Iceland for beginners: A simplified guide

The land of fire and ice, a nation defined by its dramatic landscape with volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields and glaciers. It’s no wonder this little gem has been popularized in the recent years and is now a major tourist destination!

Iceland is a safe, beautiful and unique place. Halfway in between Europe and North America, this Nordic nation is a truly amazing place filled with beautiful nature, wonderful food and inspiring art & culture.

What’s the currency in Iceland?
The currency in Iceland is called Icelandic Krona, also written as ISK. 1000 ISK is equal to about $12 CAD (or $9 USD, or €8). Fair warning: Iceland isn’t the cheapest country to travel to. A mid-range meal for two at a restaurant can very easily be over 12000 ISK.

Where should I go to first? How do I get to city center from KEF airport?
The capital of Iceland is called Reykjavik and it’s home to two thirds of the population. Upon arrival to Keflavík International Airport (which is international airport for Reykjavik), you’ll have to make your way to city center. You’ll see two bus options, Airport Express or Flybus. You have the option of going to a centrally located bus station or getting dropped off directly at your hotel. Airport Express is cheaper, at 3800 ISK round trip. Whereas, Flybus is more expensive, 4000 ISK, but offers free WiFi. Try to book online in advance, as prices at the airport are more expensive.

The bus towards Reykjavik city center is your first taste of Iceland. The route is very scenic, as you pass by massive lava fields and stunningly unique scenery. You’ll never see a tree in this tundra climate. The ride should take no longer than 50 minutes. Bus tickets to the bus station are cheaper than going to the hotel and the bus station is conveniently located and a walk able distance to most hotels.

What hotel should I stay in during my stay in Reyjavik?
Grand Hótel Reykjavík is a 4 star hotel located in city center and cheaper than most 3 stars. Grand Hótel Reykjavík is known for their phenomenal customer service, clean and large hotel rooms, top-notch dining & bar experience and their beautiful views that overlooks the city from your hotel rooms.

Budget travelers, or those who enjoy hostels for their outgoing and social atmosphere will enjoy Kex Hostel. It’s located in a prime location, close too all necessary amenities, such as dining options, grocery stores, banks, bars, etc. It’s walking distance from the tourist destination Hallgrímskirkja cathedral and city center. Even if you don’t end up staying in this trendy hostel, definitely check out the cafe/bar for their free live jazz nights!

What time of year should I go to Iceland?
Being so far up north, during winters you won’t see the sun in the sky and during the summers, the sun never fully sets! That being said, of course Iceland is absolutely freezing in the winter. Make sure that you have proper boots, winter coat, hat, scarves and mittens. Icelandic winters can sometimes get so cold that the geothermally heated water can freeze in the pipes, rendering your sink and shower useless.  That being said, Iceland in the winter is truly beautiful. In my humble opinion, winter is the only time to go to Iceland for the true Icelandic experience.

The beautiful winter scenery of Iceland just can’t be beat. Less tourists travel in the winter as well, so you’re less likely to be crowded on tours. You’re also far more likely to see the northern lights in the winter. Thousands of people flock to Iceland in the summer every year, because it’s still stunning and beautiful.

What should I do while in Reykjavik?
Apart from wandering around the colourful and vibrant city of Reykjavik, you should also be sure to visit Hallgimskirkja cathedral, where you can take the elevator up to the top of the cathedral and see the best view of the city.

Pretty much every statue in Iceland was created by Einar Jónsson. You’re likely to fall in love with his work while wandering around the art-filled city, but why not take it a step further and visit the main museum? It’s located right next to Hallgimskirkja cathedral, so these two things can be done in the same day.

Take a city walking tour with Auður from I Heart Reykjavik. The Icelandic local will take you to her own favourite places in the city center while teaching you a few words of Icelandic. She’ll lead you to colourful murals in hidden lanes and point out the best restaurants and bars to enjoy later in the day.

Hitch-hiking in Iceland is so much ingrained in their culture, that it’s a must-do for anyone visiting! You can take a bus to the bottom of Mount Esja, which is the beautiful mountain that dominates Reykjavik’s landscape. From there, just stand on the side of the road with your thumb out and you’ll likely get a ride in less than ten minutes. It’s a medium-level hike, so make sure to bring proper shoes, clothing and water.

Iceland has nightlife like no place else. Be warned, Icelandic people like to get extremely drunk and stay out extremely late. If you show up at a bar or club at your usual time of 9 or 10 PM, that’s really early and oftentimes the bars are nearly empty at that point. What I suggest: spend your evening getting drunk off Brennivín, the original Icelandic Snapps. At around 12 PM or 1 AM, you can start making your way to the bars. Certain bars, such as Kaffibarinn, Harlem and Kiki Queer Bar are likely to be bumping already. There’s no shortage on bars and clubs in Iceland and most don’t charge cover, so bar hop as long as you can, baby! For more information on Iceland’s Nightlife, click here.

Where else in Iceland should I go? What should I do in Iceland?
Blue Lagoon is easily the top tourist spot in Iceland. Blue Lagoon is an outdoor geothermal spa. The spa is located in a lava field located about an hour from Reykjavik. The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur, which not only makes it appear bright blue, but it’s also extremely good for your skin. Bathing in the Blue Lagoon is reputed to help some people suffering from skin diseases such as Psoriasis. Going in the winter is a particularly neat experience, because the air can be colder than -22°C, yet the water is 30-40 °C. There’s a swim up bar there and mud masks. This is an unbeatable experience, especially if you go at night, under the northern lights.

Make sure you explore Iceland’s Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a very popular tourist route in Iceland, covering about 300 km. There’s different tour options available or you can rent a car and go yourself. The route contains three major locations:  Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall and Haukadalur.

The first stop on the Golden Circle, Þingvellir National Park is a key location in Icelandic history as the oldest existing parliament in the world. Besides being a location of historical significance, Þingvellir is also protected as a national park due to its unique geology and natural features. Almannagjá is a canyon formed between two tectonic plates, a visual representation of continental drift. This park has absolutely stunning scenery.

Gullfoss, also sometimes called ‘Golden Waterfall’, is an iconic waterfall of Iceland offering a spectacular view of the forces and beauty of untouched nature. The water plummets down 32 meters in two stages into a rugged canyon which walls reach up to 70 meters in height. On a sunny day shimmering rainbow can be seen over the falls.

Haukadalur is a geothermal area which contains two huge geysers: Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir can shoot water up to 70m in the air, but can sometimes be inconsistent and infrequent. Strokkur, on the other hand, continues to erupt every 5-10 minutes. This is one of the most amazing things you will see in your life.

I absolutely adore the geysers of Iceland, but my favourite spot in Iceland still has to be Jökulsárlón, known as ‘Glacier Lagoon’. It’s on the eastern side of the country. This beautiful lake is filled with mini icebergs and is known as a glacial lake. It’s connected to the black sand beach via a short river, which is also covered in Icebergs. The black sand on Iceland’s beaches is black because it is composed of many volcanic minerals and rocks are dark-colored.

Near Glacier Lagoon is Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, which is another must visit location. This overwhelming Glacier is a whopping 17km² and 752 m high! It’s constantly moving and cracking. Watch it slowly move and even listen to it’s powerful cracks. The more adventurous travelers can opt to take a guided Glacier walk. It is highly warned not to go on the glacier without a professional, but you can view the glacier from a nearby cliff. Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier is truly a wonder of the world. Being near it puts you into a euphoric state. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful.

Where can I see the Northern Lights? Where can I see Aurora Borealis?
The Northern Lights are visible in every part of Iceland at some point or another. However, they don’t shine every night. They’re even visible at times in city center. You can also pay for a tour from Reykjavik that will drive you away from the city. You’re still not guaranteed to see the northern lights, but your chances are very good on this tour. Also, if you happen to go on a tour and don’t see the northern lights, you can go back again for free until you see them.

When are the Northern Lights visible in Iceland?
The Northern Lights are only visible in the winter months, from September to April. These are the months when there are dark nights. The northern lights are Iceland’s most unpredictable tourist attraction, but if you stay for a week, you’re likely to see the God-like green lights dance at least once. Another a main factor is weather. Being an Atlantic nation, weather in Iceland is fierce and rapidly changing. Checking the weather a couple days prior to your trip will give you a good idea of whether or not you’ll see the northern lights.

How many nights should I stay in Iceland?
It’s very difficult to get bored in Iceland. There’s just so much to do there and the energy there is so powerful. The city is so detailed and beautiful and the people there are some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. I went for 5 weeks and could’ve still stayed longer. I would recommend going for a minimum of 7 days if you want to do everything listed here. If you’re just wanting to check out Reykjavik, then less time should be fine. 7 days, however is the ideal amount of time.

How do I get the cheapest flights?
IcelandAir flies out from North America and offers free 1 week stop overs in Iceland when flying anywhere in Europe. If you’re heading to Europe anyways, it’s a great way to throw in an Icelandic vacation.

Otherwise, there’s tons of budget airlines that fly from major European airports to Reykjavik. Take a look at this list of budget airlines for more information.

What else should I know about Iceland?
There’s so much you could know about this quirky little country. At about 40000 square miles, Iceland is small., yet there’s still a volcanic eruption every 4 years. Iceland is the newest landmass on Earth! It’s still a baby.

The Icelandic language remains unchanged from Ancient Norse. 1000 year old texts are still easily read today. There are no surnames in Iceland. They use the traditional Nordic naming system. It includes a last name that is created by taking usually the father’s first name and adding ‘-dóttir’ for girls (“daughter”) or ‘-son’ for boys. For exmaple, if Randy has a daughter Hannah– her name would be Hannah Randydóttir. And first names not previously used in Iceland must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee.

Roughly 85 percent of Iceland’s energy is from renewable resources, and well over half of that is geothermal alone. The water is heated from the Earth.

There’s no McDonald’s in Iceland, but there are Subways (which, by the way, are the cheapest place to get a coffee or food).

Iceland had the first democratically elected female and openly gay Prime Ministers. For four years in 2010, the mayor of Reykjavik was Jón Gnarr, an Icelandic actor and comedian. As a joke, Jón Gnarr created a political party called Best Party and ended up winning the vote by 1%. From the beginning, Best Party stated that they would not honour any of its election promises and made broad claims about how other parties are corrupt. Jón Gnarr was a well-liked mayor.

I hope you enjoyed this simplified guide to Iceland. Feel free to ask if you have any questions about this destination, I’ll be happy to assist you in anything related to travel.


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