In a stroke of genius tourist marketing, Icelandair released $300 round trip tickets direct to the volcanic island of Iceland last year. And as a poor twenty-something with a never ending supply of wanderlust-infused energy, I bit.
That's how I found myself atop an Icelandic horse last week, riding through lava fields in the stark daylight that is 11 pm during the summer months in Iceland. My best friend Holly and I ate native Icelandic delicacies, wandered between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, stood above awe-inspiring waterfalls and bathed in natural hot springs.
We also learned a lot about the country of Iceland itself, which is home to just 300,000 dry-humored blonds (and 80,000 horses). Here are some Icelandic need-to-knows, in addition to a few recommendations for things you can't miss if you plan to visit the volcanic island, too.
Iceland is green, and Greenland is icey.
You've probably heard this before, and it's vaguely true. We flew over Greenland on our way to Iceland and it was definitely not green.
However, Iceland isn't really green OR icey. The word "Iceland" actually just means "island," and the terrain is volcanic. The country has no trees (any trees you see have been imported) and most of the landscape is made up of either low shrubbery, farmland or lava fields. So if you're planning for a green, pleasantly- temperatured vacation spot, think again. At its warmest in June and July, Iceland's temperatures hover around 50 degrees F (60 degrees is a literal heatwave in Iceland - people were tanning in the 45 degree weather while we were there).
I'm reminding you of this because we didn't bring warm clothes, and I ended up wearing seven layers on our visit to Gulfoss, the biggest waterfall in the country. So plan accordingly: wool socks, even in the winter; mittens, hats and gloves. Don't plan to buy those things in country, either - you'll break your bank account in half before you've seen a single glacier.
There's daylight at night, or no light at all.
During the summer months, Iceland has 24 hours of daylight.
That can be tough for jetlag, so make sure that your apartment or hotel has blackout blinds, and bring an eye mask just in case. Also remember that this flips in the winter, and the country is plunged into almost constant darkness. This matters for planning excursions (and for being able to feel your fingers and toes), so think twice before heading to Iceland in the middle of January.
Your cheap flight is not indicative of the country's actual prices.
Because Iceland is both an island and a Scandinavian country, prices are high. We went to the grocery store to buy bacon for breakfast while we were there, and we were surprised to find that 12 slices of bacon would cost us almost $20 USD. Yikes. When you go out to eat, meals will probably cost you $20 USD or more, so it's also a good idea to try to get an apartment (airbnb is great) with a kitchen.
That said, certain things will be cheap because they're grown or produced locally - dairy isn't expensive, for example, because they have lots of cows and goats on the island (Icelandic yogurt rocks). You should also stop by local bakeries.
... which brings me to alcohol prices.
When we got off the plane, the Icelandic travelers headed straight for the duty free store. Holly and I picked up our bags, thinking that we'd just buy a bottle of wine in Reykjavik later that week. We were wrong. Liquor was illegal in Iceland until about 30 years ago, and that prohibitionary thinking still carries some weight. There's only one government-run liquor store in the city (and it has weird hours) and your draft beer will cost you around $10 USD at the local pub.
So do as the Icelandic do, and buy your alcohol before you leave the airport. If you do decide to grab a beer in town, remember that excessive drinking is really only acceptable, culturally, on the weekends. The locals don't go out until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, either (although they stay out until 5 am). Happy hours are great, and we recommend Bunk Bar or Kaldi Bar.
Iceland's best when you're enjoying the scenery.
The best parts of our trip involved getting out of Reykjavik, where we were staying in a quiet airbnb, and traveling into the beautiful landscapes of the countryside. If you have the time, I highly recommend renting a car and driving Ring Road, the road that circles the entire island - it'll take you about a week. You can stay in guest houses (or holiday homes, as they call them) and spend your time hiking, bathing in natural hot springs and drinking hot tea. We were only there for a long weekend, so we took advantage of several tours rather than driving around on our own.
The Golden Circle Tour, is a must-do. We took a tour with Iceland Horizons, which picked us up at our airbnb in a small tour bus and provided us with an excellent all-day guided tour of Gullfoss, a huge waterfall; Geysir, the 100-foot geyser after which every other geyser in the world was named; and Thingvellir, the national park that holds the site of the historic Viking Parliament, as well as the gap between two tectonic plates.
We also took a horse-back tour of the lava fields around Reykjavik, which was the highlight of my trip. A friend recommended Islenski Hesturinn, a company owned by a lovely Icelandic couple - and I'm recommending it to you now. Normal horses have three gaits, but Icelandic horses have five. We were able to experience the tolt, the smooth gait that falls between a trot and a canter, and it was something I will never forget. Begga is a fantastic guide and the Icelandic landscape at night is truly something to behold.
And you should also eat the food, even if it's expensive.
Splurge on at least one good meal in Reykjavik - you can't miss the seafood. On our first night, after exploring Reykjavik, we ended up at Tapas Barinn, an Icelandic tapas restaurant that allows you to try six courses, plus dessert, for a fairly decent price. We ate puffin and whale as part of our tasting platter (I wouldn't eat them again), but were also given some of the most amazing cuts of fish I've ever tasted. Although we didn't get a chance to eat sushi while we were there, that's also something I'd recommend.
Ironically, my other favorite Icelandic meal was a hot dog from SS Pulsa, a small but famous hot dog stand near the fleamarket in old Reykjavik. Don't even get me started on those hot dogs, loaded with fried and fresh onions, and topped with an amazing mustard sauce. I could probably eat one of those every day for the rest of my life.
Take a moment to sit in Reykjavik's coffee shops, too.
Holly and I spent a lot of time wandering through the city's many coffee shops, munching on waffles and consuming cappucinos and caffe lattes. Our favorite spot was Mokka Kaffi. If I ever need some quiet to write a book, this is where I'll live.
Avoid the tourist traps, when you can.
Ah, the Blue Lagoon. I will say this: I would have been disappointed if we hadn't gone to the Lagoon, because those iconic "here I am in a natural hot spring" pictures were what brought me to Iceland in the first place. But in all honestly, the Blue Lagoon, while relaxing, is definitely an overpriced tourist trap. It's great that it's pretty much the only tourist trap we ran into (more on that later), but it's not a local experience. If you do go, you should visit on the way to or from the airport - it's on the way there, but it's about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. You only need two hours at the pools, and you could probably find another quieter pool in the outskirts of Reykavik that's quieter (and far less expensive).
And take the FlyBus.
Before we arrived, we worried about getting to our airbnb from the airport. But the FlyBus is the easiest, most fool proof airport transport option I've seen anywhere. The main airport is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik, but you can buy your FlyBus ticket when you land. The buses leave as they fill up, and will take you directly to the city's main bus terminal (where you can transfer for an extra $10 or so, if you choose, and be driven directly to your hotel). On the way back to the airport, we choose an option that dropped us off at the Blue Lagoon for a few hours, and allowed us to store our bags.
In fact, I wouldn't worry about safety or transportation in Iceland at all. The crimes rates are nil (there's nothing like blinding daylight to make you feel safe in the middle of the night) and the Icelandic people we met were startlingly kind (did I mention that their English is also perfect?).
The bottom line...
Iceland isn't a full-fledged tourist destination - not yet, at least - which is why I loved it. After several years of traveling through Asia and Europe, I savor moments where I feel invisibly surrounded by another culture, and this was certainly the sense I got in Iceland many times over.
I would, however, caution you to set your expectations to low before you go. We met many people who complained about having nothing to do in Reykjavik, and they're right that it's not a bustling city. It's just the opposite in fact: sleepy, padded with mittens and hats, populated by students and fisherman and restaurant owners. It's a place to escape the hustle and bustle of your own city, with some added Scandinavian charm; but if you're looking for wild parties and long lists of activities, this is not the vacation spot for you.
If you do choose to go, I'll say it again: savor the landscapes, and the coffee, and the intricacies of a culture that's built on darkness, quiet community and farming. Buy your own groceries, settle into a coffee shop for the afternoon, read a book and eat seafood. Don't expect much, and you'll be pleasantly surprised.