Þingvellir National Park | Iceland Travel Guide | Winederlusting.com

Þingvellir National Park, one of the more popular scenic destinations in Iceland, offers dramatic views of Iceland’s stunning topography. Here the North American and Eurasian continental plates are slowly pulling apart from one another.

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


Iceland Travel Tips - Iceland Travel GuideWho to Hire as a Tour Company

Iceland Unlimited

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.

Downtown Reykjavik | Iceland Travel Tips | Iceland Travel GuideExplore Reykjavik

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.

A top Sólheimajökull glacier | Iceland Travel Tips & Guide

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.

Beer and Wine at The Blue Lagoon | Iceland Travel Guide, Tips & TricksGet a Massage at the Blue Lagoon

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. Diving between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates in Silfra, Iceland | Iceland Travel GuideYou 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.A snorkeler swims above me | Iceland travel guide, tips and things to do

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.A top Sólheimajökull glacier | Guide to Iceland Iceland Travel Guide | Entering a Glacial Cave

See the Waterfalls

Guide to Exploring IcelandIceland 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

Iceland South Coast | Iceland Guide & Iceland Travel Blog Full Size Render 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.Horseback Riding, Iceland Travel Guide & Blog | Things to Do in Iceland Travel Blog

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.

Hotel Hilda

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.

Fosshotel Reykjavik

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 Hostel

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.

The Bus Hostel

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.

Iceland Travel Guide | Places to Stay in IcelandHotel Rangá

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.

Café Loki

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.

Cafe Babalú

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.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur

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.

Þrír Frakkar

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.

Kaffitár

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.

The Laundromat Café

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.

Reykjavik Roasters

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.

Where to Drink

Slippbarinn

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.

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44 Comments

  • Absolutely fantastic guide to Iceland – thanks for sharing! The biggest thing I think is the difference between summer and winter, we went during summer and I’m sure the experience was vastly different to what you experienced in winter. It looks like a completely different world!

    Loved your photos – the icy waterfall looks stunning! Would love to travel back to Iceland to experience winter and go on some glacier hikes especially. Glad to hear you enjoyed your time. Thanks for the great post!

    • @Megan thank you! The glacier hike was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced. You can do it in the summer time as well, though it’s melting at a much faster rate. Good opportunity to fill your water bottle with some glacier water. Ever since I tried it I’ve gained the ability to fly ;).

  • I absolutely loved Iceland when we went in winter last year, despite my apprehension about the cold. There are so many awesome things to do there (as you’ve covered here) that I can’t imagine wanting to spend less than a couple weeks exploring. I put together a quick guide to Iceland that might be useful for anyone traveling to Iceland soon. Enjoy!

  • Thank for this great post.

    I found tip number 2 to be quite confusing. Arriving in Iceland you will find one of the world’s very few airports that is duty AND tax free, so I think this tip should be:

    Buy all your alcohol on arrival in Iceland. It’s far cheaper!

    • @Jarratt

      We actually tested this theory — and while alcohol at KEF (Reykjavik Airport) is duty free as well, its base cost is not cheaper than some or most of the airports in the US. Alcohol in general throughout Iceland is pricy tax free or not. I did, however, buy close to 100USD worth of Icelandic liqueur and berry wine before leaving Iceland at KEF — worth doing if you want to add some unique booz to your arsenal which you can’t find in the states.

  • Iceland is the number one place that I want to visit. It’s already on my 2016 list but I’m trying to decide if I want to go alone or with my daughter. I think she’d love it as much as I would and she’s capable of doing most activities. It’s so beautiful and your photos do a great job of showing the beauty.

    • Hi Lesley,

      Thanks so much! How old is your daughter? Depending on her age, she’ll still be able to partake in most of the activities as long as she’s not a toddler. (I’d probably skip the diving this time, though). If she’s old enough to remember details about a destination like Iceland, I’d take her along. It would be a good way to spark wanderlust fever at an early age.

  • Iceland is one of my top travel destinations and I’m looking forward to checking out the landscape and especially, the lagoon. The snorkelling looks pretty awesome too.

  • Jo

    What a great guide that goes well beyond the cliches. I love how you’ve included music, and the Iceland Air loyalty program as well as the usual volcano, puffins, glacier guide to Iceland. Iceland is very popular with bloggers so there are loads of posts out there, and this is definitely one of the interesting ones out there

    • Hi Jo,

      Agreed, Iceland is a popular destination right now and I felt it was important to include some off the beaten path information critical to the experienced traveler. Tourism recently overtook Fishing as the #1 industry in Iceland just within the past couple of years.

  • A thoughtful, comprehensive post about a place I have not thought of visiting. While diving between tectonic plates sounds too adventurous for me, taking a trip to see the Northern Lights is appealing, and I appreciate that you’ve honestly laid out some of the obstacles so that visitors are not disappointed by a cloudy night or a less spectacular display than the National Geographic photos we’ve seen. Good point about trying unique foods for the experience, even if it is not a food I’m likely to want to reproduce at home. Like fermented shark…

    • Thanks for your kind words Sarah! Iceland offers more reserved activities as well. For instance if diving seems too intense, you can simply snorkel the surface in Silfra — you just have to brave the cold temps ;). Sampling unique foods is always a good idea if only to be able to tell a story later on. The Icelandic Rye bread is incredible!

  • Iceland has unarguably some of the most stunning landscapes one Earth. This is a very detailed and on point guide. Loving the pictures!

  • What a comprehensive guide to Iceland! We went this past January and cannot wait to experience it again in the summertime. As you point out, the seasons provide quite a different experience. We found Fish Market (Fiskmarkaðurinn) to be one of our favorite restaurants during our time there.

  • Amazing article! I have always wanted to go to Iceland but never knew half the things you have written about! I will be booking ASAP!!! 🙂

  • WOW!!! Everyone is going to Iceland!!! I actually wanna go too… LOL… This is by far the best guide I’ve read:) Thank you so much… Book marking your site rgt now:) Happy travels… xoxo

  • This is a wonderful article! It’s good to know the tours in Iceland are more specialized and not huge, and to buy wine at the airport! Oh, and the massage at the Blue Lagoon…and so many other things. Saving this for when the time comes. 🙂

  • Iceland is DEFINITELY a bucket-list item! You can bet I’ll be re-visiting this post when the time comes 😉 Very helpful read.

  • I haven’t been yet (my husband has), but we would love to go SOON. It looks amazing. Love your tips especially on the alcohol and talking to local people. We will definitely be coming back to this when we are closer to visiting… such helpful information.

  • Iceland has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember but I’ve always been put off by the price. I think your advice is very wise. Save your pennies for the trip and don’t miss out on those adventures. I’d better get saving ><

  • This post is so awesome but bittersweet for me because I had to cancel my scheduled trip in September due to money constraints on a project we are developing in Panama. Everything about Iceland looks so larger than life and I would love to have seen the northern lights but mostly just gone to the geothermal pools. Glad you mentioned having a massage there because I’ve heard it is epic! Your trip looks like a blast and my husband was glad you mentioned where to buy the cheapest alcohol. LOL Priorities. LOL The music was a nice touch.

  • Thanks for reminding me that i need to go to Iceland!

  • Wow! what an amazing trip and country!!!! great pictures and post.

  • I am pretty sure you do not need any reason to visit Iceland, you just have to show up 🙂 But you really made your point with this list. I believe that Iceland should be on everybody’s bucket list! Thanks for sharing

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