Iceland travel guide

Much of Iceland's landscape could double for a Tolkien fantasy - the very earth is hot beneath your tread, spitting out hot liquids, lava, dark ash and otherworldly fumes. Craggy mountains brood around iceberg dotted fjords, while long winter darkness is lit by ethereal glowing aurora swirling above glaciers and ice plains in green and magenta shimmers. But there's another side to this amazing island: soft hillocks roll down to brightly coloured traditional fishing villages; verdant meadows are carpeted with fantastic wildflowers and prowled by spritely Arctic fox; seacliffs and dark sand beaches raucous with birdlife and barking seals.
Iceland is a symphony of elemental contrasts - jetting geysers, fiery volcanoes, black lava beaches dotted with sea-sculpted ice, jagged fjords and ethereal blue lagoons
The people are as distinctive, descended from Norse settlers driven from the mainland for being too toughly spirited even for the Vikings. Icelandic culture is fed by this unique geography and history, fomenting a nation with more writers per capita than any other, alongside idiosyncratic creatives across the artistic spectrum (thank you, Björk). This Iceland travel guide is a dip into a place that is, for once, truly unique.
Iceland is/isn't...

Iceland is...

a unique island of fire and ice, wreathed in evocative Norse sagas.

Iceland isn't...

a desolate, expensive North Atlantic banking mess.

What we rate & what we don't

UNDERRATED

Whale watching

Iceland is one of the world's best spots to get …

Futuristic churches

Iceland does futuristic as well as mythic, including startling modernist …

Birdwatching

Spring and summer see migratory flocks from Africa and America …

Culture

Iceland punches way above its weight in the creative ring. …
RATED

Norse heritage

Iceland's majestic vistas are populated by ghosts from ancient Norse …

Northern Lights

From October to April, Iceland is a brilliant viewing platform …

Geothermal pools

The Blue Lagoon is the tourist draw near Reykjavik but …

Waterfalls

Icelandic waterfalls plummet through landscapes out of dreamy TV ads. …
OVERRATED

Whale meat

Whale meat is still served in restaurants, with tourists driving …

Reykjavik in peak season

Take thousands of tourists and drop them into just a …

Runtur

Translating as 'round tour', rúntur is how bored Icelandic youths …

Traditional Icelandic food

Unlike whale meat, this stuff has ancient pedigree – …

Food, shopping & people

Eating & drinking in Iceland
Humar (called 'Arctic lobster but more a giant langoustine), cooked in butter and garlic, served with dill-infused salad = bliss

Lamb-filled Icelandic hot dogs (pylsa) are a national institution, traditionally eaten med ollu (with everything) – ketchup, sweet brown mustard, raw onions, fried onions and remoulade. Delish!

Skyr is Iceland's take on yoghurt, though technically it's closer to soft cheese. Either way, mixed with milk and served with Icelandic blueberries, it's super-tasty and super-healthy.
People & language
Iceland's isolation and lack of immigration has made it one of the world's most genetically undiluted populations – a test-lab for genetic studies where people easily trace family trees back centuries.

The Icelandic alphabet is also little changed since first written down in 12th century sagas – though most locals speak good English.

Icelandic surnames are distinctive too - formed by father or mother's first name plus gender-specific additions 'son' or 'dottir'. So Einar and Helgar's son Erik is Erik Einarsson, but daughter Gudrun can either be Gudrun Einarsdottir or Gudrun Helgarsdottir. And if Erik has a son Einar, he would be Einar Eriksson!
Icelandic tradition warns against throwing stones – because of the risk of accidentally hitting the island's (invisible) huldufolk!

Our top Iceland Vacation

Northern Lights photography vacation in Iceland, coast & ice

Northern Lights photography vacation in Iceland, coast & ice

Photographic trip in the stunning west and southeast Iceland

From £2950 to £3150 10 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2018: 30 Sep, 26 Oct
2019: 1 Feb, 15 Feb, 3 Mar, 30 Sep, 10 Oct, 20 Oct
Helpdesk
Hello. If you'd like to chat about Iceland or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help. Rosy & team.
Gifts & shopping
Traditional knitwear is renowned. And even if a jumper costs £100 consider it a life-long investment.

Icelandic design is the dark horse of Scandi chic – bag unique fashion or house style at Reykjavik's Icelandic Design Centre.

T-shirts printed with a pronunciation guide to the volcanic ice-cap Eyjafjallojokull – tip: it sounds like 'Hey, I forgot my yoghurt' said quickly!

Clothing and accessories made from beautifully-textured, strong fish-skin 'leather' - from shoes and purses to lampshades.

Hip new Icelandic sounds12 Tonar is one renowned source.
Iceland is unusual in having more trees in its towns than countryside – and contrary to popular belief, some are tall!
How much does it cost?
One-way bus ticket from Reykjavik to Akureyri - £60
Three-course meal for 2 in mid-range restaurant - £55
500cl (roughly a pint) of beer - £5
Whale-watching tour - £40 for 2-3 hour trip
Icelandic hot dog - £2

A brief history of Iceland

Between 2003 and 2008, Iceland rode high on a sense of economic wellbeing built largely on the apparent success of local banks whose tempting rates drew an army of global and local investors. The fact that the banks' liabilities were over 10 times the country's GDP didn't seem like a house of cards - until the early gusts of the global financial crisis came whistling through, causing a banking crash that decimated the Icelandic economy.Read more
Written by Norman Miller
Photo credits: [Page banner: Moyan Brenn] [Iceland is/isn't - Jokulsarlon: clement127] [Whalewatching: MindsEye_PJ] [Futuristic churches - Hallgrímskirkja: Ben Husmann] [Birdwatching: Anita Ritenour] [Culture: lil'bear] [Norse heritage - Skogar: big-ashb] [Northern Lights: Greenland Travel] [Geothermal pools : clement127] [Waterfalls - Godafoss: Marco Belucci] [Whale meat : Audrey] [Elves: Shadowgate] [Runtur: Michael Cory] [Traditional Icelandic food: The blanz ] [Humar (Langoustines): Audrey] [Woman in thermal pool: Greenland Travel] [Quote - Glacier Lagoon: Giuseppe Milo] [Knitwear: sunchild123] [Icelandic beer: marc falardeau]
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