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Iceland travel guide: Everything you need to know before you go

Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Shimmering ice caps and steaming lava fields sprawl across one of the world’s most intriguing islands, providing a visual guide to how our planet was formed. Bold and dynamic, the landscape is ever evolving, and energy fizzes from every crack and crevice. Waterfalls gush, mud pots simmer and every so often an active volcano lets rip.

Iceland is a destination perfectly suited to adventure and out of this world experiences – from lazing in a natural hot spring to hiking through a glacier. But there’s also enough room for imaginations to run wild, with tales of trolls and hidden people making sense of a land stretching far beyond the realms of fantasy.

Travel restrictions and entry requirements

There are currently no Covid-related restrictions for travellers visiting the country, regardless of vaccination status. Pre-departure tests were scrapped in early 2022, along with pre-arrival registration forms. Even mask wearing is now left to an individual’s discretion. If you do start to experience any Covid symptoms while in the country, it’s possible to take a test free of charge. Exposed individuals are encouraged to exercise special precaution for five days, but there is no legal requirement to isolate. Keep up to date with the latest news at covid.is.

Best time to go

Longer days and warmer temperatures make the summer season (from end of May to end of September) the most popular time to visit. To coincide with peak tourism, many restaurants, cafes and attractions only during this period – particularly in remote places such as the Westfjords.

In a destination dependent on weather, there’s more to do at this time of year: calmer seas make it easier to visit smaller islands; mountain F roads in the highlands are open for Superjeep tours; and major hiking trails in areas like Landmannalaugar are navigable beneath the midnight sun. The only downside is higher prices and bigger crowds.

Although days are shorter, winter is ideal for night-time aurora hunting, with the strongest displays typically between January and March. If you can’t face the cold and wind, September and October are excellent months for combining the northern lights with daytime activities.

Top regions and cities

Reykjavik

More than a quarter of the the country live in the world’s northernmost capital – although in sparsely populated Iceland, that amounts to only 100,000. But a close-knit community generates a dynamic creative energy, making this compact city the place to sample offbeat Nordic fashion, art and design. The best restaurants are concentrated in downtown; dine on sushi, fish and chips or hot dogs from fast food stalls. Or follow the new trend for food markets at Hlemmur Matholl and the Grandi Matholl in the cool Grandi district. Find a surprisingly high number of museums – ranging from a study of cetaceans to a bizarre collection of phallic forms. The Secret Lagoon, a thermal infinity pool and spa built into the rocks, is a worthwhile alternative to the Blue Lagoon in Keflavik.

The Golden Circle

Three of Iceland’s geological highlights make up this popular 300km circuit, accessible by car or on coach tours. Although waterfalls spill from gorges across the country, Gullfoss is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and impressive. Plummeting in two tiers, it thunders from the river Hvita river and can be safely viewed from a roped-off walkway. A ten-minute drive away, the Geysir geothermal area bursts with bubbling mud pots, fumaroles and vertical columns of boiling water. But the largest attraction is Thinvellir National Park, a canyon formed in a rift valley between the North American and Eurasian plates. It’s possible to walk – and even snorkel – between two continents, in a site where Iceland’s first parliament was formed in 930.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Dramatic mountains, photogenic beaches and a mighty glacier tumbling towards the sea were enough to convince Jules Vernes this should be the setting for his classic book Journey to the Center of the Earth. An active volcano dominates Snaefellsjokull National Park, which can be explored on hiking routes during summer months, while more accessible Kirkjufell – an “arrowhead” mountain featured in Game of Thrones – provides an impressive backdrop for northern lights photography. Several beaches can be enjoyed year-round: walk along the cliffs at Hellnar to watch waves breaking furiously on rocks; or admire shipwreck remains buried in the black sands of Djúpalónssandur. The peninsula is a two-hour drive northwest of Reykjavik.

Lake Myvatn

Accessible by domestic and some international flights, Akureyri is the gateway city to this northern region. Aside from its vast lake, a habitat for several bird species, the area has its share of geological wonders. The Diamond Circle circuit includes two fantastic waterfalls: Dettifoss dazzles with its sheer volume of water, while horseshoe shaped Gullfoss is a beauty to behold. Bathe in silica-rich waters at Myvatn Baths, the only other truly blue lagoon; walk through a sculpture park of volcanic formations at Dimmuborgir; and admire the sulphur-streaked landscape of Hverir. Husavik, a small town on the coast, is one of Iceland’s best sites for whale watching excursions.

Places you’ve never heard of:

Westfjords

Poking out from Iceland’s northwest corner, this blustery, remote region is a diversion from the ring road. Multiple fjords cut into the coastline, which splays into the Denmark Strait like a broad leaf. Undisturbed by crowds, Arctic foxes roam through the protected Hornstrandir peninsula, while millions of gannets, guillemots and puffins nest in the country’s largest bird cliff and Europe’s westernmost point, Látrabjarg. Cascading over a giant staircase of rocks, the beautiful Dynjandi waterfall is the region’s biggest attraction. Red sand beach Rauðasandur and Vigur island, another puffin colony, are close contenders. A passion for folklore and black humour play out in several quirky museums focussing on witchcraft, sea monsters and the mundanity of everyday life.

Highlands

Sparkling glaciers, soaring mountains and bubbling volcanoes make up this uninhabited 40,000 square kilometre region in central Iceland. Generally, most areas are only accessible between late June and September when snow has melted. Even so, it’s still best to explore with a guide or on an organised tour. Surreal landscapes and adventure are the main draw. Highlights include the hot spring valley of Hveradalir, the steep, misty canyons of Þórsmörk and Kerlingarfjoll, a mountain range famous for its colourful rhyolite peaks.

East Iceland

Although accessible via the ring road, too few tourists stick around in this sparsely populated region. More fool them. Like the rest of Iceland, there’s plenty to fill an Instagram feed: skip along the rainbow high street of Seydisfjordur; clamber through black sand dunes to witness the sun rise above the Vestrahorn mountain range; or wander beneath a canopy of trees (a rarity in Iceland) in the largest national forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur. Reindeer, Arctic foxes and puffins are a few of the species found in the wildlife-rich area. In Lagarfljot river, there’s also a chance to spot Iceland’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster.

Best things to do

Bathe in the Blue Lagoon

Part of an 800-year-old lava field, Iceland’s premier geothermal pool is famous for its skin-nourishing minerals, responsible for creating its milky blue colour. Changing rooms, swim-up bars and a gourmet restaurant make it one of the easiest hot springs to access. Located close to Keflavik airport, it’s ideal for a pre or post flight dip.

Take a campervan trip around the ring road

Stick to the main roads and it’s hard to get lost in Iceland. Circling the island, Route 1 (or the ring road) connects most of the country’s highlights. Collect a campervan in Reykjavik and stop off at a good selection of campsites, but remember wild camping is not allowed. Allow 10 days to comfortably do the circuit.

Explore an ice cave

Carved every year by geothermal activity and meltwater, seasonal glacial caves have become an astonishing attraction. Ranging from sapphire blue to onyx black, the alluring spaces shimmer like jewels, but must only be visited with a professional guide. Tours take place in winter when the caves are stable.

Go whale-watching under the midnight sun

A mixture of migrants and residents, several whale species can be seen in Iceland’s waters – sometimes even from the shore. Reykjavik (in the south) and Husavik (in the north) are the best places to take whale watching trips. During summer, evening voyages provide an opportunity to witness tail flukes silhouetted against the midnight sun.

Getting around

A car is essential for exploring further afield. Fortunately, a combination of fabulous scenery and good road services make road journeys enjoyable. But even in summer, the weather can change quickly, so always consult safe.is for real time details of road conditions.

To cut journey times, flights operate from the domestic airport in Reyjavik to key destinations such as Akureyri in the north and Ísafjörður for the Westfjords. For non-drivers, organised coach tours are an option. Try Bus Travel or Gray Line. Strætó operates local buses in Reykjavík and other key towns.

Public ferries run to most popular islands, although timetables are seasonal. Airport shuttles between Keflavik and Reykjavik take around 50 minutes.

How to get there

Cheapest:

Budget airlines Play and easyJet operate direct flights from several regional UK airports, taking around three hours.

Most frequent:

IcelandAir might not be the cheapest option, but they do offer the most services – from Heathrow, Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin. Departures tend to be at more sociable hours.

Money-saving tip

Travelling by campervan is by far the cheapest way to explore the country. Happy Campers and Go Campers are two well established companies. All vans must be parked at a campsite overnight, which should be booked in advance during peak season. There are many located across the country; most have kitchens and showers. It is possible to hire a campervan during winter months, although there are fewer campsites open and some roads are inaccessible.

FAQs

What’s the weather like?

Any Icelander will tell you: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” Sunshine, rain and snow are all common in a day thanks to the effect of the Gulf Stream bringing mild Atlantic air in contact with cold Arctic air. From June to September, daylight can stretch for 22 hours and the average temperature is 15C. In winter, from November to April, nights are long and often drop below freezing. But the biggest influencing weather factor is the wind. Icelanders have 156 words to describe it.

What time zone is it in?

Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) year-round and does not observe Daylight Saving Time (DST).

What currency do I need?

Icelandic króna.

What language is spoken?

Icelandic.