An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983.
A land of fire and ice, dark winters and midnight sun, volcanoes and glaciers, Iceland sometimes feels like it’s on the edge of the earth.
Famous for its rugged natural beauty, including the surreal Northern Lights, Iceland’s remoteness has bred a quirky-yet-rich culture. Settled by Vikings in the Middle Ages, the Icelanders were the romantics of the North, who wrote the famed sagas that passed down the lore of the Viking age. Iceland also pioneered modern-day democracy: visit Thingvellir National Park, where from 930 to 1798 every community in Iceland sent representatives to discuss the important issues of the day. Today, ultra-hip Reykjavik is one of the world’s party and foodie capitals.
Odyssey travels by coach and occasionally uses local transport, including trains and ferries. Specifics are always outlined in your tour itinerary. If you’re doing some independent travel around Reykjavik, your choices are the city bus or taxis. The bus, however, is not known for being especially reliable. Around the country, there are no railways, so road transport or flight is usually the best way to travel between cities.
In major cities, Odyssey stays in centrally located 3-4 star hotels, with easy access to public transport. In smaller towns or rural areas, we usually stay in family-run hotels or guesthouses. In Iceland, there is a wide range of accommodation options, and if you’re travelling individually, you’ll be sure to find something that suits your requirements.
Odyssey always engages local guides with regional knowledge to ensure an authentic experience during which you can learn as much as possible about the history and culture of places you visit.
Geograpy, environment & weather
The geography of Iceland is notoriously rugged, combining mountains, glaciers, geysers, volcanoes, and more. Near the arctic, it is positioned at the confluence of the Arctic and Noth Atlantic ocean, and is 103,000 square kilometers. Around 10% of the nation is covered by glaciers. The largest, Vatnajokull, measures 7764 square kilometers.
The weather in Iceland is at its best between June and August, during which it is essential to prebook accomodation to avoid the rush. The average temperature in winter in Reykjavik is around 1 degree, and in summer 12 degrees. However, the weather is unpredictable, and in areas of the country it can become extremely cold. Therefore, it’s vital that you come prepared, with a wardrobe that will protect you from harsh conditions.
World Heritage Sites
Iceland is home to only 2 world heritage sites, but 7 are currently on the “tentative” list, being considered for nomination. It is well worth visiting every site, if you are able. But here’s a few highlights from the bunch:
- Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park: This is is the former site of the world’s oldest parliament and is an excellent location to learn about the movement of the earth’s continental plates and to see how that movement affects Iceland today. It was home to the Althing open-air assembly, at which the whole of Iceland was represented from 930-1798.
- Surtsey: Designated a world heritage site in 2008, Surtsey is a volcanic island that was formed by an eruption that lasted from 1963-1967. It is now eroding, but it has been rigorously studied by scientists, and is likely to remain above sea level for about 100 more years.
Festivals & events
Because Iceland is a country that is very much at the whim of its weather and environment, it has plenty of events and festivals to keep morale going during dark days and cold months. Here are a few:
Þorrablót: This feast is held early in the year during midwinter, and named for a month of the traditional Icelandic calendar. The event was originally held to honour Thor, but now focuses more on the community aspect.
The Reykjavik Art Festival: From May-June, Iceland’s largest city hosts this festival that is renowned worldwide. In the past, it has hosted some of the most famous names in music and art, including Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and David Bowie.
The Northern Lights: From roughly September to April, when the sky is clear and dark, there is a chance you’ll witness the northern lights. Because it often lacks cloud cover, Iceland is one of the best places in the world for Northern Lights watching. However, it can never be guaranteed and the longer you spend in Iceland the better your chance of enjoying the aurora borealis.
- The Sagas of Icelanders by Anonymous
- Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
- Independent People by Halldor Laxness
- Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason
Eating & Drinking
The cuisine of Iceland is influenced by its watery borders. Where once, hunters and fishers were limited by the brief daylight hours, Iceland now flourishes thanks to technological and agricultural advancements that see it growing much of its own food.
Iceland offers diverse and cosmopolitan restaurant options, however it is still possible to track down some traditional fare. Key elements of the diet included fish, lamb, and skyr, a creamy, yoghurt-like product that is technically classified as a cheese.
Lamb has been eaten in Iceland for centuries. You can expect to find it slow-roasted and flavoured with arctic thyme, or in a rich stew of Kjötsúpa, with potato, swede and carrots.
Iceland is renowned for its popular hotdogs. Bill Clinton famously declared them the best in the world! An Iceland hot dog (pylsur) is said to taste properly like meat, to snap when you bite into it, and is served with both raw and cooked onion and three different condiments. Find them in kitsch-looking hotdog stands across the country.
You might like to sample the fish in Iceland given its ubiquity and popularity. But a word of warning: traditional Hákarl is only for the brave. Even locals tend to avoid this pungent fermented shark dish with its strong ammonia smell. It was a product of its time, when refrigeration was not available. Nonetheless, it does live on for some devoted fish fans.
You can expect to come across rye bread in Iceland. Their variety is dark, sweet and dense, and delicious served with cheese and pickled herring.
For the sweet tooths, you can’t go wrong with a Scandinavian pastry like the snúður, or else look out for ice cream! Iceland is obsessed, with some gelaterias staying open till 1am!
Health & safety
Iceland is one of the world’s safest countries.
However, as always, you should always stay alert and keep an eye on your belongings, especially around tourist attractions.
The biggest danger in the country is the weather. It’s important that you do your research and dress for the weather. If you’re planning on hiking, always go with a group and consult with experts to ensure that your plan is safe.
Whenever you travel overseas, it’s always wise to take an appropriate travel adaptor. Iceland plugs have two round pins, combining plug types C and F. Iceland operates on a 230V supply voltage at 50Hz.
Árbær Open Air Museum
The Blue Lagoon
Iceland has a single time zone (excluding its overseas territories), Greenwich mean time. The longest day in Iceland occurs in June and is around 21 hours. The shortest day occurs in December and is around 4 hours.
If you’re on an Odyssey tour, we take care of tipping so you don’t need to give it a second thought. However, in your free time, or if travelling independently, it’s essential that you make sure you tip an appropriate amount for services, as is the case throughout much of Europe. It’s customary to tip 10-15% of the bill at restaurants, if a service charge isn’t automatically included. It’s polite to round a bill up to the nearest whole figure or leave the change when buying drinks.
Internet access is easily accessible, and most hotels and many cafes will be able to offer it.
Check with your cell phone provider to see whether you’re able to make calls and use data while in Iceland. Many providers will offer a daily fee that allows you to make calls and check the internet while only being charged your regular rates. However, be certain to inform your provider that you’re heading overseas, because just like a bank they can turn off your service as a result of unusual activity.
Responsible travel tips for Iceland.
- Learn at least the local greetings to break the ice. Although many locals speak English, the more you know of the native language, the greater your experience of the country will be.
- Carry a business card in your wallet or purse from your local hotel, to assist you with the return journey if you do become lost.
- Always ensure that you are covered by travel insurance. If you need advice on this feel free to contact Odyssey and we’ll be able to help.
- If sightseeing in rural areas, remember to be respectful of residents and locals. As well as being tourist attractions, these are peoples’ homes!
- When travelling independently, make sure you check the opening hours of shops and museums so that you don’t miss out! Museums and galleries are often closed on Mondays. Also be certain to check whether your trip coincides with any public holidays, so you can plan accordingly.
- Consider contacting your bank to inform them that you may be making purchases overseas. Otherwise, they may flag any activity on your account as suspicious. Also, check which ATMs and banks are compatible with your cards, to ensure you can withdraw cash with minimal fees.
- Before departing, make sure you have a number of Icelandic Krona in a range of denominations. You don’t want to be carrying around enormous amounts of cash, but take enough to make it easy to pay in locations that might not accept credit card. It will also help you avoid card transaction fees, and it makes tipping a breeze.