I recently got back from a three week trip around Iceland. I did a significant amount of research on the country – the best places to see, the weather, what to pack, etc. But, there were many small things I learned along the way that I wish I had known beforehand. I want to share these with you to help you be as prepared as possible for your trip to Iceland! These are 9 niche things to know before going to Iceland.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
SOME BACKGROUND ON ICELAND
Iceland is a Nordic island country located in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It is most famous for its rugged landscape and scenery, including lava fields, volcanos, craters, glaciers, and so much more. For this reason, it’s known as the “Land of Fire and Ice.”
The first settlement of Iceland began in 874 AD and was ruled by Denmark for much of its modern history. In 1944, the country’s residents voted to become an independent republic. Iceland ranks very highly in terms of quality of life, education, protection of civil liberties, gender equality, and more. It is the only NATO member with no standing army. If you want to learn more about Iceland’s history and culture, I recommend this book.
BEST PLACES TO SEE IN ICELAND
This deserves (and will get) an entire blog post on its own, but I want to share the best places to see in Iceland. I traveled around the entire country except the West Fjords, so you can trust me on this one!
- Þingvellir National Park
- Geysir Geothermal Area
- Kerið Crater
- Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
- Stuðlagil Canyon
- Hverir Geothermal Area
- Dimmuborgir Lava Field
- Kirkjufell Mountain
- Londrangar Basalt Cliffs
- Bjarnafoss Waterfall
There is so much to see in Iceland that even three weeks in the country didn’t allow us enough time to see everything. Granted, we spent two of the weeks working remotely in Reykjavík and Húsavík, so if we were exploring the entire time I’m sure we would have been able to see a lot more.
HOW TO GET AROUND ICELAND
The most common way people get around Iceland is by car or van. Either rent a car and drive yourself, or join a tour group to take you around the country. The most popular road for tourists is the Ring Road, which takes you around the perimeter of the entire country. You can also explore the highlands by driving on F-roads, but these roads are only open in the summer.
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ACCOMMODATION FOR YOUR TRIP IN ICELAND
Where to stay during your trip to Iceland depends on a lot of factors, such as your budget and how often you’ll be on the road. It’s common in Iceland for travelers to rent vans with beds and sleep in campsites. I’m admittedly a little too high maintenance for this so we stayed in hotels, guesthouses, and Airbnbs during our trip.
If you’re planning a road trip but don’t want to sleep in a van, I definitely recommend staying in guest houses along the way. In fact, in many places this will be your only option since the country is quite remote outside of the main cities. Here are the guesthouses we stayed in during our trip that I 100% recommend!
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE GOING TO ICELAND
Now let’s get into it! I’m going to tell you 9 niche things you need to know before going to Iceland that you might not see in your other research.
- The hot water smells like farts
Okay, it actually smells like sulfur, which smells like farts! On a more serious note, the reason the hot water in Iceland smells like sulfur is because it’s heated by geothermal energy. Before traveling to Iceland I knew a bit about the country’s use of geothermal energy, but was not prepared for the smell of the hot water. However, it’s completely normal and clean, and you get used to the smell!
- Fill up your gas tank at every opportunity
You should fill up your gas tank basically every time you pass a gas station and try to never let the gauge go below half full. This is because gas stations can be few and far between on the Ring Road, especially in the more remote parts in the east of the country. We also had a bad gas gauge on our rental car, so we actually ran out of gas on the second day of our road trip and had to get a ride to a gas station!
- You fly into Keflavík Airport, not Reykjavík Airport
When we landed in Iceland for some reason we thought we were at Reykjavík Airport, which is much closer to the city center of Reykjavík. Reykjavík Airport is only for domestic flights! So, we were actually at Keflavík Airport (also called Reykjavík–Keflavík Airport, so you can see the confusion) which is a 40 minute drive from the center of Reykjavík. Since this took us by surprise, we did not have transportation to our hotel planned. We quickly did some research and learned that taking a taxi would probably cost around €200, so we got a ticket for FlyBus, which cost about €30 per person.
- The cost of food and drinks is VERY expensive
Ahead of my trip I knew I was expensive, but I underestimated how expensive. On our second night in Reykjavík we went out to dinner and paid $25 for a pretty basic pasta dish. I don’t remember exactly but I think a pint of beer was close to $10. Ouch! After this, we pretty much avoided eating out as much as we could and mostly got out meals from gas stations. Yes, gas stations! Most gas stations have associated food shops or cafes and the food is actually great and a lot cheaper than in a restaurant.
- You can claim a VAT tax refund
Speaking of money, one way you can save a bit in Iceland is by claiming a VAT tax refund on purchases intended to be taken out of the country that are 6,000 ISK (about $45) or more. I had no idea this was a thing until I was offered a Tax Free Form by a clerk after buying some souvenirs. Once you get to the airport for your departing flight be sure to turn in your Tax Free Form (there’s a big kiosk, you can’t miss it) and wait for your reimbursement in 6-8 weeks.
- You don’t need to take out cash
Last thing about money! You really don’t need to take out cash in the local currency. Iceland is very advanced in terms of technology and even restaurants in the middle of nowhere took card payments. This is important to know ahead of your trip so you don’t take out a bunch of cash and end up not using it. Card is king in Iceland!
- You can only buy alcohol at state run liquor stores
Yes, it’s true and a bit inconvenient. But like many Nordic countries, Iceland is quite strict on alcohol regulation and taxes alcohol very highly. These stores are called ‘Vínbúðin’ and open on weekdays from 10AM-6PM. Some in Reykjavík are open on Saturday and until 8PM. You can buy beer with very low alcohol content in grocery stores. I should also mention that the drinking age in Iceland is 20, unlike most of Europe in which it is 18.
- Road conditions can change super rapidly
All in all I found driving in Iceland pretty chill. But it’s important to know that the road conditions can change very rapidly due to the weather. It’s a running joke that the weather in Iceland changes every five minutes, but it’s kind of true. A day that starts out sunny can quickly turn rainy and windy. When driving it’s important to stay on top of things. The best way to do this is by downloading the app Færð & Veður for live road updates.
- It’s only possible to see the Northern Lights between August and April
I’ve noticed that people think they will see the Northern Lights during their summer trips to Iceland. Unfortunately, since it doesn’t get fully dark in Iceland during the summer months, it’s not possible to see the Northern Lights. The best months are going to be dead winter (December and January) because it is dark for most of the day. Now, don’t let this deter you from traveling to Iceland in the summer, but definitely think twice if one of your main reasons for going is to experience the Northern Lights.
If you’ve read all the way to the end, great work! Now you’re ready for your trip to Iceland. Have a great time!
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