My mother is Icelandic and most of her family, including my grandmother and all of my cousins, still live in Reykjavik. I’ve been going to Iceland at least once a year since I was born, usually at Christmas or in the summer, sometimes both. I have been to Reykjavik more times than I can count, been on several road trips around the country, and seen the midnight sun at our family farm up North many times. My advice for travelling to Iceland probably won’t be the same as what’s in your typical guidebook, because I’ve never truly felt like a tourist when visiting the country. These are my tips for getting the most out of your trip to Iceland, and perhaps getting a bit more of an authentic experience!
Avoid cliché foods
Tourists are often tempted to try exotic foods like whale meat or puffin meat. These aren’t actually eaten by locals that much (if at all), and are mostly just put on menus for tourists. On the other hand, a very common snack is dried fish, or harðfiskur. My favourite is bitafiskur which is small pieces, perfect for a healthy protein snack! You may also come across putrefied cubes of shark, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you are feeling very adventurous – I think my grandmother is the only person in my family who actually likes them! I would recommend sticking to roast lamb and fresh fish most of the time. Oh, and have a lobster soup and try some things from a bakery!
Don’t buy a traditional sweater
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the traditional wooly jumpers that every Icelander owns (AKA lopapeysa). The problem is that unless you live in a very cold place (i.e. not London) these will be too warm for you to wear when you get back home. Instead, get a modern version. Farmers Market does some beautiful ones that much thinner than the original, and you should also be able to find some cotton or fleece versions in tourist shops (and avoid the itchiness too!).
Try the fast food
Controversial, I know – but Icelandic hot dogs are the best! I think it’s because they’re made with local lamb and paired with soft, slightly sweet bread, and topped with crunchy fried onion. You can’t visit the country without trying one. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is the most famous hot dog place in Reykjavik, but I think they’re great in most petrol stations in the country. It’s everyone’s favourite road trip lunch.
Also worth trying are the soft serve ice creams. In Iceland, it’s never too cold to have an ice cream! They’re also much more exciting than anything we have in the UK. Watch as your waiter dips the ice cream in your chosen sauce and sprinkles it with your favourite topping. Heaven!
Go to the top of the church
The best view of Reykjavik can be seen from the top of Hallgrímskirkja.
Be prepared for the Blue Lagoon
Make sure you smother your hair in conditioner and leave it in when you go for a dip in the famous Blue Lagoon. Skipping this step can result in your hair feeling very dry afterwards. Another tip for the blue lagoon is to go when you’re on the way to/from the airport because it’s on the way.
Listen to the music
Iceland has produced some incredible artists, and I always think that local music makes for the most perfect soundtrack when you’re admiring the country’s landscapes. Get your playlist ready by adding Sigur Ros, Of Monsters and Men, FM Belfast, Retro Stefson, and Sin Fang to it. A great way to experience the country would be to go to a festival – Iceland Airwaves is the main one and Secret Solstice is awesome too! Here’s a roundup of all the festivals.
Be prepared for any kind of weather
Icelandic weather is unpredictable. It can go from sun to sleet to snowstorm in one day, so make sure you always bring layers, gloves and hats with you! Read about travel blogger Laura’s experience of Iceland’s weather if you don’t believe me. Definitely pack a windproof jacket, no matter the season, as it can get awfully windy in Iceland (you can also get great gear from local brands like 66°NORTH, Cintamani, Icewear or ZO-ON). Although if you don’t want to look like a total tourist in Reykjavik, bring some normal shoes to change into when you’re done with your hiking! I’m always amused when I see people dressed like they are going for a hike in the North Pole on the high street in the middle of the summer.
Check out the nightlife
Most people visit Iceland to see the waterfalls, geysers, and hot springs, but I think the nightlife is really worth seeing too. Icelanders know how to party! Reykjavik is small and all the nightlife is concentrated around Laugavegur and its side streets. All the bars are very close together, making it easy to go from one to the next and find your favourite. Streets are often filled with people, as the locals usually hop from one bar to another, running into lots of friends and acquaintances and getting really drunk. Fridays and Saturdays are best, and the party really starts after midnight (or even 2am) – a night out will often finish at 5am. FYI, drinking age is 20 in Iceland! Bring your ID if you look young.
Make some local friends
Whether it’s your tour guide, the hotel owner, or a random drunk person you meet in a bar, make friends with at least one Icelander while you’re in the country. I always think that Icelanders are really interesting people – usually quite outspoken, funny and friendly. They are very proud of their country and will tell you about things you could never read about in a guidebook. When they’re drunk they tend to either sing or get into fights, so be nice!
Say hi to the horses!
Make sure you at least stop by the side of the road to say hello to some lovely Icelandic horses. Riding a horse in the Icelandic countryside is such a beautiful experience, I would recommend it to anyone! Icelandic horses are very easy to ride and they are much smaller than other horse breeds. They’re also very furry and adorable!
These are the main tips that I give to any friends or colleagues who are preparing a trip to Iceland, but I could keep going! Please let me know if you have any specific questions about travelling to the land of ice and fire! 🙂
Planning a trip to Iceland? Norman has some great tips to help you decide when to visit. If you’re only in the country for a couple of days, I’d recommend reading Penelope’s guide to making the most of 48 hours in Iceland.