Iceland is a land of ice and fire. Click To Tweet The title of my Iceland story will be:

Alyssa In Wonderland

Iceland is amazing; it’s truly a magical wonderland. Icelandic airlines push a quick layover to see the country, but a quick layover is not enough by any means to see all that the wondrous place has to offer!

<Iceland Blue Lagoon>

Aurora Borealis

First, the Aurora Borealis. If this isn’t already on your bucket list, add it now. What better place to see the northern lights than an undeveloped, purely natural country with over 18 hours of darkness in the middle of winter? Yes, you can see it in other places, but other places may have worse weather. Worse than Iceland, you ask? Yes: snow is common in Iceland, but one minute it might be snowing, and 10 minutes later it might be sunny. The weather is incredibly unpredictable in Iceland which leads to good odds of seeing the northern lights.

I took a tour bus to see the northern lights and it was cloudy and foggy for the first hour, then suddenly all the clouds and fog disappeared and the stars and northern lights appeared!

<Iceland Northern Lights>
Taken with a tripod and 20 second exposure to get that kind of color

The northern lights tour we took first brought us to a geothermal spa like the Blue Lagoon, but the experience was nothing like the Blue Lagoon so don’t let this tour substitute your trip to the Blue Lagoon. It was nice with warm waters, but smaller and not as blue. It was also at night (obviously, to see the northern lights), and it was more like sitting in a hot tub than a natural spring. The trip included a free buffet at this spa, and we spent 2 hours enjoying the warm waters and eating. Then, we took off to hunt down those northern lights.

What’s the best way to see the Aurora Borealis? Get on a tour bus. You can search for the lights on your own, but you might not succeed if it’s your first time seeing them. Depending on their level of solar activity, they might not look in person like they look in pictures. When they have a low level of activity, cameras can capture colors that the human eye cannot see. So what you see isn’t necessarily what you get, and it’s easy to mistake the northern lights for a cloud if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

< Northern Lights in Iceland >
This is a very low level of solar activity, and the northern lights were hard to see

Also, it’s best to get away from the city lights and go into the wilderness to see them at their brightest, which is easier to do on a bus than in a rental car. Remember, tour guides take people to see the northern lights for a living, so they know where the best spots to find them are and can spot them quicker than a novice southerner. If you do decide to go in search on your own, make sure to check this website to see how the aurora will behave up to one hour in advance.

<Iceland Aurora Borealis>

If you’re not a photographer, capturing the northern lights is next to impossible. A tour guide can help you set your camera to the right settings to get the best images. To me, ISO and exposure mean nothing, but our tour guide helped all of us set the correct settings. And finally, a friend of mine told me an iPhone camera would not capture the lights; if I tried to take the pictures myself, that would have been the case, but with the help of the tour guide, I downloaded an app called NightCap that allowed me to set the ISO and exposure settings to take beautiful, colorful pictures with just my iPhone!

Moral of the story: it’s worth it to spring for a tour company.

Blue Lagoon

< Blue Lagoon, Iceland >The Blue Lagoon is a must on any visit to Iceland! It is beautiful, scenic, and completely natural. Since it’s such a tourist draw, it does get crowded so get there as early as possible. They do, however, limit the number of people who can go in, so also make sure to buy tickets in advance (there will most certainly be none available at the door).

Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is in the middle of nowhere, about an hour from Reykjavík and 25 minutes from the airport, so it’s best to visit on the way to or from the airport. They have locker rooms with showers and actually require you to shower before you go into the Blue Lagoon to keep it clean, and you will want to shower to get the sulfur off after you get out, so it’s perfect before or after an airport trip.

< Blue Lagoon, Iceland >There is a hotel at the Blue Lagoon, but there is nothing else around it for miles so I recommend not staying there, just visiting. After about 4 hours, you will probably get bored with being there anyway. The Blue Lagoon sells different packages, but the basic package is all you need.

Blue Lagoon
The waterfall at the Blue Lagoon

Upgraded packages offer a towel and robe, both of which will just get stolen once you go into the pool; 2 welcome drinks at the bar in the lagoon, which you can buy yourself when you get there; a mud mask, which is free in the pool anyway; and possibly lunch at the restaurant, which did look good but there are plenty of places in Reykjavík to eat (or you can always pay to eat at the restaurant if you decide you do want to eat there). Remember, the place gets CROWDED. If you don’t like crowds, you won’t want to eat there.

< Blue Lagoon, Iceland >
The Blue Lagoon gets very crowded. This is early in the day.

I have now been to the Blue Lagoon twice, once at opening hour and once at 11:00 a.m. My recommendation is try to book an appointment at opening time and get there 30 minutes early so you’re ready to enter the pool at or before opening. You will have first choice of lockers, be able to change and shower with no one else around, and be the first in the pool with the mud mask. Within the first hour, tourists swamp the place, lockers are impossible to find, and showers have a waiting line (and you can’t go in the pool without a shower first). The staff tries hard to keep the floors dry, but it’s a pool after all and the locker room gets very wet and puddle-y as well. The earlier you can go, the better! However, since the Blue Lagoon does limit the number of tickets sold and number of people allowed in the lagoon, it’s never super uncomfortable.

< Mud masks in the Blue Lagoon, Iceland >
Free mud masks in the Blue Lagoon!

Remember also that there is very little sunlight in Iceland in the winter: at 9:30 a.m. it will be very dark. The sun rises around 10:30 a.m. or 11:00 a.m., so if you get there early you will be able to see a beautiful sunrise over the snow-capped mountains while bathing in 80 – 90 degree F (26-32 degree C) water. The sun sets around 3:30 p.m. in winter, so you could also go for a nice sunset.

< Blue Lagoon at 10:51 am >
10:51 a.m. at the Blue Lagoon on December 31

In the summer, there is plenty of sunlight. There are sediments in the lagoon that reflect the sun and clouds beautifully, making the lagoon extra blue or white. Even in the rain, the Blue Lagoon can look incredible!

Blue Lagoon in summer
Around 11:00 a.m. at the Blue Lagoon in June

Girls: you will want to avoid getting your hair wet. Your best bet is a sock bun. The sulfur is very drying, but if you do want to go under, condition before and after (it will still feel like straw for the next 4-5 washes though). I kept my hair dry at the Blue Lagoon the first trip, but I got it wet my second time at the Blue Lagoon. I conditioned before and after and it may have helped my straw hair situation, but it still took a few days of washing it every day and deep conditioning it before it returned to normal.

< Blue Lagoon, Iceland >
A sock bun is easiest to avoid getting your hair wet, feeling like straw, and smelling like sulfur

Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a popular day trip for tourists that includes Gullfoss waterfall, Strokkur geyser, and Thingvellir National Park. It loops from Reykjavik to the southern highlands of Iceland and back.

< Golden Circle Map, Iceland >

On my first trip to Iceland, I rented a car to visit the Golden Circle and headed out from Reykjavik on a bright sunny morning. Halfway there, it started snowing so badly I couldn’t tell what was a road and what was not. In the 30 minutes of driving, a bright sunny day turned into a heavy snow with 0 visibility! By the time I got back to Reykjavík (30 minutes later), it was still gray outside but the snow had stopped.

< Iceland Snowstorm >
The snowstorm came on suddenly and the world was a white mess
< Iceland Snowstorm >
Since we didn’t make it to the Golden Circle in the snow storm, we took pictures of the snowy scenery on the road!

Golden Circle bus tours leave at various times in the morning, but I found the best time to take the earliest tour. This way, you avoid other tours and tourists and mostly have the first stops to yourself. It also allows you to spend more time in each place to make the most of the limited daylight hours (if you go in winter). The tours run in sun, rain, snow, sleet, or hail.

The first stop is the Icelandic horse park. You have the option of adding on a horse ride to your itinerary here (before you book your tour). I cannot stress enough how much you should not book this in advance. I’d love to ride Icelandic horses, but I’m so glad I didn’t book that option because it was cold, rainy, and sleeting. It would have been no fun, either for me or the horses. I was happy just to take a few pictures and pet the furry little guys in their pasture, then grab a tea in the gift shop and get on with my journey. If you want to book an Icelandic horse ride, make sure to check the weather and do it the day of or the day before to guarantee it will be a pleasant ride.

< Icelandic horse park >

The next stop is Gullfoss. Gullfoss translates to “Golden Falls” because the water carries a lot of sediments as it travels down the land and on a sunny day, the water plunging down the 32m crevice looks golden. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. It’s in a canyon in southwest Iceland. Gullfoss is uplifting as you stand in awe admiring the raw power and energy of this magnificent waterfall. There is one restaurant at Gullfoss, and you can sit at a window table overlooking the waterfall. Get the soup: for 1500 ISK (about $13 USD) you get free refills and you can try the lamb soup, which is famous in Iceland, or the vegetarian option. With your tour slip, you also get 10% off.

< Gullfoss Waterfall, Iceland >
Standing on a cliff overlooking impressive Gullfoss

Next up are the geysers, specifically Strokkur. The famous geyser in Iceland is Geysir, which literally means “to gush.” Geysir goes up to 75 m (246 ft) high, however, it only goes up about 3 times per year. Strokkur is the famous geyser everyone waits to get a picture with. It goes up about 35 m (115 ft) every 5-8 minutes.

< Strokkur geysir >
Strokkur geysir goes off every 5-8 minutes

The water temperature for these geysers to go off has to get up to 100 degrees C (212 degrees F), so you can imagine what kind of volatile ground you’re standing on! If you go in winter and need to warm up after waiting for the geysers, just stand near one of the steaming pools. You might be covered in white sulfur after a minute or two, but that steam will warm you right up!

< Geysir >
Standing in the hot steam of the geothermal geysers will warm you right up

Finally, the last stop is Thingvellir National Park, the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Iceland. This area was the site of the first parliament from 930 until 1798. It’s the oldest place parliament was held in all of Europe. Thingvellir was created in 1930 to protect the historical area and its natural wonders. You can find Law Rock here, where leaders recited the law, mostly by memory, while everyone sat and listened. You can also find the biggest natural lake in Iceland, Thingvallavatn.

< Thingvellir National Park >
The largest natural lake in Iceland is in Thingvellir National Park

The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates come together under Iceland’s terrain, so Iceland is prone to earthquakes. In 2000, the plates shifted and an earthquake caused a rift, which you can see in Thingvellir.

< Tectonic plate rift in Thingvellir >
Tectonic plate rift in Thingvellir

Thingvellir is a beautiful area with lots of history. There are signs everywhere pointing out the places of historical significance. There is a small waterfall, pieces of glacial ice floating in the river, an adorable little church, and walkways throughout. You can even have a picnic at the picnic tables, which leads to a meal with an incredible back drop!

< Thingvellir >

One thing you must do in Thingvellir is snorkel Silfra. Silfra is a rift in the tectonic plates between North America and Europe that goes down about 63 meters (207 feet). The chasm filled up with fresh glacier water and you can ride the current through the rift and see the incredible views underneath the water. The water is a year-round chilly 2-4°C (35-39°F), but it is well worth snorkeling in the freezing waters of Silfra!

Diving Deep Into Silfra
Even with a dry suit and a snorkel, it is possible to dive down deeper into the Silfra rift

South Coast & Waterfalls

The South Coast tour had me at “black sand beach,” “volcano,” and “waterfalls.” If you want to see some of the most spectacular sights in Iceland, this is the tour for you.

First up is Seljalandsfoss waterfall, one of the most photographed waterfalls in Iceland. It’s the only waterfall you can walk behind to get a full 360 degree view. Seljalandsfoss is 60 m (197 ft) high. Justin Bieber shot a few scenes here for his music video “I’ll Show You.” Unfortunately, it rained when I visited Seljalandsfoss and the only way to get wetter than standing in the rain is to go behind this waterfall in the rain, so I gave it a try, got soaked before I even got to the steps, and decided to come back one day in the summer to get the “behind the falls” photo.
*Edit: I made it back in late June to get that “behind the falls” photo!

< Seljalandsfoss >
You can walk behind Seljalandsfoss for a panoramic view

Just down the road from Seljalandsfoss is Skógafoss, which translates to “Forest Falls.” There are no trees around, which implies that at the time the waterfall was named, there must have been a forest around this waterfall. Now, it’s a river with a 60 m (297 ft) drop into another river. Skógafoss is 25 m (82 ft) wide, so it’s noticeably wider than Seljalandsfoss. Justin Beiber filmed a few scenes for “I’ll Show You” on a cliff overlooking Skógafoss, where it looks like he’s having an emotional moment. If it wasn’t so muddy or slippery, I would have tried to recreate this shot! I did climb to the top of the cliff, 60 m (297 ft) up to get a view of Skógafoss from above! Warning: don’t attempt if you’re in bad to adequate shape – it’s a tough climb!

< Skogafoss >

The active volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which means “island mountain glacier,” is between Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. It’s pronounced ella fyatla yogutk (which doesn’t help much). In 2010 it erupted, covering the town below completely in ash and stopped air traffic for a week. Icelanders say it was a time when all of the Icelandic people came together to help each other out. Reporters from all over the world showed up in Iceland to cover the footage. Icelanders still talk about how funny it was to listen to them try to pronounce the name of the volcano. Eventually, they started cheating and calling it E4 (E for the volcano, 4 because it’s the fourth time it erupted).

< Eyjafjallajokull >
Eyjafjallajökull volcano

After the waterfalls and volcano comes the icy Solheimajökull glacier, hidden behind green mountains. Unless you follow signs to the glacier, you might not even know it’s there! Once you get there, what you see is only part of the enormous Mýrdalsjökull ice cap behind it. Many tours offer day trips to hike the Solheimajökull glacier, but don’t try going on it without a guide. The guides know the glacier inside and out, know where is safe to step and where is not, and will help you with proper attire and footing. If you want to hike the glacier, definitely go on a guided tour. Tours run rain or shine.

< Solheimajökull glacier >

Standing on a glacier
Standing on a glacier

Icelanders believe in trolls, fairies, elves, and all sorts of supernatural beings. In a cold, dark, desolate country, your mind can start to play tricks on you. There are small villages along the main road, but people live alone in parts of the country. If you see someone running through a field in the wintry twilight, you might start to believe there really are elves about. As far as trolls, I saw three so I can vouch that they do exist. The first came right after this glacier. Look closely at the picture below, and tell me you don’t see a troll’s face in the mountain!

Troll's face in the mountain
Can you see the troll’s face?

Moving south, you come to Vik. Vik translates to “bay,” which is ironic since this village is the only town in Iceland without a harbor. It does, however, have a beach. It became a trade city because of its location between Reykjavik and Eastern towns. It’s also a convenient midpoint town for a stop, about 2 hours from Reykjavik and 3 hours from Hofn. Vik has a population of about 300.

Vik, Iceland
The small town of Vik, Iceland

Vik has a large wool production factory and sells handmade wool clothing, where you can actually watch the workers making the clothes from above. Handmade wool sweaters cost about 25.000 ISK (about $224 USD), but I imagine they are made for warmth to withstand cold Icelandic winters. If I could afford to contribute to Iceland’s economy by buying one of those sweaters at that price, I would have done so in Vik.

< Making wool clothing in the wool store >
Icelandic wool workers handmaking clothes from wool

Vik has one diner type restaurant, but they know how to handle a crowd. After years of daily tour buses coming through, they have a system down to accommodate everyone. Seating is limited so you will have new friends joining you at your table, but it’s a great, cozy way to eat. The restaurant is located right on the famous black sand beach.

< Vik >
The restaurant in Vik is that big building on the right

The black sand beach is one of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen. At first, it looks like a black muddy beach (especially in the rain). If you’re brave enough to pull your hand out of your glove, you will see it’s actually soft black sand! The views of the black sand against rolling green hills and beautiful blue waves contrasts well.

< Black sand beach, Vik >
The black sand beach in Vik is a tease. Imagine such a beautiful beach so close to the town, but too cold to enjoy!
The black sand beaches of Dyrholaey and Vik

There is a mountain that breaks the black sand beach into 2 parts. Icelanders call the second part a “black pebble beach,” although it still felt like sand to me. The black pebble beach is a great place to see the stone sea stacks. Remember before I told you that Icelanders believe trolls, fairies, and elves exist? Well as the story goes, two trolls were trying to drag a ship into the rocky shore, but were turned to stone as daylight broke. You can still see them in the waters just off the black sand beach in Vik. So now you have that – three trolls you’ve seen with your own eyes.

< Stone sea stacks, or rock trolls >
Stone sea stacks, or trolls turned to stone by the sun

Also on this black pebble beach are the basalt columns formed by cooled lava, called Reynisdrangar. They resemble a pyramid; Hallgrimskirkja, the big church in Reykjavik, is based on these basalt columns.

< Reynisdrangar, or basalt columns >
Reynisdrangar, or basalt columns on the black sand beach

There are no rules to taking pictures on the columns, and you can climb as high as you like, just make sure you can get down again. In 2016, two guys climbed a bit too high. They wouldn’t climb back down for fear of falling, and the tour guide had to call in the Icelandic search and rescue team. They spent a long time trying to help the guys back down, but eventually they had to call in a helicopter too. Luckily, the search and rescue team succeeded before the helicopter made it to the south coast. I climbed only about 5 columns and I understand their fear! Be careful when climbing to get that perfect photo.

< Basalt columns >

Also out in the distance in the ocean are two big formations. It looks like one rocky formation until you get to the right angle and can see an alleyway in between. It’s not very wide, so this feat was pretty amazing and no one has been brave enough to follow in his footsteps since, but he did get pretty good footage of flying between the columns!

< Rocky formation in ocean >
The rocky formation in the ocean, under a beautiful Icelandic sunset

A little further down from Vik is the small village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur with population 120. There are a few houses and a gas station with a restaurant. If you’re renting a camper, this is a great spot to pull over for the night. But Kirkjubaejarklaustur isn’t the main attraction in this area. If you’re out this far, check out Fjadrargljufur Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Iceland.

Fjadrargljufur Canyon
Fjadrargljufur Canyon

The canyon is 100 m deep and 2 km long with the Fjadra River flowing through it. There is a hiking trail along the top or the bottom, but to hike in the bottom of the canyon you would have to wade through the freezing river at some points. Along the top, there are little places that jut out, perfect for a photo op or music video scene (this was also one of the filming locations for Justin Bieber).

Fjadrargljufur Canyon
Justin Bieber ran along this thin ridge 328 ft (100 m) above the canyon floor in his music video.

Tour Companies

Here’s the deal about tour companies: if you’re a first-timer in Iceland, use them.

Tour guides know everything there is to know about Iceland. They have stories about their own experiences, about general Icelandic views, and they have knowledge that a tourist wouldn’t know. Tour guides can help you find and photograph the northern lights, even if they’re at their lowest strength. They can give you background on why something is important. They can point out things you wouldn’t expect, like the rocky strip of barren land that serves as Skogafoss airport, or the cliff Justin Beiber sat on to have a pensive moment.

Tour guides know the roads in all weather conditions and the tour will go on in Iceland, rain, snow, sleet, or hail. From personal experience, I know I had to cancel a Golden Circle trip due to snow when I was driving myself, but the tour bus still made it out. Driving around Iceland by yourself, you’d never know these things, but a tour guide can tell you the ins and outs of Iceland.

That said, I chose Gray Line as my tour company. I used them for everything from airport transfers to day tours. They had the best prices, were the fastest to respond to my questions and concerns, offered everything I wanted, and even let me borrow a phone charger when I got to Iceland without an outlet adapter. The company was just great, and I highly recommend them.

< Gray Line Iceland >

Additionally on this note, I strongly suggest choosing one tour company and sticking with them for everything. If you oversleep one day and miss a bus, they can get you on a different tour that day, exchange another tour you had planned for a different day, and if you miss the northern lights on one tour, they will offer you another tour free the next day. It’s easiest to stick with one tour company for all your needs to avoid confusion and help them help you.

One of the best parts of the tours is that the buses have free wifi! This means you’re connected no matter how far into the remote interior of Iceland you go. You can immediately upload pictures to Instagram or Snapchat or search the Internet while you’re on the bus.

The tour bus guides also put on Icelandic music for us to really get a sense of Icelandic tastes. We also got to listen to some Icelandic fables on the Golden Circle tour, which are interesting to compare to your own culture’s fables.

Our tour guide to the south coast even taught us the most important words and phrases in Icelandic, like how to say Batman or how to order 37 beers (because if you order only 1, they’ll know you’re a tourist right away). One of the most common phrases in Iceland translates loosely to “let’s get on with it” or “let’s move on”: áfram með smjörið (pronounced like aufram meth smorith) literally means “on with the butter.” Another common Icelandic phrase translates loosely to “the gold at the end of the rainbow”: rúsínan í pysluendanum (pronounced like roos a non ee pislo anthremum) literally means “the raisin at the end of the sausage,” which is strange because Icelandic hot dogs don’t have a raisin at the end…

Tour companies like Gray Line offer tons of tours, from traditional Golden Circle tours to exploring inside ice caves to glacier hiking to Icelandic horseback riding. There are helicopter tours, flights to the east coast, or you could go north to see truly remarkable things.

Where to Stay

< Sunna Guesthouse >The first time I visited Iceland on New Year’s Eve, I stayed at the Sunna Guesthouse. They offer basic rooms with shared bathrooms, standard rooms with a private bathroom, or 2 bedroom rooms for families or large groups. A basic room with a shared bathroom was about 30,000 ISK ($250 USD), and the room still had a sink. The bathroom was very clean, the room was clean and in excellent condition, and we couldn’t complain. Plus, going to 2 geothermal pools which required on-site showers, we never even needed to shower in the shared bathroom.

< View from Sunna Guesthouse >
The view from our room at Sunna Guesthouse on New Year’s Eve

Sunna Guesthouse is in an excellent location, right across from the iconic Hallgrimskirkja church in the center of Reykjavík (where people set off all the fireworks on New Years Eve), and a block from the main street in town. It also was easily accessible for tours to pick us up directly outside our hotel. There was free parking behind the building, but there was no elevator if that is important to you. I highly recommend looking into Sunna Guesthouse!

<Iceland Hallgrimskirkja>
Hallgrimskirkja Church
<Iceland Fireworks on New Years Eve>
New Years Eve in Iceland

My second trip was a solo trip, so I looked into the cheapest accommodations I could find. There is a pretty cool hostel in downtown Reykjavik – Loft Hostel – but it’s all dormitory-style rooms, which just aren’t my thing. I chose Loki Guesthouse, again near Hallgrimskirkja church. I like this area because it’s quiet and always easy to find with such a big landmark. It’s also super close to the center of town and easily walkable just about everywhere in Reykjavik.

< Loki Guesthouse >
Loki Guesthouse has a great view of Hallgrimskirkja church

Loki Guesthouse is basically a house that rents out bedrooms. There’s no reception desk and no one will meet you when you show up. You will let yourself in with a key from the lockbox, find your room number in the hallway, and find your keys in your door waiting for you. The rooms consist of single rooms with just a twin bed, double rooms with two twin beds, or private rooms with a bathroom. I chose a single room with a shared bathroom and had no trouble at all. The bathroom was clean, the room was clean, and no one made any noise. It’s just a place to rest your head in Iceland, otherwise you won’t even be in the room! The owners live nearby and are always available by phone, and you can use the house phone in the kitchen to call them.

My third trip was an AirBnB. There are lots of great home rentals in Iceland, and why not try living like a local? I rented a 2-bedroom apartment from Thorsteinn on the top floor of a building just around the corner from Hallgrimskirkja. It was an excellent location, walkable to everything, right in the heart of one of Reykjavik’s top neighborhoods, and came equipped with all the amenities of a house. So much better than a tight, cramped hotel! For $40 off your first AirBnB booking, click here.

View from the living room of our Airbnb in Reykjavik
View from the living room of our Airbnb in Reykjavik (at 2:00 a.m.)

Other Interesting Tidbits About Iceland

  • There are about 320,000 people in the whole country of Iceland. There are 80,000 Icelandic horses. That’s about 1 horse per 4 Icelandic people.
  • There are about 2,000,000 (that’s 2 million) visitors to Iceland each year.
  • Icelandic horses aren’t native to Iceland. They came from Mongolian horses which made their way to Russia, then to Norway, and then to Iceland.
  • The only animal native to Iceland is the arctic fox.
  • No horses are allowed to enter Iceland. If Icelandic horses leave the country to do a horse show, they aren’t allowed to come back in. This is to protect the remaining Icelandic horses from outside diseases they don’t have immunity to. It’s both a happy and sad day when a horse leaves for a horse show.
  • There are 119,000 people who live in Reykjavik, making this the biggest city in Iceland. Akureyri, the “capital of the north,” has almost 18,000 people. Selfoss, the “capital of the south,” has about 8,000 people.
  • Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world.
  • The oldest parliament in Europe was held in Iceland at Law Rock at Thingvellir National Park. The leaders recited the laws in front of the people, usually by memory.
  • Iceland is the meeting place of the North American continent and Eurasian continents. The tectonic plates meet, which is the cause of Iceland’s earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, waterfalls, and mountains. You can go on a diving or snorkeling tour and dive down between the plates for some pretty incredible views and pictures.
  • You can drink the tap water! In fact, it’s better than buying bottled water. The tap water in Iceland is what they bottle and sell to other parts of the world. It can sometimes smell like sulfur but it’s delicious and cold! Let it run for about 5 seconds to get rid of the sulfur smell and fill up those water bottles for free.
  • The sulfur content is very high in Iceland. It’s not harmful, but has interesting effects on things. For example, black rock will turn the whitest white if left in sulfur. Also, silver turns black in sulfur water, so don’t wear any silver jewelry into the geothermal pools like the Blue Lagoon.
  • Iceland uses geothermal heat from underground to heat houses and water. There is so much excess geothermal energy that the city pumps it under the main street in downtown Reykjavik to avoid snow and ice from piling up. They also pump it into the artificial beach in Reykjavik in summer so Icelanders have a tropical reprieve from the cold temperatures.
  • Iceland has its own language and the letters are not English letters so it’s impossible to even sound out, but unsurprisingly, everyone speaks English. Everyone – from gas station attendants to bus drivers, I didn’t meet a single person that wasn’t completely fluent in English.
  • The Icelandic language is a pure language, unaffected by any other linguistic influences thanks to Iceland’s isolation. It’s the exact same language that the Vikings spoke. It’s one of the oldest spoken languages in the world.
  • People in Iceland lived in the famous sod houses in the early 1900s. Some were still living in sod houses up until 1969.
  • The Iceland airport is very small, but probably the best airport you will ever go to. The bathrooms are very futuristic and incredibly clean. In fact, when you first arrive in Iceland, hit up the bathrooms for a private bathroom with private sink. It’s a great place to brush your teeth, wash your face, apply makeup, or change after a night sleeping on a plane.
  • All of the music on the radio is in English. However, Iceland does have Icelandic music, and Icelandic musicians are starting to make their way onto the global scene. Think Bjork and Of Monsters and Men.
  • You don’t have to tip! It’s not expected. Free money is always appreciated and if you feel someone has done an excellent job, you can tip them, but it’s not expected and you’re not obligated. It would be like going to 7-11 and tipping the cashier when you buy a candy bar – it’s just not something people do. Of course you can though, but 20% would probably make someone uncomfortable.

Price Breakdown

Now what you really want to know, the price breakdowns. Iceland is an expensive country – there’s no way around it. Well, maybe there is.

First of all, alcohol in Iceland has some of the highest tax in the world, so it’s very expensive in Iceland. Typical 16oz (500ml) beers cost around 1200 ISK – 2600 ISK ($11 – $24 USD). The best way to beat the system if you’re going to want to drink in Iceland is to stop by duty free on your way out of the airport (although if you’re arriving on an early-morning flight, stop at duty free in your own country). I paid $14 USD for a 6-pack of Icelandic beer in the KEF duty free shop.

Iceland has a variety of restaurants, from expensive five-star restaurants to fast food. If you want to save money on food, grab a Subway sandwich or shop at a Bonus grocery store (look for the big pink pig). Only tourists eat in the restaurants.

If given the option to pay in local currency or your own currency, it’s almost always in your best interest to pay in your own currency. A credit card will usually have a better exchange rate than whoever is charging you. This is usually only an option for the big tour companies or an airport restaurant, but it’s something to remember to save money.

Tipping is uncommon in Iceland (and Europe in general). Don’t worry about tipping at restaurants unless it’s a fancy restaurant. Also don’t worry about tipping tour guide operators, unless you want to work your way into their heart with money!

Prices in Iceland tend to be higher on holidays and in summer, so go on off days to save money. On holidays, restaurants double their prices to pay for their staff (since tipping is uncommon), so visiting will be cheaper on a non-holiday. If you’re on a budget, go to Iceland in the winter when no one else wants to go and give the country some tourism.

Hotel: $55-$100 US per night in a single room with shared bathroom; $115-$250 US per night in a double room with shared bathroom; $550 for a 3-night minimum in a 2-bedroom AirBnB

Northern Lights Tour: $56 for northern lights bus tour only, $150 for extended bus tour with included geothermal spa, free buffet dinner, and northern lights hunt

Blue Lagoon: Basic package $61-$89 per person (bring your own towel and bathing suit and basic is all you need)

Golden Circle: Free admission to each attraction if you have your own car. $90 with a tour

South Coast: Free scenic road trip with waterfalls, volcanoes, and beaches if you have your own car. $120 with a tour

Food and drinks: On New Years Eve, we paid $134 USD for dinner for 2 people at a low-key Indian restaurant, which would normally should have been no more than $50 for 2 people. At Bjarni Fel sports bar on an off night, prices were around $20-$30 USD per entree. At Bonus grocery store, pre-made sandwiches were about $5. Baejarins Beztu Pyslur only has hot dogs, but they’re famous Iceland hot dogs; they run about $4.50 USD each.

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The world-famous Baejarins Beztu hot dogs are a great alternative to expensive restaurants. A trip to Iceland isn’t complete without a hog dog from this stand!

At Lebowski Bar, beers cost around $15 USD. Kaldi Bar is a popular bar for trying local Icelandic beers without buying a brewery tour. Their beer choices are constantly changing and you can buy a flight of four beers for about $20 USD.

Flights at Kaldi Bar in Reykjavik
Flights of local Icelandic brews at Kaldi Bar in Rekjavik

Happy hour at Kofinn offered buy one get one free Viking beers, which cut the price in half. The Appy Hour app is a great reference to finding cheap food and drinks in Iceland at certain times.

Buy One Get One Viking beers
BOGO Viking beers at Kofinn in Reykjavik for happy hour.

Rental Car: Pretty consistently $50/day (I paid $100 US for 2 days and $250 for 5 days). Pretty expensive, but convenient to drive yourself places like the Blue Lagoon for early entrance or secret lagoons around Iceland. If you have a big group, a rental car might be cheaper than everyone taking tours. If you’re solo or a duo, taking tours might be cheaper and easier. Do not prepay gas if you do get a car! It’s much cheaper to fill up the tank before you return the car. It’s also sometimes cheaper to rent a car for longer than your stay. For example, sometimes renting for a week is cheaper than renting for 2 days. Sometimes renting for a month is cheaper than a week. Strange, I know. Read this post to decide whether to rent a car or take tours around Iceland.

Iceland is very affordable if you do it right! It is a MUST-DO for everyone at least once in your life, but you will probably realize that you can’t just go once in a lifetime. It is a wonderland!

Have you been to Iceland? Do you share my sentiment about it? What was your favorite thing to see? Leave me some memories in the comments below! If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear those as well.

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P.S. You might also enjoy Snorkeling the Freezing Waters of Silfra, Iceland or 6 FAQs About Iceland

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