Your Trip to Iceland: The Complete Guide

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Believe the hype: Iceland is a magical place full of waterfalls, uninhabited terrain, hot springs, kind locals, and elvish folklore around every corner. There's something for everyone in Iceland, and thanks to the ease of the Icelandair stopover, it's never been easier to visit.

Possibly the best part of traveling to Iceland is that you can tailor your trip to any amount of time you're available. It isn't one of those places where you must dedicate a full two weeks to exploring (though, that is recommended). If you've only got a long weekend, stick to Reykjavik and plan one day trip. Looking to get lost for a month? Plan a hiking journey through the Central Highlands, or make your way around Iceland's Ring Road.

Planning Your Trip

There are a few things you're going to want to know before you actually get there. In fact, the first thing to think about even before you buy your plane ticket is the weather. We'll dig into that more below, but everything you've heard about Icelandic winters is true: It's cold, it's snowy, and it's entirely unpredictable. Make sure you're fully prepared to relax and enjoy your trip using the information below.

Best Time to Visit: This will depend on your personal preferences. It will never get hot in Iceland; temperatures during the summer max out around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and snow is not likely, making summer a good weather season to visit. Plus, the summer midnight sun allows you to extend your daily itineraries. However, the winter offers the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights if you've got that on your bucket list. And you'll find more affordable lodging and airfare in the winter, especially around February and March.

Language: Icelandic and English. Every student in Iceland learns English at a young age, so you won't run into any language barrier, given that you speak English. That being said, local shop owners will greet you in Icelandic first, most of the time. Icelandic is a beautiful language, so make sure to listen up when you're around locals so you can hear it for yourself. And don't be afraid to ask how to pronounce something in Icelandic; people are very friendly and enthusiastic to share the knowledge.

Currency: Icelandic króna. Most places, especially in larger cities, accept credit card payment.

Getting Around: Renting a car is your best bet, but Reykjavik does have a public bus system called Strætó. If you feel like getting some fresh air, Reykjavik and Akureyri are very bike-able cities.

Travel Tip: Bring layers. It doesn't matter what kind of weather you think you'll be experiencing—chances are it will rain, sleet, snow, and be sunny all in the span of one afternoon. Do yourself a favor and bring a few extra layers to make sure you're prepared for it all.

Things to Do

Given Iceland's impressive landscape, there's so much to do in the larger cities of Reykjavik and Akureyri and beyond. Get out the city for at least one day to take in some of the most uninhabited areas, but a weekend in Reykjavik is never a bad idea. A good trip, if you're got two days to kill, is to head along the south through Vik and on to the Glacier Lagoon. Along the way, you'll see Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, an ancient cave, beachesReynisfjara and Diamond Beach—and the indescribable Glacier Lagoon.

  • Visit Þingvellir National Park: This is a highly trafficked area, but if you're short on time and want to see waterfalls, a geyser, and fields of lava, this is your best bet. Located a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik (you can see this as part of the Golden Circle drive), it's the perfect day trip from the city. There are also tons of tour buses that regularly make trips this direction.
  • Soak in a hot spring: Blue Lagoon is obviously the most Instagrammed hot spring in Iceland, but there are so many others out there. Secret Lagoon, which you'll find near Reykholt (about 90 minutes from Reykjavik) is a less crowded option. It's thought to be one of the oldest hot springs in the country and you can still get pretty close to the original changing house that's on-site. There are also tiny little geysers all around the pool. Here's a list of hot springs to visit.
  • Take a hike: Exploring Iceland by foot is one of the best ways to see it. There are hikes all around the country. If you're looking for some lesser-walked paths, find a guide and head to the Central Highlands (which are only accessible during the summer months). If you're looking to get outside for an afternoon, head to Glymur, the country's second tallest waterfall. The hike to it will take you through a cave, across a river, and through some incredible canyons. You can read about more hikes here.

There is so much to do in Iceland, it's impossible to share it all here — check out the top 10 things to do across the entire country here.

What to Eat and Drink

The seafood in Iceland can't be beat, but there are a few interesting traditional dishes you can challenge your tastebuds with. If you think about Iceland's remote location, it's easy to imagine how creative locals had to be to survive, especially through such harsh winters. Fermented shark is a very traditional Icelandic dish. Although you won't find many people eating it now, there are a handful of places that offer it mostly for adventurous tourists. Puffin and whale are two other traditional meats you can try. Head to Tapas Barinn in Reykjavik, which has an Icelandic feast where you can try a little bit of everything. All traditional ingredients aside, don't leave without trying Plokkfiskur, a fish pie of sorts made of fish, potatoes, onions, and béchamel sauce. It's very common and very delicious.

Skyr — Icelandic yogurt — is a very popular ingredient for breakfast, snacks, and dessert. You'll find it incorporated into all kinds of dishes at local restaurants. It's also delicious on its own with a few berries for breakfast. This is the thing you'll be searching your hometown grocery store for once you get home.

Note that cocktails, beer, and wine are quite expensive in Iceland (again, remote location means higher import costs). That being said, treat yourself to a cocktail (or three). ROK, a restaurant near the iconic Hallgrimskirkja, has an incredible staff of bartenders who do magic with Brennivín, or Icelandic schnapps.

If craft beer is your thing, check out one of these places to try some local brews.

Where to Stay

There are plenty of hotels and hostels in the larger cities (Reykjavik and Akureyri). You'll find a fair share of hostels in the smaller villages, as well, but don't expect luxury digs. There are a couple of boutique hotels around the country: Ion Hotel, Hotel Ranga, Silica Hotel (at the Blue Lagoon), and Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. If you're looking for a more laidback experience, Airbnb is a fantastic option and will yield the most results (and range the most budgets) for your Iceland visit.

If you're looking for something truly one-of-a-kind, check out the Five Million Star Hotel. The property is actually a set of transparent bubble rooms owned by a local farmer in Southern Iceland near Fludir.

If you're looking for more options for your stay in Reykjavik, check out our picks here.

Getting There

Flying to Iceland is quite easy. Icelandair has integrated free stopovers in the country into many of their European routes, making staying a few nights on your way to your final destination a convenient option. There are direct overnight flights from New York City, as well as regular routes from the West Coast of the United States.

Culture and Customs

The locals are incredibly kind and helpful, should you need advice on where to eat or how to get somewhere. Icelanders are also very dedicated to their history; it's worth reading up on before you go. Plus, so many of the important landmarks stem from ancient Icelandic history, from Þingvellir National Park to the lifting stones (a staple of Scandinavian strongman culture).

If there's one thing you research, it should be the word "hygge." This term describes act of feeling cozy, and it's the very best word to describe Iceland and its people. You'll find lots of candlelit rooms, jovial conversation, and families enjoying dinner together at home. It's also a very eco-friendly culture, given their close proximity to some of the world's most beautiful natural landscapes. Make sure to respect the uninhabited areas just as you would the busy city streets.

One thing to take very seriously is the elf culture. A lot of homes have tiny little houses in their gardens or backyards specifically for the elves. If you want to know more about the history of elves with a side of horseback riding, check out Eldhestar's half-day Elfin tour.

Money Saving Tips

Iceland can be a tricky place to plan a budget-friendly vacation. The food and drinks are expensive, and hotels can also be pricey, but there are some ways to avoid a massive credit card statement.

  • Check out farm stays over hotel visits. This is going to help you a lot if you plan on visiting the more rural parts of the country where hotel room rates can be astronomical.
  • Go grocery shopping. Bónus is the local grocery store chain and it's a delightful experience. Not to mention the logo is a drunken pig with a black eye — it doesn't get more quirky than that. This will help you save a lot on dining out, and it's what most locals do most nights.
  • Save money on bus tours, and rent a car. If you're traveling with a family, it will be a lot cheaper for you to rent a car and visit the sights instead of paying a tour fee for each person.
  • Take advantage of happy hour. Most bars in Reykjavik have them — go out early and be rewarded.
  • Stay in hostels. As you can imagine, hostels in Iceland are beautifully designed, and they offer private rooms with private bathrooms, in most cases. These private rooms are generally less expensive than hotel rooms, as well. Check out Kex and Oddsson in Reykjavik for some inspiration.
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