Things to Know About Iceland


There are a number of things to know about Iceland before you go. Each country has its own personality, and none is more distinct than Iceland’s. Historical connections with Denmark and Norway color patterns and views, but topography probably matters most. Truly it’s the land of fire and ice. Geologically young, it’s an island constantly being built through volcanic eruptions. At the same time it is constantly being ground down by glaciers and washed away by massive floods after the volcanic core melts the ice cap. And yet the flora and fauna seem to settle into their life patterns with complete tranquility.

There’s no place on earth like Iceland and I wished I’d known the following basics before my visit.

  • Credit Cards

Make sure every card you take has a security chip and that you know the PIN. This is not the same as your private password, but is a number issued for that card by the bank.

  • Water

Hot water (red dot on the tap) comes from a geothermal source and usually tastes and smells a bit like sulfur. Avoid using it for tea or any other cooking. The cold-water tap (blue dot) is pure drinking water and uses an entirely different pipe system until it hits the household tap. Just run the water a few seconds to eliminate the geothermal water. Don’t bother buying bottled water because it doesn’t taste nearly as good. Besides, Icelanders claim that any running water outdoors is safe to drink—no giardia or beaver fever in their country.

  • Clothing

Dress in layers no matter the season. Winds come up, rain clouds gather, the sun disappears (or comes out), and it can all happen quickly and without warning. So plan for every kind of weather every day. You will be severely hampered if you don’t take rain pants and a rain jacket. (Don’t take an umbrella; the high winds will destroy it.)

  • Tides

The seas around Iceland have six-hour tides. This makes a big difference if you’re boating.

  • Recycling

Icelanders are an avidly green group. You are expected to sort your trash by type. No one litters. Ever.

  • Footwear

Never wear your shoes or boots past the entry of a house or hostel. Take them off and set them in the shelves or closet provided. Be sure to pack lightweight slippers to wear indoors. Do take waterproofed hiking boots as well as sturdy runners.

  • B&Bs

Only one of our nine hostels and B&Bs offered breakfast as part of the package. All the others required breakfast to be purchased for an additional fee. Grrrr!

  • Shopping

If you find something you really like, don’t exhaustively try to compare prices. Iceland is tiny and every merchant knows what his neighbor is charging. That said, the best prices we found (which could be seasonal–who knows!) were at the souvenir shop Vikurprjon in Vik. Especially, don’t wait to do your shopping at the “outlet” store for Alafoss at Mosfellsbaer (suburb of Reykjavik). Contrary to what some guidebooks say, the store has the same prices as the boutiques in downtown Reykjavik.

  • It’s Pricey

The cost of food, lodging, goods, and services in Iceland is ridiculously high. I wonder if the inflated prices are necessary because of the island’s remote location? Or do millions of us want to visit every year because of our insatiable fascination with the untamed; hence, the locals can charge whatever they want for the experience?

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