To say I am a big fan of Iceland is a bit of an understatement. You have probably noticed this if you’re following me on Instagram as it’s full of posts from my trips. I’m not the only one with this fascination, as many others are now flocking to this tiny island nation in troves. While it seems that it’s become “the” destination to see, there are a few things you need to know before heading to Iceland.
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Iceland is not like many other popular tourist destinations. Despite all the information available online, many visitors are still shocked when they arrive. To avoid these pesky surprises, it’s important to learn more about the destination before you head there.
Weather is unpredictable
Although Iceland enjoys cool and temperate weather, it changes quite often and can be very unpredictable. It can go from sunny to rainy on a drop of a hat. One minute it’s clear and sunny, the next is a blizzard. It can be raining heavily, followed by sunny skies. This also varies depending on where you are. The higher up you go, the windier and colder it becomes. It can be quite dangerous if you’re not used to this type of weather.
Depending on the time of year you go to Iceland, the daylight might be quite short or very long. That can impair visibility and road conditions in addition to the changing weather.
Appropriate clothing is key
Due to the changes in the weather, it’s important to dress appropriately. Living in a country where the weather can be quite like Iceland’s, I felt very prepared for this trip; however, I saw many who were not. Layers are definitely a must, as is waterproof clothing. You might also invest in proper footwear as running shoes or heels won’t get you far.
I actually saw people wearing jeans while trekking outside and freezing their butts off. Jeans can become quite uncomfortable when they get wet and stay that way for a long time, making them quite unpleasant when the temperatures drop.
Gloves, hats and scarves will also ensure you stay warm. There is nothing worse than frozen fingers when you are trying to take a pic.
Getting to Iceland
Flying to Iceland has become a lot more accessible, with various airlines offering frequent and direct flights. One of the most popular options is Icelandair’s Iceland Stopover, where travellers can stop here on route to another destination for up to seven days with no additional airfare charge. If you’re looking for a small taste of Iceland, this could be a good option for you.
Once you’ve arrived, there are several ways to get around, from buses to car rentals to shuttle transfers. Knowing what you want to do beforehand will make it easier to decide on transportation.
What to see in Iceland
Iceland is often called the land of fire and ice, and for a good reason. For me, it is also one of the most unusual places I’ve ever been to and one of the most breathtaking.
“With almost 80% of the country uninhabited, much of Iceland’s terrain consists of plateaus, mountain peaks, and fertile lowlands. There are many long, deep fjords and glaciers, including Europe’s largest, Vatnajökull. The landscape is characterized by waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes, black sand beaches, and otherworldly steaming lava fields.” ~ Inspired by Iceland
In addition to stunning landscapes, Iceland has some incredible restaurants, music and shopping. No matter when you visit, there is plenty to do for everyone. The friendly locals are happy to chat with visitors about their homeland and are very helpful and informative. They are also interesting storytellers with many amusing tales.
Self drive vs guided tours
Once you’re here, many tour companies offer a variety of tours. From nature and adventure to health, wellness and even the quirky Game of Thrones tours. Most tour companies will pick you up from a designated bus stop (there aren’t that many of them in Reykjavik) and drop you off at the same spot. All you have to do is make sure you get there on time. Bus drivers have a list of people they are supposed to pick up, making it easy to get on the right bus.
The first time I went to Iceland, Alex and I decided to rent a car and drive around the island. This is always a good option, but it’s important to choose the right vehicle type to drive around. While the main roads are paved and save to drive on, weather conditions might unnerve those not used to driving in snow. Most roads off the main road are pretty wild and having a suitable car, like a 4X4, will keep you safe, and you’ll be less likely to get stuck or drive off into a ditch.
Expectations vs reality
Yes, Iceland is spectacular. You know what I’m talking about. The images that seem unreal and inviting. Whimsical and stunning. What you don’t see, however, is the work that goes behind them. The effortless capture of that moment in time actually involved a whole crew of people making it happen. Other times, you’re not seeing the massive crowds of people who have been edited out.
Don’t expect everything you see to be the same as it is in promotional brochures and videos. And don’t risk your life to try to capture the same shot!
I think most people have seen this natural phenomenon in a picture or a video. It is probably one of the top 10 bucket list items out there! Most people don’t realize what you see in real life isn’t the same as what you see in promos. The simple fact is that a camera lens sees the Aurora at a different spectrum than a human eye. While they might be a bit milky to you, your camera will pick up the hues and vibrancy behind the haze. Your phone or tablet, not so much.
The Northern Lights (aka the Aurora Borealis), is still a spectacular thing to see. However, don’t be disappointed if your shots are not the same as those done by the professionals. Before heading to Iceland just for this, it’s a good idea to look up tips on the best ways to capture them.
Nature is what makes Iceland spectacular. It is also unpredictable. You might go on that whale watching tour and see no whales. You can go on a tour to see the Northern Lights and don’t see any. As frustrating as that is, it’s also something that is a reality. One of the tour operators told me that someone demanded a refund of his tour because it rained. It rains in Iceland pretty often. To refund a tour based on rain would mean that most tours wouldn’t happen.
Again, read more about what to expect before heading to Iceland to avoid disappointment.
Be a responsible tourist when heading to Iceland
Iceland is one of the countries that has become overrun with tourists. The number of people visiting the country in recent years has grown exponentially. While the country is profiting from the influx of tourist dollars, there is not enough infrastructure to support it. Iceland is taking great steps to ensure visitors are informed and respectful of the environment. You can even take the Icelandic pledge to enjoy Iceland as Icelanders do! I did 🙂
Heading to Iceland, final thoughts
Iceland is one of those places that is great all year round. Despite its name, Iceland is not that cold. Well, at least compared to Canadian winter. Even with the snow, Iceland’s landscapes are stunning. When not covered in snow, the island is a mix of environments that can seem like out of this world. That is what makes this place so special to me.
While social media is filled with images of amazing places in Iceland around Reykjavik and the surrounding area, it’s really worth visiting other parts. We didn’t know what to expect before heading to Iceland, but we discovered an amazing place that makes us want to return. If you manage to go, try to visit the less popular areas and make sure you are not destroying the environment. Happy travels.