Iceland feels simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar -- and that’s precisely what makes the country so special. On the one hand, people here speak English and like to party. On the other hand, the place resembles planet Hoth and there’s nary a McDonald’s in sight. Many visitors know Iceland’s weather can be unpredictable, and it’s important to have a good sense of the temperature and amount of expected sunlight before booking your plane tickets. Average temperatures in the winter hover around the low 30s (Fahrenheit), and in the summer, they climb to the low 50s. Sunlight hours change more drastically. In the winter, there are only five hours of daylight, and in the summer, the sun sets for three hours. (Now you probably realize why Icelanders like to party hard.) But there’s lots to know about the destination beyond its climate, too. Here are a few other things every traveler should know before visiting Iceland.
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1. The food can be pricey.
Growing crops and raising livestock in a country located just below the Arctic Circle can be tough. Given that Iceland is an island nation, there’s plenty of fish to eat, as well as local specialties like fermented shark, sheep’s head, and sour ram’s testicles. Reykjavik has some wonderful upscale restaurants such as Dill (which serves New Nordic fare) and Fiskfelagid (featuring a smorgasbord of seafood from around the world). That said, unless you’re in the mood to splurge, you may find it to be pricey. For example, Fiskfelagid’s entrees range from $35 to $50.
And don’t expect to survive on Big Macs either, as Iceland’s last McDonald’s closed in 2009. Instead, consider local comfort food restaurants like Icelandic Fish & Chips, which is reasonably priced and offers dipping sauces such as mango and tzatziki. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (“The Best Hot Dog in Town”) has been lauded for serving the finest tube steak in Europe. Also, stop by local grocery stores like Bonus to get a taste of how the locals eat. Tip: The chocolate-covered rice cakes are excellent.
2. A rental car may be your best investment.
While Reykjavik offers a lot of cool things to do, you’ll see some of Iceland’s most amazing scenery by heading out on the Ring Road. Even if you can’t trek the entire loop (it will take several days), motor to the east coast of the island to Skaftafell National Park and you’ll see enormous glaciers. Plus, you can stop and see half-frozen waterfalls, black beaches, and fluorescent blue water along the way.
If you’re comfortable driving stick shift, renting a manual car can be a lot cheaper than an automatic. Also, be mindful of surprise snowstorms and consider getting a four-wheel-drive vehicle with studded tires. You may start out driving on a beautiful clear day and come back in a blizzard. You do not want to be in a compact car fishtailing through two feet of snow with miles of frozen tundra around. Keep in mind that gas stations are scarce along the highway and you should fill up when you have the chance.
3. Icelandic horses are not a smooth ride.
You may look at these regal animals with their luxurious manes and think that trotting over the Icelandic plains will be a smooth endeavor. It is not. Icelandic horses are beautiful, sure-footed, and muscular creatures who regularly brave an intense climate. Riding one in a brisk wind is an unforgettable experience, but not quite as romantic as it may seem.
4. Make sure to bring an adapter.
Like much of Europe, Iceland uses the two-prong Schuko plug. Be sure to bring an adapter, so you can stay charged while on vacation.
5. The Blue Lagoon is man-made and expensive (but still worth visiting).
Surrounded by volcanic rock and ice-capped mountains, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon may appear as a natural wonder of the world. But don’t be fooled. In 1976, an operation at a geothermal plant wound up creating the large pool of steamy water with a basin of silica mud. While Iceland has several natural (and free) geothermal pools like in Landmannalaugar, the Blue Lagoon offers a spa experience. For $60, you can wade through the pool indoors or out, and bathe under a wall of hot water. Add another $100 and you get a massage. It’s not the most natural experience in the world, but then again, you can’t get a cocktail served or hear a DJ spin at Landmannalaugar.
6. Make sure your outerwear is waterproof.
In addition to being cold in Iceland, you’ll likely get wet. Even if you just get close to the waterfalls, a lot of mist in the air will land on your clothes. Rather than just packing a sweatshirt or sweater, you’re going to want a warm, water-resistant coat.
7. Don’t mock the elves.
A majority of Icelandic people believe in some type of magic and elves. Buildings have been altered and road construction stopped to avoid damaging the stones where the Huldufólk (hidden people) live. And Icelandic Elf School teaches visitors about the local beliefs and why they have been an important part of the culture for several centuries.
8. Prepare to party.
Getting sloshed is a popular pastime in many Nordic countries, and Iceland is no exception. In Reykjavik, in particular, the drinking happens in bars and clubs located within a handful of blocks. Drinks are expensive, so you may want to consider finding a happy hour special. Since serious drinking doesn’t start until 11 p.m., it’s relatively easy to find a discount, though the lower price may not seem like much of a bargain depending on where you’re coming from.
9. The hot water has an unpleasant odor.
Iceland is one of the foremost producers of geothermal energy; about 25 percent of the country’s electricity is derived from this low-cost, natural form of energy. However, that free energy source comes with a small price. Because the hot water is heated with geothermal power, it also smells like sulfur. It’s excellent for bathing, but doesn’t taste great. On the other hand, the cold water comes from fresh springs and is one of the cleanest in the world.
10. Reykjavik has a cool culture.
If all you know about Icelandic culture is Bjork and possibly Sigur Ros, dig deeper while you’re in Reykjavik. For music fans who are planning to visit during the summer, the city hosts several festivals, including the Iceland Airwaves, which hosts indie musicians from around the world. A lot of the best shows don’t even happen in clubs — check out who’s playing at Fríkirkjan (the church by the lake) and Lucky Records (one of the better record stores in town). Harpa concert hall, designed by Henning Larsen Architects and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, is worth checking out even if you’re not able to see a show. Guðjón Samúelsson’s design of the Church of Hallgrímur takes inspiration from Iceland’s glaciers and mountains. For a view into the country’s bizarre and brutal history, stop by the Saga Museum. (Parents of small children should know that it depicts people being burned at the stake and getting whacked with an ax.) The Icelandic Phallological Museum is real and contains penis specimens from 280 types of animals. Plus, a lot of the cafes, like Mokka Kaffi, are music-free zones that give literature fans the quiet they need to read.
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