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.