Famous for its dramatic Nordic landscape that’s filled with volcanoes, lava springs, geysers, hot springs, and glaciers, Iceland is a must-see for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Home to breathtaking views and once dominated by Vikings, Iceland is often called the home of fire and ice.
The striking contrasts are what makes Iceland unique. A Nordic island located in the North Atlantic Ocean, the country is Europe’s most sparsely populated as there are under 340,000 citizens (as of 2021). But even with its scant population, Icelanders are happy to open up their world and show visitors the beauty of their country.
Velkominn – Welcome to Iceland!
Reykjavík is Iceland’s capital and largest city. The capital is located on the southwest coast of the country and is home to two-thirds of the country’s entire population. Reykjavík is thought to also be Iceland’s first permanent settlement and dated to 874 AD.
Today, the capital is the center of the country’s government, cultural, and economic activity, which makes it popular as a tourist destination.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Icelandic culture has roots in Scandinavian culture, which comes from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. While not considered Scandinavian due to its location, you can still see similarities between the Scandinavian culture and Icelandic culture.
Mostly, the cultures are known for their grand history of storytelling with many tales centering on sagas and epics. But other art forms like wood carving, silversmithing, and weaving are important too. Vikings also play a huge cultural part in Icelandic history and current identity.
The Norsemen who came to Iceland originally founded Althing, which is the world’s first parliament. Leif Eiríksson is the most famous Icelandic Viking who was the first European to reach Vinland, or North America after he set sail further west in the year 1000.
Icelandic is the country’s official language and is often said to be one of the hardest to learn in the world. The language is similar to Old Norse and has had little outside influence. Icelandic is extremely common throughout the country and you’ll find businesses, news, and the government speaking in the language.
However, many Icelanders speak Icelandic alongside another language with English being the most popular. While the majority spoken is British English, American English has influenced the country through entertainment like movies and TV programs.
Iceland is not a very diverse country and 93% of its population are Icelanders. But the largest immigrant group is from Poland holding about 3% of the population, so you might hear Polish spoken too.
You may be eager to experience the astounding contrasts of the Icelandic landscape, but first, it’s important that you consider your spending budget when you begin to plan your trip. Budget is a big deal when visiting Iceland because the country is extremely expensive.
Iceland is so expensive in fact, that average prices for goods are 66% higher than the rest of Europe and it’s considered to be one of the least budget-friendly destinations. While it is difficult on a budget, it isn’t impossible.
Surprisingly, flights to Iceland won’t break the bank. Flights can be found for cheap with the lowest prices being a few hundred dollars, depending on where you leave from. January to May is the tourist off-season, which could mean that flights to Iceland can be found even cheaper.
As with any flight, how early you book can also affect the overall price. It’s better to book your trip in advance to save money.
Accommodation is also expensive and only costs more with a larger group. Iceland uses a European-style bed, which means that for a bigger bed, they often just push two twin mattresses together. If you’re traveling as a family of four, you would actually have to book two hotel rooms to accommodate your family, which could cost nearly one thousand dollars.
In Reykjavík, the average cost of a hotel room is a few hundred dollars a night, so if you need additional space, you need to prepare a large budget in advance. Some hotels do offer family rooms, but they are usually extremely costly.
One great way to lower your budget is to stay in an Airbnb. There are many vacation rentals located just outside of the city, which cost around the same as one room and will sleep a family of four. If you are trying to stay on a limited budget, hostels are another option, which will also be the cheapest.
For the most budget-friendly accommodations, camping will cost the least amount of money. You can choose to either rant a van and tour the country or simply pitch a tent.
While lodging is pricey, don’t expect a break in your budget with food, drink, and entertainment costs. Icelandic cuisine has a long history and is deeply tied to the surrounding ocean. Fish, lamb, and dairy are part of the dishes, which are made into popular dishes like kjötsupa (lamb meat soup), svid (sheep’s head), hákarl (fermented shark), and pylsur (hot dog).
But while there are a lot of tasty dishes to try, the prices are not as attractive. An expensive country to dine in, even a hot dog will be priced more than you think. Grocery stores and cooking your own food are the best way to keep the cost of food lower. Alongside food, drinks are also quite expensive.
If you’re looking to save, visiting during happy hour is your best choice. Nearing US prices for most more items, don’t expect to save much when it comes to going out. A big way to save money if you do want to drink would be to buy duty-free alcohol at the airport and bring it with you on your trip.
How to Get Around
Due to the remoteness of the country, getting around isn’t as easy as many travelers would hope. Most options are flying, traveling by bus, or renting your own vehicle.
There are actually 38 airports in Iceland with the Reykjavík airport being the country’s main airport. Domestic flights are available and in the winter, they may be the only option to safely reach your destination. Most domestic flights will cost you over a hundred dollars for a one-way trip.
However, if you have not already booked yourself an all-inclusive bus tour and need a different way to get around, it’s highly suggested that you rent a car. Renting a car will give you more freedom and get you away from the tourist crowds who stick to their tour groups. Iceland is a rugged destination and many people choose to have a 4-wheel drive car to tackle the country roads.
Buses, Taxis, and Walking
If you are staying in a specific city, such as traveling around from the airport to your hotel, a bus would be the best and most budget-friendly way to travel. There are many buses, like the Flybus, which can take you from the airport to your destination for a minimal fare.
Taxis are quite expensive in Iceland and most people would prefer to use public transportation to save money. Walking is also recommended in tourist areas because it is free and lets you explore more of your location.
Top Cities to Visit
While most people think of the capital when they imagine Iceland, there are plenty of other cities to explore too. With different features and attractions, each location is worth visiting. To help you decide where to go, here is a brief overview of the most popular cities to visit in Iceland.
As the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík is the first destination where international travelers end up because of the Keflavík International Airport. Many tourists will explore Reykjavík before heading out to other towns in the country.
The capital is exceptionally lively and has a reputation for having great entertainment, music, and an energetic night scene. The landscape is also a big draw for visitors because of the impressive oceanside location. Laurgardalur Valley is especially popular with tourists because it has Laugardalslaug, which is the largest pool in the city.
Akureyri is known for its beauty, history, and botanical gardens. The city has an ice-free harbor and a stunning mountainous landscape. The terrain is favored for agriculture, which makes Botanic Gardens famous for growing the plants found in Iceland. Akureyri is also known for throwing concerts, festivals, and special exhibitions.
Húsavík is a whale watchers’ paradise. This town has grown in popularity because of its gorgeous bay where multiple species of whales can be found. The Húsavík Whale Museum is also a top attraction.
Besides the wildlife, the town is a great transit destination. There are many hiking trails that are a short distance from Húsavík, which are passable during the winter season.
Iceland is also known for having quaint but colorful houses and Seyðisfjöður is one of the biggest tourist destinations because of its idyllic architecture and lovely landscape. The town is very creative, artistic, and welcoming to visitors. With dramatic fjords, the town is also close to amazing hikes, many of which lead to cascading waterfalls.
For those interested in the Vikings, Hafnarfjörður has its annual Viking Festival during the summer solstice. Visitors can experience the history and culture of Vikings while staying in a picturesque town. The Bright Days Festival is also a popular attraction that takes place in May and June.
The city is also home to a geothermal area and hot springs, which are close by and open for hikes. Though these natural hot springs are not for your relaxation and are too hot to even touch, so don’t go jumping in the water.
Ísafjörður is the largest city in the Westfjords and is home to some of Iceland’s biggest music and cultural events, including the Ísafjörður Rock Festival and Fossavatn Ski Marathon. The city also has a variety of museums, hiking trails, and tours that you can take. With a single airport, the city has easier access than other destinations.
Points of Interest
While the cities are big attractions, there are also many different points of interest throughout Iceland. With plenty of stunning outdoor locations to explore, you’ll have your itinerary packed with places to visit during your stay. Here are just some of Iceland’s top tourist destinations.
Discover the best of Iceland’s thermal springs to add to your itinerary, on our sister site, Top Hot Springs.
The Blue Lagoon is just 40 minutes from the capital and are Iceland’s most iconic hot springs. The lagoon is located in Grindavík at the base of a nearby power station. The temperature of the water ranges from 98.6 to 102.2° F and is pale blue in color.
Many tourists are eager to visit this location for a relaxing soak and spa day in the lagoon. This isn’t the only thermal resort near the capital city, check out the other top hot springs by Reykjavik to find others for your Icelandic adventure.
Located just 50 minutes from Reykjavík, Strokkur Geyser is the most popular geyser in Iceland that erupts every few minutes and shoots water 100 feet in the air. In the area are also hot springs and boiling mud pits, which have hiking trails located a safe distance away.
The Geysir Center is famous for selling “hot spring” bread, which is rye bread that was baked underground for 24 hours.
The Northern Lights
Not exactly a point of interest but a natural phenomenon, visitors to Iceland have a chance to see the Northern Lights in action. Also called Aurora Borealis, the lights are caused by solar wind and how particles collide with our atmosphere and Earth’s magnetic field.
While the Northern Lights can be seen throughout the country, you can ask your hotel for nightly predictions. Some even have a call list, where you can be woken up and alerted by the front desk if they have begun to appear.
Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve
Located 50 miles outside of Reykjavík, the Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve is one of the most frequented tourist destinations because of its remote beauty, raw nature, and breathtaking views. The park’s main feature is the rhyolite mountains, which present a variety of shades and hues. The Helka Volcano is also located here, alongside extensive lava fields.
Vatnajökull National Park
The Vatnajökull National Park stands out because it’s filled with glaciers and ice caves. The Skaftafell Ice Cave is open year-round to tourists and offers a unique view of the mountain. Winter is the favored season for visiting because rain washes the top layer of the glacier away, so you can see the ice more clearly.
There are guided tours available, which would offer you the best trekking experience to see the caves and glacial cracks.
Perhaps the most photographed peak in Iceland because of its unique construction, Kirkjufell Mountain is symmetric and free-standing. The mountain is located near the town of Grundarfjörður, situated on the north coast of Iceland.
While it can be climbed, it’s not recommended during wet conditions because it can become dangerous and slippery. However, at the base of the mountain and in the area, you might have the chance to catch a view of the Northern Lights.
A 30-minute drive from Reykjavík, Mount Esja is popular amongst tourists because it’s relatively easy to summit, even for beginner hikers. Once you are at the top, your reward is a stunning view of Reykjavík, the surrounding area, and the ocean. There are several different hikes to the summit, and each varies in length and difficulty.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is one of the best natural wonders that you can visit in Iceland. They offer tours to take you out onto the water, between huge chunks of ice that have broken free from the glacier.
As you glide along, you may even catch a glimpse inside a glacial cave or see flocks of birds flying overhead. Tourists can take a day tour from Reykjavík to experience the natural beauty of the lagoon.
Myvatn was formed by hot lava thousands of years ago and is the top destination in Iceland for bird watchers. The lake in the area is home to over 100 bird species as well as impressive pseudo-craters, which have erupted through the water. Now, they appear like small islands and provide great views of rock formations such as caves and pillars.
Golden Circle Route
For a taste of nature, history, and architecture, the Golden Circle Route is a popular day activity for tourists. The Golden Circle Route offers small excursions that take you to featured stops like Gulfoss, Hvita River Canon, hot springs, and the þingvellir which is where Iceland was founded.
There are many tour companies that provide complete packages, which is the easiest way to complete the famous cirque.
Ring Road (Route 1) is famous in Iceland for being the main road that runs throughout the island in the shape of a ring. It’s a national road and it connects the most populated places in the country together so that they can be easily accessed by car or bus.
The full length of the two-lane road is 828 miles, which has been fully paved. The road is home to many attractions and will provide you access to other more remote destinations. The road is often open year-round and can be safely traveled in winter.
“The Land of Fire and Ice”
Although a relatively small country, Iceland is packed with beauty and adventure. From the people, culture, and landscape, everything is stunning about this northern destination. In every town, there is a gorgeous view, which means that there isn’t a single bad destination.
Whether you want to head out to the wild or explore the colorful towns, Iceland is a vacation you won’t soon forget.