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Home to glassy glaciers, hot thermal springs, spectacular geysers, active volcanoes, lava fields, stunning waterfalls and snow-capped mountains, Iceland is indeed the 'Land of Fire and Ice'. The second largest island in Europe, Iceland lies close to the Arctic Circle northwest of Scotland and south of Greenland, and its primary draw for visitors is its unique and wonderful natural phenomena.
The hardy Icelandic people, descendants of ancient Norsemen and Celts, are intriguing too, having spawned what is now renowned as the oldest-surviving parliament in the world (called the ), founded in 930 AD. Iceland also boasts a much-revered literary heritage of the best medieval works, mostly based on heroic sagas.
Most of the country's popular tourist features are in the south of the island near the capital, Reykjavik, and can be explored on the much celebrated 'Golden Circle' route. Top of the list for scenic splendour are the Gullfoss double-tiered waterfall and the spouting hot springs of Geysir.
Reykjavik means 'smoky bay' but, in the case of Iceland's pristine capital (which is Europe's most northerly capital city), the smoke is not smog but rather steam from the underground springs that warm the city.
Reykjavik has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the cleanest, most invigorating cities in Europe, and boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. The city may be small, but it is full of interesting attractions, from galleries and museums to thermal bathing spots, and the nightlife is second to none.
Iceland is steadily increasing in popularity as a travel destination, and offers so much to see and do that repeat visits may be necessary, particularly as the country seems so different in summer and winter.
The summer weather enables all sorts of outdoor fun in the gloriously unique landscapes, but the icy winter months bring with them the spectacle of the Northern Lights, truly one of the most magical experiences the world has to offer.
Iceland boasts a surplus of natural thrills, making the island a playground for adventurous nature lovers in search of something different. An exciting combination of glaciers, hot springs, icy fjords, volcanoes, snowy slopes, geysers, and otherworldly rock formations ensure a unique holiday in Iceland, and that's not even taking into account the magical Northern Lights.
Although it is one of the most exciting outdoor travel destinations in the world, more conventional sightseeing in Iceland is also possible, with Reykjavik providing an impressive selection of museums and galleries, a famously fun nightlife, good shopping, and a mouth-watering array of restaurants.
Reykjavik is commonly the starting point for Icelandic holidays and the most well-beaten tourist route on the island, the Golden Circle, starts in the city. This 186-mile (300km) loop can be driven in a day and covers many of Iceland's most popular tourist attractions and activities, including the Gullfoss waterfalls, the geysers of Strokkur and Geysir, and the beautiful landscapes of Thingvellir National Park. For a longer trip, and to experience more of the island than the popular south, travellers can drive Iceland's Ring Road, which circles the island and takes about a week to travel.
Many travellers will find the Reykjavik City Card useful as it covers not only the major sightseeing attractions in the city but also a few excursions nearby, including a ferry ride to nearby islands and discounts for activities such as whale watching and horse riding. The tourist card also allows unlimited bus transport and even includes discounts at some restaurants. The Reykjavik City Card is available in one-day, two-day, or three-day packages.
One of the tallest buildings in Iceland, this landmark church dominates the city from its highest point and is visible on a sunny day from up to 10 miles (16km) away. Named after the 17th-century Icelandic poet, hymn composer, and clergyman Hallgrimur Petursson, the church's unusual design includes volcanic basalt columns flanking its towering steeple. It took more than 40 years to build the edifice, which was finally completed in 1986. In front of the church stands a statue of Leif Eriksson, donated to Iceland by the United States. The church is lovely inside but even those uninterested in exploring this place of worship will be impressed by the striking facade. It is possible to climb the tower for views over the city.
Although Iceland is better known for its stark and rocky landscapes, a walk in Reykjavik's gardens will convince travellers of the country's more lush and flowery offerings. The pretty Reykjavik Botanic Garden is a haven for strollers, enshrining about 5,000 plant species, including a large collection of Icelandic indigenous plants and other plant collections, which give an idea of the enormous diversity of vegetation in the northern temperate zone. Besides walking trails and water features, the garden has a display greenhouse where a cosy cafe is open during the summer months. Located close to the garden is the Reykjavik Zoo and Family Park. The gardens are open all year round, though opening times may vary season to season and there is less to see in the colder months. Admission is free.
Einar Jonsson was Iceland's foremost sculptor, designing and establishing the Einar Jonsson Museum himself. It contains over 300 of his pieces, spanning his 60-year career, and served as his home, gallery, and studio. The building itself is deemed to be Jonsson's largest work, with the foundation stone laid in 1916. Iceland's first art museum, it retains pride of place on the highest point in Reykjavik. It is adjoined by a pristine and leafy sculpture garden, sporting about 26 bronze casts of the artist's work. There is also a museum shop selling plaster casts of Jonsson's works, books, and postcards. Travellers should note that the museum is closed on Mondays and for the whole of January and February. All other admission details can be found on the official website listed below.
The Aurora Borealis is one of nature's most celebrated and beautiful phenomena. Also called the Northern Lights, the magical dancing blue and green lights are caused by collisions between charged particles in the highest reaches of the earth's atmosphere. The spectacular lightshow is a truly unforgettable spiritual experience. Due to the country's latitudinal position, visitors to Iceland will be pleased to know that spotting the Aurora Borealis is commonplace between September and April. They should just head away from the city lights on a clear, crisp night, and the otherworldly glow in the night sky soon becomes apparent. Although somewhat of a routine display for locals, the chance of tourists seeing the Northern Lights may well be one of the main motivators for choosing Iceland as a travel destination.
One of the most interesting cultural drawcards of Iceland must surely be the Huldufolk ('Hidden People'). In Icelandic folklore, the Huldufolk are magical invisible beings who can appear at will. Also called elves, they can be observed by humans with a talent for communicating with the hidden realm. While not many of Iceland's population believe in the Huldufolk, they remain an important element of the country's folklore and national identity. Visitors to Iceland who learn about the Hidden People will gain a lot of insight into local culture. Recommended Huldufolk-related activities include a visit to Reykjavik's Hellisgerdi Lava Park (which is supposedly full of elven homes); a trip to the Museum of Icelandic Wonders in Stokkseyri (just 37 miles/60km from the capital); and, for the really enthusiastic, a half-day course at Magnus Skarphedinsson's Alfaskolinn, the Icelandic Elf School, where visitors learn all about their world and even receive a diploma to prove it.
Despite its extreme north Atlantic location, Reykjavik's temperate sub-polar oceanic climate is not as cold as might be expected, its average mid-winter temperatures being no lower than those in New York City. Winter temperatures average between 28F (-2C) and 38F (3C). This is because the Icelandic coastal weather is tempered by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The city's coastal position does, however, also mean it is prone to wind, and gales are common in winter. Summer temperatures in July, the warmest month, peak at around 59F (15C).
As the name suggests, Iceland's climate is cold, but not as cold as might be expected because of the passing warm waters of the Gulf Stream, which regulate the climate. The summer temperatures in Reykjavík, between June and August, range from 41F (5C) at night to as high as 77F (25C) during the day. The average mid-winter temperature, in January, is 31F (-0.5C).
The south is the wettest part of the country, but snow is rare. Coastal areas tend to experience winter gales and are generally windy. During the summer months, there is almost continuous daylight; early spring and late autumn feature long twilights. The opposite is true in the darkness of winter from mid-November until the end of January, when the country only experiences a few hours of daylight each day.
The Northern Lights are often visible in autumn and early winter. The best time to visit Iceland depends on the desired activity. Generally summer is the most pleasant time to visit but the Northern Lights are a big draw card in the colder months.
Although the national diet is quickly diversifying, fish and lamb are still consumed in great quantities in Iceland, and reportedly it can reportedly be quite hard to find a vegetarian option on restaurant menus.
Despite this, Reykjavik's restaurant scene is exciting and becoming increasingly cosmopolitan as restaurateurs rush to embrace fusion cooking, attempting to offer fresh interpretations of international dishes using local ingredients.
Traditional fare, available everywhere, but probably only tempting for the more gastronomically adventurous, includes harðfiskur (dried fish-meat, eaten with butter); svið (singed sheep's head); slátur (sausage made from blood and offal, like black pudding); hrútspungar (pickled ram's testicles); and hákarl (putrefied shark-meat).
There is also, controversially for some, the option of eating whale-meat while in Iceland. And if you really want to push the boat out, you can get it with some grated puffin on the side. Those with tamer appetites will be relieved to know that a staple of the Icelandic diet is the pylsa, a good, old-fashioned hot dog, served with fried onions, ketchup, and mustard.
The unit of currency is the Icelandic kronur (ISK). Almost all banks offer foreign exchange facilities and can be found in even the tiniest villages. Most have ATMs on their premises and they're available after banking hours, which are usually Monday to Friday from 9.15am to 4pm. Credit cards are widely used in Iceland for purchases and cash advances.
Icelandic, but English is widely spoken.
Iceland's electricity supply is 230 volts, 50Hz, as it is in most European countries. Plugs and sockets are of the two-pin type typical of Europe.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Iceland. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
UK nationals: Passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar, must be valid on arrival. British passports with other endorsements must be valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Iceland. A visa is required.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Iceland. No visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Iceland. No visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days within a 180 day period. Passport issued more than 10 years prior to date of travel are not accepted.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay, and a valid Schengen visa, to enter Iceland.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid on arrival in Iceland. No visa is required for nationals from the Republic of Ireland.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Iceland. No visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All of these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Additionally, foreign passengers to Iceland must hold return or onward tickets, the necessary travel documentation for their next destination, and sufficient funds to cover their stay in Iceland. It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There are no specific health risks associated with travel to Iceland, and no vaccinations are necessary for entry. Travellers should, as a precaution, be up-to-date on routine vaccinations before every trip, and should consider getting vaccinated for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and measles. Medical care in the country is of high quality and payment is usually expected in cash from visitors. Travel health insurance is highly recommended.
Service charges are included in bills and tipping is not expected in Iceland.
Iceland is an extremely safe country to visit. The only threats are a low level of petty crime and rapidly changing weather conditions, so travellers should keep an eye open if they are on the road.
Smoking in bars, restaurants and on public transport is illegal in Iceland, and penalties for the possession of drugs are steep. Travellers should note that although whale meat is legally available in Iceland, it is not legal to bring it across borders into the UK or EU.
Most business in Iceland tends to take place in the capital, Reykjavik, and business meetings are usually formal, with smart dress essential. It's worth handing out business cards, and initial greetings are usually accompanied by a handshake. Punctuality should be respected; meetings are usually conducted in English when dealing with foreigners. Visiting business people should note that Icelanders generally go by their first name, and telephone directory listings are alphabetical by first name. Business hours are usually from 8am to 4pm (summer) and 9am to 5pm (winter); most offices are closed on weekends.
The international country code for Iceland is +354. Travellers should note that Icelanders are listed by their first name in the telephone directory, not the last. Visitors can rent WiFi hotspots; WiFi is easy to access and free calls can be made using WiFi connections.
Travellers to Iceland over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 250g of other tobacco products. Travellers over 20 years are also allowed 1 litre of spirits and 3 litres of beer, or 3 litres of wine and 6 litres beer, or 1 litre spirits and 6 litres beer, or 1.5 litres of wine and a 12 litres of beer, or 18 litres of beer; and food items up to 3 kg not exceeding ISK 25,000. Permits from Post & Telecom Authorities are required for cordless phones, remote controls or radio transmitters, but not for a GSM mobile phone. Prohibited items include narcotics and drugs, uncooked meat products, weapons and powdered or moist snuff.
Reykjavik Tourist Information Centre, Reykjavik: +354 454 2000 or www.reykjaviktouristinfo.is
Embassy of Iceland, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 265 6653.
Embassy of Iceland, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland) : +44 20 7259 3999.
Embassy of Iceland, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 482 1944.
Embassy of Iceland, Beijing, China (also responsible for Australia): +86 1 8531 6900.
Honorary Consulate of Iceland, Johannesburg, South Africa: +27 11 305 8954.
Honorary Consulate of Iceland, Dublin: +353 1 872 9299
Consulate of Iceland, Auckland, New Zealand: +64 9 528 3932.
United States Embassy, Reykjavik: +354 595 2200.
British Embassy, Reykjavik: +354 550 5100.
Canadian Embassy, Reykjavik: +354 575 6500.
Australian Embassy, Copenhagen, Denmark (also responsible for Iceland): +45 7026 3676.
South African Honorary Consulate-General, Reykjavik: +354 561 7181.
Irish Honorary Consul, Gardabaer: +354 554 2355.
There may be limited sunlight in the northern city of Reykjavik, but the locals here really know how to make good use of those long, cold, and dark winter nights. The bright lights of the bars and clubs that line the streets will blow visitors away, and they can heat things up even more on the dance floor.
Due to the high cost of alcohol, the nightlife only gets going very late, as most Icelanders tend to have a few drinks at home before hitting the town. Travellers arriving in Reykjavik by air should not pass up the opportunity to buy cheap alcohol in the duty free store at the airport.
Once sufficiently warmed up for the night, travellers can head to trendy Laugavegur, where most of Reykjavik's 100 or so bars and clubs are located, dotted around the strip and its side streets. On busy Friday and Saturday nights, it's not uncommon for the street to be filled with people all night long. On a side note, the drinking age in Iceland is 20.
The best way to travel around Reykjavik is on the excellent bus service that covers downtown and the outer suburbs from the central terminals at Hlemmur and Laekjartorg. Buses run from around 7am to 11pm on weekdays and less frequently on weekends. Passengers should pay the exact fare to drivers, as they are not permitted to give change. Bicycles are an extremely popular form of transport and the city has a network of cycle lanes. Car hire is recommended as there is little traffic congestion and local drivers are typically considerate. The Hreyfill taxi app is another option.
Although a beautiful, cosmopolitan, and vibrant city, many of Iceland's best tourist attractions are actually located outside Reykjavik. Luckily for visitors, Iceland is a small country and none of the tourist attractions mentioned here require a significant amount of travelling to get to.
As far as attractions in Reykjavik are concerned, travellers shouldn't miss the Botanical Gardens, which are full of interesting indigenous plants and trees; the Einar Jonsson Museum, which displays works by Iceland's greatest sculptor; Hallgrimskirkja, one of the weirdest, most grandiose churches on the planet; and, to satisfy any Viking curiosity, the National Museum, Saga Museum, and the Reykjavik City Museum.
As visitors enter the remarkable hinterland, the real tourist gems can be found, and luckily the south of the country is home to most of Iceland's top tourist attractions. Travellers should be sure to check out the Blue Lagoon, a manmade geothermal spring and spa; Geysir, the world's original hot spring; the truly transcendent Gullfoss Falls; Thingvellir National Park, with its incredible hiking trails; and Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon full of eerie, luminous-blue ice bergs.
No matter what travellers decide to see and do in the 'Land of Fire and Ice', one thing is for sure: they mustn't forget to take a camera along, as Iceland is a country uniquely full of sights that beggar belief. Travellers should also consider arming themselves with the Reykjavik City Card, which gives discounts on tourist attractions and restaurants, and allows unlimited bus transport.
A favourite and unique attraction close to Reykjavik, about 30 miles (50km) southwest of the city, is the manmade geothermal Blue Lagoon. It is set in a lava field, filled with mineral-rich hot water pumped from about a mile below the surface. The lagoon is flanked by a luxurious health spa where visitors come to be pampered and treated for skin ailments such as eczema and psoriasis. The lagoon's surreal phosphorescent aquamarine colour is caused by the therapeutic ecosystem of algae, silica, and minerals in the water. Visitors should note that the Blue Lagoon is very popular and should be booked as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment. The opening times change seasonally and can be found on the website listed below.
Iceland's famed Gullfoss (Golden) Falls are justly rated among the most beautiful in the world, and make for a popular excursion from Reykjavik. The falls, with their awesome double-cascade, are incredibly powerful, which has meant they have come under threat of being utilised as a source of hydro-electricity. Currently, however, the magnificent natural water feature, shrouded in mist and rainbows and gushing into a canyon on the Hvita River, is safely ensconced in a national park and remains one of the country's top tourist attractions. The falls can be visited on Iceland's famous Golden Circle route, and many tour operators and public buses make daily trips to the national park during the warmer months.
The weird landscape of the Haukadalur Valley in the southern lowlands of Iceland has been dominated for centuries by the Great Geysir. It's from here that all other such phenomena around the world have gained their name. The geyser once shot boiling water hundreds of feet into the air, but the height of the eruption has reduced in modern times. Nevertheless, it's still an impressive sight. The rest of the thermal area, bathed in a sulphuric smell, is just as fascinating, featuring several other spouting vents and geysers that frequently display their prowess. The Great Geysir has become a very popular tourist attraction, and a centre has been opened containing a multimedia geology museum and folklore exhibits. There is also a hotel, souvenir shop, and restaurant on site.
The national park of Thingvellir, 30 miles (50km) east of Reykjavik, is not only Iceland's most important historic site, but also a place of natural and geological wonder. It was here that the world's first-ever parliament, the Alting, initially convened in AD 930, and where Christianity was first introduced to Iceland. Even today, people gather at Thingvellir to celebrate any major national event. Geologically, this is the only site in the world where the American and European tectonic plates are visible. The park is also home to the largest lake in Iceland, and stunning scenery including a lava gorge, the Oxararfoss Waterfall, and the Money Chasm, where visitors drop coins down a gorge into water, to witness the strange distorted reflections that result. Activities available at Thingvellir National Park include hiking, angling, horseback riding, diving, and camping. The national park is open all year and in the warmer months a daily bus visits the park from Reykjavik.
Jokulsarlon (glacier lagoon) is the largest glacial lake in Iceland, and an enormously popular tourist attraction. The site shot to prominence after being featured in Hollywood movies (most memorably, Batman Begins), and now attracts thousands of visitors each year. Caused by the retreat of the glacier known as Breidamerkurjokull, the lagoon is now nearly a mile (1.5km) from the ocean's edge, and is over 814 feet (248m) deep. Most easily approached from the fishing town of Hofn on Iceland's southern coast, visitors in search of an indelible memory of their time in the country should definitely make the trip to Jokulsarlon, where luminous blue icebergs float eerily across the freezing water. Whatever visitors do, they shouldn't forget to pack a camera. Jokulsarlon is undoubtedly one of the best sights Iceland has to offer, and in such a staggeringly beautiful country, that's really saying something.
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