As Iceland basks in the glory of its otherworldly landscapes, an increasing number of visitors arrive to explore its natural wonders of glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, geysers and volcanoes.
So whether it’s having your mind blown by the sheer intensity of Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall or finally being able to pronounce the names of streets and neighborhoods, here are some things you’ll learn while traveling in Iceland.
NATURE IS BOTH INCREDIBLE AND UNFORGIVING
While exploring the Icelandic landscape, you’ll not only be introduced to nature at its finest but also at its wildest. You’ll see waves five times your size crash into gigantic cliffs in Öndverðarnes and on the shiny black beach in Reynisfjara, struggle to hold your own against the strong, persistent wind at Dyrhólaey, stare in disbelief at the views at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, get drenched as you tread on the precarious ledge behind Seljalandsfoss and develop a real appreciation for glaciers as you hike on Sólheimajökull while being careful not to fall into a crevasse.
If you plan on doing a road trip in Iceland, you might find this 6-day Iceland Self-drive Itinerary useful. But remember to keep some room for flexibility because of the weather.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS BAD WEATHER, ONLY BAD CLOTHING
You’ll quickly realize that this oft-repeated phrase in Iceland is actually true. There’s actually more than one best time to visit Iceland– but you do have to figure out the time that’s right for you. To truly enjoy traveling in Iceland, whether in summer or winter, you’ll want to dress sensibly in layers, wear a hat, scarf, gloves, solid waterproof jacket that also keeps the wind chill away and sensible shoes that can take you everywhere from a glacier hike into the heart of a lava tube. If you’re planning a trip this year, here is my complete guide on what to pack for Iceland.
‘ÞETTA REDDAST’- EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY
Icelanders are generally a calm and cool people (please excuse the pun). Their relaxed and laidback attitude is aptly expressed by the phrase ‘Þetta reddast’, a sort of national motto, which means ‘Everything will be okay’. This attitude might be a result of essentially being a resilient people that have learned how to harmoniously co-exist with the unfettered forces of nature in a remote geographical location. Famously, this country of creative, intelligent and highly literate people has also weathered the storm of the 2008 financial collapse with flying colors, only reconfirming their own belief in this old saying.
If you’re interested to know more about Icelandic culture, read this post.
IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE WEATHER, WAIT FIVE MINUTES
When you go from being gently caressed by snowflakes to being smacked in the face by a ferocious wind in less than five minutes, you know that this line is not an exaggeration. The weather and wind direction can change with little warning and this can turn a four-hour journey into a six-hour one. You’ll also realize that the weather and roads forecast website is your friend.
Want local tips and personalized advice for your trip to Iceland? Connect with Halldór from Go Ask A Local! He’s an Iceland-based travel agent who specializes in self-drive trips and also offers trip planning consultations on Zoom.
AND WINDOW WEATHER IS A THING
You know the kind of weather that looks great from the window of a comfortable room with a cup of steaming hot chocolate but is completely unappealing for you to even consider stepping out of the door? The Icelandic language has a word for it- ‘Gluggaveður’ or window weather and you’ll be surprised by how often you’ll want to use it.
THE ICELANDIC LANGUAGE MIGHT BE DIFFICULT BUT IT’S BEAUTIFUL
Listening to locals speak in this enchantingly beautiful language might cause you to believe that Icelandic was meant to be the language of spells and magic (hence the effect on the foreign listener). Although ‘Eyjafjallajökull’ sounds like a rather tricky tongue-twister with hidden sounds like ‘lt’ in the end, but if you pay attention, it’s easy to make sense of the names of churches (kirkja), mountains (fjall), waterfalls (foss), glaciers (jökull), and streets (straeti) which are often just a combination of two words such as Kirkjufell or ‘Church Mountain’.
ICELANDERS REALLY RESPECT NATURE AND YOU SHOULD TOO
In a landscape as dramatic and magnificent as in Iceland, you won’t be surprised to see that the locals have a real respect for nature and pride for their country. You’ll see them talking passionately about geysers, lava fields, glaciers and volcanoes and frowning as they pause to pick up trash left behind, presumably by a tourist, on a trail or by a waterfall. Soon you’ll find yourself questioning the ignorant mindset of those who leave behind plastic trash and cigarette stubs on a glacier.
Don’t be that tourist who litters, and for the love of humanity, don’t be the idiot that gets dragged away by a massive wave because you were busy taking a selfie in a spot where you weren’t meant to be.
YOU HAVEN’T EXPERIENCED TRUE RELAXATION UNTIL YOU’VE DONE IT THE ICELANDIC WAY
Hot springs are the ultimate relaxation therapy, especially in winter and luckily Iceland has so many- not just the famous Blue Lagoon, but natural hot springs in the middle of nowhere that are great and free to use, and if you’re lucky free of other tourists.
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS ARE NOT LIKE THE PICTURES
If you’ve never seen the Aurora Borealis before, be prepared to have your mind go completely blank as you struggle to recollect everything you learnt about photographing them.
Now on a low activity day, the Aurora appears as a barely there faded green dancing light in the sky and unlike most pictures you see of the Northern Lights that are enhanced. The ISO in those images is usually cranked up so you can see the foreground- the houses or churches or the landscape, but in reality, it’s pitch dark, it needs to be so you can see the Aurora clearly. What you see from the human eye is different from what a camera lens sees but it’s fascinating nonetheless.
On a strong activity night, you’ll watch, mouth agape, as the green waves sway and swirl serpent-like above you, and it will be magical. But bear in mind that you’ll freeze your ass off and your fingers will go numb as you try to operate the camera and set up your tripod. Take a minute to not do that and just enjoy the show.
YOU’RE ALMOST ALWAYS SAFE
Iceland is one of the safest and most peaceful countries in the world; it does not have an army, only a coast guard. You’ll mostly feel safe here- whether it’s walking alone in the streets of Reykjavik at 3am or leaving your car unlocked at a gas station as you step into the supermarket to stock up on supplies. But don’t leave your common sense in your Airbnb or hostel when you step out. No place in the world is a 100% crime free, not even Iceland.
In fact, come to think of it, you’re most likely to suffer consequences in Iceland from being a stupid tourist floating off on a piece of ice at the Glacier Lagoon, driving off trail or worse, on a glacier, being somewhere that’s closed off to visitors, or being ignorant about weather warnings.
Iceland, one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, is also extremely safe if you’re a woman traveling alone. In fact, I even wrote about why I love Iceland as a feminist.
IT’S POSSIBLE TO TRAVEL AROUND ICELAND ON A BUDGET
A trip to Iceland does not have to break the bank if you’re willing to make small compromises. Stay at a hostel, Airbnb, or guesthouse instead of a hotel.
Eat on the cheap at local Pylsa (hot dog) stands, supermarkets that sell delicious sandwiches and small bakeries. Here’s a post I wrote about where to eat in Reykjavik on a budget.
Drink the tap water like the locals (it’s clean and completely safe) and refill your bottle from natural springs when you’re outdoors. Buy your alcohol at government-run liquor stores instead of bars and pre-drink before a night out. If you’re traveling by yourself, hitchhike and check the local rideshare website Samferda.is to request and book rides between towns.
THE ICELANDIC SENSE OF HUMOR IS FANTASTIC
From jokes about the financial crisis to the popularity of a new local dating phone app for incest-prevention, what makes the Icelandic sense of humor so great is the rare ability to laugh at things that make the culture unique, fascinating and sometimes a bit strange. “We’re a little weird but we like it,” is something you hear more than once and you cannot help but agree. While in Reykjavik, try to go watch a stand up comedy at one of the pubs in town or at Harpa that might be running shows of the comedy ‘How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes’.
GIANT ROCKS AND CLIFFS ARE MORE THAN GEOLOGICAL FEATURES
You’ll repeatedly hear of unusually shaped rocks, boulders and cliffs being described as trolls frozen in time, supernatural beings that were up to mischief looting ships or making merry and couldn’t make it back home before sunrise only to turn into stone. Some Icelanders believe in supernatural beings or hidden folk- elves, trolls, fairies, mountain spirits and angels, and they play an important role in legends associated with places. You can’t be blamed if you find yourself believing that the cliff you’re looking at really is an elf-church or a troll face, after all, there is something magical about nature in Iceland.
FERMENTED SHARK IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA
This traditional ‘delicacy’ is quite unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
You won’t, for the life of you, be able to understand why anyone would include this absurdity in their diet. The younger generation of Icelanders mostly agrees with you but they’ll still point and laugh.
ICELAND IS STILL GETTING USED TO THE TOURISTS
Icelanders, in general, are a trusting and laidback people and they’re slowly coming to terms with their country being in the tourism spotlight. This means that guesthouse owners won’t always ask you to pay for accommodation upfront and bus drivers might not check if you actually bought a ticket for the journey. They aren’t suspicious and trust you to do the right thing.
YOU’LL NEVER BE AS MULTI-TALENTED AS AN ICELANDER
How do you even begin to compete with an economist who writes fiction novels, sings in a local band and is also a part-time landscape photographer? And that’s just one person in a 325,000 strong population of artistically gifted, creative, smart, witty, funny and eloquent people.
Here are more posts to help plan your Iceland trip, from my Iceland Travel Blog:
More Iceland Resources
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