How to Explore Iceland Like a Local

When in Reykjavík, do as the Vikings do.

How to Visit Iceland

The Sun Voyager statue in Reykjavík

Photo by Flash Parker

For a long time, Iceland was most commonly identified in relation to Greenland, thanks to the elementary school geographic mnemonic device, “Iceland is green and Greenland is ice”—or more recently in reference to Björk. But since 2010, the Nordic island founded by Vikings has erupted as an incredibly popular tourist destination. Some people actually credit that year’s literal eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano for putting the island back on the map. But whether you’ve been into Icelandic musicians for years, vowed to follow in Ben Stiller’s skateboard tracks after seeing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in 2013, or only recently realized that flights to the stunning country are cheap, plentiful, and relatively short—under six hours from New York—Iceland is probably high on your list.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to adopt a checklist mentality toward Iceland—ring the Golden Circle to check off the big three—Gullfoss waterfall, Pingvellir National Park, and Haukadalur geothermal area—before buying a gift shop wool sweater, and hightailing it home—and miss out on so much. But if you’re looking for a deeper, more immersive experience, there is no better example to follow than that of those former Vikings, the Icelanders themselves. From respecting the land to unlocking its secrets, here’s what you need to know to get in the true Viking spirit on your next trip to the Land of Fire and Ice (and help preserve it for any future trips).

Seljalandfoss Waterfall

Seljalandfoss Waterfall

Photo by Maggie Fuller

1. Get off the beaten trail but stay on the path

The point may be to get off the tourist track, but in Iceland, it’s extremely important to stay on the path. It is strictly illegal to drive off-road because of the country’s fragile arctic environment. Luckily, if you rent a car, many of the island’s most famous sights are roadside, but even when hiking it’s important to stay on designated trails to protect your surroundings, such as the fairy-like arctic moss, which may look common enough, but takes about a decade to regrow.
Most important, however, is your personal safety. Iceland has a wonderful untouched feel, but that also means that where you may expect signs, railings, and fences, there are none. In a country bubbling over with geothermal activity, this means that one wrong move could prove fatal—whether that be slipping into a boiling hot spring or over the edge of a powerful waterfall. It’s better to play it extra safe than to end up another rescue story like the bumbling tourist who tried to picnic on a floating glacier.

2. Be prepared for all kinds of weather

The country’s unofficial motto is “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes!” and locals pass through every type of weather throughout the year, from balmy summer days to the worst winter tempests, and even the occasional volcanic sandstorm. So, when someone recommends you rent a 4x4 car in the winter, or suggests you wear rain boots on a clear day, it’s not a scam or an attempt to make you look foolish. If an Icelander says the weather is going to be bad, it’ll either be much worse or much better. (It will, however, inevitably be windy, so think twice before renting that Citroën. Along the vast stretches of the Ring Road, wind gusts can get strong enough to blow small cars off the road.)



Photo by Maggie Fuller

3. Swim everywhere

Up until about a century ago, Icelanders didn’t swim much, and some of the earliest public swimming pools were built in the 1920s. These days, however, the locals are practically amphibious. There are hundreds of incredible natural hot springs and public pools scattered across the island, and if you’re looking for an authentic perspective of the island, the best place to find it is submerged. Explore the countryside in search of a “hidden” hot spring (the country’s tourism website is a great resource for finding off-the-beaten-path geothermal pools), or simply stop by the local community pool for a surprisingly enchanting dip. Nauthólsvik, for example, is a Reykjavík favorite, and many of the visitors to the small, public, beachside geothermal pool with fantastic views are locals.

4. Eat Icelandic food

No, we’re not talking about snacking on endangered puffin or subjecting yourself to putrid shark. Real Icelandic food is just as dynamic and delightful as its landscape. With an excess of shoreline, Iceland is known for its fresh seafood, and those rolling hills are ideal for grazing the country’s famous lamb. Not only that, but Icelanders also have harnessed geothermal energy to heat greenhouses across the country, so any cucumber or tomato you come across is 100 percent grown in Iceland. But to get a taste of traditional cuisine masterfully updated for modern palates, you’ll want to check out the exceptional dining experiences at places like Dill and Hotel Budir, which highlight foraged ingredients, traditional cooking techniques like fermenting, and plenty of local fish and game.

And of course, there are some who say that you haven’t really tasted Iceland unless you’ve tried a ubiquitous gas station hot dog.

5. Stay out late

Whether the sun is out at midnight or has barely risen in days is irrelevant. In Reykjavík at least, the party is only getting started around midnight. If things seem a bit quiet when you sit down to dinner at 7 p.m., it’s because you just haven’t waited long enough. But when bars close at 5 a.m. on the weekends and everything is within walking distance, a night out is worth the wait. The country’s legendary, creative, and quirky music scene fuels the capital city’s nightlife, and you can keep up to date on the latest shows and acts with the alternative magazine Grapevine.

6. Drink the water

Just below the surface, Iceland is a hotbed of geothermal activity, and that hotbed is responsible for those wonderful hot springs and the country’s amazing geysers. It is also responsible for occasionally making the water smell a little like sulfur in certain areas. But don’t let that scare you—any native Reyjkavíkian will proudly tell you that the water in Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world, and an errant whiff of sulfur is just proof of the water’s rich mineral content.

>>Next: How to Make a Friend in Iceland

Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.
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