Iceland – all you need to know:
Iceland’s breathtaking landscapes, colourful
history and vibrant culture.
Iceland is a destination like no other – a magical, beautiful landscape of endless adventures. Known as the “land of fire and ice”, Iceland is home to some of the world’s most active volcanoes and several of Europe’s largest glaciers.
Iceland is also a land of light and darkness. Summer days of constant daylight contrast with dark winter days with only a few hours of daylight.
Where is Iceland?
Iceland is an island lying in the North Atlantic Ocean. The nearest neighbour is Greenland, 286 km away, followed by the Faroe Islands at 420 km,Scotland 795 km and Norway 950 km.
The Arctic Circle runs just north of the Icelandic mainland. The small, inhabited island of Grímsey, off the north coast of Iceland, lies on the ArcticCircle.
It takes approximately five hours to fly from New York to Iceland, and three to four hours to fly from most airports in Western Europe.
Iceland is Europe’s second largest island, and the world’s 18th largest. Iceland stretches across 103,000 km2, which is slightly more than Austria, Hungary or Portugal, but about the same as Kentucky.
It is easy to drive around Iceland island and enjoy many outstanding sights within a 10-day holiday, even though other visitors spend a month or more year after year and still have plenty left to experience. At its widest, Iceland measures 500 km from east to west and 300 km from north to south.
Iceland’s highest peak is Hvannadalshnjúkur, reaching 2,110 m above sea level, very few Icelanders live at altitudes of over 250 m, instead live on the coast and fertile lowlands, almost 80% of the country is uninhabited.
About 11% of Iceland is covered by glaciers and washout sands, As well as glaciers, which includes Europe’s largest, Vatnajökull, there are many lakes and fjords, waterfalls and rivers, hot and cold springs, beaches of black basalt sand or light-coloured shells, volcanoes and fresh lava fields, as well as older fields overgrown with thick moss.
Lava fields also cover around 11% of the island’s surface area.
With all surface rock dating less than 20 million years in age, Iceland is one of the planet’s youngest landmasses and continues to be built up by some of the world’s most active volcanoes.
The island has risen above the ocean surface due to a volcanic hotspot located under fissures in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. These fissures make up a rift dividing the American tectonic plate of the earth’s crust from the Eurasian plate and running roughly from southwest to northeast.
If there were no erosion along its east and west coasts, the island of Iceland would grow wider by about 2 cm per year, as these two tectonic plates float apart from each other on the molten magma underneath.
The last volcanoes to erupt were Bárðarbunga in 2014 to 2015, Grímsvötn in 2011 and Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. Iceland also has several recently formed islands off shore, such as Surtsey, which rose above the sea in a 1963-64 volcanic eruption and has ever since been kept isolated and protected due to its international importance for science.
Earthquakes happen frequently, fortunately so frequently that their collected tension is seldom great enough to cause destruction. The same may generally be said about the island’s volcanic eruptions, which have occurred on average every five years or so since the first people arrived.
From a global perspective, earthquakes are less likely to be destructive where tectonic plates move apart, as along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, rather than butting up against or scraping alongside each other.
Culture and society
Though rooted in ancient Norse heritage, Icelandic culture has been shaped by
isolation and the extreme forces of nature. These conditions have led to a
resilient society, where the ties to family and nature are often close. While the
sense of tradition and customs is also strong, today’s Icelandic society is quite
modern and progressive.
A small country by most measures, where most people who meet may soon be
talking about someone they both know or are mutually related to, Icelanders
work hard to ensure a high standard of living as well as extensive political
Not many countries can name their original settlers in a factual manner, but
Iceland’s well-documented history, not least through its world-famous sagas, is
one of its many claims to an international reputation. In the early 870s, having
first dwelt briefly at a few places farther east on the island, Hallveig
Fróðadóttir and her husband Ingólfur Arnarson, who had been a chieftain in
Norway, arrived with their household on the southwestern shores of Iceland.
Thinking of the steam which rose from thermal springs there, they called that
vicinity Reykjavík, which means the smoky inlet.
Although this household is generally recognised as Iceland’s first permanent
settlers, there is both written and other evidence that at least Christian hermits
and perhaps some other Celts from the British Isles had already been living in
the country for a number of decades but were gradually assimilated by the new
settlers in various ways. Moreover, the Norse settlers often brought with them
wives and slaves directly from the British Isles, so that today’s DNA studies
demonstrate most of the Icelandic female genes to stem from the Celts, even
though the original males of the nation were mostly Norse.
Hallveig and Ingólfur were quickly followed by other Norse settlers, who also
chose land in the low-lying, more easily inhabitable areas of Iceland. By the
year 930, just fifty or sixty years after settlement officially began, the country’s
more desirable agricultural land was considered fully claimed, giving occasion
to organise a common government by founding the Icelandic Althing, or Alþing.
With þing meaning parliament and al- meaning that it represented all of the
island, the Althing is often referred to as the world’s oldest parliament that
continues to meet more or less in its original form. For many centuries, the
Althing met at Þingvellir, which is about 50 km from Reykjavík and has today
become a national park.
The ruling male settlers of Iceland were predominantly pagan, following the
traditional Norse religion. As Scandinavia and other parts of Europe became
more and more Christian, political pressure mounted on the Icelanders to
convert to Christianity. Tensions were eased in 1000 AD, when the Christian
faction at the Althing allowed Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, who led the Althing as
speaker of the orally transmitted laws, to decide on a future religion. Although
Þorgeir (Icelanders prefer to use first names even in formal situations) was
himself a pagan priest, he decided to proclaim that the country would convert to
Christianity, with the easy-going compromise that current pagans would be
permitted to continue practising their religion in private.
In contrast to that peaceful solution, deadly fighting occurred between major
clans in the 13th century, accompanying the hard times caused by the
eradication of woods, overgrazing and cooler weather. After decades of
conflict, the Icelandic chieftains agreed to accept the sovereignty of Norway.
Political shifts in the Scandinavian countries put Iceland under Danish rule in
the late 14th century. In 1550, the Icelanders switched by royal decree from
Catholicism to a Lutheran denomination, similar to that in the rest of the Nordic
countries. Fortunately the Icelandic reformation, except for leading to the
execution of the southern Icelandic bishop and two of his sons, was mainly
peaceful and thereby helped save the country’s wondrous medieval
manuscripts from destruction in religious wars.
From around 1600 to 1900, the climate became even colder and less
favourable for agriculture and the regrowth of overgrazed, eroded areas.
Whereas up to a third of the country was covered by at least low-growing birch
when the first settlers brought their livestock, this cover had been reduced to
only 1% of the surface area by the end of the 19th century, adding immensely
to the difficulty of Icelanders in sheltering and feeding their livestock, which in
addition to fish were their main source of livelihood. Between 80 and 90% of
the residents still lived on farms just before 1900, above all in homes built of
turf and loose stones.
In 1874, celebrating the official millenium of the country’s settlement, Denmark
granted Iceland a constitution and home rule. In 1918, Iceland became a
sovereign state under the Danish crown and remained such until 17 June 1944,
when the Republic of Iceland was declared while the Nazis were in possession
of Denmark. Since then, June 17th has been celebrated as Iceland’s National
With its physical size and a population of only 335,000, Iceland represents the
lowest population density in Europe. The nation’s capital is Reykjavík, and twothirds
of the nation’s residents live in the municipalities of the greater capital
area, leaving the rural areas yet more sparsely settled. Outside of the capital
area, the most populous town, Akureyri, has only 18,000 residents. Since the
rest of the population also lives primarily near the coast, the middle of the
country with its lower temperatures and very short growing season remains
Although the recent financial crisis struck a heavy blow as of autumn 2008, the
Icelanders have largely recovered and maintain good standards of living, with
the nation ranking highly in worldwide measures of well-being such as life
expectancy, safe births, literacy, gender equality and overall happiness.
During the twentieth century, Iceland’s main industry was the fisheries, though
recent decades have seen an increasing emphasis on renewable energy and
its use in the metals or other heavy industry. On a world scale, tourism has
been mushrooming, often increasing between 10 and 20% annually, so that
since 2014 the nation receives about three times more visitors per year than it
The language of Iceland, Icelandic, is one of the many Indo-European
languages, belonging to the sub-division of North Germanic languages like
those in other Nordic countries, excepting Finnish. Icelandic is very similar to
Faroese and demonstrates some Celtic influence, perhaps including some of
the country’s narrative traditions in literature.
As an insular language, however, Icelandic has not been heavily influenced by
other languages since the settlement. For this and other reasons, such as the
sagas, poetry and an emphasis on reading ability, the language has changed
comparatively little over the centuries. It did not become markedly different from
Norwegian until the 14th century, when Norwegian underwent increasing
influence from Swedish and Danish. Because of how minor the language
changes have been in Iceland, 12th-century texts remain largely accessible to
Icelandic school children.
Language is a cornerstone of Icelandic culture, and Icelanders are justifiably
proud of their literary heritage. Some poetic traditions, especially the age-old
Germanic patterns of alliteration, are alive and common, with thousands of
people composing at least occasionally according to such patterns, and crowds
of the general populace gathering around the country in hundreds to listen to
poets who can humourously follow these rules. Iceland has often been termed
a classless society, though this description is debated, but it certainly holds in
reference to this type of traditional poetry and to some extent has also been
typical of the sagas. The capital, Reykjavík, has become a UNESCO City of
Literature, and in 2009, the country’s main collection of saga manuscripts was
entered in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
The Icelandic Eddas and sagas are certainly the country’s most recognised
contribution to global literary treasures, with the 13th-century Snorri Sturluson
being an important figure behind preserving ancient historical and literary
knowledge, even crucial for the entire Nordic realm.
Written in the 13th century, the Eddas tell vivid stories of Norse mythology and
legend, as well as explaining poetic rules. The sagas to a great extent report
enhanced tales of actual people and events, in the main occurring between 850
and 1050. Above all, these events include the deeds of the nation’s early
settlers and their first descendants, with plenty of violence, intrigue, romance,
and pithy proverbs. Such combinations of stories and history were mostly
passed on orally until being written down in the 12th to 14th centuries. Many
authors in other countries have been influenced by the sagas and other old
Icelandic literature, including J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings
and The Hobbit.
Iceland’s only Nobel Prize winner so far was recognised in 1955 and was in the
category of literature. Halldór Laxness composed prolifically (over 60 novels, in
addition to poetry, plays and other writings), on themes ranging from the
Icelandic national identity to global communism. His most famous works are
Independent People, The Atom Station and Iceland’s Bell.
Literature still thrives today, with modern Icelandic authors getting more books
published per capita than in any other country. In recent years, Icelandic crime
fiction has garnered an international following, adding onto that of the sagas.
Most famously composed by Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the
Icelandic works can be related to the fashionable, overall genre of Nordic crime
Icelandic film producers are industrious and creative enough to have turned
native cinema into an important cultural as well as economic factor. The film
industry has been prospering, producing several films per year. Moreover,
Iceland’s scenic landscape provides popular shooting locations for many
foreign parties, including Hollywood productions such as Tomb Raider, Die
Another Day, Batman Begins, Flags of our Fathers, Journey to the Centre of
the Earth and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Icelandic authorities help through
policies which reduce production costs for foreign film makers. The Film in
Iceland commission is ready to assist foreign film companies which are thinking
of shooting in this country.
International recognition has been earned by several modern Icelandic
filmmakers, such as Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, whose film Children of Nature was
nominated for a 1991 Academy Award as Best Foreign Film. Dagur Kári’s full
length debut, Nói Albínó, received critical acclaim and was nominated for the
European Film Awards in 2003. Dagur Kári has gone on to turn out such
movies as The Good Heart. Another successful Icelandic filmmaker is Baltasar
Kormákur, who has built on such Icelandic hits of his as 101 Reykjavík to start
a Hollywood career. However, the leading Icelandic name internationally has
been that of Sigurjón Sighvatsson, producer, whose long filmography includes
titles ranging from Beverly Hills 90210 and Zinedine: A 21st-Century Portrait to
cult favourites like Wild At Heart. In 2015 at the renowned Cannes festival,
Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams won the category of Un Certain Regard.
In recent years, Icelandic television production has also been on the rise. The
children’s television programme LazyTown has seen unprecedented success
abroad, with stations in dozens of countries around the world broadcasting its
message of healthy lifestyles. The Night Shift, a sitcom about the hapless lives
of night personnel at a petrol station, has received critical acclaim and been
broadcast in several European countries. Fortitude, a 2015 TV crime series
from Sky Atlantic, was to a great extent filmed in Iceland.
Icelanders have several of their own unique holidays, besides celebrating some
international holidays in special ways. Many festivities are related to ancient
Norse traditions, while others frequently connect to the Christian calendar.
The traditional winter holidays are especially meaningful for Icelanders. The
Christmas period is an intriguing mixture of religious practices and traditional
folklore, beginning on 23 December and ending on 6 January, Epiphany. In
between, there is a whole lot of food to eat, people to meet and fireworks to
You might say the Icelanders have not one Santa figure but a whole series of
thirteen, the jólasveinar or Yule lads. Descended from trolls, they were
apparently often mentioned to scare children, but in recent times have been
personified as a lot friendlier.
One by one, they come to town in the days before Christmas; the first one
arrives during the night preceding December 12 and the last one during the
night preceding December 24. Formerly, they tried to pilfer their favourite things
or play tricks on people (hence their names below), but now their main role is to
give children small gifts. Just about every child in Iceland puts a shoe on the
window sill in the evening so the lad coming that night can leave a present in it.
Of course, if the child has been naughty, the lad might just leave an untasty
raw potato instead!
While the number of Yule lads has varied in different times and regions, it is
now consistently 13. The number 13 and their current names were printed in
Jón Árnason’s folklore collection of 1862, establishing the Icelandic names as
follows, even if various translations are possible:
1. Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod)
2. Giljagaur (Gully Gawk)
3. Stúfur (Stubby)
4. Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker)
5. Pottasleikir (Pot-Licker)
6. Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker)
7. Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer)
8. Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler)
9. Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper)
As you can tell from the list, these lads are mischievous, and each one has
retained some of his unique characteristics to this day.
Grýla, Leppalúði and the Christmas Cat
The Yule lads’ vices may have something to do with unfortunate genetics and
upbringing, since according to Icelandic folklore they were the sons of a threeheaded
ogress called Grýla – whose favourite dish was a stew that she cooked
out of naughty children – and her third husband, an aged, ugly ogre called
Leppalúði. Nonetheless, their cat was perhaps even more vicious, Jólakötturinn
(the Christmas Cat), who was rumoured to eat those children who had no new
clothes to wear on Christmas Day.
Þorláksmessa (Saint Þorlákur’s Mass) is on December 23 and is named after
Þorlákur Þórhallsson, a 12th-century bishop over the more southerly parts of
Iceland. The ideal dish on Þorláksmessa Day is putrefied skate. As December
23 was traditionally the last day of the pre-Christmas fast, no one was
supposed to eat meat, but was allowed to eat skate and other fish. Eating
putrefied skate on December 23 is still a popular tradition in Iceland, despite
the sharp smell of ammonia. In addition, Þorláksmessa is usually the biggest
day of the year in Icelandic retail stores, as people flock out to do their lastminute
Christmas shopping, which involves a lot of good cheer as everyone
meets others and passes on warm Yuletide wishes.
Christmas and Easter Day are Iceland’s longest holidays, with all of the
following day also being a holiday for most persons (the so-called Second Days
of Christmas and Easter). At Easter, both the Thursday and Friday before
Easter Sunday are also holidays, which makes five days in all for people who
are off work on Saturdays. At Christmas, most businesses remain closed from
noon on Christmas Eve till after December 26. For many decades, the main
family celebration in most homes has begun at six o’clock on Christmas Eve.
The family dine together that evening, perhaps dance and sing around the
Christmas tree, and exchange presents. In the following two days people often
gather with the wider family and family friends.
The Icelandic Christmas may be seen as two celebrations: on the one hand
celebrating the birth of Christ and on the other celebrating the beginning of
longer daylight hours. The Icelandic word for Christmas, jól, refers neither to
Christ nor the church, but is a much older Germanic word and also exists in
English cognates such as Yuletide.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is probably the wildest party of the whole year. On this night,
everyone is allowed to light fireworks, and the sky is blanketed with an
explosive display that has to be seen to be believed. In many towns and
villages, this is repeated in a smaller scale during the evening on the Thirteenth
Day of Christmas, when the last Yule Lad has left for the mountains and the
Christmas season is considered over. It is easy to obtain protective gear for the
eyes and even ears, and everyone is encouraged to wear it, especially those
who are lighting and shooting the fireworks.
Early in the Icelandic past, Þorrablót was a mid-winter festival with sacrificial
offerings to the pagan gods. Although it was abolished after Christianisation, it
was resurrected in the 19th century as a social celebration continuing to this
day. Small communities, clubs, schools, etc. often arrange their own Þorrablót.
The timing for the festival coincides with the month of Þorri, which according to
the traditional Icelandic calendar begins on the first Friday after January 19 (in
the 13th week of winter).
Visitors may look for a chance to try out some culinary adventures during the
Þorrablót season. The traditional Icelandic dishes date from times when there
were no freezers and when many common Icelanders even lacked salt for
preserving food. Nor was there always much hot, dry weather for curing foods
as in other countries, although drying was one of the preservation methods, as
well as smoking. Lactic acid, a milk product, was another primary means of
preserving food back then, and in itself provides a certain flavouring. While not
everyone will be enthused about all of the traditional foods served, it’s an
experience to give them a taste and thereby notice flavours and smells that
very few tourists are used to from home. The traditional Þorrablót menu
includes items such as rotten shark’s meat (hákarl), boiled sheep’s head (svið),
smoked lamb, and cooked sheep’s blood and tallow (blóðmör). A traditional
way of washing down such food, at least at a party like Þorrablót, is with some
brennivín – also known as “Black Death” – a potent schnapps made from
potato and caraway.
A Þorrablót banquet is accompanied by traditional songs, specially prepared
skits and humorous talks or pictures, followed by a night of dancing which in
true Icelandic style continues into the early hours of the morning. If it is
impossible to attend a family feast or stay in a community where even visitors
can reserve a ticket in advance, local restaurants will often create a Þorrablót
atmosphere and offer such dishes on their menus.
The mainstays of Icelandic cuisine are lamb, fish, milk products and potatoes.
Nowadays beef, pork, chicken and vegetarian options are widely available.
Farmers take pride in their free-ranging “mountain lamb” as the world’s best –
savouring of the sheep’s summer diet of wild grass, shrubs and herbs. As for
Icelandic fish, it has long had an international reputation for quality and was
exported even in medieval times. Freshwater salmon and trout can be added
on to ocean fish for variety, not to forget the popularity of salted or smoked fish.
Once seen as a staple to the diet, not least in times of poor grazing and
meagre hay harvests, sea birds such as the guillemot and puffin are now often
served as delicacies. The high-quality cod liver oil common in grocery stores is
often taken home by tourists who may find it better and cheaper in Iceland.
Whale and seal meat are also worth mentioning here as traditional, tasty
Icelandic dairy products rank first-class. Like the horses, the Icelandic breed of
cows was brought along by the settlers and thereafter bred in isolation, so that
they today comprise a unique species which has never been crossed with
others except to produce beef calves. It is popular to see them cavorting out to
pasture on the first warm days of spring, but with their good hay they give milk
that has a pure, delicate flavour year-round. Visitors should try popular
Icelandic specialities such as skyr, a cultured skimmed milk curd which today is
also copied overseas, and súrmjólk, a soured milk that is for instance delicious
with cereal and perhaps some berries or brown sugar.
Such dairy products are often served with crowberries or bog bilberries, both of
which are plentiful in the wilds of Iceland. Blueberries can be frequent too,
except along the most southerly coasts, and in some places stone bramble
berries and strawberries also await the hungry. Picking is generally possible
from sometime in July till sometime in September, and mushrooms can often
be found at the same time, if the traveller is able to distinguish the wholesome
While the capital area offers the widest spectrum of cuisines, intriguing and
even top-notch restaurants and cafés may be found all around the country. It is
even easier to find establishments serving quick helpings of pizza, burgers,
chicken and fish, while hot dogs are practically a national dish at petrol stations
and fast-food establishments. The range of sweets, including many excellent
Icelandic brands, is likely to be quite different from what people are used to at
home. Grocery stores are on hand in all but the smallest villages, and some
towns have admirable bakeries which serve pastries and nutritious breads on
Despite being banned for much of the twentieth century, beer has come a long
way since it was legalised in 1989, and today a whole flora of craft beers is on
offer. Brennivín is Iceland’s traditional hard liquor, though recent decades have
seen the development of excellent vodka and other spirits. Note that State
policy is against alcohol and tobacco advertising and taxes these goods
heavily, with the retail sale of alcohol only being allowed through the State
Alcohol and Tobacco Company, though of course many restaurants and bars
are licensed to sell drinks.
Whereas alcohol is expensive in Iceland, the finest drink available – water – is
free of charge. Icelandic tap water is always safe from the tap and among the
cleanest in the world. In some towns, visitors may be surprised to smell sulphur
when they turn on the hot water, but the minerals which might be left in the tap
from using hot water are harmless too. If you dislike the taste, just let the cold
water run a moment before filling your glass. About 90% of Icelandic homes
are now reached by geothermal water, which of course also heats them,
provides warm showers, comfortable local swimming pools, etc.
Thanks to being an isolated island reached by the Gulf Stream, Iceland enjoys
a temperate maritime climate, with refreshing summers and surprisingly mild
winters. However, the island is located right at the Arctic Circle, and its weather
is also affected by the East Greenland polar current, which curves southeastwards
off the north and east coasts. The wind direction is thus highly
While temperatures fluctuate only a little from night to day or season to season,
precipitation often begins unexpectedly and breezes can add to the cold.
Tourists should be prepared even in summer for chilly, wet, windy days; in
winter, blizzards may suddenly delay their travel plans, and blowing sand in
windstorms or late thaws in the highlands might affect their plans even in
summer. As the locals will reassure them, however: if you don’t like the
weather, just wait a bit.
Iceland has short, cool summers and long but mild winters, while wet periods
may occur in some area of the island at any time of the year, even when the
opposite side of the island or of a mountain range remains dry.
From June to August, visitors can expect average monthly temperatures of
around 10-13 °C (50-55 °F). Even if the island has of course felt the effects of
climate change, experiencing a general upward drift in average temperatures,
the warmest days are unlikely to peak above 20-25 °C (68-77 °F).
The middle of the year features the midnight sun. Due to its flat trajectory along
the horizon, the island never grows fully dark during what most Western
countries call late spring and early summer. On July 1 in Reykjavík, for
example, even if the sun sets at 23:57 and rises again at 03:04, it stays
amazingly light outside the whole time. This effect is even more pronounced in
the north of the country, where you can easily get around with constant 24-hour
lighting from early May to early August, after which the lengthening nights of
winter, in clear weather away from town lights throughout the island, are often
decorated by the northern lights.
Despite the country’s high northerly latitude, Iceland’s winter temperatures are
relatively mild. The southern lowlands have monthly averages of around 0 °C
(32 °F) in the dead of winter, while even the much colder highlands tend to
average only around -10 °C (+14 °F). Snow is commonplace, and can be seen
both as an exciting attraction as well as a possible hindrance to travel. In the
northern half or so of the island, winter snow is assured enough to open a
variety of adventure and sporting opportunities, particularly in higher reaches.
On the warmer and particularly on rainy, wet days in all of the lowlands, above
all in more southerly regions, such snow can melt away again in short order
even in mid-winter, or else partially melt and then freeze into hard, slippery ice.
Even if Iceland’s temperature figures are not so extreme, conditions are
sometimes harsh and hazardous, with snow storms or near-freezing rain in
strong winds common throughout the colder months. Travellers should always
check the weather forecast and road conditions before setting out on their
journey, preferably even discussing them with the locals, and show full
consideration for road closures or warnings.
Winter days are short, although they nowhere remain dark for the whole time.
On 1 January in Reykjavík, the sun rises at 11:19 and sets at 15:44. While the
hours of potential direct sunlight are shorter farther north on the island, twilight
lasts substantially longer everywhere than nearer the earth’s equator. Also,
although skies may be dark, Icelanders brighten up the winter days with
twinkling fairy lights, warm cosy cafés, a variety of sports and a packed
schedule of winter festivities. Every winter traveller ought to try the swimming
pools, for instance meeting the locals in a hot tub and watching the snowflakes
melt when approaching the surface.
The spring and autumn nights and days are more similar in length to each
other. High winds and stormy weather, however, may be somewhat more
common in the spring and autumn seasons. In northerly regions, snow and
wintry conditions are still likely to occur on occasion in May or even early June,
and at higher altitudes in every month of the year. Finally, one might note that
Icelanders do not follow any exact splitting of the year into four seasons, but on
calendars only show a summer half and winter half. Summer officially begins
on the First Day of Summer, which is on the last Thursday in April, and the
summer is actually supposed to turn out better, according to old beliefs, if there
is frost on that morning.
Dressing for the weather
Since Iceland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable, it’s important that
travellers prepare for any conditions, whatever time of year. They should dress
in sturdy shoes and in several clothing layers which they can add or take off
according to the situation, always having handy a wind- and water-resistant
outer layer. If there is perilous ice in winter, it is easy and advisable to purchase
cleats or other gear to put on shoes, and the wide assortment of reflectors for
the pedestrian or cyclist will help automobile drivers to notice them. Wind is a
major factor in assessing outdoor conditions, with the wind chill and possible
rain or wet snow rendering mild temperatures extremely and even dangerously
cold, if anyone is outside and unprepared. In Iceland, there is often no shelter
and it may rain or snow sideways in the wind, so repellent outer wear is much
more helpful than umbrellas, which strong gusts may quickly destroy.
Transportation to and within Iceland
Iceland is only 3-4 flying hours from Europe, and 5-6 hours from the eastern
coast of North America. From numerous cities on both sides of the Atlantic,
flights to Iceland are operated year-round, accompanied by the competition of
domestic as well as foreign airlines. In addition to normal one-way and return
fares, attractive excursion and family prices are available, as well as group
rates and variations between seasons. The Visit Iceland website presents a
comprehensive and up-to-date list of airlines flying to Iceland.
The Smyril Line ferry sails between Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland, Tórshavn in
the Faroe Islands and Hirtshals in Denmark once a week. Travellers can thus
opt for sea passage and avoid air transportation if they wish, as well as having
the option of bringing their own vehicle with them from Europe to Iceland.
A regular bus transfer service runs between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík,
and taxis and car hire services are also available. Buses and car hire are also
available for travellers at the island’s other major airports, as well as for ferry
passengers to Seyðisfjörður.
Besides the possibility of staying on the Reykjanes peninsula, near Keflavík
International Airport, the traveller can head to Reykjavík and the rest of the
capital area via a bus ride which takes about 45 minutes, relative to the BSÍ
bus terminal located near Reykjavík’s city centre. Direct drop-off and pick-up
are also available from a few points on the way, as well as from many hotels,
guesthouses and hostels in the capital area. Buses ply the BSÍ – Keflavík route
frequently, and travellers are advised on their return journey to catch a bus
which is scheduled to leave Reykjavík at least 2.5 hours before their flight’s
scheduled departure. Further information can be found at the BSÍ and Keflavík
Passengers arriving in Seyðisfjörður via the Smyril Line can continue on buses
to major destinations in Iceland, as well as to the nearby airport at Egilsstaðir.
The Visit Seyðisfjörður website provides up-to-date information on bus
Getting around in Iceland
Cars and motorcycles
Driving around Iceland is one way for visitors to take in Iceland at their own
pace. Traffic is usually sparse, and parking is rarely any issue outside of the
Reykjavík city centre. Most of the main roads are paved; however, stretches of
loose gravel, especially on mountain or farming area roads and in the interior,
as well as the country’s rugged landscape and unpredictable weather, create
challenges for even the most experienced drivers, so travellers are advised to
drive cautiously and to be well-prepared before setting out on their journey,
besides finding out current conditions and postponing or changing their plans if
The minimum age for driving in Iceland is 17. Anyone who has reached that
age and is carrying a valid driving license from another country is permitted to
drive in Iceland during a limited stay (up to one year).
Visitors arriving in Iceland via ferry can bring along their own cars and
motorcycles, not to mention bicycles. A “Green Card” or other proof of thirdparty
insurance is mandatory for motorists driving their own vehicles in Iceland,
except from countries in the EU and the EEA.
There is a wide flora of car rental agencies in Iceland. Cars can be booked
online and through a travel agent or airline, or for instance upon arrival at
airports, though it is advisable to book in advance to help reserve the type of
car a driver wants. Many types of cars are available, including small family
cars, powerful four-wheel drive vehicles and motor homes.
The Icelandic road system is fairly extensive but easy to navigate. Highway
Number 1, commonly known as the Ring Road, is the most travelled route
circling the country, giving access to all sorts of side trips. The Ring Road is
open throughout the year, though weather conditions can can close certain
sections temporarily during winter and even occasionally in summer. Most
major highways are paved, but drivers must take note and slow down in time at
places where the pavement ends and gravel starts, since a large portion of the
Icelandic road system does consist of gravel surfaces, particularly in the
highlands. These surfaces require special care even in 4WDs, but even more
so in other vehicles and on motorcycles. While most of this section will mention
only cars, the points often apply to motorcycles as well.
The condition of gravel roads can vary greatly, including potholes, unstable
loose material and washboard surfaces. Of course, gravel roads are certainly
an interesting phenomenon if the driver maintains a positive, sensible attitude
and takes care. In any case, the driver will need to pay attention to the road
ahead, reduce speed as necessary, and keep to the right when there is any
possibility of meeting others or when someone wants to pass. Loose gravel can
be difficult to drive on, and perilous to turn on sharply if the vehicle is going too
fast. Care must certainly be taken when passing another vehicle, and it also
pays to slow down on gravel when meeting one. Small rocks thrown up by the
tires can easily cause damage such as cracked windshields or a ruined paint
job. Mountain roads are often very narrow and curve frequently and
unexpectedly, definitely not designed for speeding. If you see another car
coming, look immediately for places where other cars have pulled to the side,
so that you can avoid large rocks and also not damage fragile, pretty
vegetation and unspoiled ground surfaces.
While sheep often roam free across paved roads, this is even more the case
along unpaved roads, so drivers must be watchful for them and horses, for
instance when lambs rush to their mothers on the other side of the road. In
East and Southeast Iceland, even reindeer may suddenly run across the road.
Many bridges and some tunnels only have one lane, so that one or more cars
will need to stop in time and wait for others to get by.
All of the above factors mean that journeys are likely to take longer than
expected, not counting abrupt urges to stop and photograph beautiful scenes
or walk up to magnificent waterfalls. Therefore, those who are not relaxing on a
bus tour must allow themselves plenty of time to cover distances, so as not to
get stressed by time shortages which spoil the vacation, perhaps even by
leading to faster speeds and accidents.
The general speed limit in urban areas is 50 km/h; in rural areas, it is 80 km/h
on gravel roads and 90 km/h on asphalt roads. Seat belts are compulsory for
the driver as well as each passenger, and children must be secured in
restraints suitable for their age and weight, meeting the standards of ECE
Regulation 44.04 or later. No alcohol consumption is permitted before driving,
nor open containers of alcohol in the passenger space. Headlamps or at least
daytime running lights must be switched on at all times. Off-road driving is
strictly forbidden in order to preserve the vegetation, soil and landscape. There
is an exception for driving on snow or frost, but you should enquire in particular
about the equipment and possibilities for that, and preferably accompany
experienced persons in suitably equipped vehicles. While special warning signs
often indicate the threats ahead, such as sharp bends, there is often no
separate indication to reduce speed. Every driver has the legal duty to adjust
speed according to actual conditions, at all times and everywhere.
A 4×4 vehicle is essential on undeveloped roads in the highlands and other
places where travellers may encounter rough terrain, rocks, unbridged waters,
etc. The highland roads remain closed in winter, just as the weather may at
times cause other roads to be closed as well. When the weather outlook or
road conditions are doubtful, the people where a traveller stayed or stopped
last need to know where and when s/he is planning on reaching the next
destination. Those who can go online are advised to leave details on their
plans at the SafeTravel website. If drivers are being warned not to travel at all,
or only in better-equipped vehicles, then the tourist must definitely wait for safer
conditions, perhaps asking about other enjoyable routes or things to do for the
Detailed, up-to-date maps are also important for choosing appropriate routes
and types of road, and navigation systems are in many cases reliable. While at
least self-service filling stations are operated in all towns and along major
highways, population densities and the distances between stations vary
immensely. Drivers should always make sure they have enough fuel to reach
the next station.
Visit the Icelandic Transport Authority, SafeTravel and the Icelandic Road and
Coastal Administration for further information on driving in Iceland.
The country is well-served by domestic flights, even to surprisingly remote
areas and some outlying islands. Charter planes and sightseeing flights are
also available, including by helicopter. Through coordination with bus
companies, domestic airlines enable air/bus connections to over 40 towns
The Visit Iceland website has an up-to-date list of domestic airlines.
Bus and coach
Many important destinations are linked by regular coach services, some of
which operate year-round, and guided coach tours are offered by numerous
companies. Several companies advertise a selection of bus passports, giving
travellers the freedom to wait or continue onwards at their leisure.
Strætó, the public transport company, runs buses in the capital area as well as
between major destinations around the country.
A number of ferry lines and boat operators provide transport to particular
islands and fjords, including on scheduled sightseeing excursions during the
summer. See the Visit Iceland website for an up-to-date list of ferry services.
For active types wishing to get closer to the environment, cycling is a common
way to experience Iceland. Bike hire is widely available for visitors unable to
bring their own bikes, and cycling tours are available for those who prefer a
guided experience. Spiked winter tyres or the possibility of changing to them
will prove more reliable, depending on the weather and ice conditions, more or
less from October through April, and lights and reflective clothing are a must for
The capital area and Akureyri have extensive networks of cycling and walking
paths, and many villages have at least some well-built paths, besides enjoying
less traffic. Cycling is thus a healthy, inexpensive means of reaching urban
attractions, including on some guided bicycle tours.
Outside of towns, however, cycling paths are uncommon, so cyclists normally
have to share the road with motorists. On the other hand, tourists on durable
bicycles might try some of the seldom-driven roads or even rough tracks, which
can be asked about in each area and even pinpointed on some maps. Such
options will often be covered by snowdrifts in winter. As always, Iceland’s
weather and terrain are fickle and challenging, so cyclists should acquaint
themselves with conditions before planning the day, in addition to leaving
information on their plans, as at the SafeTravel website.
Iceland mirrors the standards typical for other Nordic countries. Whatever the
clients’ means or choice, they should be able to find suitable or even highquality
accommodation. A comprehensive and up-to-date list of
accommodation in Iceland can be found on the Visit Iceland website.
VAKINN is the official quality and environmental accreditation system of the
Icelandic Tourist Board. It is a multi-faceted certification that applies to many
types of tourism service companies. To earn the VAKINN label,
accommodation or tour companies must meet comprehensive assessment
criteria and maintain high standards in all aspects of business practice.
Although certification is not mandatory, tourist services are encouraged to
obtain it, as VAKINN assures customers that the company operates in an
ethical, professional and environmentally sustainable manner.
Types of accommodation
There are hotels around Iceland to suit all tastes and budgets, from simple and
sufficient to luxurious. Visitors can choose from a range of small private hotels,
an increasing number of chic boutique locations, and chains of standardised
hotels. Several travel agencies and airlines have special accommodation offers
which can only be purchased outside Iceland, and there are also opportunities
for private people overseas to trade homes with Icelandic residents.
A comfortable guesthouse can provide lasting, friendly experiences. Most
Icelandic guesthouses are family-owned and -operated, maintaining a homey
atmosphere and personal service. These are plentiful throughout the country,
with individual regional websites providing lists for each area.
For those who want to enjoy more of the countryside and a rural spirit, farm
accommodation is ideal. Icelandic Farm Holidays is a chain of farms selling
accommodation and a variety of services, such as riding, fishing, etc. The
facilities include farmhouses, country hotels, separate houses, campsites and
cottages. Depending on the location, the client can choose between sleepingbag
accommodation and bed & breakfast services, staying in rooms with or
without private facilities. Cottages are often rented by the week. Farm Holidays
also offer guided tours and independent self-drive tours.
There are several dozen Hostelling International establishments around
Iceland, open to people of all ages. So that travellers can keep costs to a
minimum, such establishments offer budget accommodation in clean,
comfortable lodging, as well as opportunities for self-service. All such hostels
maintain a well-equipped guest kitchen and family rooms. Visit the Hostelling
International website for information and bookings.
Mountain huts and cabins
For those traversing the Icelandic highlands, mountain huts are available along
the most common trails and primitive roads. In most cases these huts are very
basic shelters, but space is limited in the high seasons, so guests will need to
book in advance, and in the off-season will need to enquire about openings.
Visitors will also need to bring all of their own food and equipment with them,
unless they can arrange for the popular option of baggage transport, which is
widely available by means of special vehicles or boats.
There are very numerous