Visiting Iceland can be one of the most amazing trips of your life. I had never considered going there, but was invited by a friend and had heard so many amazing things about it. But there are some important things to know before visiting Iceland.
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You need to bring a facemask
Seeing the Northern Lights
Do Icelanders speak English?
Driving a stick shift
Packing for Iceland
Bring a hat
Volcanoes in Iceland
There is something for everyone in Iceland
This photo was taken at 1 a.m. (in May)!
Depending on the time of year you are visiting, the sun is probably not going to be what you are used to. In the summer months, the sun only sets for a few hours each day. What this means is that your body clock is going to be very confused.
A must-bring when visiting Iceland is a facemask. If you are visiting Iceland in summer, it’s really the only way you can trick your body into not thinking it needs to be awake 24 hours a day. In the winter months, the sun is only up for a few hours a day. Although this makes it easier to sleep, you will want to trick your body into thinking it needs to be awake.
This is not my photo – we were there in May and so did not see any Northern Lights.
Because of the amount of darkness and the northern location of Iceland, it is one of the best countries to see the Northern Lights. A large part of the tourism industry in Iceland is to help you see the Northern Lights.
We visited in summer, and because there are only a few hours of darkness each day, we were not able to see the Northern Lights while we were there.
Iceland has an interesting history. They came under Danish rule in the 16th century and declared independence in 1918 (becoming their own republic in 1944). Because of this, children still learn both Swedish and Danish in school — but also English. We heard as many as 98 percent of Icelandic people speak English.
So if you are worried about any language barriers while you are visiting Iceland, do not worry at all. It is a very easy country to get around, and I don’t think we met one person who didn’t speak English.
Our hilariously small car.
If you plan to rent a car in Iceland, know that most cars are standard, or stick shift. Because there is no car factory in the country, everything has to be imported. Standard transmissions tend to be less expensive, which is helpful when you have to pay the fees to import your car.
There is a possibility of an automatic car. But if you cannot drive a stick shift, make sure when making your reservation what kind of car you are reserving.
The people who have been following me for a while know that I have a weird fear of wildlife while hiking. I know the chances of seeing a mountain lion or bear are very small, even in backcountry wilderness. But I still have the fear when out on a hike. But one of the things that surprised me most about Iceland is that they have no wildlife. Well, sort of. Because of how Iceland was created and evolved, there are no large predators on the island. The largest wildlife includes the Arctic Fox, reindeer, mink, mice, rats, and rabbits.
According to Iceland.is, a polar bear will occasionally wash up on shore from an iceberg that has been floating for a while, but it happens very rarely. But — if it does, do not get close to it, because it is likely VERY hungry. So for me, hiking in Iceland was peaceful — a peace I rarely get when hiking anywhere else, because my brain goes into overdrive worrying about potential wildlife around. So it was a very nice change.
The food in Iceland is actually very good, although there are not always going to be a lot of options. Because there is not much ability to plant, vegetables tend to be very seasonal. We had many delicious meals while we were there, including fish & chips (twice!), which they are very proud of. We even found an Argentinian place, which was very authentic.
So, you will likely be able to find something you are looking for. But they are most proud of their seafood, and I tried to eat as much seafood as I could while there.
The weather in Iceland can be very tricky. When packing for Iceland, I was told to layer, layer, layer — BUT that it would be very cold and wet all the time. So what I heard was to dress in warm layers. Besides one rainy day, our entire trip was super nice, in the 60s and 70s, and sunny. I had brought hiking boots, heavy sweaters, and a fairly heavy waterproof coat.
After the first day, I never wore my hiking boots again — my tennis shoes were perfectly fine. I did wear sweaters and my coat the rest of the trip but half the days I took my coat off and was almost too hot for my sweater. But there are a lot of waterfalls, and you may randomly be going in and out of Iceland geothermal pools as well, so make sure to dress warm and dry. You just never know what the weather will bring while you’re there.
Speaking of layers, a hat is essential when packing for Iceland. This is not just because it tends to be cold outside (which it does, most of the year), but the wind can be incredibly brutal.
My recommendation is to take two hats: a waterproof hat and a warm winter hat. But make sure both cover your ears.
Iceland has built up their tourism industry in recent decades, which is a large part of their economy now. Before Iceland became a popular travel destination, many citizens struggled because the island can be unforgiving. Because of the climate and the fact Iceland is built on volcanic rock, growing crops can be near impossible (all the growth we saw while we were there was in greenhouses). But the things they can control is their vast geothermal environment.
We were told that geothermal energy is actually considered an export because aluminum companies come to the country and use the energy in their factories. Fisheries and finance are important pieces of Iceland’s economy.
An important thing to remember about Iceland is it’s built from volcanic eruptions over time, and is still very much a volcanic environment. They had a major eruption in 2010 of Eyjafjallajökull, which caused major issues in air traffic above Iceland and all the way through Europe. In 2021, there was an eruption at Fagradalsfjall on the Reykjanes Peninsula, less than an hour from Reykjavik.
Because of the type and location of Fagradalsfjall, the damage was limited to the peninsula, but it’s thought that Fagradalsfjall has been dormant for about 6,000 years.
No matter what you are expecting from Reykjavik, Iceland — I promise you will be surprised. In many ways, the city is like many other major cities in the world. But in many other ways, it’s so different. First of all, Iceland only has about 350,000 residents — total. Many of them live in Reykjavik, but it’s still considered a pretty small city.
If you are staying in the downtown Reykjavik area, like we did, there is not a lot to it. We could walk five to eight blocks in any direction and be out of the main downtown core. However, it’s such a lovely place. There is a waterfront, which has been built up with a running/bicycling/walking path, plenty of new and old buildings, museums, night life, restaurants, and plenty more.
Even if you want to explore the entire country, spend at least two nights in Reykjavik — you will not be disappointed.
I didn’t know what to expect when visiting Iceland, but I was pleasantly surprised. There really is something for everyone. Whether you enjoy history, hiking, outdoors, or city life — it really does have it all.
You can go on a cruise, see the Northern Lights, visit some puffins, hike up a volcano, go clubbing in the city, and eat delicious food — all in the same day.