Iceland feels like the end and the beginning of the world. With boiling mud, floating ice and geothermal steam, Iceland’s active landscapes are a reminder of how natural forces contoured our world. Everywhere you go in Iceland, you feel happily insignificant, yet deeply connected to the vast landscape. As we drove around the ring road, we were mesmerized by the contrasts in the landscape’s color, texture, and height. Snow-capped mountain ranges majestically frame tiny colorful fishing villages. Treeless black mountains seem to plunge into golden farmland. Moss-covered lava fields are dotted with statuesque horses. Iceland is a place that defies all easy definitions. But, in one word, it’s magic.
Iceland Travel Guide Overview
When to visit Iceland – regions, activities, budget considerations
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When to Visit Iceland
When deciding what time of year to visit, consider where you want to go, what you want to experience and your budget.
Where do you want to go in Iceland
There are certain places in Iceland that are only accessible in summer, or weather permitting.
The Interior is also referred to as the Highlands. If you want to explore the Interior, plan on traveling to Iceland in the summer: (Late June), July, August, (September). Here are some of the highlights of the Highlands:
Landmannalaugar in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve: views of Ryolite mountains, geothermal baths and Brennisteinsalda volcano.
Laugavegur hiking trail, 55 km trek from Landmannalaugar to Thórsmörk (Þórsmörk in Icelandic)
Thórsmörk (Þórsmörk in Icelandic), hiking destination in the Highlands
Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Range
Hveradalir (valley of the hot springs), geothermal area
Note: While it’s not possible to drive into the interior with your rental car outside of the summer months, you could still reach the interior with a Super Jeep Tour.
Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic. You can access this region in winter, but depending on the weather conditions, some roads are inaccessible. Also, some roads are simply not serviced in winter. A few tips:
You can’t drive to Dynjandi waterfall or between Ísafjörður and Patreksfjörður in winter.
You can’t hike Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, the uninhabited northernmost region of the Westfjords, in winter, spring, or fall. The only realistic time to come here is mid-June to end of July.
Personal experience. We booked a night in Ísafjörður (mid-April), but couldn’t get there, because of the road conditions. A week before, however, it would have been no problem (so it just depends on the weather). We were able to access Patreksfjörður via Highways 60 and 62 without a problem.
The Landeyjahöfn ferry connects the mainland to the Westman Islands (mainly between mid-May and mid-September). But on days when the weather conditions are bad (mainly in winter), the ferry doesn’t operate. If the Landeyjahöfn ferry doesn’t operate, there might be one from Þorlákshöfn (Thorlakshofn). So realistically, the best time to see the Westman Islands is in summer.
Driving the Ring Road might be possible all year long, but it’s not advisable in winter. In the winter, roads can be impassable. Even when we drove the Ring Road in April, we experienced less than favorable road conditions: icy roads, low visibility, potholes a plenty. We drove sometimes for hours without being able to see a thing (just endless white).
Northern Lights can be visible between mid-September and mid-April. Your ability to see them will depend on cloud coverage, solar activity and light pollution. When we visited in April, we met people who saw them. We didn’t, mostly because of cloud coverage and because we were to lazy to wake up at 3:00 a.m. when it most promising.
Puffin Sightseeing (Late Spring – Summer) – Atlantic Puffins are seabirds that spend most of their lives at sea, but return to land to breed during spring and summer. It’s possible to see them between early April and early September. If you really want to see them, it’s a safer bet to come between May and August. We didn’t see them in mid-April (because it was a long winter).
Visiting Ice Caves is a winter activity (November – March).
Touring Fjallsárlón or Jökulsárlón (Glacier Lagoons) on a boatis a summer activity (usually mid-May to mid-September). You can definitely visit the lagoons outside those months, but there will be no tours in operation.
What’s your travel budget
Iceland’s high season is mid-June through August, and not surprisingly the most expensive time to visit.
When we traveled in April, we paid no more than 80 EUR per night for accommodation. We saw that some of the guesthouses we stayed in increased their prices by 400% for the high season (ouch!).
Iceland Travel Basics
Official Name: Ísland
Government: Constitutional Republic
Regions:Iceland has 8 administrative regions.
(1) Eastern Region, Eastfjords (Austurland, Austfirðir); (2) Capital Region (Höfuðborgarsvæði); (3) Northeastern Region (Norðurland eystra); (4) Northwestern Region (Norðurland vestra); (5) Southern Region (Suðurland), (6) Southern Peninsula (Suðurnes), (7) Westfjords (Vestfirðir), (8) Western Region (Vesturland).
Language: Icelandic. English is spoken fluently by the majority of Icelanders.
Currency: ISK – Icelandic Krona. You can pay everything with a credit card. There’s no need to pull out cash.
Tipping Etiquette:No need to tip. Service and VAT are included in prices.
Water Quality: Excellent. You can drink tap water everywhere in Iceland. Sometimes the water has a slight sulphuric smell, but it’s absolutely safe to drink.
Something Interesting: Icelanders don’t have surnames or family names. Instead, they use the traditional Nordic naming system to create last names. A child’s last name is created by using the first name of their father (or mother) plus -dóttir (daughter) or -son.
Where to Go in Iceland
Click the dots to explore specific destinations. You can expand the map by clicking the icon on the top right corner. The map is best viewed on a desktop.
Snæfellsnes Peninsula / Western Iceland
Árinni kennir illur ræðari.
A bad rower blames his oars.
What to Experience in Iceland
Our favorite things to see and do
Watching the Earth Boil and Steam
Hverir [Northern Iceland]
You will smell Hverir (also called Námafjall geothermal field) before you see it. This red, blue and white bubbling paradise is the stinkiest, yet one of the most splendid places in Iceland. Hverir is a geothermal area located in Northern Iceland close to Lake Myvatn. As you breathe in the sulfur-rich air, you’ll find yourself mesmerized by the steam and boiling mud.
Krýsuvík / Seltún [Reykjanes peninsula]
Krýsuvík is a geothermal area that you can visit either to or from Keflavik Airport. The landscape is alive with steaming volcanic vents and boiling hot springs. A boardwalk guides you gently through this hissing field in a circular path.
Gunnuhver [Reykjanes peninsula]
The mud pools and steam vents in this geothermal field are named after a female ghost. Iceland’s largest mud pool can be found here. The gases emitted from the ground turn the surrounding lava rock into clay.
Driving through Eldhraun
Eldhraun is a massive moss lava field in Southern Iceland. If you’re driving the Ring Road, you’ll drive right through it, between Laufskálavarða and Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. This lava landscape was one of the most striking places we experienced in Iceland. It looks like an endless pile of giant river stones covered in green carpet. The wooly fringe moss can be as thick as 50 centimeters (19.7 inches) in some places.
This unique landscape is the result of an eruption that lasted between 1783 and 1784, known as the Laki Eruption (Skaftareldar). The devastating eruption led to disease, crop failure and other catastrophes in Iceland.
It’s believed that the eruption affected mainland Europe as well. During the eruption, about 120 million tons of sulfur compounds were released into the air. The sulfur compounds mixed with the moisture in the atmosphere, resulting in sulphuric acid. The volcanic gas mist and ash fall resulted in withered vegetation, poisoned fields, and polluted groundwater. Between 1783 and 1785, Iceland’s population was reduced to a fifth and half of the country’s livestock perished. The mist traveled to Europe and as far as Asia, resulting in dramatic weather changes and air pollution. The calamities that ensued are called the Mist Hardships.
There is a parking lot with official signage on the right side of the road (driving East).
The moss is very sensitive, so only use designated trails and roads when exploring.
Visiting Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón
No matter how short your trip is, don’t leave without seeing the frozen landscape of Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón. These glacial lagoons are the crown jewels of Iceland. We spent hours watching fragmented glaciers float and seals swim around the icebergs. In the early evening, the silence was only broken by the melting of ice and the peculiar sound of eider ducks.
When to Visit: Late Spring, Summer, Fall. In Summer, more ice is melting due to the heat and hence floating out to sea.
Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón are located in Southern Iceland. It takes 10 minutes by car to drive between them.
In the summer season (May – October), boat tours are offered at Jökulsárlón. Because we visited in April, we weren’t able to do this. In preparing for our trip, we read that Zodiac tours are the best way to go.
Watching Fish Dry in the Arctic Wind
The oldest food preservation method in the world is still being used in Iceland. That method is the drying of food in the open air. Icelanders gut and hang unsalted fish on wooden drying racks. The cold winter air dries the fish (usually cod or haddock), which results in a storage life of several years. Seeing fish heads swinging in the wind is chilling yet somehow hypnotizing. It reminds you of how so much has changed, and yet so much has stayed the same.
Interestingly, Icelanders aren’t the main consumers of stockfish. They have been exporting it on a large scale since the 13th century. Can you guess who the main consumers are today? Italy and Nigeria. Nigeria is actually the largest market for dried fish products in the world. They use fish heads in their soups and stews.
If you want to see rows and rows of drying racks, prepare yourself for the stench and go to:
Sauðárkrókur (Northern Iceland) – In this town’s harbor, there’s a collection of dried fish racks.
Hafnarfjordur (Reykjanes Peninsula) – If you’re driving south on the 42, the fish racks are on the left side of the road before the 417 juncture. GPS: 64°01’04.7″N 21°56’52.2″W
Soaking in a Hot Pot
The best way to warm up when the temperature is flirting with zero degrees is by jumping into a hot pot. Hot pots are warm natural baths. Some thermal baths are maintained regularly and charge a fee. These tend to be better, as they are both cleaner and hotter. Keep in mind that there may, or may not be a changing area. And because these are natural hot springs, there will be some algae.
Our favorite hot spring pool was Grettislaug. Located off the pothole-happy 748 road north of Skagafjörður, Grettislaug isn’t easy to get to. You’ll need a 4WD and some patience. When we arrived, the conditions were not perfect. It was bitterly cold and so windy that I (Sabrina) could barely open the car door. But, since we drove 45 minutes to get there, we were determined to get in. So we ran as fast as we could from the changing cabin to the hot spring in our bathing suits and beanies. And, oh my, was it worth it. The hot pools (there are two) hover at a glorious temperature of 43 °C. As you soak in the heat, you’ll see a bewitching mountain backdrop, turf houses, and horses.
To locate a hot pot on your trip, use this website. We did notice that it’s a bit out-of-date, so fact-check the information before starting your drive.
Walking through Sculpted Ice at Diamond Beach
As icebergs melt and break off in the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, the broken pieces float out to sea with the tide. At Diamond Beach, you’ll see the ice float and land at the black sand beach. These icebergs look like sculptures, each uniquely and majestically sculpted by the ocean water.
What to Eat & Drink in Iceland
Geysir Bread (Geothermal rye bread) – Icelanders use geothermal energy to generate electricity, heat their homes and keep pavements snow-free. They also use geothermal energy to bake bread in the ground. This earth-baked bread is the best bread we’ve ever tasted. It’s moist, sweet, and delicious. We recommend eating geothermal bread at Laugarvatn Fontana Hot Springs (if you do the Golden Circle route) or Kaffi Borgir (if you explore Dimmuborgir and Lake Myvatn).
Harðifiskur – wind-dried haddock or cod. This popular snack can be purchased at any grocery store.
Icelandic Lamb – During the summer months, Icelandic sheep roam the countryside freely. They eat fresh herbs and plants and are never fed grain or given hormones. The meat has a distinct herbaceous taste.
Einstök Ölgerð Beer – we loved their Icelandic Toasted Porter made with Lager malt, Munich malt, chocolate malt, Bavarian hops, and authentic Icelandic roasted coffee.
Driving in Iceland Tips
Rent a 4WD
This is a necessity. It costs more (we know), but from our experience, it was often essential in getting us from Point A to Point B. Iceland’s weather is so unpredictable. You’ll need to rent a car that can handle extreme weather and pothole a plenty of gravel roads.
Check the Road Conditions every Morning
Use road.isto find out what the road conditions are every morning before you begin your drive. After selecting a region, you’ll see a map of all the roads in the selected region. Each road is highlighted with its current condition: green (easily passable), orange (spots of ice), light blue (slippery), dark blue (extremely slippery), white (wet snow/snow), purple (difficult driving), black (difficult condition), red (impassable), and grey (no winter service).
Check for Warnings and Alerts every Evening and Morning
Check the website safetravel.is for warnings and alerts. This site will provide up-to-date information on storms, road closures, wind gusts, etc… For example, the alert below notifies travelers that strong wind gusts are expected from Seljalandsfoss to Vík and from Skaftafell to Jökulsárlón! The alert advises drivers on bigger camper vans to not travel in the area.
Fill Up Your Tank Often
When there’s an opportunity to get gas, get it because gas stations are simply not everywhere. When we drove in the East Fjords, we drove hours between fuel stations.
Plan on Needing Extra Time on the Road
We often needed more time than what Google Maps suggested. That’s because the road conditions vary. Mountain roads take longer. Gravel roads take a lot longer (especially if there are lots of potholes). And, you’ll want to take unplanned stops to admire the scenery and the animals (reindeer, horses, birds, etc…).
Slow Down When Approaching a Bridge
We recommend slowing down before approaching a bridge because it can be difficult to assess whether it is a single-lane or a two-lane bridge from a distance. For single-lane bridges, the rule is whoever is closest to the bridge has the right-of-way.
Where to Stay in Iceland
You can stay in guesthouses, hotels, farms, and AirBnBs. You can also rent a campervan. Make sure to book your accommodations as early as possible, because they do fill up. To help you figure out where to stay, we’re going to share with you where we stayed plus top accommodations in each destination. For our 16 nights (in April 2017), we averaged 86 USD/70 EUR per room. The lowest we paid was 66 USD/54 EUR and the highest was 135 USD/110 EUR.
How to Save Money in Iceland
The high season is mid-June to end of August. We recommend traveling outside the months, if you want to save money, especially on accommodations.
Rent a Campervan
If you’re traveling in the summer, a campervan might be your best option. However if you’re traveling off-season, the price of a van might be comparable with that of a 4WD plus accommodations.
Make your own coffee and breakfast
Make your own breakfast and coffee every morning. We brought a mini french press, ground coffee, a hot water cooker, and muesli/cereal with us.
In most places, the least expensive thing you can order is soup. You can also find reasonable lunch buffets. Please don’t eat your meals at gas stations.
Bring a water bottle
The water quality in Iceland is excellent. Sometimes the tap water might have a sulfuric smell, but it’s perfectly safe to drink. Don’t waste any money on bottled water.
Skip the Blue Lagoon
Go find a hot pot instead. Most of them are free, or charge a small fee. If you want a lagoon experience, we recommend visiting the Myvatn Nature Baths in the North (bring Student ID for discount). It’s a lot cheaper.
I Heart Reykjavik – Iceland travel blog. Insightful content that will help you plan your Iceland road trip. They provide maps, recommendations, and itineraries that are immensely useful. They also operate tours in the capital.