Before travelling somewhere new, it always pays to do your research beforehand. We wish we’d had this list of Iceland travel tips and important things to know before visiting Iceland before our trip. Luckily for you, we’re here to help you prepare, so you can be sure your first trip to Iceland is just as epic as it deserves to be!
Important Things To Know Before Bathing In Icelandic Hot Springs
Bathing in Iceland’s hot springs has long been a part of the Icelandic culture. In fact, hot springs are so prevalent in Iceland’s history that a number of places were named after elements related to geothermal activity like reyk (smoke/steam), laug (pool) and varm (warm).
It’s amazing to be able to follow in the local’s footsteps – not least because hot springs are incredibly relaxing and are the magic ingredient for great skin.
There are a number of natural hot springs dotted around the country (some paid for, some free), as well as the famous (man-made) Blue Lagoon.
Floating around Iceland’s hot springs is the utmost in relaxation. The hot water mixed with the cold air is one special concoction designed to open and clean your pores, resulting in smooth, soft skin. So whilst you’re having your zen moment, just think how much love and attention your skin is getting.
When we took a dip in March, it was snowing, which added to the entire pretty-as-a-postcard experience.
For your first trip to Iceland (especially if you’re limited for time), we’d recommend visiting the Secret Lagoon. This natural hot spring is in the heart of the Golden Circle and is cheaper and a lot less busy than the Blue Lagoon.
If you have longer to spend in Iceland (say five days) then there’s no reason why you can’t visit both during your trip and decide which one you prefer.
1. You must shower nude before bathing.
You must shower nude before entering any pools or hot springs in Iceland. This can be a bit of a shock if you’re not aware of this in advance but there’s really no avoiding it.
The rules are there to keep the pools hygienic despite the rapid increase in visitors each year. There will be signs next to the showers to indicate which areas of your body require extra care and attention.
2. Watch out for daily coach tours.
Some of the larger more well-known hot springs are included in coach tour itineraries. This is great if you’re unable to drive yourself around Iceland but not so great if you want the utmost in peace and relaxation.
Early morning visits are best for the Blue Lagoon while coach tours head to the Secret Lagoon between 2.30-5pm every day, so it’s best to avoid this peak time if you can.
3. Don’t pay extra for towels or slippers.
You may be offered the opportunity to rent towels and slippers but there’s no reason why you can’t bring your own! You’ll easily save at least 1,000 ISK by doing so!
4. Beware of the effects on your hair.
Because of the minerals in the water, Iceland’s hot springs can cause your hair to become hard, rough and frizzy. This is especially true of a visit to the Blue Lagoon.
Before going for a dip, it’s worth the extra time in the shower to deep condition your hair. And while in the pool, it’s a good idea to try to avoid dipping your head right under the water.
5. The Blue Lagoon ISN’T in Reykjavik.
You may be surprised to hear that the Blue Lagoon isn’t actually in Reykjavik; it’s about 50 minutes away and much closer to Keflavik Airport than the city.
If you’re heading out on an Iceland road trip then this won’t be an issue for you.
For everyone else, don’t worry! You can head to the Blue Lagoon on a day tour instead; just remember that you’ll be joined by other guests at the same time and maybe even other coaches as well.
6. Some Icelandic hot springs are free!
While you have to pay to bathe in the Blue Lagoon and Secret Lagoon, there are lots of hot springs dotted around the country, which are completely free! Two of the most popular ones are Seljavallalaug and Reykjadalur.
While free hot springs in Iceland often lack decent changing facilities, they are the best choice if you want to mix with locals during a truly authentic Icelandic hot spring experience.
7. Not all hot springs require advance booking.
While the Blue Lagoon must be booked in advance (often months ahead), last minute travellers can rest safe in the knowledge that there are plenty of other hot springs to choose from that don’t require advance booking.
These include the Secret Lagoon in Flúðir, Fontana Spa in Laugarvatn and the Mývatn Nature Baths.
8. Leave no trace.
With Iceland’s unprecedented boom in popularity has come an increase in visitors leaving litter behind at some of the more remote hot springs.
Please don’t follow this example. Take everything with you and leave the facilities just as you would hope to find them: clean and tidy.
Must Know Driving In Iceland Tips
There is so much beauty to see in Iceland, which is why we urge all first time visitors to Iceland to head out of Reykjavik at least once.
Ideally, you’ll embark on the perfect road trip around Iceland as we think this is the best way to experience everything that this picturesque little country has to offer.
The roads in Iceland are notoriously quiet, which makes for a truly pleasant road trip. You are likely to go miles and miles without seeing signs of civilisation, leaving you free to admire the scenery and just enjoy the drive.
Sound good? Then take note of these must know driving in Iceland tips so you can be sure your road trip is safe and enjoyable.
1. Keep your headlights on at all times!
In Iceland, law dictates that you must have your headlights on at all times whilst driving. Yes, even on bright sunny days! The weather is known to change very fast in Iceland, which is where this rule comes from.
One minute it may be bright sunshine and blue skies and then another, a blizzard or rainstorm rolls in overhead. Icelanders err on the side of caution… so headlights on!
If a passing car is flashing you, it’s because you’ve forgotten to turn your headlights on so get them on quick!
2. Be prepared for unpredictable weather.
As mentioned, weather can change very frequently in Iceland.
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!
Our advice? Pack for all types of weather. Consider bringing a ski jacket in winter months (and even as late as March), as well as an umbrella, raincoat and sunglasses. You may need all of this gear in just one afternoon!
3. Plan where you’re going to fuel up.
If heading outside of Reykjavik, ensure you’ve planned where the next gas station is and the one after that, and maybe a third to be on the safe side.
Once you’re outside of the capital, you’ll rarely see another car, person, shop and gas station, so plan ahead to avoid getting stuck on some road somewhere.
4. Remember to drive on the right.
Okay so this for the benefit of all our British readers out there. The rest of you are probably fine to remember this! In Iceland, you drive on the right. That’s it, simple! Oh, and roundabouts work anti-clockwise of course!
5. Pack some tasty snacks to take on the road.
If gas stations are rare out in the Icelandic countryside then so are shops and restaurants. That’s not to say they don’t exist, but they are rare.
To ensure you don’t end up driving whilst hungry (no one wants that kind of road rage), pack some snacks in the car with you for when you’re in need.
This handy packing list should give you a few ideas on what kind of snacks you can take with you to keep your energy levels up.
6. Admire the scenery but keep your eyes on the road.
Iceland really is a beautiful country. From snow-topped mountains and endless green landscapes to bright blue lakes and natural hot springs, there is so much beauty and stunning scenery to marvel at and admire.
By all means admire the scenery when you’ve pulled over to stop, but when driving in Iceland, keep your eyes on the road! Along Route 1, we saw a couple of smashed up cars on a spike, which was a harsh reminder of what can happen if you don’t keep your eyes on the road!
7. Remember that off-road driving in Iceland is illegal.
Yeah so just don’t do it. Seriously don’t. Icelanders are very strict when it comes to off-road driving as they don’t want their precious scenery and landscapes ruined.
Don’t even think about being the person that ruins them!
If you spot something amazing in the distance and it’s off-road, consider parking somewhere safe and setting off on foot. Hiking in Iceland is so worthwhile!
8. Watch out for F-roads.
Mountain roads in the highlands are called F-roads. You’ll know you’ve found one on the map if it has an ‘F’ before the road number. They are usually gravel roads with no bridges over rivers and can be quite dangerous to drive on.
Also, rental cars don’t allow you to use F-roads at all. As soon as you’re on one, insurance won’t cover you so avoid these where possible. Sixt recommends avoiding the following roads in Iceland: 578, 622, F210, F323, F337, F578, F910 and F980.
If there’s something you want to see along these roads, then consider booking day tours in 4×4 vehicles.
9. A quick note on renting cars.
To rent a car in Iceland, you need to be 20 years or older, or over 23 years if renting a 4×4 vehicle. You also need to have a credit card, a driver’s license in English (or one with an official translation) plus more than one year’s worth of driving experience. Also, check if there is a mileage limit on your rental.
To take advantage of an online offer, we ended up choosing a car that had a 600 km mileage limit on it (not known to us at the time). This meant we had to do some careful planning of our driving routes to ensure we saw everything we wanted to, without going over by too much and forking out 80 cents per extra kilometre.
If you’re renting a car in Iceland, take note that most cars in Iceland are manual. If you would prefer an automatic, then be sure to ask for it like we did.
Providing you have all of this and keep the mileage limit in mind (if there is one), then you should find renting a car in Iceland super easy as so many people do it.
Important Things To Know About The Northern Lights In Iceland
As I’m sure you already know, Iceland is one of the best most recommended places in the world for seeing the Northern Lights (aka Aurora Borealis).
There’s nothing quite like seeing the green and blue and sometimes pink and purple wisps of light dancing overhead.
Although it’s not guaranteed you will see them, take note of these important things to know about the Northern Lights to help increase your chances of seeing them and give you a better idea of what you can expect if and when you do.
1. It’s not guaranteed you will definitely see the Northern Lights.
Let’s get this little elephant in the room sorted out first. Seeing the Northern Lights is never guaranteed. It’s a totally natural phenomenon and even if they’re active at the time, you also need a clear sky in order to have any chance of seeing them.
Heading out into the depths of the countryside will certainly help. We’d recommend actually staying in the Golden Circle to maximize your chances of seeing them.
However, if you’re heading out on a day tour from somewhere like Reykjavik then the great news is that most reputable tour companies will put you on another tour free of charge if you don’t see them on your first night out.
2. The Northern Lights are sometimes less vivid in real life.
If you’re new to our blog then you won’t know this about us yet: we like to keep it real.
Although it pains me to have to say this, the Northern Lights are sometimes less vivid in real life and don’t always look how they do in long-exposure photos. You’ve probably seen the incredible photos I’m on about – the ones where the bright colours look like they’re positively bursting out of the dark night sky.
Although there are chances of seeing bright colours (you need super clear nights and highly active aurora ratings to do so), it’s probably more likely that you’ll see slight tinges of colour and movement that look more like clouds than anything else to be honest.
This is what you’ll see with the naked eye but a long-exposure camera setup will help you to see a lot more.
3. The 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 personally use 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 twinkling while we relaxed in our cabin’s hot tub outside (another plus for staying within the Golden Circle!) But the forecast had told us that the Northern Lights were a measly 1 on the scale (i.e. a super low activity rating).
With this in mind, we weren’t too hopeful for seeing this intriguing phenomenon. However, we COULD see them even though it took a fair amount of staring at the sky in order to do so.
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 and try looking for them anyway!
4. Remember to use a tripod and the right camera settings to capture this incredible moment.
If you’re lucky enough to see the Northern Lights during your trip then you’ll want to capture the incredible moment on camera.
To maximise your chances of perfect photos, you’ll need a high aperture setting (try starting with the smallest number such as f/2.8), a slow shutter speed (try 30 seconds to start with and then slowly increase to between 25 and 15 seconds) and an ISO of between 400 – 1000.
Although these are typical settings you can change on a posh DSLR camera, you can also change these settings on a bridge camera like this one by Sony.
Alongside a decent camera, you’ll also want to use a tripod and cable shutter release. The tiniest movement and even pressing the button to take your shot when using slow shutter speeds will result in a blurry mess.
Other Important Things To Know Before Visiting Iceland
So you now know all about bathing in Iceland’s hot springs, how to embark on the perfect road trip around Iceland and how to increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
But what else do you need to know before your first trip to Iceland? Here’s everything else we can possibly think of.
1. Iceland’s currency is the Icelandic Króna (ISK).
In Iceland, they use the Icelandic Króna or Krónur as a plural (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.
Did you know? Iceland in Icelandic is actually spelt Ísland (hence the IS in ISK).
2. Food and drink is notoriously expensive in Iceland.
Because of high import and tax costs, buying food and drink in Iceland is notoriously expensive.
You should expect to pay around 500 ISK for a coffee or hot chocolate in a cafe and at least 5000 ISK for a meal out, 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.
3. But you can still stick to a budget in Iceland.
There are a few ways that you can save some money when eating and drinking in Iceland.
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 rundown of the types of food you could try packing.
On day trips, fill up your thermos flask with tea, coffee or hot chocolate to save you buying some in a cafe somewhere.
And forget about buying bottled water in Iceland; the water straight from the tap is the exact same thing!
4. Icelandic water is INCREDIBLE!
Some travellers complain about a smell of sulphur coming from the water in Iceland. But we didn’t experience this the whole time we were there (except when actually bathing in the hot springs themselves).
What we 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!
5. Make sure you learn some Iceland 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 beauty to capture on camera in Iceland.
It definitely pays to read up on some photography tips before you go so that your pictures can be the absolute best!
Before travelling to Iceland, we scoured the web’s best tips on how to photograph certain pieces of Iceland. To help make things super easy for you, we’ve written them all down here.
6. Invest in a 360° camera for unique photo opportunities.
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.
We also love that we can include 360° photos on our blog! In case you’re also interested in purchasing a camera like this, we have great fun with the Samsung 360° camera – check it out here!
7. Remember to get off the beaten track occasionally.
As we were only spending a few days in Iceland, we wanted to see all of the main sights. However, we also wanted 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 the one in Vik), 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 unique as you have the chance to see a crashed plane from the 1970s. We love that we didn’t know this was here and it was proof once again that sometimes you should leave the well-travelled path to find something completely unexpected!
8. You must explore outside of Reykjavik.
Reykjavik is a beautiful city, no doubt about that. But sadly, we’ve heard of quite a few travellers who have only stayed within the capital 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 ourselves, we 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! Consider sleeping outside of the city so that you have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights too. 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 over our heads.
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.
9. Be aware that you will never want to leave.
Throughout all of the photographs and videos we’d seen of Iceland before visiting, nothing had prepared us for just how much we ended up loving this country.
By far the most magical and incredible scenery we’ve seen throughout any of our travels, it’s safe to say that we didn’t want to come home!
We could never successfully put into words or photographs just how beautiful Iceland is, so all we can tell you is just go there and see the beauty for yourself!
Read More About Iceland
- Want to avoid common first-timer mistakes? Here’s what to avoid in Iceland (and what to do instead!)
- Do you want to road trip around Iceland? Check out our road trip itinerary for some inspiration!
- Wondering where to stay in Iceland? Check out this guide!
- Are you looking for Iceland budget tips? Here are some simple food items you can take to Iceland – to save big on food costs!
- For some simple Iceland photography tips: Check out this beginner’s guide to Iceland photography that we’ve written just for you.
- Want even more Iceland travel tips and inspiration? Take a look at these must-read books about Iceland!
- Wondering what to bring back home with you as a souvenir? Check out these authentic Icelandic souvenirs!
These are all of the things we wished we’d known before going to Iceland; we hope they come in useful for your own first trip to Iceland. Enjoy every minute and prepare to be blown away by this amazing country! Feel free to come back and write us a note in the comments about how much you loved Iceland, or if there’s anything else you want to know about visiting Iceland, let us know and we’ll reply back asap!
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