Iceland travel guide
A small dot in the Atlantic between Scandinavia and America, Iceland has built an impressive tourist industry from its abundant natural wonders. Even financial collapse during the global economic crisis failed to hold back “the land of fire and ice” for long, and visitors are once again flocking to its wilderness parks and dramatic landscapes.
The fire in question, of course, comes from Iceland’s abundant volcanoes, which burst periodically into life, with sometimes costly consequences for European aviation. Elemental forces bubble just below the surface across the island, heating the water in Iceland’s taps and swimming pools, and creating otherworldly landscapes of twisted lava and rainbow-coloured mineral sands.
Volcanic tourism is big news, with trips to bubbling fumaroles, live lava flows and perhaps the world’s most reliable geyser at Geysir, which blows its top every four to eight minutes. Thermal springs surface everywhere, providing hot spots on the nation’s beaches and heating the waters of the iconic Blue Lagoon, a surreal open-air swimming pool surrounded by a landscape of tortured black lava.
Ice is Iceland’s other big draw (the clue is in the name) – more specifically, the dramatic glaciers which slice down towards the coast, calving icebergs into eerie lagoons. Glacier tours, by snowmobile, on foot, or on the back of a tiny Icelandic pony, are an integral part of the Iceland experience. In places, you can even tick off a glacier and a volcano on a single trip.
What lures many people back to Iceland a second or third time is the quirky nature of the Icelandic people. Eccentric, creative and fiercely independent, the Icelanders are simply a lot of fun to be around, particularly during the endless days of summer, when the runtur bar crawl rages through the streets of Reykjavik, the island’s miniature capital city.
So come trek a lava-field, gaze on a glacier, spot a whale or a puffin, sample one of Europe’s strangest national cuisines, and brave the snows in winter to glimpse the northern lights in their full glory, undimmed by light pollution in the least densely populated nation in Europe.
103,000 sq km (39,769 sq miles).
331,778 (UN estimate 2016).
3.2 per sq km.
President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson since 1996.
Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson since January 2017.
240 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are used.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Petty theft and anti-social behaviour can occur, particularly around bars where people gather late at night in downtown Reykjavik. Take sensible precautions and avoid leaving valuables lying around.
You can drive using a valid UK or other EU/EEA driving licence. There is no need for an International Driving Permit.
Make sure you have the correct vehicle insurance cover before you arrive. Read the small print on car rental agreements and make sure you understand which damages are covered by the excess or damage waiver. Some car hire agreements limit the class of roads you are allowed to drive on. Costs for breakdown recovery, especially in remote areas, can be very high. Iceland can be affected by strong winds causing localised sand and ash storms. Though this extreme weather is infrequent, British tourists have had to pay significant sums of money to repair damage to hire cars caused by sand and ash.
Distances between towns can be great, roads are narrow and winding, and speed limits are low. Driving takes longer than you think. Take particular care on gravel and loose surfaces. Driving conditions may be hazardous and roads impassable, especially in winter. Winter (but not studded) tyres are mandatory from around 1 November to 14 April; exact dates can vary from year to year. Keep dipped headlights on at all times. Fines for exceeding the speed limit are high.
Many highland tracks only open for a short part of the summer. If you intend to drive to the highland, or the more remote regions of the country, check with the Icelandic Road Administration (Vegagerdin) – telephone +354 522 1000 – before you leave. Vegagerdin provides up to date information on all roads in the country and will also advise you on weather conditions and off-road driving, which is strictly controlled. Beware of rapidly changing weather patterns, including river levels, which can change dramatically even within the same day.
Drink/drive laws are strictly enforced. Alcohol limits are far stricter than UK levels. Penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol are severe.
In 2015 there were 16 road deaths in Iceland. This equates to 4.92 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2015.
See the AA guide on driving in Iceland.
Hotels in Iceland are often fully booked for the summer period. If you visit on flight only tickets make sure all your accommodation has been reserved before departure. The British Embassy can’t help you find accommodation.
Hiking and adventure tourism
Hiking, mountaineering and other adventure sports are increasingly popular activities in Iceland. Unfortunately there are incidents each year of visitors getting into difficulty and needing the help of the emergency services. Follow the guidance of the Icelandic emergency services as detailed on the Safe Travel website. Leave travel plans and contact details with your hotel, or directly on the safe travel website, and take a mobile phone with you.