What NOT to Do When Visiting Iceland
Iceland is a country that everyone seems to love. Those who haven’t been, long to go. Those who have are quite possibly already planning a return visit, or ten.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Iceland a few times now and have picked up things here and there on how you’re expected to behave. Some has been from talking to locals… other points are admittedly just general common sense.
So, here’s a breakdown of what not to do when visiting Iceland.
And as a disclaimer – I haven’t lived in Iceland, nor am I Icelandic, but I was obsessed with the place for many, many years and read everything I could get my paws on about it (and have visited several times). Hopefully this counts for something!
Don’t be scared of travelling to Iceland in the winter
Indeed, don’t freak out too much about travelling to Iceland in the dead of winter. Despite its name, the Icelandic winters are mild for their latitude, thanks to the gulf stream that brings warmer weather up from lower latitudes. If you’re wondering when there’s right time to go for you, here’s more information on the best time to visit Iceland.
Average temperatures are around -2°C (28°F) to 4°C (39°F), although in the highlands it tends to average −10 °C (14 °F). It can get a lot colder, but not so much as say, Russia or Canada for example, which have both been known to get down to −40 °C, or worse. That’s just upsetting, that is.
I had a conversation with an Icelandic bloke who worked in the tourism industry years ago when visiting Mýrdalsjökull glacier about the rubbish that was being left around the country by tourists. We were walking towards the glacier when a breeze blew a tissue past – he picked it up, clearly disgusted and said that they were increasingly appearing across the country.
Much of Iceland’s appeal is in its wild and largely untouched nature. If you’re heading to the country to check it out for yourself, please be respectful and put your litter in any bins available, or keep it on your person until you’re able to dispose of it correctly.
Don’t defecate in the middle of nowhere and leave toilet paper lying around
Sometimes nature calls when you least expect it, or more to the point at a time that is of most inconvenience – like when you’re driving in the middle of nowhere and there isn’t an outhouse for miles.
I find the adage of “take nothing and leave nothing behind” is always a good rule of thumb when travelling around the world. It can get quite windy in Iceland and you don’t want is toilet paper blowing around the country.
Don’t camp in inappropriate places
Likewise, don’t just set up a tent wherever you fancy pitching it at the time – it could be on someone’s private property, ruining the view or causing harm to the local environment.
There are designated campsites available around the country. Here’s a list for your perusal.
Don’t hit the road without checking the weather
Iceland’s weather can be quite extreme, particularly in the colder months (so, the majority of the year). If you’re heading out bush (as we call entering the wilderness in Australia), make sure you know what you’re signing up for in advance.
Don’t forget to fill up whenever you see a petrol (gas) station
It depends on where you’re travelling in Iceland, but there can be a whole lot of nothing for long stretches of time. If you see a petrol station take advantage of it and fill that tank right up!
I speak from almost experience, from doing a road trip out into the very isolated Westfjords in 2014. I think we drove for several hours without seeing a single soul. Unless you count sheep, of which there were plenty.
Don’t drive off-road
Roads are there for a reason. Not only could you end up doing extreme damage to your vehicle, but you could severely upset the surrounding environment.
That and it’s illegal. So, just don’t.
Don’t road trip without a map
The Internet in Iceland is bloody fantastic, but it never hurts to have a map on hand in unfamiliar territory. You’ll only be up the creek then if you have no sense of direction and if so I empathise, as I ain’t got none either. I spend half my time travelling or living my life in general first getting lost then figuring out how to get un-lost. I blame Google Maps for this – it destroyed the sensible map-reading part of my brain and often delights in sending me astray for no real reason other than to be a dick.
Don’t drink the bottled water
Icelandic tap water is completely safe to drink – there’s no need to filter it, nor buy bottled water! Unless you like throwing your money away, or something of the sort.
I’ve actually drunk the water off the side of a glacier. It was utterly delicious and a pretty special experience – the only other place where I’ve been able to do that has been Tasmania in Australia.
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Don’t wade into the sea at Reynisfjara beach
If you’re not Australian, you may not be aware of rip-tides – powerful ocean forces that can pull you under and drown you, no matter how much of a swimmer you may happen to be.
Reynisfjara beach in general has a particularly strong surf. Stand on the black sand shores and take an admiring glance around your surroundings, but don’t wade into the water, if you value your life at all.
In fact, be wary of the beaches in Iceland in general. If any look like they may have strong waves, er on the side of caution. It’s better to be safe than drowned.
Don’t refer to the horses as being “ponies”
Because they are horses, damn it. Really cute, shaggy haired, noble horses.
Don’t skip out on eating at local restaurants
I often see money saving tips for Iceland boasting things like “only eat food at the supermarkets!” Upon reading this, I cry a little for all the poor souls in the world who will never let a piece of Icelandic cuisine pass over their lips.
Having been to the vast majority of Nordic countries, I can tell you – our northern friends know how to rustle up a damned good meal and Iceland is no exception. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad feed in Reykjavik (I have regular dreams about the Skyr at Laundromat Cafe) and even out in the middle of nowhere, I’ve tucked into a burger only to discover that it’s the best darn thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.
I understand that Iceland is expensive and you won’t be able to blow out on every meal. But here and there will do your taste buds at least more good than harm.
And if anything – why not indulge in some of the local cuisine? Sheep’s head for tea, anyone?
Don’t be too fussed if you don’t do the Golden Circle tour
I’ve been to Iceland three times and I’ve never seen the geysers Geysir or Strokkur or the Gullfoss waterfall, nor stepped foot in Þingvellir National Park. While I’m sure they’re all very lovely, beautiful and such – I don’t feel like it’s affected my quality of life in any way.
Instead, I’ve visited some of the smaller museums around the country and have been able to enjoy sights like Dynjandi Waterfall in the Westfjords when no one else has been around. On my last trip to Iceland I didn’t even leave Reykjavík, as I was too busy having fun at the Airwaves Festival.
Don’t think of Reykjavík as a crazy party place
Reykjavík seems to be developing a reputation as a bit of a party hub – particularly in the summer months where the sun is up all night and residents and tourists alike with it. I’ve certainly had some of the best nights of my life out in the city (capped off with a truly excellent hot dog at the end of the night).
By all means go, drink and have a rollicking good time – but don’t be an idiot while you’re out and about. It is Reykjavík after all. If you were after a clubbing holiday, maybe you would have been better off going to Ibiza instead.
Don’t listen to what anyone says about the Blue Lagoon. Go if you want to go
The first photo I ever saw of Iceland was of the Blue Lagoon, which sparked the start of an almost decade long obsession with the place.
When I finally visited in 2014, I knew I had to get to this geothermal pool to see it for myself. I did and it was fun. Expensive fun. Yes, it was packed out with people, but it was still a massive novelty and I had a good time. (Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts for navigating the Blue Lagoon).
On the upside, the second time I went was during a snow storm and there was barely anyone else around. Result!
Don’t get into the pools without showering first
Icelanders are obsessed with cleanliness and as such, regulation is that you have to wash yourself whilst completely naked before stepping into your swimsuit and entering the pool.
Don’t be a prude about it – just do it! I will say that the first time I went swimming in Iceland I was a bit overwhelmed by how comfortable everyone was being naked, until I realised that I was the one who was being silly. I like to think that the experience was only ever good for my overall body confidence. Perhaps it helped undo some of the damage interred from reading women’s magazines from the impressionable ages of 13-18.
Don’t leave your swimmers at home
Indeed, there are possibly more opportunities to go swimming in this land of ice and fire than in my home country of Australia with its mere 10,000 beaches. There are hot pools seemingly everywhere. I bathed in rivers, baths and at a local swimming pool at Reykjavík (Vesturbæjarlaug for those of you playing at home), a massive novelty when it’s a well, freezing 0°C outside.
So pack your swimmers! You’ll probably end up using them more than you would have imagined.
Don’t walk off the paths in geothermal areas
That being said, when you’re in a geothermal area, observe the signs and keep to the paths. You don’t want to go wandering off track in an area that has boiling steam seeping up from the ground. That would be a most unpleasant experience and then some.
Don’t be too disappointed if you miss out on the northern lights
It’s completely understandable that you’d travel to Iceland with the hope of seeing the northern lights. I’ve been lucky enough to see them twice and both times blew my mind.
Yet, the operative word in that sentence is “lucky”, as that’s often what you have to be to see them for yourself. They’re not a nightly phenomenon and they might just not time with your visit.
You can increase your chances at the very least, by visiting in the cooler months. You’ll have buckleys of seeing them in the middle of the summer, as there’s too much consistent light.
Anything you’d like to add to this list?
Oops, I pinned it again.