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ICELAND TRAVEL GUIDE

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.

COUNTRY PAGE
  • 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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SEASONS AT A GLANCE

Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists. 

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Peak Season

Shoulder Season

Off Peak Season

JANUARY

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Climate Chart with avergae monthly temperatues and rainfall

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).

BEST TIME FOR:

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.

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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.

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TRAVEL TIPS FOR ICELAND

  • 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 best bar prices (otherwise quite high) are at happy hours. Download the smartphone app Reykjavík Appy Hour (Google / Apple). Reykjavík is known for its pub-crawl scene called djammið.

  • 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.


REGIONS & 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.

 

REYKJAVÍK

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.

 

BLUE LAGOON

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!

 

Download map waypoints for Iceland here: KML / GPX

WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN ICELAND

(more location details are available in the above map)

 

WEST ICELAND

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.

 

THE WESTFJORDS

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.

 

NORTH ICELAND

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.

 

EAST ICELAND

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.

 

SOUTH ICELAND

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).

 

WHAT TO EAT IN ICELAND

For those visiting for the first time, the Icelandic cuisine provides an opportunity to taste dishes that have been shaped by the island's natural resources and the ingenuity of its people.


  • One of the must-try dishes is Plokkfiskur, a comforting fish stew that is perfect for the country's chilly climate. This traditional dish is made with boiled cod or haddock, mashed potatoes, and raw onions, all brought together with a creamy white sauce. It's a staple in Icelandic households and is often served with dark rye bread, making it a hearty meal to warm you up after a day of exploring.

  • Another iconic Icelandic dish is Hangikjöt, smoked lamb that has been a part of the Icelandic diet for centuries. The lamb is traditionally smoked by hanging, which imparts a distinct flavor. It's commonly enjoyed during the festive season, especially on Christmas day, and is served with red cabbage, boiled potatoes, green peas, and Icelandic leaf bread.

  • For a quick and authentic snack, try Harðfiskur, dried fish that is considered an Icelandic delicacy. This snack is high in protein and can be found in most local grocery stores. It's typically enjoyed with butter and is a testament to the Icelandic tradition of preserving food for the long winter months.

LGBTQ IN ICELAND

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WHERE TO STAY IN ICELAND

For a first-time visit to Iceland, Reykjavik, the capital city, is an excellent base due to its central location and easy access to popular attractions. Here are some recommendations for accommodations in different price ranges:


WHERE TO STAY IN REYKJAVIK:

Reykjavik is Iceland's vibrant cultural hub, offering a blend of Icelandic charm, colorful buildings, and lively nightlife, as well as proximity to natural wonders. Explore landmarks like Hallgrímskirkja Church, Harpa Concert Hall, and the Reykjavik waterfront.

  • Budget: Kex Hostel offers budget-friendly accommodations in a trendy and vibrant atmosphere. Guests can stay in dormitory-style rooms or private rooms, enjoy amenities such as a communal kitchen, bar, and lounge area, and participate in various social events organized by the hostel.

  • Mid-range: Room With a View Apartments provides spacious and well-equipped apartments in a central location in Reykjavik. Guests can enjoy the convenience of a fully equipped kitchen, living area, and private balcony, along with amenities such as free Wi-Fi and access to a nearby fitness center.

  • Luxury: The Reykjavik EDITION provides upscale accommodations with a stylish and contemporary design. Guests can stay in spacious rooms and suites, enjoy access to a fitness center and spa, and dine at the hotel's restaurant offering innovative Icelandic dishes.


Tip: Consider visiting Reykjavik during the off-peak seasons (spring and autumn) for better rates and fewer crowds.


WHERE TO STAY IN ALONG THE GOLDEN CIRLCE ROUTE:

The Golden Circle Route is a popular tourist route in southwestern Iceland, known for its stunning natural attractions, including Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. Explore the natural wonders and geological phenomena along the route, including the Silfra Fissure and Strokkur geyser.

  • Budget: Frost and Fire Hotel: Located in Hveragerdi, Frost and Fire Hotel offers budget-friendly accommodations in a serene setting surrounded by hot springs. Guests can stay in cozy rooms with views of the river or mountains, enjoy access to hot tubs and thermal pools, and dine at the hotel's restaurant serving Icelandic cuisine.

  • Mid-range: ION Adventure Hotel: ION Adventure Hotel offers mid-range accommodations with a modern and eco-friendly design. Located near Thingvellir National Park, the hotel features stylish rooms with panoramic views of the surrounding lava fields, a spa, and an on-site restaurant serving Icelandic cuisine.

  • Luxury: ION Adventure Hotel provides upscale accommodations with a focus on sustainability and wellness. Guests can stay in stylish rooms and suites with views of the surrounding landscape, enjoy access to a spa, outdoor hot tubs, and an on-site restaurant serving Icelandic cuisine with a modern twist.


Tip: Book accommodations in advance, especially during the peak tourist season (summer), and consider renting a car for flexibility in exploring the Golden Circle Route.


WHERE TO STAY ALONG THE SOUTH COAST:

Iceland's South Coast is renowned for its dramatic landscapes, including black sand beaches, glacier tongues, and towering waterfalls, making it a must-visit region for nature enthusiasts. Explore attractions like Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Skógafoss waterfall, and Reynisfjara black sand beach.

  • Budget: Sólheimahjáleiga Guesthouse: Located near Vik, Sólheimahjáleiga Guesthouse offers budget-friendly accommodations in a scenic countryside setting. Guests can stay in simple rooms with shared bathrooms, enjoy access to a communal kitchen and dining area, and relax in the outdoor hot tub.

  • Mid-range: Hótel Rangá: Hótel Rangá offers mid-range accommodations in a picturesque location along the Rangá River. Guests can stay in cozy rooms with themed decor inspired by continents or constellations, enjoy access to a hot tub and sauna, and dine at the hotel's restaurant serving gourmet Icelandic cuisine.

  • Luxury: Frost and Fire Hotel: Frost and Fire Hotel provides upscale accommodations in Hveragerdi, known for its hot springs. Guests can stay in elegant rooms with views of the river or mountains, enjoy access to hot tubs and thermal pools, and dine at the hotel's restaurant offering Icelandic cuisine made with local ingredients.


Tip: Consider visiting the South Coast during the shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) for better rates and fewer crowds and be prepared for variable weather conditions.


For hassle-free bookings, use platforms like Booking.com for competitive rates or Holiday Swap for unique homes worldwide. Ensure to book in advance, especially during peak seasons, and align your preferences with nearby activities such as surfing, snorkeling, or cultural exploration.

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