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Iceland Destination Guide—Land of Fire and Ice

Icelanders are quirky, with the combination of creativity and tenacious survival in the face of severe weather. Visitors cite the breathtaking waterfalls, glaciers, ice caves, black sand beaches, and geothermal vents as contributing to the beauty and unusual flair of Iceland. At the same time, a thriving cultural scene in Reykjavik has made it a destination for partiers, shoppers, foodies, and anyone interested in Vikings and Norse Mythology.

The Highlights

Walking through the streets of Reykjavik, it can like one has stepped into a locavore’s paradise. Iceland’s locally roasted coffee, brewed beer, and even distilled vodka are all available in the stores and shops, while even simple pubs and restaurants can have a menu filled with shark, whale, or puffin entrees. A must-try dish is skyr, which is a delicate version of yogurt beloved by Icelanders and frequently served with berries, jam, or other adornments to make it into a dessert.
While museums like the National Viking Museum are great choices on stormy days, much of the appeal of Iceland’s attractions are outdoors. Within the city, you can visit the enormous pools and try their various hot tubs of varying temperatures, a popular activity with the locals during all times of the year. The most famous and popular collection of attractions in the Southwest corner of the country are along a route known as the Golden Circle, which takes visitors to waterfalls, crater lakes, geysers, and even the very spot where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe meet.
For the more adventurous and extreme guests, venturing farther north or to the Eastern coast of Iceland allows for a sight of the more rural fishing villages of the country. Tour companies will take trekkers into the heart of the glaciers and let them snowmobile, climb, and hike their way through the amazing natural ice and rock formations that decorate the heart of Iceland. Extreme sports are popular and with some practice, you could be traveling over snow that few people have ever seen.

The Geography

Iceland’s geography is deeply connected to its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, making it a hotspot for volcanic activity in spite of being at such a high latitude. This results in a hot layer under the surface of the country that provides them with abundant geothermal heat—there are places you can watch bread being baked in the ground at spots where heat vents to the surface.
At the same time, glaciers have formed over the majority of the surface of the country. Large swathes of the landmass are only accessible via F-Roads, which can be closed at a moment’s notice due to unpredictable alpine weather. Trusted guides can take snowmobiles or hikers up to see the magnificent views from atop the various glaciers, but look out for Vatnajökull glacier simmers Bardarbunga, a volcano that could erupt any time now.
The weather is undoubtedly unpredictable and harsh, but the Icelanders know how to prepare for it. Bring your best winter coat and other items for bundling up if you brave the colder time of year, and plan to bring a good windbreaker regardless because even the summer months can have cool mornings and brisk winds.

Best Time to Go

For Northern Lights, the months of February, March, September, and October are best, but for weather, July and August are the mildest and the most brilliantly sunny. Times in between these will be less ideal for weather and the sights in the sky, but they make up for it with some very inexpensive airfares on Wow! and Icelandair.

Know Before You Go

If you travel in the summer, prepare yourself for very short periods of darkness and almost no “true nighttime.” It is often bright twilight until after midnight during summer months. Also, know about Icelandair’s policy of giving free layovers for a few days in Iceland when you are on your way to somewhere else in Europe or the United States: sometimes you can package a little trip to Iceland into another trip for no net additional airfare. If you want to see lots of the natural sites, compare prices for renting a car to the prices of various tours that are available. With a group of 2 or 3, you may save money simply by navigating the tour yourself, which is fully possible even without knowledge of Icelandic.

Weather

Iceland is known as one of the three windiest places in the world, so pack clothes that will block the wind regardless of the forecasted temperatures. In general, Iceland will be cold right up until June-August, though some nice and mild days may come in there. In winter, plan to bundle up, but also plan to keep an eye out for the Northern Lights!

Language

Icelandic is different from anything you’ve probably ever heard before, but it is related to Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and other Scandinavian languages. While you’ll hear it if you venture into a gas station, small-town bakery, or other areas, English is very widely spoken, especially in any tourism-related enterprise. In the smaller towns you may encounter while road-tripping across Iceland, it is possible that some people won’t readily speak in English, so its worth trying out a few basic phrases for asking and thanking in Icelandic.

Electricity

Using the typical Northern European outlet (50 Hz/220 volts), so plan to borrow or purchase at least one converter to get from your home outlets to the typical outlet there. If you really don’t want to bring an adapter, contact your lodgings ahead of time to check and see if they have one to loan you—this is a perk of a very tourism-heavy country.

Currency

The Icelandic Krona hovers at around 0.01 of the US Dollar, and if you think the prices seem high, that is probably because they are. You can save by finding budget accommodations and inexpensive airfare, but visitors should plan to splurge on food, souvenirs, and tours.

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