The land of fire and ice, Iceland is the world’s youngest country and the fact that it’s still growing makes for a fascinating visit.
The most western country in Europe, Iceland is the second largest island in the North Atlantic and is home to just under three hundred thousand inhabitants. It is the most sparsely populated country on the continent with an average of three inhabitants per square kilometre and most of these are to be found in the south and southwest.
The first settlers came to Iceland from Norway and Ireland in the ninth century and while the country’s language and the majority of its traditions have been inherited from the Norse arrivals, there are traces of the Celtic presence which also remain to the present day. Once these new arrivals got established in the country they set up their own legislative assembly which became known as Althingi or the Althing which is currently the world’s oldest functioning government.
While the reminders of the ancient settlers are fascinating, it is the country’s geological attractions which have turned it into such a unique and popular tourist destination. From its lakes, mountains and fjords to its glaciers, volcanoes and hot springs it offers an array of natural attractions like nowhere else on earth. As well as this it provides its visitors with twenty-four hours of sunshine per day during the summer months and the best views of the Northern Lights that you are ever likely to see.
So, if you’re looking for somewhere out of the ordinary to spend even a couple of days, then Iceland comes highly recommended. The only drawback with a stay here is that due to an exceptionally high standard of living, costs are very high but if you plan and budget carefully you can enjoy the experience of a lifetime whether it’s hiking or horse riding through the volcanoes and glaciers or taking a night cruise in and out between the icebergs.
Iceland’s traditional specialties include a type of haggis made from sheep’s intestines, a cooked sheep’s head, pickled ram’s testicles and shark meat which must be buried in sand for six months before consumption in order to make it edible. Why bother? If none of these are tempting your taste buds, and quite frankly it would be worrying if they did, fear not. There are more than enough alternatives to keep hunger at bay during your stay.
Fish is probably the most popular type of food consumed in Iceland. The excellent fishing grounds which surround the country are its most valuable resource accounting for 70% of the country’s exports. The fish served in Icelandic restaurants are among the most natural and tasty in the world and are fresh all year round. One dish favoured by both visitors and locals is harofiskur which is wine-dried haddock or cod and the one to steer clear of is hakarl, the Icelandic term given to that shark meat mentioned in the first paragraph.
Meat is also very popular and you will find that lamb, pork, beef, horsemeat and reindeer are readily available in every restaurant. Like the country’s fish produce, Iceland’s meat is also extremely natural. The use of hormones in animals is prohibited as is the import of meat so everything you sample is one hundred per cent natural. Lamb is probably the most widely used meat thanks to the age-old tradition of sheep breeding in the country. Try hangikjot which is a type of smoked lamb and is very popular in sandwiches. And, those that you might want to pass on are svio, the sheeps head, and surmatur which is the name given to the aformentioned testicle dish.
While Icelandair still operate most flights into the country, they no longer hold a monopoly on the route between the UK and Iceland. GO, one of the many new low-cost airlines operating out of Britain now fly summer flights to Keflavik four times per week during the summer season. From the US and Canada, Icelandair is still the only airline which provides connections to Iceland and even this only flies to and from a few destinations in the US and one in Canada. Finally, for most other world destinations including Australia and New Zealand there are no direct connections to Iceland so the best option is to fly to London and take a connecting flight from there. In fact, for US and Canadian visitors this is also probably the easiest way to get there.
There are some ferry connections between the UK and Iceland too, but these do not come highly recommended. Frequent storms and rough seas make the journey very unpleasant and it’s also very long, some lasting up to three days.
Internal travel is excellent during the summer months with regular bus connections between all the major towns and cities as well as some buses through the Interior. BSI, the country’s long distance bus organisation has an office at the country’s main airport and provides a free timetable of all departures and tours run by the different companies. Travel by bus is expensive, however, and you are recommended to avail of the bus passes provided by BSI. Many of these also offer discounts on accommodation and ferry journeys. During the winter months, bus travel is not possible in many parts of the country and the only way to get from one city to another is by domestic air travel. Again this is very expensive, particularly for the budget traveller.
A popular way to see the country is to hire your own transport which can work out well if you are travelling in a group. This will only allow you to travel on the Ringroad, however, unless you hire an off-road vehicle so you will still have to rely on tours to see the towns and attractions which lie off this main route.
The Blue Lagoon, Reykjanes
One of the country’s most popular attractions, the Blue Lagoon is a manufactured pool of natural seawater which is laden with natural minerals and is situated in the middle of a lava field. Offering the thrill of bathing in hot water while surrounded by snow in the middle of winter or simply chilling out in the summer sunshine, it really is a unique attraction. A combination of blue algae and white mud give the lagoon its fantastic aquamarine colour which will make you want to jump in the second you get there. Daily bus services run between the lagoon and Reykjavik and Keflavik so you have no excuses.
Golden Falls (Gullfoss)
The continent’s most powerful waterfall, Gullfoss has a double cascade which falls from a height over one hundred feet above. To truly appreciate the attraction, the best time to check it out is on a sunny day when the mist which surrounds the falls creates dozens of rainbows making it really memorable. Because the falls step out for a distance of about ten metres it is also possible to walk in behind them but be warned, you will get absolutely soaked so bring a change of clothes or be prepared to walk quite a bit before being let on to any bus.
The Great Geysir
This geyser which can be found in the south west of Iceland, is actually the spring which gave rise to the word in the first place. Yes, it’s the original geyser which gave the English language its only Icelandic word. While it rarely performs anymore, the spectacle when it does is well worth catching – a jet of steaming water shooting two hundred feet upwards in the air. When it doesn’t live up to occasion, however, there is an alternative geyser nearby by the name of Strokkur. And, while its mere sixty to one hundred foot jet may not be quite as impressive as the Great Geysir, it does occur every five minutes without fail so at least you won’t have to leave the country without seeing this fascinating natural attraction.
Located in the north east of the country, this region is regarded as one of the natural wonders of the world as well as being one of Iceland’s most popular regions. Home to a vast collection of wildlife, fascinating volcanic formations and the beautiful lake which forms the main part of the reserve, there are even some volcanoes which continue to bubble and hiss making for a truly memorable excursion. Furthermore, the weather in this region is probably the best in Iceland thanks to the fact that it lies in a rain shadow adding further to its appeal. Do allow a couple of days for a visit to Myvatn, however, as there is a lot to see and to truly appreciate it, you need to be able to enjoy every aspect of the area.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum, Reykjavik
And now for something completely different but don’t get too excited – unless the idea of a 170 centimetre long sperm whale sample does it for you. The only museum of its kind in the world, this establishment houses phallic specimens of each type of mammal found in the country. Created to allow people to study the field of phallology properly (interesting) during a visit you will encounter over a hundred different ‘penile parts’ from animals including the whale, the polar bear, the seal and the walrus. Man hasn’t made it just yet but the museum has been granted permission to use such a sample if it ever became available. Well, we did say it was different.
The Icelandic capital is now regarded as one of the best party spots on the continent and after just one night you will see why. What makes going out in Reykjavik so different is the fact that during summer there is almost perpetual daylight so when you go into a club it’s daylight and when you emerge several hours later it’s daylight again. It feels like you have missed a whole night. As a rule, locals don’t go out very early. The social scene is very expensive so many drink at home first. As well as this most clubs remain open until about 6.00am so there really is no rush. One thing you will have to take part in while in Iceland is a runtur, the pub crawl to end all pub crawls, but be warned it again proves painful on the pocket so warm up before leaving with a couple of duty free drinks.
The International Viking Festival, Hafnafjorour
Taking place at the end of June every year, this festival is a century old cultural tradition celebrating the natives’ Viking ancestors. Featuring an authentic Viking market as well as battle re-enactments, horse shows, wrestling and numerous traditional games, this festival is highly entertaining, but it is extremely educational too. Other features and events include sailing trips on Viking long boats, pagan wedding ceremonies, theatrical presentations and whole animals being roasted the Viking way – on a spit over a fire. So, if you’re in the country while it is taking place you really should try to check out at least one day of the festivities.
Thjodhatid, Vesman Island
Home to one of the most eccentric artists of our time (that would be Bjõrk in case you were wondering) it would be strange not to give you a guide to entertainment in Iceland without mentioning one festival dedicated entirely to music. And, as luck would have it this is exactly what Thjodhatid is. Taking place for three days at the beginning of August on an island just off the south coast of the country, the setting make this concert what it is. Featuring a host of live bands who play through the night, catch up on your beauty sleep before you go.
Reykjavik Cultural Night
Taking place on August 19th every year, this is the night when everyone in the city commemorates the anniversary of the founding of the city. The atmosphere is electric where everyone takes to the streets celebrating every aspect of the arts. Open air concerts, parades, street music, outdoor theatre and a host of events transform the Reykjavik into one big party which culminates with a spectacular fireworks display. Restaurants, shops and galleries also stay open late to cater for the hordes that flock from all over the country to join in the festivities.
National Independence Day
As with Independence day in most countries, the events taking place on June 17th in Iceland literally take over the entire country. Crowds of people flock into the streets to help commemorate the birth of Jon Sigurdsson, their hero whose movement resulted in Iceland gaining independence from Denmark. A carnival atmosphere descends on the whole country with each town and village organising their very own celebrations so wherever you are, you are guaranteed a good time. It is advisable, however, to check out the goings on in a particular area before you go just so that you are fully informed. Also, stock up on energy because this one goes on well into the night.
The currency used in Iceland is the króna, which is abbreviated as Isk, Ikr or kr, and it is made up of 100 aurar. The notes in use are 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000kr and the coins are in denominations or 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100kr.
The country’s official language is Icelandic and is virtually the same as the original Viking language that was in use 1300 years ago. English is widely spoken, however, as is Danish.
Iceland has a much milder climate than many expect compliments of the Gulf Stream. Average temperatures in summer are between 10 and 14 degrees Celsius and in winter they are between –2 and 2 degrees Celsius. Overall, however, the weather is changeable with snow, sunshine and rain often within a couple of hours in the same day. The country also experiences continuous sunshine for two to three months in summer while from mid-November until the end of January it only receives between three and four hours of daylight.
Iceland operates on Greenwich Mean Time.
Most shops open between 9.00am and 6.00pm from Monday to Friday and from 10.00am until 2.00 or 3.00pm on Saturdays but of course this varies from shop to shop. Larger shopping centres open late on Friday, usually until 7.00pm and they also open on Sunday between 1.00 and 4.00pm. Office hours are between 8.00am and 4.00pm in summer and 9.00am and 5.00pm in winter. Many companies also take an annual three-week holiday and this usually takes place in July. Finally, banks are open from Monday to Friday between 9.15am and 4.00pm, but again this can vary and some branches in the capital do observe longer opening hours.
Electricity in Iceland operates on 220 volts AC, 50Hz.
In Iceland value added tax (VAT) is calculated at a rate of 24.5%. This is usually included on a quoted price but you should confirm this prior to purchasing anything to avoid any confusion when it comes to payment. For non-EU residents, however, the good news is that you can get 15% of this tax back on any item for which you pay over 4000kr. In order to avail of this incentive, you need to complete the necessary form when you are making your purchase. When you are leaving the country, you present both the form and the receipt at the currency exchange booth by the duty-free shop in Keflavik airport where you will receive your refund in whichever currency you wish. If you are leaving the country by ferry, get your form stamped at customs and post it to the relevant address within ninety days. VAT refunds are only applicable where you are leaving the country within thirty days of the purchase.
All that EU, US, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand nationals require to enter the country is a passport which is valid for at least ninety days after their arrival in Iceland. For all other visitors or those from the aforementioned regions who wish to gain a work or residence permit, it is recommended that you contact the Icelandic embassy in your home country for relevant information.
The country’s main tourist office is in Reykavik and is located at 2 Bankastraeti on Laugavegur Street. It is open daily from 8.30am until 7.00pm from May to September and between 9.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday at all other times. There are also numerous other branches scattered throughout the country and quite often they can be found in the town’s bus station.
Post office branches can be found in all the bigger towns and cities. They open between 8.30am and 4.30pm from Monday to Friday.
The country has three banks, Islandsbanki, Landsbank Island and Bundaoarbanki, which can be found in almost every town and village in Iceland. Most have an ATM and all provide a currency exchange facility. It’s also worth noting that Islandsbanki doesn’t charge a commission. Other options include the major hotels or The Change Group but both charge high commission and offer much poorer rates.
While travellers’ cheques are widely accepted, there are some places which may refuse to do so, particularly in more remote parts of the country. Therefore, it is advised that you change them before leaving for such destinations.
All major credit cards are also widely accepted and if you have the PIN you can use these to receive cash in compatible bank machines. The same applies to bankcards which are members of any of the international banking networks including Cirrus and Maestro.
The country code for Switzerland is 354 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 354 and the local number. There are no area codes in Iceland. Instead numbers which had five digits are now preceded by 55 and six digits numbers are preceded by 5. When you are making an international call from within the country you will need to dial 00, followed by the international code, the area code and the local number. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local code where applicable.
Siminn is the name of the country’s national telephone network and they usually have offices in the local post office as well as a number of booths outside. Public phones in Iceland accept both coins and phonecards and all can be used to make international calls. For the cheapest rates try to call between 7.00pm and 8.00am from Monday to Friday or at weekends.
Because the service charge is included in the prices of most the principal services; hotels, restaurants and taxis, tipping is entirely at your discretion. If the service you receive is particularly good, however, you can leave a small additional amount. Where a service charge is not included a tip of between 10 and 15% is sufficient.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Iceland they take place on January 1st, April 12th, Good Friday, Easter Monday, April 19th, May 1st and 24th, first Monday in June, June 17th, 1st Monday in August, December 24th, 25th, 26th and 31st. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.