Iceland, known as the Land of Fire and Ice, is one of the most beautiful places to visit: Full of culture, volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, natural spas and a place to spot the Northern Lights. Before you plan your trip here are some thing to know about Iceland that I discovered on our short stay there:
About the People of Iceland
- They speak Icelandic. I was told they spoke English and hats off to them they do speak fluent English – but they are not English and so it is not their first choice of language. If ever there was a time to learn a new language but you were worried about needing help then this would be the time.
- They are really funny. On our visit they made so many funny gags about themselves and others it was hilarious. Sometimes it wasn’t appropriate – such as when the driver asked the couple if they were called Shu as they came on the bus, and as they sat down he said Bless Shu! But they never heard and it was funny (he also got told to act more professional from the guy down the radio). The drivers joked about having guidelines more than laws – as he put his foot down through an amber light and said, nah we don’t really have speed limits!
- They stop their cars for pedestrians. I know right crazy that there’s a place where people don’t want to run over other human beings, but it is true. I guess it is to do with the snow and ice on the ground making the brakes less reliable to take risks, but this was nothing like I have seen anywhere else I have been in Europe.
- They think recycling is important. They care about where they live and take the very best care of it; that is why they minimise waste.
- They do not sell alcohol in supermarkets.
- There’s no McDonalds. Apparently they pulled out due to not being able to afford it there. Plenty of KFC, Subways, American Diners, and Pizza places to make up for it though.
- Love Christmas. We went post-Christmas in the gap before New Year and there was so much Christmas lights and decorations about. I have never seen Christmas lights like it: on all of the tower blocks, rails over bridges etc, on so many trees just out in public. I would love to go again before Christmas – although I have heard the shops shut on Christmas Eve and do not open again until the 27th.
- Street Art. In Iceland you will find some really impressive Street Art in the capital Reykjavik: Including urban graffiti, rooftop tags and extravagant wall-murals.
About the Environment in Iceland
- It is cold in winter. I cannot vouch for any other time of year and no matter what anyone tells you – it is cold. It was generally minus 4 or 5 whilst we were there in December – but with the winds it was more between minus 11 and minus 14. You will need a hat and gloves as a minimum. Don’t get me wrong with the right clothing it was okay and not freezing but you will need to wrap up. My advice is don’t be tempted to put your hand in the hot water outside because afterwards your hand will be freezing!
- You can skate on lakes. It gets so cold that the lakes freeze up so much that we actually witnessed many people happily (and safely) skating around (probably just in shoes we went by on the bus) all over a massive frozen lake.
- You can drink the water. The water in Iceland is some of the cleanest water in the world. You can drink it straight from the tap and comes straight from the source – so is not chemically purified. This is the cold water not the hot.
- There is a strong sulphuric smell. This rotten egg smell is because of the geothermal origins of hot water; thus making it excellent for bathing in but not drinking. Take it from me when I got some of the water from the Blue Lagoon in my mouth it was NOT pleasant! Needless to say we did not smell of sulphur after our showers in Iceland.
- The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the wonders of the world, so not surprisingly it is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. Entry is by a timed slot and booking as far in advance as you can is recommended. You will need to shower naked before putting your costume on (which must be worn), and it is advisable to take off any jewellery and cover your hair thoroughly with the conditioner provided (a swim cap also is a good idea). Lockers are included with your entry price and they lock by scanning. There is only one changing cubicle for a whole range of lockers in each section and I found a lot of women running around naked! (Men and women’s changing are separate and there’s a meet up area before entering the pool). There is a place to hang your gown and towel – but if you go with the package that provides them then do remember that they all look the same.
- The hours of sunlight were not much in the winter. Iceland works on Greenwich Mean Time, which means the clocks aren’t jumping backwards and forwards. We went in the winter and the sun rose at around 11:30am and started to set again by 4:30pm. It was quite a strange light before then. My top regret is not knowing how to take photographs of the dark, there were fantastic views of mountains covered in snow at night but I just couldn’t get my camera to recognise them.
- Iceland is a fantastic place to try to catch the Northern Lights. If you book with a travel company on a tour most will either offer your money back or a free second trip (valid for 2 years) if you do not catch them the first time. My advice is to know how to work your camera properly to capture them (with a long exposure) and bring a tripod to keep the camera still for that time. Other advice for your cameras is to make sure you have a spare battery and a big enough memory card. I have also heard that a towel can be useful to keep the lens dry when shooting waterfalls. You may be waiting a long time sat in the cold and dark waiting for the Northern Lights so take a warm blanket.
Other things to know about Iceland
- If you book coach journeys before you leave home it will take the stress out of things – but remember you will be charged a conversion rate fee. If not they are easy to book from either your flight, at the airport, or even your hotel (as well as the central bus station). Some places it is better to book sooner rather than later due to the availability (such as The Blue Lagoon).
- There’s a good public transport system in Iceland – we found the buses to be regular and on time. There was a one fare price no matter how many stops. Returns are only available if you make your return journey in a certain amount of time (I believe it was 30 minutes but do double-check this information).
- Tourist Information Centres are a great resource for all your travel needs in Iceland – including attraction booklets and transport information. We were very impressed with the help we received including changing our Icelandic Krona so that we had the exact change for the bus each way (buses do not give change in Iceland).
- It’s expensive – just exchange your money and not think about the exchange rate! I packed some bottles of soft drink, some snacks and pot noodles (as a precaution) but came back with lots of Icelandic Krona. There was a nearby supermarket and the prices were not as bad as I had heard, but then it was around £30 for four drinks at The Blue Lagoon. It was a trip of a lifetime and so no point worrying about money when there.
Also of interest: Visiting Iceland with Asperger’s Syndrome