A year ago, I would not have imagined that I’d be visiting Iceland. The mention of the country conjured distant memories of high school lessons about Viking discoveries and glaciers, but that’s where my association with Iceland ended. It certainly wasn’t enough to stir my heart with a yearning for Icelandic travel. That all changed when my new friend Heather raved about her recent trip to Iceland. It sounded incredible, and just like that, Iceland was a place I needed to see.
Here, in no particular order, are just a few reasons why I’ve come to love this small island country during my two-week visit. Maybe after reading this list, you’ll also discover a sudden need to see Iceland too.
1. The Icelandic People
Islanders are openhearted and friendly people. While Icelandic is their native tongue, most know English well and don’t hesitate to speak it when they realize you’re not an Islander. Unlike many other countries, there is no pressure here to attempt the notoriously difficult national language. Drivers yield to pedestrians and stop to help those in trouble (as we found when our rental car got stuck in mud!), and the couchsurfing community is very active in Iceland, with many locals opening their homes to travelers passing through.
2. The Blue Lagoon
Wow…this place is famous for a reason! Yes, it’s a little pricey for a swimming pool; but if you view your visit as a restful spa day, the experience is well worth the price. I visited the Blue Lagoon with my new friend Astrid, who I met at the hostel where I stayed the first week. There are several package options for the Blue Lagoon, but we chose the basic entry price (approx. $40) and brought our own towels. For that price, we spent four delicious hours relaxing in the warm waters and enjoying the sauna, steam room and waterfall feature. The lagoon staff frequently refills buckets of skin-purifying mud located at the water’s edge, allowing guests to help themselves. Astrid and I treated ourselves to more than one mud mask. It’s hard to describe how truly restful this visit turned out to be. I haven’t felt so relaxed in a very, very long time. Ahh…
3. Heritage and History
It turns out that my distant memories were on target…Iceland was discovered by Vikings. But beyond that, Iceland has a fascinating and well-documented history. On one chilly day, I purchased a 24-hour Reykjavik City Pass for about $37 and visited five museums without paying any additional fees. The Iceland National Museum in particular is really worth seeing. It provides a comprehensive history of the country from its inception to the present, with so many interesting artifacts and exhibits. I think I read every informational panel in the museum, which is definitely usual for me!
Other museums and historic sites I especially enjoyed: Reykjavik Settlement Museum, Hofdi House, National Gallery of Iceland, Saga Museum (not included in the City Pass), Reykjavik Museum of Photography.
(Side note: The city passes are available for 24-, 36- and 72-hour timeframes and cover entry fees to many museums and city pools well as bus fares. They can be an excellent value if you’re planning to visit covered locations.)
4. The Water
No, I’m not referring to the ocean (though that should probably be on this list!). I’m talking about the drinking water. It tastes fresh and delicious from any tap. There’s no excuse for buying bottled water in Iceland, unless you’re buying one bottle that you’ll refill for the rest of your trip. I drink a lot of water and this constant supply of free, great-tasting water made me very happy!
5. Spectacular Scenery
The promise of amazing views was really what lured me to Iceland, and I have not been disappointed. Iceland is the land of sweeping, majestic landscapes. Fjords, glaciers, volcanos, sharp cliffs, hot springs and much more. I’m not ashamed to say that the incredible beauty of the country brought tears to my eyes more than once. Pictures just can’t capture what it’s like stop and find yourself completely surrounded by such awe-inspiring scenery. You just have to experience it for yourself. Just. Go.
6. Local Pride
Too often, you’ll find the same stores and restaurants repeated in cities around the world. I am a big fan of independent, local destinations – shops, restaurants, coffeehouses, galleries and more – that help define and illustrate the personality of a particular place. While Iceland does have national chain stores, I browsed in many beautiful shops filled with unique locally designed clothing, jewelry, art and decorative items unlike those I’ve seen in the United States; visited unique bars and restaurants; and toured a shark museum hosted by a family on a remote Icelandic farm. I’d say the local pride here is not only alive but also rigorously protected. I love it.
Alcohol is expensive in Iceland, so I have not tasted a drop since my arrival (except for a glass or two of complimentary Irish whiskey, but that’s a story for another blog post). However, I have spent a wad of Islandic krona on black licorice. A wide variety of licorice is produced in Iceland by companies such as Sambo, Noa, Gammeldags and Appolo. Grocery store candy isles are filled with the fresh and delicious varieties, and I have taken full advantage of the options. I realize that a small percentage of Americans share my taste for this black candy, but in Iceland, I’m with my people. Licorice lovers unite!
There’s something magical about a natural waterfall, and Iceland is famous for them. Spectacular waterfalls can be found throughout the country, from impressive Gullfoss on the Golden Circle to Glymur, Iceland’s tallest waterfall, in the Hvalfjörður. The smaller waterfalls visible along roadways throughout the country have their own quiet beauty.
9. Coffee Culture
Iceland’s robust local coffee culture places a high value on good coffee. Because I’m a sucker for a great local coffee shop, this characteristic makes me love the country even more. Give me a strong, artfully-decorated latte and a worn out vintage couch, and I’m home! Local coffee shops like Kaffitar and Reykjavik Roasters offer cozy environments and delicious brewed beans. Te & Kaffi is a shop with several locations and also offers great coffee.
10. Wide Open Spaces
If you need some time and space to think, Iceland is a good place to do it. I met a girl from France who commented on how much she loved the vast openness of the land, and after driving around Snaefellesnes Peninsula, I agree with her. There’s a stark beauty to the treeless acres of farmland and fields, and it offers a sense of freedom and opportunity for reflection that is harder to find in a city or housing development. Here, I can breathe.
But there is one real drawback…
1. Iceland is Expensive
If you’ve done any research on Iceland at all, you’ve heard this already. Though the value of the Icelandic krona has fallen significantly in recent years (hence the rise of tourism), travelers who wish to stick to a budget must work hard to do it. Alcohol and dining out are most expensive comparative to US standards, and it would be easy to blow a lot of money on the vast list of tour options around the country. The good news is that if you want to travel to Iceland on a budget, there are many opportunities to save money. (Stay tuned for a post on that subject.)
In short, there are so many reasons to love Iceland. I hope you’ll be inspired to come and see it for yourself, and assemble your own list of 10 (or more) things to love about this beautiful country!