If you are thinking or planning on going to Iceland, you should know right away that you’re going for its natural beauty or for its history and culture. While Reykjavik is the largest city in the country, it still only has a population of approximately 120,000. Think about it; that’s only 1/20 of the population of Toronto! So if and/or when you go, prepare to be outdoors and not in museums or cathedrals.
There are two main times of the year to visit: in the middle of winter or during the summer. The summer is when the weather is beautiful and the attractions are easier to get to. However, the winter is also a great time to go because there are experiences you can only get during this time of the year such as the Aurora Borealis and it is much cheaper.
Either way, I highly recommend staying for a week so that you have time to see and do everything without feeling rushed.
Iceland has a long history going back to the 9th century AD when the Celtics and the Norseman first settled in Iceland. Until 1944 (during WWII), Iceland was under Denmark rule and poverty-stricken. There are places on the north side of Iceland where people continued to live in Turf houses as late as the 1960s. Most structures that are man-made were built within the last 70 years meaning that most buildings that you visit will seem relatively modern compared to older structures in Europe. Everyone speaks English so you don’t have to worry about trying to pronounce those very difficult spelling words. Credit card is accepted everywhere in the country so you can survive without foreign currency if you want.
Most people stay in Reykjavik which is the capital city of Iceland. Like most cities, Reykjavik has a downtown and an area that is considered the outskirts. Most of the newer hotels such as the Hilton hotel are situated on the outskirts of town. A unique situation with Reykjavik is that the location of your accommodation does not matter. Paying more for a hotel is really about name and experience more so than anything else. Being closer to downtown does not really benefit you much other than to be close to restaurants but even then (as I’ll explain later) this is not much of a benefit.
I stayed at the Reykjavik Lights Hotel which costs about $100 per night for a basic two singles/a double room. Right next door to us was the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Hotel which costs about $300 per night for the same type of room. Now you might think that the Reykjavik Lights Hotel that I stayed at might have been older or had poor service or in some way was sub par. However, I found that the hotel was very reasonable. The building seemed almost brand new. I did not notice any mold or accumulated residue in the bathroom tiling that I often find in older hotels. The rooms had all of the basic necessities. I do, however, want to point out the rainfall shower and the heated towel rack in the bathroom that I thoroughly enjoyed. The hotel also had magnetic key cards that turned on/off the lights int he room and if you left the door ajar an alarm would go off. Complimentary buffet breakfast was provided which had greater variety and quality than many of the US hotels I’ve been to that serve ‘Continental Breakfast’.
TIP: Try and find accommodations on the very edge of downtown in order to minimize costs and maximize your time.
There are four main ways to travel in Iceland: walk, public transportation, tour bus or renting a car.
As I mentioned earlier, Reykjavik does not have as many sites within the city compared to a place like London, UK, for example. So you could pay for a more expensive hotel to be in downtown so that you can walk to the few museums and churches that exist. However, there will be no benefit to you if you are traveling outside of the city.
Alternatively, you can take Iceland’s thoroughly extensive public bus system called Straeto that covers the entire country and many of the attractions. You can buy a one way ticket for ISK 350 which is approximately $3.50 CAD. You can also get the Reykjavik City Card which has 24, 48 or 72 hour options costing between ISK 3.300 to ISK 4.900 (or approximately $33 to $49 CAD). Depending on how many sites you visit in town, this City Card may be worthwhile for you. However, I didn’t stay in the city long and while touring outside of Reykjavik, I did not see a single public transportation bus any of the days that I was there. So likely, the public transportation does not come frequently. All in all, I personally didn’t find a need for the public transportation.
I’m usually not a fan of tour buses because I like to have the freedom to go at my own pace. However, I had to concede this time to taking a tour bus because of its convenience. Every single tour bus company will pick you up at your hotel which is another reason why staying in downtown Reykjavik is not beneficial. If the tour company is picking up multiple people, the closer you are to downtown, the earlier you will have to be to be ready for pick up and the later you will be dropped off. The larger tour bus companies are fantastic, well-oiled machines. They have miniature buses come to pick people up at select hotels that are near each other. The small buses then go downtown to the main bus hub where people from other small buses merge onto a larger bus. Depending on the timing of the tour, on the way back, you have the option of being dropped off at your hotel or downtown. Since the tour companies drop you off pretty much anywhere you want to go, other transportation isn’t necessary. I was lucky that the tours I booked were small and had no more than 4 people (other than the Northern Light tour). We were able to be very flexible and ask to have places added or removed from our itinerary. Also, having a local resident show us some of the best sites was beneficial as we would never have been able to find them by ourselves. Gray Line and Reykjavik Excursions are the two biggest tour bus companies and operate very similarly. Both also offer transportation to and from the airport. Other tour companies offer nuanced tours that are geared towards being more adventurous (such as ATV tours) or taking photos.
In the summer, renting a car can be beneficial. There isn’t a lot of traffic in Iceland (given the small population), most roads are paved and the signage is clear. Also, you have the freedom to stay as long or as short as you want at each location. Prices can range from $110 CAD to $210 CAD per day depending on the type of vehicle that you rent. Prices also include tax, unlimited mileage and insurance. Obviously, prices are much cheaper in the winter. However, I would warn about driving in the winter with a rental. Especially for those who don’t drive in snow, ice or other extreme weather conditions often, I would not recommend driving in the winter. For example, I was in a tour bus and the wind was so fierce that the bus was blown into another lane causing some swerving and anxiety. We saw many rental drivers stuck on the side of the road because they had decided to stop and fell into the snow bank and couldn’t get out.
Taxing is expensive. So don’t use it if possible.
As for the weather, Iceland has a small range of temperature never going below -10 degrees or above 15 degrees Celsius. I always thought that Iceland would be much colder than Toronto due to its location. However, Iceland is along the path of the North Atlantic Current which means that from a temperature perspective, it is relatively warm. Nonetheless, there are strong winds through the country that make it feel much colder at times. Especially as a tourist that is outdoors for most of the day, it can feel bitterly cold.
There is a saying in Iceland, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes and it will change”. So be sure to be ready for any weather condition.
In the summer, the days are very long and you might even see the Midnight sun. So you will want sunglasses and a wind and water-resistant jacket as it can begin raining at any moment. Hiking boots are also highly recommended if you are going to be outdoors. And layers. Don’t forget the layers.
In the winter, you will definitely need a warm coat, preferably one that is down insulated as well as wind and water-resistant. Hat, gloves/mittens, and scarves are a must. I even saw some tourists wearing ski goggles. Wear tons of layers because you can never be too warm in the winter. Very warm waterproof boots are a must. Warm socks are also highly recommended. Last but not least, I would highly recommend investing in hand warmers.
TIP: Trust me when I say that they are life savers if you are going to be outdoors for extended periods of time (for example, if you are waiting to see the northern lights). Get enough to fit some in your shoes as well.
There is a weather forecast for the Northern Lights which can be found on Iceland’s Meteorological Website.
Below is a summary of my favourite attractions in Iceland.
The Aurora Borealis is not exclusive to Iceland. However, many tourists go to see them at night. You can take a tour bus or you can drive out by yourself. Either way, if you’re in Iceland in the winter time, try to spot it!
The Blue Lagoon is a must see and do. The water naturally has a mixture of Algae, Silica and Sulfur which give the water its infamous blue colour. The water is said to help heal and improve skin conditions. They also have masks around the lagoon that you can put on that are supposed to be good for your skin.
The Geysir is a well-known attraction that is part of the Golden Circle. It is one of the few geysers in the world that still exist and erupt. The Geysir can reach heights of 50 meters or more in the air. While I was there, the Geysir erupted approximately every 5 to 10 minutes.
TIP: You can always tell when it is about to explode because the water starts to “breathe”. The surface of the water looks like a chest as if air is filling and leaving the lungs.
The Gullfross Waterfall is the largest and most powerful one in Europe. It is also part of the Golden Circle. On misty days, it can be difficult to take pictures of it. Apparently, there is a slightly dangerous path that you can take to get closer to the waterfalls for pictures. But I would not recommend that you do this without proper spiked shoes to keep you grounded.
Thingvellir National park is unique for several reasons. It is the location of the first parliament of Iceland hundreds of years ago, the country’s largest lake is located in this park, it is one of the locations that the Game of Thrones was filmed and it is also the location of the snorkeling and diving expeditions over the North Atlantic rift. We noticed that a bridge we were walking on had to be built because the road that used to be there had split. The tectonic plates are shifting apart causing the road to split and it unveiled a 100 meter drop below. This park as well as Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa are the only places in the world that you can see two tectonic plates moving away from each other.
TIP: All of Iceland’s water is clean. So you can drink the lake water in Thingvellir National park. Icelandic people also think it’s a waste of money to buy bottled water.
TIP: The lake water is always between 2 to 3 degrees Celsius in all seasons. So if you want to go in the winter time, you will be equally as cold as in the summer time. Remember to keep your hands behind your back and out of the water and you will stay warm.
Seljalandsfoss is usually part of the South Coast Tours. It is a beautiful and narrow waterfall that is lit up when it is dark out. In the summer, you can go behind the waterfall to see the water drop. However, in the winter time, the ground becomes icy and it is too dangerous to go.
Another famous waterfall along the South Coast of Iceland is Skógarfoss. It is situated in a canyon like area. On sunny days, you can see a rainbow. In the summer, the blue against the green grass and the rainbow is just like a postcard.
You can take a tour of a Glacier on Eyjafjallajökull (or E-15 as American’s call it). Unfortunately for me, the winds were too strong on the day I was supposed to go so it was canceled. However, I can imagine that it would be a great experience to hike on a glacier.
Reynisfjara is the location of the black sanded beach and the rock columns near Vik in the South Coast of Iceland. It is a magnificent sight to behold as the ocean waves crash down on the beach. Keep in mind that the current is very strong so you probably should not go swimming in the water. It is can also be extremely windy at times. In the summer time, you can see Puffin.
Skaftafell National Park is 4 hours away from Reykjavik but definitely worth the visit. There are ice caves to discover in the winter time that are a stunning view.
The Vatnajökull glacier in the summer time is a very interesting view which might be memorable to some who have seen movies such as Batman Begins or Tomb Raider. In the summer, icebergs break off from the glacier and float away.
Iceland is well-known for its seafood, especially Cod. But that’s about it. There are many well rated restaurants on Tripadvisor that you can try out. The Fish Market is one of the most famous restaurants in all of Iceland. So you may want to try it out.
Dried cod is also a pretty famous snack. Asian tourists seem to like it a lot and it certainly has a distinctive flavour and smell.
If you decide to go to Iceland, I hope you have a great time!