Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Iceland. And my post about a suggested itinerary is one of my most popular posts. I think it might be handy, though, to do a Wandering Justin-style Iceland travel guide.
Here’s what I have to say about some of the common questions people ask me, beyond my suggested Iceland travel itinerary.
What’s the Food Like in Iceland?
Nearly everywhere we stayed, we woke up to a huge Scandinavian-style breakfast that was included in the price of our accommodations. We’d find grains, cereals, bread, jam, a variety of meats, plenty of cheeses, jam, tea, coffee … well, you might get the idea. I even got into the pickled herring and shrimp spreads. This is a great way to get your day started!
When it came to lunch, we were a bit more on our own. We spent many of our days on the road, so we’d run into a roadside convenience store and grab sandwiches. This would usually get us a better sandwich than we’re used to in the United States, with more exotic sorts of ingredients.
Dinner, dessert and coffee is where Iceland really excels. I ate enormous amounts of fresh fish, lamb and smoked trout. If you like chocolate, you’re in luck – so does nearly everyone in Iceland. Many of the restaurants and coffeehouses feature some rich desserts. Oh, and coffee – the entire country seems to be full of classy coffeehouses. Though Kaffitár appears to be a country-spanning chain, its baristas turn out top-quality cappuccinos (my espresso drink of choice, and one that says a lot about the barista’s skills).
Iceland does lag in craft beer, though. There are some rather draconian laws inhibiting homebrewers, which is usually Ground Zero for any nation’s craft beer movement. The Icelandic government is hell-bent on getting a cut for alcohol sales, so it seems to view homebrewers as an economic threat.
What Historical Sites are in My Iceland Travel Guide?
I’m going to be straight-up on this one: I didn’t put many historical sites on my itinerary. I lean more toward scenery and geology. That’s not to say that Iceland doesn’t have plenty of of history – Vikings populated this country, and did their best to survive its conditions hundreds of years before modern conveniences.
If history is part of what makes you travel, though, Thingvellir National Park is a must. It’s the site of the world’s oldest parliament. And this list of historical sites offers plenty of ideas. But the very best resource I’ve found for getting ideas about historical sites in Iceland is the book “The Tricking of Freya.” Though it’s a work of fiction, it is packed with for-real information about Iceland’s historical, archaeological and natural sites. It’s also a top-quality mystery.
Now, if you’re also interested in natural history, I don’t even know where to begin. I loved the area near Myvatn, with its steam explosion craters, the Dimmuborgir lava field, Hverfjall crater and the Hverir thermal area. If you’re staying in the area, be sure to stay on the north edge of the lake – there are far fewer flies buzzing around on that side.
If you’re into hiking, a stop at Skaftafell National Park for a few days is a must. Looking back at it, I wish I’d known about Kristinartindar. It’s one of the coolest-looking mountains I’ve ever seen, and I want to go back to Iceland just to climb it. And it wasn’t in a single Iceland travel guide that I’d found. Oh, and don’t miss Jökullsarlon or any chance to hike on a glacier.
Icelandic Culture is Everywhere
Culture in Iceland isn’t reserved for museums. You’ll find it in the murals in neighborhoods, the independent shops selling hand-made goods and even at the geothermally heated city pools. You’ll definitely find it in the astounding number of bookstores, where you’ll find books from Icelandic authors (I’ve heard Iceland has the highest per-capita number of published authors). The culture is even embedded right into the language – a council of experts approves new words that enter the language, and rigorously keeps out influences that can erode it. I met some friendly Swedish travelers who told me that Icelandic is very much like Swedish would’ve sounded a thousand years ago.
If you just must have a museum recommendation, be sure to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavik (In a way, I’m sad it moved from the beautiful northern town of Húsavík – you should go there anyway). It’s in every Iceland travel guide for a reason: It is a perfect avatar for Iceland’s humor and curiosity – and willingness to take an idea further than anyone ever imagined. If you do decide to visit the museum, I also recommend watching the movie “The Final Member” before your visit.
The Views Outdoor
People like to say Greenland is white, and Iceland is green. Umm, that’s kind of true – but don’t go getting the idea that Iceland is covered in old-growth forests. The green comes more from moss and smaller, shrub-like plants. Glaciation and other factors are behind that.
Iceland has a very raw, unfinished natural beauty with lots of colors besides green – I mean red, brown, yellow, white, just about everything. The mountainous terrain lends itself to great views, too. Here’s the truth: You will not fail to find a great view every single day, no matter where you go. From the coasts to the interior, the scenery will never fail to astound you.
You’ll be able to get around the most in the summer; from September until early June, many of the roads into the interior are closed. But the cold months will also allow a glimpse of the Northern Lights. In the summer, you won’t see so much as a single star – you’re up so far north that the sun will just dip below the horizon for a bit before popping back up. And cloud cover is also common.
What About Accommodations?
Hotels in Iceland can be pricey, well past $100 a night. But if you’re a good shopper, you’ll find some good deals. When I go back to Reykjavik, I’ll book a room at the Guesthouse Isafold. It’s more bed and breakfast than hotel, but it was was than $100 US per night, friendly and comfortable – and just the right proximity to the downtown area. Elsewhere, camping is a great option. Free-range camping is allowed with certain limitations, and campgrounds are about $25 a night … a nice option since they include bathrooms and often kitchens. I also liked the Hotel Laki, Efri-Vik, Guesthouse Frost and Fire (Frost og Funi) and Hotel Lundi Restaurant. Hotel Laki and Frost and Fire were a bit higher-priced, but nice indulgences after camping – and they were also very stylish. Hotel Lundi was a bit less expensive, and much more homey; I felt like I was visiting a family friend’s house.
Other Good to Know Iceland Travel Tips
- It’s astoundingly easy to get around Iceland, even if you don’t rent a car. The bus service is reliable and punctual – and the buses take credit cards. Even far into the interior, the drivers use wireless devices for busfare.
- If you do rent a car, don’t expect American-style travel times based on getting around at 70 mph. Speed limits are slower because of smaller, narrower roads. Renting a car is great if you’ll stick to the main roads because you’ll have the freedom to be more spontaneous. But if you want to head into the interior, especially on the F Roads, I’d recommend you take a bus. The interior roads are unpaved, and they can challenge drivers not accustomed to the conditions.
- It might be a quick stopover that brings you to Iceland – many people ask me what they can do in three days. My answer: “You can make yourself wish you stayed longer.” Look, spend enough time to get a true taste of what the country offers. It’s magnificent, and it’s a more unusual and adventurous destination – why go the same places everyone else does?
- Iceland also really wants you to stick around. Aside from the considerable hospitality, there’s also the VAT tax refund. So you can do some shopping and get a little cash back. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s just kind of nice.