Once inhabiting the furthest fringe of a traveler’s radar, Iceland’s raging popularity today has turned the country into one of the hottest destinations on the globe. A decade ago, less than 350,000 foreign visitors entered Iceland, while this year, a staggering 1.5 million tourists will visit Iceland—five times the country’s resident population!
What may be great news for the Icelandic economy could also threaten everything that makes Iceland so attractive: the austere and empty landscapes, the barren silence, the pristine water and sky, and the unbothered wildlife. Smart travelers should be aware of the challenges posed by the rush of mass tourism, and plan their adventures accordingly. Here’s are seven of the biggest mistakes made by newbies and how to avoid them.
1. Never Leaving Reykjavík
Yes, it’s a cool city. Yes, it has a phenomenal music and club scene, the restaurants are world class and unique, the geothermal swimming pools rock, and you can pretty much walk anywhere. But trust me: The best of Iceland lies outside the 101, way out in the wilderness. So get out there! And not just for brief day trips—take the time to go way beyond the capital to the emptiest wilds of the country. That is where Iceland shines brightest. 2. The Golden Circle
Ugh. The Golden Circle is not a thing—it is simply a well-marketed daytrip to three fairly interesting highlights—Thingvellir, Gulfoss, and Geysir—that fit nicely into an easy bus loop from Reykjavík. While they are certainly worth the visit, it is too easy to be lulled into believeing that you’ve seen the best of Iceland. You haven’t—the Golden Circle represents the most deeply-tread track on the tourist trail, now lined with a caravan of tour buses. Step outside that loop and you’ll not only set yourself apart from the maddening crowds, but you’ll also get to know a more authentic Iceland.
3. Driving the Ring Road
Simply circumnavigating Iceland via the Ring Road does not equal seeing all that Iceland has to offer, either. The trip usually boils down to spending 5-6 days behind the wheel going a maximum of 40 mph on a narrow road along with tens of thousands of other agitated tourists, all the while missing out on some of the country’s best sights that are nowhere near the Ring Road. Iceland is not the Indy 500. Instead of focusing on the road ahead of you, pick a few regions you want to explore (e.g. The North, the West Fjords, the east), grab a domestic flight there, then roam the area by car, foot, bicycle, horseback, or snowmobile. You’ll maximize your vacation time, cut out all the stress, and be able to better enjoy the country.
4. Going in Summer
Iceland is a year-round destination, but the myth prevails that one must visit the sub-arctic island in summer only. Will it be warmer in July? Yes, and it will also be jam-packed and double the regular price. Wanna see fluffy baby puffins hatching? Come in June. Wanna see the Northern Lights? Go in February. Wanna ride horses and experience the annual sheep round-up? Go in September. Iceland shines all year round, so be a maverick and travel outside of high season.
5. Skipping the West Fjords
The far northwestern corner is truly the best Iceland—boundless and beautiful, remarkably empty and wild—yet less than 3% of foreign travelers ever make it to Iceland’s most remote region. The deep fjords, hiking trails, and nature reserves up there are still the best-kept secret in Iceland, and guess what? It’s not on the Ring Road. Skipping the West Fjords is like going to Wyoming and skipping Yellowstone. 6. Staying in Hotels Only
The fact is, Iceland does not have enough hotel beds to house everybody who shows up on their shores. Many of the “hotels” outside Reykjavík are in fact, schools outside the summer season. Instead, try a guesthouse, bed & breakfast, or better yet, a farm stay. Icelandic Farm Holidays lets you book accommodation with a working farm anywhere in the country, and is by far the most authentic experience you can have. Also, try camping! Icelandic campsites are clean and comfortable with some of the best views in the country. Camping will give you a lot more freedom to roam in some of the uninhabited parts of the country.
7. Eating Puffin
Atlantic Puffins are a vulnerable species, which Icelanders traditionally hunt and eat. Unfortunately, it has become a commonplace curiosity on tourist menus which is threatening to eliminate one of the very things that makes Iceland so special. It’s becoming more and more rare to see the creatures in the wild because areas where puffin-hunting is legal (like the Westmann Islands) are home to the shyest, most elusive puffins. The same goes for whales, which are (sadly) often served in Icelandic restaurants as well. Go on a puffin-spotting or whale-watching trip instead, and enjoy the wonder of Iceland’s creatures in real life.
Andrew Evans is the author of the Bradt Guide to Iceland