale-watching, so this is also a great way to support these seafarers and the whale population.

The absolute best wildlife experience, in my opinion, is a visit to Látrabjarg to see the puffins in their summer nesting grounds.

Driving in Iceland The main highway that circles around the country is known as the Ring Road. Parts of the road are paved, parts are gravel (but well-graded). You will be driving up and down steep grade roads, over mountains, and around fjords. If you stay on the main roads you'll have no problems. Sheep are everywhere and are rarely fenced. You will see sheep along and on the roads. You can't hurry them, so be patient as they saunter across.

F-roads are rocky, uneven, sometimes involve river crossings, and are tricky to navigate even under the best circumstances. Some of Iceland’s most spectacular wonders are reached through F-roads. Do not even consider travelling F Roads without a 4 x 4 and always check water crossings for depth. Most rental companies forbid travelling on F Roads. To explore inland areas, consider joining a tour group.

Food and Drink You won't find a McDonald's, Starbucks, or 7-11, although there are plenty of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway Sandwich shops. Check out the many small coffee shops and cafés in the cities and towns. A popular fast food is a Pylsa or Pulsa -- a hotdog made from lamb, pork and beef served on a warm, steamed bun topped with raw white onions and crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and remoulade, a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs. The most popular hot dog stand is in Reykjavik is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur located downtown since the 1930s.

Iceland is expensive. Bonus supermarket is a great discount supermarket to pick up food to stretch the budget. Look for the pink pig on a yellow sign. Protip: Hraun snacks are amazing!

Alcohol is really expensive. You can purchase up to 6 "units" at the duty-free shop at the Keflavik airport. Locals buy at the Vínbúðin liquor stores. Unfortunately on top of being expensive, these stores often close at 6pm and are closed altogether on Sundays which means planning ahead is crucial. Lamb and seafood are the most commonly eaten animal proteins. You will find more lamb dishes than beef, ham, or chicken. Please don't eat whale. While whale was once an important part of the Icelandic diet, nowadays most is eaten by tourists. Environmentalists have been working hard to reduce whale-hunting and increase whale-watching. Iceland is a trip that should be on everyone's travel short-list for its stunning and wild scenery, connection to nature, fun excursions, wondrous waterfalls, and its warm and hospitable people. One trip will not be enough. You will want to return again and again.


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