Let’s talk about Iceland; a land where the horses are small, the glacial melt is drinkable, and the human-to-volcano ratio is about 2,500 to 1. Here travelers are given a chance to explore some of the wildest landscapes and meet some of the friendliest people on Earth (seriously, that last part’s been independently verified), and if tourism numbers over the past couple decades are any indication, that’s about as winning a combination as a country can get. The amount of people visiting this European island nation on an annual basis now more than doubles its population, which may seem slightly overwhelming until you realize that there are fewer than 350,000 people living here. Still, the numbers are impressive, and reflect not only the country’s immense selection of adventure but its growing cultural appeal as well. So if fermented shark meat, midnight twilights, and the electric hues of the aurora borealis pique your interest, lets take a closer look at this sparsely populated and utterly incredible destination.
Iceland happens to be situated on the divide where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart at the going rate of 1 inch per year. If those 10th grade Earth Science classes are leading you to believe that this makes it ripe for geologic mayhem, you’re right. Geysers, hot springs and volcanic mountains mix with around 11,500 km2 of oscillating glacial coverage to give this country its notably alien landscape, providing a massive playground for travelers on the lookout for unforgettable adventures. Curious where to begin? There’s plenty to explore around Reykjavik itself, including the Valshamar cliffs, the Silfra Crack and the singular magnificence of Thrihnukagigur Volcano’s magma chamber. You’ll find, however, that the further you circumnavigate the island, the more surreal the adventures become. Places like Thorsmork, Borgarfjördur Eystri and the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve fall into this category, and could easily gobble up a week’s worth of exploration each. If you’re pressed for time, consider opting for the fool-proof, 4-day Laugavegur Trek: a kind of “Best-of Iceland” experience that’s been dubbed the country’s Inca Trail.
For those inevitable periods in between exploratory jaunts around the country, it’s nice to know that Iceland isn’t lacking in the cultural department either. Yes its population might be small (the largest city outside the Reykjavik region, Akureyri, has about 18,000 residents), but with over 1,100 years of history and a vibrant, art-friendly capital, there are more than enough museums, galleries and (especially) festivals to go around. Reykjavik, of course, is the undisputed champ: a small city that nevertheless boasts over 50 permanent cultural destinations (National Museum of Iceland, Harpa Concert Hall, etc.) and myriad annual celebrations like Iceland Airwaves and the Reykjavik Art Festival. If you’re mid-Ring Road, however, you can still encounter cultural gems aplenty, such as the vibrant elven folklore of Bakkagerði and the growing LungA Art Festival in Seyðisfjörður. Is it the Louvre or the Great Wall? No; but it why would it need to be? Like everywhere else, the artistic and cultural heritage of Iceland has been shaped by its surroundings; and when your country looks this spectacular, sometimes you’ve said enough already. Enjoy the trip.
US citizens, as well as citizens from most American and European nations, can enter Argentina visa-free for visits of up to 90 days. For visits of any length beyond this, travelers are urged to pick up a residency permit at the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration. Still curious? Check out said directorate for further information.
The Icelandic króna (ISK) is basically equivalent to .008 USD / .0065 EUR / .005 GBP. For up to the minute exchange rates, click here.
The Icelandic government is based on a constitutional, multi-party system. The president is elected directly and has no term limitation, while the majority of legislative power is in the hands of the Parliament, which is elected every four years. Judiciary power is independent of the government and is vested at the highest level in the Supreme Court. For more info, get to the government website.
Icelandic is the language spoken with prevalence by locals, but Danish and English are practiced in school. If you're taking a guided tour or spending the majority of your time in Reykjavik, then you'll frequently be surrounded by English speakers. As in any country, you'll find little but Icelandic spoken the further you get from Reykjavik and the usual tourist routes.
Iceland has most definitely earned its reputation as one of the safest countries in the world. Drug use, socio-economic disparity, violent crime, and a number of other issues that often deter travelers from other countries are near non-existent in Iceland, even in light of the generally low populace. Don't be surprised to see bikes propped up without bike chains and policemen without sidearms; it might be strange at first, but you'll be comforted by the basic trust and kindness you're treated with.
The large majority of international visitors will arrive in Reykjavik, where many will rent cars so that this wide-open, rugged country can be tackled with ease. There are buses that travel the famous Ring Road that circles the country's perimeter and domestic flights to most corners of Iceland, but (unless you're booking tours) a rental car is the way to go for most visitors. There really isn't much of a transportation infrastructure here (literally no railroads) because the heart of the country is still wild and largely unsettled, but there are roads to every Icelandic highlight you can think of. And if there's no road? That's where the adventure begins.
For an island in the Arctic Circle, you'd be surprised at how moderate the weather in Iceland can be. Not that you'll be spending your days under a beach umbrella, but summer temperatures can get upwards of 21 degrees Celsius (70 F) due to the warming nature of the Irminger Current out of the North Atlantic. Still, even if you're visiting in July, you better be packing rain-resistant gear and even a heavier coat, because the weather can be notoriously fickle, turning your blue-skied morning in Reykjavik into a chilly, windy afternoon climbing Hnappavellir. If you're here after September, then hats, gloves, and high-end winter gear should fill your suitcase.
It is unusual to tip for service in Iceland, although tips are accepted when given. Unlike most countries you'll travel to, you'll find that tipping is not expected in any circumstance whether you're taking a taxi, getting your bags carried or eting out in a restaurant. Then again, if the service is good, there's no better way to show your appreciation!
Despite the fact that beer was outlawed as recently as 1989, the drinking culture in Iceland is quite lively. Even though communities are pretty well distributed about the island, there is a growing cocktail and bar culture in more populated areas like Reykjavik and access to alcohol of all varieties. In recent years, craft beer has made a surge, the consumption of vodka has held strong and Iceland's best kept secret, Brennevin. Trying a shot of this locally-made, licorice-flavored spirit should be on any Icelandic bucket list. As far as nightlife, it definitely varies, but he one thing you can depend on is that people will be having their fun in the late night hours and often won't really get going until well after midnight.
To be honest, there are a surprising number of interesting facts about Iceland. Strip clubs are banned, there is an honest-to-goodness widespread belief in elvish creatures, handball is the sport of choice, and Icelandic versions of Santa Claus are the Yule Lads, descendants of trolls that were once used to scare children and now have turned their acts around in the spirit of Christmas. And that's for starters!
Peak season:Spring is cheaper and less crowded, but Summer is considered the peak season.
Unless you're fluent in Icelandic, you're better off not even attempting to pronounce this one. Luckily, it also goes by the much easier moniker "Westman Islands Camping Festival." This is one of Iceland's most well known and beloved weekend get-togethers, usually taking place the first weekend in August but occasionally falling on the last weekend in July. It's a national holiday celebrated throughout the country (called Verslunarmannahelgi), but the biggest party takes place on the Westman Islands, where around 16,000 people come to dance, sing Icelandic folk songs, and just be happy together. There are bands, bonfires and fireworks aplenty so if you're Reykjavik-bound mid-summer and you don't mind a few sleepless nights of revelry seriously consider hitting it up.
Just before the turn of the 21st century, Reykjavik held its first Iceland Airwaves music festival in an airplane hanger at the city's airport. These days, the weekend-long celebration of all things music has established itself as one of the world's premier festivals in its genre, drawing in acts, fans and industry reps from around the globe. Performers play at venues all over the capital, so it's also a good opportunity to explore Reykjavik's surprisingly dynamic nightlife scene. The dates change annually, but mid-October through early November are generally safe bets. For tickets, bands and schedules, just check the official site (listed below).
Reykjavik International Film Festival
Held annually in Reykjavik at the end of September, this 11 day film festival is a relatively new event that tends to highlight up-and-coming works of cinema from the international arena. Showings typically occur at the city's art house mainstay, Bíó Paradís, although, as the the festivities have expanded over the last decade, movies have been screened across the city in unique locations like caves and swimming pools, while more interactive events have been added to attract more domestic and foreign guests. You may not get the star power of a Sundance or Cannes or other festival of that status, but the RIFF and it's golden puffin are starting to make a mark for themselves that is worth the excitement of a late September break from the country's more glacial nature activities.
Menningarnótt (Culture Night)
First put on in 1996, Reykjavik's Menningarnótt is a celebration of Icelandic entertainment and music that become one of the most well-attended events in the country. Held annually on the first Saturday after August 18th, expect a day of dancing, food, and music, capped off by a night-time performance by a famous act and a spectacular fireworks display. Good luck finding a hotel that weekend, for the number of people who attend actually rival the whole population of Reykjavik, meaning that you'll be among quite a few out-of-towners if you plan on dropping in. For specific acts and events, check out the official site.