Iceland Travel Guide

Mesmerizing is one word to describe this remarkable country. Still, it doesn’t do it justice. In fact, it seems there aren’t enough superlatives that could justify the one-of-a-kind glory and glow of this island country. Among all the magnificent places in the world, Iceland wins a title of the crown jewel. That’s how breathtakingly beautiful it is.
The country is located far up in the north in the Atlantic Ocean and features surreal and alluring backdrops that help keep it the numero uno position among visitors. It is in this land that nature proves what a terrific artist it is and Iceland could very easily be its biggest masterpiece.
But what is it about Iceland that makes it so attractive and impossible to resist?
Could it be its location far up in the northern corner of Europe and North America? Its position gives it a captivating and a bit mysterious charm and its biggest trait – the nature. The outdoors that are a perfect spot for all the adventurous nature lovers and adrenaline seekers.
Iceland is a land of extraordinary terrains, consisting of ice, mountains, crystal clear waters, impressive waterfalls, untamed coastline, alluring wildlife, hot spas, glaciers, geysers, volcanos, and the list goes on. No wonder it is on a must-list of almost every traveler. Add to this kind people, rich culture, history, and interesting folklife tales spice it up with some quirky cuisine and it is easy to understand what draws people to this magical superstar.

A couple under the bridge in the thermal blue lagoon, Iceland

While untouched, raw beauty of nature might be its most attractive attribute, Iceland offers more than just thrilling outdoor experiences. Here are some things you need to know about it before you head that direction.
The country’s capital is Reykjavík, a small but ever so charming city where you can spend some interesting days and stroll around its beautiful streets. The country’s currency is the Icelandic Krona. Speaking of money, this might be the only downside of the visit. A trip to Iceland isn’t as cheap as other travel destinations usually are or can be. Being an island country thriving on tourism, comes with a price. While seeing and exploring Iceland isn’t cheap it can be affordable. The following guide will provide you with some valuable tips on that.
One thing you don’t have to worry too much about it is the safety. The country’s very safe and peaceful. In fact, it’s been named the safest of all the countries in the world in 2016.
After facing the financial crisis, the economy is now gaining back the strength and has been very stable so far.
Iceland is divided into 8 regions: East, West, Highlands, Capital Area, North, Reykjanes, West, and Westfjords. What all they have in common, is the undeniable charm, although each one of them is unique and has own character.
Best time to visit is summer, as well as early or late winter. Take into consideration its northern location. Placed between Europe and North America in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the country is very close to the Arctic Circle. This means a number of daylights depend on the season. Make sure you plan your visit in accordance. A trip in December will leave you in the dark. Literally, as the darkness through the day lasts for over 20 hours.
Here you can experience how it feels not to get any sleep at all. You can easily stay awake for 24 hours straight as it doesn’t get dark during the summer time when day and night become one. Lots of locals take advantage of the perpetual light and dedicate time to different activities. You can come up with your own although there’s no guarantee that the bright lights take away all the need for sleep!
The moody weather is another Iceland’s “specialty”. It’s extremely volatile and changes often. You might have heard the saying: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” It’s popular among the locals who are used to its unpredictability. Be sure to bring warm clothes as even during the summertime temperatures rarely go above 70°F (20°C). Apart from that, the climate is surprisingly mild.

What to see and do in Iceland

The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are a true wonder of nature and very likely one of the top reasons why people visit Iceland. All in hopes to catch a glimpse of this enchanting play and admire the wonderful and whimsical dance of the lights in the sky. The science behind the lights are the electrically charged particles from the sun that collide with gaseous particles from the Earth’s atmosphere. This collision creates one of the best-known attractions of Iceland, Aurora Borealis.
However, not many people are lucky enough to see it. It’s not easy to catch it as it all comes down to various factors. Good timing and having a bit of good luck are crucial.

A wonderful night with Kp 5 northern lights flying over the Glacier Lagoon in iceland

Some say the best time to see it is from September till mid-April. Those months bring the much-needed darkness at nights.
Some recommend a season from November to February but note that the weather is far from nice during this time. You can face lots of heavy rain and icy snow.
The weather also plays a very important role. The skies must be dark and clear. Something that’s not always easy to achieve in  country well-known for its moody weather.
The length of your stay matters too. The longer you stay, the bigger are the chances you’ll see it. The lights have a tendency to be super active for two or three nights, and then they go low key for the rest of the week. So a minimum of a week-stay is almost necessary.
Where you stay is also important. You may easily miss it in the big cities due to all the lights, so you better head towards the quiet and peaceful countryside.

Northern Lights - Aurora borealis over Snaefellsnes peninsula in Iceland

There are lots of hostels, bungalows, and another type of lodgings that promise to experience this wonder at their location. You can plan your own trip and try your luck, or take a guided tour.

Whatever you choose to do, be sure to follow the websites with the night lights forecasts.

Read more in our related post: Chasing the Northern Lights

Experience the urban pace of Reykjavik

Contrary to its countryside full of miraculous nature, Reykjavik, the country’s capital is a dazzling city bursting with energy. Don’t be fooled by its size. It might be small, but its combination of a big city-life and tranquil village will blow you away and sweep you off your feet. It’s great for all the party lovers as well as art and culture enthusiasts. It’s very trendy – when it comes to design and keeping the pace with modern technology, Icelanders hold the lead.

Some of the best things you shouldn’t miss during your stay are The Old Harbour, the Kolaportið Flea Market, the modern architecture of the City Hall, Hallgrímskirkja church, Perlan (The Pearl), Harpa Concert Hall…

The flea market is a lot of fun and a place where you can find literally everything. It’s a great way to kill some time in the capital and get an insight of the local life, especially if the weather is bad as the market takes place indoors. Perlan also was known as The Pearl is the perfect spot to see the city from its roof.

The Hallgrímskirkja Church is one of the most recognized landmarks of the city. It’s a Lutheran church named after Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson. The contemporary building of the City Hall is not only home to the mayor and the officials, it’s also a gallery and an information desk.

The Harpa Concert Hall is the new landmark of the city, Reykjavik, Iceland

Powerful water

The country is inseparably related to water. Not only it surrounds it, the water in Iceland, is probably the cleanest and clearest in the whole world. No matter how small the stream – if it runs it’s safe to drink from it. The waters of Iceland are truly remarkable and offer many activities.

Hraunfossar waterfalls,Iceland

You can take a relaxing bath in the hot springs, admire the untamed wilderness of geysers, marvel at wonderful lakes, impressive rivers, and stunning waterfalls. Iceland is definitely the home of water, this priceless force of nature.

Summer sunset on famous Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall and Kirkjufell mountain. Colorful evening scene on Snaefellsnes peninsula, Iceland, Europe.

You shouldn’t miss on Iceland’s astonishing waterfalls. Some of the most memorable are Hraunfossar, Hrafnabjargafoss, Bruarfoss, Kirkjufellsfoss, Seljalandsfoss,…
If you’re feeling brave and cheeky enough, you can take a swim in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The locals have done it through the centuries, and now this activity is winning popularity among tourists too. If you worry about catching a cold, don’t! If you are healthy, many swear that taking a cold plunge actually strengthens the immune system.
Another thing you can do in the Icelandic waters is snorkeling, and even surfing in some parts of the country.

Whale watching

Whales are amazing animals. They are the majestic creatures and the waters of Iceland give you a one of a kind chance to admire them in their habitat. Watch them play as you sit on the boat, the chances are, that you’ll see some dolphins too! It’s a memorable experience and a great reminder of how humble and happy we should be to be able to share this planet with such beautiful animals.

Keep your eyes on the puffins (and other animals)

Puffin - Iceland

Prior to Viking’s arrival to Iceland, there were hardly any animals there, except for the birds and fish.

Puffins are pretty and cute birds that live all over the country. You can admire them on of the many coastal cliffs where they breed in large colonies. Best places for watching them are Westman Islands, West Fjords, and some parts of the East Fjords. If they are the reason for your visit, remember they’re not in Iceland during the winter season.

Another adorable furry (or not) residents of Iceland are their beautiful horses, sheep, reindeer, arctic foxes,… There are no deadly animals in the country, and there are no mosquitoes, snakes, and ants (comforting to know if you’re camping).

Hot springs and the geysers

Geysir, the father of the geysers, erupting. Iceland

Thanks to its location and numerous geothermal activities, Iceland is a land of hot springs and geysers. Enjoy the all natural spa and warm up in one of the hot springs. Can you imagine anything better and more relaxing than taking a warming bath while it’s freezing outside? Some of the best spots to visit, include Landbrotalaug, Gamla Laugin (which is also the oldest), Laugafellslaug, Reykjadalur, Grjótagjá, Mývatn Nature Baths… Some charge a fee and some are free.

A group of tourists gather around the Great Geysir in Haukadalsvegur, Iceland, as it violently erupts in the distance towards the cloudy sky.

There are many geysers in Iceland, but The Great Geysir is the main star. And the one most people who take the famous and most popular Golden Circle tour visit. Its history goes all the way back to 1294. It was dormant for quite a long time until the 2000 earthquake woke it up, and it’s been active ever since.

Take a walk

The country offers many wonderful hiking options. You’ll be able to enjoy the pristine beauty of this northern gem on of the numerous trekking trails, such as Fimmvörðuháls Trail, Hornstrandir, Mt. Esja, Landmannalaugar,… or the always busy and tourist’s favorite Golden Circle Tourist Trail.

Typical costs

Accommodation

Staying in a hostel in Iceland might not be as budget friendly as you’re probably used to. Dorm rooms cost anywhere between 30$ and up to 70$. If you want to enjoy the privacy of your own room, expect to pay around 100$ per night. Hotels are even more expensive. A room with a private bathroom costs around 180$, but you can lower that price by choosing a bathroom-free room. A cost of such an accommodation will be approximately 120$ per night.

If your budget is tight, your best chance is to try couch-surfing. Another affordable and easy on the budget option is renting a room or an entire apartment on Airbnb. This way you’ll be able to enjoy all the comfort and privacy (especially if you’re renting the entire flat to yourself) at starting prices of 108$. Taking a shared room will save even more money. It’ll cost you around 60$ per night, so sharing a room or finding someone who’s willing to share can reduce the costs. You can also try camping as it’s widely available and quite cheap. Paying to stay in campgrounds costs around 15$, and you can camp in the wild areas for free for as long as there is no mark saying it’s prohibited to do so.

Food and drinks

Not surprisingly, the cost of food is relatively high as well. Even if you go to grab a bite at an inexpensive fast food restaurant, expect to pay an average 12$ for a meal. You can find sandwiches at outdoor kiosks for around 10$. Eating out at a “proper” restaurant- the one where you can sit down and enjoy your meal at the table – will cost you 30$ and up.

If you’re staying in an accommodation with its own kitchen, you’ll need around 80$ for a week’s worth of groceries.

Buying food at the gas stations can save you a couple of bucks. An average meal there won’t break your budget, and you’ll be surprised to see the variety of delicious foods there. Another cheap and reasonable option are the hot-dogs. The plain ones, without any toppings, cost around 5$.
Beers are pricey, costing 6$ during the happy hours, and a whopping 10$ during not so happy hours. There’s no need at all to buy bottled water in Iceland. The country is incredibly clean, and so are its waters. A bottle of water costs 3$ so if you bring your own you can save some money.

Drinking is extremely expensive, mostly thanks to high taxes. A bottle of mid-range vodka can cost up to 50$ and you can get the cheapest wine for around 10$ per bottle. If you can’t resist some alcohol, buy it at the duty-free shops at the airport.

Transportation

Renting a car, van or any other mean of transportation might be the best decision. This way you’ll get to see and enjoy the country at your own pace. Prices depend on your chosen vehicle but usually start around 30$ per day. If you don’t feel like driving, you can always get a bus pass. This one costs approximately 400$. It might sound a lot, but with the price comes the freedom of hopping on and off wherever you want to. You can travel to some parts of the country by ferry or catch a plane. Since Iceland is a safe country, those more adventurous can give hitchhiking a try. However, it’s best to try it during a bit warmer summer months as the winter cold is unbearable to stand outside and wait for someone to pick you up.

Sights

How much money you are going to spend on the sights depends on different factors. Taking a guided, pre-organized tour is pricier. However, keep in mind that there are some areas and certain activities that are best enjoyed with an experienced tour guide. Still, there are loads of activities you can easily do on your own and avoid any additional costs. The famous and renowned Golden Circle Classic Day costs around 108$, and whale watching prices begin at 110$. Some waterfalls and hiking tours cost from 170$. Whatever you decide to do and where you head, note that an average daily budget should be around 250$, give it or take, depending heavily on your accommodation, food you eat, tours you take and other entertainment.

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