“I go to Iceland to visit the lunar spaces within me, and, in the uncanny quietude and emptiness of that vast and treeless world, to tap parts of myself generally obscured by chatter and routine.” (Pico Iyer)
This island country is unlike any other. Its landscapes are as varied as they are otherworldly, and they’ll have you reaching for your camera every few minutes (at the very least!). Iceland offers it all — art, nature, architecture, culture, vistas, a bit of magic, and, if you’re lucky enough to find it, unexplored potential.
- Settled: During the ninth century
- Capital city: Reykjavík
- Area: 39,682 mi² (102,775 km²)
- Population: 332,500
- Official language: Icelandic
- Currency: Icelandic króna (ISK)
- Time Zone: Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)
- Drive on the: Right
Where in the World
Iceland is closer to mainland Europe than America, and is officially considered part of Europe. It is situated where the North Atlantic Ocean meets the Arctic, over the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Though it doesn’t border any other countries, it is closest to Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland, and Norway.
On the island, you’ll find fjords, coastlines, volcanoes, sand, lava fields, mountains, and glacial fields, among other landscapes. Its location under the Arctic Circle provides 24 hours of daylight during the month of June and bright nights during the rest of the summer due to the phenomenon known as “Midnight Sun.” Conversely, this means that winter days in Iceland are very short, but that does offer plenty of opportunities to witness the Northern Lights.
A Bit of History
Iceland was discovered by Greek explorer Pytheas around 325 B.C. Then, some 1,050 years later, a Norwegian named Ingólfur Arnarson settled Iceland. He built the first homestead in a place he named Reykjavík.
About 50 years after that, the first Icelandic parliament was established in an area known as Þingvellir (Thingvellir), and the first Icelandic laws were created in 930 A.D. This ushered in the period known as the Saga Age, when many of the stories from the Icelandic Sagas actually happened.
Through a string of political negotiations, Iceland then fell under Norwegian rule, which began a period of several hundred years of foreign dominance in the northern island country. Danish control over Iceland was finally relinquished in 1854, thanks largely to national leader Jón Sigurðsson, and Iceland established a new parliamentary body and constitution. Iceland became fully independent in 1944.
The easiest (and cheapest) way to get to Iceland is by plane. For affordable flights, check out WOW Air or Icelandair, both of which are based in Iceland. Icelandair is known for its Stopover program, which allows you to add a seven-day stay in Iceland for no extra cost when booking a flight to or from their European and American destinations. WOW Air is known for its budget-friendly airfare.
The country’s main airport is Keflavík International (KEF) which, though not technically in Reykjavík, serves the capital and most of the country. There are regional airports in Reykjavik, Akureyri, and many of the other smaller cities around the country, but flights into those airports tend to be much pricier.
There are also ferries that charter to Iceland from Torshavn, Denmark, and the Faroe Islands, but this option will significantly increase your travel time, and isn’t a great choice for anyone prone to seasickness.
When staying in the capital city, it’s best to simply rely on your own two feet. Reykjavík is easily walkable and has several pedestrian-only zones with shops, museums, and restaurants. Check out our suggestions for what to do in Iceland’s intriguing capital.
But if you’re planning on venturing beyond the capital, your choice of transport will be entirely dependent on the length of your visit and your personal preference.
If you only have a short time in Iceland — say, one to three days — it’s usually easier to use local tour operators to plan your itinerary. These companies can also be helpful if you’re visiting Iceland for the first time, as guides/drivers know more about the country’s history and landscape than your companions. Do some research ahead of time, as tour options are always changing.
But, if you decide on a longer visit in this incredible country, we recommend planning a road trip. Iceland’s National Road 1, more commonly known as the “Ring Road,” is ideal for those who love exploring on four wheels. Its vast natural landscapes, stunning views, and lack of traffic make it a dream for any adventurous driver. For more information on planning Icelandic road trips, check out our Iceland Road Trip Guide.
Know Before You Go
Though the official language may be Icelandic, residents speak impeccable English. You won’t need to learn how to pronounce “Eyjafjallajökull” before you go — though it is fun to try! But if you do want to learn some Icelandic words, head to Eunsan Huh’s Instagram account, a feed full of simple icons and audio for each word in the language.
When packing for your trip, there are two very important things to remember. First, don’t forget your outlet adaptor. Iceland uses the European plug (two circular prongs), so you’ll want to throw one or two of those in your bag. And second, the weather is unpredictable year-round, so be sure to pack lots of layers. The more waterproof items you pack, the better.
It’s debatable which time of year is the “best” to visit. The summer months promise entire days of light and lush vegetation, but the fall, early winter, and spring offer the possibility of spotting the Northern Lights. Those hoping for a successful road trip will likely want to visit in the summer, when the roads are safer and the weather less intense. But those hoping for a different experience or the chance to see those dancing lights will want to choose the latter.
Iceland uses the króna, but Visa credit cards are generally accepted around the island. If you are going to use the local currency, a good way to remember the conversion is to estimate 100 ISK for every one USD (that won’t lead to completely accurate conversions, so if you want a more precise number, download the Kurrency app before you go).
It’s true — Iceland has become more expensive due to an influx in tourism in recent years. But that’s no reason to deter you from visiting. There are still plenty of ways to do Iceland on a budget.
When in Iceland, drink the water. The country’s water is so clean that, more often than not, it’s completely safe to stop and fill up your bottle from the streams or river systems, which typically originate from one of the glaciers. The same goes for hot water, though you’ll likely be turned away by an odd odor. Worry not — the hot water sometimes emits a sulphuric smell because it’s heated geothermally, but it’s completely safe to drink.
Keep in mind that there’s no need to tip the waitstaff at restaurants in Iceland, since a service charge is already added to every bill. Make sure to try the skyr (a local dairy product), and stop at the gas stations for your meals on the road (the food is decent and you won’t have many other options).
Planning your Icelandic itinerary can get overwhelming, but don’t get too overzealous. Be realistic with your travel plans and don’t try to cram too much into your schedule. With Iceland, it’s best to err on the side of caution and plan less instead of more. But don’t skip Reykjavik either. The capital is quirky, interesting, full of life, and well-worth at least a day during your trip.
Finally, don’t forget your camera and photography equipment. In a country like this one, you’ll want it more often than not.