No matter how much you hear about the awe-inspiring natural phenomena on this island on the edge of the Arctic circle, nothing can prepare you for the jaw-dropping spectacle that is Iceland. Dubbed “the Land of Fire and Ice”, this small island nation is characterised by contrasts and contradictions. It is a place where steaming geysers burst forth from icy glaciers, where molten hot lava spews out of icy snow-capped peaks, where the astonishing aurora borealis blaze across the night sky and where continuously dark winters are offset by summer’s magnificent midnight sun. With the exception of Reykjavik, the country’s population centres are small, with diminutive towns, fishing villages, farms and minute hamlets clustered along the coastal fringes. The interior, meanwhile, remains totally uninhabited. What the Icelanders lack in numbers, they certainly make up for in warmth, quirkiness, and boundless creativity. Add to this, one of the highest standards of living on earth and you have, quite simply, one of the world’s most intriguing destinations.
Banking and Currency
Icelandic krona (ISK; symbol kr) = 100 aurar. Notes are in denominations of kr5,000, 2,000, 1,000 and 500. Coins are in denominations of kr100, 50, 10, 5 and 1 and feature Iceland’s many native fish species. It is often difficult to get Icelandic money abroad, though not impossible; there are several ATMs and banks at the airport on arrival.
There are no restrictions on the import or export of local or foreign currency.
Foreign currencies can be exchanged in all major banks. Most hotels also provide their guests with exchange services, which may cost more.
Banking hours: Monday-Friday 09h15-16h00.
American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa credit cards are widely accepted.
ATMs are available throughout the country except in outlying remote areas.
Travellers cheques are accepted, although mainly in key urban areas. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller's cheques in US Dollars.
Travel, Transport and Getting Around
Air Iceland (www.airiceland.is) and Eagle Air (www.eagleair.is) run domestic services to all major airports within Iceland from Reykjavík’s city airport, linking up with air or bus connections in over 40 towns. They also fly to Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
If you’re in Iceland for a short amount of time, flying can be a great way to see the different areas of the country and it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can take a bus one way and fly the other; this mode of transport also allows you to see the country by air, which can be singularly dramatic. Both internal airlines offer day tours of the country as well as day trips, guided tours and scheduled flights. You need a passport to travel to Greenland or the Faroe Islands from Iceland.
Car hire services are available from Reykjavík, Akureyri and many other towns. Speed limits are 50kph (31mph) in urban areas, while outside towns they are 90kph (56mph) on paved roads and 80kph (50mph) on gravel roads. Driving under the influence of alcohol is prohibited. It is obligatory to use headlights at all times of the day and night, and to wear seat belts, both in the front and back seats.
An International Driving Permit is recommended, although it is not legally required. A temporary driving licence is available from local authorities on presentation of a valid UK driving licence. Vehicles are driven on the right side of the road.
Remote areas of Iceland have poor mobile and GPS reception; it is always advisable to tell someone where you are going and when you will return and to take a map. Some roads receive few passersby so you should be prepared in the event of an emergency. Costs for breakdown recovery can be high. Check details thoroughly with your car hire company. Changing weather conditions can make driving in Iceland like nowhere else in the world. Be prepared and take all reasonable precautions.
A major road, the Route One, which links all the main towns and runs in a circular route around the island, rings Iceland. Outside Reykjavík, roads are often quiet and empty; sheep and horses can be hazardous, as can weather conditions, but driving itself is usually relaxed.
There are roads serving all settlements, but outside major settlements, they can be gravel rather than tarred. Every year, lesser-used roads through the central highlands of the country are re-marked by the first vehicles to drive the route. Most mountain roads are only open in summer, and some of them can only be used by 4-wheel-drive vehicles.
Taxi services are available from all hotels and airports and downtown areas of Reykjavík and Akureyri.
Iceland has some appeal to cyclists; the quiet roads and scenery have made it popular with touring European cyclists and several cycle tour options are available. Cycle hire is available in Reykjavík by the day as well as for longer-term rental.
The BSI bus station in Reykjavík is the hub for buses in the country. Routes are available to take you everywhere (they are much more frequent in the summer than the winter) including tourist packages, flight and bus links and scheduled routes. Reservations are not always necessary and you can buy tickets from the driver. Check BSI (www.bsi.is/index_en.html) for bus schedules and routes.
Most of Iceland’s cities are easy to drive round and easier to walk around. Parking is usually easy and there is little traffic.
There are ferry links to the Westman Islands off the southwest coast served by Herjolfur ferries (www.herjolfur.is). Sæfari (www.landflutningar.is/saefari) offer scheduled trips from Grimsey Island in the Arctic Circle to the north of Iceland, whilst Seatours (www.seatours.is) offer journeys around the Westfjords from Stikkisholmur on the Snaefellsjokull peninsula.
Food, Drink and Cuisine Advice
Icelandic water is safe to drink and there is no need to buy bottled water. There are no specific food or drink risks in the country.
Icelandic cuisine in general is based on fish and lamb, and owes much to Scandinavian and European influences. As New Nordic cuisine has risen in prominence in recent years, so too has the profile of Iceland’s food: London restaurant Texture gained Icelandic chef Agnar Sverrisson the country’s first Michelin star, reflecting the sophistication of some Icelandic menus.
Eating out can be sublime, expensive or just plain weird, for a number of reasons. One is that traditional Icelandic food can be rather strange. It is not eaten on a daily basis by its inhabitants, rather saved for special celebratory events, and can include putrefied rotten shark, boiled sheep’s head, dried fish slathered in butter and pickled rams’ testicles. Take a shot of Brennivin, the nation’s vodka-like firewater.
Other traditional delicacies include seabirds’ eggs and smoked puffin, which may be eaten at any time of the year.
Fresh fish can be had all year round - Icelanders eat mostly haddock, cod, plaice, halibut, herring and shrimp, but Icelandic salmon, lobster and Arctic char are also very good. The lamb, which is reared locally, is free range, organic and extremely tasty. Make sure you try it at least once during your stay in Iceland.
Vegetarians are catered for but be aware that much of the greenery is imported into the country – it doesn’t grow well here. Home-grown vegetables are typically reared in greenhouses heated by the natural steam from geysers. It’s another reason why food can be more expensive than you would expect.
Bars have table and counter service, and will serve coffee (which is very popular) as well as alcohol. Alcohol is subject to state taxes and can be very expensive. The best advice is to buy local rather than international brands, which will have been shipped in, therefore adding to the cost.
In terms of street food, Iceland’s pylsur (hot dogs) have to be tried. Stalls on the street sell them with optional accompaniments of onions, mustard and tomato ketchup.
Service charges are included in most bills and extra tips are not expected.
Climate and Weather
Iceland's climate is tempered by the Gulf Stream. Summers are mild and winters rather cold. The colourful Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) are best seen between November and February. In June and July, there are nearly 24 hours of daylight in Reykjavík, while in the northern part of the country the sun barely sets at all.
Winds can be strong and gusty at times and there is the occasional dust storm in the interior. Snow is not as common as the name of the country would seem to suggest and, in any case, does not lie for long in Reykjavík; it is only in northern Iceland that skiing conditions are reasonably certain. However, the weather is very changeable at all times of the year, and in Reykjavík there may be rain, sunshine, drizzle and snow in the same day. The air is clean and free of pollution.
Clothing and Dress Recommendations
Lightweights in warmer months, with extra woollens for walking and the cooler evenings. Medium- to heavyweights are advised in winter. Waterproofing is recommended throughout the year. Umbrellas are not recommended because rain is very often accompanied by wind.
Internet cafes can be found, especially in Reykjavík, and WiFi is widely available in hotels and hostels throughout the country.
Electricity and Plug Standards
Electrical sockets (outlets) in Iceland are one of the two European standard electrical socket types: The "Type C" Europlug and the "Type E" and "Type F" Schuko. If your appliance's plug doesn't match the shape of these sockets, you will need a travel plug adapter in order to plug in. Travel plug adapters simply change the shape of your appliance's plug to match whatever type of socket you need to plug into. If it's crucial to be able to plug in no matter what, bring an adapter for all three types.
Electrical sockets (outlets) in Iceland usually supply electricity at between 220 and 240 volts AC. If you're plugging in an appliance that was built for 220-240 volt electrical input, or an appliance that is compatible with multiple voltages, then an adapter is all you need. If your appliance is not compatible with 220-240 electrical output, a voltage converter will be necessary.