My trip to Iceland was my first overseas trip since my 6 month backpacking trip in 2016/2017. This would be my first time traveling solo; I’d be in a foreign country and did not know what to expect. Being me, I did some research, lots of it, so I felt ready to tackle this adventure. For those of you who don’t want spend hours doing the research or don’t know where to start, here is my Beginner’s Guide to Iceland. This guide will cover the basics of visiting Iceland such as language, currency, budget tips, what to see, etc. After reading this post you should feel confident setting out to the land of fire and ice!
Visa Requirements: A passport from the United States gets you into 173 countries visa-free or visa on arrival. Iceland is one of them. A U.S. passport will get you 90 days visa-free in Iceland.
Language: The official language in Iceland is, you guessed it, Icelandic. Everywhere I go I try to learn a few phrases in the native tongue because I know it would be appreciated by locals. Phrases like “Hello”, “Thank You”, “How much?” or “Where’s the bathroom?” come in handy. I did find it pretty difficult with the Icelandic language. The pronunciation of many of the words was completely different from what it looked like to me on paper. Luckily, most Icelandic people speak English really well. So after botching up the most basic of phrases, I kind of gave up and just stuck to English. There’s no shame in it, I tried.
Currency: Icelandic Krona. At the time I visited, $1 U.S. dollar was about 98 krona. I made it easy on myself and just moved the comma one spot to the right. So if something cost 5,000 krona it was about $50 U.S. dollars. I wasn’t pulling out my currency converter each time, so this method gave me a general sense of what I was spending. If you’ve read my previous post, Simple Ways to Save Money on Travel, you know that I have a Charles Schwab account that reimburses my ATM Fees. I didn’t worry about exchanging money when I arrived in Iceland and knew I’d be getting the best rate when I withdrew money. If you don’t have this type of account and don’t want to carry a lot of cash on you, no worries, most businesses in Iceland take credit card. Just make sure your card doesn’t charge you foreign transaction fees.
Travel Tip: Accept transactions in the local currency. Your bank will give you the best exchange rate available at the time of the sale.
Tipping: In the United States tipping is on another level compared to most countries. Servers and bartenders do not make a livable wage and therefore rely on tips to make a living. Trust me I know. I used to be a waiter and bartender. Overseas, in most countries, the staff make a livable wage and tipping, while appreciated, is not customary. Iceland is no different. I didn’t even notice a spot on the receipt to write in a tip, so I would leave cash. How much you tip is up to your discretion; if you loved the service leave 10-15%. Most people don’t leave more than a few hundred krona.
Transportation: Getting around Reykjavik was pretty easy. First, the city isn’t that large and I like to walk so that’s what I did. Second, there is a bus system (straeto.is) that seems pretty reliable but I did not use it. I had to burn off all the food and drinks that I was enjoying. Also, most tour companies will come and pick you up at one of the many drop off points throughout the city. Most tour companies also offer a ticket if you want to just go to the Blue Lagoon and back or even round-trip tickets to the airport. If you’re just looking for a ride to and from the airport, FlyBus is the cheapest option available. Lastly, there are car rental companies o’plenty. I rented a car for my last couple of days and got around with no problems. In the summer time, you might want to rent these far in advance but I didn’t have a problem with renting a car 1 day in advance in March. There are cabs that operate in the city but I was told they were expensive so I didn’t even bother. There is no Uber or Lyft in Iceland.
Travel Tip: Before you leave the airport, stock up on alcohol at the duty-free shop. It is much cheaper than buying drinks at the bars and restaurants in the city.
Weather: There’s a saying in Iceland, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes”. The weather in Iceland, especially in the winter months, can be very unpredictable. The best thing you can do is dress in layers and bring a rain jacket. The official tourism site, Inspired by Iceland, has great practical information on what to wear in different seasons.
Where to Stay
Being that this is your first time visiting Iceland (as was mine), you’ll most likely be staying in the largest city and capital, Reykjavík, “Bay of Smokes”. About a 45 minute ride from Keflavik airport, Reykjavík is a convenient hub for many tours with lots of choices for accommodations.
Hotels: There are many hotel options in Reykjavík and even more being built every year to keep up with the flood of tourism. When I visited in March 2018, I didn’t have an issue finding a hotel (not that I stayed in one) but I’ve read that in the summer time you’d want to book a hotel far in advance. Prices range from $80/night (further away from the downtown area) to $200+/night for a room in downtown. I would imagine it’s closer to the $200 range during the summer so be aware of that if that’s when you are visiting.
Airbnb: This was my choice of accommodation. I like having my own space and being walking distance from downtown for an affordable price. If you get a good host (like I did) they will accommodate you if you have to cancel a day’s stay at the last minute because of a cancelled flight or allow you to check-in way earlier than normal because your flight arrived early in the morning. However, talking to some locals, Airbnb is having a negative affect on them. As in other cities around the world, people are buying apartments solely for use on Airbnb, therefore raising rent prices on the local population. It’s been an issue in New York City for some time now and it’s why the company was coming under fire and close to being banned. Obviously, being a smaller city the impact is greater. This is something I try to watch out for; am I staying in someone’s house/apartment that they actually live in or is it a company that rents out the property? While I’ve stayed in both types of properties in the past, I don’t like to hear how it’s affecting the local community so it’s something I’ll watch out for in the future. Plus staying in a property that’s actually owned by a local person is so much better. You’ll get tips and advice on where to eat and get a feel of what it’s really like to live there. In the past I’ve even sat down for coffee and breakfast with my hosts. That’s the experience I’m looking for.
Hostels: Not much of a thing in the United States, hostels are a normal choice for many travelers outside of the U.S. I decided to stay at the Galaxy Pod Hostel for a night, just for the experience. Not everyday do I get to sleep in something that resembles a space pod. Hostels offer an inexpensive option for accommodations where you can meet other travelers and get insider tips from the local hostel staff.
Smaller Hotels: My last couple of days in Iceland, I wanted to do some real solo travel. So I rented a vehicle and drove myself to the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to end my day so I rented a room on a farm near Gullfoss waterfall. It was a great place owned by a local farmer. There are many places like this along the main roads. I was lucky enough to get a room in short notice because of the season but in the summer time the owner told me it could get very busy. Again, the summer months you might have to do a little more planning and reserve a room in advance.
Food, Activities & Site Seeing
Here is the section that most readers will probably want to pay attention to. What should you do and see while staying in Iceland? Now as this is a Beginner’s Guide to Iceland, I’ll go over the must sees for your first time in Iceland. All of the natural sites such as the waterfalls, geysers, etc. you do not need a guide. While there are many tours leaving out of Reykjavik, if going on tours is not your thing then drive yourself! Many of the activities however, such as going into the ice caves and snowmobiling, you’ll definitely need a guide.
Reykjavik: First stop; the capital! Of course, this is where you should start. Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and has a lot to offer in terms of food, culture and nightlife. There are many restaurants serving modern Icelandic food as well as traditional Icelandic food. There are many bars to have a good time during the weekends and if you visit during one of the Icelandic holidays there will be a big celebration here.
Blue Lagoon: The Blue Lagoon is the most visited and well known site in Iceland. The milky blue hot spring attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Come relax in the hot waters and give yourself a facial! It’s advised to book your tickets in advance because they do tend to be very busy; especially in the summer months.
The Golden Circle: The Golden Circle is the name of the route that many travelers take to see three of Iceland’s most famous natural sites. Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss Waterfall. Besides Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon, the sites on the Golden Circle are the next most visited in Iceland and rightfully so.
South Coast: If you’re on an extended stay in Iceland and want to really see what this beautiful country has to offer then take a tour through the Southern Coast of Iceland. Here is where you will see the famous waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, Reynisfjara the Black Sand Beach, The Glacier Lagoon in Jokulsarlon, among other beautiful sites. There are many options for tours that leave out of Reykjavik; even bringing you back to the city on the same day. However, if you’re feeling adventurous, rent a car or camper van and take your time driving and site seeing.
Activities: The winter and summer seasons bring about different activities that you can enjoy. While the weather may be a bit more unpredictable and obviously colder in the winter, you get to enjoy some fascinating activities. I was able to snowmobile on Langjokull, Iceland’s 2nd largest glacier, explore ice cave’s and, while I personally didn’t see them, the best time to view the Northern Lights is during the winter months. I look forward to visiting during the summer months in order to kayak in the glacier lagoon, go hiking in the national parks and go camping in one of the many campsites dotting the Ring Road and maybe do some whale watching!
Highlights on Where to Eat:
- Best hot dogs in town (Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur) – Located in downtown Reykjavik, I visited this hot dog stand during my Wake Up Reykjavik Food Tour. These hotdogs are famous for being made with 100% Icelandic lamb and being topped with an assortment of condiments that wouldn’t normally go together. If you eat them the traditional Icelandic way, they’ll be served on a warm bun and topped with raw white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard and a remoulade. I admit, they were quite delicious and hit the spot, especially after a few drinks!
- Fish Restaurant in Reykjavik – I’m always on the hunt for the best fish and chips. I’ve tried them in England and Ireland and anywhere else I can find them. When I heard that a restaurant in Reykjavik had some of the best, I had to try them. This restaurant lived up to the hype. These are some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever had in my life. The fish was fresh, flaky and crispy without being greasy. The fries, while not exactly the chunky, fat chips that usually come with this dish, were delicious. I highly recommend a visit here.
- The Laundromat Cafe – On my last day in Iceland, I was looking for a good breakfast before my flight home. This cafe came recommended from a friend who had visited Iceland a year before. I was not disappointed! Come here hungry for breakfast or brunch and enjoy one of their specials.
- Braud & Co – Highly recommended for their cinnamon rolls. If you’re looking for a quick breakfast before your tour, come here and grab one of their baked goods and a cup of coffee.
- Public House – If you’re looking for a small bite or if you’re with a few friends and like to share, then this gastropub is the place for you. I happened upon this place, walking around after being dropped off from my snowmobile tour. I hopped in, sat at the bar and really enjoyed my night. Great food, cold beers and a cool vibe, this is a fun place to go to experience some Icelandic nightlife.
Thank you for reading! I know it was a lengthy post but I wanted to make sure I covered all the bases. Do you feel ready to conquer Iceland? Have you visited Iceland before and feel that I missed something? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll share them on social media! Happy travels!
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