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Iceland

A volcanic masterpiece

Our Iceland Travel Guide

Introduction

Whether it’s your first time travelling to Iceland or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.

At a glance

Flying time from UK
2½ hours

Time zone
GMT ±0

Currency
Icelandic krona (Ikr) = 100 aurar

Language
Icelandic

Travel advice
Check the FCO for latest visa & travel advice

Travel Guide

Overview

Though remote and isolated, surrounded on all sides by the horror winds and swells of the Atlantic and a snowflake away from the Arctic Circle, Iceland is impossible to ignore.

The island has one of the world's most exciting landscapes. Lava flows melt glaciers, giant waterfalls burst through igneous rock, thermal springs bubble away under freezing blizzards, and, on clear winter nights, the sky is swept with the radiant green of the Northern Lights. Everything dramatic, everything epic. 

Here, the outdoors is God, and its followers head into the wild interior each weekend to hike, ski, climb and kayak. This unique landscape has influenced all forms of Icelandic society down the years - the country's first parliament, indeed the world's first, gathered by a large, pristine lake, surrounded by conical mountains and scraggy rock in Thingvellir National Park.

This epic sense of landscape is reflected in the country's artistic output, from the celebrated Sagas to the soaring choruses of Sigur Ros, one of the country's best-loved bands. The local art galleries would be a hit in Paris and the bookshops cater to a population that reads more books than any other country in the world.

It's an almost mythical, magical, mystic world, this land of fire and ice; no painting, song or poem could prepare you for it.   

Culture & etiquette

Iceland is often voted the happiest country in the world and Icelanders reflect this contentment in their helpfulness and general good spirits. In essence quite quiet and reserved (Icelanders read more books per year than any other nation) they may seem stand offish, but many will be more than happy to help, point you in the right direction or share a few hints and tips on what to do and what not to do whilst travelling in Iceland.

The stunning surroundings mean that the outdoors hold great importance in the life of all Icelanders and outdoor pursuits take centre stage during evenings, weekends and holidays. Icelandic arts are also enthusiastically consumed with literature, music, sculpture and other traditional arts creating a buzzing art scene in Reykjavik and across the towns and villages of the island.

Drink

Alcohol in Iceland is expensive, so if you fancy a nightly tipple at a reasonable price, consider joining the queue at the duty free at Keflavík airport. Elsewhere, alcohol is sold only in restaurants, bars and government run liquor stores called vinbúð, which are notoriously hard to find. Beer however, is sold in supermarkets, though often with a lower percentage alcohol content. The main brands are Egil's Thule and Viking.

Liquor enthusiasts will find Iceland's infamous brennivín schnapps, nicknamed 'Black Death', suitably impressive. Distilled from potatoes and caraway seeds it provides a seismic kick and was traditionally drunk to replace the taste of fermented shark meat.

Coffee is big business, even outside the accidental hipster hangouts that make up Reykjavik's unassuming café culture. In fact it's such an important part of daily life that the country just about runs on it and you can top up your thermos flask for free in numerous shops and supermarkets.

Festivals

February - Winter Lights festival

March - Beer Day, celbration of the day in 1989 when prohibition in Iceland was overturned 

April - Sumardagurinn Fyrsti, celebration of the first day of summer

May - Rekjavik Arts Festival

June - Sjómannadagurinn, Seafarers' Day

July - Listasumar á Akureyri, ten week summer arts festival in the nothern capital of Akureyri

August - Reykjavik Jazz Festival

September - Reykjavik Film Festival

October - Iceland Airways, festival dedicated to new music

November - Dagar Myrkurs, celebration of the onset of winter in East Iceland

Food & drink

Once upon a time, the Icelandic diet was limited to fish, sheep and seabirds - the adversarial weather and sparse soil meant vegetables were virtually non-existent. Fresh produce had to be preserved to last the long winters - by salting, pickling or fermenting every part of every animal or fish.

Modern Icelandic cuisine is still based on these old staples, but the trend now is to treat traditional ingredients as imaginatively and as tastily as possible, and the range of vegetables has grown no end - mostly in hothouses, many heated by geothermal energy - yielding flavourful results. The meat and seafood are as organic as they ever were, and therefore delicious too. The lamb in particular - and there is a lot of it, with four sheep to each person on the island - is outstanding. In the summer months, sheep range freely, grazing on untreated grass and wild herbs, and the good life comes through in the taste - slightly gamey and extremely tender.

In the old way, every part of the animal is still used, although the most commonly consumed lamb dish is pan-fried fillet (or perhaps the pylsur - the iconic and hugely popular Icelandic hotdog). Hangikjöt, hung, smoked lamb is also popular - as part of the traditional Christmas meal, but also as an everyday sandwich filler. But true to respectful form, nothing is wasted, so you may well come across slàtur, haggis-style preparations, with the liver and other offal cooked in a sheep's stomach; or blódmör, which is cooked in the same way, but with the addition of blood and rye to make it more akin to black pudding than haggis; or sviö - boiled sheep's head - the tongue is especially tasty. Súrsadir hrútspungar - rams' testicles, pickled and pressed into a cake are another tasty example of using up every last scrap.

Beef in Iceland is almost as tasty as lamb, but less common so more expensive, and in eastern Iceland, delicious reindeer is served when in season - from late July into late September. Foal fillets served nationwide - in this instance, clearly labelled so if you don't fancy eating horse, it's avoidable. Another Icelandic speciality that's easy to avoid, thanks to the pungent smell that announces its presence, is hàrkarl - that infamous delicacy that is fermented Greenland shark. It's stored underground for months to break down the toxins and before it reaches that heady stage when it's ready for consumption - and although many people say it tastes better than it smells, many disagree.

Puffin (lundi in Icelandic) used to be eaten more commonly than it now is, and although it still features on menus - generally smoked and allegedly quite tasty - numbers are in decline. Even more controversially, whale also features on menus, and while this is from Minke whales, not yet an endangered species, a whale is a whale even when seared like tuna or skewered like prawns, and so naturally, many visitors have mixed feelings about this particular culinary tradition. Again, it's easy enough to avoid, especially given the wonderful alternative seafood on offer. As you'd expect from an island surrounded by clean and clear waters, the bounty is plentiful and delicious, monkfish and mussels, haddock and herring, skate and salmon, lobsters and langoustines. The oysters and shrimp are delectable too.

Despite this profusion of fresh fish, a favourite snack between meals is harôfiskur, strips of wind-dried haddock, usually eaten with butter. Just as popular, if not more so, is skyr, a soft, thick and yet light cheese that is ubiquitous, eaten everyday and at anytime, in everyway, sometimes as a dollop on pönnukökur, the thin crepe like pancakes that are dusted with cinnamon and often served as puddings or snacks.

Geography

Iceland covers an area of 103,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Cuba or South Korea. Over 315,000 people live in Iceland, the majority on the southwest and northern coastlines. Of the population, over 120,000 people live in Reykjavik, the world's northernmost capital. Iceland has over 4,970km of coastline and its closest neighbours are Greenland, over 250km away and the Faroe Islands, over 400km away. The highest point is Hvannadalshnukur, which scales to 2,110m. Þingvallavatn in the Þingvellir National Park is the country's largest lake.

Iceland sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a hot spot for tectonic activity. Famously, Eyjafjallajokull erupted in 2010, sending ash high into the atmosphere and disrupting flights across Europe for several days.  Other active volcanoes include Katla, Askja, Oraefajokull, Hengill and Vestmannaeyjar.

Getting around

Your WEXAS Travel consultant can arrange any combination of internal travel to suit your tailor-made itinerary, depending on your preferences.

Iceland's famous 1300km long Ring Road leads right around the county, leading from Rekyavik to the numerous small towns and villages scattered around the edge. Route 1 makes seeing large parts of the country quite easy, with a number of smaller roads leading from it and into the interior.

The best way to see the country is therefore by car and Arrivals at Keflavík is fully geared up for visitors wanting to hire cars. The roads in Reykjavik and Route 1 are (mostly) paved but many of the interior roads - especially F roads - are gritted, so consider hiring a 4x4 if you want to get right into the heart of the country.

Bus services are limited, so if you aren't a driver, consider joining a coach tour. For more adventurous spirits, ridesharing is an option and many hostels and hotels around the Ring Road will be able to point you in the right direction.

History

Geologically, Iceland is a youngster. Straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it first broke the surface 17 million years ago and is still very much in its explosive teenage stage today. Its human history, marked by high culture and anarchy in equal measure, is also relatively young - compared to its European contemporaries - though, like the island's fiery tectonics, is turbulent and complex.

Mention of an icy, mythical island first appears in Greek explorer Pytheas' account of his travels written in 300BC, but it's not until 600AD that the island welcomed its first settlers, when a band of Irish monks took a wrong turn on the way to the Faroe Islands. Despite a lack of archaeological evidence, it's generally accepted that they stayed until 800AD when they sensibly headed home; the Vikings arrived 50 years later.     

Norse settlers were tentative at first, with the earliest explorations rounding the island and quickly returning to mainland Scandinavia. The island took on various titles, including Snæland (Snow Land) and Garðar's Island, named after Swede Garðarr Svavarsson, before a raven-following navigator called Hrafna-Flóki christened the island, Iceland. In 871, Iceland's first true settlers landed, led by Norwegian Viking Ingólfur Arnarson who landed at a bay surrounded by thermal springs, which he named Reykjavik, The Bay of Smoke.

Soon the whole island was dotted with small farms and by 930, the world's oldest existing parliament, the Alping, was founded next to a pristine lake at Pingvellir. It met for two weeks each year and was remarkably successful in settling islanders' disputes. In 1,000 AD the island converted to Christianity whilst allowing pagans to maintain their beliefs and rituals, a defining victory for the diplomacy of the Alping.  

This relative state of calm was short lived and by 1200, Icelandic society was beginning to deteriorate. Unhappy with their nominated chiefs, rival groups started to build up private armies, which swept across the icy plains in true Viking fashion. By 1281, Norwegian king Hákon Hákonarson had persuaded warring parties to recognise his authority and Iceland's pioneering parliament was dissolved. The country was absorbed into Norwegian and then Danish rule.

The next 400 plus years were notoriously grim: Hekla volcano erupted violently three times, plunging the country into a mini ice-age; new Danish rule imposed crippling trade rules, impoverishing many Icelanders; the Black Death killed half the population; in 1627 Barbary pirates raided the east of the island, killing indiscriminately and kidnapping over 200 people who were sold into slavery; and between 1783-84, the Laki crater erupted, killing 25% of the population (over 9,000 people) and 50% of the livestock.

By the middle of the 19th century, the downtrodden Icelanders had grown fed up with the years of corrupt foreign rule and a fledging independence movement started to gain real support and by the end of the First World War - a relatively prosperous time for Icelanders - the Act of Union was signed, partially freeing Iceland from Danish rule.

Iceland witnessed occupation by American and British forces fearing a Nazi invasion during WWII and, as Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, on 17 June 1944, the Republic of Iceland was formed at the former site of the Alping in Pingvellier. 

Years of prosperity followed. The Ring Road was completed in the 70s, Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik in 1986, there was a sense of optimism and the Icelandic population boomed.

The last decade however, has not been trouble free and, in the eyes of many outsiders, Iceland has been defined by three things in recent years: whaling (which is still highly controversial, though ironically sometimes supported by the tourist trade, at least those who chose to eat whale), economic collapse and an ash cloud.

The economy is slowly recovering, with the witch-hunt of politicians and bankers healing some wounds. But it's not such good news for European airspace; scientists believe that a future eruption of Hekla volcano could produce an ash cloud four times larger than that which came from Eyjafjallajökull. The small mythical island in the Northern Atlantic continues to be as tempestuous as ever. 

Tipping

Tipping isn't expected in Iceland and most bills that you receive, whether in a bar or a restaurant, will already include gratuity. That said, if you've received good service or your waiter has been particularly useful, it doesn't hurt to add an extra 10% to your bill or round it up to the nearest 0.

Where to eat

Reykjavik offers, as you'd expect, the greatest variety of restaurants, cuisines, cafés and café-bars in the country. Akureyi and the larger towns also offer a range of eateries and cuisines, but in the countryside, the choice can be limited to hotel restaurants or the grills found in fuel station roadhouses.

Why book with Wexas Travel?

At Wexas, we specialise in bespoke travel experiences. Our itineraries are just samples of what we can arrange, and can be changed depending on your precise needs, finances and ideas by our experienced destination specialists.

Contact one of our consultants on 020 7590 0618 to discuss how we can tailor your holiday.

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