Iceland Travel Guide – Europe

Gulfoss waterfall in winter, iceland

The Blue Lagoon. Photo by Jim Stevenson

Why travel around Iceland?

This is one of the most geologically interesting countries in the world, with a barren and volcanic element which gives it a dramatic, other-world charm.

Fantastic waterfalls, geysers, volcanic bubblings and blowouts, snowy mountains, grassy plains, geothermal pools for bathing and lava, lava everywhere. And trees? Nay, lad.

Iceland’s ‘Golden Triangle’ consists of Gullfoss waterfall, Strokkur geyser and Snaefell volcano.
The midnight sun – almost totally light summer nights – is an experience all of it’s own, while history buffs will love the Viking Saga stories.

Pollution and crime are close to zero, traffic jams and crowds do not exist, life stress is low and just about everyone speaks English.

Downsides

– Prices are still high, especially flights and alcohol, (even after the crunch) and may chill your bank account.
– The weather is often dire, with little blue sky visible even in the summer.
– Most of country is devoid of vegetation above boot level, though that is partly the attraction.

Weather

Best season: July and August with average lows of 8C (46F) and highs of 13C (55F).
Worst: December – March, cold temperatures with average lows of -4C (24F) and highs of 2C (35F).
OK: June, and up to 15 September – everything shuts after that, though December is lively in Reykjavik.

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: Reykjavik only or including a quick whizz around the ‘Golden Triangle’ – 4 days (include a weekend for a taste of the nightlife)
Recommended: 1-2 weeks.

Tourist Attractions

***Reykjavik – quirky and reasonably interesting, with a colourful Viking history, clean air and little crime. Excellent, if expensive nightlife, but rather dull modernist architecture occasionally enlivened by graffiti. Reykjavik Photos

***South – the country’s most popular region for tourism containing two of its most famous attractions – Gulfoss fall and Strokkur geyser. Situated near to Reykjavik.

**West – some good features all within reasonable distance of Reykjavik, with Snaefell’s extinct volcano forming the most northerly part of the touristy Golden Triangle.

**North East – one of the better regions for things to see; the distance from Reykjavik keeps the rampaging hordes away.

*South East – this holds the southern flanks of Iceland’s largest ice cap Vatnajokull. It is also home to the country’s most excitable volcano, Lakr.

South West – the Reykjanes ‘Steamy’ Peninsula is home to the most northerly city in Europe, Reykjavik but is otherwise rather barren.

West Fjords – one of the most rugged regions of Iceland with many fjords and steep mountains. Excellent for bird life due to extensive cliffs.

North – one of the least interesting parts of the country with few attractions, though popular with bird watchers.

East – quiet with few tourists, but still very accessible and with relatively good weather. Boat arrivals from Europe often start here.

Central Highlands – an uninhabited wilderness area with mountains and glaciers as well as lava fields and geothermal sites but popular for glacier hiking, snowmobile tours, iceberg strewn Jokulsarlon Lake views and tours.

Main Festivals:
Third Thursday in April: First Day of Summer ‘Sumardagurinn Fyrsti’, mild partying and a carnival in Reykjavik.
First week in June: Sailor’s Day ‘Sjomannadagurinn’, watery competitions and partying in coastal villages.
June 17: Independence Day, mainly in Reykjavik, costumes, parades, street performers etc.
Beginning of August: Verslunarmannahelgi, camp based partying in Iceland’s car accessible scenic spots; extreme drinking and mayhem.

Activities

Self Driving, preferably in a 4WD vehicle, is a lot of fun outside winter and navigation is easy as you basically stick to the asphalt and circular Route 1, passing by stunning views of smoking volcanoes, snowy mountain peaks, mounds of mossy lava rocks, bubbling hot springs, black sand beaches, waterfalls, massive seabird colonies and much more. T
he trick is to take trips off the main road when things look interesting and that’s why you need 4WD. Once offroad start to look for walks, long or short. Taking a week would be about right. See below ‘Domestic Transport‘ for rental advice.

Walking and Hiking: pretty much everywhere is walkable with lots of interesting geological features but heavily leaning towards bleak and barren.

Nightlife: unbridled boozing and dancing in the clubs of Reykjavik, with live music also on tap.

Horse Trekking: local ponies are cute and calm, so trek into the wilderness regions on one.

Whale Watching: whales and dolphins can be seen, though mainly just the Minkes.

Rafting: widely available though naturally the water is extremely cold.

Geothermal Bathing: natural and man made pools (spas) – but geothermally supplied water – indoors and out. These are curative and social for most Icelanders.
Different pools have different curative powers – including arthritis, asthma and eczema.
Reykjavik’s outdoor Blue Lagoon is #1, rich in skin-healing properties such as salts, algae and silica.

Snowmobiles/skidoos: Spectacular scooter trails and tours in the Highlands just about all year.

Bird watching: varieties of ducks, puffins and other sea birds visible in the north, NE and SW.

Fishing: pricey salmon and trout fishing. Possible but not great.

Mountain Biking: Not good as the weather will deter most due to erratic winds and rain, with lava dust storms when dry. And if that’s not enough rocks are thrown up by passing traffic.

Climbing: lots of rock but quite flakey. Great glacier crossings and ice climbing.

Skiing: December – April, but if you want to ski for real why pay ridiculous prices for these second rate pistes?

Money:
Kronur is the local currency and you may need a fair amount for a week’s trip. Credit cards are commonly used, Traveller’s Cheques OK and ATMs plentiful in urban areas. Tipping is not necessary.

Visas:
Nationals of Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, China and most developed countries do not need a visa for up to 3 months. Check if you need a visa.

Domestic Transport:
– Self-drive 4×4 hire is the most convenient way to get around, but is, of course, expensive and cars should be reserved way in advance online. Hiring on-the-spot is not recommended as it will be even more pricey and with less choice, if any! Full damage insurance is advisable as ‘roads’ are often tricky gravel tracks. Fuel is also costly.
– Buses are efficient but not frequent. FlyBus runs regular (though not frequent) bus excursions to most parts of the country, especially around the Ring Road.
– Domestic plane use is commonplace and relatively inexpensive with Air Iceland but is hardly worthwhile for the regular tourist considering the limited distances.

Electricity:
Electric sockets are 220v and take 2 round pin plugs.

Safety:
Iceland is just about the safest place on the planet, after the polar caps.

Language:
Don’t even think about learning more than the basic courtesies. Most people speak some English.

Food:
Generally pricey and often repulsive to boot – unless you fancy 6 month rotted shark meat, pickled ram’s testicles or roast puffin?
To be fair, there are plenty of fish dishes available and the smoked lamb is excellent.
Reykjavik also has ethnic restaurants, fast food joints and buffets/salad bars that are less expensive.

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