The dramatic Nordic landscape is filled with volcanoes, lava springs, geysers, hot springs, and glaciers, which makes this sparsely populated country a must see for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. The breathtaking views were once home to Vikings, and it is often called the home of fire and ice.
The striking contrasts are what makes Iceland unique. The country is a Nordic island and located in the North Atlantic Ocean. With a population of just under 340,000 people, Iceland is also Europe’s most sparsely populated country. But even with its scant population, Icelanders are happy to open up their world and show visitors the beauty of their country.
What To Do in Iceland
Velkominn – Welcome to Iceland
Reykjavík is Iceland’s capital and largest city. The capital is located on the southwest coast of the country and is home to two thirds of the country’s entire population. Reykjavík is thought to also be Iceland’s first permanent settlement and dated to 874 AD. Today, the capital is the center for the country’s government, cultural, and economic activity which makes it popular as a tourist destination.
Culture and Language
Icelandic culture has roots with Scandinavian culture, which comes from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. While not considered Scandinavian due to its location, you can still see similarities between the Scandinavian culture and Icelandic culture. Mostly, the cultures are known for their grand history of storytelling with many tales centering on sagas and epics. But other art forms like wood carving, silversmithing, and weaving are important to the culture too.
Vikings also play a huge cultural part of Icelandic history and current identity. The Norsemen who came to Iceland originally, founded Althing which is the world’s first parliament. Leif Eiríksson is the most famous Icelandic Viking who was the first European to reach Vinland, or North America, after he set sail further west in the year 1000.
Icelandic is the country’s official language and often said to be one of the hardest to learn in the world. The language is similar to Old Norse and it has had little outside influence. Icelandic is extremely common throughout the country and you will find businesses, news, and the government speak in the language.
However, many Icelanders speak Icelandic alongside another language with English being the most popular. While the majority spoken is British English, American English has influenced the country through entertainment like movies and TV programs.
Iceland is not a very diverse country and 93% of its population are Icelanders. But the largest immigrant group is from Poland holding about 3% of the population, so you might hear Polish spoken too.
For US citizens looking to explore Iceland’s unique landscape, no tourist visa is required before you arrive in the country. For US visitors staying under 90 days and strictly for tourism related activities, you will only need to get an EITA authorization because Iceland is part of the Schengen Area.
Countries that are part of the Schengen Area require that you get pre-authorization to travel to the country, which can be applied for online. The application is quick, easy, and costs 7 Euros or about $8 US dollars. The EITA is valid for 3 years, so if you have previously visited another Schengen Area country in that timeframe, you do not need to re-apply for the EITA.
However, to be allowed into the country there are a few requirements that must be met. First, your passport needs to be valid and stay valid for 3 months past your date of departure from Iceland, but a full 6-month validity is recommended. Customs in Iceland may also ask for proof of your funds for the duration of your trip and ask to see a return airline ticket, which proves that you will leave Iceland in under 90 days.
You may be eager to experience the astounding contrasts of the Icelandic landscape, but first, it is important that you consider your spending budget when you begin to plan your trip. Budget is a big deal when visiting Iceland because the country is extremely expensive. Iceland is so expensive in fact, that average prices for goods are 66% higher than the rest of Europe and it is considered to be one of the least budget friendly destinations. While it is difficult on a budget, it isn’t impossible.
Surprisingly, flights to Iceland won’t break the bank. Flights can be found for cheap with the lowest prices coming in at just over $300 US dollars roundtrip and leaving from the United States. January to May are the tourist off season, which could mean that flights to Iceland can be found for even cheaper. As with any flight, how early you book can also affect the overall price. It is better to book your trip in advance to save money.
Accommodation is also expensive and only costs more with a larger group. Iceland uses a European style bed, which means that for a bigger bed, often they just push two twin mattresses together. If you are traveling as a family of four, you would actually have to book two hotel rooms to accommodate your family. In Reykjavík, the average cost of a hotel room is $300 US dollars per night, which when you need two rooms would bring you to $600 US dollars per night.
Some hotels do offer family rooms, but they usually start at a base price of $750 US dollars, which is even more expensive than the cost of two separate rooms. However, one great way to lower your budget is to stay in an Airbnb. There are many Airbnbs located just outside of the city which cost about $250 US dollars per night and will sleep a family of four.
If you are trying to stay on a limited budget, hostels are another option, which will also be the cheapest. The average price of a hostel is about $40 US dollars per night. For the most budget friendly accommodations, camping will cost the least amount of money. Many campsites charge $10 US dollars per night, per person.
While accommodation is pricey, don’t expect a break in your budget with food, drink, and entertainment costs. Icelandic cuisine has a long history and is deeply tied to the surrounding ocean. Fish, lamb, and dairy are part of the dishes which are made into popular dishes like kjötsupa (lamb meat soup), svid (sheep’s head), hákarl (fermented shark), and pylsur (hot dog).
But while there’s a lot of tasty dishes to try, the prices are not as attractive. A standard hot dog costs about $10 US dollars and meals out at a restaurant can easily cost $30 US dollars or more, per dish. Grocery stores and cooking your own food are the best way to keep the cost of food lower.
Alongside food, drinks are also quite expensive. At normal business hours, a beer costs about $10 US dollars and $6 US dollars during happy hour. A glass of wine will cost about $12 US dollars. For the entire bottle of wine, expect to pay $30 US dollar or more when out at a restaurant and about $20 US dollars in the grocery store. A big way to save money if you do want to drink, would be to buy duty free alcohol at the airport and bring it with you on your trip.
Overall, you should expect to spend about $60 US dollars per day for the duration of your trip in Iceland, if you are on a tight budget. A more moderate daily budget would be $95 US dollars per day and per person. However, budgets can always go higher, and some people spend closer to $250 US dollars per day of their trip.
It is also important to remember that the cost of activities can drastically increase your budgets. Tours can expensive, but a great way to explore the country. Most tours are relatively affordable but can cost anywhere from $70-$300 US dollars. If you are looking for flight tours, expect to pay hundreds of dollars per person.
How to Get Around
Due to the remoteness of the country, getting around isn’t as easy as many travelers would hope. There are actually 38 airports in Iceland with the Reykjavík airport being the country’s main airport. Domestic flights are available and in winter, may be the only option to safely reach your destination. Most domestic flights will cost about $130 US dollars for a one-way trip.
However, if you have not already booked yourself an all-inclusive bus tour and need a different way to get around, it is highly suggested that you rent a car. Renting a car will give you more freedom and get you away from the tourist crowds who stick to their tour groups. Iceland is a rugged destination and many people choose to have a 4-wheel drive car to tackle the country roads. Most cars will cost about $45 US dollars per day.
If you are staying in a specific city, such as traveling around from the airport to your hotel, a bus would be the best and most budget friendly way to travel. There are many buses, like the Flybus, which can take you from the airport to your destination for about $14 US dollars. Taxis are quite expensive in Iceland and most people would prefer to use public transportation to save money. Walking is also recommended in tourist areas because it is free and lets you explore more of your location.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While most people think of the capital when they imagine Iceland, there are plenty of other cities to explore too. Here, we will give a brief overview of the most popular cities to visit in Iceland.
As the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík is the first destination where international travelers end up because of the Keflavík International Airport. Many tourists will explore Reykjavík before heading out to other towns in the country. The capital is exceptionally lively and has a reputation for having great entertainment, music, and an energetic night scene. But the landscape is also a big draw for visitors because of the impressive oceanside location. Laurgardalur Valley is especially popular with tourists because it has Laugardalslaug, which is the largest pool in the city.
Akureyri is known for its beauty, history, and botanical gardens. The city has an ice-free harbor and a stunning mountainous landscape. The terrain is favored for agriculture, which makes it Botanic Gardens famous for growing all the plants found in Iceland. But the city is also known for throwing concerts, festivals, and special exhibitions.
Húsavík is a whale watchers paradise. This town has grown in popularity because of its gorgeous bay where multiple species of whales can be found. The Húsavík Whale Museum is also a popular attraction. Besides the wildlife, the town is a great transit destination. There are many hiking trails that are a short distance from Húsavík, which are even passable during the winter season.
Iceland is also known for having quaint but colorful houses and Seyðisfjöður is one of the biggest tourist destinations because of its idyllic architecture and stunning landscape. The town is very creative, artistic, and welcoming to visitors. With dramatic fjords, the town is also close by to amazing hikes, which lead to cascading waterfalls.
For those interested in the Vikings, Hafnarfjörður have their annual Viking Festival during the summer solstice. Visitors can experience the history and culture of Vikings, while staying in a picturesque town. The Bright Days Festival is also a popular attraction that takes place in May and June. The city is also home to a geothermal area and hot springs, which are close by and open for hikes. Though these natural hot springs are not for your relaxation and are too hot to even touch, so don’t go jumping in the water.
Ísafjörður is the largest city in the Westfjords and is home to some of Iceland’s biggest music cultural events. The Ísafjörður Rock Festival and a classic music festival are held annually. The Fossavatn Ski Marathon is also held and is a ski race. Aside from the annual festivals, the city also has a variety of museums, hiking trails, and tours that you can take. With a single airport runway, the city has easier access than other destinations.
Points of Interest
While the cities are big attractions, there are also many different points of interest throughout Iceland that are extremely popular with the tourists. You may find that there is a specific adventure calling your name based on these points of interest.
The Blue Lagoon is just 40 minutes from the capital and are Iceland’s most iconic hot springs. The lagoon is located in Grindavík at the base of a nearby power station. The temperature of the water ranges from 98.6 to 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit and is pale blue in color. Many tourists are eager to visit this location for a relaxing soak and spa day in the lagoon.
Strokkur Geyser is the most popular geyser in Iceland and is located just 50 minutes from Reykjavík. This is a fountain geyser which will erupt every few minutes and shoot water 100 feet in the air. In the area are also hot springs and boiling mud pits, which have hiking trails located a safe distance away. The Geysir Center is famous for selling “hot spring” bread, which is rye bread that was baked underground for 24 hours.
The Northern Lights
Not exactly a point of interest but a natural phenomenon, visitors to Iceland have a chance to see the Northern Lights in action. Also called Aurora Borealis, the lights are caused by solar wind and how particles collide with our atmosphere and Earth’s magnetic field. While the Northern Lights can be seen throughout the country, you can ask your hotel for nightly predictions. Some hotels even have a call list, where you can be woken up and alerted by the front desk if the Northern Lights have begun to appear.
Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve
Located 50 miles outside of Reykjavík, the Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Iceland because of the remote beauty, raw nature, and breathtaking views. The park’s main feature is the rhyolite mountains, which present a variety of shades and hues. The Helka volcano is also located here, alongside extensive lava fields.
Vatnajökull National Park
The Vatnajökull National Park stands out because it is filled with glaciers and ice caves. The Skaftafell Ice Cave is open year-round to tourists and offers a unique view inside the mountain. Winter is the favored season for visiting because rain washes the top layer of the glacier away, so you can see the ice more clearly. There are guided tours available, which would offer you the best trekking experience to see the caves and glacial cracks.
Perhaps the most photographed mountain in Iceland because of its unique construction, the Kirkjufell Mountain is a symmetric shape and free-standing. The mountain is located near the town of Grundarfjörður which on the north coast of Iceland. The mountain can be climbed, but it is not recommended during wet conditions because it is dangerous and slippery. However, at the base of the mountain and in the area, you might have the chance to catch a view of the Northern Lights.
A 30-minute drive from Reykjavík, Mount Esja is popular amongst tourists because it is relatively easy to summit, even for beginner hikers. Once you are at the top, your reward is a stunning view of Reykjavík, the surrounding area, and the ocean. There are several different hikes to the summit, and each varies in length and difficulty.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is one of the best natural wonders that you can visit in Iceland because they offer tours that that take you out on to the water and between huge chunks of ice that have broken free from the glacier. As you glide along, you may even catch a glimpse inside a glacial cave or see flocks of birds flying overhead. Tourists can take a day tour from Reykjavík to experience the natural beauty of the lagoon.
Myvatn was formed by hot lava thousands of years ago and is the top destination in Iceland for bird watchers. The lake in the area is home to over 100 bird species. Alongside the birds, there are impressive pseudo-craters, which have erupted through the water. Now, they appear as small islands and provide great views of rock formations like cave and pillars.
Golden Circle Route
For a taste of it all – nature, history, and architecture, the Golden Circle Route is a popular day activity for tourists. The Golden Circle Route offers small excursions that take you to featured stops like Gulfoss, Hvita river canon, hot springs, and the þingvellir which is where Iceland was founded. There are many tour companies that provide complete packages, which is the easiest way to complete the Golden Circle Route.
Ring Road is infamous in Iceland for being the main road that runs throughout the island in the shape of a ring. It is a national road and it connects the most populated places in the country together so that they can be easily accessed by car or bus. The full length of the road is 828 miles and it is a two-lane road, which has been fully paved. The road is home to many of the points of interest we outlined or will provide you access to other roads that will get you to more remote destinations. The road is often open all year round and can be safely traveled on in winter.
Get Out and Go
Iceland is a small country, but it is overpacked with beauty and adventure. From the people, culture, and landscape, everything is stunning about Iceland. In every town there is a gorgeous view, which means that there isn’t a single bad destination. Whether you want to head out to the wild or explore the colorful towns, Iceland is a vacation you won’t soon forget.