It’s April 2021. Vaccination against COVID-19 is increasingly widespread in the world’s wealthiest countries, and many people have started traveling again, or they’re planning for it in the near future. Now, as of March 26th, Iceland is accepting travelers from any country as long as they can show proof of full vaccination, or of previous COVID infection.
I expect Iceland may be a very popular destination for Americans and others this summer. With that in mind, I’d like to share my own reflections on tourism in Iceland, and some suggestions if you’re considering visiting the country.
First, let’s take a quick look at the historical context of tourism in Iceland. Here’s a graph of the number of foreign visitors to the country passing through Keflavik International Airport (the point of entry for the vast majority of visitors) since 1960:
Through the end of the 20th century, tourism was never a major component of Iceland’s economy. In fact, it took until the year 2000 when the annual visitor numbers exceeded the country’s population for the first time: Iceland’s population in 2000 was 279,049 people, and the visitor number reached 302,900. Then in the 2010s, Iceland simply erupted as a tourist destination, with the number of visitors moving from less than half a million in 2010 to a peak of over 2.3 million in 2018. (If you’re interested in learning more about Iceland’s economic history and current state of affairs, check out this video.)
My wife and I were part of that recent tourism wave, and we’ve had quite a bit of experience in Iceland: We visited the country four times in four consecutive summers, (2015–2018), circumnavigated the island twice, and spent over thirty days there total.
If you’ve never had the chance to visit Iceland, please allow me to try to describe my feelings:
Iceland is without peer. I could come up with a half dozen nicknames for the country to try to sum up what it’s like — “European Alaska,” the “Hawai’i of the North Atlantic,” the “most American Nordic country,” or “Scandinavian survival camp” — but none of them would do justice to Iceland’s uniqueness. Try as I might to make comparisons, there’s nowhere else in the world like Iceland.
I would strongly encourage people thinking about traveling abroad this summer to consider Iceland, especially if they’ve never visited before. It’s true that overtourism is a real problem in many places: I’ve addressed that issue and others through my previous pieces about counting the countries you travel to and other ways to visit every country in the world (besides in person). Indeed, there were probably many Icelanders who felt that having 2.3 million visitors to their country in 2018 was a case of overtourism, and they may want to set limits on visitors or reenvision their country’s tourism policies in the future.
However, even if Iceland does rebound greatly as a popular destination in 2021, I don’t think there’s any way it could match the numbers of a few years ago. One of the beautiful things about Iceland is that throughout the vast majority of the country, you will have space. Iceland is huge and sparsely populated, enough to fit many thousands of visitors at a time. As I mentioned, my wife and I visited the island four summers in a row during four of the five busiest years in Iceland’s history. During those visits, we laughed about how much solitude we could enjoy on the road and out in nature, only to suddenly come upon tour buses and rental cars in parking lots at important sites and say “Oh, this is where everyone’s been!”
In order to summarize my recommendations as best as I can, I have three major “dos” and three major “don’ts” to suggest for travelers looking at Iceland. I’ll start with the “don’ts”:
1. Don’t just stay in Reykjavik and the southwest.
There’s a joke Alaskans make about the city of Anchorage: The best thing about Anchorage is how close it is to Alaska. Much the same could be said about Reykjavik. Although 60% of the country’s population lives in and around Reykjavík, city life isn’t what makes Iceland special. There are, of course, a number of places in the capital worth visiting, depending on your interests: Personally, I enjoyed the Saga Museum and the National Museum of Iceland. After getting some quick insights into Icelandic history, culture, and daily life, though, I think the best travel itineraries for Iceland will move beyond the southwest capital region.
2. Don’t expect Icelanders to express the same sort of ebullient friendliness toward strangers that Americans often show.
By the end of our last trip to Iceland in 2018, I was almost ready to call the country “unfriendly,” but that label would be unfair to Icelandic culture. It’s a well-known stereotype that Nordic people are pretty reserved, and it was a rare occurence during out time in Iceland for a local to engage us in extended conversation. It’s also worthwhile to keep the recent historical context in mind: As I mentioned, tourism exploded in Iceland only within the past ten years, and it should be understandable that Icelanders would feel overwhelmed by all the visitors. During tourism’s recovery from COVID, it’s tough to say whether locals might be a bit friendlier after “missing” visitors for a year, or whether they’ll be even more removed because of virus precautions. Nevertheless, it’s safe bet for us Americans to lower our expectations for friendliness that we often have in the United States.
3. Don’t worry about not speaking Icelandic.
Icelandic is a beautiful language, and it’s amazing to learn how it hasn’t changed very much from the Old Norse spoken by Vikings. As a vistor, however, absolutely no knowledge of the Icelandic language is required to travel around the country. In nearly all circumstances — or, at least, nearly all situations typical tourists might find themselves in — English is spoken or information in English is provided. English seems to be accorded such an equal standing with Icelandic that the really remarkable places are the few around the country that don’t give it that status. (One of those places was the IKEA outside of Reykjavík, which presumably doesn’t care too much about catering to tourists.) Throughout our four trips to the country, we met perhaps two Icelanders who couldn’t speak any English, and both of them were older people who weren’t working in the visitor industry. On top of that, there were probably less than half a dozen times when we really would have wanted to read something, but it was only written in Icelandic.
Now, here are the “dos” of visiting Iceland:
1. Do rent a car and plan to camp.
This has to be my most important recommendation. It’s true that it simply can’t be possible for every visitor to Iceland to rent a car and drive around the country: There aren’t enough cars, and Hringvegur (the Ring Road around the island) would get too congested. From an efficiency and profability standpoint, it is much better for Icelanders if a lot of their visitors stay in the hotels of the southwest capital region and just go on bus tours.
However, if you do have the time and ability, the most ideal way to see the whole country is to rent a car and plan to go camping at least some of the time. A car gives you the ultimate flexibility to explore the island on your own terms, and it can sometimes be difficult to predict how much time you might spend sightseeing or hiking in a day, or even driving on a stretch of highway. Even with the explosion in tourism, you can’t rely on there being hotels or hostels available in every part of the country—at least not at an affordable price. In the rebound from COVID, there may well be more rooms available at lower prices, but I still recommend bringing a good tent and sleeping bags, and making your rental car the priority in the budget for your trip.
2. Do shop at the grocery stores.
If you’re used to only eating at hotels, cafés, and restaurants when you travel abroad, that plan may not work so well in Iceland. I’m sure it is possible to take a trip where you eat at restaurants every day, but if you really want to explore the island outside of Reykjavík and do it at your own pace, you should plan to stock up on food at the local grocery stores.
As with rental cars and hotel rooms, groceries in Iceland are expensive: That should come as no surprise on a remote island that needs to import the vast majority of its food supply. However, buying groceries is still far cheaper than going out to eat. Coming from a small town in Alaska, I’m used to grocery store and restaurant prices that are higher than the American average. The prices in Icelandic grocery stores seemed roughly comparable to those in my hometown — but the restaurant prices were quite a bit higher!
If you want to go extreme and save a bit more money, you can even bring your own food from home. When my wife and I spent three weeks camping around Iceland in 2016, we brought oatmeal, couscous, and soup mixes to supplement the meat, vegetables, and bread we bought at local grocery stores and bakeries. To echo the point about city life—your main purpose of visiting Iceland likely won’t be to enjoy its cuisine (although there are some interesting highlights). The greatest priority should be getting to know the land and its people.
3. Do study Iceland’s history and culture before and during your trip.
There’s such a wealth of history and culture connected to the land that you’ll be visiting, it’s well worth it to do a little research in advance, and plan on learning much more when you’re in Iceland. Iceland is pretty unique in that it’s an isolated island that has been inhabited by essentially only one cultural and ethnic group for over eleven centuries. The Icelanders, then, have a deep and unbroken connection with their homeland, and that’s reflected in all the names and stories associated with every area of the island.
If you’d like to start learning some of those stories, I suggest reading some of the sagas of the Icelanders, which are available in many published forms as well as for free online at sites like this one. If you like podcasts, you should give Saga Thing a try, which has many amusing episodes that summarize and analyze the sagas. My favorite, (or rather, the only long saga I’ve fully read), is Njal’s Saga, and the story came alive for me when I was able to visit many of the places described in it. Iceland is rich in place names—virtually every farmstead is named, and there are many signs along the roads—so you may also start noticing patterns as you travel around the country. With just a little research, you can start to discover connections and deeper meanings. For a start, check out this article I wrote on Iceland’s toponymy.
Though I explained that knowledge of the Icelandic language isn’t necessary to visit the country, learning and using just a few phrases is a wonderful way to better enjoy your travels. “Hæ” (pronounced “hi”), “takk” (thanks), and “bless” (bye) are extremely easy to learn and use with anyone you meet. You can also easily use “já” (pronounced “yow”) and “nei” to answer basic questions you’re asked — and sometimes it’ll even trick Icelanders into thinking you speak Icelandic!
If you’ve read this far, I expect you must be seriously thinking about visiting Iceland sometime soon, so I hope this guide has been helpful.
Two final suggestions of marvelous, magical destinations to add onto a trip to Iceland would be to visit the Westman Islands and the Faroe Islands. Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands) are part of Iceland, and only a short ferry ride from the main island. You can bring your rental car on the ferry and drive and hike around the island of Heimaey (“Home Island”). It’s an absolutely breathtaking place.
Though it may require a trip all its own, (as it did for my wife and me), the Faroe Islands are also pretty easy to visit from Iceland, with a short flight out of Reykjavík or a more leisurely ferry ride from Seyðisfjörður in eastern Iceland. The Faroes are part of Denmark, not Iceland, but as of April 1st, fully vaccinated visitors are allowed to come in with a COVID test upon arrival. (I definitely need to write a guide to the Faroes in the future!)
Lastly, please leave a comment if you have any comments, corrections, or suggestions. I’d love to help people make their time in Iceland as amazing as mine has been.