Category: Iceland

Iceland’s Diamond Circle: A Northern Iceland Itinerary

Iceland’s Diamond Circle: A Northern Iceland Itinerary

Iceland’s Diamond Circle

A Lesser Known Tourist Route

A search for things to do in Iceland will inevitably return pages of posts about Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. Far more information than you need, and most of it incredibly redundant. (This is why I chose not to write about the Golden Circle, and wrote about what you need to know about Iceland that other bloggers aren’t telling you instead.) Today, seven months after my trip to Iceland, I discovered something else that most people don’t write about: Iceland’s Diamond Circle. How I wish I had found out about this earlier!

Map of Iceland's Diamond Circle

My loss is your gain. Here’s what you need to know about all of the stops on northern Iceland’s Diamond Circle:

Húsavík

The town of Húsavík has a population of about 2,100 people. It is situated on the eastern side of Iceland’s northern coast, and is known as the whale watching capital of Iceland.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Whale watching is one of the main activities for tourists in Husavik.
Husavik is the whale watching capital of Iceland.

The town even has a whale museum, which offers visitors exhibits on North Atlantic whale species, the whaling industry, and whale habitat and ecology. It also serves as a center for whale research and data collection.

Húsavík has two other museums as well. The Exploration Museum highlights the history of human exploration. The museum grounds contain a monument honoring the Apollo astronauts who trained in that area of Iceland during the 1960s. The Húsavík Museum centers its exhibits on culture and biology, with exhibits that include a stuffed polar bear that floated over to Iceland on an iceberg in 1969.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: The wood timber church in Husavik was built in 1907
Með Andreas Tille – eigin skrá, CC BY-SA 4.0

Húsavikurkirkja, the church in Húsavík shown above, is a wooden beauty that you should see if you are visiting the town. It was built in 1907 and is in the center of the town, facing the harbor.

Godafoss

Although I hadn’t come across the Diamond Circle in my research, I still managed to find one of the sites on the route. Godafoss is massive, and impressive. Visitors will have no difficulty imagining how they came to call it Waterfall of the Gods.

Iceland's Diamond Circle - Godafoss is just a slight detour off of the circle, but still a must-see in any weather!
My panoramic shot of Godafoss in February.

 

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Godafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods
Godafoss, as seen from above in warmer weather. (Source)

There’s a story about how, around 999 or 1000 AD, lawspeaker Thorgeir Ljósvetningagodi made Christianity the official religion of Iceland. To symbolize his parting with the old Norse religion and adoption of Christianity, he threw his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall. Most historians believe this to be a more modern story and not a true origin of the name. But still, it’s a great story, isn’t it?

Ásbyrgi Canyon (aka Shelter of the Gods)

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Asbyrgi Canyon is peaceful and a magical setting known as Shelter of the Gods.
Image via Flickr by Bods.

About 25 miles east of Husavik, there is a large horseshoe shaped depression in the land. According to Norse mythology, the rock formation of Asbyrgi was formed by the hoofprint of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. Scientists, on the other hand, speculate that it was most likely formed by catastrophic glacial flooding of a river 8-10,000 years ago, and then again 3,000 years ago. Sleipnir must have been a very big horse (as would befit Odin, right?), because the cliffs are some 300 feet high. The canyon is over two miles long, and 2/3 mile wide. It’s a magical place, and local lore has it that Iceland’s elves live in the cracks there.

Lake Myvatn

Lake Myvatn is the fourth largest lake in Iceland. It’s name is Icelandic for “Lake of Midges.” Not Tootsie Roll Midgees (alas!), but midges. That is, flies. If you heard that Iceland is heavenly because there are no mosquitoes there, you heard correctly. But unfortunately, no mosquitoes does not equal no insects, and if you think you needn’t fear summertime bug bites in this island country, you’re wrong.

However, don’t let that deter you from visiting Lake Myvatn. The scenery at the lake and in the surrounding area is stunning. The lake is in a very active geothermal area of Iceland, so one of the most popular things to do (other than admiring the gorgeous scenery) is the Myvatn Nature Baths. There, you can take a dip in the naturally hot waters of the lagoon, enjoy a steam bath, or both. Afterwards, you can enjoy a meal at the on-site restaurant.

Myvatn is also a popular spot for birdwatching, as there are more species of duck there than any other spot in the world. And Game of Thrones fans can explore the area to find Mance Rayder’s wildling camp (Dimmuborgir – see below) and the cave where Jon and Ygritte shared an evening together (Grjótagjá cave).

Iceland's Diamond Circle: The Myvatn Lake area has a unique geological feature known as pseudo craters
Aerial view of a pseudo crater at Lake Myvatn. (source)

Skútustadagígar in the Myvatn area also has something called pseudo-craters or rootless cones. They’re volcanic landforms that look like craters, but never had an actual eruption of lava. The craters are formed by steam explosions.

Dettifoss Waterfall

Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with an average water flow of 633 cubic feet per second.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe.
Image via Flickr by Michael Voelker

The falls are 330 feet wide and 144 feet high. Unfortunately, the roads that are closest to this site are closed during the winter, so it’s likely you will only be able to see this waterfall if you are visiting in the summer months.

Expanding the Circle

Iceland's Diamond Circle - expanded route with additional sites.

If you have more time, and you want to pepper your travels around Iceland’s Diamond Circle with additional sites, here are a few that you can easily add:

Dark Castles (Dimmuborgir)

Dimmuborgir consist of huge lava rock formations which make you feel like you stepped into another world. It’s no surprise that this place was the Games of Thrones setting for Mance Rayder’s wildling camp.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: Dimmuborgir lava formations create an alien looking landscape that was featured in Game of Thrones.
Photo via Flickr by µµ

The formation of these extraordinary lava cliffs and pillars is caused by lava ponds. Hot lava streamed over ponds, trapping the water underneath. Steam issued through vents in the lava pools and formed these pillars, which then remained standing even after the crust around them had gone away.

NB:  The rocks are brittle and fragile, so for your safety and out of respect for the beauty of Icelandplease do not attempt to climb on them.

Eider Falls (Æðafossar)

Eider Falls is very close (about 6 miles) from Húsavík. It isn’t a very big waterfall, but it is very picturesque, and it’s worth a stop. Just make sure you have good driving directions on how to get there. I’ve heard it’s a bit difficult to find, and there are few road signs to guide you.

The Echo Rocks (Hljodaklettar)

The “echo rocks” or Hljódaklettar, are basalt columns lying in several different directions. Because of their haphazard arrangement, they create unique formations and arched caves that make eerie echoes and reverberations. You may also see basalt rosettes, which are developed when the lava stream forming the columns cools from all sides simultaneously. You can see one, possibly two, in the photo below.

Iceland's Diamond Circle: A basalt rosette is one of the unique formations you can see at Hljóðaklettar
Photo via Flickr by Sveinn Erlendsson

From the parking lot, there are two marked hiking paths. One (a path marked in blue) is a 1 km easy stroll that will take roughly 30 minutes, while the other (marked red) is a challenging circle around the area that takes about 2 hours to complete.

Laugar

Another hot spot of geothermal activity (pun fully intended), Laugar’s claim to fame is its swimming pool. Surrounded by rolling hills, the pool at Laugar is over 80 feet long with a temperature around 85°F.  In addition to the swimming pool, visitors to Laugar can enjoy two spacious hot tubs, a kids’ wading area, and a fitness center. It is a quiet and peaceful area with a beautiful view south the valley.

Get Out There and Explore

Like no other place I’ve visited, Iceland is the ideal country to just drive around and explore. Itineraries like these help, but don’t be afraid to wander elsewhere too (provided that weather and road conditions are favorable, that is). have you visited any of these sites? Let me know in the contents below!

Iceland's Diamond Circle - Northern Iceland Itinerary
Far less known than the Golden Circle, Iceland’s Diamond Circle provides just as many wonderful sights – with fewer tourists. #iceland #diamondcircle #northerniceland #icelanditineraries
Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary

Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary

Iceland on a Budget: An Oxymoron?

Talk to anyone who has been to Iceland and one of the first things they tell you is that it is absolutely stunning, and should be on everyone’s bucket list. Another thing they will tell you is that it is an incredibly expensive place to visit. Like, probably the most expensive country in the world.

I’m not a fan of carrying debt, and I try to do most things as cheaply as possible without compromising the experience. So here’s the itinerary my family used when we went to Iceland in February. If it cost money for us to do it, I will note the price. If no price is listed, the site did not charge an admission fee.

Day 1: Arrival & Jet Lag in Reykjavik

We flew non-stop from Baltimore and arrived local time around 5:30 AM. Our bodies, however, thought it was midnight, and we were ready for bed. No such luck… check in at our Airbnb was not until 2:00 PM.  That left us with a lot of time to kill and not a lot of energy.  Fortunately, I stumbled upon a great little museum that opens at 7 AM and is very close to the airport. By the time we claimed our bags and got our rental car, it was 7:00, so we went straight to the museum – Viking World (or Vikingaheimar in Icelandic).

The museum also has a breakfast buffet which costs roughly $5 more than museum admission alone. So, for $20 each, we got a hearty breakfast, coffee (thank you, Lord!) and an introduction to Viking lore and history. We spent 2-3 hours there, taking in the exhibits and feeling like we had the place to ourselves.

After that, we explored Reykjavik a little bit. There was a great bookstore I wanted to visit (Bókabúð Máls og Menningar), so hubs found a parking garage where he could nap while I explored. Also nearby was a Christmas shop where I bought an ornament as my only souvenir, and this really cool building covered in artwork:

Iceland on a Budget - Look out for amazing street art in Reykjavik.

By this time, though, I was starting to drag. I went back to the car, woke hubs up, and off we went to buy groceries. (The only smart thing to do if you’re trying to do Iceland on a budget. Eating out can cost a small fortune.) By the time we finished that, it was time to check in and unpack. I then crashed for a much-needed but all too brief nap.

After we had rested a little, we got back in the car and drove back to downtown Reykjavik. We went to the iconic Hallgrimskirkja church. The inside is a lot less ornate than older European churches, but it was still quite grand. We purchased tickets to go up inside the clock tower ($10 per adult, $1.50 per child up to age 14). From there we enjoyed amazing views of the city:

Iceland on a Budget - There is a fee to go to the top of the clock tower of Hallgrimskirkja church.

After that, we still had some daylight, so we headed to Perlan. I hadn’t run across many people talking about this site on travel blogs, but it seemed intriguing, and they had a simulated ice cave.

Why should that matter, you ask? Well, I really wanted to tour an ice cave while in Iceland, but it was cost prohibitive. At roughly $200 per person, it would have cost $600 for Hubs, Daughter and me to do it. That’s not even within the realm of possibility when you’re trying to experience Iceland on a budget!

Perlan admission, on the other hand, was roughly $29 per adult and $15 for children age 6-15. Still a bit pricey, but much more manageable.  Was it as cool as being inside a real ice cave formed by nature? No, of course not! But it was still a neat experience that provided us with some really great photos.

Iceland on a Budget - See a man made ice cave at Perlan for $30, or the real thing for $200.

Additionally, our guide was very entertaining, and we learned a lot about Iceland and glaciers at Perlan’s other exhibits. But the best part of Perlan was going out on the 360 degree observation deck, where we were treated to beautiful twilight views of the city.

Iceland on a Budget - The view from Perlan's 360-degree observation deck,

When we finished up exploring Perlan and looking at the view, we headed back to our lodging and off to bed.

I should note that while this day’s adventure’s may sound expensive and not at all budget friendly, it is the only day that we spent any money on anything other than food, shelter, and transportation. Our activities on all of the days that followed were free of charge.

Day 2: The Golden Circle

The husband of a friend of a friend is a native of Iceland, and is still living there while he tries to get immigration to the US sorted out. We contacted him and he graciously offered to be our tour guide around the Golden Circle for our second day in Iceland.

The Golden Circle consists of three sites of interest that are more or less arranged in a circular loop not too far from Reykjavik. It’s a popular tourist route, and while it makes for a full day, you really don’t need more than a day to do it. Here’s our Golden Circle map:

Iceland on a Budget - Most sites on the Golden Circle route are free to visit.

We started by driving to Thingvellir National Park, about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The cool thing about this park is that it is the site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and you can walk in between them. The park has both natural beauty and historic significance, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iceland on a Budget - Thingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle and, aside from a small parking fee, is free to visit.

From Thingvellir, we drove about 40 minutes to Geysir and Strokkur, a geothermal site featuring one dormant and one active geyser. The active one, Strokkur, erupts every 5-10 minutes. And I’ll just warn you… even if you are standing there with your finger lightly resting on your camera button, waiting for it to erupt and fully aware that it will do so at any moment… it will still scare the crap out of you when it does, causing your photo to come out crooked.

Iceland on a Budget - Strikkur is a very active geyser that you can watch for free.

Our third stop on the Golden Circle Tour was Gullfoss, a massive waterfall just 10 minutes away from the geysers. Unfortunately, when we were there, most of the waterfall was frozen.

Iceland on a Budget - Gullfoss, on the Golden Circle, is a huge waterfall that is free to visit.

However, the highlight was the visitor center. Our friend/guide insisted that we try the lamb stew. I was skeptical, as I’ve had lamb before and did not care for it at all. But I must say, the stew was amazing! Even my daughter, who picks bits out of her Campbell’s chicken noodle soup if she doesn’t like the way they look, finished every drop. Now, nearly two months later, she will occasionally say with a wistful sigh, “I wish I had some lamb stew.” It is that good. I don’t remember how much we paid for it but it was worth every krona.

From there, at the recommendation of our friend’s friend’s husband, we went to a place that is usually not included on Golden Circle tour routes: Faxi. It is the site of a fairly wide waterfall with a curious-looking set of steps on one side.

Iceland on a Budget - Faxi Waterfall can be added to your Golden Circle route; it is free to visit.

We asked our guide for the day what the steps were for. It turns out that they are built for salmon, not people. By having the steps there, salmon are able to swim up to the top of the waterfall, where people are eager to catch them. Coming from very flat land, I had never heard of such a thing before, but they aren’t that rare and known as fish ladders.

Our last stop on the Golden Circle was Kerid Crater. If you’re going to Iceland in the winter, like we did, you may want to skip this.  It’s not much to look at.

Iceland on a Budget - Kerid Crater on the Golden Circle

Day 3: Reykjavik to Hof

We said goodbye to Reykjavik and headed off to explore the southern part of the island.

Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which was beautiful. Unfortunately, the tourists there were not. We didn’t stay long.

From there, it was on to another beautiful waterfall, Skogafoss. This one is situated in such a way that if the sun is out, you have a really good chance of seeing a rainbow in front of the falls.

After our experience with the tourists at Seljalandsfoss, we decided to just appreciate this waterfall from a distance.  Besides, at this point I was ready to see something other than waterfalls.

We traveled next to Reynisfjara, the black sand beach that was featured as a setting at the beginning of Star Wars: Rogue One. What a wonderful, beautiful, epic place it was! Huge basalt columns, caves, squawking birds flying overhead, huge rocks jutting out of the sea, and crashing waves with a reputation of being sneaky. We spent a good amount of time here, laughing, exploring, taking photos… it was easily one of my favorite places in Iceland.

Iceland on a Budget - Reynisfjara Black Beach is free to visit and breathtaking to behold!

When we finally tore ourselves away from the black sand beach, it was time to head to our lodgings in Hof. I wanted to make one more stop, at Fjaðrárgljúfur, an ancient river canyon. This is another one of those sites that you can completely skip past if you’re going in the winter. When it’s all covered with snow, it’s hard to capture the depth and the scope of it.

Iceland on a Budget - Fjaðrárgljúfur is an ancient river canyon that is best appreciated in spring & summer.

If you are not going in the winter, then consider exploring this area and/or driving farther. Lodging and dining options in Hof (as opposed to Hofn, which is 90 minutes farther east) are limited.

Day 4: Heading East to Egilsstadir

First thing in the morning, we got up and headed to Skaftafell National Park. I had fallen in love pictures of the Svartifoss waterfall there and classified it as absolutely-must-see.  I think you can see why:

Iceland on a Budget - Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell National Park.
Photo via Flickr by Victor Montol.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look quite as good in the winter. And there is a 90 minute hike to reach it.

Uphill.

In the snow.

We didn’t get as close as the photographer above did, because frankly, I was exhausted, hungry, and cranky. Not to mention disappointed.  This is as close as we got:

Yeah. Significantly less impressive in the winter.  But at least I tried.

From there we headed to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. It was absolutely breathtaking… still water clear enough to see down several inches, big chunks of pale turquoise ice, and the cold, crisp air. I’d like to think that it’s nowhere near as pretty in the spring and summer months.

Iceland on a Budget - Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is free to visit and stunning to behold!

From there, we went over to the opposite side of the road to the stretch of black sand known as Diamond Beach. Chunks of ice break off of the glaciers and wash ashore. The contrast between the slowly melting ice and the dark black sand is striking, and when the sun hits the ice fragments they can resemble diamonds. However, most of the ice chunks I saw were opaque and white rather than clear and diamond-like.

After that, we were supposed to stop near Hofn to check out a Viking village created for a movie/television series. Unfortunately, we forgot about it until we were well past it on our way to Egilsstadir.

Day 5: Egilsstadir to Akureyri

Driving from Egilsstadir to Akureyri in the winter can be a white knuckle experience. If you are attempting to do this, make sure you have a car equipped with 4 wheel drive and tires like these:

Iceland on a budget - tires for winter driving

Our first stop on Day 5 was Námafjall, a volcanic site that features fumaroles and boiling mud pots. A fumarole is an opening through which sulfurous gasses pour out with a loud hiss. In layman’s terms, it’s like a giant anthill blowing out steam that smells like rotten eggs. It is every bit as disgusting as it sounds. In fact, my daughter started gagging as soon as we pulled up and refused to get out of the car.  But also visually striking.  It felt like we were on another planet.

Iceland on a Budget - Fumaroles at Namafjall

Boiling mud pots are pretty much what they sound like – essentially deep mud puddles that are so hot they are boiling. Every once in a while you would hear one go BLLUUUURRRPP as a large bubble broke the surface, but for the most part they are much quieter than the fumaroles.

From there we rode to Grjótagjá cave, which was a popular hot spring bathing site until volcanic eruptions from 1975 to 1984 made the water too hot – 140 degrees. Today it is cooler, more like 110-115 degrees, but bathing here is prohibited. Save for a few cars parked nearby, you wouldn’t know that anything was there at all. But inside, it’s easy to see how people would have enjoyed slipping between the rocks for a warm soak.

Our third and final sightseeing venture for the day was Godafoss, which means the Waterfall of the Gods. It was easy to see how this waterfall earned its nickname. It was very big, very powerful, and very impressive.

Day 6: Akureyri to Borgarnes

Our drive across the northern part of Iceland was quite nice and relaxing. It was one of the warmer days we spent there, and it almost seemed like spring was right around the corner. Looking out  we actually saw grass where previously we had only seen snow. This, coupled with the fact that the road follows the coastline, made it a remarkably enjoyable drive.

We headed to Grafarkirkja, which is the oldest church in Iceland, and nearly missed it altogether. It was only by sheer determination that we found it, as it is quite small and in a rural location, even by Icelandic standards.

Grafarkirkja is a turf building, common in Icelandic architecture centuries ago. Icelanders would fit turf to the frame of their buildings, providing excellent insulation against the harsh weather.

Iceland on a Budget - Grafarkirkja is the oldest church in Iceland, and is free to visit

From there we journeyed in search of dragons. Stone dragons, that is. Hvítserkur is the name of Iceland’s famous sea stack off the northern coast that looks a bit like a dragon taking a drink of water from the sea, don’t you think?

Iceland on a Budget - Hvitserkur is said to resemble a dragon taking a drink from the sea.

We ended the day in Borgarnes, which has a Viking Settlement Museum and restaurant. We had dinner at the restaurant and it was crazy expensive, also not that great. (I ordered lasagna. It had carrots in it. Who puts carrots in lasagna?) We did not visit the museum, but I have a feeling our money would have been better spent there.

Day 7: Borgarnes to Keflavik, then home.

The day of our departure we didn’t do any sightseeing… just drove back to the airport and turned in the rental car, mailed off the portable wifi, went through airport security, and flew home.

We loved Iceland, and hope to return in the future – but would like to do so in spring or summer. It would be wonderful to see sites like Svartifoss and the river canyon when they are green and vibrant instead of half-frozen and covered in snow. 😉

I hope you find this itinerary useful. I cannot stress enough how glad I am that we journeyed around the whole island. The crowds in Reykjavik and along the southern coast were stifling, even in the off season. Once we got past Hofn, however, we found most places to be less crowded and also enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

Iceland on a Budget - One Week Itinerary
Your guide to spending one week in Iceland without breaking the bank.

Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Aurora Borealis – An Elusive Beauty.

When we went to Iceland last month, I had only one goal: seeing the northern lights. It was my bucket list item, practically my whole reason for taking the trip! A friend of mine had been to Iceland twice and did not get to see them either time. That made me nervous. So I read up on how to see the Northern Lights in Iceland and decided to stack the odds in my favor. Here’s how I did it:

1. Go in the winter.

In the winter months, the northern half of the Earth is tilted slightly away from the sun, which is why you have shorter periods of daylight. In order to maximize your chance of seeing the northern lights in Iceland, you should plan your trip between October and March.

2. Go when there is a new moon.

Moonlight can be very bright, and the brighter the sky, the harder it will be to see the northern lights. Therefore, pick a travel date around the new moon, which is when the moon is not at all visible. Just Google “moon phases” and find a calendar that shows when the new moon will be.

3. Check the forecast. Then check again. And again.

Once you arrive in Iceland, keep an eye on the Aurora forecasts at the Icelandic Meteorology Office web site. You’ll be looking at two things.  First, the amount of cloud cover that will be over the part of Iceland you’re in – skies need to be somewhat clear in order to see the aurora. Second, the amount of solar activity, which is rated on a scale of 0 to 9.

If you hit anything above a 4 and you follow the other tips here, you’re golden. When we went it was a 2-3 and we still saw them, although they were faint:

how to see the northern lights in Iceland.
My picture of the northern lights. I didn’t quite get the camera settings correct, but it’s still proof that I saw them, so I’m happy.

You will want to check the forecast repeatedly throughout the day, as weather conditions in Iceland are apt to change drastically from hour to hour.

4.  Get your camera settings right before you head out.

Don’t even bother trying to photograph the northern lights with your smart phone. You will definitely need a camera, and you will definitely need to adjust the settings to get a good shot.  Read up on how to set your camera before you go, and set your camera accordingly. You do not want to be standing in the middle of a field at night, in the winter, fiddling with your camera. It’s just not a good use of your time.

5. Find a dark place.

Try to get as far away as you can from city lights, also called “light pollution.”  Many people say that Thingvellir National Park is a good place to look for the lights. We were in Eastern Iceland when our opportunity arose, so we went to the local airport in Egilsstadir. The airport was closed and the parking lot was empty, so it was pretty dark.

6. Remember, you’re looking for the northern lights.

There is no point facing south when you’re looking for the northern lights. Directionally challenged? No problem!  Most smart phones have a compass app that will let you figure out which way is north.

 

7. Be patient.

The Northern lights may not be immediately visible, and your eyes may need a few moments to adjust to the darkness. They may not be as vividly colored as you see in photographs, and therefore not as noticeable.  But take heart, if there is no cloud cover and solar activity is present, you will see them.

xoxoxo

Header and Pinterest images created with photo via Flickr by Giuseppe Milo.

What you REALLY need to know about traveling to Iceland

What you REALLY need to know about traveling to Iceland

Planning is the Key.

I tend to do so much research before I take a trip, I almost feel as though I’ve already been there before I even arrive. So, needless to say, I studied up quite a bit on Iceland before we went there last month. I read all the blog posts, looked at all the pictures, and watched a few YouTube videos. In hindsight, I can say that there are seven things that did not pop up much in my pre-travel research. But they definitely should have, because they turned out to be absolutely vital. Here are the seven things you need to know about traveling to Iceland that other bloggers aren’t telling you.

#1 – Crampons are essential for winter hikes.

While this may sound like a medieval torture instrument for women, it is not. A crampon is a gadget made of stretchy rubber and metal spikes. You pull the crampon to fit over your shoes, with the spikes on the sole. This allows you to walk on compressed snow and/or ice without slipping. We did a 45 minute hike up a mountain and would have definitely been on our backsides a couple of times if we had not put our crampons on.

Click on image to view this item on Amazon.com

They aren’t expensive ($10-$15 a pair), and they’re worth every penny. I broke my tailbone due to a winter fall about 15 years ago. It was incredibly painful and virtually untreatable. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

#2 – You need to have a reusable shopping bag.

Iceland is a more environmentally conscious country than the US.  They do not put every little thing you purchase in a plastic bag.  They don’t put the big things in plastic bags, either. So if you are trying to save money and are buying food at a grocery store (more on that below), you will need a reusable shopping bag to carry your things out of the store.

If you do not have a reusable bag and you need to use the store’s  plastic bags, you will be charged for them. Most stores have free courtesy bags available at most places, but they are small and very thin/prone to tearing.

I like this highly rated reusable bag on Amazon:

This bag holds up to 42 pounds, but folds up small enough to fit in your pocket. (Click to see more details.)

#3 – Iceland may be the most expensive country in the world.

To be fair, a few bloggers did mention that Iceland was expensive. I kind of shrugged it off. I’ve been to the UK, with their 20% value added tax (VAT). It isn’t ideal, but for a week, it’s bearable.

However, Iceland is so ridiculously expensive, it makes the UK look like a third world country.

For starters, they also have a VAT, and theirs is 24%. But their prices are outrageously high to begin with.  Here are a few examples:

  • a burger in a table service restaurant: $25
  • a bottle of beer: $11
  • a gallon of gas: $9

And items for tourists are even more marked up.  We saw beanies for $90 and dollar-store quality souvenir keychains for $6. I bought a souvenir Christmas ornament and it was $25. All of my other souvenirs were photos.

Needless to say, a lot of our meals in Iceland consisted of yogurt and granola. I didn’t mind the yogurt (called skyr) as it’s absolutely delicious and comes in a great variety of flavors.  But even that, after a while, got old.

#4 – Eastern Iceland is a great place to explore.

This almost ignored corner of the island nation was probably my favorite part. It was so peaceful and beautiful, zigzagging around the fjords. It didn’t hurt that we were there just as the sun was starting to go down.

What you need to know about Iceland - Eastern Iceland is one of the most beautiful areas of the country.

Also, we were driving through this area of Iceland when Hubs spotted a reindeer off to the side of the road. I slowed down so we could get a better look. But, when I looked back at the road again, another reindeer was standing in the middle of the road, staring me down. I slammed on the brakes, causing all sorts of exclamations from Hubs and our daughter. I was dumbfounded and just stared at him, which is why I don’t have a cool reindeer-in-the-middle-of-the-road photo to share. For his part, he looked pretty unimpressed with us, and meandered off to join his friend.

Then we spotted a third reindeer, this time on my side of the road. As I took his picture, he immediately pawed at the ground as if he wanted to charge at us. That was my cue to leave.

what you need to know about Iceland - there are reindeer!

It was also in this area of Iceland that we were able to see the Northern Lights.

#5 – You can take the Internet with you wherever you go.

Iceland is nothing if not a beautiful place to photograph. And as a travel blogger, I try to post on my Instagram account every day. But with the sparsest population of any country in Europe, Iceland cafes with free wifi were few and far between.

The solution was a portable 4G wifi hot spot, which cost us $9 per day. It was small enough to fit in our pocket when we were out of the car, and it gave us internet access 24/7.

It couldn’t have been easier – I reserved and paid for the wifi online at the Trawire website and printed out the confirmation. When we arrived at the airport, we picked it up on our way out.  Then, when we were leaving to come back home, we just dropped it in the mailbox at the airport. So easy! Highly recommend if anyone in your party is an internet junkie and/or needs to check email often while in Iceland.

#6 – Don’t choose “fill up” at the gas pump

When we got a text message alert that Hubs’ debit card had racked up a couple of $250-ish charges, we were a little panicked. The charges were from gas stations and while I know that gas is expensive in Iceland (see above), I also knew $250 was excessive for gas.

what you need to know about iceland - don't choose "fill up" at the gas pump if paying with a debit card.
Photo via Flickr by Helgi Haldorsson

Fortunately, Google saved the day. I was able to find out that being charged these high amounts was standard procedure when you choose the “fill up” option at the pump and you’re paying with a debit card. It’s like the pre-authorizations that they do here, but because you’re in a different country it takes a lot longer for it to clear. It will go away after 2-3 days.. but if your account isn’t well-funded, that could be an issue. To avoid this problem, only use a credit card for gas purchases, not a debit card. Alternatively, you can select a set amount rather than a fill up at the pump.

#7 – You might not be able to continue watching your favorite shows on Netflix.

Because I knew we would have internet access while we were in Iceland, I didn’t bother with downloading any shows on Netflix. When we got there, I looked for the show I had been watching the week before we left and it wasn’t listed. First I panicked, then I Googled.

Turns out that there are licensing restrictions in Iceland that make some shows unavailable to view via Netflix. if there is something you are pretty sure you will want to watch while you’re there, it might be a good idea to download it.

I hope you find these tips helpful. Are there any that you would add? Leave a comment below!

Here's what you need to know about Iceland before you go - seven important things that aren't usually mentioned in blog posts about Iceland travel.
How to NOT be a bad tourist in Iceland… or anywhere else

How to NOT be a bad tourist in Iceland… or anywhere else

The Ugly Americans… and Italians… and Chinese…

Recently, I had the immense privilege of spending a week in Iceland. It was an amazing adventure, and I am so glad I went. There are probably very few places on earth as beautiful and geologically diverse as Iceland.

Unfortunately, because Iceland has so much to offer, it has been overrun with tourists in recent years. Not just in the summer months, when the island is lush and green and blissfully mosquito free, but even in the winter months. The nation has a population of just over 332,000, but has an influx of around 2 million tourists each year.

Now, while anyone can see that tourism will bring a great amount of money into the local economy, it also brings its share of troubles. Here’s my simple guide on how to not be a bad tourist in Iceland, or any other place you travel.

1. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Stay on the designated walkways.

As I mentioned above, a large part of Iceland is beautifully lush and green in the spring and summer months. This is due in large part to the leafy Icelandic moss that grows here. Icelandic moss is incredibly fragile and, once damaged, does not grow back easily or quickly.

Justin Bieber caused an uproar when he filmed the video for “I’ll Show You” in Iceland because (a) he rolled all over the moss and went for a swim in the glacier lagoon, and (b) he shared those images via his social media accounts. Over 70 million Bieber followers are now under the impression that it is perfectly acceptable to do those things.

It is not.

Still worse is the tale of the campers who ripped up large patches of the moss in Thingvellir National Park to insulate their tents. In the words of the Gateway to Iceland web site, the land now has “many open scars.”

Most of the sites we visited have short rope barriers and a sign with a pair of shoes and the red circle/slash symbol of “don’t do this.” Yet at every single place, we consistently saw people stepping over the barrier and walking past the sign. And I don’t mean one or two. I mean 12-15 at any given moment.

how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

Not only was their behavior disrespectful to the host country who asked for visitors to not do that, it was disrespectful to the other visitors, who wanted to take a picture of the beautiful setting without having to crop or photoshop the rude tourists out of their photos.

I was particularly frustrated and shocked by the behavior of this group of tourists. They had the nerve to set up folding chairs in front of the waterfall!


how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

Others spent about ten minutes taking photos of each other throwing a frisbee around and taking pictures with the waterfall as a backdrop. I have no idea what the logic was behind that. The irony is that the tourists who disobeyed the rules in order to get 6-10 feet closer could have gotten just as good a selfie from behind the rope barrier.

2. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Keep your drones in the car.

Most of the natural beauty sites and national parks in Iceland have signs clearly prohibiting the use of drones. But naturally, that didn’t stop anyone from disregarding those signs. So while we were out enjoying the beautiful snowy landscapes and cascading waterfalls, we had to listen to the high pitched wheeeeeeee of a drone flying overhead. It sounded like giant mutant mosquitos were coming after us. Very annoying, very distracting. Especially at a place like Namafjall Fumaroles and Mud Pots, where the scenery can best be appreciated not just by looking, but also listening:

 

3. How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: Be safe.

If you don’t value your own life, at least consider the trauma and expense your plunging to your death would cause. There are very real dangers in Iceland. There are cliffs that drop off into frigid water or rocky outcrops. And then there’s the scary phenomenon known as a “sneaker wave.”

The sneaker wave is a mutation in the crashing surf that causes a wave to literally sneak up on you. You could potentially be in danger even if you’re just standing on the beach.  These waves have pulled unsuspecting tourists out to sea, where they drown. Signs all over the beach tell visitors to never turn their backs to the water.

Another astounding moment from our trip was when I spotted this tourist walking in the Kerid crater.

how to NOT be a bad tourist in iceland

In short, respect the nature in Iceland or it will knock the crap out of you. It might even kill you. No selfie is worth your life.

how to not be a bad tourist in iceland

How to not be a bad tourist in Iceland: The Bottom Line

Basically, it all boils down to (a) following the rules and (b) being respectful – of the host country and your fellow travelers. Please think before you act when you’re traveling.

how to not be a bad tourist in Iceland
Follow these three simple rules to stay in the good graces of the people who live and work in your travel destination.
Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

I Get in at What Time?

If you are flying to Iceland from the United States or Canada, the chances are overwhelmingly good that you will arrive at Keflavik Airport sometime between the hours of 5 and 7 AM. The chances are equally good that after getting through immigration, baggage claim, and picking up your rental car, you will be wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

Check in time at your hotel/hostel/airbnb won’t be for another six hours or so. To complicate matters, most stores and attractions won’t be open for at least two to three hours. So what can you do? You’ve just landed in a foreign country but you can’t go anywhere or see anything because everything is closed. To make matters worse, it’s still dark outside and your body thinks it’s the middle of the night.

A Stroke of Genius

Fortunately, someone had the brilliant idea to build a museum fairly close to the airport, have it open at 7 AM every day, and serve a breakfast buffet with admission. Viking World Museum (Vikingaheimar in Icelandic), absolutely should be your first stop in Iceland.

When we picked up our rental car, we asked the clerk about the museum. He told us that it wouldn’t be open until 9:00 am at the earliest. The web site said 7:00 am, though, so we decided to take a chance and at least drive by it because we had nothing if not time to kill.

Getting to the museum from the airport only took about ten minutes. When we arrived, we noted that the lights were on and it did, in fact, appear to be open. So in we went, bleary eyed and not sure what to expect. Admission to the museum is 1500 ISK, which is in the ballpark of $15 per person. The breakfast buffet, which includes the museum exhibits, is 1800 ISK, just $3 more per person.  It’s probably the only place in Iceland where you can get a meal for $3.

UPDATE 4/30/18: The price for breakfast + museum admission, according to Viking World’s website, is now 2000 ISK, about $20 per adult.

It was an impressive spread, too, with scrambled eggs, hard boiled eggs, toast, sausage, pastries, fish in two types of sauce, fruit, jellies, biscuits, and probably some other things that I can’t remember. We took our time eating and when we’d had our fill, we proceeded into the museum exhibits.

The Exhibits

The first floor exhibits told the story of how Vikings expanded across the North Atlantic Ocean and settled in Iceland. The expansion began around 800 AD and lasted about 200 years. There were archaeological finds and reproductions. One of the most interesting to me was the burial boat of a Viking chieftain.

The burial boat of a Viking chieftain at Viking World Museum in Iceland.

In the Viking culture, it was customary to provide the dead with objects that they might need in the afterlife – men with tools and weapons, women with jewelry and utensils. Placing the bodies of the dead, along with these items, in an actual boat implies a belief that the dead journeyed to the next life.

The sample burial boat shown above held a plaster figure of a man, with a shield, furs, a drinking vessel, antlers, and other animal bones.

Just beyond the burial boat, there was a collection of figures known as tupilaks. These menacing figures, carved from bones or antlers, functioned as sort of Viking voodoo dolls.  Shaman chanted over the tupilaks to give them life, then put them into the sea to find and kill their intended victims. However, if the victim had his own witchcraft skills, he could send the tupilak back to kill its maker. Here are a few of the specimens on display:

tupilaks at Viking World Museum - what to do after early morning arrival in Iceland.

Tupilak carved figure at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

From there, we went into a room that was showing a documentary about the Viking settlement of Iceland and Greenland. My poor daughter was suffering badly from jet lag, and she fell asleep almost as soon as we sat down. We decided to stay put for a while and let her rest.  I’m not a big fan of watching movies when you travel, but this one was exceptionally well done and informative.

Up and Away

When we decided to move on, we headed up to the second floor of the museum, where we were able to walk on board the huge Viking longboat that dominates the museum’s interior.

Okay, so you know by the name longboat that it’s going to be, well, long.  But until you’re actually standing on it, you can’t fully appreciate just how big this type of boat really was.

Viking World Museum’s ship Íslendingur (which means The Icelander) is an exact replica of an ship excavated from a burial mound in Norway in 1882. That ship dated to A.D. 870, the time of the settlement of Iceland. It is likely that the settlers of Iceland sailed ships similar to the this one, with crews of about 70 men to power its 32 oars.

This ship isn’t just a pretty replica, however. It’s a seaworthy vessel that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2000. It made the journey to commemorate Leif Eriksson’s trans-Atlantic voyage one thousand years earlier.

Viking World Museum longboat  Íslendingur - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
The length of  Íslendingur

 

Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Local students made the shields on the sides of Íslendingur. In Viking times, shields were used not just for defense, but also protection from the elements while rowing.
After exploring the massive ship, we moved on to the Fate of the Gods exhibit, an artistic expression of Norse mythology. These were very colorful figures arranged in dramatic ways to evoke the suspense and emotion of tales from Norse mythology.
Viking World Museum exhibit on Norse mythology - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Odin and his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, in the Fate of the Gods exhibit.

 

Norse mythology exhibit at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Thor defeats the Midgard serpent.

When we exited Fate of the Gods, it was about 9:00 AM and the sky was just starting to lighten. The huge window located in front of the longboat provided us with a lovely view of the harbor outside.

View of the harbor from Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland

So, if you’re getting into Iceland in the pre-dawn hours, I really recommend stopping by the Viking World Museum for breakfast and a little history. It will be an enjoyable way to kill a few hours and acclimate to your new surroundings.

Wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in iceland? Check out Viking World Museum, which opens at 7 AM every day.
The 10 Best Travel Apps for Iceland

The 10 Best Travel Apps for Iceland

Iceland Apps for Every Aspect of Traveling There

Iceland is defined by nothing if not its natural beauty – streaming waterfalls, majestic mountains, and sprawling vistas. It’s also defined by two other characteristics: an insanely expensive economy and weather that is temperamental as all get out. Here are ten travel apps for Iceland that will help you get the most out of your trip without spending too much or having your plans thwarted by the weather.

I highly recommend renting a mobile hot spot for your travel in Iceland. We rented one from Trawire, and it cost $63 for one week. We picked it up right at the airport and when it was time to go home, we just dropped it in a mailbox, also at the airport. It kept us connected every day with very little down time. We were able to upload pictures to social media, text message each other, and do everything that we would have done at home.  It was worth every penny!

Transportation & Weather

1. Iceland Aurora forecast (en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora). Okay, technically this is a web site, not an app. But you can bookmark it in your phone’s browser. If you want to maximize your chances for seeing the Northern Lights while you are in Iceland, this is the place to check. It rates solar activity on a scale of 0-9 (the higher the better). It also shows projected cloud cover for all of Iceland. If the number is a 3 or higher and there aren’t many clouds in your area, you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights! However, just like the weather, this forecast changes too, so check it often.

Best Travel Apps for Iceland - The Icelandic Aurora Forecast helps users determine the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights!

2. 112 Iceland. This is the Iceland version of 911, and should only be used in an emergency. Thankfully, I never needed it, but I was glad it was on my phone just in case.

3. Vegagerdin. If you’re driving in Iceland, this app is a must, as it shows you real time what the road conditions are like. It will also show you wind strength, which can factor into how easy it will be to drive, and webcams if you’d like to take a look real time.

Best Travel Apps for Iceland - Vegagerdin will show you road conditions, wind speed/direction, and even web cams.

4. My Aurora Forecast is another app for determining whether you’ll be able to see the Northern Lights. It is not Iceland-focused, but gives the forecast for whatever your current location is.  It’s also a little more science-heavy than the web site.

Best Travel Apps for Iceland - My Aurora Forecast helps predict the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.

5. Your Airline’s App. in a country where weather can be unpredictable, you want to be notified as quickly as possible if there is a delay or cancellation. Remember to enable push notifications for the app, and you will not only be informed of any changes, you will also get prompted when online check in is available.

Money Saving

6. Appy Hour. In a country where a bottle of beer costs over $10 and a restaurant quality hamburger is $25, you need to save as much money as possible when you’re out and about. The Appy Hour app will list all restaurants and bars in Reykjavik with happy hour specials. You can search for a specific place or browse the list. Beer price is listed to the right (and you can sort by price!), or you can click on the restaurant listing for more details. Some, but not all of the places listed in Appy Hour also have food specials.

Best Travel Apps for Iceland - Appy Hour Shows You where the best happy hour specials are in Reykjavik.

7. My Postcard is a hassle-free way to send postcards to your friends and family back home. Instead of buying a postcard, you can custom make a postcard featuring a photo you actually took. The postcards are produced on high quality cardstock and look just as good as the ones you would buy at a souvenir shop. The upside, though, is that you don’t have to worry about finding a post office or buying stamps.  It’s all done inside the app.

Best Travel Apps for Iceland - My Postcard lets you send postcards to loved ones back home without a trip to the post office.
The front of the postcard I sent with the My Postcard app. (Faxi Waterfall)
Best Travel Apps for Iceland - My Postcard lets you send postcards to loved ones back home without a trip to the post office.
The back of the postcard – I don’t really care for the way the postmark runs over part of my message, but other than that, no complaints!

Recommended Places

8. Hand Picked Iceland is a great app if you aren’t really sure what to do, where to eat, or where to stay. Curated recommendations come in six simple categories: Eat, Sleep, Shop, Play, Kids, and Culture. You can restrict the app’s picks to Reykjavik, or view them for the entire country.

Best Travel Apps for Iceland - Hand Picked Iceland gives great recommendations for places to go, including a special category for traveling with kids.

9. The Iceland Restaurant Guide app lists establishments in three categories: restaurants, bars, and cafes.  Each has a brief description, a link to the website and menu, and directions from your current location. The only caution I would give is that this app has a date of 2016. Just double check and make sure a place is open before making any concrete plans.

Best Travel Apps for Iceland - the Iceland Restaurant Guide offers thorough summaries and menus for local restaurants, bars, and cafes.

10 The Reykjavik City Guide has a lot to offer travelers, with a total of 29 categories to explore.  You’ll find recommendations on places to shop for Icelandic fashion, countryside restaurants, gas stations, architecture, weather, statues & monuments, and much more. The information might not be terribly in depth, but it is a good starting point for planning your activities.

Best Travel Apps for Iceland - Reykjavik City Guide is a great springboard for figuring out how to spend your day.

I hope you find these apps useful.  They certainly came in handy on my trip! If you have any others to add, please leave a comment below!

The 10 Best Travel Apps for Iceland - Travelasmuch.com