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Iceland Magazine fact check of the "13 things no one tells you about traveling to Iceland"

By Staff

  • The Ring Road There is no point in marking or identifing sceneic routes in Iceland, because all routes are scenic! Photo/GVA

We here at Iceland Magazine love travel accounts from Iceland, written by foreign travellers. This is because they often pick up on all kinds of things us locals don't usually notice, but also because they see these things in a slightly different light. A third reason is that they frequently contain all kinds of amusing misunderstandings or examples of cultural misunderstanding.

One of these fun travel advice pieces was published in the internet magazine The Insider titled "13 things no one tells you about traveling to Iceland". As the author, Sophie-Claire Heoller points out, Iceland "is having a moment, and yes, everyone you know is going".

From volcanic deserts and steamy springs to icy glaciers and black sand beaches, the stunningly beautiful country is the perfect long weekend vacation thanks to cheap flights and its location five hours from the East Coast.

To save some of these travellers from needless problems/disappointments/confusion Sophie-Clair compiled a list of 13 things you should know before booking your trip. We here at Iceland Magazine read the list with great interest while furiously scribbling comments on the margins. So, here is our take on Sophie-Claire's list of things you should know before visiting Iceland.

We hope this expanded and more in-depth list, with some "local" takes on the insights and observations of a foreign visitor might be of help to you, our readers! 

Bæjarins bestu, hot dogs, pyslur

Bæjarins beztu The famous downtown hot dog stand, the cheapest dining option in downtown Reykjavík. It's claim to fame? It's the oldest hot-dog shop in Iceland (founded 1937) and the flagship store of a small chain of hot dog stands, it's been owned by the same family since the beginning, and Bill Clinton stopped there for a hot dog in 2004. Photo/Stefán Karlsson

1) "Food is outrageously expensive"
TRUE! Iceland is expensive, period. The cheapest meal you will get in downtown Reykjavík is a hot dog, which costs 495 ISK (4.7 USD/4.1 EUR) at the Bæjarins bestu hot dog stand in downtown Reykjavík. An entree, without drinks, at Reykjavík restaurants range from 3000-6000 ISK (29-57 USD/25-50 EUR).

Drinks at bars are also expensive: A large (0.5 litre) beer costs on average 1200-1300 ISK (11.5-12.5 USD/9.9-10.7 EUR). When ordering coffee at restaurants or cafés keep in mind that it usually comes with a free refill.

Read more: The Irish Independent compiled a helpful list on how to do Iceland on a budget

We would suggest travellers on a budget check out lunch specials at restaurants and take advantage of happy hours at bars. The best local supermarkets are Víðir and Bónus. Avoid the "clock stores", which are open late.  

Bottled water

Waste of money Tap water in Iceland is probably the cleanest in the world. Buy one bottle, then re-fill it from the tap. Photo/Gunnar Reynir Valþórsson

2) "The water smells gross but is totally drinkable"

"The water in Iceland has a very sulfuric scent (think rotten eggs), but is totally drinkable, and tastes completely fine."

We rate this as a MISUNDERSTANDING or FALSE, depending on how you look at it. If you turn on the hot water in Iceland you will quickly smell the unmistakable sulfuric scent which reminds you of its origins: Virtually all hot water in Iceland is simply geothermal water, pumped straight from the ground. It therefore contains minerals and chemicals which are not, and should not be found in drinking water. If you try drinking the hot water you will quickly discover it does not taste "completely fine", even if it might be drinkable.

No (reasonably sane or normal) local would drink the hot water. (One of our staff has an old eccentric uncle who insists on making instant coffee using the hot water from the tap. He has also gifted his second-hand woolen mittens as Christmas presents, so we don't encourage you to emulate him!)

Read more: Nine fascinating facts about geothermal energy and Reykjavík

This is not the case with the cold water, which is more than "totally drinkable", and certainly tastes "completely fine". In fact, the drinking water in Iceland is probably among the purest and cleanest in the world. 

The easiest money saving tip in Iceland? Don't buy bottled water!  

Þingvellir, tourists
Þingvellir National Park Viewing decks and paths at a tourist destination isn't the best spot to meet locals Photo/Anton Brink

3) It can feel like being back in the States

"There are so many Americans everywhere that sometimes I forgot where I was."

We rate this as QUESTIONABLE. This year Iceland is on track to see more than 2 million foreign visitors, a third of which come from the US. 2.1 million visitors isn't all that much, and Iceland is still one of the least visited countries in Europe. However, when you compare the number of visitors to the population of 340,000 people it's easy to see why some people have started worrying about Iceland being "overrun".

Read more: US travellers make up more than half of the increase in foreign travellers visiting Iceland

However, one should keep in mind that these 2 million visitors are spread over the entire year. The Icelandic Tourism Board has estimated that the number of foreign visitors peaks in June and July, when foreign visitors add 10-20% to the total number of people in the island. This means that 1 in 5-10 people you might run into are foreign visitors, and 3-6% of all the people in Iceland are likely to be US tourists.

However, these numbers will look very different at popular tourist destinations or at the touristy restaurants or bars in downtown Reykjavík, places you might be more likely to run into an American than a local. Which isn't all that different from any tourist destination world-wide: You go to the touristy places, and you will meet tourists!

Read more: Iceland's coolest restaurants are hidden in the Westfjords, Eastfjords, N. Iceland cowshed

If you want to travel without being surrounded by other tourists Iceland has countless opportunities. Just take a few steps off the beaten path and you are guaranteed not to feel like you're back in Kansas!  

Jökulgil, Landmannalaugar

Jökulgil The Central Highlands hold countless exquisite spots where you won't have to put up with other people! Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson

4) There are hordes of humans everywhere

"Everyone visits Iceland for its incredible natural wonders. This means that everyone in Iceland plans on seeing the same handful of sites."

We rate this as flat out FALSE. Or true, depending on how you look at it. If by "everywhere" you mean the most popular destinations, then this statement is true. 

Read more: Despite dramatic growth in tourism in Iceland, fewer people visit the magnificent Westfjords

But the beauty of Icelandic landscapes and nature is not confined to the handful of sites along the most popular day-trips from Reykjavík, the Golden Circle and the South Coast tour. In fact, while locals will agree that those sites are beautiful, most would probably not include them on their top ten most beautiful sites in Iceland: Iceland simply has so much more to offer than those handful of sites everyone visits!

So, again: If you want to avoid other tourists, take a path slightly less traveled.  

Hafnarstræti-Geirsgata downtown Reykjavík construction
Adding hotels and shops Construction work in downtown Reykjavík. In fact, most of the construction you'll see are hotels, thanks to a hotel shortage in Reykjavík. Photo/Eyþór

5) There is so much construction

"I was shocked by the number of cranes everywhere. The tourism boom must really be buoying the construction industry, as every attraction's tourism center seemed to be getting an expansion, and cranes graced almost every corner of Reykjavik."

This is certainly TRUE. When visiting Iceland you must keep in mind that the tourism industry only took off in 2010. Prior to this most sites saw only a few dozen visitors each day. You might visit one or two other families at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Only a handful of sites had visitor centers. 

Icelanders have also been responding to the growth in tourism by establishing modern facilities at the most popular sites and building new hotels to accommodate foreign visitors.

Read more: Reykjavík City places curbs on new hotel construction: No more hotels downtown 

The other major reason for the construction boom, especially in Reykjavík, is that the economy has been booming, growing by 7.4% last year. With an unemployment rate of just 1-2% Iceland has been importing workers. At the same time the construction industry is scrambling to meet a hangover of demand for new housing: After the economy crashed in 2008 construction of new homes stopped completely for several years, creating a housing shortage in the capital. This shortage has been made worse by the surge in demand for Airbnbs. 

Aurora downtown Reykjavík

The Northern lights capital One of the benefits of long nights and dark winters: You have more opportunities to see the Aurora! (We don't encourage people to climb the roofs in downtown: Snorri is both a professional photographer and a trained climber). Photo/Snorri Þór Tryggvason

6) Limited daylight means you need to plan your trip accordingly

This we rate as most definitely TRUE and a crucial bit of advice. You should also remember that the Aurora can be visible at any time of the day. This means you might catch the Northern Lights if you get up early! 

Central Highlands fire hydrant
In the Central Highlands This mysterious fire hydrant was discovered in the middle of a volcanic desert. Some prankster or anonymous artist installed it there. Noboydy has "claimed responsibility" for this fascinating act of guerilla art. Photo/Ólafur Schram

7) Bathrooms are few and far between, plus many of them cost money to use

This is unfortunately TRUE as well, see point 4 above. Prior to the onset of the tourism boom there was really no reason to build public bathrooms along major highways or at scenic destinations. Locals would know the location of gas stations, restaurants or visitor centers along their route, and where they were likely to find bathrooms and plan their trip accordingly.

Read more: Foreign travellers commandeer a public roadside toilet, turn it into a storage locker

With the onset of tourism tour buses would then use these same toilet facilities. The owners of the cafés or roadside stops have in some cases responded by charging for their use. In other cases fees for the use of toilets have been imposed as a way to fund much needed improvements in infrastructure at popular sites. 

Eastfjords

Stöðvarfjörður in the Eastfjords Driving between the destinations is half of the experience! Photo/GVA

8) Lots of time spent in car

"Did I mention the vast distances? Yup, you'll spend a lot of time in your rental car or tour bus. It's worth it, but something to consider when planning your stay."

This is also TRUE. But, the key thing to keep in mind is that all drives in Iceland ar scenic! The view from your car along the drive can be just as spectacular, or even more beautiful, as the scenic spot you are driving to visit.

Therefore you should take your time and enjoy the ride: Don't speed as you will not want to miss the view along the road. And if the landscape or scenery is distracting you from the driving you should pull off and just take a minute to enjoy the view, the clean air and refreshing breeze (or storm!)

Read more: Foreign travellers causing accidents by parking their cars in the middle of the highway to take photos

But remember: If you want to stop and snap a photo, try to pick a spot where you can pull off the road. Unfortunately there are not enough stopping spots along the Ring Road (see point 4 above), so you might want to keep an eye out for those spots. Never park your car in the middle of the road! 

Mývatn nature baths

Mývatn nature baths Blue water pools are bad for your hair, the other pools not really. Photo/Mývatn nature baths

9) Thermal pools are terrible for your hair

This is TRUE. The Blue Lagoon and the Mývatn Nature Baths, the two blue water pools are rich in silica, which is great for your skin, but not so great for your hair. 

Read more: Iceland's two blue water pools: The Blue Lagoon vs. Mývatn Nature Baths

Other geothermal pools, and the geothermal public pools are not infused with silica, and should not be any worse for your hair than taking a regular bath or a shower. 

Króna, krónur, peningur, money

Stacks of cash You really don't need to change your currency into Icelandic króna before coming, credit cards are accepted everywhere. Photo/Valgarður Gíslason

10) You don't need cash 

"Everywhere takes credit cards. [...] In fact, I never even saw an Icelandic króna."

This is TRUE. Iceland was on its way to become a completely cash-free society prior to the tourism industry taking off. Every store, bar, café or restaurant accepts credit cards. Even the famous downtown hot dog stand takes credit cards. The only places you can't pay with a credit card are the flea market and the public transit buses in Reykjavík.

Once in Iceland, you'll quickly discovere there are no currency exchange shops, like those that you find in most cities. This is why! Nobody uses cash. The only places you can exchange currency is at a bank. If you really need Icelandic króna you should withdraw it from your credit card.

Another simple money saving tip: Don't exchange your money into Icelandic króna at home, even if your bank offers this service. You will be getting a terrible exchange rate.  

Northern lights, Aurora

Aurora over Grótta lighthouse The western tip of Reykjavík peninsula (actually, the peninsula is called Seltjarnarnes) is a prime Aurora spot. Photo/Vilhelm

11) You probably won't see the Northern Lights

"The Northern Lights are an incredibly unpredictable phenomenon, and a whole lot of different factors need to be working together for them to be visible, like season and weather. Apparently, a stay of seven nights is recommended in Iceland for the best odds of seeing them."

This one we must rate as IT DEPENDS. The key to seeing the northern lights is patience, persistence and luck. If you are unlucky, or give up easily you spend a month in Iceland during the winter without ever seeing the Northern Lights. But with some luck and persistence you should be all but sure to see them at least once if you spend 5-7 days.

Read more: Difficult to predict auroral activity with any accuracy

If you go out on an evening when the Aurora forecast is promising a spectacular show, but all you can see are the stars you should not give up, or your travel companions tell you that you just missed a magnificent Aurora explosion across the sky, don't give up: The Northern Lights can come on for a few minutes or half an hour at a time, then disappear, only to return with an even more spectacular show later that same night.

This is a question of being patient and persistent, not giving up or despairing if you don't catch the Aurora on your first, second or third night. But at the end of the day no matter how much patience or persistence you might posses: If the Aurora activity is low, or the skies overcast you are out of luck. 

Reynisfjara beach, the beast

The beast The waves at Reynisfjara beach: It's not just the weather, all of Icelandic nature can be unpredictable. The waves on the Black Sand beaches in South Iceland are also unpredictable. One in ten or fifteen is a "monster" which can sweep people out to sea. Reynisfjara beach is actually one of the deadliest destinations in Iceland. Photo/Haukur Snorrason

12) The weather is fickle beyond belief

"As the "Don't like the weather, wait five minutes" is a real thing in Iceland. Dress in layers as it can go from balmy to freezing in seconds."

This is certainly TRUE, and probably the most important piece of advice to keep in mind when traveling to Iceland. You must be prepared for all kinds of weather, especially all kinds of miserable weather. Even in summer you should be prepared to bring wind- and waterproof clothing and dress in layers.

This also applies to driving. The weather might be OK when you leave in the morning, but by afternoon you might find yourself in the middle of a raging storm, with wind speeds reaching hurricane force. Also, keep in mind that conditions on mountain roads or heaths can be very different from conditions along the coast. 

Bláa lónið, blue lagoon,

The Blue Lagoon Early (and we mean early) morning is the best time to visit if you hope to avoid crowds. Photo/GVA

13) You need to book the Blue Lagoon in advance

"By the way, tickets start at $60, and that's without a towel. Towels will set you back another $20. Did we mention it's packed?"

Yes, this is TRUE. As with many popular destinations world wide, the Blue Lagoon requires visitors to book their tickets in advance. This is done to limit the number of people in the lagoon at any time. But, the Blue Lagoon is also the only spot in Iceland where you need to book in advance. 

Read more: The Blue Lagoon's popularity increases. Guests advised to purchase tickets in advance

It is also a bit pricey, and it can feel crowded, even with the efforts to limit the number of visitors at any time. Which means that you should try to visit very early to avoid crowds. And if you are traveling on a budget and the Blue Lagoon isn't a must-see spot or a must-check item on your bucket list, you might want to skip it entirely.

Alternatively you can head over to the Mývatn Nature Baths in North Iceland. Sure, the drive is close to two days, but the trip to North Iceland will take you away from the most popular sites (see points 3 and 4 above), through some amazing landscapes. Especially if you take the Eastfjords to get to lake Mývatn: The Eastfjords hide some of the best hidden gems in Iceland, and despite growing numbers of tourists, fewer people visited the Eastfjords in the summer of 2017 than in 2016.

Read more: 13 great reasons to visit East Iceland!

Once there, don't forget to check out the spectacular waterfalls in Skjálfandi river, visit Ásbyrgi and stop by for whale watching in Húsavík.

Read more:  See the spectacular waterfalls in Skjálfandi river which would to be sacrificed for more electricity

 

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