This Iceland Travel Guide is part of our travel resources series. Learn about unique destinations like Iceland, along with the best things to do in Iceland, places to see, where to eat, stay and indulge in a unique culture.
Iceland is a land of enchantment and extremes. One moment you’re soaking up the geothermal mineral water of the Blue Lagoon in a veil of sunlight; the next a blizzard swoops overhead to say hello. That’s what makes it so great. You’re going to experience things that few other places in the world can offer.
Iceland is a bucket list destination for many people, and the country offers a wide-array of things to do. If there’s one piece of advice I can give you when you visit Iceland – do everything you can. Embrace nature in its rawest form. Listen intently to the people – they’re some of the nicest you’ll ever meet.
Iceland in Winter is drastically different than Summer
If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, you’ll first need to narrow down what you want to do. While many of the activities in the summer are also offered throughout the winter, some will be very different experiences. Weather is more unpredictable in the winter, roads can be more dangerous, but the pristine white beauty of the country is worth experiencing. Winter is also the most optimal season to view the Northern lights. On the other hand, the summer offers different activities (like quad riding and white-water rafting), more comfortable weather and an entirely different view of the landscape.
Take a look at this short video we shot in Iceland last year. Featuring some of our favorite activities including scuba diving Silfra’s North American and Eurasian continental divide, waterfall trekking and a visit to the Blue Lagoon.
Iceland Travel Tips
1. Register with the Saga Club through Iceland Air to receive points on your flights to and from Iceland, as well as on all items purchased on flights. Points can be redeemed for discounts or free flights. You’ll also receive exclusive flight deals and all-inclusive packages to your inbox.
2. Buy your alcohol at the airport within whatever country you’re coming from. Alcohol is highly taxed in Iceland, so snag it duty free before you get there and enjoy a little bit at your hotel before you go out at night. You’ll spend less and the money saved can go towards enjoying outdoor activities.
3. Don’t be afraid to spend a little more money to get the most out of your experience. Typically I advise the budget conscious traveler to be conservative and look into low cost activities. In Iceland, you’re visiting an extreme environment where most companies host expeditions at one set rate. And in some cases, only one company will offer a particular tour. Therefore, if you want to do something, like scuba dive between two tectonic plates, you’re going to pay around $300 for the experience. Some of the activities available to tourists are not particularly cheap, but will give you lasting memories. This is a country where I recommend being frugal with alcohol, food, accommodation and transport — not with adventures.
4. WiFi is everywhere. Don’t bother purchasing Pre-Paid data for your device unless you really need it. Most coffee shops, restaurants and hostels will offer free WiFi. If it’s password secured, just ask someone for the password, I was always given access.
Iceland Travel Guide & Things to Do in Iceland
Whether you’re visiting Iceland in the Summer or Winter, I highly recommend hiring a tour company. You’ll get so much more out of your trip if you have a credible native showing you around who’s enthusiastic about his or her country. You also won’t have to worry about logistics, which is a HUGE weight off the mind of a traveler who wants to be immersed in the moment. From having accommodation and well equipped transport arranged, to learning about Iceland’s language and music, the right private tour company will give you a deeper Icelandic experience. I consider myself extremely lucky to have met some of the most genuine and accommodating people in the Iceland tourism business. This is NOT your typical tour company, where you’re thrown into a huge tour bus with 70 people. This is a private, intimately guided, all inclusive booking service with great people. That company is Iceland Unlimited. They want you to have the opportunity to appreciate Iceland for what it is – spectacularly unique. Whether you’re looking for adventure or accommodation, they will help you book an all-inclusive experience. Packages can be molded to whatever type of trip you’re looking for, whether you’re on a budget or have a little extra cash to burn. Feel free to reach out to myself or to them directly for more information.
A town of quaint beauty. I say town because Reykjavik felt like more of a town than a city to me. Despite that it’s Iceland’s largest city and capital of the country. Small family run businesses, coffee shops, hot dog stands and unique restaurants dot the area. The colors, especially against a snowy backdrop, will leave you in awe.
Listen to the music
Uplifting and evoking a sense of clarity, there are numerous takes on Icelandic music that seems to meld with the land. From Indie-pop group Hjaltalín, to Icelandic reggae group Hjálmar — the music is unique and puts a beautiful spin on any travelers journey through the country.
Meet as Many People as You Can
Native Icelanders are incredibly nice and are usually willing to give advice and conversation to tourists. Currently, tourism just became Iceland’s largest industry, followed closely by the fishing industry. A large majority of the country speaks multiple languages. While Icelandic is typically their first language, most natives learn English around the age of 12 and many are well versed in American slang. You’ll find that conversation will come easy because of their familiarity with other countries’ cultures.
A 30 minute massage at the Blue Lagoon will cost you around at the current ISK to USD exchange rate. That’s about what you’d pay for a full hour in the states. The difference being you’re floating on a mat, in 95-100 degree Fahrenheit blue mineral water, with an Icelandic masseuse making you feel nice. It’s a unique and revitalizing experience. We recommend doing the Blue Lagoon at the end of your trip, on your way to the airport. To top it off, you can drink wine while you soak and get a back rub in The Blue Lagoon. We recommend you try the Tempranillo — you’ll feel incredibly relaxed afterwords and have a more comfortable flight.
Dive Between Two Tectonic Plates
There is a particular location in Iceland that offers experienced divers the opportunity of a lifetime. That would be diving the Silfra tectonic rift within Þingvellir National Park. Silfra offers a diving opportunity that many dream of but never get to experience. Dive the 2 degree Celsius, crystal clear waters of Silfra. The point where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are ripping apart from one another at a few centimeters per year. Touch two continents at the same time. You need to be a PADI certified Scuba Diver (or equivalent) and be able to prove your certification. If you’re not a diver, snorkeling is also available at the same location. You’ll need to wear a dry-suit, which requires a bit more knowledge than your typical wet-suit. Dry-suit certification is preferred, but not required. I did this dive and highly recommend it. The water is the clearest in the world and takes 30 – 100 years for it to be filtered through 50 kilometers of volcanic rock — originating from a nearby glacier. Diving for the day, which will typically include 2, 30-45 minute dives, costs around 300USD. Snorkeling is closer to 120USD. If the weather is bad, expect to only have one dive for the day at the same cost. Contact Scuba.IS to schedule your dive or snorkel experience. Another extremely friendly, experienced and safe operation.
Hike a Glacier
One of the more riveting experiences I took part in during my most recent winter visit to Iceland — hiking Sólheimajökull glacier. The glacier itself is always shifting, albeit slowly. Glacial caves occasionally open up, and once tested by the guide, they can be entered if declared safe. The scenery atop the glacier is stunning. Just when you think it can’t get any better, it does. The weather frequently changes at altitude, so dress warmly and be waterproof. You’ll need to be equipped with crampons from your guide when you arrive, as well as an ice ax. This is the real deal folks. Hikers should be in fair shape and expect some rugged terrain, but it’s not overly difficult.
See the Waterfalls
Iceland as a whole is covered in gorgeous waterfalls of all shapes and sizes. Be sure to check out two of the larger ones throughout Southern Iceland, which can be visited along the the Golden Circle route or while visiting the South Coast. Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss and Seljandfoss are three of the main highlights in the Southern Region of Iceland.
The Golden Circle Tour
This particular route encompasses three main stops – the first, Þingvellir National Park and its Rift Valley where Silfra is located. Second, Gullfoss waterfall, and third the active geothermal area Haukadalur. Haukadalur includes two active geysers which erupt periodically. The larger geyser, Strokkur (which is sometimes misinterpreted as the Golden Circle), erupts every 4-12 minutes. The other, Geysir, is more sporadic and may not be worth seeing if you’re in a rush.
See the Northern Lights
A spectacle that many dream of seeing, the Northern Lights are worth it. Keep in mind that seeing the lights in person might surprise you, and they don’t always look the same as in famous National Geographic pictures. Many notorious Aurora Borealis photographs are taken with high-tech cameras using long exposure photography techniques, during the most optimal activity grades. Thus, making the images much more pronounced. Northern Light activity and intensity varies each night, and seeing them at all requires pure darkness and relatively clear skies. That said, if you’re able to spot them on a high activity night with clear skies, you’re in for a real treat. While the winter season offers the highest activity grades for Aurora visibility, it can also bring cloudy skies. If you’re paying to see the lights with a tour, they’ll take you each night until you eventually do.
See Iceland’s South Coast
The South Coast tour of Iceland is filled with vast fields loaded with hues of green, yellow and gorgeous skylines. All set against volcanic, mountainous backdrops replete with waterfalls. When you finally make it to the coast, you’re in for an epic sight. Rock structures that are difficult to describe in words, sitting in some of the strongest currents found in the North Atlantic. Don’t fall in!
Go Horseback Riding
This was my favorite part of the trip. A small family run operation at Laxnes horse farm provides a unique, laid-back horseback riding experience through the Icelandic countryside. It lasts about 3 hours, and you’ll get to ride atop some of the most beautiful Icelandic horses in the country. They’re all friendly and well trained, though occasionally ‘Killer’ couldn’t turn left. He must be related to Derek Zoolander.
Where to Stay in Iceland
Iceland Unlimited can help tailor your accommodation to whatever you require. But if you’re looking for well priced prime location, the following hotels and hostels will serve you well.
This is a quaint, friendly, English speaking staffed hotel of just 15 rooms across 4 floors. The entire building is incredibly clean, and it looks more like a colonial / Scandinavian styled house rather than a hotel. Don’t let that deceive you! This is a full service hotel that opened in May, 2012. It’s centrally located in downtown Reykjavik, a short 5 minute walk to many popular shops and restaurants within the city. If you decide to book, try and see if they have any rooms with a bay view available. You’ll be blown away by the glacial site that awaits you in the early morning hours. Rooms are modestly priced, and it’s not uncommon to find one between $130 and $175 per night.
This is the NEWEST and LARGEST hotel in downtown Reykjavik. If you’re looking for a bit more of a modern vibe, this hotel has been receiving phenomenal reviews — and it only just opened in June, 2015! Seeing as tourism is now Iceland’s biggest revenue generator (overtaking fishing previously), it’s no surprise we’re starting to see hotels of this magnitude begin to appear. This hotel also can come with great views of the Bay, especially if you land a room on one of the upper floors. The breakfast buffet is extensive and tasty. In terms of location, it doesn’t get much better. Fosshotel Reykjavik is located very near one of the busiest bus stops, and also on the far end of Laugavegur street, where you’ll find the best shops and restaurants to explore.
Kex is quaint and warm. Situated inside an old biscuit factory, the decor is unique and inviting. Very well priced and centrally located in Reykjavik. They occasionally host concerts, movie nights, events and gatherings inside their hall, which is styled as an old-school boxing training facility. A great place for backpackers looking to meet new friends in downtown Reykjavik.
Another well priced hostel, it’s a little bit further uptown in Reykjavik near Hallgrimskirkja church. (Kex is a little closer to the shoreline, though both are within walking distance of Reykjavik’s main attractions and restaurants). A fun, vibrant and solid communal vibe emanates at Bus Hostel. It’s highly recommended for backpackers and includes free WiFi and bicycle rental.
Owned and Operated by Friðrik Pálsson, Hotel Rangá offers accommodation unlike any other in Southern Iceland. From the restaurant, which serves dishes along the lines of salmon with strawberry champagne foam, to the location, which is away from Reykjavik’s light pollution, you’ll get to see the Northern Lights every night before you go to sleep. This is a four-star luxury resort — a serious step up from a backpackers experience, and not for the budget conscious. However, if you’re willing to spend a little more for one of the best stays you’ll ever have, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better hotel experience in Iceland than Hotel Rangá.
Where to Eat in Iceland
Reykjavik is loaded with amazing restaurants and bars. Some of these restaurants contain traditional Icelandic dishes, while others let you easily find a hot dog, hamburger or even a Cuban sandwich.
Situated across the street from Hallgrimskirkja, Cafe Loki offers a variety of traditional Icelandic dishes. From fermented shark to smoked lamb with rye bread and Icelandic butter. The menu is extensive and can accommodate most parties’ tastes. Everything is delicious, including the coffee.
A cozy, casual spot to grab a morning coffee and a bite to eat. Free WiFi, great sandwiches, cakes, crêpes and even gluten-free food. A living room vibe with friendly staff.
Looking for a quick, epic bite? For 3 dollars you can try the best hot dog in Europe. By far the most famous hot-dog stand in all of Iceland, everything from the bun to the dog itself is spectacular. But it didn’t stop there. The mustard they use has a smokey, savory-sweet flavor to it — unlike any mustard I’ve ever tried. Make sure you get the dog fully loaded — the crisped onions on the bottom pushed me to order 4 at once.
Translated as ‘3 Frenchmen,’ this restaurant usually requires a reservation. It’s a well known hot spot in Reykjavik with a delicious menu that covers the full seafood and meat spectrum of Iceland. Try everything from peppered horse steak, hashed fish, smoked puffin to whale sashimi. You can’t go wrong, you just need to be adventurous and expand your palate =D.
Some will argue that Kaffitár offers the best ‘kaffi’ (coffee) in Reykjavik. I’d agree with that notion if I had the opportunity to try every coffee shop in town. Unfortunately I ran out of time. Either way, grab a shot of espresso and a breakfast sandwich here and you won’t regret it.
A lively spot that works just as well for a morning brunch as it does a late night snack. Hipster-esque, the staff are friendly and you can get anything from milkshakes to juices, wine to IPAs and vegetarian food to burgers. Everything we tried here was well-liked.
For the coffee snobs, this is a kaffi stop most locals in Reykjavik will claim to be the best in the city. Some even say Europe. An intimate, cozy setting with free WiFi, it’s well worth a stop if you’re walking around Reykjavik. I had the Kaffismiðja — double shot of espresso with a side of foamed milk.
Unique Icelandic Foods to Try
Some of these you’ll love, others you’ll hate. But don’t you want to at least one day say you tried it? These are some of the more unique foods Iceland can offer, but far from all. I typically tend to order the most obscure items on the menu when I travel. Don’t be afraid to sample other delicious and unique baked dishes around Reykjavik as well! The bacon and cheese bread is great in the morning.
- Fermented Shark
- Sheep Head
- Sheep Testicle
- Whale Steak
- Dried Fish
- Rye Bread (it’s baked underground using geothermal energy)
- Icelandic Butter
Where to Drink
The best cocktails I had while visiting Reykjavik came from Slippbarinn. This is also the conclusion most local Icelanders I spoke with had come to. A trendy setting with great lounge music, it’s situated just outside a functional shipyard. The menu changes relatively frequently, most notably as the seasons do. I had the Winter Sour, concocted with apple & cinnamon infused bourbon, pear syrup, lemon & nutmeg. Also try the dark and stormy if it’s available.