A country as steeped in quirks as it is in sights and sensations, Iceland is proving ever more popular with tourists looking for something out of the ordinary. From the cosmopolitan streets of Reykjavik to the rugged hinterlands of this northern delight, Iceland surprises and amazes at every turn. What should you be keeping in mind when you go? Have a look at our 50 top tips and facts below.
People in Iceland are friendly and casual
Expect to be on first name terms with new Icelandic friends in minutes. Even the big city living of Reykjavik doesn’t dampen the conviviality here, and remember, they use the Nordic family name system, where a parent’s given name has ‘-son’ or ‘-dottir’ on the end. No conventional surnames means not much time is spent using them, and even the phone book lists people by their first names.
Most of the population lives in the southwest
It’s where the cosmopolitan capital of Reykjavik is, as well as where the northern climate feels mildest. There’s still plenty to see out in the wild terrain of Iceland’s countryside – just don’t expect to chance on any coffee shops out there.
Icelandic people are very creative
You only need to watch a Bjork music video to see how out there they can really get, but even the more grounded creative souls in Iceland are prolific in their works. Literature is a prime example, with more books published per author in Iceland than anywhere else in the world.
Expect to see prams parked unattended outside cafes
Because Iceland is so relaxed and secure, parents often leave their little ones in the fresh air outside cafes, away from the noise indoors. Tucked up and warm, the infants can enjoy a nice nap in the afternoon while the folks keep an eye on them through the window, and nobody here bats an eyelid.
Everyone knows English
One reason Iceland is growing in popularity is that the language barrier is non-existent. Even out of the big cities, English is widely spoken and perfectly understood, which is good if you’re a little rusty on your Nordic linguistics.
Environment & weather
Icelanders are the kings of geothermal energy
The electricity and heating in Iceland is renowned throughout the world for being environmentally friendly. Why? Because Iceland’s volcanic nature makes geothermal energy, which is powered by the natural heat beneath the earth, the primary source of power. It’s cheap, clean and abundant – no wonder everyone’s so cheerful.
The famous Blue Lagoon’s water actually comes from a power plant
When you think of reclining in hot, mineral-rich water in a magnificent natural geothermal pool, you don’t expect a hulking power plant to be the source of the soothing fluids. Yet in Iceland, that’s the case, but the water is all the more rejuvenating for it. A visit to the Blue Lagoon is an absolute must.
A summer trip means staying up very late for sunset
Iceland is just a smidgen south of the Arctic Circle, which gives it very contrasted daylight hours. If you’re visiting during the Summer Solstice, you won’t see sunset until midnight, and even then, the sun will rise again as soon as 3AM. During the winter, expect long nights with the sun peeping in briefly for politeness’ sake.
Buy all the knitwear
Crafted by locals and sourced from the fluffy goodness of Icelandic sheep, knitwear in Iceland is what shirts are to Hawaii. Accordingly, you can expect lots of compelling designs, as well as a few funny favourites. Puffin faced hats anyone?
A church in Reykjavik looks a bit like a spaceship
There’s no denying the architectural marvel that is Hallgrimskirkja. It looks like it could lift off into orbit at any moment.
Iceland’s capital is a shopper’s paradise
There’s plenty of retail therapy to be found in Reykjavik, but for the true shopaholics, it’s the district of Laugavegur, with its blend of souvenirs, fashion boutiques and stylish cafes, that gets our wallets open every time.
Put together a budget
Iceland’s a fantastic place, but the prices here can raise some eyebrows for the unprepared. Don’t be afraid to shop around for the best deals, and set out a smart budget plan before you go.
Get a Reykjavik City Card
Investing in one of these gives you plenty of passes to museums, bus journeys, swimming pools and discounts all over the capital. It’s considered a must for anyone spending more than a few days in Reykjavik, and the savings speak for themselves.
Marvel at the landscapes
Lava fields, rugged rocks and sweeping vistas define the vast expanses of the Icelandic hinterlands. Explore.
Iceland is volcanically active
You might remember the big cloud of ash that disrupted flights across Europe a few years ago. Iceland is a geologically young nation, which means the entire island only emerged from the ocean recently compared to the rest of the world. Although it’s doesn’t stop holidaymakers from visiting, the occasional volcanic eruption reminds us that the landmass is still settling into life on Earth.
Visit the waterfalls
Some of the most amazing waterfalls on Earth can be found in Iceland, including Gljufrafoss, which is secreted between two cliffs in a mystical cave, and Svartifoss, where volcanic rock formations give otherworldly geometric shapes to your surroundings.
Climb Mount Esja
The peaks closest to Reykjavik are renowned for changing colour in the sunlight, due to their unique mineralogical makeup. Hiking to the top is a challenge but gives a view that shouldn’t be missed.
Ride a dogsled over the snow
Yapping huskies roaring across the ice makes for a fantastic way to spend an afternoon out in Iceland’s frozen countryside. Bundle up and let the pooches pull you to glory on one of these exciting adventures.
Iceland are actively replanting their trees
Iceland’s medieval civilisation pretty much wiped out the once abundant forests of the country. Oops. But not to worry, because replanting efforts continue to this day, and woodland regions like Hallormstadaskogur are helping fix things.
The word ‘geyser’ is Icelandic
Or at least originates here. The impressive natural eruptions that geysers produce are plentiful in Iceland, and you can expect a lot of tours offering to let you witness them for yourself.
Do yourself a favour and hire a car
Car hire is by far the best way to truly explore Iceland’s natural wonders and amazing landscapes. There are a couple of fantastic Apps out there that can help you plan your route. One even allows you to ‘check in’ when exploring, the App sends out a signal if you get lost so people know where exactly to rescue you from! Check out Iceland 112 for more info.
Pack a decent camera
The Northern Lights, the erupting geysers, the sweeping landscapes, the endless waterfalls, the stunning architecture, the fuzzy wildlife and the sublime sunsets. How many more reasons does Iceland need to give to make it a photographer’s dream destination?
It’s time to meet the puffins
Although it’s true they’re considered a delicacy in Iceland, the locals still have a lot of love for the cute little birds. They have an island all to themselves too, so head out on a tour to meet the cluster of puffin families waddling around the rocks.
You can leave your mosquito net at home
If you’re visiting to enjoy one of Iceland’s surprisingly warm summers, you don’t need to worry about repellent or nets when you’re camping. Mosquitoes simply don’t exist in Iceland, which is probably another reason why everyone’s so happy to get out into the great outdoors.
Arctic foxes call Iceland their home
Before Iceland was colonised by Scandinavian and Nordic settlers in antiquity, the only mammal native to the country was the Arctic Fox. The silver-furred friends remain a big part of local wildlife and culture today, so you might get the chance to spot one during your trip.
History and culture
Iceland loves its Nordic history
Although it’s on the other side of the sea compared to the rest of Scandinavia, Icelandic history is nevertheless rich in Nordic lore from eras past. Expect Vikings, valkyries and plucky warrior spirit to crop up in conversation more than once.
Icelandic Vikings actually found America first
So the legend says, it was Icelandic folk hero Leif the Lucky who first sailed west from Iceland to the shores of Newfoundland, five centuries before Columbus was even born. He didn’t stay there, but the fact that Viking artefacts have been uncovered in the US correlates the myth intriguingly.
Folklore is a big deal here
We can trace our modern interpretations of dwarves, elves and trolls to Nordic lore, and in Iceland, their love of the ‘Hidden Folk’ is a big part of local culture. In fact, over 50% of Icelandic people not only believe in elves who live out in the countryside, but also advise people not to build roads or otherwise disturb where the elves live. It’s thought to bring bad luck.
In Iceland, there are 13 Christmas trolls
The dispensing of festive gifts in Iceland is not the remit of Old Saint Nick. Instead, Icelandic folklore states that good children receive their gifts in the window of their homes from a collection of 13 cheeky Christmas trolls, who presumably are more efficient as a team than one plump old man in a sleigh.
Iceland is massive on equality
Whatever your background, Iceland will welcome you. They’ve learned their lesson with impressive speed on this – when Icelandic women demanded equal pay several years back, they threatened to strike en masse. With no reaction, the strike went ahead, and the country ground to a standstill overnight. Fairer pay was immediately implemented – the Icelandic government doesn’t need telling twice.
There’s no standing army here
Yet it’s a country filled with friendly folks who’ve nonetheless got Gaelic, Nordic and Germanic roots. Iceland also has one of the best coastguard services in the world – so we’re not taking a lack of military presence as an invitation to cause a ruckus.
Police are super laid-back
Is it because they’re lazy? Not at all. Icelandic people actually have among the longest average working week hours in the world. It’s just that Iceland has such a low crime rate that officers needn’t be too stringent. In fact, none of them carry firearms.
One of the Icelandic political parties consists of pirates
Yes, really. What’s more, they’re popular enough to actually have a few seats in Iceland’s parliament.
There’s no nobility or upper class
Touching again on how important equality and community spirit is to the Icelandic people, you won’t find any barons, lords or other hoity-toity types here. In fact, ranks of nobility and station are outright banned by the country’s constitution. Even the President is addressed on first name terms.
Fishing is a big part of life here
Before Iceland turned its gaze to tourism, fishing was the principle economic activity, as well as responsible for the majority of the country’s exports. Seafood fans will have a lot to love during their stay.
The menu can get pretty eclectic
In Iceland, it’s perfectly common practice to order a big boiled sheep’s head for dinner, and puffins’ hearts are considered a delicacy. If that’s a little beyond your palate though, don’t worry, because hearty stews and rich flavours of the more traditional variety are abundant. Make sure you try some creamy skyr, which is like cheese but with a yoghurt-ish texture.
Icelandic hot dogs are legendary
To the point that celebrities visiting here will make a beeline for the hot dog stands of Reykjavik. What makes the hot dogs here so sensational? Well, they’re made from lamb, giving a distinctive flavour, as well as slathered in both raw and crunchy onions and three kinds of sauces – ketchup, tangy mayo and a special mustard that’s for these brilliant bangers only.
Whatever the weather, expect to find a barbecue
It doesn’t matter what the weatherman says. Icelandic people love barbecues, and they plan to make the most of the flavours that can only come from grilling some sausages in the great outdoors. Not even the height of winter stops this tradition.
Don’t tip your waiter
Don’t worry, that’s not because the waiter will give you bad service. That’s very unlikely indeed in friendly Iceland. It’s just that tipping simply isn’t done, so foisting a few krona at your serving staff after a meal is likely to confuse rather than compliment.
Eat traditional – there are no big chains
Community values are the heart of Iceland, so get involved at mealtime. What’s more, you’re not going to find the likes of Starbucks or McDonalds anywhere, since they simply haven’t set up shop here.
The national tipple has quite the kick
A kind of vodka made from potatoes but given much richer flavours, ‘brennivin’ is the country’s national drink. When you’re ordering though, make sure to enjoy it in moderation, because it’s got enough impact to be locally nicknamed the ‘black death’.
Respect Icelandic views on alcohol
You can have wine with your meals, and the nightlife is well known as legendary. However, supermarkets in Iceland don’t stock alcohol, and private consumption is seen as a weekend treat. Drink during the weekdays, even after dark, and people will think you’ve got a drinking problem, even if it’s just one glass.
Film, entertainment and popular culture
Film-makers love it here
You’ve probably seen Iceland on the silver screen more times than you realise. Bruce Wayne’s Tibetan training in Batman Begins was actually shot on an Icelandic glacier, while Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, countless 007 movies and even Lara Croft: Tomb Raider have scenes that soak up the sublime scenery that only Iceland can provide. The sweeping terrain has also made it a great backdrop for interplanetary adventures like Star Trek: Into Darkness and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Iceland is where The Watch goes north of The Wall
Fans of the second season of Game of Thrones probably already know that Iceland is where the frosty capers of the series’ heroes and villains was filmed, but visitors still flock to the country every year to experience the rugged terrain for themselves.
You can visit a Viking village film set
The only trouble there is, the film never went ahead. The Viking village remains though, located on farmland close to Hofn, and can be toured for a small fee if you’re in the mood to let in some history.
This year, Reykjavik started Pokemon GO tours
The big app of the summer continues to enjoy a massive following, and Iceland’s capital has made it into a day trip, replete with that all-important stock of portable phone battery chargers, that’s helping fans catch those classic creatures while seeing the sights.
Reykjavik houses a sci-fi gaming monolith
EVE Online, a virtual multiplayer universe where players own corporations and spaceships, celebrated its 10th anniversary by putting a stunning statue on display in Reykjavik. Three towers form this monolith, covered in the names of players recognised for their support by the games developer, and the computer embedded beneath the structure is a time capsule full of memories that will be opened in the year 2039.
Iceland makes reggae music
If Jamaica has a bobsled team, why can’t Iceland make some reggae? Artists like Hjálmar, AmabAdamA and Ojba Rasta bring the tropical sounds loudly and proudly.
Iceland is the home of LazyTown
The colourful and cheeky antics of this kids’ programme makes for pretty distinctive television, and once you know it was conceived and filmed in Iceland, it seems obvious in hindsight why it’s so witty and outlandish.
Iceland’s nickname is pretty epic
More specifically, it’s nicknamed ‘The Land of Fire and Ice’. Given the books by George R R Martin that inspired Game of Thrones are called ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, no wonder they filmed some of the TV show here.
Iceland has tons to offer travellers of every kind, and its growing popularity makes it a destination you’ll want to come to time and again. What’s your favourite part of Iceland?