Iceland is a very trendy destination and because you don’t want to make the same mistakes as everyone else on your trip, we’ve compiled a short list of things you should know before heading that way. Here are 10 things you need to be aware of before visiting Iceland.
1. Skip the Blue Lagoon.
It’s expensive (over $60 USD per person), you need to book in advance, it’s crowded, and there are so many more brilliant local pools that cost a fraction to enjoy. Check out Sundhöllin in central Reykjavík, the city’s oldest pool, or Kópavogslaug in the nearby Kópavogur — they have what I like to call “bubble beds”, which are exactly what they sound like. If you’re heading out of the city and into the north of the country, be sure not to miss Grettislaug, a natural hot spring located between the mountains and the sea that only costs 1.000 ISK ($10) to enter.
2. Weather shifts dramatically and rapidly in Iceland.
Be sure to dress in layers and always expect rain! Also, when driving, remember that weather on mountain passes is significantly different than the weather at sea level. In the winter, even though there may not be ice on the road in Reykjavík, you can bet on it making an appearance once you leave (so be sure that your rental car has “spikes” on its tires!).
3. Don’t go crazy searching for the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights are most easily visible in Iceland in the winter, but most people think that they’re visible all the time. This simply isn’t the case. There are a lot of factors that play into whether or not the Northern Lights will show — weather, cloud cover, light pollution, etc. When traveling around Iceland, and especially when driving in Iceland, it’s important to remember to keep your eyes on the road and not up towards the sky. Trust me, if the Northern Lights are out, you won’t be able to miss them.
4. Harðfiskur is the best snack ever.
Harðfiskur is simply codfish that has been dried and lightly salted. It is absolutely delicious and packed full of protein. You can buy large or snack-sized bags at pretty much every grocery store (like Bonús) and gas stations (like N1). It’s a bit on the pricey side (just under $10 USD for a snack bag), but realize that it’s basically a whole fish in a bag, and can keep you full for hours! Though it’s delicious, Harðfiskur is a bit tricky to eat: you need to tear off strips of the fish which takes a surprising amount of gusto. Also, be sure to place a bag on your lap if you’re eating it in the car –Harðfiskur is super flaky! Hot tip: smear a bit of butter on a strip. You’ll see why.
5. Take the weather and road conditions seriously.
“Low-key hurricanes” are pretty normal here, especially in the winter, and they have a dramatic impact on road and driving conditions. If it’s windy enough, for example, you can be hit by what Icelanders refer to as “the white wall”: a thick bluster of blowing snow that reduces your visibility to zero and forces you to stop driving and wait. There have been countless accidents and even deaths because weather and road conditions were not taken seriously. Iceland has an excellent warning system in place for these things, however, and you can find out all you need to know on vedur.is and road.is.
6. Visit in the winter.
Glossy magazines and high-resolution images on the Internet often depict Iceland in the summertime; sweeping mountain vistas of mossy green, bikinied people plunging into steaming hot springs beneath a high sun. Though these images don’t lie (Iceland really is that gorgeous), let us not forget that Iceland in the wintertime is equally, if not more, spectacular. Wintertime is when Iceland is at its most honest, its most unassuming: totalizing whiteness against the dim periwinkle of a midday sky; storms that reveal the resilience of the Icelandic people; and communities that somehow come together despite the dark, the cold, and the often-haunting isolation to celebrate holidays like Þorrablót. Another reason to visit Iceland in the winter is to witness how Icelanders do New Year’s Eve; there is nothing like it. If you’re in Reykjavík, the entire city sky illuminates with thousands of fireworks that people set off from their own driveways!
7. Rent a car, and get the added insurance.
The rental companies will ask you if you’ll be driving off-road, if you’ll be driving with the windows down, if you’ll be driving on mountains. You will answer yes, yes, and yes. You will take the additional insurance that you are offered, which includes but is not limited to “windshield insurance” that protects you against the accidental high-speed pebble and the dent that will result from it. Iceland has a rugged, often-punishing environment, and many of its roads are unpaved, severely potholed, jagged, and spectacularly beautiful. That being said, it isn’t a place for a leisurely drive; it is a place for adventure, and worry has no place in adventure — so get the extra insurance. You’ll be glad you did.
8. Don’t take a taxi to and from the airport.
Unless you want to drop $100. Keflavík Airport is an extremely well-run facility and their shuttle service is proof. The FlyBus leaves from just outside the main terminal every half hour and makes stops at all of the major hotels in Reykjavík, including the BSÍ bus terminal in the city center. The ride will cost you 2.700 ISK (roughly $25 USD), which isn’t bad considering the drive from the airport to city center is around 45 minutes. The same applies to trips back to the airport once your stay in Iceland has come to an end; the FlyBus picks up travelers every half hour from the comfort of their hotels. Be sure to enjoy the complimentary WiFi onboard!
9. Gas stations don’t take credit cards.
If you remember to bring anything on your trip to Iceland, remember to bring a debit card. Gas pumps here don’t accept cards without a pin code. You won’t have to bring much cash though, as practically everywhere in Iceland accepts cards (even prefers them to cash).
10. Keep your gas tank and snack bag full… always.
A climate like Iceland’s is prone to dramatic shifts in weather, and bad winter storms often reduce visibility on the roads practically zero. The last thing you’ll want is to be stuck on a road somewhere, low on gas and food. A friend once told me to pack a meal before we headed out one blustery, winter day to a nearby town. “But why? It’s only a twenty-minute drive,” I said, a bit surprised. “You never know when we’ll be stuck,” she explained. Two hours later, we were sitting along the side of the road with our hazard lights blinking, and my stomach was beginning to cave with hunger — she’d been right.