A wildly popular travel destination, Iceland vacations top the charts for bucket list adventures, romantic getaways, graduation gifts, wellness trips and more. The underpopulated island packs magic into every square inch, from its rich folklore to the raw majesty of the wilderness that begs for exploration.
Boasting world-famous attractions such as the Northern Lights and the Blue Lagoon, Iceland is already irresistible, but its lesser-known charms are what will really transform first-time travelers into repeat customers. Here’s everything you need to know about Iceland.
Despite its name, Iceland enjoys a temperate climate. Winters are mild with an average January temperature in Reykjavik of 31°F, similar to New York City. Outdoor activities carry on as usual during this time with the added bonus of possible sightings of the Northern Lights. Spring arrives in April with temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s, Fahrenheit. Summers can warm to anywhere between the mid-50s to high 70s. Temperatures usually drop down to the 40s in the fall as the hours of sunlight decrease during the day. Iceland does not necessarily have a “rainy” or “dry” season, but experiences volatile weather year-round, so be sure to be prepared for both rain and sunshine on your trip. If you are traveling during cold months, layers will be crucial.
The best time to see Iceland depends on what you would most like to see. May-September is the time to visit is whale watching is on the agenda. September is the right month to add Northern Lights excursions to a whale watching itinerary, while June through August are the ideal months for summer festivals, camping, and endless days for hiking and being outdoors. Winters can be snowy but beautiful for Aurora Borealis, soaking in hot springs, seeing ice caves, and exploring glacial lagoons.
Here are a few of Iceland’s most popular festivals and events:
January: Dark Music Days, WOW Reykjavik International Games
February: Reykjavik Winter Lights Festival, Rekjavik Blues Festival, Rainbow Reykjavik, Art in Light, Annual Icelandic Beer Festival
March: Food and Fun, Design March, Stockfish Film Festival, Designtalk, Sonar Reykjavik, Iceland Winter Games, Aldrei For Eg Sudur
April: Eve-Online Fanfest, AK-Extreme, Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival, Iceland Writer’s Retreat, Fossavatn Ski Marathon
May: Vaka Folk Arts Festival
June: Midnight Sun Run, Festival of the Sea, Viking Festival, Secret Solstice Music Festival, Iceland National Holiday, Mt Esja Ultra, Blue Lagoon Challenge, Arctic Open, WOW Cyclothon, The Color Run, Reykjavik Arts Festival
July: Lunga, Eistnaflug, Bræðslan, Folk Music Festival in Siglufjordur, Music Festival Reykholt, Medievaldays at Gasir, Laugavegur Ultra Marathon, Kexport, Thorvaldsdalur Terrain Run, The National Icelandic Horse Competition
August: Pjóðhátíð Í Eyjum, Reykjavik Pride, Reykjavik Culture Night, Bank Holiday Weekend, Innipukinn Music Festival, Reykjavik Marathon, Fireworks at Jokulsarlon, Swampsoccer
September: Reykjavik International Film Festival, Reykjavik Literary Festival, Reykjavik Jazz Festival, Iceland Noir
October: Lighting of Imagine Peace Tower, The Moorland Festival, cycle Music and Art Festival
November: Iceland Airwaves, Everybody’s Spectacular
December: Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Centenary of Icelandic Independence and Sovereignty.
Iceland is usually divided into eight general regions for tourism purposes: the Capital region, the Southern Peninsula, West Iceland, Westfjords, North Iceland, the Highlands, East Iceland, and South Iceland. They are primarily geographical, rather than administrative. The country is well-suited for road trips. The Ring Road can be driven in about 12 – 13 hours if you don’t make any stops and brings you around the entire island.
A cozy capital city, Reykjavik is sure to charm travelers with its brightly colored buildings, manifold museums, and long list of things to do. When the sun comes out, the city comes alive with people eager to catch a few rays of sun and socialize. The city’s rich arts scene captures a youthful energy that charges the many galleries and hip coffee shops of the area. During the summer, it’s easy to find live music and nightlife here. Year-round, Reykjavik is the ideal start and end point for an Iceland getaway.
Culture: Check out the city’s many art galleries, concert and meeting halls, and monuments and sculptures! You might even be able to catch some street art if you keep your eyes peeled.
Museums: Reykjavik is filled with museums! Be sure to take advantage of free entry to many of the city’s museums with a City Card!
Hallgrímskirkja (Hall-grims-girk-ga): An iconic Lutheran church which is visible from nearly any point in the city.
Harpa: A modern concert hall and conference center in the city known for its glass honeycomb design inspired by Iceland’s landscape.
The Sun Voyager: A sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason located in front of the Atlantic Ocean waterfront.
Located in the country’s northwest corner, this is where to find unspoiled wilderness. Here, folklore comes alive in the raw nature that has been kept safe by seclusion and a lack of human interruption. This uninhabited area holds a nature reserve, a spectacular set of waterfalls, and half the world’s population of some bird species.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve (Horn-strand-deer): A remote, deserted area filled with Iceland’s natural flora and fauna. This is a great place to explore the country’s natural beauty and enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking, whale watching, bird watching, fishing, and more.
Rauðasandur Beach (Ray-di-sahn-dur): A beautiful red sand beach in a remote area of the westfjords.
Látrabjarg (Lau-tra-berg): The most-visited tourist attraction in the area. The cliffs are home to millions of birds and an excellent place to spot puffins, guillemots, northern gannets, and razorbills.
Dynjandi (Din-yahn-dih): Also called “Fjallfoss,” this is the largest waterfall in the region and considered one of the most breathtaking in the country.
**Patreksfjörður (Patricks-fyor-dur): **A town in the southern part of the Westfjords with a population of about 660. Featuring many sites of natural beauty such as Látrabjarg, Dynjandi, and Rauðasandur, this area is a growing center for tourism.
Ísafjörður (Eesa-fyor-dur): By far the region’s largest town, the area boasts a selections of restaurants and cafes as well as offering a charming base for travelers.
Bolungarvík (Bowl-un-gar-vik): A fishing village, Bolungarvík is surrounded by mountains and features a national history museum and a fishing museum. With 950 inhabitants, it is the second-largest municipality in the area. The nearby locations are popular for hiking, camping, bird-watching, and horseback riding.
Hólmavík (Holm-a-vik): A town with a storied history of witchcraft, witch-hunting, and sorcery, Hólmavík also offers a Sheep Farming Museum, restaurants, a golf course, and a Tourist Information Center in addition to the Museum of Sorcery & Witchcraft.
Head North for the second largest urban area in Iceland. Akureyri, perched along the island’s longest fjord, is steeped in culture and history and calls travelers with the allure of golf, all the offerings of Lake Mývatn and its surrounding wetlands, and the summer’s midnight sun.
Ásbyrgi (Ows-byrg-ee): The capital city of the Hidden People of Iceland, this area is steeped in folklore and mysticism. Ásbyrgi is a glacial canyon which Viking settlers believed to be a hoof print from Odin’s horse.
Dettifoss (Det-ti-foss): Notable for being Europe’s most powerful waterfall and also its greyish color, which is due to the sediment in the glacial runoff that feeds the falls.
Goðafoss (GO-thuh-foss): One of Iceland’s most breathtaking waterfalls. After Christianity was made the official religion of Iceland in the year 1000, statues of Norse gods were thrown into this waterfall.
Lake Mývatn (Mee-vahtn): A stunning stop on The Diamond Circle, this volcanic lake features bubbling mud pools and geothermal caves as the north’s answer to the Blue Lagoon.
Kolugljúfur canyon (Kolu-glu-fur): A deep gorge with several impressive falls.
Kálfshamarsvík (Kalf-shah-mars-veek): An idyllic bayside cove; a true hidden gem by the Kálfshamarsnes Cape. Basalts column cliffs create an otherworldly effect surrounding the water.
Akureyri (Ah-koo-rare-ee): Located very close to the Arctic Circle, this city is packed with trendy coffee shops, high-quality restaurants, art galleries, and even some nightlife.
Sauðárkrókur (Say-dur-kraw-kur): A bustling town with tons to offer visitors including exhibitions, museums, entertainment, shopping, dining, workshops, a swimming pool, and more.
Húsavík (Hoo-sa-vik): Generally regarded as the northeast’s prettiest fishing village, Húsavík is an excellent destination for whale watching. The thriving ecosystem in the Skjálfandi Bay provides the best chances of seeing whales here than anywhere else in Iceland.
Dalvík (Dahl-veek): A popular spot for skiing, the village offers visitors the Byggðasafnið Hvoll museum, the Fiskidagurinn mikli festival, and beautiful bay views.
This is where you will find the country’s largest forest in Vatnajökull National Park, farmland, and a variety of fjords and islands. Due to the area’s natural harbors, you will also find a range of fishing villages and seaside communities on the coast.
Jökulsárlón (Yeu-kul-sarl-tron): A well-known glacial lake filled with floating icebergs and marine life.
Skaftafell (Skaf-tafell): National park with volcanoes, glaciers, campsites, and hiking trails for all skill levels.
Svartifoss (Svar-ti-foss): An otherworldly 65-foot tall waterfall plummeting down striking hexagonal basalt columns.
Hvannadalshnúkur (KWANNA-dalsh-nyooker): The highest pyramidal volcano peak in Iceland.
Fjallsárlón (Fyall-sar-lon): An iceberg lagoon at the south end of the glacier Vatnajökull.
Breiðamerkurjökull (Bray-lah-mehr-kur-yeur-kotl): An outlet glacier (ice cave) of Vatnajökull that ends at Jökulsárlón. It is breaking down over time and will eventually melt.
Öræfajökull (Err-iver-yerkotl): The largest active volcano and highest peak in Iceland, this site is located in Vatnajökull National Park and is covered by the glacier.
Egilsstaðir (Ay-ill-sta-vish): Located on the banks of the Lagarfljót river, this town is a center for local commerce and is growing as a place to find good dining options and quality accommodations.
Seydisfjordur (Sey-dis-fyor-dyor): A very friendly town rich with picturesque beauty, colorful wooden houses, and a lively community of artists, musicians, craftspeople, and students.
Fjarðabyggð (Fyard-a-byg-d): The easternmost municipality in Iceland, the name means “the settlement of the fjords.” It is known for its idyllic beauty and six fjords.
Chock full of geological diversity and natural wonder, west Iceland offers a stunning sampling of what the country has to offer. Seamlessly blending culture, history, nature, and folklore, this region will be an unforgettable part of any trip to Iceland. With many of the popular sites in very close proximity to each other, it is easy to see west Iceland at a leisurely pace and slow down enough to really soak in the raw power of the nature around you.
Snæfellsjökull National Park (Sniye-fell-syoo-coot): Covering much of Iceland’s western tip, this national park holds lava tubes and fields, native fauna, and unbeatable hiking and sightseeing.
Hraunfossar (Hrouwn-foss-ar): A stunning collection of waterfalls which stream from cooled lava.
Barnafoss (Bar-na-foss): A series of rapids running through a lava plain and ending in cascades.
Deildartunguhver (Del-dar-tun-ghar-vehr): Known as Europe’s most powerful hot spring, this water heats Akranes!
Kirkjufell (Kyierk-you-fell): This beautiful landmark is considered the most photographed mountain in the country. It has been listed as one of the top 10 most beautiful mountains in the world.
Surtshellir (Surt-sad-layher): This mile-long lava cave is composed of vitrified layers of magma and basalt.
Stykkisholmur (Stick-ish-hol-mur): An enchanting town (with free Wi-Fi throughout!) that makes a great base to explore the region.
Akranes (Ahk-rah-nes): An old fishing town with a thriving community, Akranes is part of the green energy revolution and is heated with geothermal heating from Reykjavik.
Borgarnes (Bor-gar-nes): A small town with a long history. Here, you can find a fun small-town vibe, excellent scenery, and one of Iceland’s best museums.
Home to some of the country’s most-visited tourist attractions, Iceland’s south coast is known for its beauty. Here, you will find the Golden Circle route, many of the country’s most famous waterfalls, and several other natural wonders. The coastal villages here are also famous for their fresh seafood.
Þingvellir (Thing-vell-eer): A historic site and national park, known for holding the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th – 18th centuries. Þingvellir Church and stone shelter ruins are located here as well.
Gullfoss (Gool-fahs): One of the most popular tourist attractions in the country, Gullfoss is a waterfall located in the canyon of Hvítá river.
Skógafoss (Sko-ga-foss): A waterfall located on the Skógá river, this popular site is at the cliffs of the former coastline.
Geysir (Gay-seer): Also known as the Great Geysir, this is a favorite stop along the Golden Circle and is a very active hot spring area that erupts every few minutes and is surrounded by boiling mud pits.
Seljalandsfoss (Sell-ya-lands-foss): One of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, this one is located just off of Route 1 and the road that leads to Þórsmörk Road 249.
Selfoss (Sell-foss): A small town on the banks of the Ölfusá river.
Hveragerði (Kver-a-ger-thi): This is a “greenhouse village” powered by geothermal energy.
Vestmannaeyjar (Vest-manny-yar): A town on Heimaey that was affected in 1973 by the Eldfell eruption.
Höfn (Herph-ney): Next to the fjord Hornafjörður in the southeast, this fishing town is the second largest in the area and offers scenic views of Vatnajökull.
Also called the Reykjanes Peninsula, this area is a geothermal phenomenon. This is the place to find the famous Blue Lagoon, plenty of lighthouses, hot springs, and tons of recreational activities. The division between the American and European tectonic plates is very clear in the area and the natural features include volcanic craters, lava fields, caves, hot springs, geothermal waters, and plenty of restaurants, museums, festivals, and things to do.
Blue Lagoon: This world-famous geothermal spa is a must-visit for travelers. Be sure to book in advance, this is a very popular stop and spots are limited.
Gunnuhver: A geothermal area containing fumaroles and mud pots collectively named after a female ghost that was laid there.
Krýsuvík (Chris-a-vik): This is a colorful geothermal area that looks like another planet.
**Valahnúkur: **A mountain composed of tuff layers, pillow lave, and breccia. The mountain was formed in a single eruption and provides beautiful views of the scenery surrounding the area.
Keilir (Kay-ler): A small volcanic mountain that is an easy trip between Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon.
Bridge between Continents: This small footbridge stretches over a major fissure in the earth. It was built to symbolize the connection between North America and Europe.
Grindavík (Grin-da-vik): This fishing village is where you will find the Blue Lagoon, the Icelandic Saltfish Museum, and other novel attractions.
Reykjanesbær (Reyk-yan-es-bayer): A small town with a proud history, you can find attractions such as the Viking World Museum, the Icelandic Museum of Rock, Viking World, and the Reykjanes Art Museum here.
A previously inaccessible and unexplored wilderness, the Icelandic Highlands are now open to the public for careful visitation in the summer months. The mountainous region is filled with natural hot rivers, woodlands, glaciers, and glacial rivers. The desolate nature requires the utmost preparation, respect, and caution for exploration as there are no nearby towns and no locals to lend a hand if you run into trouble, only unspoiled nature for miles around.
Askja (Ask-ya): A remote caldera located on the nothern side of Vatnajökull National Park. It was formed when a lava chamber under the surface of the earth emptied in an eruption and the roof above it collapsed. It consists of three interlinked cauldrons.
Kjölur (Kyo-luhr): The Kjölur route begins near Gullgoss, passes the Langjökull and Hofsjökull glaciers, and goes by Hveravellir, where you can find accommodation. It continues north through the mini lake district around the Blanda river and the Blöndulón reservoir and emerges at the Route 1 highway in Blönduós.
Kverkfjöll (Kvack-fyall): A mountain range on the northeast of Vatnajökull. It holds one of Iceland’s most active high-temperature geothermal areas.
Landmannalaugar (Land-man-a-lay-gar): Renowned as one of the most stunning areas in the highlands for its multicolored mountains, clear blue lakes, and bubbling hot springs, this area is popular for hiking and relaxing.
Sprengisandur (Spring-ees-ond-ur): This route is the longest stretch between the north and south and is quite desolate. On the drive, you’ll see three glaciers, Hofsjokull to the west and Tungnafellsjokull and Vatnajokull to the east. This route has strong connections with the country’s ancient folklore and was a popular hiding place for outlaws.
Þórsmörk (Thors-mork): Named for the Norse god Thor, this dreamy mountain range offers several very popular hiking routes and volcano huts for camping. There is a sauna and geothermal pool near the campground for use as well.
A Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, Iceland is the westernmost country in Europe. It is located west of Norway, northwest of Scotland, and Iceland’s norther coast is just below the Arctic Circle. The closest neighboring country to Iceland is Greenland. Map of Iceland
Get the rundown on Iceland’s climate and seasons here.
Iceland’s population as of 2018 is estimated to be about 337,780.
From mid-May to mid-August, the sun only dips below the horizon for about three hours per day and there is effectively daylight for the entire 24-hour day. In the middle of winter, there are only about five hours of effective daylight.
Iceland is beautiful year-round, and has exquisite offerings in every season. The main season begins in mid-May and lasts through early September, when the daylight hours are the longest. Beginning in July, most interior and highland routes are open, so this is a good time to travel if you have an interest in exploring these. Off-season travel in winter, spring, and late autumn when the daylight hours are short can also be very special.
If you feel comfortable, yes! Renting a car is a much more convenient option than relying on the bus system. Most of Route no. 1, which encircles Iceland, is paved except for a gravel bit between Lake Myvatn and Egilsstaðir in the North East. Many smaller roads are also gravel, but fairly easy to navigate at a cautious pace. There are many narrow roads in the countryside and “blind hills” which can be a challenge for novice drivers, but if you are familiar with the rules of the road before you set out, you are unlikely to have too many problems driving.
For more in-depth information on Iceland’s roads, visit the Icelandic Public Roads Administration website: http://www.road.is
There is a 7% VAT (value added tax) on nearly all groceries, CDs, books, newspapers, magazines, and restaurant and hotel services. For most other goods and services, the VAT is 25.5%. Sales tax is always included in the sticker prices.
A refund of VAT is available to all visitors in Iceland. The refund will result in a reduction of up to 15% of the retail price, as long as departure from Iceland is within three months of purchase. The purchase amount must be no less than ISK 4000 (VAT included) per store. All goods (except woolens) must be declared at customs before check-in. At Keflavik airport, this only applies to tax-free forms whose refund value exceeds ISK 5000.
The official language of Iceland is Icelandic, however most Icelanders speak very good English! In fact, most Icelanders speak several other languages as well, including Danish, German, Spanish, and French.
Your restaurant bill will probably already include a service charge. If it does, there is no need to tip. If it doesn’t, a 10% gratuity is acceptable. Tipping is not compulsory in Iceland, but it is appreciated.
Icelandic money is called króna (plural krónur) and is abbreviates ISK or kr. While you can pull out cash at ATMs, which are generally pretty easy to find, Visa and Mastercard are accepted almost universally in Iceland and most people there pay for everything with plastic rather than cash, including small items such as candy or gum (plus, it’s a great way to rack up rewards points on your cards!). Iceland uses the chip-and-pin (EMV) system, so if you don’t have a chip in your card, you may want to request one from your bank prior to travel as the “swipe and sign” cards will not work.
The same as other Northern European countries, Iceland’s electrical standards are 50Hz, 240 volts, so North American electrical devices will require adapter and/or converters. The sockets are two-pin, so any devices from the UK will also need adapters.
WiFi connectivity may vary based on where you are in the country or your accommodations, but generally speaking, you can expect internet access in Iceland.
Yes! The fresh water in Iceland is so clean, you can even drink the water straight from the Silfra fissure! The hot water may smell a little eggy, but that’s because it comes from geothermal hot springs, which have a Sulphur smell. Don’t worry, it won’t make you smell and it’s completely harmless.
The short answer is “probably.” Iceland uses the GSM network, which is used by both AT&T and T-Mobile. You can check https://willmyphonework.net/ if you are uncertain how yours will do in Iceland. Be sure to either opt into an International Plan or use an Icelandic SIM card to avoid racking up roaming charges once you’ve arrived!
For life-threatening emergencies, please call 1-1-2. For non-threatening illnesses or injuries or illnesses, you can call 1770 to speak with a nurse or get the location of the nearest clinic. All major towns offer urgent care for minor illnesses and injuries and many clinics set aside a few hours in the afternoon for walk-in patients.
Unfortunately, seeing the Northern Lights on a trip to Iceland is never a guarantee. There are, however, a few ways to maximize your chances of seeing them, which you can find here.
In fact, Iceland is among the safest countries in the world! The crime rate is extremely low and medical care is excellent, however caution should be taken when traveling due to natural hazards caused by weather and nature.
Definitely not. If you don’t think you’ll be interested in the local delicacies of whale, puffin, fermented shark, or sheep’s head and testicles, never fear! There is still a plethora of totally appealing food that does not require adventurous eating from guests. If you are extremely picky, there are plenty of grocery stores around to choose from.
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