Iceland, a Nordic island nation, is defined by its dramatic landscape with volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and lava fields. Massive glaciers are protected in the Vatnajökull and Snæfellsjökull national parks. Most of the population lives in the capital, Reykjavik, which runs on geothermal power and is home to the National and Saga museums, tracing Iceland’s Viking history.
Iceland is a stunningly beautiful place if you enjoy strange and desolate landscapes. The sea around, the mountains within, the intricate filigree of rivers and fjords, the unending daylight of the summer months, the unrelenting nights of the winters, the wonder of aurora borealis when the northern lights blazing through the sky and into your memory forever.
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ICELAND QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world
- Currency: Icelandic króna (ISK)
- Population: 364 134 (2020)
- Language: Icelandic; English widely understood
- Religion: Lutheran (official) 80.7%, other Protestant 4.1%, Roman Catholic 2.5%, Buddhist 0.2%
- Electricity: 220V, 50Hz (European plug)
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ICELAND PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- Thursday on or after 19 April, First Day of Summer
- 1 May, Labour Day
- 17 June, Independence Day (Proclamation of the Republic)
- 1st Monday after 1st weekend in August, Commerce Day (Verslunarmannagelgi) (bank holiday)
- 26 December, Boxing Day
Also, business openings and work schedules may be significantly affected by Christian holidays.
FESTIVALS IN ICELAND
Iceland Winter Games - Snowy activities take center stage in March every year in Iceland’s winter-sports capital Akureyri, including international Freeski and snowboard competitions.
Reykjavík Arts Festival - Culture vultures flock to Iceland’s premier cultural festival, which showcases two weeks of local and international theatre performances, film, dance, music, and visual art (May & June).
Reykjavík International Film Festival - This intimate 11-day event from late September features quirky programming that highlights independent film-making, both homegrown and international.
BEST TIME TO VISIT ICELAND
Iceland enjoys a warmer climate than its northerly location would indicate because a part of the Gulf Stream flows around the southern and western coasts of the country. The weather is also affected by polar currents from East Greenland that travel southeast towards the coastline of the northern and eastern part of Iceland. If you wish to see the spectacular Northern Lights, November to February is the best time to visit Iceland.
High Season (June to August) - Visitors descend en masse, especially to Reykjavík and the south. Prices peak; bookings are essential.
Endless daylight, plentiful festivals, busy activities. Highland mountain roads open to 4WDs, from mid-June or later; hikers welcome.
Shoulder Season (May & September) - Breezier weather; occasional snows in the highlands (access via mountain roads is weather dependent).
Optimal visiting conditions if you prefer fewer crowds and lower prices over cloudless days.
Low Season (October to April) - Mountain roads closed; some minor roads shut due to weather conditions. Winter activities on offer, including skiing, snowshoeing, visiting ice caves.
The amount of daylight varies dramatically by season. The sun sets briefly each night in June, but the sky doesn't get fully dark before the next sunrise. In the March and September equinoxes, days and nights are of about equal length, as elsewhere in the world. If you go in December, it's almost 20 hours of darkness.
Summer is definitely the best time to go, and even then the tourist traffic is still mild. The midnight sun is a beautiful sight and one definitely not to be missed. It is easy to lose track of time when the sun is still up at 23:00. Early or late winter, however, can be surprisingly good times to visit. In late January, daylight is from about 10:00-17:00, prices are lower than in the high season, and the snow-blanketed landscape is eerily beautiful. (Some sites are, however, inaccessible in the winter).
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN ICELAND
The snow sports season in Iceland can stretch from November until May, but is most consistent from February to early April.
HIKING & CYCLING IN ICELAND
The best months for hiking in Iceland are the summer months of June, July and August.
BEACH OPTIONS IN ICELAND
Iceland may not be a beach destination, but it does have some absolutely stunning beaches such as Black Sand Beach, Diamond Beach and Stokksnes Beach.
SURFING IN ICELAND
There is decent surf in Iceland from August through to May, but it can be seriously cold! March to May are possibly the most pleasant months, with consistent swell but slightly warmer.
KITESURF IN ICELAND
The best time for windsurfing in Iceland is from June to August when it is ever so slightly warmer. Do not underestimate the extreme cold, these conditions are for dedicated windsurfers and you'll need your own equipment too!
ICELAND TRAVEL COSTS
Iceland is a very expensive country to visit. Almost everything is imported, taxes are high, and there’s not a lot of local industry.
On a fairly reasonable, typical backpacking Iceland budget, you should expect to spend around $75 USD per day. This assumes you’ll be staying in hostel dorm rooms, cooking most of your meals, limiting your drinking, taking public transportation, and doing only a few paid activities.
A middle of the road budget traveller should expect to spend $160 - 230 USD per day, you could eat out a bit, drink more, and take more organized tours and paid activities. On the higher end, you could stay in a budget hotel or Airbnb eat out all the time, take any tours you want, hire private drivers, and visit the Blue Lagoon.
ICELAND TRAVEL TIPS
The Reykjavík City Card (s; 24/48/72hr kr4000/5600/6900) offers free entry to a great selection of museums and galleries, all swimming pools in Reykjavík and free unlimited travel by bus within the Reykjavik Capital Area. In addition, the card also gives you a free ferry trip to Viðey island and discounts on various tours, in shops and on services.
The official tourism website has links to bus providers under the Plan Your Trip – Getting Around section. The bus network operates frequently from around mid-May to mid-September. Outside these months services are less frequent (or non-existent).
Visit the Blue Lagoon on a tour or in transit to the airport as this way might save time and money. By bus, Reykjavík Excursions connect Keflavík International Airport, the Blue Lagoon, and Reykjavík. At the car park, you’ll find a luggage check (kr550 per bag, per day); which is perfect if you’re going to the lagoon on your way to/from the airport.
Travelling by car is the only way to get to some parts of Iceland. Although car-hire rates are expensive by international standards (actually the most expensive in Europe, according to one recent study), they compare favorably to bus or internal air travel, especially if there are a few of you to split the costs. Shop around and book online for the best deals.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF ICELAND
Reykjavík - Explore the all-star assortment of boutiques, museums and galleries, restaurants, and lively bars.
Skaftafell - Don crampons for an easy but exhilarating glacier walk.
Mývatn - Wander around the otherworldly geological wonderland.
Blue Lagoon - Soak in steaming lagoons at the world-famous site.
Vestmannaeyjar - Set sail with puffins galore and a small town tucked between lava flows.
Húsavík - Admire the giants of the ocean on a whale-watching trip.
Hornstrandir - Rove around saw-toothed cliffs and lonely coves on an inspiring hike.
Jökulsárlón - Cruise among the everchanging ice sculptures at the bewitching lagoon.
Snæfellsnes Peninsula - Tour ‘Iceland in miniature’ – wild beaches, lava fields, a glacier-topped mountain.
The world’s most northerly capital combines colourful buildings, quirky people, eye-popping design, wild nightlife, and a capricious soul to devastating effect. In many ways, Reykjavík is strikingly cosmopolitan for its size. After all, it’s merely a town by international standards, and yet it’s loaded with excellent museums, captivating art, rich culinary choices, and hip cafes and bars. Add a backdrop of snow-topped mountains, churning seas, and crystal-clear air, and you, like many visitors, may fall helplessly in love, returning home already saving to come back.
The area dubbed Old Reykjavík is the jaunty heart of the capital. Anchored by placid Tjörnin, the city-center lake, the neighbourhood is loaded with brightly coloured residential houses and a series of great sights and interesting historic buildings. Old Reykjavík is also a top spot for a wander: from the seafront to Austurvöllur park, Alþingi (Parliament) and Ráðhús (city hall) and on to the National Museum.
Largely a service harbour until recently, the Old Harbour and the adjacent Grandi (Örfirisey) neigbourhood have blossomed into a hot spot for tourists, with several museums, volcano and Northern Lights films, and interesting eateries and shops. Whale-watching and puffin-viewing trips depart from the pier, and, as boat bells ding, photo ops abound with views of the Harpa concert hall and snow-capped mountains beyond. On the western edge of the harbour the Grandi area, named after the fish factory there, has burgeoned with eateries and shops.
Reykjavík’s main street for shopping and people-watching is bustling, often-pedestrianized Laugavegur. The narrow, one-way lane and its side streets blossom with the capital’s most interesting shops, cafes, and bars. At its western end, its name changes to Bankastræti, then Austurstræti. Running uphill off Bankastræti, artists street Skólavörðustígur ends at the spectacular modernist church, Hallgrímskirkja.
Reykjavík’s naturally hot water is the heart of the city’s social life (as in many Icelandic towns); children play, teenagers flirt, business deals are made and everyone catches up on the latest gossip at the baths. Volcanic heat keeps the temperature at a mellow 29°C, and most baths have heitir pottar (hot-pots): jacuzzi-like pools kept at a toasty 37°C to 42°C. Bring towels and bathing suits or rent them on-site. See www.spacity.is for further information and pay attention to the rules.
As lovely as the capital’s sights are, though, Reykjavík is also the main hub for tours to amazing landscapes and activities around Iceland. Those without wheels, time, or the desire to travel the countryside independently can use Reykjavík as a cosmopolitan base for all forms of tours from super-Jeeps and buses to horse riding, snowmobiling, and heli-tours.
In a magnificent black-lava field, the milky-teal spa is fed water from the futuristic Svartsengi geothermal plant; with its silver towers, roiling clouds of steam, and people daubed in white silica mud, The Blue Lagoon is an other-worldly place. Superheated water (70% seawater, 30% freshwater, at a perfect 38°C), rich in blue-green algae, mineral salts, and fine silica mud, which condition and exfoliate the skin – sounds like advertising speak, but you really do come out as soft as a baby’s bum. The water is hottest near the vents where it emerges, and the surface is several degrees warmer than the bottom. Those who say it’s too commercial and too crowded aren't wrong, but you’ll be missing something special if you don’t go - pre-booking is essential though.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The Golden Circle takes in three popular attractions all within 100km of the capital: Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. It is an artificial tourist circuit (ie no natural topography marks its extent) loved (and marketed) by thousands, and not to be confused with the Ring Road, which wraps around the entire country (and takes a week or more to properly complete). The Golden Circle offers the opportunity to see a meeting-point of the continental plates and site of the ancient Icelandic parliament (Þingvellir), a spouting hot spring (Geysir), and a roaring waterfall (Gullfoss), all in one doable-in-a-day loop. Visiting under your own steam allows you to visit at off-peak hours and explore exciting attractions further afield. Almost every tour company in the Reykjavík area offers a Golden Circle excursion (from bus to bike to super-Jeep), often combinable with other sights as well. But, it’s very easy to tour the Golden Circle on your own (by bike or car) – plus, it's fun to tack on additional elements that suit your interests!
(more location details are available in the above map)
Geographically close to Reykjavík, yet far, far away in thought, West Iceland (known as Vesturland) is a splendid microcosm of what Iceland has to offer. The long arm of Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a favourite for its glacier, Snæfellsjökull, and the area around its national park is tops for birding, whale watching, lava-field hikes, and horse riding. Inland beyond Reykholt, you'll encounter lava tubes and remote highland glaciers, including enormous Langjökull with its unusual ice cave. Icelanders honor West Iceland for its local sagas: two of the best known, Laxdæla Saga and Egil’s Saga, took place along the region’s brooding waters, marked today by haunting cairns and an exceptional museum in lively Borgarnes. West Iceland offers everything from windswept beaches to historic villages and awe-inspiring terrain in one neat little package.
To the east of Snæfellsjökull National Park, coastal Rte 574 passes the hamlets of Hellnar and Arnarstapi, with their glacier tour companies and interesting sea-sculpted rock formations. It continues east along the broad southern coastal plain, hugging huge sandy bays such as Breiðavík on one side, and towering peaks with waterfalls on the other.
The hub of Westfjords adventure tours, and by far the region’s largest town, Ísafjörður is a pleasant and prosperous place and an excellent base for travellers. The town is set on an arcing spit that extends out into Skutulsfjörður and is hemmed in on all sides by towering peaks and the dark waters of the fjord. The center of Ísafjörður is a charming grid of old timber and tin-clad buildings, many unchanged since the 18th century when the harbour was full of tall ships and Norwegian whaling crews. Today it is a surprisingly cosmopolitan place, and after some time spent travelling in the Westfjords, it’ll feel like a bustling metropolis with its tempting cafes and a fine choice of restaurants. There’s hiking in the hills around the town, skiing in winter, and regular summer boats ferry hikers across to the remote Hornstrandir Peninsula.
Craggy mountains, precarious sea cliffs, and plunging waterfalls ring the wonderful, barely inhabited Hornstrandir Peninsula, at the northern end of the Westfjords. This is one of Europe’s last true wilderness areas, covering some of the most extreme and inhospitable parts of the country. It’s a fantastic destination for hiking, with challenging terrain and excellent opportunities for spotting Arctic foxes, seals, whales, and teeming bird life.
Best known for its dramatic cliffs and abundant birdlife, the remote Látrabjarg Peninsula also has wonderful, deserted, multi-hued beaches, like exquisite Rauðasandur, and plenty of long leisurely walks.
Iceland’s mammoth and magnificent north is a geologist’s heaven. A wonderland of moonlike lava fields, burping mud pots, epic waterfalls, snow-capped peaks, and whale-filled bays – this is Iceland at its best. The region’s top sights are variations on one theme: a grumbling, volcanically active earth. There are endless treats to uncover: little Akureyri, with its surprising moments of big-city living; windy fjord side pastures full of stout Viking horses; fishing villages clinging tenaciously to life at the end of unsealed roads. Offshore islands are populated by colonies of seabirds and a few hardy locals while lonely peninsulas stretch out towards the Arctic Circle. White-water rapids are ready to deliver an adrenalin kick and national-park walking trails reach unparalleled views. Under-hyped and underpopulated ski fields await and underwater marvels will woo divers into its frigid depths.
As far as you can get (some 650km) from Reykjavík, Iceland’s impressively varied and sparsely populated east doesn’t announce itself as loudly as other parts of the country, preferring subtle charms over big-ticket attractions. The Eastfjords is the area’s most wondrous destination – the scenery is particularly spectacular around the northern fjord villages, backed by sheer-sided mountains etched with waterfalls. If the weather’s fine, several days spent hiking here maybe some of your most memorable in Iceland. Away from the convoluted coast, the country’s longest lake stretches southwest from Egilsstaðir, its shores lined with perfect diversions. Further inland is the forgotten farms, fells, and reindeer-roamed heathlands of the empty east, and Snæfell, one of Iceland’s prime peaks. Ring Road motorists often simply overnight in Egilsstaðir then speed out of the east. Lunacy! The east's spectacular fjords, scenic hiking trails, fascinating geology, and friendly villages are some of Iceland's unsung treasures.
Containing glittering glaciers, toppling waterfalls, the iceberg-filled Jökulsárlón lagoon, and Iceland’s favourite walking area, Skaftafell, it’s no wonder that the south is the country’s most visited region. Various places along the coast offer hiking, snowmobiling, dog sledding, and glacier explorations; or head offshore to the charming, puffin-friendly Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands).
Vast, varied, and spectacular, Vatnajökull National Park was founded in 2008 when authorities created a giant mega park by joining the Vatnajökull ice cap with two previously established national parks: Skaftafell in southeast Iceland and Jökulsárgljúfur in the northeast. With recent additions, the park measures 13,900 sq km – nearly 14% of the entire Iceland (it's one of the largest national parks in Europe).
LGBTQ IN ICELAND
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Iceland are very progressive. Iceland is frequently referred to as one of the most LGBT-friendly countries in the world. The Icelandic Parliament amended the country's marriage law on 11 June 2010 by a unanimous vote to define marriage as between two individuals, thereby making same-sex marriage in Iceland legal as of 27 June 2010. Iceland became the ninth country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage.
Today, same-sex relationships are well accepted in Iceland. Reykjavik Pride is an important event for the LGBTQ community in Iceland and has been celebrated annually since 1999.