I visited Iceland in 2015 and stayed for about 3 days – it was the first stop of my backpacking trip around Europe. As I was visiting in July, Iceland was experiencing 24 hours of daylight, which was super cool – you could go sight-seeing at any hour of the day and even see the “midnight sun”. There was only a slight darkness in the early hours of the morning (equivalent to a normal pre-dawn or pre-dusk glow). The terrain even makes you feel like you are on another planet! Iceland, or “The Land of Fire and Ice” is home to many glaciers and hundreds of volcanoes as it is located on the Mid Atlantic Ridge. The abundance of moss covering the volcanic rock and fields of dried lava look like something out of a mystical movie… almost as if elves would live in the tiny caves and crevasses.
Yes – many Icelandic people believe in elves and trolls. There are many Icelandic legends about these creatures – even roads and buildings are built in consideration of where the elves live! This is one of the things that makes Iceland quite unique. This Nordic country also has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, which makes me wonder if a belief in elves and intelligence are actually correlated! A fascinating fact is that Iceland has more writers, books published & books read than anywhere else in the world!
Some other peculiar and cool things I noticed while in Iceland: it’s not uncommon to find babies left outside in a stroller napping. Also, nudity is nothing to be ashamed about… especially in the context of a change room or public shower. In fact, being nude in public is perfectly legal. I mean, can’t say this is surprising since they have an “Icelandic Phallological Museum” containing penises of all kinds (I haven’t been but I’ve heard some funny mixed reviews).
My personal experiences interacting with Icelandic people have been quite funny. While looking through sweaters in a small store, I came across a cat snuggled in the middle of the pile. After petting the cat for a while, I asked who the cat belonged to. The owner replied, “It is it’s own cat”. Well, that’s one way of putting it!
When driving around the golden circle, the length of some Icelandic words amazed me. Can you believe there is a word that is 64 letters long? I only learned how to say cheers – “skál”, which is used in many Nordic countries. Also, last names of Icelanders follow a traditional surname system – using a father or mother’s first name with the -son (for a son) or -dottir (for a daughter) suffix.
In terms of common food in Iceland, there are fish of all kinds – smoked salmon, herring, and pickled anything (even pickled herring was common). Surprisingly, Icelanders also love their hot dogs – usually served with fried onions and sweet mustard. They are quite good, and one of the cheaper foods of Iceland’s expensive options, so I would highly recommend grabbing a hot dog at a stand in Reykjavik! Also, while driving around the golden circle, we stopped at a shop to pick up some car snacks, and what I hoped were chocolate drops were actually bits of salted black liquorice. Icelanders, as it turns out, love black liquorice… so if you are a liquorice lover, Iceland is definitely the place for you!
What I did enjoy, though, was the traditional skyr (pronounced skeer) yogurt – creamier, sweeter and thicker than regular yogurt, but also packed with protein. On another note, the signature spirit of Iceland is Brennivín (aka Black Death). It is a super strong schnapps and traditionally served in a cold shot glass with a piece of fermented shark meat. I definitely wouldn’t mess with Black Death.
Overall, I would say Iceland has been one of the most unique places I have visited. Here’s a short list of the essential things to do and see while in Iceland:
It’s the capital city and busiest place in Iceland – Reykjavik is in relatively close proximity to the natural scenery and parks Iceland is known for.
Places to visit in Reykjavik:
If you want pictures of the best views in town, it’s worth visiting Hallgrímskirkja. This church is a landmark of Reykjavik that can be seen from virtually every area of the city!
Designed by the Icelandic sculpture Jón Gunnar Árnason, this artwork by the water’s edge in Reykjavik is a signature piece of artwork. Plus, it’s something cool to add to your photo album!
Harpa Concert Hall
It’s a beautiful glass-windowed building by the water and something else to add to the photo album!
Blue Lagoon (30-minute drive from Reykjavik)
I don’t think you could Google “Iceland” without coming across photos of this geothermal spa. It’s good for your skin and super relaxing. Contrary to popular knowledge, the Blue Lagoon is actually man-made, but it is still one of the “25 Wonders of the World”. Pro tip: do not get your hair wet in the Blue Lagoon – and leave a generous amount of the conditioner they provide you within your hair. The mineral content, although great for your skin, has the potential to damage your hair. Better to be safe than sorry!
Golden Circle (1-hour 30-minute drive from Reykjavik)
I didn’t go with a tour company; we rented a car and drove the route, which I would highly recommend. You can drive the Golden Circle at your own pace and stop for any sights you find interesting – and trust me, there are plenty!
Stops along the Golden Circle:
Þingvellir National Park
It’s a geological wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws in tourists from around the world. At Þingvellir, you can not only see the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, but actually walk in between them!
Here, you can stand a good distance away from a large and very active geyser and watch it spew hot water about 30m into the air every few minutes. You’ll get some cool videos at this stop… and enjoy the lovely smell of sulphur.
This translates to “Golden Waterfall” and it certainly is breathtaking!