Iceland Backpacker Guide

Iceland Backpacker Guide

It’s not hard to see how Iceland got its nickname. The ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ is home to glaciers and fleeting ice caves, spurting geysers and lava fields. Waterfalls tumble over jagged rock, and mountains keep watch over pocket-sized fishing villages. Wherever you are in Iceland, Mother Nature is sure to put on a show, and it’s this promise that keeps visitors pouring in.

Travel in Iceland takes a lot of planning. Road conditions vary, the weather is fickle, and you’ll have a vastly different experience depending on the season you head out. It’s altogether a pretty expensive destination too.

But don’t be put off, as Iceland’s charm are worth the extra prep. To help you make the most of your trip, here’s our complete guide to backpacking Iceland, from curated itineraries to money-saving tips. The “Land of Ice and Fire” awaits.

  1. Best Time to Visit Iceland
  2. Getting around Iceland
  3. Iceland Currency
  4. Is Iceland expensive?
  5. Where to stay in Iceland
  6. Iceland Itinerary
  7. Food in Iceland
  8. Iceland Culture
  9. Iceland Travel Tips

Best time to visit Iceland

The best time to visit Iceland depends greatly on what you want to see and do. If you’re dreaming of snow-dusted landscapes and the northern lights, come in winter. If wildlife-watching and hiking is your priority, book a trip for summer.

Summer (June–August) is Iceland’s busiest season. Travellers take advantage of the near-endless days, which see as little as four hours of darkness (the sun can set as late as 11pm and rise again as early as 3am).

This is the ideal time for whale-watching. In summer, the majestic giants feed in the waters around Iceland, and tours leave from capital Reykjavík in the hope of a sighting. The lengthy summer days mean you’ve got hours to explore the dinky capital on foot, and outdoor activities, such as hiking and canoeing, won’t be cut short by the setting sun.

backpacking Iceland - icebergs

📷 kbuck10

Temperatures in Iceland

Temperatures can creep up above 20°C in summer, particularly in Reykjavík and southern Iceland, though average highs tend to be around 14°C. In the country’s northern reaches, such as in tiny second-city Akureyri, temperatures generally fall a couple of degrees below the capital.

Despite relatively mild temperatures, the weather in Iceland is changeable, even in summer. The country is notorious for having glorious sunshine one minute and battering rain the next, so it’s wise to keep a waterproof coat on hand.

In winter, temperatures tend to mill around the 1–2°C marker, often dipping below freezing. From December through to February there’s a decent chance of snow, and a fresh coating of the white stuff adds a magical touch to the stunning landscape. But during the peak of winter, daylight is elusive. There’s around four hours on average (generally from around 11am–3pm) and you’ll need to make the most of them.

Best time to see the Northern Lights

The depths of winter are also the best time to chase the northern lights. You’ve a chance of seeing them anytime from September to early April, but the odds are best in December and January, when nights are at their longest and darkest. Pay close attention to the weather forecast and the aurora forecast before you set out – if the skies are extremely cloudy, your luck will most likely be out.

For the best chance of a sighting, it’s wise to book onto a tour  – most will be run by guides with years of experience chasing the aurora. Some operators (such as Super Jeep) will take you out a second time for free if you’ve been unlucky on your first tour. If you’re determined to seek them alone, head away from the glowing capital and other residential areas bathed in artificial light. Carefully plan your route, and don’t travel if conditions are wet or icy.

Activities such as snowmobiling, dog-sledding and even skiing are extra incentives to travel in winter. Be aware though that roads in the Highlands are closed due to treacherous conditions during the winter months – that means some natural wonders, such as the otherworldly plains of Landmannalaugar and its popular hiking trails, will be off limits.

You may also want to time your trip to coincide with one of Iceland’s colourful festivals. Most famous is the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival in November (6th–9th November in 2019). It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, and for the past two decades has been bringing alternative artists from across the globe to Reykjavík. Past performers have included big names such as Florence and the Machine and Iceland-born Björk.

Snapping at Airwaves’ heels is the Secret Solstice Festival, also dubbed the Midnight Sun Music Festival. Taking up a few days in the peak of summer (21st–23rd June 2019), this weekend blast happens at Laugardalur, an area in the east of the capital known for its vast geothermal pool. Musical genres range from indie to hip-hop, with previous headliners including Radiohead and the Wu-Tang Clan.

Other events worth travelling for include the Annual Icelandic Beer Festival in February, which takes place at trendy Kex Hostel. There’s also the varied Reykjavík Art Festival in the first half of June, and the magical Christmas Village that pops up in Hafnarfjörður (around a 20-minute drive south of Reykjavík) each December.

Backpacking Iceland - northern lights

The Northern lights at Seltjarnanes – Reykjavik 📷 emanuele.semplici

Getting around Iceland

Best way to travel around Iceland

When it comes to the best way to travel around Iceland, renting a car will give you the most freedom. There’s nothing quite like taking to an open Icelandic road, with volcanic plains and snow-crowned mountains all around you. Driving allows you to cover plenty of ground and lets you stick to your own schedule. Good, reliable rental companies include Blue Car Rental and Reykjavík Cars.

There are some important things to remember. For a start, not all routes are created equal. The mountain roads in the  Interior are spectacular, but they’re also rugged and gravelly, and should only be traversed in a 4×4 drive. These highland roads are known as “F-roads”, and famous examples include F35, or the Kjölur Route, which opens out near the breathtaking Gullfoss waterfall. Interior roads are only open throughout the summer, and the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA) has up-to-date information about road closures and conditions.

Other routes, such as Route 1, the famous 1,332km ring road that loops around the entire country, offers much better conditions – though you’ll still be more comfortable in a sturdy, 4×4 vehicle.

Never stray from marked roads. Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland – it’s also dangerous and can cause irreparable damage to the country’s terrain and wildlife. You should also be vigilant when it comes to fuelling your car, as there can be long stretches between petrol stations.

backpacking iceland - sun voyager

The sun voyager in Reykjavík  📷 jcstomper 

Iceland without a car

If you’d prefer not to drive yourself, guided tours are another great option – and, given Iceland’s often testing terrain, even some of the most independent-minded travellers take up this option from time to time. An organised tour means you can sit back and drink in the scenery, while an expert guide feeds you wisdom about Iceland’s rich culture and fascinating geography.

Though on the pricier end of the scale, Super Jeep is a top pick. Tours include northern lights safaris and day-long expeditions to ice caves and glaciers, and groups are kept small. Another good choice is Extreme Iceland, whose group tours are slightly cheaper and include destinations such as the Golden Circle (see itineraries below for more info) or the wild Skaftafell wilderness area. Reykjavík Excursions offers the best value of all, with tours taking in Iceland’s popular South region, parts of wild West Iceland and more.

Bus travel around Iceland

However, if you’re on a budget and don’t mind sticking to a tighter schedule, it’s possible to get around Iceland without a car. Bus routes criss-cross the country and are run by a handful of operators.

Strætó buses cover almost the entire perimeter of the country, from Reykjavík to the west and up to the northern region surrounding the city of Akureyri too. Iceland On Your Own (organised by private company Reykjavík Excursions) is another wide-reaching network. From June through to September, using this operator you can slice through the Interior and explore parts of the Southern Region too. The far east of the country, where you’ll find picturesque fjords and sleepy fishing towns, is served by the SVAust system. There’s also an Airport Express service (operated by Gray Line) from Keflavík International Airport into the city of Reykjavík.

You can plan your route using Iceland’s practical Public Transport website or by visiting an operator’s dedicated website.

Iceland has a number of airports and a domestic flight can be a fast and cost-effective way of travelling across the country too – though you’ll sadly skim over Iceland’s unique landscapes. If you want to make a quick journey beyond Reykjavík compare bus prices with those of Iceland’s two domestic airlines: Air Iceland Connect and Eagle Air. Remember that Iceland’s unpredictable weather can often disrupt flight schedules.

 

Iceland Currency

The currency here is the Icelandic króna, meaning “crown”, and is denoted as ISK. Coin denominations are 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100, while banknote values include 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000. At the time of writing, 100 ISK is equal to around £0.64 or $0.83.

Is Iceland expensive?

The short answer is: yes. Iceland is not known for being a budget destination and capital Reykjavík can be an expensive city to explore. The slightly longer answer is: there are ways to experience the country for less.

Eating out is especially pricey and a meal for one person in a lower-end restaurant will likely cost at least 2,400 ISK (around £15/$19.86). For a three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant, you’re looking at closer to 6,000 ISK (around £38/49.66). The price of a pint of beer tends to be about 1,200 ISK (around £7.60/$9.93), and a glass of wine is around the same.

Groceries aren’t cheap either. A loaf of bread, for example, will probably be around 300 ISK (£1.92/$2.48) – but you’ll still save on funds if you cook meals yourself. Leave room in your budget for dinner at a few carefully selected restaurants then, if pennies are tight, prepare food from your accommodation the rest of the time.

Entry to attractions such as the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s top geothermal spa, come with a pretty weighty price tag too. The cost of a day visit is from 6,990 ISK (£44.71/$57.85). If you can’t quite swing it, don’t be disheartened: there are other options available. Another favourite is Nauthólsvík geothermal beach, a golden strand edged with warm waters perfect for a dip. Admission to the beach, the hot tub and the facilities is completely free in the summer, and only 500 ISK (£3.20/$4.14) in winter (when the water temperatures regularly drop below freezing).

While most of the museums in Reykjavík have an entry charge, you can find free things to do in the city too. There’s no charge to climb to the top of Harpa, the city’s concert hall, and look out across the ocean. It’s also free to watch the sun set over Tjörnin lake in the heart of the city. The best advice is to be realistic about your budget and prioritise the activities that are most important to you. For more money-saving hacks, check out our takeaway tips section at the end of the guide.

 

Where to stay in Iceland

Finding a cheap place to stay in Iceland can be tricky, but opting for a hostel means accommodation should gobble up less of your budget. Here are some of the best hostels in the capital city and beyond.

The best hosyels in Reykjavík

Kex Hostel

Consistently ranked among the best hostels in Iceland and housed in an old biscuit factory, Kex oozes industrial chic. You’ll find it in the centre of Reykjavík, a stone’s throw from the waterfront. Enjoy a pint and a burger in the buzzing gastro pub, lounge in the book-filled common area, then retire to a pared-back dorm or private double room.

 

Loft Hi Hostel

This chic spot in central Reykjavík has been voted Iceland’s best hostel on more than one occasion, and it’s easy to see why. Dorms and private rooms are sleek, the rooftop terrace offers stunning views across the city, and there’s a whole lot to be getting involved with, from free art workshops to yoga classes. This one’s a great option for solo travellers.

backpacking iceland - Loft Hi hostel

Bus Hostel Reykjavík

Perched above Reykjavík Terminal, Iceland’s key bus station, Bus has one of the best hostel lounges in Reykjavík, all retro patterned wallpaper, mirrors in gilded frames and vinyl records. Rooms, on the other hand, are fuss free with whitewashed walls and simple wooden beds. There’s a lively bar onsite too.

 

Galaxy Pod Hostel

This one gets points for sheer ingenuity. Dorm beds are replaced with futuristic “space pods” reminiscent of Tokyo’s famed capsule hotels. Make friends in the communal area, with its slouchy sofas and blackboard walls, then crawl into your pod, which comes complete with a memory foam mattress. The hostel is situated on Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main street, so you’ll be close to all the action.

Backpacking Iceland - Galaxy Pod Hostel

Hlemmur Square

Hlemmur Square is both a luxury hotel and a chic hostel (the hostel occupies the building’s 3rd and 4th floors). Ideal for couples, it’s quieter than some of Reykjavík’s other lodgings, with a minimalist design and a stylish bar serving craft beer and cocktails. It’s got a prime spot on Laugavegur, right across from the eccentric Icelandic Phallological Museum.

 

The best hostels in Iceland outside of Reykjavík

 

Akureyri Backpackers, Akureyri

Iceland’s second-largest city has a couple of great hostels. Our top pick is Akureyri Backpackers in the city’s centre. Rooms are simple but clean and bright, and there are modern facilities throughout, including a well-stocked kitchen and a casual bar. You’re also perfectly placed to go in search of northern Iceland’s natural wonders, from Lake Mývatn to Goðafoss waterfall.

backpacking Iceland - Goðafoss waterfall

Goðafoss waterfall 📷 jorgebfoto

 

Hafnarstræti Hostel, Akureyri

Another hostel that favours pods or “capsules” over traditional dorm beds, this budget option in Akureyri is one of the newer spots in town, opened in 2017. Communal areas are low-key but comfy, and single or double-bed pods are available. Travellers enjoy its location in the heart of the city.

 

Tehúsið Hostel, Egilsstaðir

Situated in East Iceland’s key town of Egilsstaðir, Tehúsið is a hostel with a heart. It’s owned and run by a local couple, who are committed to making their accommodation sustainable and environmentally friendly. There are four dormitories and two-family rooms, and you’ll be made to feel right at home at the hostel’s café/bar. Fuel up here with a healthy Icelandic breakfast before hitting the road.

 

Havarí Hostel, Djúpivogur

This family-run spot has a picturesque location on an organic vegetable farm in Iceland’s Eastfjords. Flanked by mountains and set in a wildflower-flecked valley, the hostel occupies a simple wooden building with both dorms and private rooms available. The spacious café also hosts live music events and offers a veg-laden menu whipped up with organic produce from the site.

 

Borgarnes HI Hostel, Borgarnes

Set in the pretty town of Borgarnes, this hostel is the perfect base from which to explore West Iceland. Borgarnes is less than two hours’ drive from Snæfellsjökull National Park and is often labelled the “gateway” to the stunning Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The hostel itself is basic but comfortable with airy rooms and spotless kitchens and common areas.

 

SÍMA Hostel, Flateyri

Tucked away in Iceland’s remote Westfjords region, SÍMA Hostel is a comfy place to rest your head while exploring this wild swathe of the country. Communal areas are homely, with leather couches and patterned rugs, and the mountain views are out of this world.

 

Iceland itinerary

Despite Iceland’s relatively compact size, you could spend weeks traversing the country, marvelling at its natural wonders and hitting the highlights of capital Reykjavík. So, whether you’ve got a fortnight or five days, these itineraries will help you get the most from your Icelandic adventure.

5-day itinerary: a hot-spots tour

Best for: Seeing Iceland’s classic sights and getting to grips with the capital.

Best time to travel: summer or winter.

Day 1

Fly into Keflavík International Airport – aim for a morning flight so you’ll have the whole day before you – and hop onto the Airport Express bus, which will whisk you into Reykjavík, the perfect base for your trip.

This pint-sized city is unlike other European capitals. Small in size, but big in heart, it’s more like a little town than a metropolis, with rows of rainbow houses, uber-friendly locals and a handful of unique sights.

Start your day by gazing up at Hallgrímskirkja, the futuristic church that watches over the city. For 1,000 ISK (around £6.40/$8.29) you can also head to the top of the tower.

Next make for Laugavegur, Iceland’s main commercial street. Here you’ll find quirky indie stores, from clothing boutiques to record shops, plus little galleries, cafés and more on the streets that sprout around it. The Icelandic Phallological Museum, a curious venue showcasing more than 200 penises or “phallic specimens” (yes, you read correctly…) also has its home on Laugavegur.

Pass the afternoon with a visit to Aurora Reykjavík: The Northern Lights Center, whose interactive displays are all about the elusive aurora borealis, its science and its cultural significance. The theatre here has a huge screen showing stunning images of the aurora and there’s even a cosy space filled with mats for you to lie back and enjoy them.

It’s also worth checking what’s going on at Harpa. This cultural centre and concert hall has a whole range of events from farmers’ markets to musical performances, plus panoramic views from its top floors.

If you’re travelling in summer, spend the evening at one of Reykjavík’s trendy bars. Our favourite is Bravó, a laid-back spot on Laugavegur with low lighting, scatter cushions and a great selection of beers. Long-standing Kaffibarinn is the place for true party-goers.

If you’re here in winter, begin your search for the northern lights on your very first evening. This way you’ll have more chances to try again if you’re not initially lucky.

backpacking Iceland - view of Reykjavik

Reykjavík 📷 jklongcourt2708 

Day 2

The lauded Golden Circle is a triad of Iceland’s most popular natural sights, all within easy reach of one another. Many travellers opt for a guided tour, but given the conditions are safe, you can head out independently too.

Start with Þingvellir National Park, just under an hour’s drive northeast of Reykjavík. Hiking trails will take you across the rocky terrain of the park, which is known as the founding place of Iceland’s earliest form of parliament. It’s also famed for sitting across two separate tectonic plates: North America and Eurasia.

Next, head further east still to reach the Geysir geothermal area with its belching mud pots, steaming hot springs, and Strokkur, a super-active geyser that shoots water up to 30 metres into the air every five minutes or so.

The day’s last stop before heading back to Reykjavík is Gullfoss, a thundering waterfall that crashes over 30 metres in two impressive stages. From Gullfoss, it’s under a two-hour drive west to reach Reykjavík once more.

backpacking Iceland - geysir

Strokkur 📷 simon.prochaska 

Day 3

Few travellers leave Iceland without a dip in the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in the Reykjanes Peninsula around a 45-minute drive southwest of Reykjavík. Feel any stresses seep away as you soak in popping cyan waters, framed by black volcanic rock. You can even treat yourself to a natural mud mask at the in-water “mask bar”.

Once suitably relaxed, don’t rush back to the city – the often-underrated Reykjanes Peninsula has more to offer than its famous spa. For a start, the peninsula boasts the Reykjanes UNESCO Global Geopark. The park covers more than 800 square kilometres of ground and encompasses sites such as the Hafnarberg bird cliffs. Also here is the Bridge Between Continents, a little footbridge allowing you to walk between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Day 4

For your fourth day in Iceland, set your sights south. The breathtaking Skógafoss waterfall (which you’ve more than likely seen in photographs) is a two-hour drive southeast of the city. It boasts a mighty 60-metre drop and on a sunny day, you may well see a rainbow. The waterfall is just minutes from the tiny village of Skógar, where you can stop for a coffee. An interesting string of museums here explore Icelandic culture, maritime history and agriculture too.

From here, the coastal village of Vík í Mýrdal is just half an hour further east. Feast on seafood for lunch, then make for the black sands and basalt stacks of nearby Reynisfjara Beach. Also close is Dyrhólaey, a 120-metre-high promontory that arches into the sea and makes for stunning photographs.

Make your last stop of the day at Fjaðrárgljúfur. About an hour northeast of Vík on Route 1, this striking canyon and its surrounding scenery looks as though it belongs on another planet. Its walls plunge 100 metres to the ground and keen hikers can walk between them (though be prepared for some wet conditions) or take in the views from the top.

Day 5

Beyond ice and fire, waterfalls and wildlife, Iceland has caves aplenty. Spend the last day of your trip heading in search of some of Iceland’s subterranean wonders.

If you’re travelling in winter, set your sights on glacial Vatnajökull National Park. The icy caves here are ephemeral and ever-changing. They’re formed in summer when water forces its way through the glacier, and you can visit from around November to March, when the flow of water has ceased, and ice-blue tunnels and caverns are left. The caves emerge in slightly different forms and locations each year, with the most famous being the vast Crystal Cave. Never attempt to enter a glacial cave alone – you should always take a trip with an experienced guide who will be able to lead you safely through the caverns. Popular tours include those by Extreme Iceland, with most picking passengers up from near the glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón.

Summer trippers won’t be able to see the caves at Vatnajökull, but don’t fear. Iceland boasts underground delights for the warmer seasons too. If you’ve got your heart set on some ice, head for Langjökull glacier in West Iceland. Its man-made tunnels mean ice-caving is a year-round pursuit. Or for something altogether different, head to the chocolately lava tubes of Víðgelmir, Iceland’s largest cave. You’ll don a hard hat and go deep underground for a guided tour that includes the odd ghost story.

At the end of your tour, head back to Reykjavík for a last chance to explore the city.

Backpacking Iceland - Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon 📷 beforeyoufindit 

 

7-day itinerary: a summer Highlands odyssey

Best for: incredible hikes and a chance to discover some Icelandic wildlife.

Best time to travel: summer.

 

Day 1

Arrive in Reykjavík and spend the day exploring the city’s top sights.

Day 2

Spend your second day seeking out some Icelandic wildlife. Summer is the time for whale-watching, so make a beeline for the Old Harbour where tours leave throughout the season. Whale-watching expeditions will generally last around 3 hours and the route you take will be dependent on conditions (you should wrap up warm whatever the weather – it can get chilly out at sea even in summer). Expert guides will give you the best chance of sighting minke or humpback whales and even the odd dolphin. The Reykjavík Excursions tours have a great reputation.

After a morning spent whale watching, arrive back on shore and fuel up with some lunch in the city. We recommend Café Babalú for a light bite and a mean hot chocolate.

Continue your wildlife-watching adventure by heading back to Reykjavík Harbour, where puffin tours also depart. Most guided trips head out towards the rocky islands of Akurey and Lundey in the Kollafjörður fjord. Both have vast seabird colonies, including gulls, black guillemots and, of course, puffins. You won’t disembark from your boat but you’ll sail as close as possible to the islands to catch a good glimpse of these adorable birds with their sunset-red bills and feet.

Pass the evening by grabbing dinner in Reykjavík (see the Iceland food section for some more affordable recommendations). Then if you’ve got some energy left, head to Húrra Bar on Tryggvagata street, where there’s nearly always live music.

backpacking Iceland - puffins

📷 r3dmax

Day 3

Head out on a Golden Circle tour to see a trio of Iceland’s most revered natural wonders.

Days 4–6

Summer offers the chance to explore Iceland’s Interior or “Highlands” area, where the rugged roads are closed throughout the winter.

This remote region is a dream for hikers. You’ll find no towns or villages, but many organised trails zig-zag through the area. The most popular of these is the lengthy Laugavegur trail.

You can begin this trail in the Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve, where scenery is made up of rhyolite bluffs, naturally earthy pink and rich yellow-brown, and bubbling hot springs. From here the route covers more than 50km, winding down south to tree-dotted Þórmörk, or the “valley of Thor”. On the way you’ll pass lava fields and lakes, waterfalls and colour-splashed mountains – it’s Icelandic wilderness in its purest form.

The route takes about three days to complete. Travel the whole stretch, staying in the mountain huts en route (make sure you book in advance) or camping nearby them. It will be a journey you’ll never forget.

If that option sounds too strenuous, tackle a portion of it on the Sulphur Wave trail, a 4km loop taking in bright Mount Brennisteinsalda. Fill days 5 and 6 with ideas from our “hotspots tour” instead (see above).

backpacking Iceland - Landmannalaugar

Landmannalaugar 📷 dontwait_livenow 

Day 7

After days of trekking, finish up your trip with a soothing soak in some geothermally heated waters. Depending on your budget, choose between the legendary Blue Lagoon in the Reykjanes Peninsula, or the Nauthólsvík geothermal beach in Reykjavík.

Board your flight from Keflavík International Airport feeling refreshed.

 

12–14-day itinerary: adventures on the Ring Road

Best for: Wide open roads, lesser-travelled corners and seeing large swathes of the country.

Best time to travel: While Route 1 (the Ring Road, which travels Iceland’s perimeter) is open throughout the winter, this particular self-drive itinerary is best tackled in summer. Conditions will be safer and you’ll have ample daylight hours to soak in views from the open road. Always take care when driving independently in Iceland and double check the weather before you leave your base each day.

Day 1

Fly into Reykjavík and spend the day enjoying the capital’s attractions before hitting the road the next day. Overnight in the city.

Day 2

While the Golden Circle is technically a deviation from the Ring Road, most travellers place this famous trio of sights high on their wish list. Journey between Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall, before making your way back for another night in the capital.

Day 3

Now it’s time to get your Ring Road adventure well and truly underway. Make sure your ride is fuelled up and ready to go, then strike south-east for the first leg of your journey.

Just under an hour’s drive will land you in Selfoss, a rural riverside town with impressive mountain views and several great places for a cup of coffee. Café and bookstore Bókakaffið (meaning books and coffee) is our top pick.

Once you’re suitably refreshed, continue for around another hour southeast until you reach Seljalandsfoss, a jaw-dropping waterfall visible from the Ring Road. Don’t be content with the view from your car though – this 60-metre cascade is unique in that you can walk right behind the falling sheets of water. Pull on a decent raincoat (you’ll inevitably get a little soggy from the spray) and follow the designated path around the waterfall. It’s a great photo opportunity, though it’s wise to invest in a protective waterproof case for your phone or camera beforehand.

Another 25-minute drive in the same direction and you’ll be rewarded with another waterfall. Skógafoss, also visible from the Ring Road, is easily accessible by foot. Park up and walk across the relatively even terrain to the thundering curtain of water, then head for lunch in the nearby village of Skógar.

Continue your outdoor adventure in the afternoon, by making the 10-minute journey from Skógar to the Sólheimajökull glacier parking lot. It’s from here that most guided hiking tours on the Sólheimajökull glacier will leave. Usually lasting three hours, tours (such as this one with Extreme Iceland) will teach you the basics of glacier hiking, then lead you across vast blue-hued ice sheets pointing out the most striking crags and crevices as you go.

The last stop of the day is the little village of Vík í Mýrdal, half an hour drive southeast on Route 1, and your base for the evening. Feast at one of the brilliant seafood restaurants here, then rest up ready for Day 4.

backpacking iceland - Skógafoss

Skógafoss 📷 dfesar 

Day 4

Upon arriving in Vík, most visitors rush to the famed black-sand beaches nearby – but save that for later and start your day by enjoying the charms of the village itself. Visit the picturesque Vík í Mýrdal Church and take a peek inside the small but compelling Skaftfellingur Museum, with its range of historical displays.

In the afternoon, take a wander on the black-sand beach of Reynisfjara and drink in views of Dyrhólaey.

Round off the evening by sipping some suds at Smiðjan Brugghús, the village’s hip brewpub.

backpacking iceland - Reynisfjara

Reynisfjara 📷 emersonarchie

Day 5

Begin the day by making the 1-hour-45-minute journey to Skaftafell natural area, part of Vatnajökull National Park. The reserve’s rugged expanse is perfect fodder for walkers, who’ll pass stark peaks, glaciers and waterfalls as they follow one of the many trails here. One of the most popular routes takes hikers on a 1.5km jaunt from the visitor centre to Svartifoss waterfall. This 20-metre sheet of water falls over rock formations often compared to the pipes of a church organ.

Next, jump back onto Route 1 and continue east to Jökulsárlón, a glittering glacial lagoon that could be plucked straight from the Antarctic. The surface is dotted with great hunks of blue-tinged ice and you can even take a boat to the water if you wish. Also here is Diamond Beach, a slither of black sand where you may well spot the odd seal.

If you find yourself in Vatnajökull National Park in winter, you could book yourself onto a glacier-caves tour (see our 7-day itinerary for inspiration).

Finally, head around an hour northeast on Route 1 to the fishing town of Höfn, where you should stay for the night.

Day 6

Many travellers skip through East Iceland or miss it out altogether. But once you experience the region’s unspoilt beauty, all flat lakes, fjords and fishing villages, you’ll struggle to see why.

Begin your tour of East Iceland by travelling from Höfn to Egilsstaðir, the largest town in Iceland. You’ll be on the road for a sizable stretch of time – around 3 hours 30 minutes – so break up the drive with a pitstop in Djúpivogur. This little town, an hour and a half into the journey, offers great vistas of moody mountain Búlandstindur and is an easy spot for a refresher.

Continue on – the mountainous scenery will be spectacular – until you reach Egilsstaðir. While you may be burning to get out into the Icelandic countryside, take some time to explore East Iceland’s key town. The top attraction is the East Iceland Heritage Museum, which provides good grounding for your travels through the region. It also includes an exhibition on Iceland’s wild reindeer, only found in this part of the country.

Overnight in Egilsstaðir.

Day 7

Spend your seventh day on the road exploring East Iceland’s backyard. Hallormsstadur National Forest, which sprawls for 7.4 square kilometres hugging picturesque Lagarfljót lake, is a stone’s throw from the town. Trails criss-cross the woodland, ranging from short footpaths to longer routes (up to 7km) sweeping by glacial streams and waterfalls. Also make time to visit nearby Hengifoss, one of Iceland’s highest falls – it’s unique for the terraced, rust-red rock that the water rushes over.

Spend another night dining and sleeping in Egilsstaðir.

Day 8

It’s worth taking a slight detour from Route 1 (around half an hour further east on Route 93) to reach the gorgeous waterside town of Seyðisfjörður. This is postcard Iceland, all multi-coloured houses and mountain vistas, with a burgeoning art scene to boot. For the best views, take to the water on a kayak, and be sure to duck your head into the avant-garde Skaftfell Center for Visual Art too.

If you can tear yourself from picture-perfect Seyðisfjörður, then begin your afternoon with a half-hour drive farther east still to reach remote Skalanes Nature Reserve. The site includes a dinky research centre and acres of rolling Icelandic countryside with abundant birdlife.

Head back to Egilsstaðir for one more sleep.

Day 9

It’s time to discover Iceland’s northern reaches. From Egilsstaðir, head north on the Ring Road for around one hour and a half, until you reach a turning for Route 864. Here you should take another worthwhile detour from the Ring Road. Some 40 minutes north on Route 864 will carry you to Dettifoss, another of Iceland’s watery wonders, touted as having the greatest volume of water of any falls in Europe.

Once you’ve marvelled at Dettifoss, jump back in the car, make your way to Route 1 and travel half an hour west to Reykjahlíð. This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town is an ideal base for visiting Lake Mývatn with its electric-blue waters.

Admire views of the beautiful volcanic lake, before taking a dip at the Mývatn Nature Baths, northern Iceland’s answer to the much-hyped Blue Lagoon. Also within very easy reach is the Námafjall geothermal area, with its bubbling mud pools and steaming hot springs – park up here and wind through the designated trails.

Bed down in Reykjahlíð for the night.

backpacking iceland - Myvatn Nature Baths

Myvatn Nature Baths 📷 lifewedaretolive 

Day 10

Take another rewarding detour on Day 10 up to Húsavik, around 45 minutes north of Reykjahlíð on Route 87. The town of Húsavik is trumpeted as the “Whale Capital of the World”, so take advantage of one of the regular whale-watching tours leaving from the harbour in summer. The Húsavik Whale Museum has plenty of exhibits on these wondrous creatures too.

Next get yourself back onto Route 1 (this time travelling south via Routes 85 and 845) and in around 40 minutes you’ll get to Goðafoss, a spectacular waterfall just off the Ring Road. You’ll quickly see why it’s nicknamed the “waterfall of the gods”.

Another trip west on Route 1 and you’ll arrive in Akureyri, Iceland’s second city. You’ll no doubt be exhausted from the day’s adventures, so set up camp in Akureyri, ready to explore the next day.

backpacking iceland - Husavik

Husavik 📷 emanuele.semplici

Day 11

Akureyri is consistently overlooked in favour of capital Reykjavík, but this little city has a lot to offer too. Ever a crowd-pleaser is the Akureyri Botanical Garden, with hundreds of species of Icelandic flora to admire. History buffs will love the Akureyri Museum, which delves into local traditions and folklore. Lovers of architecture, meanwhile, should make a beeline for the sleek Akureyri Church, which has become a symbol of the city.

Akureyri has some trendy spots for a sundowner too – snug R5 Bar gets points for its down-to-earth vibe and great array of beers. If you’re after live music, concert venue Græni Hatturinn welcomes a steady stream of indie bands and artists.

Bed down in Akureyri for the night.

Day 12

Continue your journey west along Route 1, and at the tiny village of Varmahlíð turn onto Route 75. Eight minutes north on this route will take you to historic Glaumbær with its Hobbit-esque turf houses and pretty turf church. Follow the road a little further north and you might even spy some wild horses – this region of Skagafjörður is famous for them.

Once you’ve taken a good look, head back onto Route 1. Your next stop is Borgarvirki, around one hour and a half southwest of Glaumbær. Borgarvirki is a mammoth basalt formation thought to be a historic fortress. It peaks at more than 10 metres and you can take the rocky route to the top (there are some steps) for panoramic views of the surrounding area.

Having snapped some photos and gulped in the fresh air, make your way down and continue south on Route 1 for one hour and a half. Once you reach the intersection with Route 50, follow this road east for 20 minutes until you reach the historic village of Reykholt, the famed home of medieval author and thinker Snorri Sturluson.

While here, take a peek at Snorralaug, a dinky geothermal pool ringed by flagstones. It may not look much, but it’s one of Iceland’s oldest preserved structures, and is thought to have been used by Sturluson himself.

From ancient Reykholt, you have two choices: continue south on the Ring Road and finish up in Reykjavík once more, or put off the flight home a few more days in favour of exploring West Iceland. Each option is outlined below.

Option 1: Having discovered a slice of medieval history in Reykholt, begin your journey south on Route 1 towards Reykjavík. Around 45 minutes into the journey, break off on Route 51 for a quick visit to Akranes, with its pretty lighthouse and absorbing folk museum. From Akranes, it’s a final 50-minute push south until you’re back where you started, in capital Reykjavík.

Option 2: If you can spare a few extra days, from Reykholt make the 30-minute drive to the town of Borgarnes, one of the most westerly points on the Ring Road. Iceland’s outlying Western Region is not served by Route 1, but it’s well worth the diversion and Borgarnes is the perfect place from which to explore it. Bed down in Borgarnes ready to explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula the next day.

Bonus: Day 13

Fill your final full day with the best of the West. From Borgarnes, it’s an hour-and-a-half drive to Kirkjufell (Chuch Mountain), a mighty cone-shaped bluff you’ll no doubt have seen in photographs. Beaches and waterfalls sit at the mountain’s feet, and a hiking route forms a ring around its base. Follow the trail before pushing further west still to Snæfellsjökull National Park, home to Snæfellsjökull glacier and around half an hour’s drive from Kirkjufell.

Begin your travels in Snæfellsjökull National Park at the visitor centre, which focuses on the historic importance of fishing here. Armed with plenty of knowledge, you can then take to one of the reserve’s many hiking trails. You could spend days exploring this national park, but if you’ve got just an afternoon follow the path along black sand and pebble beach Djúpalónssandur to Dritvík cove. The route is only around 1km.

Confident hikers may instead choose to set aside a full day to tackle the journey up Snæfellsjökull glacier, accompanied by a guide.

Spend your final night in Borgarnes.

Bonus: Day 14

Wake up bright and early and make the hour-and-a-half journey (mainly on Route 1) down south to Reykjavík. Explore the city until it’s time to fly home.

Iceland’s Westfjords

The breathtaking Westfjords are in Iceland’s far-flung north-western corner. Given its secluded location, this region doesn’t fit neatly into any one itinerary and many visitors skip it altogether. If you’re dreaming of visiting this dramatic segment of the country (and we recommend if possible), consider how best it fits into your own travel schedule.

It may be that you make an extended detour from your Ring Road adventure (routes 60 and 68 spool off from Route 1 and up towards the Westfjords). You could also take a flight from Reykjavík to the Westfjords region. Flights head into Ísafjörður, Gjögur and Bíldudalur and all take less than one hour.

Either way, we recommend that you spend at least three days exploring this most remote portion of Iceland. Though flights continue to run throughout the winter, the region is most accessible in summer (and you definitely shouldn’t attempt to self-drive the area in the depths of winter).

Top things to do in the Westfjords:

  • Discover Ísafjörður: This is the Westfjords’ largest town, surrounded by mountains and hosting a handful of places to stay. The West Fjords Heritage Museum, housed in one of Iceland’s oldest buildings, is worth a visit for a better appreciation of the region and its small population
  • Hike to Dynjandi: This stunning series of waterfalls is around 100 metres at its highest. It’s reached by a rugged but relatively straightforward 15-minute hike from the parking area.
  • Explore the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve: This sprawling nature reserve occupies the northernmost tip of Iceland’s Westfjords region, covering an area of around 580 square kilometres. Its expanse includes sparse tundra and towering coastal cliffs, the most impressive of which is Hornbjarg. This stunning crest plunges more than 500 metres into the ocean.
  • Go birdwatching on Vigur: Daily boats leave the town of Ísafjörður for Vigur, a pristine island known for its large bird population (including puffins and arctic terns) and its claim to Iceland’s only windmill.

Iceland Culture

Iceland may be a relatively young country, but it’s one with a rich cultural heritage – and that’s something that Icelanders are fiercely proud of.

It’s thought that Norsemen (or Vikings) first settled Iceland in the 9th century, and Icelandic sagas, gripping stories relating to events from this early period of Iceland’s history (from 9th–11th century) are still an important part of the culture here today. Many foreigners associate the seafaring Vikings with raids and pillages, which is accurate to a certain extent. But many led peaceful lives as fishermen and farmers in Iceland.

Pagan Norse mythology was an important part of Viking culture and is still a source of great fascination for visitors. The tales of the mighty, magical Norse Gods are also chronicled in Iceland’s beloved sagas.

The Saga Museum in Reykjavík offers a glimpse into Icelandic legend. It also focuses on important figures from Iceland’s past, such as Snorri Sturluson, a famed Icelandic writer born in the 12th century and held in great esteem by Icelanders.

Folklore is another important facet of Icelandic culture, and stories about mysterious occurrences and magical beings have been passed down through generations. Once upon a time, the regaling of these myths would have been an Icelander’s principal hobby, and regular stars of folklore legends include elves, trolls and dragons. Guides and locals that you meet during your trip will likely share snippets of these stories with you.

The Northern Lights are also imbued with their own legends and, beyond being a beautiful spectacle, they hold an important place in Icelandic culture. In the past, the lights were both revered and feared, and Norse people believed that the aurora borealis could ease the pain of childbirth. They also thought a mother who looked at the lights while giving birth would have a child born with crossed eyes.

In Norse mythology, the lights also feature as a reflection from Valkyries’ (female warriors) armour. They appear too as “Bifrost Bridge”, a glimmering bridge that would lead those killed in battle to their place of rest.

Also interesting are Iceland’s Christmas legends. Icelandic tradition swaps Father Christmas for a 13-strong team of “Yule Lads” who visit in the lead-up to the big day and leave gifts for well-behaved children. It’s traditional that children leave a shoe beside their bedroom window, which is then filled with little treats in the 13 days up until Christmas. Each of the mischievous Yule Lads has his own characteristics and habits, from an acute sense of smell to a penchant for the Icelandic yoghurt Skyr. Their mother Grýla is said to hunt naughty children and cook them up for dinner. Other than this Christmas in Iceland passes with a bounty of food, gifts and family festivities.

Music has long been an important part of Icelandic culture, and today artists such as Björk and Of Monsters and Men are taking the world by storm. Contemporary music is celebrated at numerous festivals throughout the year, but more old-school folk music has a place in many an Icelander’s heart too. Traditional Icelandic music is made up of epic and often instrumental pieces that conjure images from the country’s dramatic sagas. Modern Icelandic folk bands such as Árstíðir are keeping this musical tradition alive. Currently on a world tour, they’ve been known to play at cool music venues in downtown Reykjavík (such as Húrra bar), so check their schedule before a trip.

Iceland has a significant film industry too, and movies such as 2013’s Of Horses and Men, a moving story about a community in a remote part of Iceland, took the world by storm. Film buffs should time their trip for Reykjavík International Film Festival, from September–October, during which time some of Iceland’s best cinema is showcased.

Modern Icelandic culture is as diverse and as exciting as ever. During your travels, expect to find cutting-edge contemporary galleries in little towns, striking modern architecture, a creative food and drinks scene and a deep passion for the natural world. It’s a place where the past is never forgotten, but the future is unfolding all around.

 

Food in Iceland

Icelandic food is wholesome, hearty and generally meat and seafood heavy. Restaurants range from no-frills food trucks to swanky restaurants serving up inventive, chef-driven dishes. From some curious traditional delicacies to Iceland’s more modern foodie delights, we’ve picked the top things to eat in Iceland.

5 traditional Icelandic dishes

Some of Iceland’s most long-standing dishes may seem bizarre to the foreign visitor. Staples such as harðfiskur (dried fish) are passed down from modern Icelanders’ forefathers, who had to go to great lengths to preserve their precious food supplies throughout the country’s stark, dark winters. Here are some old Icelandic delicacies that have stood the test of time – fussy eaters, look away now.

Hákarl

One of Iceland’s most prolific age-old dishes is hákarl, or fermented shark flesh, which is often dubbed the country’s national dish. The fresh flesh contains toxins harmful for humans, but savvy Norsemen discovered that burying it for several months would release these poisons and make the shark safe for consumption. Modern Icelanders follow a similar process today, though the flesh is often left in special containers, rather than buried underground. It’s then offered up in small chunks.

Hákarl is the Marmite of Icelandic cuisine – some love it, many hate it. The smell is pungent and the taste (especially the aftertaste) overpowering, with many likening it to the flavour of extremely strong cheese. It’s traditionally washed down with Brennivín or “Black Death”, a strong traditional schnapps drink that’s equally divisive.

Svið

Another dish reserved for those that are strong of stomach is svið, or boiled sheep’s head. It has its roots in the Viking age, when a “waste-not-want-not” attitude was not only preferred, but vital. The sheep’s head is cut in half, the brain removed, the fur singed off, then it’s boiled until cooked. It’s usually served with mashed potatoes and root veggies. If this doesn’t take your fancy, you could try lamb, Icelanders’ preferred meat, in the form of slow-cooked chops or in kjötsúpa, a kind of chunky lamb soup.

Plokkfiskur

Given Iceland is an island nation, seafood is prolific in the country’s cuisine. One of the country’s less daunting traditional dishes, plokkfiskur is a creamy fish stew made with fresh, flaky white fish, potatoes and onions and a thick white sauce. It’s usually served up with a hunk of Icelandic rye bread. Icelandic fish soup (fiskisúpa), made with the catch of the day, warming stock and finely chopped veggies is worth a try too.

Harðfiskur

Another centuries-old staple harking back to Icelanders’ thrifty ancestors is harðfiskur, or dried fish. Fish such as cod or haddock are gutted, hung out to dry, then pounded flat to make a snack often compared to jerky. It’s still a popular bite here and can be picked up at grocery stores and markets across the country.

Hrútspungar

Last, but certainly not least is hrútspungar, or ram’s testicles. Traditionally served at the winter festival of Þorrablót, the testicles are usually pressed and cured with whey. This is another delicacy with mixed reviews.

 

5 must-eat foods in Iceland – and where to try them

While Icelanders are faithful to the dishes of their forefathers, there are many less frightening foods that Icelanders enjoy on a more regular basis. We’ve picked some tasty Icelandic eats you can’t leave the island without trying.

A hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur

Lauded by tourists and locals alike, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is a humble hot dog stand that has enjoyed a string of celebrity punters since the company was established in 1937 (including former president Bill Clinton, who visited in 2004). Those prepared to wait in line will be rewarded with a lamb hot dog smothered in mustard, ketchup and sweet remoulade, topped with raw and crispy onions, and cased in a soft, white roll.

Skyr

This thick, creamy Icelandic yoghurt has its roots in the Viking age in Iceland, and is even referenced in several Icelandic sagas. While Skyr is now available across the world, it remains integral to the Icelandic diet and it’s well worth trying it in its country of origin. It’s often eaten at breakfast, with berries or mixed into porridge. Versatile Skyr also doubles up as a dessert: eat it at Reykjavík’s laid-back Kaffi Loki with single cream and sugar or dolloped onto sweet pancakes with caramel sauce.

Icelandic rye bread

Dense and cake-like, Icelandic rye bread or rúgbrauð

was traditionally baked in a pot underground, cooked by geothermal heat from bubbling geysers. It is still produced this way in Laugavatn, around 1-hour-15-minutes east of Reykjavík. You can visit the geothermal bakery at Laugavatn Fontana spa, where you can watch and learn more about this process, and also sample some freshly baked bread served straight from the ground. If you want to sample some rye in Reykjavík, head to mural-covered Brauð & Co on Frakkastigur street.

Fish and chips

Great seafood abounds in Iceland, and you can feast on cod, haddock, halibut, lobster, mackerel and more. But one of the most comforting seafood dishes here is the Icelandic take on the British staple of fish and chips. Fish encased in a light batter and served with baked wedges is served at Icelandic Fish and Chips in Reykjavík.

But the unlikely purveyor of Iceland’s best fish and chips is Papas’ Restaurant in Grindavik, an hour from Reykjavík in the Reykjanes Peninsula. Their cod comes deep fried with fluffy chips, crisp lettuce and tartare sauce, and is accompanied on the menu by a long string of tasty pizzas. Iceland’s first street-food hall, Grandi Mathöll, also opened in Reykjavík in 2018, and Fusion Fish and Chips, with their creative takes on this classic dish, have a home here.

Sweet pastries

Icelanders have a sweet tooth and their pastry offerings are second to none. During your trip, be sure to try a snúður, a type of sticky cinnamon roll, as well as a kleina, a little like a knotted doughnut. Excellent versions of both can be found at time-honoured bakery Sandholt, established in 1920.

Coffee

Coffee-lovers rejoice – Iceland is a nation serious about a good brew, and you won’t find it hard to get a decent cup of coffee on the road. Reykjavík Roasters, now with three locations in the city, serves artisanal brews from beans they’ve roasted themselves at their original site on Kárastígur. If you’d prefer something with a touch of history, Mokka Kaffi was opened in 1958 and was the first Icelandic café to invest in an espresso machine. Creative types will love the regular art exhibitions here too.

 

The most affordable eats in Reykjavík:

Cheap food in Reykjavík can be hard to come by, but there are some restaurants in the capital that are easier on the pocket than others. These are our favourites:

Gló

This healthy, cafeteria-style spot has taken Iceland by storm, now with four restaurants in the capital area and one in Copenhagen too. Gló prides itself on fast service, a vegan-friendly menu and affordable prices. Choose from the heap of healthy options on offer on your day of visiting – think bean burritos, chicken curries and mountains of colourful salad.

Icelandic Street Food

An easy-going, family-owned spot, Icelandic Street Food on Lækjargata is the place to go for traditional, homemade grub served fast. Delicacies include Icelandic pancakes, which you can enjoy for as little as 300 ISK (£1.92/$2.49) and traditional lamb or shellfish soup served in a hunk of bread.

Café Babalú

Quirky Café Babalu is a top spot for light dishes such as veggie lasagne and a tidy offering of sweet treats (our favourite is the vegan carrot cake). A steaming plate of lasagne with garlic bread and salad will set you back 2,090 ISK (around £13.40/$17.37) or a cheese toastie is 990 ISK (about £6.35/$8.23). It’s a cosy spot to break up a day’s sightseeing.

Reykjavík Chips

If you’re after a light lunch or a late-night snack, Reykjavík Chips does what it says on the tin. Predominantly a takeaway spot with a small corner for dining in, Reykjavík Chips dishes up Belgian-style chips with your choice of sauce (options range from garlic sauce to vegan satay sauce). Pair your chips with a bottle of Icelandic or Belgian beer for 1,490 ISK (£9.56/$12.38).

Noodle Station

A no-frills restaurant, now with two locations in Reykjavík and one in nearby Hafnarfjörður, Noodle Station has just a handful of dishes on its menu. Choose spicy noodle soup with beef, chicken or vegetables – the veggie option costs 960 ISK (about £6.15/$7.98).

 

Vegetarian food in Iceland:

Iceland is not known for its vegetarian food and the most traditional of Icelandic dishes are based on meat and seafood. When you’re on the road, and outside of the capital region, it pays to be prepared in advance. If possible, cook some food in your accommodation and take it with you. If you’ve not got the right facilities at your base, make sure you’re stocked up with snacks just in case.

Having said this, in Reykjavík, you’ll have little trouble finding a decent veggie meal, and there are even dedicated vegetarian spots popping up across the capital. There’s Gló (see above), plus Kaffi Vínyl, an uber-cool plant-based café and record shop with regular live music events. This spot offers regular specials, with highlights including tofu steak with tamarind glaze and tagliatelle with cashew-cream sauce.

Garðurinn restaurant is another great vegetarian spot. Its menu changes daily and is inspired by cuisines from all over the world. Example dishes include veg-filled North African couscous and Caribbean tomato soup.

Vegetarian restaurants are more limited outside of the capital, but you’ll find a few spots in second-city Akureyri. Hostel Akureyri Backpackers boasts a restaurant with a vegan-friendly menu. Try the Thai Vegan Burger with tomato curry sauce, avocado, salad and potato wedges.

 

Iceland Travel Tips

You’ve picked a season; your itinerary is fleshed out; and you’ve got a little list of restaurants you won’t leave without trying. But before you set off, here’s a last few snippets of advice to take on the road with you.

For travelling in Iceland in the winter:

Get the right gear

We can’t stress this enough. A hardy waterproof coat, waterproof trousers, proper boots for hiking and plenty of thermal layers are essential. If you have crampons, it’s worth taking those too. Tour ops will usually provide more advanced gear for activities such as glacier hiking, but you may save on extra costs if you bring your own.

Safety first

We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again. Take enormous care when driving in Iceland in winter. Never (ever) leave marked roads, and check conditions before you set out.

Carefully plan your itinerary

You’re playing with around 4 hours of daylight in the winter, so make it count. Save any hiking or sightseeing for the middle of the day and chase the aurora after sunset.

Do it

Despite all of the above, winter is a truly rewarding time to travel. Visitor numbers are at their highest in summer, and that also means that prices soar, accommodation books up more quickly and the most popular sites are thronged with eager fellow travellers. By visiting off-peak you’ll also be helping to ease some of the stress placed on the country by ever-increasing tourist numbers in high season.

 

For saving money in Iceland:

Opt for self-catered accommodation

We’ve touched on this before. Plumping for self-catering accommodation, where you can prepare you own food for the road, will save you a lot of money. Also bear in mind that if you want to try a particular restaurant, it may well be cheaper to sample the lunch menu than to visit at dinner.

Drink the tap water

Iceland’s tap water is not only safe, it’s delicious. Save some money (and plastic) by carrying a reusable water bottle wherever you go and filling it up on your travels.

Book things in advance

It’s generally cheaper to book any tours, your accommodation and your car rental in advance. Organising this stuff from home also gives you a chance to thoroughly compare prices. Sites such as Guide to Iceland allow you to compare a variety of deals. Also, be aware that, if you’re travelling in peak season and you fail to make reservations early, that tour or hostel you had your heart set on may well be all booked up.

Travel in a larger group

Travelling with friends will help bring down the cost of things like car hire, and it’s always nice to have some company on the road. Just make sure you plan an itinerary to suit everyone’s needs.

Consider the Reykjavík City Card

Depending on how much time you’re planning to spend in the city, and the sights you want to see, this could prove economical or not. The Reykjavík City Card grants entry to numerous museums and attractions, from the Reykjavík Art Museum to a range of thermal pools. It also includes travel on city buses and a ferry to beautiful Videy Island. A 24-hour adult pass is 3,900 ISK (£24.78/$32.40).

 

For everything else:

Limit your drinking

Did you know that beer was actually illegal in Iceland until 1989? The country has a long history of prohibition, and you can still only buy alcohol at state-run shops called Vínbúdin. There are also heavy taxes on alcohol products, so you’ll save money if you lay off the booze during your trip. Alternatively, you could buy alcohol from the duty free shops at Keflavík International Airport.

It’s sulphur you can smell

Visitors are often surprised by the slightly eggy smell they’re presented with when they run the hot tap at their accommodation. That odour is actually sulphur – Iceland’s water comes from geothermal sources, and hydrogen sulphide is reportedly added to Iceland’s water to rid it of oxygen before it’s pumped into household pipes and radiators. You’ll soon learn to ignore the smell, just like the locals do.

Respect the environment

The natural world is of great importance to Icelanders. As with anywhere you travel, leave no trace: never drop litter, stay on marked trails, keep a good distance from wildlife and don’t remove sand, stones or other natural materials from where they belong.

The locals always know best

Icelanders are a friendly bunch who take great pride in their country. Ask locals you meet along the way for tips and you’re sure to discover something unexpected, be it an underrated coffee shop or a secret geothermal pool perfect for a dip.

Need more reasons to visit Iceland? 👇

 

About the author:

Jacqui is a freelance travel writer and editor. When she’s not on the road, you’ll find her eating her way around north London or stalking dogs on Hampstead Heath. Follow her adventures in the USA, Europe and beyond on Instagram and Twitter 

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Luke Moss

English sun-chaser with tic-tac addiction. Loves finding random bars in foreign cities that play 90s/00s hip-hop and RnB!

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