In this article you can find in a nutshell everything you want to know about traveling to Iceland. If you are already in the process of planning your trip to Iceland, the information here will help you to better organize your Icelandic adventure e.g. what to take with you and what not to forget. In case you don´t know much about Iceland yet and you are looking for some inspiration, this article will introduce the country to you and maybe, who knows, will persuade you to choose Iceland as your next destination. Maybe you are supposed to be there for work and just killing time, this may offer you a productive procrastination.
Iceland – Essential Information
Iceland is a volcanic island in the Nort Atlantic just about midway between Europe and North America. The official language is Icelandic, but English is widely spoken and can be used without problems. The capital, Reykjavík is the northernmost capital in the world. ‘White nights’ during the summer and really short days in the winter are characteristic of this island. It is also known for its diverse and beautiful nature. Icelandic króna is the official currency, but you can use your card anywhere (even for a street vendor of rainbow flags at the Reykjavík parade). Simply put, you don´t have to bother with the local currency if you don´t want to.
A tricky question. The greatest enticements are the breathtaking natural wonders of this volcanic island such as the northern lights, puffins, glaciers, geysers, geothermal pools, fumaroles, volcanos, rainbow mountains, picturesque villages and in the northern seas, creatures like seals and whales. All this and many many more attract millions of tourists a year to Iceland. Although a lot of places mostly in the south-east area of Iceland are crowded (the Golden Circle is just a part of this), there is still an amazing number of places you can be all alone. The perfect inspiration for you can be our post about the most beautiful places in Iceland in photos, or you can simply find what suits you best in our clever map of Iceland.
Icelandic flora and fauna
To be honest, the Icelandic flora is not the main reason hordes of tourists are invading Iceland. You can´t find many trees in Iceland, not to mention forests and as for flowers, it is severely lacking (except for the moss of course!). However, what Iceland cannot offer you in flora is compensated by fauna. You can meet reindeer in the East, you can find arctic foxes in the West, and seals along the shore. Puffins in the summer months and whales all year round. Eager to know more? Just have a look at the article Animals in Iceland and the best spots for observation.
Iceland is a really expensive country, but just with a bit of knowledge (which is available here on the web) you don´t have to spend a fortune. You can enjoy 2 weeks in Iceland in the winter for just 500 Euros/Dollars or during the summer 900 Euros/Dollars. If you want to add a trip to the Central Highlands, add another 200 Euros/Dollars. For more on this check out the article on how to save money in Iceland without missing anything.
How to get to Iceland
As you already know (or just read it above), Iceland is an island, so there are basically two ways of getting there.
The first and most popular option (preferred by 96% of travelers) is to arrive by plane. It is quick and relatively cheap.
The other option is to come by the ferry MS Norröna run by the Faroese company, Smyril Line, which connects Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. This method is suitable for those wishing to bring their own car, camper, motorcycle or maybe you are just the adventurous type who would enjoy this experience.
This topic is described in detail in the article How to get to Iceland.
When to go to Iceland
In Iceland the year is basically divided into two seasons for travelling. The main season, the summer one (June to August), offers you white nights, when the sun sets just below the horizon. You can explore the Icelandic Highlands which are basically inaccessible during the winter, admire the beautiful puffins and enjoy relatively stable weather with temperatures around 10°C (50°F).
The off-season is from September till May. It is characterized by short days and very long nights quite often lit by the Northern Lights and when the black lava fields are coated by snow as though covered by sugar. Most of the time, the temperature is around freezing point (0°C/32°F) with frequent snow showers and this is the time when taking a bath in the natural geothermal pools can be magical. In terms of your wallet, the price of winter Iceland can be half as much as the summer one, but your experience can be of the same intensity or even better. This is discussed further in the article Seasons in Iceland and when to go.
Weather in Iceland
There is a poignant joke about the Icelandic weather which says: ‘Iceland in the summer is like an open fridge. 8° (46°) with an eternal light.’ The winter is a closed one with temperatures around 0° (32°F) and completely dark. I would just like to add that it´s a really windy fridge indeed with wind speeds of 15 m/s (34 miles per hour) not a rare occurrence.
Icelandic weather is strongly influenced by the Gulf stream and is surprisingly stable. In the summer, the temperature hardly ever exceeds 15°C/59°F and in the winter does not drop below -5°C (23°F). In spite of the limited range of temperature, Icelandic weather is actually very unpredictable and you have to be ready for anything at any time. The highest temperature I can remember in January was 8°C/46°F and blue skies, while on the other hand, I have experienced -2°C (28°F) and a snow storm in June. There is a saying about the weather in Iceland, “if you don´t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes”. Make note of the website www.vedur.is and read the article on the Weather in Iceland.
What to wear
As you now know from the previous paragraph, the Icelandic weather is anything but predictable and you really have to be ready for everything all the time. So how? Layering is the answer. First and foremost, a light breathable layer, then a warm one and finally a water and wind-resistant one. Good shoes are also a must. Read more in detail on What to pack and not to forget for Iceland.
Where to stay
There is a huge variety of accommodation options to choose from in Iceland and your choice of accommodation will affect not just your Icelandic experience, but the overall budget as well. You can sleep in a tent or just under the stars (or better to say midnight sun), in hotels, hostels or a camper van. If you know how to organize things, affordable accommodation isn´t hard to find even during the peak season. Just be sure to read the article about accommodation in Iceland.
Where to go
Iceland has very diverse nature and each and every part of it has its own charisma and style. The most popular tourist road is road no. 1 – the Ring Road. It can give you a sneak peak into everything Iceland has to offer. Reykjavík and the surrounding lava fields, the South shore with all its beautiful waterfalls and popular spots, the Snæfellsnes peninsula which is aptly nicknamed “Little Iceland”, the majestic and sparsely inhabited Westfjords, where arctic foxes say good night, the Eastern fjords with nature very similar to Norwegian, the Northern part where seemingly nothing happens and finally the Central Highlands covered by snow in the winter and shining with all possible colors during the short summer. You can read all about it in the article Parts of Iceland or let yourself be inspired by Interesting Icelandic itineraries.
Stay safe in Iceland
Iceland is a bare and in many places still completely wild place and as you probably know, it can be merciless. Every year about 25 tourists loose their lives there. You won´t be surprised when I tell you that drowning, falling from cliffs, freezing to death or complete exhaustion are the most frequent causes of death. Be sure to check the website safetravel.is and for your own safety and well-being closely read the article How to stay safe in Iceland.
Public transport in Iceland
In case you don´t have a car at your disposal while in Iceland, you can use public transport for the whole time or even combine it with your own or rented car. It is important to mention, that to move relatively independently around Iceland without having a car is definitely complicated, but not impossible. Buses can take you to all possible corners of Iceland, ferries can take you to adjacent islands and you can use a internal flight connections as well. Surprisingly, sometimes the airplane ticket can be cheaper then the bus ticket. To read more on this just visit the page Public transport in Iceland.
Driving in Iceland
Traveling by car is without doubt the best way to explore and enjoy Iceland. Just be sure that even if you are an experienced driver, you´ll be facing a lot of new challenges and interesting experiences. Single lane bridges, narrow tunnels, gravel roads, unpredictable road closures and detours and river crossings in the Central Highlands. It is there, that the roads are often so bumpy that just 15 km per hour feels like furious Fittipaldi speed. There are icy roads in the winter with almost zero visibility and to all these you can add a really strong wind all year round. Please make note of the website road.is and look at it regularly. What is true in the morning may still not be true by lunch time. For your own security, read through article Driving in Iceland several times.
Renting a car in Iceland
As just mentioned above, having a car here in Iceland will give you real freedom to explore the country according to your preferences. Similarly to the driving conditions there, Iceland has its own eccentricities as regards rental cars. Which of the cars you want to rent mostly depends on where you want to go. There are 3 basic types of cars to choose from. The standard 2WD, the standard 4WD and a modified 4WD. Additionally, you should think about what kind of insurance you need. Apart from the standard car rentals, you can use peer2peer car rental services directly from Icelanders. Read all about this topic in Renting a car in Iceland.
Camper vans combine the advantage of space for cooking and sleeping with the flexibility of a car. You can choose from all possible combinations of capacity and terrain transit. From small campers for just 2 people (such as Dacia Dokker) through big campers for up to 6 people (such as Renault Master) to all terrain campers (such as Land Rover Defender). Please note that it is NOT legal to camp outside the designated areas anywhere in Iceland while traveling with camper vans. Read more here about the Campervanning in Iceland.
Arranging your Icelandic itinerary
From experience in consulting with others and even from my own past experience, people tend to have overoptimistic travel plans for their dream trip to Iceland. The start of the problem is that Iceland seems to be so small on the map when you are sitting in front of the computer in your living room and all the beautiful sights seem to be so easily reachable. However, the reality is different. Iceland is really huge and a lot of places are really difficult to reach (even with a 4WD). There are no highways in Iceland and you won´t be traveling faster than 70 km/h on average . Please do not fall into trap of thinking ‘I want to see it all’. It is not possible in 3 weeks, let alone in one week. Have a look at our realistic and interesting itineraries for your perfect and safe journey.
To be honest, I would hesitate to call Icelanders as connoisseurs of food, but to tell the truth, there are some types of food you should try to get an authentic Icelandic experience. First and foremost it is sheep and fish soup, both are as good as each other! And, of course, other sheep and seafood, starting with dried fish and ending with whales. There is skyr, a special Icelandic type of yogurt (just much tastier) or a bread baked in the geothermal heat of the Earth. Controversial for many is the meat from puffins. Would you like to have a puffin-burger? And let´s not forget the food porn experience par excellence: Hákarl – a fermented shark meat. In combination with a shot of Brennivín, you´ll remember Iceland for a really long time after you leave. Hungry and eager to read more? Then check out Icelandic gastronomy.
Movie locations in Iceland
This list would definitely not be complete without a paragraph about movies shot in Iceland. The country is famous for its fairy-tale landscape and therefore many filmmakers are lured to Iceland. A number of very popular movies and series have been shot here. Star Wars, Prometheus, two James Bond movies, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Batman Begins just to name a few and of course, Game of Thrones in recent years. Find out about all the famous movies which have been filmed here in the article famous movie locations in Iceland.