Now that I’m fully rested from a pretty active vacation, it’s time for me to reflect on my experiences in Iceland and hopefully offer some insight that will hopefully help you if you ever decide to plan a vacation there!
When I landed at Keflavik Airport, it was 6am local time. I hadn’t slept, so I was pretty much focused on just getting out of the airport and getting to Reykjavik for a well-needed shower. Several things I noticed, though – everyone spoke perfect English and were unfailingly polite. For a country with a cold-sounding name, the people were very warm! The air was completely immaculate, and there wasn’t a single shred of garbage on the ground.
Driving on the highways between cities was a breeze for me. Only thing I had trouble with was getting a “sense” for what driving in metric felt like – especially once I realized that the top speed, 90km/h, is equivalent to 55mph. Once I got out of Keflavik, it was immediately apparent that even the “larger” cities are still pretty small with populations in the few thousands, at most. They’re all spread out, as well – you can drive thirty minutes out of Reykjavik in any direction and probably not see a sign of civilization.
The name “Iceland” has nothing to do with ice. It’s a corruption of the Swedish word “Ísland”, coined in 870 AD by a Swedish explorer who circumnavigated Iceland and determined that it was an island.
Driving in Iceland
Iceland is a geographically diverse country and some areas are inaccessible by most cars, therefore 4x4s and all wheel drive cars are very common over there. People who don’t drive deep into the country will fare just fine in a sub-compact, of course. Like the US, they drive on the right side of the road. Unlike the US, they use kilometers to measure distance, and kilometers per hour for speed.
There are three kinds of roads that I could tell, designated by their names. Generally (but not always) roads with names like Hringbraut or Vesturvillagata are city or town roads, but I’ve occasionally seen named roads out in the country as well. They are always fit for any car, be it a subcompact or 4×4. Numbered roads are more common outside of cities, with the one and two digit numbers representing major highways connecting cities and towns. Finally, many roads are prefixed with a “F” before the number. This means that they are only accessible by a 4×4. If you try to drive on it in a regular car and get stuck, the insurance company or rental company will not cover any expenses associated with that incident; in fact they will fine you – the fine is usually 100,000 ISK!
Icelanders tend to drive a bit aggressively on the highways. I remember driving to Reykjavik on Route 41 going the speed limit of 90km/h and getting passed by Icelanders on 4x4s. The national police, the Lögreglan, enforce speed limits through the use of speed cameras. They are scattered all around the city, with a sign placed about 200m before it with a warning (in Icelandic, of course!) For those who don’t speak Icelandic, the only clue to the context of the signs is an artistic rendering of an old-timey accordion camera. Of course, it never hurts to be mindful of your speed at all times!
The currency is the Krona (singular) or Kronur (plural), but people tend to call it “krona” either way. The coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 kr. Notes come in 500, 1000, 5000 and 10000. As of this writing, 1000kr is roughly equivalent to $8.
As can be expected, the cost of goods in Iceland is higher than in the US due to everything being imported from Europe. For example, a package of bacon costs about $20. Ground beef costs about the same from what I saw at Viðir. Very few meals cost less than 1,450kr (roughly $11) and most restaurants cost 2,000 – 3,500 a plate. Alcohol taxes are the third highest in Europe – expect to pay around 1,000kr for a 330mL glass of beer. Gasoline is quite expensive too, averaging at 221kr per liter, almost double what we pay in the US.
It came at almost a surprise to me that there were very few true Icelandic restaurants in Reykjavik. I don’t think I had ever seen so many hamburger places in one small area. There is no shortage in the variety of cuisines to choose from there! However, almost everything closes at around 20:00 or 21:00 so if you plan on getting food, ensure that you eat before 8pm. There are a few rare exceptions, however. Tipping is not customary in Iceland, as employees make a fair wage and the food prices reflect that.
Here’s a list of some restaurants that we enjoyed:
- Nonnabiti (Hafnarstræti 9, 101 Reykjavík) – You can get a burger or sandwich by itself for less than 1,000 ISK, or a combination meal (with fries and soda) for less than 1,500 ISK. They have much longer hours than most restaurants, closing at 02:00 on weekdays and 05:30 on weekends.
- Sægrifinn – Sea Baron (ReykjavíkOld Harbor) – This place is famous with tourists for their lobster soup. They also offer many choices in seafood skewers as well as whale steak. Everything is 1,850ISK or less.
- Pitan (Skipholt 50c, 105 Reykjavík) – Delicious pita sandwiches stuffed with meat and vegetables for less than 1400 ISK. They also offer sandwiches and hamburgers as well.
- Hressó Hressingarskálinn (Austurstræti 20, 101 Reykjavik) – This pub/restaurant/nightclub is huge and often has excellent specials and a large selection of beer and wine on tap.
- Skólabrú (Posthussstraeti 17, near Austurvollur, 101 Reykjavík) – High end dining right in Austurvollur, offering delicacies between 2,000 ISK and 7,000 ISK.
- Cafe Loki (Lokastigur, 101 Reykjavik – Across from Hallgrimsirkja) – One of the very few restaurants serving Icelandic food. A bit expensive at 3,000 ISK a dish.
- Cafe Babalu (Skólavörðustígur 22, 101 Reykjavík) – Very laid back coffee shop with kitsch decor and amazing crepes. Worth a visit at 1,200 ISK or less per meal.
We rented an entire house on AirBnB.com and it was a great experience. Only thing that took getting used to was the shower – the water smells very strongly of sulfur due to the water being taken from geothermal sources. I would imagine that nicer hotels would have that filtered out. Still, it took some getting used to! Doesn’t make the water any less clean, of course.
The Blue Lagoon
If you want to be pampered at a spa, I absolutely recommend going to the Blue Lagoon in Grindavik. It’s a little expensive, but you get a lot for the money – silica mud facials, a massage in the water, steam baths, saunas, the works. It’s absolutely worth a visit!
Let’s say you’re in the mood for excitement, 4×4 Adventures has you covered. They have such a wide selection of activities you can choose from – we ended up going for a two hour ATV ride and exploration of a lava tube. It was worth every kronur. Chris and I pushed ourselves to our limits; each moment was more exciting than the last. Yet, the whole time we felt very safe thanks to the warn and friendly employees. I had the adventure of a lifetime, and I know you will too – please don’t hesitate to reach out to them!
Iceland was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. I got to see and experience things I never thought I would. I went spelunking into a pitch-black lava tube, my claustrophobia screaming for me to get out. I’ve walked around wearing just my bathing suit in 40 F weather at the Blue Lagoon. I’ve eaten whale (even though I’m not proud of that one). I’ve experienced seeing the sun high up in the sky at midnight.
Iceland is mind-blowing. And you can bet that I’ll be back in the winter to experience the darkness and Northern Lights! Until next time, and thanks for everything!