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10 Things To Know Before You Visit Iceland

Iceland travel tips for first timers. Here’s what I wish I knew…

Undeniably, Iceland is a country on everyone’s lips right now. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? We’ve all seen the insane views + scenery popping up on our social media feeds. It’s enough to tempt anyone with the slightest interest in travel, which is where I come in with a post on Iceland travel tips for first timers.

So what makes this content worth reading? Well, when someone travels to a country with zero expectations you already know you’re going to get a genuine reflection. Secondly, there’s no sugar-coated information over here. I’ll tell you exactly what I think. After all, it’s what I’ve been doing for years. Let me help you decide if Iceland is the destination worthy of your next annual leave request.

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Must-Know Iceland Travel Tips:

I’m keen to get this post out there because there’s various myths and misconceptions floating around about Iceland. Where possible, I’m definitely up for squashing them, or validating anything I think is particularly accurate, to make your travels easier.

While my own experiences were limited to a 2-day layover before New York, first impressions are everything, right? Here’s what my little taste of the country taught me.

Sea in Iceland with the text '10 things to know before you visit Iceland' for Iceland Travel Tips post.
10 Things To Know Before You Visit Iceland…

You Really Need To Rent A Car For The Best Experience.

Sorry guys, but public transport isn’t going to do you any wonders when visiting rural gems. Sure, you might get around completely fine in Reykjavík but you’d be compromising your trip if you relied on buses. It’s rare that I come across a destination which is pretty much impossible without a car, but in my eyes Iceland is one of them.

But Don’t Fall Into The Trap Of Tours.

Controversial one, but I’m going to give it to you direct. I don’t think you need to book onto tour packages for most landmarks. While intriguing, and less of a hassle, tours do the same work Google Maps could do if you’ve rented a car. Oh, and skip out packages for ‘Aurora Borealis’, or The Northern Lights in simple terms. A tour guide will have better understanding of what the magic looks like, but at the end of the day anyone could spot them.

The only time a tour is necessary is for glacier entry, as you can’t do this alone from a safety point of view.

What’s The Situation With Seeing The Northern Lights?

A lot of questions go into Google when it comes to The Northern Lights. Can you see them without a professional camera? Do they appear when it rains? When’s the best time to catch them? Etc…

It’s all pretty mysterious, but there ARE things which will help increase your chances of snapping some pictures. I quizzed a local on the topic, and was told that the biggest thing you can wish for is a cloudless night. CLOUDLESS. I was also told professional cameras aren’t needed, as the human eye and a standard phone is capable of detecting the light. Undeniably though, you’d probably get nicer pictures on a proper camera. As for timings, I witnessed professional photographers setting up tripods at 8pm, until 1am. Yes, really.

Another point, the same local mentioned how you don’t need to panic if you’re in Reykjavík. You can still glimpse Aurora Borealis doing her thing. Although, it’s only normal you question every single bright light in the sky during your hunt for lines of green.

Iceland Has A Case Of Being A Catfish.

You know what, a quick little story will help me explain this point.

On social media, I saw hundreds of pictures documenting a beach with huge blocks of ice bobbling along the shoreline, and convinced myself I needed to see it in person. The reviews of ‘Diamond Beach’ were insane, in the best way possible, so off I went. Pulling up to the location, five hours later, I gasped. You know where this is going right? Right.

I knew I had been victim of a major ‘Catfish’ episode. Sure, the beach glistened like a mirror, but there definitely weren’t any ice blocks along the water. This is exactly why pictures on Instagram shouldn’t be your only source of travel inspo lol. Note to self.

Police In Iceland Take The Speed Limit Very Seriously.

You know the lyric in ’99 Problems’ which goes something along the lines of ‘doing 55 in a 54’? Okay well, in my case it was 102.5 in a 100. A hefty fine landed in my inbox less than 24 hours later…

Reykjavík IS Worth Spending Time In, But It’s Weather Dependant.

The capital city has it all, and by that I mean easy access to both city life and nature. For this reason, if you’re looking to do a short weekend trip to Reykjavík alone, I’d fully suggest it. However, time your trip well. I really couldn’t stress this enough, as winters will have you huddled over a shop radiator trying to keep warm.

The thing is, while Reykjavík has plenty of indoor activities you won’t get the full experience of roaming the city if that’s your preferred way to travel. Wait until the slightly milder months.

If you’re after suggestions on what to do in Reykjavík, check out my guide on all you need to know for a short layover in Iceland.

What Type Of Cold Are We Talking About?

I went at the start of March and came in contact with temperatures of -10 degrees Celsius. Yes, I’ll hold up my hands and say I didn’t take an appropriate jacket, but it’s not just that. A lot of people stopped to warm up in cars between photo takes, and there were countless groups of people under electric heaters in the street.

It’s the type of cold which gets right into your bones, and I feel the only real solution is multiple layers. Not even a big coat will suffice. You need 3 pairs of thermals, minimum. Oh, and gloves. My hands were almost bleeding from the cold. Yup.

Is Iceland As Expensive As Everyone Says?

I’ll give you some examples so you can form your own judgements. Basic hot drink + croissant totalled 9 British Pounds. A bowl of noodles from the side of the road? A rounded-down figure of 16 British Pounds. A bottomless lunch spot? 60 pounds.

As you’ve probably gathered, Iceland isn’t cheap. In fact, all things considering, I spent more in Iceland with 2 days than 4 days in New York. From the 25-odd countries I’ve travelled to, Iceland hits the top spot for most pricey. However, I’ve got a post on ways to make your trip more affordable. Have a read, and don’t make the same mistakes I did!

You Don’t Need To See All The Waterfalls Or Glaciers.

If you’re pushed for time, visit different landmark types. For example, one waterfall and one glacier, rather than 3 waterfalls. A few hours in ‘Sólheimajökull’ satisfied my hunger to see a glacier, and 30 minutes at ‘Skógafoss’ gave me a memorable photoshoot.

One thing I particularly liked about the latter is the ability to get within close proximity to the waterfall. Yes, you’ll get soaked but you hardly care about that when you’re pulling heart eyes at nature.

On That Note – Small Moments Will Hold So Much Weight.

I get it. There’s pressure to visit as many landmarks as you can. However, I’m here to tell you that it’s not going to be the make-or-break factor for your trip. I mean, I didn’t even go to the Blue Lagoon yet still had an epic adventure watching sunrise in the middle of nowhere. More likely than not, you’ll remember how you felt, not necessarily the things you’ve ticked off.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, let this serve as a gentle reminder.

Overall Thoughts:

If I had known the above travel tips for Iceland ahead of my visit, I’d move differently. Gloves would be the first thing I’d pack, snacks from home an immediate second. I’d also explore areas closer to my hotel, to fully maximise my time, rather than seeking aesthetic destinations much further away. Finally, I’d give up waiting for The Northern Lights on days where the probability was low. I guess this gives me a chance to return properly…

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