My 10 favorite things to experience there
First of all: Even though I’ve visited this gorgeous country several times - I still haven’t seen all of it, so bare with me and feel free to share your pro-tips if you are happy to have experienced something even more exciting! Also, of course I cannot show everything I did see and do but I guess it’s a good summary while the numbers say nothing, I love all my Iceland memories equally.
#1 NORTHERN LIGHTS
If your main goal is to see the Aurora Borealis (better known as the northern lights) dancing above your head, plan your journey to Iceland (or any other arctic region) sometime between September and April. Why? I’ll tell you that and even more things you’ll need to know:
To simplify this: It’s a natural light phenomenon caused by particles the sun sends towards the earth. Because they vary in their occurrence the forecasts also vary. Don’t be sad or angry if you won’t be lucky, nature can't help it.
As I said, the perfect time should be from September till early April. We were lucky enough to see them in late August but that's really rare. In the Icelandic summer months (late April-late August) it’s too bright during the night due to the midnight sun (more about that later). Bright nights mean less visibility.
Talking about bright nights: Be aware that a full moon can reduce the visibility.
Check the aurora forecast regularly. With regularly I mean several times a day. Really, it changes real quick. For Iceland I can recommend this website run by the Icelandic Meterological Office. It’s also available in English and very easy to handle and you find all informations I mention here.
Clouds. As pretty they can be, they can destroy every high aurora spectacle by just hiding it. On the website they’re shown in green. As darker the green as thicker the cloud cover. More green = less chances of seeing the green lights. Bit confusing but you’ll get it.
Fine, after you checked on all that, the game of chance begins. Also shown on the website is the forecast of auroral activity. 0 means zero activity and it goes up to 9. This number system is a bit more complicated but here you can get more informations.
Looking like a mixture between penguins and toucans or parrots there little feathered friends are just too cute to handle. While you find them on the menus of some restaurants all around the country, I prefer to look at them while they're alive and happy. Here are some tips about how to find them:
Icelandic Puffins live half of their life on the open sea and/or travel towards Newfoundland - scientists still don’t know where they exactly head towards. So from April on you’ll probably be able to spot them till they leave their breeding area in August.
They’re monogamous and breed in huge colonies with up to 50.000 or even more animals. For their nests they use their beaks to dig caves with a range of up to 1.5m while they always stay close to the edges of cliffs.
Good spots to see them would be the Dyrhólaey peninsula in the South, close to Vík í Mýrdal and the in the west fjords located Látrabjarg cliffs which are up to 450m high and mark the westernmost point of Europe. They can be found at other locations too but those two are the most famous ones and we were super lucky there too.
Special tips for exploring cliffs: It’s probably always windy up there so be aware of that and don’t risk the danger of literally getting blown away. Literally, it was freaking scary while we explored Látrabjrag. So if you plan to go further to the edge - do it responsibly and lay down and crawl. Yes, we did that too even though it was raining heavily. No picture or sight of a puffin is worth your life.
To see and take pictures of these friendly looking birds please keep reasonable distance of a few meters and stay off their breading area. Use a tele zoom lens instead if you want to take close up shots. For example; I took the shown picture with 200mm focal length.
Also, don’t try to feed or distract them in any other way. And of course, don’t leave any rubbish close to their breading area (in general, always take your rubbish with you).
Even though I’m far away from being religious in any way I always love to explore the religious sights of other countries. Iceland has a lot to offer for you if you behave just like me. But not only tiny churches in sheer all colors, also some very colorful lighthouses. Even the stables are looking extra fancy here!
It’s very influenced by the Scandinavian looks and traditionally shaped by the lack of native trees. So they first just decide to build their houses and churches with roofs out of grass and turf. After the Swiss Chalet style somehow sloshed over, the modern Icelandic architecture nowadays consists out of a lot of stone and concrete but as I said, is still far away from odd and grey.
What I most love about it; finding lonely little huts, toilet houses, churches, lighthouses everywhere, all looking different but yet typical Icelandic while fitting perfectly and naturally into the landscape.
Read more about the history of Icelandic architecture here.
Although you may repeat this song in your head again and again, don’t take it literally. A road trip through Iceland is waterfall paradise because you’ll see dozens of them a day, smaller and bigger. The reason for that is it’s location in the north Atlantic with frequent rainfall and the melting water of the glaciers.
Also they’re not just pretty to look at, there are a few which are breaking records too.
Dettifoss is the most powerful in Europ regarding the volume discharge.
Morsárfoss is the highest with a 240m height.
Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss probably are the most photographed ones.
They’re super rich in variety too, from narrow to super powerful and wide ones, even trapezoidal formed ones. Some are hidden in caves, some you can see from the ring road and some even let you walk behind them.
I could talk about all those waterfalls for hours so maybe I’ll do that in a separate post.
Maybe not the main thing why one decides to travel to Iceland. But besides waterfalls, canyons and all it’s the main thing why this country is what it is. A true treasure. Some facts about it:
Moss. It’s all about the moss. You’ll find it more or less everywhere, in some regions it even covers huge lava fields. And maybe that’s the reason why it seems like it’s more like a tough weed. While for real it’s a more than sensitive organism which, once damaged, takes decades to grow back. So rule number one: Don’t step on moss.
Besides moss you’ll be able to spot a wide variety of herbs, grass and flowers - even orchids! I’m not a specialist here so I better send you over to this site I found during my research. I rather take pictures of them.
Lupins. I know, they're flowers too, but for me they're worth an extra point. They start to grow in spring and finally bloom in the summer months from June to August. Back then they were plant and used to reduce erosions but till now they were declared as a real problem as they overgrow the natural Icelandic flora. But I can’t help it, they’re just too beautiful to not be mentioned here.
Did you know that huge parts (30%) were covered with forests years back then? No? That’s because of a massive deforestation which caused that nowadays you’ll only find tiny areas where “several” trees grow. Sounds sad, is sad BUT I heard they’re currently researching the perfect way of bringing back the forests. Today around 1% of Iceland is covered with downy and dwarf birches called “Birki”, the main tree species in the North Atlantic regions. As the name already says, in Iceland they won’t get taller than 2 meters. My favorite forests are located in the Þórsmörk area and in the Þingvellir national park.
#6 GEOTHERMAL ACTIVITY
Geothermal activity is a big thing in Iceland. Nowadays there are several sights where you can experience this power first hand.
One thing you probably will witness while staying in Iceland is the smelly tab water. The hot water which comes out of the tab contains sulfur which causes the famous “egg smell”. Some say it’s disgusting, for me it just smells…interesting. Pro tip: Simply switch to the cold water and trust me, it is the best and yummiest you’ll ever get to drink.
Geysirs are a typical trademark of Iceland and they show the power of the activity the best. Stokkur is the biggest one located in Þingvellir national park while the bigger one, Geysir, is currently in a phase of inactivity. Around every five to ten minutes it erupts, shooting boiling hot water around twenty meters up into the sky and leaves you soaking wet if you stand on the wrong site.
If you’re finally used to the eggy smell, make sure to visit one of the bubbling and steaming geothermal areas. The most famous one is Hverir in the North, close to Lake Myvatn. Here you cannot only smell the sulfur the best, you can also feel like walking on Mars.
My favorite thing about geothermal activity is…the hot pools! The list of all of them is long and some are well hidden in the landscapes. The most famous one would be Seljavallalaug between Seljalandsfoss and Vík but I don’t recommend going there since the water isn't that warm anymore. But, as I said, you’ll find them anywhere.
Last but not least: Can you imagine that tomatoes grow in Iceland, all year round? Sounds crazy but it’s a fact. It’s possible because of geothermal water used to heat the green houses. Once example for that is the Friðheimar farm and restaurant in Selfoss which uses this exact technology.
#7 MIDNIGHT SUN
Midnight sun is a phenomenon you cannot only experience here but combined with the unique beauty of the landscape it is super special.
From May on you’ll notice that the nights will be longer and brighter. The longest night of the year on the 21st of June marks the peak of the midnight sun and is also called summer solstice. Sun will shine 24 hours then, yeah, the whole day. From there on the nights will get longer again until mid August when you won't witness it anymore.
Don’t worry, no matter where you’ll be heading to, midnight sun can be experienced everywhere in Iceland, together with all other countries which happen to be located north the arctic circle.
When I first headed to Iceland a friend of mine gave me a sleeping mask as birthday present. To make sure I’ll get some sleep. To be honest, it feels quite strange if the nights are that long and bright. But guess what, I can sleep anytime a day, in brightness or in complete dark, no matter if I have that sleeping mask with me or not. But yeah, it actually could be very useful.
Hiking during midnight without the need of a flashlight definitely was a experience for a lifetime. Somehow the landscapes surrounding us were glowing in a different light and also were super atmospheric. I’m bad at describing, you’ll get what I mean if you’ll see and experience it yourself!
The best thing: Sightseeing while most of the other tourists are asleep. The chances that you have the sights for yourself are high but they’ll also glow differently that during midday when everyone else will be there.
So, you’re questioning yourself when’s the best time to sleep? Good question. To be fair our motto was “sleep is for the weak” but of course you cannot stand a week or more of traveling without it haha. During summer I’d definitely recommend to sleep at camping grounds. It’s easy to check in and it’s even easier to leave during the night to explore and hike without the stress of missing the check out at a certain time.
#8 HITTING THE ROAD
There are a few ways to travel around Iceland: by bus, car or even by bicycle. I also saw a lot of people hitchhiking or just walking along the roads. Due to the fact that most people probably don’t have the time to walk around Iceland or waiting for people with enough space in their car and heart to take them with them, I’ll stick to the most common option to travel in Iceland: By car or camper van.
Iceland is the perfect country to plan your first roadtrip. Theres one main road, the ring road or route 1. As a huge circle it leads you from Reykjavik around the whole country. But it’s not the typical “Highway” or “Autobahn”. Even tho it’s the main road, there are some restrictions.
There are strict guidelines for the speed limit which is 90km/h as it’s a paved rural road. Other speed limits would be 80km/h on rural gravel roads, 50 km/h in populated areas/cities and 30km/h in residential areas. It could be really expensive if you're driving too fast, even though in some parts the long and lonely roads mislead you to drive faster. Maybe there are some cameras hiding or police officers catching you ;)
Talking about speed: In Iceland the gusty winds could literally blow tiny cars from the road and the temperatures under 0°C could turn the asphalt roads into slippery fields of ice. Every once in a while there are some signs telling you those exact informations. It could be possible that it’s even too windy to drive so always stay up to date and take the warnings of vedur.is seriously - especially in winter!
The 1341km (2017) long road is mostly asphalted. Only in eastern Iceland there are some kilometers where the road isn't covered with asphalt and turns to a gravel road - but they're working on it.
If you’re about to not only explore the main sights along the ring road (there are a lot right next to it), you’ll definitely get on closer acquaintance with the gravel roads. Some hate them, some love them. For me personally nothing beats driving along a bumpy and dusty road into the nowhere. With a 4x4 vehicle it’s even more fun but from experience I can tell you that even a small VW Polo can withstand a lot more than we generally expect. But due to the smaller and bigger edgy and sharp stones and road holes those roads require more willingness for risks, more time and a lot more concentration. And maybe the ability to change tires if necessary.
Gravel roads: Check! Now we’re heading towards the F-Roads, the ones leading over the Highlands and aren't like any other roads. They can be steep, muddy, and rocky. If you’re already shaking and crying while you’re driving on gravel roads, F-Roads aren't made for you. Or you aren't made for them. Okay, first things first: The Icelandic F-Roads aren't accessible with normal cars. You're not allowed to drive on them without a 4x4 vehicle and with the smaller ones you also shouldn't conquer the small rivers which happen to cross the roads sometimes. No insurance covers damages caused by river crossings, so better don't do it in the first place and/or inform yourself about the road conditions.
Everywhere in Iceland off-road driving is strictly forbidden!
I definitely recommend to check out road.is for the main things you need to know and I forgot to mention and to regularly check the current road conditions.
Reykjavík is a real treasure. It’s cultural, full of street art and home to some really impressive sights. Sadly I never took a lot of pictures while being in complete awe but at least I can tell you a bit about it and what you can do there:
Iceland in a whole has about 350.710 inhabitants (March 2018). In the capital area with its surrounding urban areas are living 60% of them. In Reykjavík itself around 123.000. So it’s a tiny city which you can easily explore within one day by foot.
The reasons why some people spent more time here are probably the cultural sights such as the rich variety of museums - The Museum of Photography, the National Museum of Iceland or the tiny Museum of Punk a friend of mine found last time inside a old toilet house. You can even visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum. So nothing is impossible here.
As a lover of good food you also won't be disappointed. I can only give you tips about vegan food but I’d definitely recommend those sights to everyone of you. Starting with Kaffi Vinyl which isn't only a Café but also a record store. Their menu is heaven, I literally couldn't decide what to eat. In 2015 we had a short experimental “let’s go and eat something vegan raw at Gló!” -moment… Well, we ended up in C is for Cookie which sadly closed it’s doors forever in March. But no worries, Café Babalú and their gorgeous carrot cake won’t let you down! It’s pricy but you’ll be fed up and happy. Walking down the Frakkastígur road you’ll probably smell something pretty yummy from far away. That’s because Braud & Co are baking some yummy things for you. Less vegan options but there are a few!
To see the city from above there are two places to stop by. The first one would be the landmark of Reykjavík - the famous Hallgrímskirkja church with the facade strikingly looking like basalt columns you find everywhere in the nature around the country. The second one would be the Perlan, a warm water tank with gorgeous architecture on a hill above the city. Here you can also visit planetary shows and exhibitions about Iceland’s nature while having a gorgeous 360° view above the city.
Along the harbour you not only have a lovely view towards the mountains but you’ll also instantly spot the Harpa concert hall - just another great example of the icelandic sense for esthetic architecture. Its facade looks different from every angle and also the colors of the glass change due to different natural light situations. It's open every day from 08:00 to 24:00 so if you have some spare time in Reykjavik definitely go there and also have a look inside this masterpiece! Just a few minutes away the famous sculpture called "Sun Voyager" is located. And guess what, it’s not a viking ship, even though it looks like one. Furthermore it's described as an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope. The artist Jón Gunnar was very ill while creating it and died before it was placed at it's final location.
If you have a look at satellite pictures of Iceland you' instantly see them. Glaciers make about 11% of the landmass and oh dear, they’re huge. Most of them (also the biggest) are located in the Southeast but you can also find them in the South, on the Snæfellsnes peninsula and in the Highlands in the middle.
Vatnajökull glacier is the biggest of Iceland and whole Europe with its thickest point of around 1000m ice and an average thickness of 500m where underneath several volcanoes are hiding such as Bárðarbunga (2020 m) or the most active one Grímsvötn.
Breiðamerkurjökull (a glacier tongue of Vatnajökull) is calving huge icebergs with different shades of white, blue and black into the Jökulsárón glacier lagoon and through a short river they're floating into the ocean. But it's not just home to these icebergs but also to seals and a lot of birds.
Another spot to witness this is another glacier lagoon/lake called Fjallsárlón which is located 10 kilometers west of Jökulsárlón. Here the icebergs are calving from Öræfajökull (another one of the many tongues of Vatnajökull) into the water which is connected to it's neighbor Breiðárlón, another glacier lake, through the river Breiðá.
At Svinafellsjökull you can see this rough beauty even closer by hiking along the glacier tongue. Close to it, at the more famous Fjalljökull you can even start guided hiking tours to explore the glaciers first hand.
Due to the climate crisis Vatnajökull’s rate of melting is around one meter per year while some glacier tongues and smaller glaciers are melting even faster. The Icelandic government's Committee on Climate Change warns that they will no longer exist by the next century.
If you wanna learn more about how to be a responsible tourist in Iceland (and everywhere else):