What are some of the silliest, most ignorant, or plain stupid things that visitors to Iceland have done? What common-sense decisions have recent travellers been failing to make? Is there anything you should be warned of before coming here and making a fool of yourself? Read ahead to learn about the dumbest things to do in Iceland.
Iceland attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, and this number is increasing at a staggering rate. While most coming are responsible, eco-friendly and well-informed travellers who seek to enjoy the nature, culture and wildlife using their common sense, others seem to be entirely lacking in this department.
While their actions are often simply amusing, sometimes, they're just downright dangerous.
This ranked list of the top twenty-four dumbest things to do in Iceland, therefore, will start by guiding you away from silly mistakes that anyone could make, and develop further into examples of such blind stupidity that under no circumstances should you emulate.
Picture from 'Things to do during storms in Iceland'
This one, you can be easily forgiven for since you’ve heard that Iceland’s weather is wet and volatile, so you don’t want a downpour to spoil your day out. The unfortunate thing is, however, that the rain isn’t the only problem that you have to contend with when the weather turns to showers.
Iceland’s most notorious weather condition is, in fact, its wind. It blows erratically from all angles, battering you with unpredictable gusts, to the extent that rather than falling straight down, the rain in Iceland shoots sideways, occasionally even whipping up at you from below.
An umbrella, therefore, will not only likely be wrenched out of your hand by a sneaky twist of wind, but will never be able to protect all of your body from the precipitation at once.
That is not to say you should let any adverse weather spoil your travels. Simply by bringing appropriate gear, no matter the season, you can head out in rain or shine. Waterproof and windproof outer layers, woollen jumpers, thermal underwear, hats, gloves and sturdy hiking boots are sufficient to protect you from most conditions in the land of ice and fire.
As the saying here goes, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather in Iceland; just bad clothes’.
Bottled water isn’t just discouraged in Iceland because of its enormous environmental impact―it’s discouraged because it is completely unnecessary. 11% of Iceland’s surface area is capped with glaciers, while much of the meltwater of these glaciers sinks into and filters through the porous lava rock that covers the land. This emerges in thousands of pure-water springs, all around the country.
Iceland is thus leaking at its pores with freshwater. It has an excellent infrastructure in pumping it up and distributing it across the nation so that what comes out of your taps is pretty much the same as what fills, say, the Silfra ravine, a spring of some of the cleanest and clearest water in the world. It has no chemicals added but is packed with natural minerals.
Companies that sell bottled ‘Icelandic Mineral Water’ usually have their labels written in English for a good reason. Icelanders are aware that the very concept is a scam, and that they are using the same water as comes out of the taps. Just bring an old bottle from home or reuse a soft-drink one, and you’ll find yourself saving a ton of money.
Always run the tap a little first, however, as the hot water is also pumped up and tastes a bit like sulphur―although it is harmless, the flavour is unpleasantly eggy.
Photo from Nightlife in Reykjavík
While most world capitals are increasingly dubbed ‘cities that never sleep’, Reykjavík still has quite a long siesta. Rather than moving seamlessly between bustling days of shopping to pumping nights of drinking and dancing, it tends to be quite quiet during the evenings.
For this reason, many expect the up-and-coming party atmosphere they’ve heard so much about when heading out, yet end up returning to their beds before midnight disappointed, having only seen a few dedicated locals and other tourists with waning anticipation.
The reason for this is the price of drinking at the local bars, so most Icelanders prefer starting the night at home with friends before taking to the town.
Over the weekends, the scene won’t come alive until after midnight, but will take off with gusto and continue until three, four or five in the morning, depending on where you are.
This is changing a little as establishments start extending their happy hours and offering drinks prices that are actually comparable to other European cities, but it remains to be the trend. For a great night out, therefore, hover around the happy-hour venues until midnight swings around.
All the swimming pools in Iceland are heated, the vast majority geothermally. With so many hot springs and thus a wealth of naturally warm water, it is no wonder that the national winter tradition of warming up in the pool is still thriving.
Few activities can be both so bracing and yet so relaxing as basking in geothermally heated waters, surrounded by snow, with even more being whipped around you by lashes of wind. The experience is unique and classically Nordic, so not something that should be missed out on by anyone seeking to participate in authentic Icelandic culture.
Image credit: Mike Kelley
Every town of significance, and even many villages that are otherwise without attraction, have swimming pools. The vast majority also haa hot-tubs, many have saunas and steam-rooms, and some even have healing minerals in their waters.
Some, such as the Blue Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths and Fontana Spa, are large, popular and well-known, while others, such as the Infinity Pool in Hofsós and the Lýsuhólslaug Pool on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, are more remote and secretive. All, however, are worth visiting.
Photo from The Golden Circle & Blue Lagoon
The country also has a wealth of natural hot-springs, nestled into the nature and at a temperature perfect for bathing. At Reykjadalur, you can choose where in a river to sit, based on how cool or hot you want the water to be; at Landmannalaugar, the pools are surrounded by incredible rhyolite mountains; and the highland and glacier views are unmatched to those bathing in the hot-springs of Hveravellir.
No matter what your plans are, therefore, you will always be grateful to have your swimsuit with you no matter where you go.
This point is best illustrated with reference to the now famous tale of Noel. A 28-year-old tourist visiting from New Jersey, he picked up his rental car as usual from Keflavík Airport after a long flight, and tiredly typed the street-name of his Reykjavík hotel into the GPS, Laugarvegur.
Unfortunately, however, his hotel was on the street Laugavegur―note the missing ‘r’ ―and there is no road in the capital corresponding to what he wrote.
The journey from the airport to Hotel Fron should have taken Noel less than fifty minutes. However, his exhausted mind and the certainty of his GPS meant that he ended up driving for over five and a half hours to the charming northern village of Siglufjörður, which does have a street called Laugarvegur.
Picture from Funniest Mistakes Tourists Have Made in Iceland
Although all worked out in the end, when the first suspicious and bewildered, then thoroughly entertained, staff allowed him to stay the night for free at Hotel Siglufjörður, this story shows the importance of spelling out Icelandic place names carefully, having a vague idea of where they should be located and not blindly trust GPS devices and technology.
Another thing to look out for is that several place names are the same across the country, so if heading to Keflavík Airport, make sure you don’t instead start driving for Keflavík in the Westfjords. It may seem old-fashioned, but having a backup, foldable map is a great idea.
Iceland doesn’t have ice hotels. In spite of its name, it is not cold enough to sustain one. For an ice hotel, you’ll have to look to Norway, Sweden, Finland or Canada.
If you want to experience the world surrounded by ice, however, there are still opportunities here to do so. Man-made tunnels have been carved into the glacier Langjökull and you can visit throughout the year to look within its halls and many rooms (one of which is a chapel). If travelling in the winter months, you can have a more natural experience, by exploring the blue ice caves that become accessible beneath Vatnajökull glacier.
The midnight sun in Iceland, when the sun never fully sets and the nights are basked in light, occurs the weeks before and after the summer equinox from late May to early August. However, the skies will never turn dark, even when the sun is below the horizon. With so much light pollution, it is thus absolutely impossible to see the Northern Lights, even though they are still dancing above us in space.
You must, therefore, wait until the skies begin to darken in late August. From then until the start of May, the auroras can be seen clearly and regularly. Of course, at this time there is no midnight sun.
When visiting Iceland, therefore, it is important to prioritise which of these phenomena you would like to enjoy most, as you will never find them occurring at the same time.
Photo credit: Philip Gunkel
Camping in Iceland is largely only possible throughout summer; it is simply too cold after September and before May to even consider it. These months, however, are the months of the aforementioned midnight sun, so there is no need to bring a flashlight with you as you would on a camping trip in most other countries. You’ll be much more appreciative of a sleeping mask.
The only reason you might need a flashlight in Iceland’s summer is for lava caving, but these are always provided by your guides on tours. Due to the darkness of the caves, and how easy it is to get lost in them, it is only encouraged to enter one on an official excursion.
For anyone who knows anything about photography, light and exposure, this may seem obvious, but for photography novices, it’s important to note. Due to the darkness required for the aurora borealis to show, you need to allow your camera a long exposure time to capture them properly, and a flash will simply wash them out in an instant.
The flash will also affect your eyes as they adjust to the said darkness, so it will impact on your viewing experience (as well as the experience of those around you). If you want to capture the auroras on cameras but don’t know how, the guides on a Northern Lights tour will be able to assist you.
In the weeks surrounding the winter equinox in December, Iceland has but four-hours of daylight. If you set out on a sightseeing journey at sunrise, therefore, it had better be to some very nearby locations, as night will be swinging around before you know it.
Some destinations that many ambitious self-driving visitors attempt to reach and return from in a day, such as the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, take more hours to get to than you have hours of light (and in winter we'd recommend at least 2 days to visit this destination). Although seeing this site beneath the aurora borealis is a dreamlike experience, embarking on the return journey in total darkness on icy roads promises to be quite the nightmare.
I’m afraid to say that throwing a coin into a hot spring and casting a wish will only come true if your wish is to release heavy metals into our nature and water supply. We therefore kindly request you keep your money in your pockets; considering the cost of groceries, we are sure you’ll end up very grateful for it. Moving on.
The one tourist I have ever encountered who did not enjoy their holiday to Iceland had booked a two-week stay but did not rent a car or join any tours outside of the capital.
While Reykjavík is a great city, with a wealth of museums, galleries, cultural sites, theatres, historical locations, parks, pools and public artworks, it is hardly Iceland’s greatest attraction, and anyone staying longer than a weekend really should seek out more.
To truly appreciate this country, you must see its nature. Even if you just take the classic Golden Circle tour, you will expose yourself to a bursting geothermal area, a historical UNESCO World Heritage Site located right between two visible tectonic plates, and an incredible waterfall. A day-tour of the South Coast will reveal to you more waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, geological wonders and black-sand-beaches.
On the drive from Keflavík Airport to Reykjavík, you will see lunar lava landscapes, and from the city, incredible peninsulas and great flat-topped mountains across the bay. To only admire them from a distance, however, is like going to Orlando and only driving past the theme-parks, or on a safari holiday to Kenya and not leaving your lodge.
You might have a pleasant time, sure, but you are not making the most of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities available.
This point needs little explanation. No matter where you are in the world, it is inexcusable. Reykjavík is renowned for being a clean city, and our nature’s beauty is only so because of how little impact people have had on it. If anyone sees you compromising the environment by littering, prepare for an earful, as well as some harsh fines and a bad dose of karma. This includes dropping cigarette butts and gum.
Penguins only live in the Southern Hemisphere, so if you are eager to see one in the wild, you had best head to Argentina, Chile, or south New Zealand, since you’ll be looking for a long time in Iceland.
While we lack penguins, we still have a huge wealth of birdlife, including their distant cousin, the puffin. Iceland, in fact, has 60% of the world’s North Atlantic Puffin population, so avid birdwatchers need not despair.
Polar bears, conversely, only live in the Northern Hemisphere, but do not reside in Iceland. They require colder temperatures, found in places such as Norway, Canada and Greenland.
Picture from NASA Goddard Photo - Wikimedia Creative Commons
Very occasionally, these Greenlandic bears do end up in Iceland, caught on loose icebergs drifting to the Westfjords. They arrive starving, however, and as one of the few animals to actively hunt people for food, are not something you should be seeking out on your travels.
Photo by Roman Gerasymenko
Iceland has unusual laws when it comes to purchasing alcohol. While you can buy drinks from restaurants and bars as easily as you can in most other European countries, they are not available in supermarkets or corner-shops. The only places you can purchase them to take home are at the airport and in the government-run liquor stores, called Vínbúðin.
Vínbúðin shops, however, have relatively narrow opening hours, are not located in easily accessible locations all over the country, and sell their products with high duty and taxes. To avoid both of these, you are instead recommended to buy as much as you think you’ll need at the airport, where all alcoholic drinks tend to be around half the price.
This was insinuated a little earlier, but it is important enough to warrant its own point. The weather in Iceland, even in summer, can be unpredictable, cold, wet and violent, so you will need to be prepared at all times with waterproof, windproof, and warm clothing, especially if travelling out in nature for an extended period.
It is also important to dress according to what is required for any tours you might take. If embarking on a glacier hiking tour in midsummer, for example, it is very important to bring sunglasses with you; the reflection of the sun against the white ice can be blinding.
Picture from Glacier Walk on Vatnajökull Tour
If taking a snorkelling tour in Silfra, you should be sure to bring extra-warm socks regardless of the season, as while your undersuit and drysuit will warm your body, the dry-suit boots are not always padded, so the glacial water can chill your toes in minutes if just wearing thin cotton beneath.
Iceland’s geothermal areas are magnificent places, where you can see seething mud-pots, bubbling hot-pools, hissing fumaroles and even exploding geysers. This is all possible because of the boiling water running just below the surface of the ground and because of Iceland’s active tectonic activity. These factors, however, are always changing, which can lead to highly dangerous circumstances.
Areas of the earth which may seem stable might, in fact, be a thin layer covering a pocket of scalding water. Streams trickling in one place may be far hotter than in others, while in certain areas, pools that are usually temperate may suddenly start to boil.
As such, it is important to take extreme care in these geothermal hot-spots.
By far the easiest way to protect yourself is to stay on the marked paths. These guide you through the most stable areas, and will often have fences holding you back from the more volatile sites. Even though the collapsed walkway in the middle of the country’s largest mud-pot at Gunnuhver is a stark reminder that unpredictable activity can occur anywhere, you are still a lot safer following the approved trails.
Iceland has few forests, and though it is home to Arctic flora, it is not renowned for it. Its main ‘vegetation’ is the moss that has colonised huge swaths of the landscape, such as many of the old lava fields and the crags of mountains and cliffs. Though outsiders usually find it haunting and unusual, Icelanders consider it to be beautiful and precious and are determined in their protection of it.
The reason for this is that it is incredibly delicate, and if damaged, takes decades to recover. Try to see it like a coral reef―impacts made on it by humans, intentionally or mistakenly, will remain visible and notable to later visitors for years to come.
The tracks from off-road drivers (see the point below) will snake across otherwise untouched landscapes and campers who peel sections off for a bed to lie on exchange one comfortable night for decades of damage.
But the most obnoxious thing that travellers to Iceland tend to do with our moss is carving their names into it. This is nothing except vandalism and environmental degradation. Initials of travellers from the late 19th Century are still visible on hillsides outside of Reykjavík, and while they may not have known any better, modern visitors are expected to showcase less ignorance.
Iceland’s moss is not the only part of the Icelandic nature the people seek to protect. The lava fields, glaciers and black-sand-beaches are also known to be delicate and are treated as such by the locals. For this reason, driving off-road is completely forbidden in all corners of the country, unless you are in immediate danger.
If you wish to see the interior of Iceland, you can do so by renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle and sticking to the F-Roads. You will be able to go down bumpy, barely used tracks, across rivers and up winding mountain passes, taking you deep into nature, surrounding you with uninterrupted views, and posing no risk to the environment.
If you do drive off-road, prepare for punishment that may seem disproportionate but is considered entirely necessary and fair by this country’s nature-loving populace. You will face fines of 500,000 ISK (over 4,000 Euros), potential jail-time, and a lecture you will never forget.
Sticking to the roads as you travel is essential, but for your own safety, you also have to make sure your vehicle is up to the challenges of the route you decide to take. A two-wheel-drive is perfect for the ring-road in summer and is even manageable for traversing the South Coast and Golden Circle in winter for those experienced with dark, icy conditions, but they are very dangerous to take into the Highlands.
To navigate the Highland routes, F-Roads, and even many of the major roads in the East and North in winter, you will need a four-wheel-drive. Ice, pot-holes, snowbanks, loose gravel, rock-falls, rivers and steep slopes are not safely navigable in a normal car.
The one exception to this is the Kjölur Highland Road, which any vehicle can take in the heights of summer, but even so, no rental company will insure you to take a two-wheel-drive there.
Iceland is often nicknamed ‘the land of ice and fire’, two elements which are not renowned for being particularly forgiving. Visitors, therefore, have to understand the lethal power that the extreme natural forces of Iceland hold and give them their due respect.
Take, for example, the element of fire. When the volcano Holuhraun erupted in 2014, many visitors were eager to see the spitting lava. While the responsible took sanctioned tours to fly above it, there were some who decided to head right up to it for a photo opportunity. Not only did their off-road driving damage the surrounding nature, but they put their lives at enormous risk.
Liquid lava, when thrust into the air, usually comes down as raining rock, a form of precipitation that even the most well-packed traveller cannot easily prepare for. Not only that, but the gases coming from the earth are incredibly toxic―in the 1783-4 Laki eruption, 80% of the nation’s sheep were killed by the poisonous fumes.
Even in Reykjavík, there were days during Holuhraun’s eruption when those with respiratory problems, as well as the old and young, were encouraged to stay indoors. Standing right at the ravine, therefore, is about as good for your system as breathing the air on the edge of a chemical factory’s chimney.
The element of ice is no less dangerous. Unknowing visitors often attempt to scale the glaciers or explore the ice caves without guides, exposing themselves to hidden, plunging crevasses and icefalls respectively. These activities are very safe when taken with an expert, but for those without experience, become markedly more life-threatening.
Because most of the nation is tundra, the water which emerges from the natural springs is often nearly freezing, so extreme care must be taken at such places too. Springs such as Silfra in Þingvellir are around two-degrees-Celsius year-round, so can only be entered with protective equipment such as wetsuits and drysuits.
One particularly notorious family encouraged their child to jump naked into a spring here and were too busy laughing to notice that the child was too cold to climb to safety. Thankfully, a ranger discovered them and helped the near-hypothermic child out of the water (before giving the parents a thorough, humiliating and well-deserved dressing down), and these tourists have gone down in history as some of the dumbest ever to come to Iceland.
Some very bad―and very widely publicised―examples have been set here, even by Icelanders who should know much better. In music videos and even tourist promotional videos, people are seen climbing on the icebergs of Jökulsárlón, Fjallsárlón and other glacier lagoons, seeing them as the best places to have a little dance or play their songs.
Any other location in Iceland is much more suited to these activities. The icebergs that pass through these lagoons are incredibly slippery, constantly moving, breaking apart and rotating, and thus anyone standing on them is in immediate danger of falling into the freezing waters below.
Once in the water, the temperature and shock will cause an immediate panic. The movement of the bergs mean they could easily tilt on top of you, and, often boasting the size of multistory buildings, are nearly impossible to escape from.
Jökulsárlón is particularly dangerous because it is the deepest lake in Iceland, connected directly to both the ocean and a crumbling glacier, and thus has powerful currents that can drag you deep underwater.
Standing on an iceberg to emulate the behaviours you’ve seen in videos, or for the perfect photo opportunity, is thus the second dumbest thing you can do in Iceland. It is more than enough to appreciate these incredible lagoons from the shore for unbelievable pictures and perspectives, and if you want to immerse yourself further, there are boat tours available.
Topping the list of the dumbest things to do in Iceland is taking any risks at all at Reynisfjara beach on Iceland’s South Coast. This incredible stretch of black sand is a very popular sightseeing spot, for its fascinating geology such as the Reynisdrangar sea-stacks, but it is not a place to be underestimated.
No landmass divides the Atlantic ocean from the Antarctic all the way to Iceland. The waves that build across this distance, which stretches for thousands of kilometres, arrive at the South Coast with immense power.
Due to the seabed at Reynisfjara, they often rise suddenly before making land and are dubbed sneaker-waves as a result. They can rush high up the shore, and have caught many people off-guard who ventured too close to the water.
After several tragedies in the area, where lives have been lost, the site is now home to dozens of warning signs and cordoned off areas, protecting visitors and locals alike. Due to Reynisfjara’s popularity, there will almost always be tour guides on site too, ensuring that these rules are abided to.
Even so, individuals who can only be described as dumb continue to cross boundaries for that perfect Instagram shot or to see how cold the water is. These people are not only putting their lives at risk but the lives of anyone nearby who may attempt to save them, as well as the lives of the hardworking volunteers of the Rescue Teams who will be deployed if they are washed away.
Reynisfjara’s otherworldly beauty can be appreciated in full while respecting the safety guidelines. Even if taking a single step past a boundary might make for a slightly better photo, I can promise it will not be good enough for you to endanger your life and the lives of others.
All in all, people have done some pretty dumb things in Iceland, as silly as expecting to see penguins, and as dangerous as throwing their children into freezing waters for their own amusement.
Hopefully, with this list, we can help provide some much-needed guidance to the most common-sense-averse travellers and give a little advice to those who are looking at coming here for the first time not knowing what to expect.
By just doing a little research, using your mind and listening to the advice of locals, you can ensure you have a safe and thoroughly enjoyable holiday in Iceland―while maintaining your rep’ of not looking a total fool.
Is there anything we missed on this list? Did you do anything you instantly realised was pretty dumb to do on your travels here? What was the most unusual thing you saw another traveller doing? Let us know in the comments.