Nestled just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland stretches 40,000 square miles, but with a population less than that of downtown Cleveland, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Where it lacks in population though, it certainly makes up for with its awe-inspiring natural beauty. From glaciers and fjords to black-sand beaches and majestic waterfalls, it’s hard to look in any direction and keep your camera out of your hands.
Although it might seem daunting to visit this Nordic island in winter, many would argue this would be the optimal time. The northern lights, or aurora borealis, has been gazed upon since the Vikings established colonies in the 9th century and that sentiment of wonder has been carried on today by Icelanders and tourists alike (unfortunately, we weren’t part of those tourists, as we came a few weeks later than the ideal viewing time). And a great spot to view the lights, while beating the chill of winter, is immersed in a hot spring-fed lagoon, which there are plenty for your choosing.
Conversely, late April through September offers its own advantages in the forms of 15-22 hours of sunlight per day and the opportunity to traverse more areas of the island that otherwise would be buried in snow and ice. Additionally, for you bird-watchers out there, it’s during this time that the Atlantic Puffin nests along the rugged cliffs throughout the island.
Through our experience and suggestions from friends and locals, we discovered a few helpful tips for those of you that might be interested in visiting this magical island.
With a trip of a week or less, don’t be a hero; try and focus on more of the local sights:
Due to its deceivingly-large size, and especially with only having 6 days to work with, we found that it would be too rushed to try and circumnavigate the whole island. By looking at the map and planning out our days, we decided to cut our losses on the far-off places and focused more on local areas that we could explore in a day (from Reykjavik across to the other side of the island is just under 9 hours one-way).
A day trip took us to Glymur Waterfall, where we went on a 3-hour hike without a tour bus in sight. This waterfall is the tallest on the island and the way in which it’s situated makes it difficult to photograph. This is only the top portion, which we couldn’t see until we got within 15-minutes of the summit
For those who are cost-conscious, we suggest opting for a rental car and an Airbnb in Reykjavik:
There are certainly advantages to seeing the island via tour bus and we were actually close to going that route. However, after price-comparisons with car rentals we found that it was a little cheaper going with our own set of wheels (this included full protection, which we advise you get, due to prevalent gravel roads) for a few days than 3 bus tours. Adding to this, the freedom to explore key sites on our own time as well as off-the-beaten-path-type places gave us all the more reason to get our own buggy.
Regarding the second half of this tip...because of the vast majority of the population being located in Reykjavik, Airbnb’s are much more common there than in the ancillary cities along the perimeter. Thus we found prices to be much more affordable than not, especially for the private-dwelling variety, which is extremely scarce (and expensive!) when you get out of Reykjavik.
Don’t eat or drink:
Well, OK, you can do these things if you are either really wealthy or heed our advice. Being a remote island-nation, Iceland is very expensive and when it comes to restaurants and bars, this is no different. From just perusing the local establishments, we found your average beer to be about $13, soup $20 and a burger $25. Most places however, have happy hour for drinks that have varying timeframes which brings a pint down to $6-8. But, unfortunately for food, we didn’t see any such deals. We stocked up at the “cheap” grocery store, Bonus, which had some reasonable prices within. That being said, make sure your lodging accommodation comes complete with a kitchen, as it came in really handy for us to prepare meals.
Don’t fret about exchanging your cash:
Virtually EVERY business in Iceland accepts credit card. So save your frustration, poor exchange rates and ATM fees, because you’ll be able to swipe everywhere.
Leave your translation book at home:
Normally a priority of ours when we travel, we try to speak the basics of the country’s language as much as possible. However, Icelanders might be better at English than Americans. In addition to Icelandic, most everything is written in English and locals are quick to offer assistance in English first. Although reveling in these comforts might not be the most cultured thing to do, we did find Icelandic to be both highly-complex yet similar in certain instances.
By incorporating our newly-found tips, we were able to execute our main objective: explore the vast beauty that Iceland exudes. And even with time constraints limiting us to a fraction of what the country has to offer, what we did see was truly extraordinary.
All within a two-hour drive of Reykjavik, we discovered some fantastic sights along the Golden Circle (Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir & Kerid Crater), Glymur - the tallest waterfall in Iceland, at 198 meters, the Secret Lagoon, and Dyrhólaey.
Last, but not least, Reykjavik itself is a quaint, modern city set amidst the picturesque landscape. If you can get by the exorbitant prices, this capital city boasts great museums, a lively art-culture and very friendly locals.
So if you’ve always dreamt of going to Iceland or you discover one of your possible flights to Europe stops-over in Iceland for any length of time, DO IT. It’s a place unlike any other and most certainly worth your while. We will definitely be back to continue our adventure where we left off.