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Iceland

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Overview of Iceland

Between adventure and relaxation – Iceland combines everything you need for a perfect trip on a very little surface area! Almost no other country has such a diverse natural environment: breathtaking waterfalls, black beaches, swimming icebergs, deep gorges, massive mountains, icy glaciers, hot springs and smoking holes in the earth. And between all that ever more beautiful landscapes where you find utter silence and peace to wind down. And this quiet and secludedness is never far, you only need to gead a couple of kilometers outside of Reykjavik. Wonderful!

Location and people

In terms of surface area Iceland is the second largest island country in Europe and the largest volcano island in the world. It lies just under the Arctic circle in Europe’s far Northwestern corner. Greenland is only 300 kilometers away, Sweden around 1,000 kilometers. The region is an earthquake zone because of the many still active volcanos there. You might remember the eruption of the unpronounceable volcano in 2010 which brought down airplane traffic all over Europe with its smoke.

Iceland is about as big as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg combined. It has a surface area of around 103,000 square kilometers.

The capital is Reykjavík in the Southwest of the island. Around two thirds of the total 323,000 inhabitants live here. This makes Iceland one of the most scarcely populated countries in Europe. Roughly four fifths of the country are uninhabited! This shows just how untouched some parts of Iceland are and that many parts of the country are truly void of people. Just wonderful nature, nothing else.

Climate and best time to travel

Iceland is the place for adventurers and naturelovers that like getting active, breathing fresh air and want to be out in the wilderness. The warm Gulf Stream provides mild oceanic weather. Temperatures only sink to around 0 degrees Celsius in winter, but summers also don’t get very hot, the average high in July is 14 degrees. The coastal regions and the South are generally warmer than the backlands, the heart of the Iceland.

High season on Iceland is from the end of June to the end of August, temperatures are mild then and you have the least rain and most sunshine. It’s ideal for hiking tours. Autumn and winter holds a lot of rain, sometimes snow as well, especially in the backlands and the North but you get to see beautiful panoramas of snowcovered mountains and there are virtually no other tourists there. Starting with May in spring you have to anticipate many roads being closed because of the snow thawing again.

In December and January the days are super short, there are only about 4 hours between sunrise and sunset. So these months are not ideal if you want to get active.

The weather on Iceland changes pretty much every half hour due to the winds. And as soon as you drive on a little you can find yourself caught in the heaviest rain or have sunshine warming your face.

From September on you might get lucky and see the Northern lights. But you really have to be lucky, if the sky is cloudy then you can’t see anything.

You can go whalewatching in Husavík or on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Whalewatching season is from the beginning of June through August. You can see the whales from land or on guided boat tours!

Language

On Iceland people speak Icelandic. Like all Scandinavians, especially the younger ones, they speak very good English. Even in the remote areas people are proficient enough to be able to communicate well.

There are no dialects in Iceland. When it comes to foreign words, most of them are replaced by Icelandic constructions rather than integrated. So the Icelandic language has been preserved pretty well.

Currency and payment culture

Iceland is not a member of the EU. It had applied for membership once in the past but then withdrawn the application. Still it upholds several agreements with the EU which makes transactions easier.

The national currency is the Icelandic Crown. 1.000 ISK are around 7 Euros.

On Iceland you pay everything with credit card. Withdrawing cash is absolutely unnecessary, even tiny sums can be paid by card. Just like in other Northern countries like Sweden or Norway.

Immigration and vaccinations

You can immigrate with a passport or ID from any country which is valid for another three months. You can then stay in the country for three months but you cannot work there. After three months you need a visa.

There are no vaccination requirements for Iceland. Hepatitis B is advised if you are at explicit risk for exposure and for long terms stays Meningitis C.

Transport

The easiest way to get to Iceland is on a plane to Reyjkavík or Kefiavík, a little outside of Reykjavik. There are direct flights every day from Germany and other European destinations and if you live in Berlin you can take Iceland only discount airline WOW air directly to Reykjavík, the flight is around 3,5 hours. In summer WOW air also offers direct flights from Düsseldorf and Stuttgart.

And of course other airlines like Air Berlin, Lufthansa or Icelandair also offer direct flights to Iceland. Check skyscanner which connection is the best for you!

It is also possible to take a ferry to Iceland, the MS Norröna departs from Hirstdals (Denmark). But you have to plan a week for this trip (April to October) with a stop at Faroe Islands or 3 days without stop (mid June to August).

Like I said, Iceland is very thinly populated. So it makes sense to rent a car or camper. All the well-known rental companies have an outpoint right at the airport. You can find campers at happycampers for example. A camper will definitely save you money because accommodation costs at least 100 Euros a night, even the farmstays.

There is a very helpful site where you can get the latest information about which roads are closed etc: www.vegagerdin.is. Definitely take a look at the site if you are venturing off the ring road and into the central part of the island.

There are also several buses from Reykjavík to the suburbs and to Akranes, Borgarnes, or Selfoss among others. Check out http://www.straeto.is/ for info on routes, fare prices and departure times. The east of the country has its very own bus system, all information on that is at www.east.is.

Another option for the really tough ones is exploring Iceland by bicycle. Ask the tourist office where to best get a good bike.

You will only find taxis in Reykjavík and some of the larger cities. But they are pretty rare and hardly anyone uses them. Probably because of the prices!

Events

The Icelandic people are nature people so celebrations are held outside if possible, food, drinks and friends go open air here. Celebrations usually are based on old traditions.

Thorrinn: the old Thorrablot festivities take place at the end of January, people eat traditional Viking foods and there is music and dancing.

National holiday: June 17 people go out on the streets to celebrate Iceland’s independence. This day is one of the most important in the lives of the Icelandic people.

Midsummer night: June 21 is the longest day of the year. The best place for watching the midsummer sun is in the North of the country, along the 66° altitude.

Bringing in the sheep: In September farmers round up their sheep on horseback and bring them back from the highlands. You can ride along here! After the work is done people celebrate with food, music and dancing.

Icelandic Airwaves Music Festival: Reykjavík is quite the happening in October/November. International musicians and newcomers meet here for the big music festival in the capital.

Cultural specialities

The Icelandic people love their traditions but you also do feel an American influence on the island. There are burgers on every menu and in the larger cities you find fast food chains like Taco Bell or KFC.

Tradition and modernity also collide in other areas. On the one hand you have traditional houses, on the other the ultra modern Harpa, the Reykjavík philharmonic. As mentioned before the language is pretty much unchanged but still people incorporate some anglicisms.

The Icelandic people themselves are very laid-back. They don’t take things too seriously and also don’t worry too much about things always being perfect. The younger folks we got to know were friendly and open, the older ones in the rural areas were more reserved and less communicative.

By the way, Iceland has the highest life expectancy after Japan! This goes to show that living in nature really makes you strong and even more importantly happy in the long run.

Reykjavík most of all showcases the island’s creative and cultural side. There is one designer shop next to the other, the Harpa is always full and the people really are very stylish. Just like Scandinavians!

And just like Finnland or Sweden, where nothing goes without a sauna, Icelanders love the Hot Pot! This is an outdoor bathtub or little pool which is filled naturally by hot water from the vulcano. The Hot Pot is phenomenal at night when you have a view of the night sky and maybe even the Northern lights!

Food and drink

First of all, food and drinks, like everything, are expensive on Iceland! You won’t get a main course for under 25 Euros. Soups are usually the cheapest and even a soup will cost around 12 Euros.

Icelandic cuisine is rather limited and simple. Mostly fish, meat, potatos, wheat and dairy products are served. To preserve meat and fish they are often smoked, dried, or cured.

In summer there is fresh wild salmon and you can get farmed salmon all year round. Arctic char is also very popular. Keastur hákarl - fermented shark - is considered a delicacy here. Pieces of the normally poisonous Greenland shark are buried in the ground where they rot for up to 12 weeks until the poison is all broken down, they are then dried and can be eaten a few months later. Yes, this is a delicacy!

But pass on these kinds of delicacies if you want to preserve the lives of the sharks and whales. Moreover, importing shark to Germany is punishable by law!

You will also find lamb on every menu and it comes straight from the pasture. But you have to dig up around 40 Euros for it! Same goes for beef but it is not as common as sheep and lambs are.

Apart from that you often find pizza, burgers and sandwiches. Iceland definitely is a bit tricky for vegetarians and vegans!

Fruit and vegetables are partly imported, part is grown in green houses. So you can find salads and in the mornings there is always cucumber, tomato and bell pepper at the buffet.

Puffin is everywhere on Iceland, especially in Reykjavík. And it is equally loved as a stuffed animal for cuddling as it is enjoyed as a culinary delicacy. This colourful bird only comes to Iceland for breeding in April and May, but it is served all year round.

Icelanders drink a lot of coffee but also like their beer (Viking for example) and cider. Water is always free, it comes straight from the tap and is delicious! By the way, supermarkets don’t sell alcohol here, only light beer which is not very good. All other alcohol can only be obtained at a liquor store.

What to pack

On Iceland you have to be prepared for any kind of weather except for heat!

A windbreaker and a rainproof outdoor jacket are especially important, maybe even an extra rain coat and very good shoes. You would get around in sneakers but if you want to do a little bit of hiking you should pack your hiking boots. Also, sneakers often need very long to dry once they got wet.

A hat and gloves are very helpful in fall and winter as it is almost always windy.

In terms of clothes go for the onion look. Bring sufficient undershirts and pullovers to be able to adapt to any changes in weather.

In summer you definitely need mosquito spray if you are close to the lakes. Mývatn lake is called mosquito lake for a reason!

Off The Path Highlights

Where to start? The whole island is one big highlight! Even riding in the car for 6 hours is fun here because you will never grow tired of looking at the amazing natural surroundings here!

Mývatn: the volcanic are with its geothermic regions has so much to offer! Definitely go look at the Dettifoss and Hafragilsfoss waterfalls and enjoy the stunning view at Viti crater, then drive around the Mývatn lake and relax in the Mývatn Natural Bath.

Jörkulsárlón: before you turn off to the famous ice laguna drive over to the black beach opposite of it and look at the icebegs floating in the ocean. Perfect for sunrise! And of course the ice laguna itself is absolutely unique!

Solheimasandur: a lonely, deserted plane wreck on a beach in the middle of nowhere. A little creepy but pretty cool too!

Seljavallalaug: a deserted bath in the mountains which you should definitely jump into! The water is warm and depending on the season and the time of day you will be there all alone.

Snaefellsnes: this peninsula behind Reykjavik is beautiful, great for riding to the beach and through the mountains on an Icelandic horse. No sweat, the Tölt is very comfortable and the horses are incredibly well behaved!