Iceland covers a vast area of 103,000 km² (which is slightly bigger than Ireland), but with an average of 3 inhabitants per square kilometre, it is the least populated country in Europe.
It is the bitter cold subarctic weather as well as desolate and hostile landscape that make this island mostly uninhabitable, particularly in its central part. Both active and dormant volcanoes, sulphuric acid and lava fields, geothermal areas, geysers, waterfalls, glaciers, wastelands, rugged mountain peaks, fjords and miles of moonscape are the main natural features of Iceland. They are also what attracts huge numbers tourists to this lonesome and barren island just south of the Arctic Circle.
Tourism is equally a blessing and a curse for Iceland. It is its main driving economic force: without tourists, the country could not survive on its own.
On the other hand, tourism pumps up the already sky-high property prices and it is the main reason why more and more Icelanders are finding themselves homeless, renting multioccupancy flats, or huddling with other family members in the family home, unable to apply for extortionate mortgages.
This is particularly true in Reykjavik, where more and more land is being bought out by developers with the prospect of building hotels and tourist apartments, rather than low-cost homes for the locals.
Over the last decade, enormously expensive accommodation, rapidly growing consumer prices, high cost of living, limited job opportunities, as well as reduced social benefits and welfare, seem to have pushed many people over the edge. Some of those who lost their jobs during the financial crash of 2008–2011, found themselves homeless; forced to squat in unoccupied buildings, or like their predecessors in the 1950s, in the military barracks left after the second world war. Luckily, the economic situation has been improving steadily in the recent years. This is mainly thanks to booming tourism and Iceland’s geothermal and hydroelectric energy sources.
In addition, the government has recently adopted strict anti-drinking and anti-drug policies, which seem to be keeping the streets of Reykjavik safe and clear of drug addicts and drunken youths. Nonetheless, the problem of social deprivation is still apparent, particularly around the edges of Reykjavik.
Most of the job opportunities can still be found in and around Reykjavik, mainly in the hospitality, renewable energy, retail, construction and heavy industries. This is one of the reasons why young and educated Icelanders continue to emigrate, hoping to find more exciting career opportunities and prosperity abroad.
Consequently, many of the jobs are now getting filled by a migrant workforce, arriving mainly from continental Europe. In fact, Iceland sees an influx of between 2,000 and 3,000 economic migrants annually.
The rapidly growing number of native Icelanders aged 70 or older, the continued emigration of the young and educated Icelanders, and immigration are beginning to change the face of Iceland and its cultural background. While the old traditions and culture are still cultivated in the remote areas of the island, Reykjavik has become a more globalised, multicultural metropolis.
The official language is Icelandic, which is closely related to Norwegian and Faroese. Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are also widely spoken, as is English. In fact, most Icelanders speak English fluently and most tourist locations and attractions are advertised in English.
Flybus is a shuttle bus that operates between Reykjavik and Keflavik Airport. It is a good idea to book yourself a flybus+, which offers a door-to-door transfer for all major hotels (like 22 Hil Hotel), guesthouses (Our House Guesthouse) and some hostels (Oddsson Hostel).
For those staying in Reykjavik only, public transport offers efficient and reliable bus transportation.
Equally, as most hotels are located relatively close to the city centre, you can easily move around on foot.
For trips around and outside of Reykjavik, there are a number of highly-recommended local tour operators, such as IheartReykjavik (for the Golden Circle tours), Special Tours (excellent for Reykjavik Puffin Express trips), and Eyatours (for a one-day volcano and puffin trip to the Westman Islands).
Otherwise, a car hire is a must if you want to visit places outside of Reykjavik. Be wary, though, as car hire companies in Iceland do not have a good reputation. Make sure to check their reviews on the internet, and take photos of the car before you drive off with it. Thrifty car hire is one of the good ones.
If you ask your hotel receptionist, they may recommend a car hire company and also arrange for them to pick you up from the hotel for free, even though the company may not advertise this option via their online service.
Due to changeable weather conditions, driving around Iceland can be either a pleasurable experience or your worst nightmare. Most traffic can be found in and around Reykjavik, and in the Golden Circle area.
There is only one main route in Iceland: route 1, which is an A-type ring road that encircles the island. The road is well maintained and safe, but it can be bendy and hilly at times, and subject to extreme weather conditions such as heavy rain, snow and fog.
You are likely to stay on Route 1 or adjacent minor roads to get to most attractions, like the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon or Akureyri.
The majority of the roads leading to the mountainous areas, including in the centre of the island, are dirt tracks or gravel roads accessible only by 4×4 cars, and are open only in the summertime. Extra hire car insurance is required for driving on these gravel roads.
Remember, that the speed limit in urban areas is 50 km/h (31 mph), 80 km/h (50 mph) on gravel roads, and 90 km/h (56 mph) on paved hard-surfaced roads, like route 1.
Although route 1 and most of the major roads are fine to drive on between May and September, you should always be prepared for unexpected changes in the weather, including torrential rain, snowfalls, thick fog or extremely high winds. Always keep a hot drink, food and a blanket in the car.
In the winter, expect to find many roads closed or impassable by other than 4×4 cars with chained tyres.
When to go?
Iceland is open for tourism all year round, and the time of the year you choose depends largely on what you want to do and see.
Winter months are ideal for skiers and northern lights enthusiasts, as Iceland is located just south of the Arctic Circle. The vast open spaces outside Reykjavik, Grindavik or Akureyri can potentially offer better views than the mountainous valleys and lake areas around Tromsø in Norway (which is renowned for northern lights spotting opportunities!)
Naturally, your daylight sightseeing will be limited to about 4-5 hours in the winter, due to the encroaching polar nights.
Many areas will also be inaccessible due to heavy snow and ice.
Summertime, between June and August, is the peak tourist season – visitors can experience the near polar days, when the sun only sets for a very short time below the horizon, and the weather is usually more settled and warmer. However, do not expect tropical heat, as the temperatures can still oscillate between +10˚C and +25˚C. Summer months are great for exploring the mountainous region in the centre of the island, as this is the only time when some of the 4×4 track roads are open.
Summertime, however, is the most expensive time of the year to visit this already costly destination. It is a luxury that not many of us can easily afford.
May time travel provides a more cost-effective alternative – with off-peak prices, the main roads being already accessible, and a better choice of accommodation. Some of the attractions are best observed during that time: like waterfalls. As the ice melts in the spring, the waterfalls all around Iceland roar with double power. Puffins also start arriving at the end of April, so you should be able to see thousands of these incredible birds nesting and flying above the Atlantic waters around two small islands off the coast of Reykjavik. You could also see dolphins, and potentially even whales.
Where to go?
1. Reykjavik (1 – 3 days)
Reykjavik is usually the first stop for visitors to Iceland. It is filled with Iceland’s Viking history and legends, and a home to the Sage and National museums.
The city itself is not an architectural gem like Venice, Prague or Cracow, but it has its own unique style and charm. The majority of buildings in Reykjavik are modernist concrete structures, made to be functional and practical. The city’s best landmark is the Hallgrímskirkja church, the tower of which can be seen from almost everywhere in the city.
The capital city of Iceland is a vibrant and friendly place, with a positively buzzing atmosphere.
Reykjavik boasts an impressive number of award-winning restaurants offering freshly caught fish, cooked by renowned, world-class chefs.
You should also try the local beers or take a guided tour of the Ölgerðin Brewery (the oldest one in the country). Bear in mind that the production and sale of ‘strong’ beer, that is 2.25% or more, had been banned in Iceland until March 1989!
While in Reykjavik, take a whale or puffin watching trip. Special Tours is one of the companies operating such trips from the harbour, and they are very reliable. (They will keep you informed of any adjustments to your trip due to weather changes, and they are very attentive during the trips.)
Reykjavik also provides an excellent base for trips to the Golden Circle, as well as along the South coast.
2. The Golden Circle (1-day)
Take a one-day trip to see the 32-metre cascading Gullfoss Waterfall, the famous erupting Geysir with the surrounding hot springs, and to go to the Þingvellir National Park (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to see the biggest lake in Iceland and the place where the two tectonic plates of America and Eurasia have created a rift valley.
3. South coast (1-3 days)
The south coast has a lot to offer. Here you can see the Sólheimajökull Glacier, Skógarfoss waterfall, Seljalandsfoss waterfall, and the Eyjafjallajökull & Hekla volcanoes.
Make sure to reserve some time to relax in the Secret Lagoon at Flúðir.
Weather permitting, take a ferry from Landeyjahöfn to Vestmannaeyjar in the Westman Islands, and join a tour around the island to see the Eldfell volcano, the famous Elephant Rock, puffin colonies along the coast, and to meet Tóti – the friendly puffin resident at the Aquarium. (Bear in mind that ferries do get cancelled in high winds, but the trip operator is very obliging and understanding to refund your tickets.)
4. The Blue Lagoon and Grindavik area (2 days)
Grindavik is a small fishing town located at the southern peninsula on the south-western coast of Iceland. It is not a tourist attraction as such, but it provides a convenient and cost-effective base for travellers wanting to visit the Blue Lagoon and the surrounding areas.
Take one day to relax and soak up in the turquoise geothermal spa at the Blue Lagoon, and use the second day to travel from Grindavik along route 42 (good quality, newly tarmacked road), to see Lake Kleifarvatn surrounded by beautiful green hills, the natural turquoise waters of a little geothermal lake, and the bubbling sulphuric acid fields. If you take route 42 in the opposite direction, towards the western coast, you will drive through volcanic rock and ash fields and end up at Miðlína or Leif the Lucky Bridge, which links the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
5. Akureyri and Lake Mývatn (2 days)
Akureyri, with just over 17,300 inhabitants, is Iceland’s second biggest urban agglomeration. It is a charming Icelandic town, with traditional architecture and vibrant local community spirit.
It provides a good base for trips to Lake Mývatn and the surrounding areas. The key attractions not to be missed are:
- Dettifoss – a waterfall in Vatnajökull National Park, believed to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe and powered by the water from the nearby Vatnajökull glacier
- Goðafoss – one of the most spectacular waterfalls (along route 844)
- Myvatn Nature Baths
- Grjótagjá cave
- bubbling sulphuric mud and steam springs in Hverarond
- hot springs at Hverir (east of Mount Námafjall),
- wastelands and lunar landscape around Lake Mývatn, where Apollo astronauts trained for their missions to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s
6. Eastern Iceland (2 days)
The east is famous for its coastal puffin colonies (particularly at Stöðvarfjörður, along route 96). The best time to see puffins on the east coast is from mid-May till the end of August.
Hiking is becoming increasingly popular in this part of Iceland, which features narrow fjords, mountains and widespread forests.
Make sure to visit the ancient volcano remains in Þerribjörg and Víknasloðir by Borgarfjörður eystri (along route 94).
Reykjavik provides the best shopping opportunities, followed by Akureyri.
In the recent years more and more greenhouses have started to appear across the country, particularly in the geothermal areas. Nonetheless, Iceland still imports most of its food supplies. This means that prices of food and other products are high in shops and restaurants alike.
Money-saving and other tips
- While in Reykjavik, save money on public transport and travel on foot.
- Save on eating out. Pack a good thermos, a couple of travel mugs, plastic bowls and some cutlery into your suitcase. Don’t forget to bring along teabags, instant coffee, snacks and some pot noodle soups! Although not every hotel or B&B offers a kettle in the room, most are happy to fill your flask with hot boiling water, so you can have a free cuppa in the evening or take the flask with you on your trips. A hot pot noodle soup after a long day’s walk in the cold works miracles, too.
- Stock up at the local supermarkets, like Bónus or Krónan, rather than eat out at expensive cafes or groan at the extortionate prices in gift shops.
- Bear in mind, that shops and petrol stations are available only in the main urban areas like Reykjavik, Grendavik, Akureyri or Egilsstaðir. Petrol stations at smaller locations tend to be more expensive and are sometimes completely unmanned.
- Be prepared to drive for 2 or 4 hours and not come across a single sign of human habitation (particularly on the way from Reykjavik to Akureyri, or along the south coast, on the way to Egilsstaðir.) Have a tank full of petrol, and some food and drink in the car.
- If you are driving from Reykjavik towards the north of Iceland, you can save about £7 if you avoid taking the toll road in between Grundarhverfi and Hvalfjarðarsveit. Driving in the dark tunnel full of speed cameras saves you only around 30 minutes. Why not take this time to admire the majestic mountains around you, instead?
- On the way from Reykjavik to Akureyri, you will find only a couple of places that offer a respite. Use them wisely.
- There is a delightful little café/B&B next to a petrol station at Skeljungur, Grabrók Guest House (about 1.5 hour’s drive from Reykjavik along route 1), featuring a gift shop with beautifully hand-crafted (and sensibly priced) mugs and other crafts. This is your best chance for a toilet break, especially that the B&B is located right between the Glanni Waterfall and the Grábrók Volcano. You can easily walk to both sites from the café’s car park, or use the free off-road car park at the entrance to the volcano.
- Further north, along route 1 to Akureyri, there is a pleasant picnic area with a wooden table and benches at Pòrdìsarlundur (past the N1 petrol station, at the crossroads with route 721). It is a good place to stretch your legs and have lunch. Unfortunately, if you need a toilet break, you will have to hide in the neighbouring bushes, or simply stop at the N1 petrol station earlier on.
- The Secret Lagoon in Flúðir is no longer so secret, as many tour operators add this location to their trips around the southern coast. It is still much cheaper and less crowded than the Blue Lagoon, and does not require booking in advance.
- If you are planning to visit the Blue Lagoon, make sure to book a place beforehand. This is a hugely popular (if expensive) attraction, so early planning is advisable (at least 2 months before your planned holiday).
- Make sure to pack a robe, towels and flip flops on top of your swimming gear if you want to use any geothermal spas in Iceland. This will save you money, particularly if you are travelling as a group.
- The weather is unpredictable even in the summer – make sure to pack both woolly jumpers and tee-shirts (even in May time!)
Regardless of the time of the year, Iceland is a magical place, like no other in the world. It has so much to offer that it will definitely leave you hungry for more. A return trip is simply inevitable.
I hope you enjoy your trip to Iceland as much as I have. Again, and again.
Jo Martynka, PurpleCat Design