What are the 5 major do’s and don’ts for travel in Iceland? How can you avoid the mistakes of travellers past? How can you make the most out of your experience here? What behaviour is considered...unsavoury? Read on to find out all there is know about how to travel in Iceland.
Iceland travel should command a great deal of respect. Harbouring a diminutive population of 330,000, this enticing landscape has opened its doors to the world, pulling back the curtain on all that makes this country so special.
Its nature is unlike that found anywhere else, a melting pot of creeping glaciers and gushing waterfalls, steaming volcanic vents and scenic coastlines. Its towns and cities are modern, full of charm, boast unique cultures unto their own and are only a short drive away from some truly fantastic attractions.
But still, Iceland is a quiet, solitary kind of place; it is an island characterised by its mystic qualities, haunted and sweeping, silent. Those arriving from busier locations—and, let's face it, that could be almost anywhere—are quick to forget that 21st century Iceland is a nation experiencing growing pains, tentative but excitedly flirting with the outsider. How these flirtations materialise will come to define Iceland for many, many years to come.
Not that it has many choices; embracing the tourism boom is a must for the Icelandic government, for its economic stability, for political influence and for its future development. With the right attitude, the right support and the right policy decisions, Iceland may have found a lasting provider, pulling away from their reliance on fishing exports and aluminium smelting.
This Golden Goose of outside interest might, one day, cease to exist; in the meantime, Iceland and travellers have become intertwined, interwoven, entangled and infatuated. Both parties have readily accepted the terms of this arranged marriage and, for the most part, both are giving it a real shot at working out.
By travelling in Iceland, you involve yourself in this relationship, and like any relationship, it’s based on mutual attraction, communication and compromise. Your behaviour, pre-planning and cultural awareness will, without doubt, affect the nature of your trip, and so it’s best to keep in mind certain sensitivities whilst travelling here.
If not, you might very well face the wrath of the Vikings... or the weather... or just your own incompetence, and that’s not good news for anyone.
Frequent travellers roundly understand that there is a little thing out there called ‘travel etiquette', (we have an article designated to it—Travel Etiquette in Iceland—for those who are unaware).
People, in general, seem to understand the overarching concept of etiquette, at least—we are civil to one another most of the time, after all—but there is something about the experience of travel, of swanning off abroad to far-off and exotic locations, that will often bring the worst out in people's behaviour.
We’ve all witnessed the passengers who fail to grasp this notion—the tourists who treat the aircraft as their personal gentleman’s lounge, who expect special treatment at restaurants and attractions, merely because they happened to have been born elsewhere... (“Well, where we’re from...”).
The ones who leave their biscuits wrappers flapping in the wind. The ones who use both armrests on the aeroplane. Those who cut queues, demand their own language, sneer at menus and, generally, distrust the locals. You know of the tourist breed I speak of, I'm sure... call it a break from the monotony of daily existence, call it a fear of the outside, it doesn't matter... they exist, and they must be educated.
As I’ve suggested, we're not pretending to be saints here. What we can do, however, is learn from our past mistakes; to try to stick to a principled, moral code on how we conduct ourselves around our overseas contemporaries. Really, it comes down to making the world a more tolerable place, and who doesn't like the sound of that whilst on vacation?
During your time here, if, for reasons best known to you, you happen to find yourself in the company of an Icelandic boy scouts troupe, you might hear the declaration “Ávallt viðbúinn!”, in English, “Always Prepared!”
This is one of the better slogans to arise from the youth organisation, and travellers would do well to keep such wisdom in mind long before setting out for the airport. That means one word; organisation.
Where is your passport? Where is the boarding pass? Do you have your travel itinerary? How many knickers did you pack? Have you left the cats enough food? Is the currency exchanged? All of these questions should be racing through your mind before leaving the house.
Setting aside preparation to the last minute is bound to increase your anxiety levels, and may even tarnish your holiday experience should something have been overlooked. So stop procrastinating and prepare; as the Icelanders say, "Áfram með Smjörið", or "Get on with the butter!"
The fact of the matter is, Iceland is a country that willingly punishes those who fail to do so. Amidst the flurry of multi-layered, wool-attired pedestrians, one will lay sight on that sorry soul who has now learnt what he once failed to grasp; that Iceland might be a little on the chilly side.
He will stand in his knee-length shorts and a band-tee, a look of glassy-eyed misery masking his features, wondering why just why, he hadn’t had the forethought to, maybe, pack a jumper? Perhaps an extra pair of socks? Even some common sense?
Aside from rudimentary clothing requirements, Iceland also demands of its visitors that they follow the law of the land; no off-road driving, no speeding, no terrorising the locals, don’t drink beer before 1989, don’t engage in a boxing match, don’t name your baby something that can’t be conjugated according to Icelandic grammar rules… all of these must be followed, otherwise, guests can expect a memorable, guided tour around the inside of an Icelandic police station.
Some basic research on Iceland, its major attractions, and its logistical realities will go a long way before arriving here. For example, it's important to both find and book accommodation, and a vehicle, that will meet your itinerary requirements. Only 4x4s can access the Central Highlands, for instance, and only in the summertime when the region is accessible. Information of this kind is invaluable and only comes with setting aside time beforehand to keep yourself updated on what is and is not possible during your time in Iceland.
So too will the number of days you have here, determining just how much time you have to explore this country's many gorgeous natural features. Before booking your trip, make sure to research the many waterfalls, glaciers, coastlines and activities that Iceland offers; that way, you are in the best position to choose exactly how many days you will need here in order to fulfil your holiday ambitions.
We all have gripes when it comes to travelling. Personally, I cannot help but be embittered when I happen to stumble across a crowd of my fellow countrymen, loudly declaring to, say, the streets of Nice, or even somewhere further—Nairobi, for instance—the tribal chanting of home: “ENGLAND! ENGLAND! ENGLAND ENGLAND ENGLAND!” I'm sure you've been somewhere, far away from the UK, and heard this; it's rather difficult not to.
Now, for all the confusion this brings about to me—do they know where they are? Are they trying to get home?—I can’t lay all the blame at my countrymen’s feet. In truth, every country possesses a handful of ambassadors who, unfortunately, can’t help but represent the less appropriate qualities of their homeland.
I’m sure you, dear reader, boast certain cultural traits equally unmanageable within the arena of travel.
Like it or not, we ARE judged by others, judged by both the things we can help (i.e; our manner, our aptitude for kindness and compassion) and the things we cannot (i.e. our race, our nationality, our background). It's not fair, and it's not right, but it is, unfortunately, a part of human nature.
Though we shouldn't wallow too much in the judgement of others, being a positive cultural ambassador will simply make your life easier, and will likely educate others out of stereotypical thinking. After all, deep down, past the trivialities of race, colour and creed, we're a big human family. Tourism teaches us that like nothing else. So be kind, keep an open mind, respect the culture and try to keep a healthy level of awareness; remember, you ain't in Kansas anymore.
Bathing, relaxing, soaking in the country’s pools; it is a staple pastime amongst the locals here, be it in the clean and modern facilities of the city or the natural, geothermally-heated pools found dotted about the countryside. For an island often defined by its harsh and inhospitable climate, who can really blame the Icelanders for loving hot pools so much? It's a natural remedy, a means of escape and contemplation and, most importantly, reliable warmth.
This passion for bathing is very much something visitors will want to adopt; it is an authentically Icelandic experience and is one of the best means of getting a true insight into Icelandic culture.
Unlike elsewhere, visiting the pools is a social activity, a chance to catch up with friends and family and even meet new people—it can get awkward in a six-person hot tub if no one presents a conversation topic. Given this social atmosphere, the pools offer an opportunity to meet Icelanders on their home turf, away from the frantic energy of the city's bars and dance floors.
On top of that, Iceland's pools are often accompanied by fantastic panoramas of nearby mountains or coastlines. For those within city limits, guests will likely enjoy a series of hot tubs (of differing temperature), a large swimming pool, a kid's pool, steam rooms, saunas and even water slides. Given such facilities, it's hard to find anything about the pool-going experience that's worth critiquing.
That is, except one minor precondition...
Showering your filthy filthy filthy body is a requirement before entering Iceland's city pools; despite the reservations, you might have about all this public nudity, the reasons are actually quite rational and act as a preventative measure for the spread of infectious diseases. That’s not to say stripping down in front of a room of strangers is comfortable, nor indeed particularly sought after; it is simply necessary.
For those of you out there who think you might manage to escape this, you will be roundly seized upon by the changing room attendant. The attendant is an individual whose lucky job it is is to make sure that you are cleaning your various areas thoroughly. He, or she, will likely be situated in a small observation booth, a position from where they can keep a watchful eye over the showers.
There's little chance of escaping; with the pinpoint gaze of an Eagle, the attendant is considered, by some, as the watcher on the wall for Iceland's swimming complexes.
Being told off by the changing room attendant is, in many ways, as embarrassing as revealing your treasures to a room full of people. Besides, what’s not to see that’s not already been before?
Embrace the nudity, embrace the cleanliness, embrace the changing room attendant—if they'll let you—and you might find yourself enjoying the best swimming/bathing experience you’ve ever had.
Travelling to Iceland is all very well and good, but what activities you choose to partake in here will come to define your holiday experience. Thankfully, the list to choose from is truly diverse; one could fill your time scuba diving, glacier hiking, ice-climbing, horse riding, mountain biking, ATV driving, helicopter flying…
Which tour(s) you choose to partake in will provide a unique perspective on the Icelandic nature. For instance, there’s no real way to experience the crystalline majesty of the glacial spring, Silfra Fissure, without go either snorkelling or scuba diving. There’s no better insight into Iceland’s geological history than descending into the volcano where one can observe the kaleidoscopic colours imprinted into the magma chamber’s rock walls.
Guides across Iceland, whatever their discipline, are knowledgeable, passionate, experienced and qualified in their activity, as well as first aid and emergency response. This ensures that tours in Iceland are as safe as possible, and is one of the leading reasons as to why it is forbidden to try and partake in certain activities without a guide present. Glacier hiking, for one example, involves a thorough awareness of the terrain, including the locations of hidden crevasses, thin ice and gorges.
Let’s face it, it can be challenging to take personal responsibility whilst in a foreign country. After all, you’re not going to stay for long, are often moving from one destination to another and harbour little intention to return. Besides, this is your holiday, right? Who's to tell you how to behave when you're taking some time off?
It’s certainly easy to take what one wants from Iceland’s many attractions—their transient beauty, photographic potential and esteem among global sites—but an entirely different thing altogether when it comes to ensuring it is left the same way as you found it.
But what does taking responsibility really mean? For what? Well, responsibility, in this case, can be broadly sculpted down to using your common sense. Littering, for instance, is an obvious crime, both legally and morally, as is disregarding any safety warnings you might spot at the attractions or by the roadside—a number of tourists have taken to endangering themselves recently in a bid to capture dramatic and unique photographs, an ambition that's just not worth a human life.
Photo from Hans-Jurgen Mager
Reading about and researching a location—as one is prone to do before travelling—is an excellent means of getting a base knowledge of your destination, allowing you to plan out itineraries, store useful titbits about its history, culture and people, and even to cultivate the impression you’re already there.
There can be no dissuading any prospective traveller from doing this; it is, in fact, one of the tenets of being a sustainable tourist. With that being said, however, one should not believe everything that one reads.
For instance, we here at Guide to Iceland are quick to rectify our mistakes should they slip through the editorial process. Still, they do happen from time to time, so dictates the era of rapidly produced content.
Of course, the rest of the internet is not so willing to repair the ripped seams of untruth that permeate about Iceland. Quite frankly, there are certain myths prevailing on the internet that should be ignored, scoffed at and shared as prevailing examples of Fake News.
One is that the Icelandic government will pay foreign men to marry an Icelandic woman. This is, unequivocally false, and thus cannot be relied upon as a secondary income. So too is the presumption that Icelandic women are somehow ‘easy’, ready to drop their frillies at the first sign of exotic interest. As a single man with an accent, let me tell you, sincerely, that this has also proven to be reliably untrue.
It is common knowledge that Icelanders are adept at language. Not only do they have an incredible tradition of oral and written storytelling—all the way up from the ancient Sagas to Halldór Laxness' 'Independent People'— but they also speak fluent English, with many also fairly proficient in Danish and other European languages.
The fact the population speaks English (and other languages) so eloquently has kept travelling here largely free of miscommunication. Asking for directions or advice is a simple affair, as is ordering food and freely conversing with the Icelanders you meet.
For the hell of it, before travelling, you may have looked up some useful Icelandic phrases. To do so, again, is to prepare yourself as a sustainable tourist and a positive cultural ambassador. Even so, a quick look at these phrases likely cemented in your mind that Icelandic is a notoriously difficult language.
"My name is" ... Ég heiti ...
"I'm from" ... Ég er frá ...
"Hello" ... Halló ...
"Have a nice day" ... Eigðu góðan dag ...
"Please say that again" ... Gætirðu sagt þetta aftur? ...
"How much is this?" ... Hvað kostar þetta? ...
"Thank you" ... Takk / Takk fyrir ...
"My hovercraft is full of eels" ... Svifnökkvinn minn er fullur af álum ...
Largely unchanged since the Settlement period, the Icelandic language resembles Old Norse very closely, using the same alphabet and many of the same pronunciations. This makes it particularly inaccessible to the native English speaker, who must get their tongue around a host of new sounds and tongue positions.
East Iceland, while the largest region, is also the least populated. It is also visited the least out of all the regions in Iceland, no doubt in large part due to it being on the polar opposite end of the country from the capital, Reykjavík, and Keflavík International Airport. Those who choose to leave East Iceland from their itinerary will be missing out on one of the most distinctive areas of the country, however.
The furthest most travellers will venture is Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, known as "The Crown Jewel of Iceland" for its glittering icebergs and tranquil atmosphere, as well as the adjacent Diamond Beach, where said icebergs drift outward to the Atlantic Ocean.
Though undoubtedly beautiful, the journey back and forth from Reykjavik will often take up to ten hours—given the number of beautiful spots along the way—and so Jökulsárlón has become the de-facto ending for most people's Icelandic adventure.
The Ring Road goes on, however, leading to a host of unique and fascinating attractions. Guests to the East can expect to visit such known features as Lake Lagarfljót, Stórurð ("The Giant Boulders"), Víti Crater Lake, Hengifoss waterfall, the dome-shaped mountain Búlandstindur and Hallormsstaðaskógur National Forest, to name just a handful. There is also the naturally warm waterfall Laugarvellir (with accompanying hot pool) and the dramatic, coastal mountainscape, Vestrahorn.
For the rare few who are not travelling to Iceland by aircraft, you will arrive by ferry to the shores of East Iceland, in the town of Seyðisfjörður. The ferry, Norræna, sails from Denmark to Seyðisfjörður and back every week, with a stop made at the Faroe Islands.
Seyðisfjörður itself is a prime example of the many quintessential fishing villages that dot East Iceland; surrounded by waterfalls and hiking trails, this artistic settlement (approx. population: 700) also boasts a post office, swimming pool, hotels, supermarkets, two cinemas, two museums and a hospital.
Okay, granted, there are some peculiar looking dishes when it comes to eating in Iceland. If you happen to look in the freezer of some supermarkets, you might come across Svið, a traditional dish that comprises of a split, boiled sheep’s head. This popular and authentic dish should not put you off at all—culinary delights await around every corner of Iceland’s larger towns.
Fish is, of course, an enormous contribution to the Icelandic diet; having sustained themselves for centuries on ocean bounty, the Icelanders are more than experienced in serving up some truly unique fish-based dishes. This isn’t surprising, given that Iceland’s economy has, more or less, survived on fishing and fish processing since the island’s settlement.
The most infamous fish dish in Iceland is, undoubtedly, Hákarl, otherwise known as fermented shark. Served up with a shot of the Icelandic schnapps, Brennivín. Many visiting Iceland for the first time consider trying a mouthful of this "delicacy" something of a challenge... a trial of fire, if you will. Hákarl makes up part of þorramatur, a tradition of seasonal Icelandic foods.
Most food shops and convenience stores will also sell packets of Dried Fish, wildly popular amongst the local population and a cause of mild anxiety for everyone else. Despite their arresting odour, the dried fish is incredibly tasty, making for an authentic snack during your time here. Besides these traditional food items, we also heartily recommend checking out some of Iceland's fine dining restaurants.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao
By now, it is well established that Iceland is an expensive country, not only to visit but to stay in, to be born into, to exist in. The looming, omnipresent expense of it is, of course, the curse of all islands... food items must be brought into the country, and there is a lot of ocean to cross.
Despite that, there are a number of supermarkets that, at least, allow the purchase of groceries for relatively normal prices, amongst them being Bónus, Hagkaup and Krónan. One establishment that categorically does not fit this mould, yet somehow manages to continue its spread across the country, is the 24-hour store, 10-11.
Instantly recognisable by its circular green signage, you would think 10-11 is selling capsules of heroin, given it's intense, often hysterical popularity. Open throughout the night, the service at 10-11 could roundly be described as dismal, with the odd touch of humanity sometimes shining through in, perhaps, 1 out of 11 staff.
But now, I feel a little guilty. It is hard, after all, to blame the cashiers. No, it is the corporation we're dismissing here. It is the provincial, opportunistic flair in which 10-11 will prey upon the ignorance of its' customer base.
But who suffers? Not those who live here, you can be assured of that. No, it is you, dear reader, because you have been ill-informed, and you are all to quick to jump into 10-11 when a far cheaper Bónus is only a street away. It happens as quick as a flash; one moment you're stepping into 10-11, the next, you're 4000 króna out of pocket, with little to show for it.
10-11 has even been known to up their prices 8% in the nocturnal hours, meaning those seeking a convenient afterparty snack will find themselves paying a rather immoral price... (a third of the businesses' outlets were found to be doing this). Even during daylight hours, visitors here can expect to pay an extra 50% on their shopping bill. And who needs that?
Given the business' reputation as a manipulator of prices, stock and people, it comes as little surprise that 10-11 must be ever on the alert for shoplifting. This is clearly observable; security guards linger around the entrance like bouncers, shiftily giving you the eye as you walk in.
It is quite the atmosphere for a local convenience store, about as joyous and full of life as one of its day-old pizza breads. But, given our vitriol, perhaps this final "DON'T section" should instead be retitled "DON'T Shoplift from 10-11".
Though, quite frankly, that's a difficult one to take personal responsibility for.
Did you enjoy our article on How to Travel in Iceland | The Top 5 Do's and Don'ts? What were the tips that helped during your stay, and is there anything else you might advise? Make sure to leave your suggestions and questions in the Facebook comment's box below.