As a full-time traveler, sometimes it becomes second-nature to refer to a place as beautiful, stunning or simply the best place you’ve ever been.
I know I’m extremely guilty of this. I love everywhere.
But after a while beaches blend together, capital cities blur into one, and it becomes hard to distinguish one place from another in our memories. What makes a country special?
Of all the places I’ve been fortunate enough to lay eyes on, Iceland has to be one of the most memorable. Why?
From its jurassic landscape to mossy lava fields to sharp mountains interspersed with active volcanoes and rumbling glaciers, it only takes about half a day in this northern land to realize you’re somewhere pretty damn special.
No where is quite like Iceland.
After 7 jam-packed days driving around Iceland with Tiny Iceland this summer, apart from falling head-over-heels in love with this arctic land, I also learned a variety of important lessons.
Here are 10 things I learned in Iceland
1. Iceland or…Mars?
No two ways about it, Iceland is beautiful, and not in your average, “oh isn’t that pretty” kind of way.
I’m talking jaw hit the floor, tears in your eyes, camera jammed in your face every minute kind of way. Iceland is beautiful in the fact that it’s so unique. There is no where that looks quite like it.
Iceland is wild. It’s savage. It’s untamed.
The best part is that the landscape changes so drastically. One minute you’re driving over beautiful green mountains in the south, next your on a black sand beach, then you’re driving by a glacier then you’re in a stinky geothermal area.
And don’t even get me started on the waterfalls. Everywhere you turn in Iceland you’ll see a waterfall twinkling between mountains or roaring over bizarre rock formations.
Iceland has the kind of landscape that will leave you wondering if you’re still on earth.
2. The weather is really, really unpredictable
If I learned one thing in Iceland in July, it’s that you can’t predict the weather. Don’t even try.
No matter where you’re going, make sure you have clothes for all weather. In the span of 7 days I went from wearing a parka and wool hat to wearing rainproof everything to shorts and a bathing suit.
Driving from one spot to another, sometimes we’d go from blue skies and sunshine, to visibly entering fog so thick you could only see 10 feet in front of you. Sometimes it would pour rain all day on one side of the mountains and then be clear on the other side. It’s bizarre but fascinating.
3. Elf culture
That whole thing about how Icelanders believe in elves and fairy folk, yeah that’s not too far from the truth.
Huldufólk or the Hidden People, hold a special place in Icelandic folklore and legend, and generally take the blame for unexplained problems and weird occurrences during building projects around the country.
In a 1995 study, 70% of Icelanders believed in elves while 6% didn’t, and 23% were unsure while 1% refused to answer. That’s right 6% of Icelanders don’t believe in the hidden people. Holy crap, how awesome is that?
In the far reaches of eastern Iceland, way off the Ring Road and over unsealed mountain roads, you’ll find Borgarfjörður Eystri, a small elf town thought to be home to the elf queen.
In this remote part of Iceland, where you’ll drive for hours without seeing a single soul and with no 3G either, you can begin to understand why people still believe in mysterious creatures.
4. Stock up on your booze in the airport
No two ways about it, Iceland isn’t a cheap country to visit, and booze is no exception. While there are definitely ways to explore Iceland and not spend heaps of money, one of my best tips is to buy your alcohol in Duty Free in Keflavík airport before heading out.
At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, I could tell you just to save your money and not drink at all in Iceland, but where’s the fun in that? And let’s be honest, would you listen?
How do I phrase this delicately? Icelanders know how to throw down. I bet you $100 any Icelander can AND will drink you under the table. There is a fascinating booze culture just waiting to be explored in Iceland, make sure you’re prepared.
Because of outrageous alcohol taxes in Iceland, there is over a 100% markup in price on booze from Duty Free to bars and liquor stores in Iceland. Keflavík makes it easy too. Before heading to collect your luggage, the airport is structured in a way that you have no choice BUT to pass through the world’s biggest Duty Free alcohol store, with shopping carts and everything
So don’t forget to stock up on your Viking beer before leaving because you will need it later. Especially if you’re doing a road trip with friends, you know, because Iceland also has no open container laws for cars (now I do sound like an alcoholic).
5. Bring your bathing suit!
Because of Iceland’s geothermal landscape, there are tons of great spas, hot springs and warm pools to soak in all around the country. Some are off in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, while others have been more commercialized.
They are all fabulous.
One of my favorite hot springs is at Seljavallalaug, the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. Tucked up in the mountains next to a river in the south, it’s a bit of a walk to get to but it’s so worth it. The water is a bit dirty, still pretty ashy from the volcanic eruption in 2010, but it’s a great place to hang out for the afternoon.
If you’re a bit more civilized, head to Laugarvatn Fontana, geothermal baths near the Golden Circle. We spent a late afternoon hopping from hot pool to hot pool in the damp fog, relaxing in the warm water after a long flight over to Iceland.
While hunting elves in Borgarfjörður Eystri, we also took the chance to jump into the ocean while hanging out at a local spa at the Blábjörg guesthouse. You can sit in various hot tubs out in the sunshine overlooking the harbor and beach, but I don’t suggest jumping in the ocean. That hurt like hell.
So don’t forget your swimsuit and a towel, you never know when you’re going to need it!
6. Don’t be a dumbass
To say that tourism has exploded in Iceland in the past few years is a massive understatement.
This means that there is not always the infrastructure or safety net in place that you would often find in more popular tourist destinations.
Because Iceland is such an unpopulated place with wild weather and occasionally dangerous landscapes, it’s really important to be smart when traveling there. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stupid shit people do while there.
I think perhaps the most dangerous thing is pulling over on the side of the Ring Road to take photos. Yeah I get it, it’s not a busy road; you can definitely drive for a while and not see other cars, but that doesn’t mean you can just park your car on it and get out. There are always pull-off areas and farm entrances, just wait until it’s safe. Driving the south coast of Iceland is beautiful… don’t ruin it for everyone else.
A lot of the huge waterfalls and major (and minor) natural wonders are not properly monitored; i.e., there aren’t ropes or guardrails to keep idiots from falling off them. It’s left up to you to be safe. So don’t get to close and fall off!
7. I can’t pronounce ANYTHING
Icelandic is hard. Like really hard. Have you seen some Icelandic words before?
But the fun part is just trying. Luckily Icelanders are patient and friendly, so you never feel bad about completely butchering their beautiful language. Equally lucky, almost everyone in Iceland speaks perfect English so you’re never stranded for long.
By the time I left Iceland, I was lucky if I remembered how to pronounce the names of the places we visited.
8. Don’t call the horses ponies!
Driving around Iceland you will see lots of fields with the famous Icelandic horses; pony-sized with beautiful manes and a distinct face, it’s so easy for you (girls) to go “awwwww what cute ponies,” but beware if you do.
Nothing pisses off Icelanders and Icelandic horses like being called ponies – they’re horses, ferocious and strong descended from Vikings. It’s insulting to compare them with ponies.
In fact, Iceland takes its horses so seriously that other horses aren’t allowed to enter the country and once an Icelandic horse leaves, it can never return.
I guess you can call it a pony then.
9. There’s a surprising hipster culture
No two ways about it, Reykjavik is hipster city. In a good way.
There are tons of awesome cafes, bars, and places to chow down in town, all independent and all quirky. And there are plenty of great hotels in the Reykjavik city center as well.
From sipping white russians at the Lebowski Bar to eating fusion Mexican at Vegamot to laughing at the quirky posters at the Laundromat Cafe while your clothes dry downstairs, there is no shortage of hip spots and delicious food around town.
Just don’t be surprised when you see horse, puffin, sheep’s head, whale and rotten shark, you don’t have to order those.
There is vibrant street art scattered around the downtown area and during the midnight sun in summertime, the streets are packed with locals out and about enjoying the good weather, in their thriftshop finest.
An artistic, creative and independent mindset dominates Icelandic culture nowadays, adding another colorful layer to a fascinating viking character.
10. Icelanders are actually the happiest people in the world
I had heard rumors of how friendly Icelanders were long before stepping off the plane, and let me just say, it is not false.
One way in which a place often stands out for me is how friendly and helpful the locals are, and Iceland is no exception, if it doesn’t top the list.
I think it has something to do with the fact that Iceland is consistently ranked one of the happiest countries in the world. Yup, that’s right, there’s such a thing as happiness studies, and this brutal wild country that’s swaddled in darkness for half the year tops them all, go figure.
But you see everywhere in Iceland, and it’s another little fact that makes it such a wonderful place to visit.
Have you ever been to Iceland? What did you think? Have you ever learned some lessons on the road?
Liz Carlson is a fan of strong coffee, impractical dresses and brutal sarcasm, not necessarily in that order. You can find usually find her wandering around the world, most likely in a cafe or bookstore, frantically trying to finish a story and planning her next trip. She blogs over at Young Adventuress, where she rambles on about things like traveling alone as a woman and how to not be a douche on the road.
I was surprised just how hipster Reykavik is; it easily competes with other hip European cities, just a shame it’s considerably uglier (architecturally, I mean; the people were all gorgeous!)
Yeah Reykjavik is pretty hipster, I was pleasantly surprised! Not the most beautiful architecture, but to be honest, I am not a fan of the Scandinavian style at all. Still awesome though!
Iceland has been calling me a lot recently… it looks like a fascinating country.
Go go go! It’s so amazing!
I’m planning on finally making it to Iceland in 2014 and this post makes me so incredibly excited! I will be taking these lessons into account when I make my travel plans! Your photos are just stunning – I think I am most excited for the landscape.
Thanks Bridget, it’s so amazing! I am glad you like my photos, but it’s pretty easy to take photos in Iceland since it’s such a gorgeous place!
Iceland for 2014! Can’t wait. Getting excited every time I came across all these amazing photos!
Ahhhh you’re gonna love it!
You have to visit Iceland in the winter, it’s an entirely different place and so beautiful it’ll blow your mind. My husband and I were there for four days, rented a car and just drove around (we saw about 5 people the whole time it seemed), and it was magical – my best birthday ever! The sun only rises a bit above the horizon in the winter and stays there all day, bathing the snowy landscape in a gorgeous pink alpenglow. The sunset lasts 45 minutes and is absolutely breathtaking. I loved reading your post and can relate to a lot of what you said. Although unfortunately I called them “ponies” – good to know for next time.
ahh next time “viking stallions” 😛 I can’t wait to go back in winter. I bet the light is just gorgeous!
I spent 3 weeks driving the Ring Road last June and could not agree with you more. I travel all over and have more countries than I can ever do on my bucket list BUT I would go back to Iceland in an instant. It is by far one of my most favorite places. I am glad I am not alone in that belief.
Oh you are definitely not alone. I feel the same way, along with pretty much everyone who has been to Iceland
I love the first one. Iceland does look like another planet sometimes or should I say…
Ég elska það fyrsta. Ísland hjartarskinn útlit eins og öðrum plánetu stundum
ohooo nice one! Totally agree, Iceland’s beauty is otherworldly!
What an awesome post about Iceland! I think you hit some of the best points about visiting here as well. I have been to Iceland 7 times now and moved here in October. I love it here and all its quirks and uniqueness make it that much better! No joke about the airport stocking up on alcohol, we do it every time and walk out of the airport with the sound of all our bottles clanking together. And for real Icelandic is freaking hard! I have finished my first course and can somewhat follow a conversation but it is not to pretty to hear me say it!
HOW DID YOU MOVE THERE? I must know!!
I’ve been to Iceland twice this year alone and cannot wait to go back. The people, the landscape, the language, the culture, the food… It is all so different and alien, yet at the same time it is so welcoming and natural.
It is by far the best place I have ever gone, and I’ve traveled a fair bit.
Dyrhólaey is possibly the most dramatic place you can visit on a wet and windy day. Cliffs, snow, lava formations, lashing rain and a massive glacier to your rear!
Woah that’s great, I really can’t wait to go back either! I’ll keep Dyrhólaey in mind, don’t think we went there! You summed it up perfectly!
Iceland is high on my list of places to see and photograph – thanks for sharing!
You’re welcome! Iceland is worth a visit 😀
Oh wow! It just looks beautiful. Thanks for sharing so many amazing photos. I wanted to go before, but now I’m even more pumped about it. But, my God, there’s nothing like that region of Europe to make you discard alcoholic tendencies!
haha that’s so true! The midnight sun also helps 😀
Iceland is unique without a doubt! You have captured its beauty excellently.
Fantastic post on Iceland, I loved reading it! Iceland is definitely on our list of must sees and you have really pushed it to the top of our list with all of your wonderful information…will definitely stop at the Duty Free store lol!!
stock up on the booze!
Sold. I had been thinking about holing up in a cottage in Iceland to write and work on my novel, but now it seems more like the kind of place to get out and explore. Those landscapes are so gorgeous they look like miniature models!
wow, that sounds like a great plan!
Such pretty pictures, thanks for sharing!
Thank you! Glad you liked my photos!
I follow this blog and Young Adventuress, loving both. I’ve had my sights on Iceland for a while, and this just makes me want to go more! The closest I’ve come to an alien landscape was the Grand Canyon or maybe White Sands in New Mexico – I can’t wait to go north.
that’s awesome! Thanks for following along!
Wow, wow, wow! In the last year or so, I’ve become increasingly interested in visiting Iceland. This post seals the deal. Bookmarking it for when I do finally go. I’m not sure whether to visit in the summer or winter, though. I’m pretty sure Iceland will require two trips.
Great! You’re going to love it! And yes, at least two trips!
It’s always great to read about other’s love of Iceland.
I must have been very lucky when I went. In just over 2 weeks (July 2005) I had 3 or 4 days with rain – other than that it was clear blue sky t-shirt weather until midnight! I learnt that near 24 hour daylight is quite freaky at first, often in a good way when it means wandering around spectacular locations in the middle of the night.
The landscape is incredible. The area around Keflavik airport seemed quite dull and uninspiring, but for the rest of the trip I was blown away on a daily basis – just like you I couldn’t believe the variety. And the horses too, they seemed so naturally perfect, like no horses I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know they restrict horsey imports but it makes sense.
I’m planning to return in March 2014, and it’ll be the first time I’ve ever returned to a country – that’s how much I love it. I’d go as far as saying Iceland changed my life, which you’ve reminded me I keep meaning to write in more detail about…
Wow, that’s great to hear! I hope you love it as much in March as the rest of the year!
I’m hoping to finally visit Iceland this August, so these were some great tips. I had no idea alcohol could be that expensive!
it is! Stock up in duty free, you’ll thank me later!
LOVE these tips!
Looks like you visited a lot of the places on my 10-day itinerary:
Your practical tips are a great compliment to these travel ideas 🙂
You’re going to love Iceland, it’s amazing!
Nice article. I knew some of things you mentioned even though I’ve never been there but especially believing in elves stuck out. Other than buying Bose at the airport, what other budget saving tips can you offer regarding accommodation or transport or dining?
Stock up on food to take with you and snack at the gas stations, and if you’re there in summer, you can rent a campervan to sleep in to save money.
Great post! I traveled to Iceland a few years ago in mid-December and would love to go back to see Iceland in the summer! It really is one of the most unreal, beautiful places I’ve ever traveled to. I frequently refer to the scenery as “moonscape” because it definitely feels like you’ve left Earth for somewhere else. Thanks for the post and the memories!
Definitely feels like you’re on the moon there, that’s for sure!
When I return to Iceland I definitely have to make sure I rent a car to geat around. Amazing photos!
Definitely, you can get so many more places with a car!
Great list and superb photos. For me no.1 was the best. The landscape was unbelievable and as you say it changes all the time. I think I was one of the dumbass’s pulling over on the side of the road. BUT it was late in the year so there was very little traffic. Actually we timed it at one point and us going at 120km/hr we didnt meet a car coming against us for nearly 1.5hrs! Still, again great photos
Woah that’s awesome! Be careful though, I almost witnessed a few accidents because of that.
I just finished reading Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss (great book by the way!) and I was surprised by his descriptions of Iceland and especially by how happy the people of Iceland are. After reading the chapter on Iceland and after seeing it on display in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I really want to visit!
Did you feel like it was too crowded with tourists? Or just pleasantly crowded?
I love the Geography of Bliss, so funny! It’s pretty accurate haha, but I was there in summer, so less bleak. It was crowded, though sometimes you’re alone at so many sites when you show up at one with a dozen people, it feels “crowded”
Sounds like a blast. I’m excited to check it out!
Oh wow! I’ve had Iceland on my mind for quite a while now and this post has made me want to go even more. Hope to make it this year. Great tips and stunning pictures, Liz 🙂
Thanks! Its epic, you’re going to love it!
I’m going there in April for the first time. Can’t wait! And this post just makes me long for it even more!!
Thanks very much for the lovely post Liz. Great photos. I’m enjoying your blog.