Iceland

Iceland is one of the most underrated countries in the world. The name of the country might make you think twice about going, but the natural beauty that this country has to offer is incredible. From the waterfalls, to the hot springs, to the glaciers, to the Northern Lights, the experiences you will create here will be unforgettable and will make you want to keep going back!

When to Visit

The best time to visit will depend on the type of experience you want. If you want to catch the Northern Lights, September to March would be the best months. Remember though, if you go in the winter, you will only get 4 to 6 hours of sunlight depending on the month. It is also recommended you stay at least 7 days if you are want to see the northern lights as they are very weather dependent. If you want to explore the lush scenery and never have nighttime, visit during the summer months of July and August as it will never really get dark and the sun is out for 20 hours a day.

Flight Info

All international flights will fly into Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. Iceland Air is the main airline that flies in and out of this airport and flies direct from many cities in Canada and the US. From Canada, you can find direct flights from Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. From the US, you can find direct flights from Seattle, Anchorage, Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Orlando, Boston, New York and Washington DC. Flights from the east coast of North America only take about 5 hours and from the west coast around 7 hours.

One great thing about flying Iceland Air is that you can almost always get a free stopover in Reykjavik if flying to somewhere in Europe where Iceland Air flies, for up to 7 nights. Fares on Iceland Air are normally cheaper than competing airlines as well so not only do you get the free layover but flying this airline will also help you save some money. Flights can get as low as $600US round trip.

Wow Air is another Icelandic airline that flies for very cheap prices from Canada and the US to Reykjavik. Prices can get as low as $99US for a one-way far from the east coast and $199US from the west coast. Wow air flies from Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Montreal and Toronto. Although this airline is by far the cheapest, especially for the long haul flights, the experience is much better with Iceland Air. So if the difference in cost is not much, I would recommend going with Iceland Air over Wow Air. The only other airlines that flies to Reykjavik from the US is Delta Airlines which has 3 flights a week departing from New York’s JFK.

What to Pack

If traveling to Iceland in the summer, make sure you bring a coat as it can still get chilly. Similar to most trips, packing layers is ideal because the weather can change quickly. Definitely pack a good pair of walking shoes or even hiking shoes as you will need these while exploring outside the city. And you can’t forget your swimsuit to go hang out in the famous Blue Lagoon. If you are visiting in the winter, make sure to pack warm clothes as it gets very very cold. Waterproof shoes would also be a good idea. In Iceland, they use the standard two prong European plug (Type C or Type F) so make sure you bring an adapter.

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(c) 2014 Christie Lee

Transportation

It takes about 40 minutes to get from the Keflavik Airport to the city center of Reykjavik. There are a few ways to get into the city from the airport and vice versa. You can take the Flybus which costs around $18US one way (or $32 round trip) and takes around 45 minutes. This can take you to the BSI Bus Terminal or if you pay a little more, directly to your hotel. The bus departs from the airport around 40 minutes after every flight arrival and leaves the city on the half hour from 4:30am to 2:30pm and have a few set times in the afternoon into the night. The bus is located right outside the terminal building. Children under 11 can ride for free and children from 12-15 years of age can receive a 50% discount.

Another bus you can take is the Airport Express bus offered by Gray line Iceland. This will take 45 minutes and costs around $20US each way but will take you directly to where you are staying, even if it is at a guest house. The bus departs from the airport 45 minutes after every flight arrival. Both bus services offer free Wi-Fi.

Then there is always the option of taking a taxi. Taxi’s here are run on meters so they won’t rip you off but this ride can be as expensive as $150US. So I would avoid using one to go to and from the airport if possible.

Currency & Payment

The currency used in Iceland is the Icelandic Krona (ISK). 1 USD is equivalent to about 123 ISK. You can exchange money at the airport, hotels or banks but the banks will probably give you the best rate. Credit cards are used very frequently by locals, even for small purchases, so there won’t be any issue if this is your preferred method of payment. Visa and MasterCard are accepted almost everywhere, but American Express is not as common. ATM’s can be easily found around the city.

Food and Alcohol

Alcohol is very expensive in Iceland so I would suggest purchasing some at the Duty Free store before exiting the airport if you are planning on drinking outside of bars and restaurants as it can be up to 60% cheaper. The local vodka, Reyka Vodka is one of the top in the world, and personally my favorite. So if you like Vodka, it is definitely worth buying a bottle. Also, a typical liquor only found in Iceland is Topas (which tastes like licorice). I won’t recommend buying a bottle, unless you really like this type of liquor, but it’s something that you can try at a bar. The tap water is fine to drink and actually quite delicious as it is pretty much coming fresh from the source. One thing to try while you are there is the Skyr yogurt which is so delicious, and it is very healthy for you.

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©2010 Christie Lee

Where to Stay

The first time I visited Iceland, I decided to couchsurf with my friend which was an awesome experience. We had a great host who picked us up from the airport and showed us around for the weekend. We were able to do things that the average tourist wouldn’t know about and got to meet a lot of locals. Generally, this is a pretty safe country to do this so if you are up for it, look into it – and the best part is that it is free! To this date, I am still very good friends with my couchsurfing host from Iceland. If this is not your type of thing, a few good hotels are:

  • Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel Reykjavik
  • Grand Hotel Reykjavik
  • City Center Hotel
  • Alda Hotel Reykjavik
  • Skuggi Hotel

What to Do

  • Swim in the Blue Lagoon
    • This unique source of geothermal seawater is located very close to the airport so it can be a great first or last stop on your trip. The entry costs 40 Euros which is a bit expensive but it is totally worth it and you can spend the whole day there if you want. The Blue Lagoon water get its color from the rich mineral and sulfur content and the temperature averages at about 104˚F. In the winter, it is open from 10am – 8pm and in the summer from 9am – 9pm. Guests can stay in the Lagoon for up to 45 minutes past the closing time. Definitely try the algae mask or the lava rock scrub that you can get at the bar for 10 Euros. There is enough to split one order between two people so if you are there with a friend and want to try both you can share! Also, bring conditioner and put it in your hair before and after you go in the lagoon because the sulfur will really dry up your hair.
  • See the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
    • To have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights, here are the times that are ideal to go:
      • Spring and Autumn Equinox – When the sun is directly over the equator, the lights will appear the strongest. This is on or around March 20th and September 23th every year, though these are not the only days when it’s in the sky, just the peak of the Aurora season (when they’re most visible).
      • Dark Months – From February to April and August to October the Aurora are most viewable and even spill outside of those months if the conditions are right.
      • Timing – From around 9pm to 1am is the time when the lights are most likely to appear, so be prepared to camp out for a while as they can take some time to arrive.
    • They come and go in spurts so if you can follow them to get a longer glimpse. Also, they are very hard to take pictures of. If you are bringing your camera, make sure to look up aperture and ISO settings that best capture the color in the darkness and set the camera to those settings before you go out as my hands froze trying to play with the settings outside.
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(c) 2010 Christie Lee
  • Tour the Golden Circle
    • The Golden Circle covers about 300km looping from Reykjavik to central Iceland and back. The three main stops on this adventure are the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall (meaning “golden falls”), and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Other stops include Kerið volcano crater, Hveragerði greenhouse village, Skálholt church, and the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant. The tour will take you the whole day but is well worth it to see these natural sites. You can join a tour group to do this or you can even rent a car and do it on your own.
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(c) 2010 Christie Lee
  • Go on a Horse Back Riding Tour or Hang out with the Icelandic Horses
    • Icelandic horses are very friendly and smaller than a normal horse. There are over 80,000 in the country. There are many horseback riding tours offered in the city but if you don’t have time for one, you can see them on the side of the road and if you go up to them, they will usually come running over to you to get pet.
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(c) 2010 Christie Lee
  • Go on the Runtur Pub Crawl
    • At night, all of the locals go to the bars and clubs. In the summer they drink to celebrate the long sunny days, and in the winter they drink to make it through the cold, dark ones. This weekend pub crawl goes all night long. It starts at Hlemmur and goes towards Laekjatorg. Some of the bars and clubs to hit up are B5, Austur and Prikid. B5 always has a long line but here is where you will find some beautiful Icelanders!
  • Attend one of the many Icelandic Festival
    • Iceland Airwaves Festival – takes place the first week of November in Reykjavik and highlights emerging local artists, but also includes international artists. The festival is spread out across many venues around the city and a ticket will cost around $160 US access to all shows over the 5-day festival.
    • Westman Islands Camping Festival – takes place on the weekend attached to the first Monday in August and is the biggest camping weekend of the year because it is a holiday in Iceland. The population of the Westman Islands is normally only 4,000 but will get up to 16,000 for this festival. A trip to this festival will cost you around $130-$150 US for accommodations and $50-80 US for a round trip 2 and a half hour ferry ride to the island.
  • Tour of Southeast Iceland
    • If you are in Iceland for more than 3 days, look into taking a day tour of the southeast area of the island. Here you will see glaciers and some of their famous waterfalls. The two adventure companies that offer tours to this area are Eagle Air and Arctic Adventure. You will see that there are many variations of the tour but the one that I decided to take was the Eagle Air day tour to the South Shore and Glacier Lagoon which was amazing. I took a 60-minute flight to Hornafjörður and then took a bus back to Reykjavik stopping by many sites on the way. We stopped at:
      • Vatnajökull (the biggest glacier in Iceland)
      • The Glacier Lagoon, Jökulsárlón (and took a boat tour between the floating icebergs)
      • Skaftafell National Park
      • The sea side village of Vík (awesome shoreline, black sand beach and basalt formations)
      • Skógarfoss waterfall
      • Seljalandsfoss waterfall (you can walk behind the water)
Glaciers
(c) 2014 Christie Lee
  • See Puffins and Whales in the North of Iceland

Where to Eat in Reykjavik

  • Sægreifinn – they have the best lobster soup here and serve the best seafood. This restaurant is nothing fancy though, it is best to go here for lunch or a snack.
  • Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – this hot dog stand near the harbor downtown has been open since 1937 and serves delicious hot dogs that can be topped with many condiments. A hot dog will only cost you about $2.50 US and can be the perfect snack after a late night out (the stand stays open 4:30am on weekends).
  • Icelandic Fish and Chips – as the name can tell you, here is where you get great fish and chips. They have a variety of dipping sauces to choose from and some which are typical to Iceland.
  • Grillmarkadurinn – this restaurant is located downtown and is a great place to eat dinner. It features a lot of Iceland’s cuisine which you can try on the tasting menu.
  • Sjavargrillid – located in the heart of the city and a great place for dinner. It is a bit on the expensive side but the food is amazing. A reservation is recommended.

Fun Facts

  • Iceland is roughly 64,000 square miles – about the size of the US state of Ohio. 11% of the country is covered with glaciers, and 8% of that is a single one, Vatnajökull, which is located in the vast and nearly uninhabited interior. Three of Iceland’s five glaciers are the largest in Europe. Another 30% of the land is lava fields.
  • Though it’s called Iceland, the name is a bit misleading. It seems Iceland should have been called Greenland, and vice versa. When Eric the Red colonized Greenland, he decided give it a more inviting name to entice people to move there.  Iceland, on the other hand, doesn’t even get as cold in winter as New York City, on average.
  • Only about 320,000 people live in Iceland. Of those, over 2/3 of the population live in and around Reykjavik, which is the northernmost capital in the world.
  • In Iceland, people are named using patronymics, which creates a “last” name based on the father’s first name and the person’s gender, e.g. Katrín Karlsdóttir (Katrín, Karl’s daughter). Because of this, the Icelandic telephone directory is listed alphabetically by first name.
  • Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 until March 1, 1989. Actually all alcohol was banned from 1915 to 1935, but when Prohibition was repealed, the beer ban stayed. Though the country’s unofficial national drink, Brennivin, is called “the black death” and contains 40% alcohol, some Icelanders feared the dangers of beer. Since the repeal of the beer ban, Beer Day has been celebrated on March 1.
  • Iceland is known for some odd (by American standards, anyway) delicacies like whale, puffin, boiled sheep’s head, ram’s testicles, horse, and harkarl – a kind of fermented shark. But Icelandic food is also typically very healthy and all-natural, like skyr – a thick, slightly sour yogurt that is very high in protein and nutrients but virtually fat free. Here, organic isn’t a yuppie trend, it’s just the way things are. The country doesn’t even have a McDonald’s anymore (though that was more about cost than being health-conscious). The last of the three McDonald’s restaurants in Reykjavik closed in 2009. Icelanders do consume more Coca-Cola than any other nation on Earth, per capita, but it is said to the best tasting because it is made with Icelandic water and not corn syrup.

The Icelandic Language

Iceland Small Talk

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(c) 2014 Christie Lee
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