Before travelling somewhere new, I always like to do a bit of research on what to expect whilst I’m out there. Whether it’s knowing how to eat real scampi in Sardinia or where the best places are in Vienna, I like to be somewhat prepared beforehand. And when I’m not, that is when hilarious misadventures can occur.
Although I did some research on Iceland before visiting, nothing could prepare me for just how much beauty there was or how quiet the countryside would be. This is a list of all the things I wish I’d known before heading to Iceland, as well as a few extra points I learned whilst out there – I hope you find them useful for your next trip!
1. Money, Money, Money
To keep a bit of an educational vibe to this post as well as some wanderlust inspiration, this is just a quick note on the currency in Iceland, which is the Icelandic Króna or Krónur as a plural. If referred to in short, you’ll spot it written as ISK.
Did you know? Iceland in Icelandic is actually spelt Ísland (hence the IS in ISK).
Notes are printed in denominations of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000 or 10,000 krónur. One króna is worth 100 øre but coins of less than one króna have not circulated for many years. Coins you may receive as change in Iceland could be 1, 5, 10, 50 or 100 krónur.
2. Bathing In Natural Hot Springs Is A Must
Swimming in natural hot springs has long been a part of the Icelandic culture and it’s amazing to be able to follow in their footsteps – not least because these hot springs are incredibly relaxing and are the magic ingredient for great skin.
We opted for a visit to the Secret Lagoon, which has kept nature at its centre with natural water and picturesque surroundings. At the Secret Lagoon, you’re offered free flotation devices, allowing you to take the weight off your feet and drift around the pool. This is the utmost in relaxation.
3. Food & Drink Can Be Expensive
Similarly to countries such as Norway and Finland, food and drink within Iceland can also be a little on the expensive side due to high import and tax costs. Be expected to pay around 500 Icelandic Krónur (ISK) for a coffee or hot chocolate in a cafe and at least 5000 ISK for a larger meal, such as pizza or a pasta dish in a mid-range restaurant.
Sadly, food and drink bought from supermarkets is also expensive, although it is of course slightly cheaper than eating out. You can pay anywhere from 300-500 ISK for a loaf of bread and about 150 ISK for a litre of milk. This cost of living guide is really useful to offer insights into Icelandic prices.
Despite all of this, there are still a few ways in which you can save a few quid / dollars / krónur on your travels, such as:
- Consider buying your alcohol in duty free airport shops outside of Iceland — we bought a couple of small bottles of Prosecco before arriving in Iceland for £6 each, which were just perfect for drinking whilst relaxing in our hot tub!
- Pack dry food to take with you — knowing that we wouldn’t be able to afford eating out every night, we packed some dry food items in our suitcases to help make our own meals with. Here’s a run-down of the types of food you could try packing.
- Fill up your thermos flask — on day trips, fill up your thermos flask with tea, coffee or hot chocolate to save you buying some in a cafe somewhere.
4. You Must Also Explore Outside Of Reykjavik
Reykjavik is a beautiful city, no doubt about that. But sadly, I’ve heard of quite a few travellers who have only stayed within the capital, Reykjavik throughout their entire trip. Either because they have chosen not to rent a car or have decided against day trips. Having rented a car in Iceland, driven the Golden Circle route and explored the south coast, I can honestly say that you really must try leaving the main city and venturing out and about. There is so much beauty in Iceland that you would miss otherwise!
That is not to say you shouldn’t visit Reykjavik at all though – you most certainly should! Check out this guide for the best 24 hours in Reykjavik.
Consider sleeping outside of the city so that you have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights. We loved the little cabin we rented out in the Golden Circle, complete with hot tub, picture perfect views of snow-capped mountains and the Northern Lights dancing above our heads.
5. Northern Lights Can Still Be Seen When Less Active
There are lots of websites around that try to forecast the Northern Lights and rate them on a scale of 1-9 to show how active they are or not. We used this website as it also tries to predict cloud cover too.
On our first night in Iceland, it was a very clear night – we could see thousands of stars whilst relaxing in our cabin’s hot tub outside. But the forecast had told us that the Northern Lights were a 1 on the scale (i.e. very low activity rating). With this in mind, we weren’t too hopeful for seeing this intriguing phenomenon. However, we could still see them (although fairly faint) – could you imagine what a 4+ would look like?! So, just because the forecast tells you there is a low chance of seeing the Northern Lights, you could still see them – be sure to think positively!
6. You Must Shower Nude Before Bathing
You must shower nude before entering any pools and natural hot springs. For those of us belonging to a more prudish culture (yes, I’m a Brit), this can be a little bit of a shock if you’re not aware of this in advance. It seems that showering nude before swimming is actually consistent across all of the hot springs in Iceland, so there’s really no avoiding it. Don’t worry though – the showers and changing rooms are of course split between men and women.
7. Icelanders Love Their Churches With Pointed Roofs
Throughout Iceland, you will spot plenty of small churches with pointed roofs. We saw one within Thingvellir National Park and so many more whilst driving through Iceland. Each of the churches look to be of a similar design and it’s one of those quirks that you can’t help but notice when exploring.
8. Get Off The Beaten Track Occasionally
As we were only spending a few days in Iceland, we of course wanted to see all of the main sights. However, we did also want a day off from the tourist traps to see another side of Iceland, in our case, the south coast.
We’d heard about the black sand beaches (specifically Vik Black Sand Beach), so we had initially wanted to head there. However, a mileage limit on our rental car meant that we couldn’t head all the way to Vik and so had to settle for the beach at Sólheimasandur instead. Oh, how we were wrong to think we were “just settling”!
This beach offers something a little bit extra as you have the chance to see a crashed plane from the 1970s. I absolutely love the fact that I didn’t know this was here and it was proof again that sometimes you should leave the well-travelled path to find something completely unexpected!
9. The Northern Lights Are Less Vivid In Real-Life
Now, this is something I really wish I’d known before visiting Iceland. In many professional photographs, and throughout Instagram and Facebook; you will see pictures of the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) with vivid green and pink colours, absolutely bursting out of the dark night sky.
I’m sorry to say that seeing them in real-life is not quite the same as in photographs. Don’t get me wrong – it still is an incredible sight but not quite what you will imagine. The colours are much fainter to the naked eye and certainly not quite as vivid. At first, we thought they were just clouds! Until we got used to the dark night and realised there was a slight green tinge and movement to the pattern across the sky…
10. Learn Some Photography Tips Before You Go
Iceland is quite simply a photographer’s dream.
From snapping flowing waterfalls, to catching the Northern Lights at their best, there is so much to photograph in nature here. It definitely pays to read up on some photography tips before you go so that your pictures can be the absolute best!
Before travelling, I scoured the web’s best tips on how to photograph certain pieces of Iceland. To help make things super easy for you, I’ve written them all down here.
11. Invest In A 360° Camera
With there being so much beauty in Iceland’s surroundings, you will want to try to fit it all in one photo. If using a 360° camera, you can capture all of the magic within Iceland and be transported back there once you’ve left. I also love the fact that I can include 360° photos on my blog! In case you’re also interested in purchasing a camera like this, we had some great fun with the Samsung 360° camera – check it out here!
12. Keep Your Headlights On!
If you decide to rent a car and do some driving in Iceland, then you must remember to keep your headlights on 24/7. Yep, even in the height of summer in bright sunshine! Icelandic law dictates headlights are to be switched on at all times and they are very strict about this.
The reason for this law is simply down to how unpredictable and changing the weather can be in Iceland – you may find your car engulfed in a storm or blizzard super quickly and bright white clouds can block out the sun in Iceland. If a passing car is flashing you, it’s because you’ve forgotten to turn your headlights on so get them on quick!
13. Weather Changes Super Rapidly
Before travelling to Iceland, I was advised of the changing weather. Being a Brit, I thought “Well, they’ll have nothing on the UK. Our weather is quick to change too!” Oh, how wrong I was.
Although the UK weather does change rapidly, Icelandic weather changes faster. In the space of just a few short hours, we found ourselves driving through a heavy snow blizzard, reaching for sunglasses in sunshine and wiping wet sleet from our camera lenses. And we had only gone a few miles (or kilometres) down the road!
My advice? Pack for all types of weather. Consider bringing a ski jacket in winter months (and even as late as March), umbrella / raincoat and sunglasses. You may need all of these kinds of gear in just one afternoon!
14. Icelandic Water Is Incredible
Some travellers may complain about a smell of sulphur coming from some water in Iceland, but I didn’t experience this the whole time I was there (except within the Secret Lagoon spa).
What I did experience was just how fresh and clean the water in Iceland is. They’re very proud of it and so they should be. Forget buying bottled water, you won’t need it. As all tap water is fresh from the nearest spring, you’re essentially getting bottled water from the tap. You can even fill up at the nearest waterfall if you want to – just look how fresh it is!
15. You Will Never Want To Leave
Through all of the photographs and videos I’d seen of Iceland before arriving there, nothing had prepared me for just how much I ended up loving this country. By far the most magical and incredible scenery I’ve seen throughout any of my travels, it’s safe to say that I didn’t want to come home! I could never successfully put into words or photographs just how beautiful Iceland is, so all I can tell you is just go there and see the beauty for yourself!
These are all of the things I wished I’d known before travelling to Iceland and a few I wanted to include since my trip. I hope this is useful for your Iceland trip and travels! Enjoy it and prepare to be blown away by this amazing place! Feel free to come back and write me a note in the comments about how much you loved Iceland…
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