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Last Updated: March 2018
Iceland feels like the end and the beginning of the world. With boiling mud, floating ice and geothermal steam, Iceland’s active landscapes are a reminder of how natural forces contoured our world. Everywhere you go in Iceland, you feel happily insignificant, yet deeply connected to the vast landscape. As we drove around the ring road, we were mesmerized by the contrasts in the landscape’s color, texture, and height. Snow-capped mountain ranges majestically frame tiny colorful fishing villages. Treeless black mountains seem to plunge into golden farmland. Moss-covered lava fields are dotted with statuesque horses. Iceland is a place that defies all easy definitions. But, in one word, it’s magic.
When deciding what time of year to visit, consider where you want to go, what you want to experience and your budget.
There are certain places in Iceland that are only accessible in summer, or weather permitting.
Official Name: Ísland
Government: Constitutional Republic
Regions: Iceland has 8 administrative regions.
(1) Eastern Region, Eastfjords (Austurland, Austfirðir); (2) Capital Region (Höfuðborgarsvæði); (3) Northeastern Region (Norðurland eystra); (4) Northwestern Region (Norðurland vestra); (5) Southern Region (Suðurland), (6) Southern Peninsula (Suðurnes), (7) Westfjords (Vestfirðir), (8) Western Region (Vesturland).
Language: Icelandic. English is spoken fluently by the majority of Icelanders.
Currency: ISK – Icelandic Krona. You can pay everything with a credit card. There’s no need to pull out cash.
Tipping Etiquette: No need to tip. Service and VAT are included in prices.
Water Quality: Excellent. You can drink the tap water everywhere in Iceland. Sometimes the water has a slight sulphuric smell, but it’s absolutely safe to drink.
Something Interesting: Icelanders don’t have surnames or family names. Instead, they use the traditional Nordic naming system to create last names. A child’s last name is created by using the first name of their father (or mother) plus -dóttir (daughter) or -son.
Árinni kennir illur ræðari.
A bad rower blames his oars.
You will smell Hverir (also called Námafjall geothermal field) before you see it. This red, blue and white bubbling paradise is the stinkiest, yet one of the most splendid places in Iceland. Hverir is a geothermal area located in Northern Iceland close to Lake Myvatn. As you breath in the sulfur-rich air, you’ll find yourself mesmerized by the steam and boiling mud.
Krýsuvík is a geothermal area that you can visit either to, or from the Keflavik Airport. The landscape is alive with steaming volcanic vents and boiling hot springs. A boardwalk guides you gently though this hissing field in a circular path.
The mud pools and steam vents in this geothermal field are named after a female ghost. Iceland’s largest mud pool can be found here. The gases emitted from the ground turn the surrounding lava rock into clay.
Eldhraun is a massive moss lava field in Southern Iceland. If you’re driving the Ring Road, you’ll drive right through it, between Laufskálavarða and Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. This lava landscape was one of the most striking places we experienced in Iceland. It looks like an endless pile of giant river stones covered in green carpet. The wooly fringe moss can be as thick as 50 centimeters (19.7 inches) in some places.
This unique landscape is the result of an eruption that lasted from 1783 and 1784, known as the Laki Eruption (Skaftareldar). The devastating eruption led to disease, crop failure and other catastrophes in Iceland. It’s believed that the eruption affected mainland Europe as well. During the eruption about 120 million tons of sulphur compounds were released into the air. The sulphur compounds mixed with the moisture in the atmosphere, resulting in sulphuric acid. The volcanic gas mist and ash fall resulted in withered vegetation, poisoned fields and polluted groundwater. Between 1783 and 1785, Iceland’s population was reduced to a fifth and half of the country’s livestock perished. The mist traveled to Europe and as far as Asia, resulting in dramatic weather changes and air pollution. The calamities that ensued are called the Mist Hardships.
When you Visit:
No matter how short your trip is, don’t leave without seeing the frozen landscape of Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón. These glacial lagoons are the crown jewels of Iceland. We spent hours watching fragmented glaciers float and seals swim around the icebergs. In the early evening, the silence was only broken by the melting of ice and the peculiar sound of eider ducks.
The oldest food preservation method in the world is still being used in Iceland. That method is the drying of food in the open air. Icelanders gut and hang unsalted fish on wooden drying racks. The cold winter air dries the fish (usually cod or haddock), which results in a storage life of several years. Seeing fish heads swinging in the wind is chilling yet somehow hypnotizing. Its reminds you of how so much has changed, and yet so much has stayed the same.
Interestingly, Icelanders aren’t the main consumers of stockfish. They have been exporting it on a large scale since the 13th century. Can you guess who the main consumers are today? Italy and Nigeria. Nigeria is actually the largest market for dried fish products in the word. They use fish heads in their soups and stews.
If you want to see rows and rows of drying racks, prepare yourself for the stench and go to:
The best way to warm up when the temperature is flirting with zero degrees is by jumping into a hot pot. Hot pots are warm natural baths. Some thermal baths are maintained regularly and charge a fee. These tend to be better, as they are both cleaner and hotter. Keep in mind that there may, or may not be a changing area. And because these are natural hot springs, there will be some algae.
Our favorite hot spring pool was Grettislaug. Located off the pothole-happy 748 road north of Skagafjörður, Grettislaug isn’t easy to get to. You’ll need a 4WD and some patience. When we arrived, conditions were not perfect. It was bitterly cold and so windy that I (Sabrina) could barely open the car door. But, since we drove 45 minutes to get there, we were determined to get in. So we ran as fast as we could from the changing cabin to the hot spring in our bathing suits and beanies. And, oh my, was it worth it. The hot pools (there are two) hover at a glorious temperature of 43 °C. As you soak in the heat, you’ll see a bewitching mountain backdrop, turf houses, and horses.
To locate a hot pot on your trip, use this website. We did notice that it’s a bit out-of-date, so fact-check the information before starting your drive.
As icebergs melt and break off in the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, the broken pieces float out to sea with the tide. At Diamond Beach, you’ll see the ice float and land at the black sand beach. These icebergs look like sculptures, each uniquely and majestically sculpted by the ocean water.
Geysir Bread (Geothermal rye bread) – Icelanders use geothermal energy to generate electricity, heat their homes and keep pavements snow-free. They also use geothermal energy to bake bread in the ground. This earth-baked bread is the best bread we’ve ever tasted. It’s moist, sweet, and delicious. We recommend eating geothermal bread at Laugarvatn Fontana Hot Springs (if you do the Golden Circle route) or Kaffi Borgir (if you explore Dimmuborgir and Lake Myvatn).
Harðifiskur – wind-dried haddock or cod. This popular snack can be purchased at any grocery store.
Icelandic Lamb – During the summer months, Icelandic sheep roam the countryside freely. They eat fresh herbs and plants and are never fed grain or given hormones. The meat has a distinct herbaceous taste.
Einstök Ölgerð Beer – we loved their Icelandic Toasted Porter made with Lager malt, Munich malt, chocolate malt, Bavarian hops, and authentic Icelandic roasted coffee.
You can stay in guesthouses, hotels, farms, and AirBnBs. You can also rent a campervan. Make sure to book your accommodations as early as possible, because they do fill up. To help you figure out where to stay, we’re going to share with you where we stayed. For our 16 nights, we averaged 86 USD/70 EUR per room. The lowest we paid was 66 USD/54 EUR and the highest was 135 USD/110 EUR.
This is a necessity. It costs more (we know), but from our experience it was often essential in getting us from Point A to Point B. Iceland’s weather is so unpredictable. You’ll need a car that can handle extreme weather and pothole a plenty gravel roads.
Use road.is to find out what the road conditions are every morning before you begin your drive. After selecting a region, you’ll see a map of all the roads in the selected region. Each road is highlighted with its current condition: green (easily passable), orange (spots of ice), light blue (slippery), dark blue (extremely slippery), white (wet snow/snow), purple (difficult driving), black (difficult condition), red (impassable), and grey (no winter service).
Check the website safetravel.is for warnings and alerts. This site will provide up-to-date information on storms, road closures, wind gusts, etc… For example, the alert below notifies travelers that strong wind gusts are expected from Seljalandsfoss to Vík and from Skaftafell to Jökulsárlón! The alert advises drivers on bigger camper vans to not travel in the area.
When there’s an opportunity to get gas, get it, because gas stations are simply not everywhere. When we drove in the East Fjords, we drove hours between fuel stations.
We often needed more time than what Google Maps suggested. That’s because the road conditions varied. Mountain roads take longer. Gravel roads take a lot longer (especially if there are lots of potholes). And, you’ll want to take unplanned stops to admire the scenery and the animals (reindeer, horses, birds, etc…).
We recommend slowing down before approaching a bridge, because it can be difficult to assess whether it is a single-lane or a two-lane bridge from a distance. For single-lane bridges, the rule is whoever is closer to the bridge has the right-of-way.
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