I often have foreign friends reach out to me who are planning to travel around Iceland. Where should they go? What should they do? How should they prepare for travel within Iceland? What are the best Iceland vacation tips? Will COVID-19 impact their trip at all?
There is no easy way to answer these questions. Different people enjoy different things, and Iceland has much more to offer than can be seen and done during a single visit.
Traveling in Iceland is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, however, knowing what to do in Iceland and taking advantage of your time wisely can be a challenge with so many options available.
Once you’ve done your homework, it’s worth looking at what the best experiences you can add to your journey in Iceland to ensure you enjoy your trip to the fullest. At this time, Iceland is only open to visitors from approved countries. After your testing and quarantine, you will be able to experience all that Iceland has to offer.
Iceland has lifted all domestic restrictions associated with COVID-19; masks are thus no longer required, nor is social distancing or bubbling in venues. Though some businesses are still adjusting to the lower numbers of tourists, the country is otherwise quickly returning to normal. This has been made possible through months of careful restrictions, an excellent tracing system, and, as of the end of June 2020, the administering of more vaccine doses than there are Icelanders.
COVID-19, however, still means that many are unable to travel to Iceland; as such, the main impact it is having for current travelers is the fact that it is leaving many of the popular sites much less crowded, and many of the lesser-known spots completely deserted. Considering it has also lowered the price of many services, now is actually an excellent and affordable time to visit.
The only reason it would negatively impact your visit is if you are not vaccinated, you do not have antibodies from a previous infection, or you are not from a select list of countries. These travelers must take two tests over a five-day quarantine, although if you fit into any of the prior categories, you only need to fill out a pre-registration form.
Find out more details about Iceland during COVID-19 here.
Exploring By Yourself During COVID-19
Self-driving tours are a great way to explore the country on your own while still having an itinerary planned out for you. Your accommodations and rental car will be booked for you but how you spend the trip to and from accommodations is up to you.
Booking a self-driving tour allows you to visit attractions during quieter times and avoid crowds. The rental cars are sanitized thoroughly between uses in spite of the easing of the rules, and you can rest assured that other local businesses such as hotels and restaurants are doing the same. This is a particularly great option if you still have reservations about social distancing easing.
Exploring With A Guided Tour During COVID-19
If your idea of a vacation does not have you driving yourself, you may want to choose a vacation package that includes transportation to explore Iceland. Many packages will offer transportation and accommodations around various destinations. With fewer people at each site due to the lack of visitors, you will have the unique opportunity to experience Iceland in a much more peaceful and intimate way.
To make the most of your time traveling in Iceland, take note of our top 11 travel tips before setting out on your adventure.
You can expect some of Iceland’s most popular attractions to be a bit crowded during the long summer days of high season.
But if you are indeed visiting in mid-summer, you will be blessed by the unremitting midnight sun whose light lasts for 24 hours.
Taking advantage of the endless days by traveling at night will let you avoid the crowds and experience a personal, magical moment of timelessness in nature’s amber embrace.
The roads will be silent, the towns and villages asleep, and the stillness of the bright night air will be as enchanting as the wilderness it envelopes.
Those who do not feel comfortable traveling alone by night can always seek the assistance of a handful of experienced guides who lead small groups on midnight sun tours.
In these cases, it’s often better to combine the midnight sun with some of Iceland’s most dramatic landscapes and once in a lifetime activities. We suggest Golden Circle tours, horse riding tours, and midnight sun mountain hiking tours.
If you are not used to the bright summer nights of the Arctic, and actually want to sleep during the night, you should remember to pack a sleeping mask.
A sleeping mask is a must under the midnight sun. It will help your body know when it is time to go to sleep by better managing your circadian rhythm.
When driving around Iceland you will eventually come to realize that the entire ring road is beset by three chains of rest and service stations.
They all offer the exact same assortment of overpriced junk food regardless of their location.
An ideal alternative to shopping at these stations is to buy quality locally sourced products directly from the people who make them.
A great number of Icelandic farmers have opened their doors to travelers. They frequently sell delicious local farm products, including meat, fish, and organic fruit and vegetables for a modest price.
In certain areas, farmers have even set up little self-service huts where travelers are trusted to help themselves to fresh fruit and vegetables and pay for what they take without supervision.
To find the farmers who sell their products directly to the consumer, you can either visit the Farm Food Direct homepage or download the Handpicked app. The latter shows the locations of people around Iceland that have unique food and drink offering. The locations are mapped out across the country.
Due to the fact that beer consumption was prohibited in Iceland for the greater part of the 20th century, the Icelandic drinking culture is still in its infancy.
To this day, Icelanders maintain a strange and premature relationship with alcohol, and alcoholic beverages are exclusively sold in state-run stores called Vinbudin (The Wine Store).
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Danninja. No edits made.
Supermarket shelves, however, are stocked with various brands of relatively cheap near-beer.
These are products that aim to replicate the taste of beer while totally eliminating its intoxicating effects.
Many travelers don't know this. As a result, it’s relatively common to see foreign visitors victoriously pushing full shopping carts, stuffed with the watered out near-beer, through Icelandic supermarket aisles, oblivious to the true nature of their loot.
The near-beer might keep the party from taking off with a bang, but the upside is that it will never keep you from getting out of bed the following morning.
It’s worth taking note of this and all the other regular tourist traps that happen commonly in Iceland.
There’s no better way to spend a summer night in Iceland than in a tent.
Camping is a fail-safe method of gaining and maintaining your necessary contact with nature. Nothing comes close to the experience of lying in your sleeping bag after a long day of traveling whilst being lulled to sleep by the wildlife's peaceful evening song.
Photo by Pavel Brodsky
And since most Icelandic towns and villages have their own campsite, wherever you may find yourself there will always be a place where you can set up your tent.
Camping with three tents or less are permitted on uncultivated public land for a single night unless you see a notice to the contrary.
Please note however that wild camping in Iceland’s three national parks is strictly forbidden.
You should never camp close to or on farms without seeking permission. However, most farmers are more than willing to host campers for a minimal fee.
Remember to respect the environment and always take the fragile nature of the Icelandic vegetation into consideration when setting up camp.
Photo by Sonali Deo
Please be aware that camping in the wilds of Iceland is not legal if you are in a campervan, tent trailer, or collapsible camper.
If you’re camping in one of these vehicles you must use one of the many dedicated campsites around the country each night.
If you decide to stray off the beaten track and go far into the wilderness you should always notify someone of your travel plans beforehand and prepare yourself for any and all kinds of weather.
Always remember that there is no bad weather in Iceland, only bad clothing.
If you’re considering trying wild camping in Iceland, we highly recommend you educate yourself further on the dangers of Icelandic nature in advance. This will help you make the most of your experience whilst remaining safe.
Camping in Iceland can really transform your trip and allow you to more flexibly enjoy Iceland’s stunning surroundings and wondrous terrains.
Although Iceland now boasts numerous fine restaurants that are definitely worth a visit, eating out is one of the most uneconomical activities you can undertake in Iceland.
Eating out in Iceland can quite easily eat away your entire travel budget. As with most things in Iceland eating out and alcohol, in particular, can be quite expensive for travelers.
I do recommend eating out at least once during your stay. However, if you're traveling on a strict budget, you'd be well advised to take advantage of lunch offers.
If you don’t want to eat your way through your holiday savings you should buy your own groceries and cook your own food.
By making use of the kitchens found in every hostel, guesthouse, and campsite in Iceland your grocery bill for two to three days will be the price of a single meal in an average restaurant.
I recommend cooking from Icelandic ingredients and buying food items that are unique to Iceland, such as the lamb, the skyr, and the fresh fish.
You should also never buy bottled water.
Iceland is lucky enough to have a very high-quality freshwater supply running from every faucet. This will help you save money for the more memorable parts of your trip.
Despite living in a cold climate and an unforgiving environment, Icelanders are in general a warm and friendly people who take kindly to strangers.
According to the World Economic Forum, in fact, Iceland is both the most peaceful country in the world and the friendliest to visit.
Giving directions is the unofficial national sport and most Icelanders wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to help out those in need of assistance.
So whether you are in dire need of help or just want to have a friendly chat, don’t shy away from striking up a conversation with a total stranger on our shores. It’s often the best way to get a sense of Icelandic culture and society.
Also, since all Icelandic students must learn English before they are allowed to graduate from elementary school, a language barrier will rarely, if ever, be an issue.
On your trip, it may also be worth experiencing the cosy surroundings of a traditional Icelandic cabin as one of your overnight stays. These are warm summer houses Icelanders often enjoy visiting to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
If you feel awkward about accosting a total stranger in a foreign country, you can always start by contacting a local online through our page.
Spending a night in one of the many farm-stays around Iceland is another excellent way to get a true and first-hand feel for Icelandic culture.
A great number of farmers offer bed and breakfast lodgings to travellers.
Farm stays offer various options ranging from simple shared rooms to private huts and cottages. It’s also worth noting that locally sourced food is almost always available.
Many farmers also offer horse riding tours and guided walks, and some are even willing to let you take part in the farm activities.
Remember that it is always better to book a farm holiday well in advance, especially if you want to secure the most affordable accommodation.
Icelandic weather is extremely dynamic and unpredictable.
When heading out on a domestic holiday, many Icelanders have the habit of "following the weather."
This means that they simply drive towards the part of the country which has the best weather at the moment of departure.
No journey to Iceland could be considered complete without some time spent out on the open country road.
You should definitely consider renting a car on your trip to experience total freedom and control the pace of your journey.
Self-Drive tours offer the best flexibility for your trip. You’ll be able to customise your experience and change plans when needed based on the ever-changing weather patterns. This way you can allocate more time to the places you’re enjoying.
The total length of the Icelandic ring road is 1332 kilometres.
This means that technically you could drive around the entire island in a couple of days. However, this wouldn’t leave you any time to stop, explore and take in the sights.
In my opinion, you should spend at least ten days on a full-circle journey.
If however, you’re planning to spend a week or less in Iceland, I recommend limiting your travels to one region. This way you can take advantage of some great adventures along the way.
The Snæfellsness Peninsula often referred to as “Iceland in miniature” because of its diverse landscapes, could for example easily be covered in two days.
Such a journey would allow you to intimately experience many extraordinary sites. This could include the famous Kirkjufell (as featured in Game of Thrones), Snæfellsjökull, Arnarstapi and the beautiful black church in Budir.
Outdoor public bathing in warm pools is a deep-rooted Icelandic tradition, dating back to the Viking days of the original settlement.
In Iceland, public bathing is much more than a mere pastime activity.
Icelandic pools and public baths are community centres where people of all ages and professions gather to catch up with friends, relax after a hard day of work, or to recover from a long night of excessive indulgence.
Photo from Hot Spring Hike of Reykjadalur Valley
I definitely recommend visiting a public bath or a swimming pool at least once when you visit Iceland.
Nothing comes close to finding a natural hot spring in the wilderness and taking in the energy straight from nature's core.
There are several natural hot springs close to the greater Reykjavik area, including the warm river of Reykjadalur which is a personal favourite.
Due to general poverty and an under-developed transport system, Icelandic towns and villages were virtually isolated from one another up until the second half of the twentieth century.
The population was extremely sparse, with the average person rarely straying far from their place of birth.
Consequently, each small town developed its own unique individual characteristics in accordance with its natural environment.
Although Iceland has been thoroughly modernised and the general population has become increasingly homogenous, the townspeople of rural Iceland remain devoted to their cultural roots.
Throughout the year festivals are held in almost every small Icelandic town and village, that thematically reflect the historical and environmental soil from which they sprang.
Each town occupies its own calendar space, attracting large numbers of visitors who join the townspeople in celebrations of local music, food, dance, and drink.
If you are open-minded and enjoy a gathering of good people, you should pick a festival or one of Iceland’s best events that fit your schedule, and simply immerse yourself in the festivities.
Iceland is dotted with unique places where you can find total tranquillity and solitude.
If you choose to venture away from the main tourist spots, you are bound to experience a sublime encounter with the true spirit of the land.
Explore the East- and Westfjords, Iceland's oldest landmasses.
These regions contain ancient fishing outposts, spectacular mountain views and countless hiking trails awaiting those travellers who are looking for an authentic travel experience, away from the crowds.
You would also be well advised to explore Iceland's magnificent interior, known as the Icelandic Highlands.
Covering more than half of the country, the Highlands are home to many of Iceland's most sublime landscapes and the majority of Iceland's most beautiful natural attractions can be found there.
The Icelandic Highlands are an uninhabited natural sanctuary, situated far from human settlements.
These untouched natural expanses offer a chance to connect with nature on a level that can only be experienced in a handful of very special places on this planet.
Travelling into the Highlands takes you away from crowds. For this reason, you should always prepare your journey thoroughly or join a Highland Tour in the company of an experienced guide.
It is imperative that you understand that the Icelandic wilderness is as beautiful as it is fragile.
Due to the high volume of volcanic ash, the soil is exceptionally vulnerable and susceptible to erosion.
With the ever-growing number of visitors coming to Iceland to seek out the untouched wilderness, many areas have become subjected to unprecedented strain.
Please help us protect the delicate environment by always taking the fragile flora of our island into consideration, wherever you may find yourself.
Iceland’s wilderness is unique precisely because it is mostly intact and undisturbed. As Icelanders and visitors, it is our collective responsibility that we do our very best to keep it that way.
Don't stray from the paths you are walking on, and remember always that off-road driving is strictly forbidden in Iceland, penalised with a fine or imprisonment.
This is because off-road driving is likely to cause soil degradation and with it irreversible damage to the very fragile environment.
Take advantage of our top Iceland Travel Tips and tread carefully, be well, and have a wonderful stay in Iceland!