Thoughts on travelling in Iceland

Kirkjufell mountain, one of the top tourist attractions in Iceland

This summer we spent three weeks travelling in Iceland. After a few days in Reykjavik, we rented a car and circled the country along the ring road, including the Snaefellsnes peninsula and the Westfjords.

Many of our friends have been to Iceland at some point – often many years ago. Every one of them recommended that we go, and the sooner the better. Whatever we read in travel guidebooks, journals, or on travel blogs and social media, was rapturous praise.

We tend to be sceptical of all-too-popular destinations (such as Vietnam or New Zealand), but Iceland did look special. The volcanoes, the glaciers, the cliffs and the sheer, empty landscapes! In the midst of the 2021 Corona restrictions, there wouldn’t be too many tourists, either. So, off we were for our Iceland adventure.

After coming back to Germany we spent some time summing up the trip. What were our Iceland travel highlights? What did we like about Iceland and the Icelanders? What annoyed us about travelling in Iceland? And why?

Nature and wildlife

Seal in Joekulsarlon lagoon

The nature and wildlife of Iceland is its big draw. During our stay we could hike close up to an active volcano and visit some areas with high geothermal activity. We saw historical places and rocks marking the edges of continental plates. Several times we had a bath in hot pools in spectacular surrounding. We watched huge seabirds, a lot of seals, and some dolphins. Unfortunately, we did not see any whales when we went on a whale watching tour once.

It goes without saying that we visited a LOT of waterfalls, because that is what you do in Iceland. There is a waterfall behind every other corner. Some of them were very impressive, but we are just not that much into waterfalls. Overall, the variety of spectacular landscapes in Iceland was exceptional and fantastic.

Hiking

A hiking trail in the Westfjords of Iceland from Flokalundur to Helluvatn

Wherever we travel we try to fit in some hikes, preferably multi-day hikes. As we were travelling in Iceland by car, we decided to do shorter treks. We wouldn’t go into the highlands, either, because we did not have a four-wheel-drive to cross rivers and navigate bad roads.

Most of the hiking suggestions we researched for our Iceland trip seemed rather short, however. With descriptions such as “7 km, 4 hours” we wondered just how difficult the terrain could be? To be prepared, we took high boots, gaiters, walking poles, emergency kits … In the end, most trails were access paths to sightseeing attractions. To accommodate thousands of (bus) tourists, they were well-developed broad paths, some even covered with rubber ring mats. Although we did find some “normal” hiking trails, we ended up doing several walks a day, but very few hikes of more than one or two hours. Overall, the hiking left us somewhat disappointed. But perhaps this was due to planning mistakes on our side.

The Icelanders

Rainbow road in Reykjavik, not only during Gay Pride

Icelanders are tolerant and inclusive, progressive and open. We loved the positive vibe during gay pride week in Reykjavik and the whole country. And we met a lot of people with different nationalities living and working in Iceland. In general, they seemed quite happy there.

And yet, outside of Reykjavik we almost never actually met and talked to Icelanders. The whole of Iceland has about as many inhabitants as Neukölln, our city district in Berlin. And that’s on an area 2000 times as big. Obviously, most Icelanders are busy running their country. On weekends, there were locals on the campsites where we stayed – but they grouped their huge caravans to corrals and kept among themselves. We couldn’t blame them, because their whole country seems to have been taken over by tourists. Iceland was perhaps the country where we had least contact with the locals even as individual travellers.

The tourists

A tourist posing for acrobatic photos in Joekulsarlon
Many tourists photographing a Geysir in Iceland

Before Corona struck, Iceland had massive problems with overtourism. And even with the Corona restrictions in place there were a lot of tourists. We were among those tourists, after all.

At every sightseeing spot there were huge parking areas and broad walkways to the attraction. Most of the time this would be a waterfall or a scenic canyon. Rope barriers indicated off-limits areas, to prevent tourists from straying from the marked paths. A good idea, considering that the nature is very fragile and takes ages to regrow. In fact, we did appreciate the opportunities to take pictures without hordes of people posing for Instagram. On the other hand, it felt quite like a staged experience. And of course, there were always people who stepped over the ropes …

General costs and quality of food

Fish n Chips in Reykjavik

Everything is very expensive in Iceland. This is because of the climate and Iceland’s remoteness. Nearly everything must be brought in from the outside: we get this. Still, the quality of things, be it campsites or food, was poor. We had just spent six weeks in Switzerland, where everything is expensive, too. But at least we felt that we get value for money. This was different in Iceland most of the time. We had some nice Fish & Chips meals, though.

Road Tripping

Travelling in Iceland by car means also: washing the car

And finally – road tripping is not our favourite mode of travelling. With the car, we decided against longer hikes that would have required additional transfers into the mountains. This made sense due to the limited public transport and the Corona situation. But still, we feel driving your own vehicle limits the interactions with locals and reduces the travel experience. Granted, we saw different things and very likely more “attractions” than on public transport. At the same time, we experienced less of Iceland.

Would we visit Iceland again?

We are glad that we went to visit Iceland, but to be honest, we are not smitten. We would like to return for a longer hike, though. The Hornstrandir peninsula looked glorious from a distance and apparently offers some spectacular hiking, so we might return for that.

View of the Hornstrandir peninsula from Sudavik, Iceland

Have you been to Iceland? What are your thoughts about travelling in Iceland? Let us know in the comments.

NB: We did not receive any sponsoring for our trip to Iceland. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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15 Comments

  1. Iceland is a beautiful place with nature’s bounty. The glaciers, hit springs and the local culture makes it unique and worth exploring. And definitely it has some great hiking trails for tourists.Great post with useful information on the country.

  2. Ya I agree that there was a lot of crowd when I visited Iceland. There were people everywhere and no wonder the prices were high. I still remember that I paid somewhere around 60$ for a small plate of pasta. I hope the pandemic restrictions have decreased the number of people visiting. I absolutely loved their wildlife. Unfortunately, I could not go see the whales as the sea was rough everyday I was there. Hopefully for the next time.

    1. Dear Raksha, we were also very dissapointed of not seeing the whales. Our boat did run – but the whales enjoyed themselves elsewhere. This seems rare for Iceland, but it happens.

  3. Iceland has been in our bucket list for long! We have to do it sooner than later. Those waterfalls are to die for! Beautiful! I love those rainbow colors on the street. Lovely images. 🙂

  4. We were glad we visited Iceland when we did. We loved the outdoor sights we visited and there were many we missed and would be on the itinerary for a return visit. Missing the northern lights was a bit disappointment for us. Hiking for two hours is generally ok for us. But not when the paths are full of talking people. The crowds generally would be our biggest fears about a return visit and we would probably plan our visit at a low season time. And dress for the weather.

    1. Dear Linda, I think it is a very good idea to travel a bit off-season in Iceland. Your chance to see the Northern Lights should be even higher then.

  5. We did a similar tour, but we only had two weeks. Iceland charmed me, especially the Westfjords. It has incredible wild nature, landscapes, waterfalls, volcanoes. I also love the hot springs of Iceland. I agree that Icelanders are very tolerant and open people. For sure it is an expensive island, so we decided on camping, and for most of the meal, we prepared ourselves.

    1. Dear Agnes, this is what we did too! We camped and cooked our own meals! Still it was one of the most expensive trips I did in my whole life!

  6. Iceland is in my mind for a long and trust me your post makes me the urge to visit the place as soon as possible. The beaches, the hiking spots, the waterfalls and the black sand yes I am craving to visit. Thanks for this detailed blog.

  7. I have been wanting to get to Iceland for this very reason – the nature and wildlife. This post is super useful for planning that. Good tips on the hiking – it seems like they are really well prepared for tourists with those paths and extra rubber mats. Sigh! Hope this happens soon

  8. Three weeks seems just the right amount of time to explore a country like Iceland, but it’s disappointing to hear there are so many tourists around. I always wanted to visit Iceland, but the high prices were a deterrent. I’d love however to see some of these unbelievably beautiful scenery, so hope to make it to Iceland someday.

    1. Actually there would be enough to do for a longer time! I found the price – value ratio bad in Iceland. It is understandable why everything is so expensive, but the qualitiy of food and campsites was often just ok…

  9. I definitely enjoyed reading your post. Iceland has been on top of our bucket list and being able to see the beauty that nature has to offer makes it a must-visit. I think the only thing that’s holding us back is the cost. I agree with you that it’s very expensive in Iceland and this is the reason why we need more time to save.

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