Known for pristine lakes, alluring hot springs, and the breathtaking views of its highlands, Iceland is one of the most popular tourist destinations of the modern era. Located in the Atlantic Ocean on the fringes of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a land of beautifully scenic contrasts. It home to Europe’s largest glacier at its northernmost edge, but warm breezes blow in from the Gulf Stream to keep the overall climate considerably mild. Geothermal and hydroelectric activity that produces spectacular colors in the highlands while over 100 mountains and volcanoes speckle the island’s interior. As an island, this country is not located on the continental mainland, but its history is Nordic, and its overall culture is unmistakably Northern European. The following guide provides a thorough overview of what Iceland has to offer.
Geography of Iceland
Table of Contents
- Southwest Iceland – With its maritime temperate climate and rich natural resources, this region is home to the country’s capital city and houses over two-thirds of the Iceland population.
- Westfjords Penisula – This sparsely populated region is known for cliffs and rugged scenery.
- West Iceland – Home to glaciers and scenic national parks
- North Iceland – North Iceland is the site of many of the country’s lava fields and waterfalls. It is also the location of the Krafla Volcano, Lake Mývatn, and the corresponding Mývatn park.
- East Iceland – The site of the international passenger ferry terminal
- South Iceland – The site of the country’s most visited tourist attractions (such as The Golden Circle). This Iceland tourism hub is conveniently accessible from the capital city.
- Interior Iceland – Mountainous wilderness region known for glaciers and extreme hiking. This region is not for the faint of heart.
Iceland Weather and Climate
Even though it is located near the Arctic Circle, Iceland has a mild climate for a country at this latitude due to the heating effect of the Atlantic Gulf Stream current. The country has a maritime temperate annual climate with a winter average of 0-degrees Celsius and a summer average of 20-degrees Celsius (much cooler than other areas at the same latitude). Locals describe daily Iceland weather as fairly unpredictable, so it is useful to keep an umbrella and scarf nearby. On the following page, we break down the weather in Iceland by month.
Iceland’s population is approximately 320,000. Much of the country consists of ethnic Icelanders, and the country still follows the Old Norse patronymic system without the use of surnames. Demographers estimate that all native Icelanders are distantly related (at least eighth cousins). Since many people in the country are much more closely related, students at the University of Iceland developed a Islendiga-App that helps residents avoid dating people who are at least second cousins.
Although historically an isolated, homogeneous community, Iceland has become home to an increasing number of immigrants in the past decade. The majority of immigrants hail from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and most arrive in Iceland in order to find work. Demographers estimate that immigrants make up close to 10 percent of the current population.
What is the Capital of Iceland?
Reykjavik is the home of two-thirds of the Icelandic population. According to tradition, Norseman Ingólfr Arnarson established this first Icelandic settlement in 874 C.E. and named the homestead “Reykjavík.” Reachable via a three-hour flight from London, Reykjavik is a cosmopolitan hub that is only slightly smaller than size of New York City. Due to Iceland’s accessible location in the northern Atlantic Ocean, you can also reach the city of Reykjavik in approximately six hours of plane travel from the northeastern United States.
With narrow streets, family-owned shops, and a charming coastline, Reykjavik also possesses traits associated with small towns. The city has a decent public transportation system that provides accessibility to the country’s most popular tourist attractions and natural landmarks.
Other Cities and Towns
- Town of Akureyri – Known as the capital of the North, Akureyri is the country’s largest town outside the Southwest region. It is famous for its mild climate and ice-free harbor that made an important impact on the country’s history.
- Hafnarfjörður – A comfortable town just outside of the capital region, Hafnarfjörður serves as a convenient tourist rest stop and hosts annual festivities to promote Icelandic culture.
- Höfn – As the main town on the Southeastern coast, Höfn is an important fishing town with an impressive view of Europe’s largest ice cap (by volume).
- Húsavík – Located in the Northeastern region, Húsavík is one of the world’s most reliable whale-watching locations in the world during the summer, and it is home to the Húsavík Whale Museum and the Exploration Museum.
- Keflavik – Home to Keflavik International Airport, Keflavik is a popular cultural hub and port.
- Ísafjörður – This is the largest settlement in the Westfjords Penisula and a popular station for cultural events and outdoor recreation.
- Selfoss – Selfoss is the largest settlement in the South Iceland region and considered the window to the agricultural seat of the country.
- Stykkishólmur – Located in the northern part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, Stykkishólmur is this region’s hub for commerce and tourism.
- Seyðisfjörður – Located in East Iceland, Seyðisfjörður is famous for its remote mountains and puffin colonies.
- Vestmannaeyjar – Often anglicized as “Westman Islands,” Vestmannaeyjar is a charming archipelago off the coast of south Iceland.
- Village of Vík – As the southernmost village in the country, Vík is an important staging post famous for its black-sand beaches and sea stacks.
Most experts describe Icelandic architecture as Scandinavian with a unique cultural twist. For example, most buildings are low structures that will not falter under fierce North Atlantic winds, and many city blocks feature a townhouse arrangement. City planners use brightly colored outside paint to uplift moods and help Iceland people through long winters. Modern art is also extremely popular across the country.
One of the most notable landmarks in Iceland is the Hallgrímskirkja church tower. Visible from nearly every point in the capital city of Reykjavik, the tower is part of the largest edifice in Iceland and among the tallest structures in the nation. In front of the tower stands a statue of Leifur “Leif” Eiríksson (c. 970 – c. 1020), a Norse explorer whom most historians credit as the first European to continental North America. State architect Guðjón Samúelsson designed the exterior to resemble lava flows from Iceland’s abundant volcanoes.
Iceland’s main conference center and concert hall, Harpa, features a design that pays homage to the natural harbor, basalt landscape, and winter skies. In addition to honoring the country’s geological features, Harpa features colored glass panels the light up as a tribute to Iceland’s famous Northern Lights.
Árbæjarsafn is an open-air museum and preservation park. Composed of real buildings, farms, documents, and artifacts of Iceland people from the pre-modern era, it provides a glimpse of Icelandic life in earlier times. It also serves as an archival hub for sustaining traditional Icelandic heritage. Similarly, the National Museum of Iceland displays exhibits that go even further back to the original settlement age.
Þingvellir National Park
Located within the Golden Circle, Þingvellir National Park features trail in which you can walk between the continental shelf plates between North America and Europe. Experience historical geology firsthand with a walk along the trail and see evidence of how the tectonic plates have been slowly drifting apart for millennia.
The national park is also home to Iceland’s largest lake and grassy fields that grow wild over cooled volcanic lava. Centuries ago, Icelandic clans met on these fields for open-air parliaments and tribunals. Since the word Þingvellir translates as “parliamentary fields,” it is the perfect opportunity to get a feel for ancient Icelandic heritage.
Vatnajökull National Park
Created as a result of merging the Skaftafell and Jokulsargljufur national parks, Vatnajökull National Park is now Europe’s largest conservation zone and covers approximately 12-percent of the area of Iceland. In this park, you can visit the miniature waterfalls known as Selfoss, or you can visit the antithesis of Selfoss known as Dettifoss. Reputably Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss discharges an average of 193 cubic meters of water per second. This park is also the location of Iceland’s highest mountain peak (Hvannadalshnúkur) and largest glacier (Vatnajökull).
Snæfellsjökull National Park
Located in West Iceland, this park houses the famous 700,000-year-old ice-capped volcanic crater used as the setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Tourist Attractions in Iceland
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa that contains naturally heated waters. Located in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, it is a popular relaxation spot for business meetings and personal rejuvenation. Read about our multiple trips there, on the Blue Lagoon Spa review.
The Golden Circle is a site in South Iceland that contains three of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions and natural wonders: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Field, and the Gullfoss Waterfalls.
- Þingvellir National Park is the UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its continental-shelf trail and historic parliamentary fields.
- Geysir Geothermal Field is a hot spot famous steam pits and mud pools. It also contains large geysers known as the Great Geysir and Strokkur. The Great Geysir has been dormant for the past few years, but the Strokkur remains active and discharges water approximately every 10 minutes.
- Gullfoss Waterfalls Translated as “The Golden Falls,” this natural wonder flows from the Hvítá River into a double cascade for a breathtaking sight.
Other Major Waterfalls
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in South Iceland features water that falls 200 feet and produces a refreshing mist. Visitors can walk behind the waterfalls into a cave for a spectacular view.
Skógafoss Waterfall serves as the traditional border between the lowlands and the highlands. According to legend, a powerful Viking lord buried his treasure chest under the waterfall. The legend goes on to say that locals found the chest, but the handle broke off before they could pull it from the water and the chest is now gone again.
Not to be outdone, Gulfoss ranks up there as my favorite.
Other Major Lakes in Iceland
Located near the Krafla caldera, Lake Mývatn boasts a high amount of geological activity due to underwater craters beneath the lake. The entire Lake Mývatn region has a host of other attractions as well. Take a walk through the Námafjall portion of the lake bed to view boiling geothermal fumaroles and craters. Afterward, you can head to the Smajfall desert area to see sulfuric steam rise from the ground. Or you can take a thrilling stroll through the Dimmuborgir lava fields and rock formations. Local legend has it that this location is where Satan fell when God cast him from heaven. A short while later, you can encounter the Godafoss waterfalls where the renowned chieftain renounced the old gods to avoid civil war in the 10th century, thereby uniting Iceland under monotheistic Christianity. Lake Mývatn is conveniently located near Akureyri in North Iceland, so you can always replenish your supplies for the next adventure.
Jökulsárlón Lake is located at the mouth of Vatnajökull (commonly recognized as Europe’s largest glacier). Icebergs break away and melt into the lake until they are small enough to drift away to sea. These beautiful ice formations make Jökulsárlón a popular setting for films (such as scenes from James Bond and Batman).
Other Important Attractions and Landmarks
- Reynisdrangar rock formations are salt sea stacks located beneath Mount Reynisfjall near the Village of Vík. Legends say that these stacks were once trolls that turned to pillars of salt upon hitting the sunlight.
- Reynisfjara is a black sand beach located in South Iceland that many regard as is one of the loveliest non-tropical beaches in the world.
- Hálsanefshellir is a famous cave located on Reynisfjara. Local legends described the cave monster’s lair until a mudslide sealed the entrance forever.
- The Arch of Dyrholaey is a cliff face located on a promontory in South Iceland. During the summer, it is home to hundreds of nesting Atlantic puffins.
- Landmannalaugar is a hiking trail situated just at the entry of Iceland’s uninhabited interior. Located in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the highlands, this area is at the edge of an interior lava field and offers a glimpse of unmatched beauty.
- Aurora Borealis are the famous “Northern Lights” that offer a sightseeing attraction during winter months.
The Icelandic language is the official language of the country. Prior to the Portuguese settlement of the Azores Islands, it was the westernmost-spoken Indo-European language. Most young Icelanders also understand English and Danish to a considerable degree.
Icelandic remains significant to literary history. Snorri Sturluson wrote or compiled the Prose Edda (or Snorra Edda in Icelandic) in Iceland in the 12th century. Today, the Old Norse Prose Edda serves as a companion to the anonymous Poetic Edda and provides much of the information that we know about Norse mythology. As Old Norse is isomorphic to Old Icelandic, most modern Icelanders can read the Eddas and help pass on this significant work. Because of its historical significance, linguists and software developers alike are fighting hard to defend the Icelandic language against any threats of digital extinction. As an example, Icelandic uses the word tölva (“number prophetess”) for computer (instead of using an English loanword).
Iceland uses the metric system for measurements and the comma system for integers. For example, 14,000 means 14 (not “fourteen thousand”), but 14.000 does mean “fourteen thousand.” The country uses the 24-hour clock system for writing schedules and the D/M/Y format for calendar dates.
The official currency in Iceland is the Icelandic króna (ISK). Like several other Northern European countries (such as Sweden and Denmark), Iceland does not use the euro as its official currency.
Getting to Iceland
Iceland is a member of the Schengen Agreement. Therefore, it accepts visas from other Schengen-member countries as valid. It is important to note, however, that not all European Union countries have signed this agreement (and not all Schengen-member countries are apart of the EU). Most government travel websites have a page on visas and the Schengen Agreement if applicable. Be sure to read on the rules for your country to ensure that you are prepared.
Arrival by Plane
The Reykjavik Airport services domestic and international flights to and from Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Visitors arriving from anywhere else in the world land in Keflavik International Airport. Individuals arriving in Iceland countries outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland must undergo a security screening before passport review. Since Iceland is NOT a member of the European Union, even visitors from EU-member countries have to go through customs if Iceland is their final destination.
There are two popular airport transfer bus services: Airport Express and Flybus. These shuttle services are a convenient way to reach the most popular hotels in Reykjavik, and the bus schedules correspond to flight arrivals. The public bus system (Strætó) operates the Bus 55 which stops at the airport. (For specific information on departure times, visit the public transport website at www.bus.is) You can pay for Bus 55 using a credit card since the route anticipates international customers, but keep in mind that other buses do not this payment method on hand. Alternatively, you book tickets online or ask for Strætó zone tickets at the Keflavik International Airport information desk.
The standard cost to take Bus 55 from Keflavik to Reykjavik is ISK 1,680, and you should ask for a skiptimidi (bus transfer ticket) if you would like to use the public transit system to go further within Reykjavik. If you are going straight from the airport to the Blue Lagoon (the number-one destination for Iceland tourism) instead of downtown Reykjavik, another method is to use the Bustravel Iceland Netbus. This method costs ISK 3,000, but you can also save 10-percent by ordering tickets on the official website (www.netbus.is).
Most Popular Airlines to Iceland
- Icelandair – This airline offers non-stop flights from major U.S. and Canadian hubs (e.g. New York City, D.C., Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver). You can also fly into Iceland as a connecting point to other major European destinations (e.g. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Madrid, Milan, and Paris). Some passengers use this option to have a stop-over at Iceland’s most popular tourist spots without paying addition airfare to their final European destination.
- Austrian Airlines – Seasonal non-stop flights from Vienna that operate from June through August
- Atlantic Airways – Offers passenger flights from Greenland and the Faroe Islands to the Reykjavik Airport
- Air Canada Rouge – Offers seasonal flights from Toronto to Iceland
- Delta Airlines – Delta offers seasonal non-stop trips from JFK Airport (NYC) to Keflavík International Airport.
- EasyJet – This airline is known for economy flights to Iceland from select European cities.
- Germanwings – This economy carrier line offers seasonal flights from Cologne.
- SAS – This airline services direct flights to Oslo and enables you to connect to Stockholm and nearby cities.
Arrival by Boat
The Smyril Line books weekly trips to Iceland from the Hirtshals ferry harbor in North Jutland, Denmark. This boat trip takes two days and arrives in Seyðisfjörður. If you arrive during the summer, you can catch bus ride to Egilsstaðir through Akureyri and on to downtown Reykjavik, or you can catch a domestic flight from Egilsstaðir to Reykjavik throughout the year. For more information, visit www.smyrilline.com.
Getting Around Iceland
Transport by Plane
Because Iceland is a mountainous country, travel by aircraft is a fairly alternative to ground transportation. Many Icelanders use private services or book domestic flights through Atlantic Airways or Air Iceland.
Transport by Car
Renting a car is a common means of experiencing most of what Iceland has to offer. You can rent a two-wheel drive car to use main roads or a four-wheel drive vehicle for sites on the edge of the interior (such as Landmannalaugar). Using a two-wheel drive car provides access to the most popular tourist destinations in South Iceland, and there is one primary highway (Route 1-Ring Road) that loops around the entire country. Keep in mind that driving in Iceland takes place on the right side of the road.
Rental car prices start around $500 per week. You can obtain gas at self-service stations using a credit card, but many of these facilities also require matching ID. In Iceland, many rental cars require diesel fluid, so you should keep this in mind while setting aside money for fuel.
Driving in Iceland is for the experienced driver only. Other than the main highway, most roads in Iceland are made of medium-to-low quality black basalt for environmental purposes. This makes roads slippery when and also difficult to drive over following any gravel buildup. Icelanders recommend driving in groups to avoid the risk of being stranded, and first-time visitors should avoid rounding cliffs without the help of a tour guide. You should also visit en.vedur.is and www.road.is for real-time road conditions and road-safety information.
Another issue to keep in mind is that mountain passes remain closed through winter until the end of June (or longer after unusually cold winters). Although experienced drivers can negotiate using a four-wheel drive vehicle in some areas, Iceland strictly prohibits all off-road driving (as it can cause erosion). Finally, it is not unusual to see wild sheep or horses cross roads in Iceland (including the main highway), so take care to slow down upon the first sign of animals during your trip.
Transport by Bus Tour
Bus tours offer an excellent way to see the most popular tourist attraction under the expert guidance of an experienced driver. Some of the most popular bus-tour companies include Gray Line Iceland, Travel Market, and Discover Iceland. You can use these companies to find routes in several important regions, including South Iceland for the Golden Circle Tour or West Iceland to experience the glacial region.
Shopping and Souvenirs
The most popular Icelandic products for visitors are local and cultural goods. Icelandic wool, for example, tends to be soft, high-quality, and durable. You can also buy local pottery, music, and jewelry for low prices. If you plan to make a range of purchases, considering buying a local discount card like the Norden Voyager Card or Reykjavik City Card.
Food and Drink
Until recently, most Icelanders followed a distinctly Scandinavian diet mixed with local favorites like lamb or fish. However, other international options are also popular in the cities. If you would like to stick with Icelandic cuisine, consider options like harðfiskur (dried fish), skyr (high-protein yogurt), or hangikjöt (smoked lamb). Hot dogs are the most popular fast food in Iceland, and you can also find local street vendors in the capital. Baked goods are not nearly as popular and are generally expensive.
According to estimates, Iceland has some of the cleanest water in the world, and tap water is safe to drink in the country. You can purchase coffee from local shops, but most juice beverages are imported and more expensive. Alcoholic drinks are also considerably expensive compared to other parts of Europe, but you can treat yourself to local beer brands like Ölvisholt Brewery or Vífillfell.
Hotels are easy to find in the capital and larger towns, but it is important to book in advance to ensure a room. Iceland also has a network of guesthouses known as Icelandic Farm Holidays and a network of hostels known as Hostelling International Iceland. You can purchase a international membership card for decent rates for four or more days. For the adventurous traveler, there are government-run as well as privately owned camping sites and mountain huts throughout the rural region.