How to Plan a Trip to Iceland
Experience the drama of this mountainous island in the North Atlantic, from glacial rivers to rushing waterfalls and geothermal hot spots. Iceland's cities, like its capital Reykjavik, are home to passionate natives who honor their culture and history. Venture from the cities on your Iceland tour to experience the country's most powerful attraction: its breathtaking landscapes. Take a trip to one of the island's renowned national parks, see the effects of volcanic activity, and go for a dip in one of its many lakes. A haven for outdoor recreation, you can glacier hike, whitewater raft, and swim in natural pools.
Places to Visit in Iceland
Regions of IcelandCapital Region
: Home to the world's northernmost capital city, Iceland's Capital Region boasts an eclectic urban charm set in the rugged Icelandic landscape, giving you the chance to easily mix city with nature during your Iceland holiday. South Region
: With no shortage of things to do, the South Region tops the list of the most popular places to visit in Iceland, no doubt thanks to the dramatic landscape of its national park and the fresh local ingredients featured in this agricultural heartland's cuisine. Reykjanes Peninsula
: Jutting into the Atlantic, the Southern Peninsula attracts visitors to its coastal beaches dotted with rugged cliffs, and with most of the peninsula covered in lava fields, the place feels almost supernatural. East Region
: Scenic fjords, picturesque fishing villages, sandy beaches, tall mountains, and Europe's largest glacier all combine to make the East Region a welcome addition on any Iceland trip.West Region
: Because the West Region doesn't lie on the busy Ring Road that most tourists follow, visitors here are treated to nearly untouched scenery featuring dozens of cascading waterfalls. Northeast Region
: With major city Akureyri as a base, the Northeast Region offers outdoor adventure activities from hiking and rafting to whale watching and horseback riding in the calm lakes, deep valleys, and geothermal features found here. Westfjords Region
: Connected to the rest of the country by just 7 km (4.4 mi) of land between Gilsfjordur and Bitrufjordur, the mountainous Westfjords Region is as tricky to reach as it is worthy of the trip; between the rising peaks and dipping fjords, the seaside towns and rare wildlife, filling your Iceland itinerary won't be hard here.
Top Cities in Iceland
- Reykjavik: The streets of Reykjavik are lined with a quirky mix of architecture, from colorful older buildings to modern designs. The array of fine restaurants, museums, and galleries gives the lively, urban capital a feel all its own.
- Akureyri: Just below the Arctic Circle, Akureyri boasts museums, churches, and restaurants against a backdrop of snowy peaks. With a history of upholding the country's traditional folk heritage, this city is ideal for anyone looking to embrace Nordic culture on their Iceland holiday.
- Selfoss: In Selfoss, work up a hearty appetite exploring nature by fishing, horseback riding, and boating, and then dive into Icelandic culture with your fork--the city's proximity to the national agricultural heartland makes for tasty, authentic dishes cooked up using local produce.
- Husavik: Sitting on the Greenland Sea, Husavik has a reputation for some of the country's best whale watching, with nearly guaranteed sightings of the marine creatures.
- Vik: If you're looking for some seclusion on your Iceland vacation, head to Vik. Home to only 300 people, this small town is an oasis of nature, with a beach stretching to the horizon, dramatic cliffs dipping into the sea, and puffins nesting in the rocky walls.
Things to Do in Iceland
Popular Iceland Tourist AttractionsGullfoss
: On the Golden Circle Route, Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) attracts a huge number of tourists to admire close-up the power of the falls as the water plunges dramatically into a hidden crevice of the Hvita River. Blue Lagoon
: Man-made Blue Lagoon tops the list of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland, drawing visitors in search of ultimate relaxation in the mineral-rich, milky blue waters heated by a nearby lava flow. Golden Circle Route
: Many Iceland tours include at least part of this 300 km (186 mi) loop. With Reykjavik as the start and finish, it passes through central Iceland, encompassing three of the country's major natural attractions: Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall), Thingvellir National Park, and Haukadalur.Hallgrimskirkja
: Designed to resemble the form of lava cooling into basalt rock, a common occurrence in Iceland, Hallgrimskirkja is an eccentric-looking church whose tall tower dominates Reykjavik's skyline. Climb to the top for views over the capital, surrounding volcanic landscape, and nearby sea. Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre
: With architectural inspiration from Icelandic nature, volcanoes, and Arctic light, Harpa Conference and Concert Center has a distinctly Icelandic feel. Catch one of the concerts, comedy shows, and conferences hosted here, or take a guided tour for access to areas normally off-limits and insight into the construction and its influences. Perlan
: An enormous landmark building in Reykjavik, The Pearl (Perlan) celebrates Icelandic culture through exhibits, shops, and concerts featuring Icelandic musicians and Icelandic artwork, and also offers an unbeatable panoramic view of the capital from its wrap-around viewing platform.National Museum of Iceland
: Through a comprehensive collection of artifacts, photos, and interactive exhibits, National Museum of Iceland provides visitors with an in-depth look into the country's history and culture from the year 800 to 2000.
Jokulsarlon Lagoon: One of the most spectacular places to see in Iceland, Jokulsarlon Lagoon features icebergs floating close to shore, and visitors can also catch sight of seals, fish, arctic tern, and other Icelandic wildlife.Sun Voyager
: The massive Solfar (Sun Voyager) Sculpture depicts a dreamboat or Viking ship in stainless steel. Standing close to the water's edge, it provides perfect conditions for a photo opportunity. The Settlement Exhibition
: With a specific focus on how the nation was settled, Reykjavik 871 +/- 2 The Settlement Exhibition features thousand-year-old archaeological finds, as well as partial homes preserved in their original locations.
Planning an Iceland Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Iceland with Kids
With so much of Iceland's allure being its natural wonders and geothermal phenomena, the small island country is very family-friendly. Kids of all ages will be wowed by erupting geysers, powerful waterfalls, hot springs, and supernatural landscapes. To keep your Iceland trip stress-free, base your family in Reykjavik
and explore the country on a day trip around the Golden Circle Route
, visiting many of the country's most popular attractions. Introduce your kids to the history of Iceland with a visit to The Settlement Exhibition
, where the little ones will enjoy seeing the remains of ancient Icelandic homes. The interactive exhibits and artifacts of the National Museum of Iceland
will engage kids and let them explore Iceland's history and Nordic culture. Also consider adding Husavik
to your Iceland itinerary and take the kids whale watching there.
Things to Do in Iceland with Kids
Spend a day of your family's Iceland vacation driving the Golden Circle Route
, which will bring you to Strokkur
, an active geyser erupting every four to eight minutes; Gullfoss
, massive falls plunging into a hidden crevice; and Thingvellir
, where you can snorkel or scuba dive in the Silfra Canyon with Scuba Iceland
. Relax with your kids at Blue Lagoon
, where they'll enjoy trying the different naturally heated pools and playing in the opaque waters, or try another of Reykjavik
's many geothermal hot springs. For horse-lovers, saddle up to ride an Icelandic horse and learn about the unique breed. Head to Volcano House
to learn all about exciting and dangerous volcanic activity, which is just a part of Icelandic life.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Iceland
To keep your children engaged and entertained, keep travel to a minimum, using Reykjavik
as the base for your Iceland holiday. Day trips to nearby attractions can be done easily and give you a good feel for the country as a whole.
Iceland is a welcoming country to families, with tour companies and accommodations often offering reduced rates for children. An economical option is to look into hotels and guesthouses that honor the Icelandic custom of "family rooms," which can sleep up to five people for a reasonable price.
The country is considered quite safe, but do take caution when visiting the impressive geysers, waterfalls, and other natural attractions, as safety rails may not always be in place. Keep your eye on your children at all times and don't let them get too close to precipices or other potentially dangerous areas.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Iceland
Cuisine of Iceland
Historically, Icelanders have filled their bellies with hearty meals of meat, fish, cereals, and the few vegetables that thrived on the harsh land. Unsurprisingly for an island, the traditional Icelandic diet is dominated by fish, many of which are fairly standard. Typical Icelandic fish dishes still served today include "saltfiskur," which translates to salt fish, and "hardfiskur," which takes the consistency of beef jerky--consider trying these at least once on your trip to Iceland. The country has developed new dishes as the agricultural industry has grown, with the majority of fresh vegetables harvested near Selfoss. For the best restaurants the country has to offer, stick to Reykjavik
, where trendy spots keep popping up.
Shopping in Iceland
If you're looking for great gifts and excellent souvenirs of your Iceland holiday, explore the quirky shops of Reykjavik
for finds that are typically Icelandic, such as lava salt, wool, ceramics, art, and sheepskin rugs and blankets. Outside the capital, you'll mostly find touristy gift shops selling standard souvenirs, so if you're a serious shopper, plan to do it Reykjavik
. Hunt at Kolaportid Flea Market
--located inside an industrial warehouse--for everything from wool sweaters to fermented fish. Only open on the weekends, the market is mostly cash-only, so come prepared.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Iceland
History of Iceland
Floating lonely in the Atlantic, the discovery of Iceland and its settlement are unique to this small nation. Over the course of centuries, series of peoples happened upon the island, some attempting to settle. It is believed that a shortage of arable land may have led Norsemen to cross the Atlantic, bringing them to the unclaimed island. The settlement of the country took place from 874 to 930, whereupon most of the country was claimed and an assembly founded in Thingvellir
. Much of what is known about Iceland's settlement comes from two essential historical records, Islendingabok and Landnamabok.
According to these records, the first people to have settled here were Irish monks in the 8th century, but they were subsequently driven out by Vikings in the next century. A Viking named Naddoddr is considered the first to discover the country. He landed on the shores by accident when he wandered off course on his way to the Faroe Islands. It was not until Norwegian Floki Vilgerdarson attempted to settle some years later that Iceland got its name. Finally, in 874 Ingolfur Arnarson led a group of Vikings from Norway and permanent settlement began in Reykjavik
Through the next millennium, Iceland gradually went through small changes in culture to become the modern society it is today, while still maintaining strong ties to its Viking roots. Around the 11th century, Norway brought Christianity to Iceland. While the country adopted Christianity as the official religion, those who refused to convert were allowed private worship of other gods.
Under the thumb of Denmark, the country's assembly lost its power to the Danish King and Iceland suffered economically, due to an unequal monopoly on trade. In the 19th century, as nationalism grew, Denmark's hold on Iceland weakened; finally, in 1918, the country earned its status as a sovereign state.
Thanks to Iceland’s remote location in Europe, the country was able to remain mostly uninvolved in World War I. During World War II, however, Britain deemed the country at risk of infiltration by Germany and so began the Invasion of Iceland--a polite takeover of the nation. Iceland officially protested the invasion, but resigned to the situation and cooperated with British troops in exchange for a promise of no interference in Icelandic affairs, compensation for damage, and favorable business arrangements. Iceland emerged from the war with a greater network of transportation, communications, roads, and hospitals.
As of 1994, Iceland has been a member of the European Economic Area, which permits the free movement of people and goods between member countries. In 2009, Iceland put forward an application to join the European Union and official negotiations began the following year. However, the country suspended its application to join in 2013, due to concerns about how involvement in the union would affect the essential fishery industry.
Today, Iceland maintains its ties to the land and sea, with much of its economy reliant on fishing and farming. The Viking nation has grown into a modern European state, and tourism is booming, with many Europeans and North Americans opting to include an Iceland trip when traveling between the continents.
Customs of Iceland
For the most part, customs in Iceland don't differ much from those of other Western countries, but do expect Icelanders to be fairly quiet and reserved in public. Check ahead of time if tourist attractions and shops are open on Sundays; some will be while others will not.
The nation's strong reverence for nature is reflected in the architecture, artwork, and environmental attitude you're sure to observe during your trip to Iceland. Do your best to respect the natural surroundings and leave a small footprint.
Holidays & Festivals in Iceland
With the majority of Icelanders being members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the country observes most Christian holidays. Particular Icelandic dishes are served up on Bolludagur ("Buns Day") and Sprengidagur ("Bursting Day"), the two days prior Lent. Some of the biggest celebrations take place on the first day of summer, which falls between April 19 and 25, and National Day on June 17, which is celebrated with parades and fireworks across the country.
Between January and February, Iceland commemorates the Norse god of Thunder during the Viking month of Thor, in which traditional foods like boiled lamb's heads, rotten shark, and ram's testicles are consumed. If that sounds enticing and your visit to Iceland coincides with this period, look for the seasonal Thorrablot menus offered at some restaurants.
During the rest of the year, Reykjavik
is home to countless festivals in both winter and summer. During the colder months, Icelanders compete in the Iceland Winter Games and beat the darkness with the Reykjavik Winter Lights Festival. In the long days of summer, music festivals, film festivals, and Gay Pride take over the city.
Iceland Travel Tips
Climate of Iceland
Iceland almost reaches the Arctic Circle and its climate reflects this northerly position. With dark, cold days in winter months, and warm days of endless sun during the summer, the country sees a huge variation. The winter offers great opportunities for winter sports, such as skiing and snowshoeing, but generally the best time to visit is the summer. Although this is peak time for tourism and prices are a little higher, your Iceland holiday will generally remain free of the crowds in other European summer destinations.
Transportation in Iceland
The most common method of transportation for travelers exploring is to rent a car. This gives you flexibility to go where and when you please, and the high number of rental agencies means you'll get a decent price. If you're staying in Reykjavik
for the duration of your Iceland vacation, however, you can easily use local buses to navigate the city. Renting a bike also makes a nice way to tour the city.
Language of Iceland
The official language is Icelandic, which is closely related to Norwegian. The majority of Icelanders speak English very well, especially in the tourism industry. Despite this, it's always helpful to learn the basics like "Hello" and "Thank you" before you arrive.
Tipping in Iceland
The prices you see include service, so tipping is not required or expected in Iceland. Tipping is not generally considered rude, however, so you may leave something extra for excellent service at a restaurant or on a tour. If the gesture is politely refused, don't insist, as this may make the other person uncomfortable.