We’ve been living in Iceland for a few months now. I don’t wanna rehash the stuff you’ll find in typical tourist advice, but rather talk about stuff that I’d wanna hear if I was starting to plan a vacation to the land of fire and ice.
Start your vacation planning with Mads Peter Iversen’s YouTube playlist. Mads Peter Iversen is a landscape photographer who extensively documents his work, and his videos give you better perspective for the size of the country and the kinds of attractions you’re interested in seeing. Sure, there are plenty of other attractions – whale watching tours, restaurants, the volcano – but Iversen’s videos will help you understand which parts of the country call to you the most.
The Northern Lights are tough to time. It’s all about weather and daylight hours. Winter visitors have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, but the days are very, very short, many roads are impassable, and many tourist-based businesses are closed, so you’re not likely to be here then anyway. Summer is tourist season – everything’s open – but the nights are so short, and it’s not really “nighttime” anyway because the skies are so bright. Even if you’re here in the winter, you can be here for weeks and not see a sign of ’em. They can come and go in a matter of minutes. Consider the lights to be an awesome surprise benefit.
If you only have 7-10 days, forget the Ring Road. The Ring Road goes around the entire country, and I see tourists rent a camper van, then make a frantic race around the loop. You won’t really enjoy yourself. Instead, focus on a smaller part of the country, and have a good time. Erika and I talked about our ideal 7-day itinerary, and we figured:
- Day 1: the Silica Hotel and the Blue Lagoon (more on that below)
- Day 2: buy a one-day tourist van excursion like this to the Snæfellsnes peninsula
- Days 3-5: drive around the Golden Circle
- Days 6-7: keep driving East to Vik, and see Diamond Beach and Vik’s attractions
When you arrive, spend a day at the Silica Hotel. If you’re flying over from America, you’re likely going to be jet lagged all to hell. Get your luggage, go through customs, pick up your rental car or camper, and drive to the nearby Silica Hotel, which is part of the Blue Lagoon. The Silica is far less expensive than the Blue Lagoon’s hotel, but it still has its own small lagoon that you can use for free as a hotel guest, or you can walk over to the Blue Lagoon and use their sprawling facilities. A rest & relaxation day of napping, eating, and chilling in the lagoon is a great way to ease into Iceland.
Check business hours on Facebook. I don’t care whether you like it or not, but everything and everyone in Iceland is on Facebook, and only Facebook. You can’t trust things like opening hours on Google Maps – Iceland businesses just don’t keep those up to date for some reason. If the business hasn’t posted on their Facebook page in the last month or two, call them (or Facebook message them) before you go – they’re likely closed. Similarly, be aware of Icelandic holidays – the entire country honors a lot of obscure Christian holidays, like Whit Monday, and everything closes down, including most restaurants.
Gas station restaurants are normal. In the United States, you usually don’t wanna eat food out of a gas station. When you’re traveling through Iceland, you’ll often find that the gas station is the only restaurant in town. Gas station menus are bigger than you’d expect. Icelanders are particularly proud of their gas station hot dogs made mostly of lamb and topped with both crispy and raw onions. (It works.) Try the lamb soup, too.
Carry cash to tip restaurant wait staff. You don’t have to tip if there’s no wait staff, but if there are waiters and waitresses, there’s usually a tip jar where you pay. You can’t add the tip onto your credit card bill.
Alcohol is crazy, crazy expensive due to taxes. Sure, sales taxes are higher on everything compared to the US, but alcohol is on another level. It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying at a bar or mixing it at home yourself, either. It doesn’t even matter whether you’re buying crappy stuff or the good stuff: taxes here are based on the volume of alcohol, not the sales price, so the good stuff isn’t even that much more expensive when you can find it. Even a low-end bottle of liquor will set you back at least $50-$75, and we’ve never walked out of the state-owned liquor stores for less than $300, and we’re only buying a few bottles at a time. Buy it at the airport duty-free store and bring it in instead. Here’s how much each person can bring in.
Driving? Bring a debit/credit card with a pin number. The gas pumps look like they accept Apple Pay and contactless payments, but they don’t take a lot of non-Iceland cards. You’ll need to insert a card, put in your pin number, and then select how much gas you want. (If you’re choosing a rental car, both diesel and gas are available at all gas stations in Iceland – don’t worry about diesel availability.)
One-lane, two-way tunnels are a thing. If you’re driving through a tunnel and you see headlights coming at you, watch for parking areas on the right side marked “M”. If the parking area is on your right hand side as you’re driving, then it’s your responsibility to pull into the parking area so that oncoming cars can get through. If the parking area is on your left hand side, well, just be patient with tourists who don’t know this rule.
Microwaves are much less of a thing. Don’t assume that your AirBNB will have one, regardless of what you’re paying to stay there. Icelanders just don’t seem to have embraced microwaves like Americans.
If you can swing the budget, take a helicopter tour. Iceland has so many incredible sights, but many of ’em either take forever to get to in a car, or else they’re not really appreciated until you see ’em from above. We’ve had a great time on both Nordurflug and Helo.is tours.
If you’re thinking about getting a drone, get one. If there’s ever been a country built for big sweeping drone shots, it’s Iceland, as evidenced by a plethora of amazing videos. However, keep in mind that drones are prohibited at most condensed tourist sites, and you don’t wanna be That Person who constantly gets dirty looks, fingers, or worse from other tourists. Let everybody have a great time without your electric mosquito buzzing overhead, and save the drone for the more isolated areas.