Iceland is wonderful and amazing and you should definitely visit! From stunning nature and changing landscapes and some of the best food you will eat to volcanoes and waterfalls and black sand beaches! Oh and do! not! forget! the geothermal spas. You can choose pools, beaches, or rivers; Iceland has it all.
But in the interest of preparing, and you should go all boy scouts on this vacation because Iceland is a never ending change of weather, here are some tips for having the best trip to Iceland!
1. Stay on the paths
This is something I wish I knew about before my trip, because I did not realize why it is so important! I went off the path a few times, once by accident, for good pictures and thought the paths and railings were there for safety. But there is actually a more important reason: keeping Iceland’s nature as pristine and undamaged as possible. Iceland’s tourism is very new and already you can see the wear and tear on the land. Every time one person goes off the path, others will follow and eventually you create a path and then more and more people will go through that area destroying the plants and wearing away rocks and topography. We want people in 100 years to be able to see Iceland as it was made and not torn apart by our interference.
Note: Driving off road in Iceland is dangerous and illegal. Please prepare if you are renting a car!
2. Get close at the waterfalls
This may come from my personal taste and the fact I have seen very few waterfalls that are as powerful and amazing as the ones in Iceland. Admiring a waterfall from far away is admirable. Getting so close you can feel the thundering in you body and getting soaked and your hair whipped like you are in a hurricane is just something that you shouldn’t miss. I would like to mention I went in Iceland’s summer and so it was about 60 degrees, so I can imagine there being more trepidation if you are visiting in the winter. I still think you should, but I can’t judge because I didn’t have to freeze.
Some waterfalls you can even walk behind and unless you are physically unable, YOU MUST DO IT! It almost feels like a magical secret. Get a warm coat, then a rain coat, and some good shoes, and get behind that darn waterfall. At the Skogafoss waterfall you can even go down and drink from the pool, which is just unbelievably cool!
3. Wear comfortable, waterproof shoes
Whenever I travel, comfort is my number one goal in footwear. Who am I kidding, I always put comfort first. No high heels or cool shoes here. Sneaker and flats all the way! But I am more focused on it while traveling, because I can’t just change shoes. In Iceland, there is quite a bit of walking. The tour buses and cars usually park a few minutes walk away from any location you are visiting. But added to comfort level, you need to ensure your shoes can walk over rough terrain. Besides the Golden Circle, the other tours went to beaches and waterfalls that have uneven and rocky ground. Sometimes you have to walk over lava fields where you have to be extra careful. I did not realize this and this is one of my thing I wish I knew to expect, but thankfully I was prepared and besides one day where I wore normal sneakers and almost slid down a cliff trying to get a picture of a waterfall, I was fine. (And obviously I didn’t die or even get hurt but another reason to stay on the paths!)
If you can, also get your shoes to be waterproof as you will be vising waterfalls and springs and you never know when it will rain! I bought THESE water[roof tennis shoes and I use them even in my day to day life, because they are comfortable and protect you from the rain without having to wear full on rain boots. Even if you are staying in the Reykjavik chances are you are going to have to walk at least 20 minutes between places.
4. Go swimming!
DO IT!!! There is nothing like sinking into a hot tub on a cold day, but what if instead of a hot tub, it was a geothermal pool or river or ocean or spa? Iceland has it all! Something about being in warm water and seeing the mist come of the water and seeing the beautiful vistas of Iceland is just perfection. I only visited Blue Lagoon and I wish I had also visited some natural spots as well.
Tip: If you are going to do Blue Lagoon, do it right. You pay one price for all day, and unless you are going just to get some cool pictures, go for longer than the hour or two most tours give you! If you are going to pay 3 or 4 times what you would pay for any other geothermal experience, make the most of it!
5. Eat all the foods, no really, I am serious.
If you spent all of your time eating, I would not judge you. Every single thing I ate, even the sandwiches from the gas stations or grocery store were so good! The food is freaking delicious! There is a lot of seafood, that being the biggest export in Iceland, but their steak and lamb were incredible. They also have a lot of vegetarian options! There are also a lot of cafe’s in Reykjavik and you should definitely try them! They import their coffee, but they make it amazingly well. They have not let big chains such as Starbucks in, which bummed me out because I collect Starbucks cups, but I am so glad they don’t. Every cafe (and restaurant) I went to had charm out the wazoo! Each cafe is so unique and I wish I could have visited them all!
But seriously, eat out! Unless you are really hurting budget wise, let loose a bit. To save some money I ate at a bakery or at my hostel every morning and ate lunch on my tours by just getting a sandwich or soup. Then I splurged on dinner. I drank very little alcohol or soda and stuck to free water. there are tons of budget options, but beware: budget for food in Iceland means at least 15 or 20 dollars! For dinner, I generally spent 40- 50 dollars. Usually that was for an appetizer and entree.
6. Bring a raincoat
It will rain when you are in Iceland and it is very windy, so umbrellas do little to no good. This can also be used as another layer between you and the bitter cold of Iceland’s winter! It also comes in handy when visiting the waterfalls or glaciers! You could also use a waterproof winter coat, but if you are visiting in the summer, I would recommend a separate raincoat as there were times I left my coat in the tour bus!
7. Credit Cards all the way
Cash is used very little in Iceland. In fact, not once did I need it. If you prefer cash, most places will still take it, but why bother with exchanging currencies back and forth? Tips are not necessary in Iceland. It is a nice gesture for tours, but in restaurants when paying for a card, there wasn’t an option for tip. Also, never saw a tip jar.
8. Do your research for what you want to do and see
Iceland has several activities that are very popular, such as whale watching, puffin boat tours, and seeing the Northern Lights. But each of these have a specific time frame in which to have the best results. Don’t go to Iceland in June and expect to see the Northern lights when there is an average daylight of 20 hours! I have listed below what I have found the best times for these three activities are, but research for the activity you want to do. Example: you would probably have a better whale watching experience in North Iceland or if you are going and you really want to see the Northern Lights, book a trip on your first night. Most, if not all, northern light tours will let you go until you have seen them. By booking the first night, you can try as many times as you have the patience for!
Whale watching: April to October (Peak: June to August)
Puffin Tours: May to mid-August (Peak: mid-June to mid-July)
Northern Lights: Late August to mid April (Peak: late September to late March)
9. You have to call a taxi
I never needed one, though there were a few times I wanted one. And some of the points of interest such as the Reykjavik Zoo or Perla and some of the pools may be too far too walk, especially depending on where your hotel may be situated. Apparently you do not flag them down as I would do in New York, you have to call one. Your hotel or the place you are visiting can help you, but here are the 2 main taxi companies and there numbers. You never know when it could come in useful.
Note: No car ride sharing services such as Uber or Lyft or Via are available in Iceland as of yet!
10. Spend a day in Reykjavik
Iceland is beautiful and you should explore as much as you possibly can, but do not forget to spend some time in the capital city. Since Iceland is new to the mass tourism game, it is exploding with attraction, cafes, restaurants, and architecture. It is not a big city and is very walkable, but does have a bus service and taxis, as stated above. It has so many museums that really showcase Iceland’s art scene and culture. there is some really unique architecture and art murals around the city that art beautiful and make for some stunning pictures. Also, the food, I have already waxed poetically about the food, but stop complaining about the cost and eat. There is a Reykjavik city pass that gives you entrance to several museums and activities in the city. It includes bus transportation and entrance to many of the pools!
I hope that these tips are useful if you plan on visiting Iceland! Please comment with any questions, corrections, or suggestions! I would love to hear from you!