Iceland – By Paul Bloomfield
IIceland is like nowhere else you’ll ever visit. That’s not just because of the stark volcanic landscapes, the serene fjords, the giant glaciers. It’s also not only due to the puffins and whales, the frozen waterfalls, the steaming natural springs, the Viking heritage, the Northern Lights or the unique cuisine. It’s down to the Icelanders themselves, a people of unparalleled creativity and independent spirit who harbour beliefs in ancient huldufólk (elves and more) but produce groundbreaking music, who smile gently and act boldly. Iceland changes you. Visit it and you’ll discover how and why.
Language: Icelandic. English is spoken almost universally.
Currency: Króna (kr). ATMs are widespread and major credit cards are accepted.
Getting to Iceland
- Keflavík International Airport, 40km west of the capital, Reykjavík, is served by flights from around 100 European and North American cities.Airport buses from Keflavík to Reykjavík take about 45 minutes and cost from 2390kr (about £17/US$24) one-way; a number of taxi companies also offer transfers.
- Reykjavík airport, near the city centre, has flights to/from Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
- A more adventurous option is the ferry M/S Norröna sailing weekly from Hirtshals in Denmark to Seyðisfjørður in eastern Iceland, via the Faroe Islands. The ferry carries cars and campervans.
Getting around Iceland
- Regular good value flights connect Reykjavík Airport with domestic destinations, plus five airports in Greenland and Vagar in the Faroe Islands. Air Iceland Connect is the main airline.
- Buses serve most towns in summer, though services can be sparse in winter.
- Car and campervan hire is straightforward but relatively expensive, as is fuel. Roads are generally in good condition, though some are unsurfaced, and traffic tends to be light.
- Most journeys involve at least some time on the main Ring Road, Route 1, which runs a 1300km circuit around the island’s fringe.
When to go to Iceland
- For nearly endless daylight and the best weather (but also bigger crowds, so book ahead), visit in summer, from June to August.
- In winter, rates drop and you might go skiing and ice-fishing, enjoy a celestial light show courtesy of the Aurora Borealis or witness the spectacle of frozen waterfalls, but many tours, accommodation and restaurants outside Reykjavík and Akureyri close or operate limited hours.
- The shoulder months of May and September offer a good compromise.
Festivals/Events in Iceland
- Secret Solstice held in Reykjavík in June is among a growing roster of festivals showcasing international artistes and bands.
- Þorrablót, the traditional winter feast, is celebrated nationwide in February, and features dishes, such as hákarl (putrid shark), svið (boiled sheep’s head) and Brennivin (carraway schnapps), alongside more palatable flavours.
- Iceland Airwaves in November, is Reykjavík’s best-known international music festival.
Food & Drink in Iceland
- Lamb, seafood and fish are stalwarts of Icelandic cuisine. Traditionally, stockfish (dried haddock or cod) was the staple, but today a range of fish is prepared in imaginative dishes. Leturhumar (langoustines) and shellfish are a particular treat.
- In Reykjavík particularly, New Nordic and fusion cuisine is up there with the best in Europe.
- Oddly, hotdogs are a bit of an obsession. The nation’s favourites come from Bæjarins beztu pylsur (bbp.is), a van serving ‘dogs’ by Reykjavík harbour for over 80 years. Puffin is popular in season, particularly on the Westmann Islands. Skyr is a ubiquitous and delicious yogurt-like dairy dessert to sample.
- Alcohol is generally expensive in the country, but Brennivín (caraway schnapps) is reasonably priced.
Top 5 things to do in Iceland
- Watch puffins on Westmann Islands
- Tour the Golden Circle
- Hike the Laugavegur Trail
- Get involved in Rekjavík’s nightlife
- Sail and hike the Westfjords
For more information on these and other Top Iceland Activities check out our Top 10 Things to do in Iceland.
Ultimate Luxury Experience
- Heli-ski from Deplar Farm a remote converted sheep-farm on Tröllaskagi (Troll Peninsula) in northern Iceland.
- “With a chic modern design, luxury accoutrements in the form of expert chefs, sauna and spa, gym and yoga room, geothermal pool, bar, two helipads and more, and an extensive menu of activities, including heli-skiing, whale-watching, fat-biking, fly-fishing and horse-riding, this is the epitome of the indulgent Icelandic escape for those who love adventure and the great outdoors. It’s possible to hire the whole farm or individual suites.”
Ultimate Family Experience
- Riding ponies across Iceland’s volcanic landscapes makes for an exciting and memorable family adventure. Iceland’s small, friendly, sure-footed breed of horse is perfect for novices or young riders, and there are a host of riding tours available across the country, including the rugged terrain outside Reyjavik and areas within the Golden Circle.
- Some horse-riding excursions include visits to lava fields or geothermal areas, whale-watching or spotting puffins, to the delight of younger visitors. The best places for watching these avian clowns are the Westmann Islands, Lundey and the Westfjords between May and August.
What To Pack to go to Iceland
- A range of clothing is essential, especially if you intend to head out hiking, horse-riding or whale-watching. The weather in Iceland can change dramatically at the drop of a hat. Bring a breathable waterproof jacket, sturdy shoes or boots and plenty of warm layers.
- In high summer, be prepared for midges, particularly near lakes. Most don’t bite but they are irritating in swarms, and some are bloodsuckers. Insect repellent is a must in June and July at Myvátn.
- Bring sea sickness tablets, such as Stugeron, to counter the effects of rough seas on sailing trips, whale-watching tours or ferry journeys.
Health & Safety in Iceland
- Iceland is an astonishingly safe country, with a low crime rate and no venomous animals.
- Volcanic eruptions can cause disruption to travel but are unlikely to pose a danger to life for visitors.
- The biggest risk in winter is hyperthermia, though Iceland isn’t as cold as its name suggests. It’s only really likely to be a problem if trekking in isolated areas.
- Beware of running out of fuel on long car journeys, and drive cautiously on the more challenging roads.
Travel Tips for Iceland
- Plan ahead and try to book accommodation, restaurants and tours ahead of time, particularly outside summer high season, when many close or operate restricted hours or days in winter.
- Prepare for rapid changes in weather. Iceland is a four-seasons-in-one-day kind of place, even in summer, so bring waterproofs and warm layers, and be ready to adapt your plans according to the weather. If travelling as a family, keep an eye out for indoor activities and places to visit as Plan Bs, if outdoor activities need to be cancelled. .
- If driving, follow local advice, particularly when travelling on unsurfaced roads, and ensure you have enough fuel for your journey. Fuel stations can be widely spaced apart in remote areas. Consider carrying snacks and drinks on journeys.
- 101 Hotel a stylish but welcoming boutique hotel in a great location in central Reykjavík.
- Hotel Ranga is a rustic but upmarket hotel in the south of the country, with superb opportunities for Northern Lights-viewing and stargazing (from its own observatory), and an impressive restaurant.
- Deplar Farm as mentioned above in top luxury experiences, offers the best in VIP activities, service and gastronomy.
- Hotel Husafell for top performance sustainability and style in Iceland’s interior.
- Ion Adventure Hotel a chic member of Design Hotels created form the refurbishment of old staff quarters of the geothermal plant. Lots of outdoors activities and easy access to the “Golden Circle”
- Dill a New Nordic restaurant in central Reykjavík, which, in 2017, garnered Iceland’s first Michelin star.
- Slippurinn a family-run restaurant in a former shipyard workshop in the Westmann Islands, where they cook with local and foraged ingredients. It’s open from May to September only.
You have to go to…
- Gjáin, a hidden valley of almost supernatural beauty, east of Reykjavík. Twin waterfalls cascade into a verdant dell that’s a short walk from the fascinating reconstructed Viking longhouse at Stöng.
Before you go…
- Watch Börn Náttúrunnar (Children of Nature), an Oscar-nominated 1991 film following the escapades of a pair of runaway retirees in a stolen jeep across the Icelandic countryside.
Our Other Current Guides…
Paul Bloomfield is a travel writer and photographer for the likes of Lonely Planet, Wanderlust, The Telegraph, The Times and the BBC, specialising in hiking, active adventures and wildlife-watching. Follow him on Twitter @paulbtravel