Iceland 101: A Quick Guide for Travelers

Guide to Accomodations

Visitors who are most interested in Reykjavík, with day trips along the Golden Circle, will be happiest based in the capital. There are no true five-star accommodations in Reykjavik yet, especially in terms of amenities and service, but the two four-stars I tried on a recent trip—Hotel Borg and 101—were charming and well situated.

Two of the newest accommodations in town provide luxury apartments equipped with full kitchens and are great for families or groups. Hotel Kvosin opened in 2013 with 14 rooms in a renovated 1900 building located right next to the Icelandic parliament and is currently expanding to add 10 additional rooms styled with tasteful and fun Scandinavian furnishings (expected completion: July 2014.) Also opened in 2013, the Black Pearl Apartments are situated by Reykjavik’s port, a quieter area that is still just a five-minute walk from the city center. These modern-style suites and apartments offer views of the ocean and the penthouse suite accommodates six people in comfort and style.

Adventurers who want to explore the interior and southeast coast should book a few nights at the smaller hotels in the countryside. One of the highly recommended options is Hotel Ranga, in Hella near the southwestern coast, from which most activities, including ice climbing, horseback riding, hiking, snowmobiling and deep-sea fishing, are less than an hour’s drive away. The new Ion Hotel, which opened in 2014, is less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavik and adjacent to Thingvellir National Park. This stylish boutique hotel, which was recently named part of the Design Hotels group, makes a great base from which to explore the Golden Circle.

Guide to the Basics

  • Language: Icelandic, which is descended from and very close to Old Norse, meaning even schoolchildren can read the country’s old sagas (think of the typical English-speaking teenager being able to pick up the original text of Beowulf). Most people also speak English fluently.
  • Time Zone: Iceland operates on Greenwich Mean Time.
  • Religion: Lutheran Church of Iceland, but hardly anyone I spoke to considered themselves religious. Our guide said the only time most Icelanders find themselves in church is “for their baptism and when they’re in the coffin.”
  • Currency: There’s been some talk about Iceland adopting the euro (even though the country is not part of the EU), but according to locals this won’t happen for a long while. The currency is the Icelandic kroná. The exchange rate at the moment is roughly one dollar to 75 113 Icelandic kronúr.

Guide to Iceland Superlatives

  • More than 11 percent of the island is covered in glaciers, including Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest.
  • There are more than 10,000 waterfalls, including Gullfoss, one of the largest in Europe.
  • There are 130 volcanic mountains, eighteen of which have erupted since the island was settled. Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 releasing a thick cloud of volcanic ash several kilometres up in the atmosphere, which led to flight cancelations across Europe.  Hekla, an active volcano in the southwest is expected to erupt in the near future.
  • Iceland is the only place in the world where visitors can actually stand on the mid-Atlantic ridge: at Thingvellir National Park, you start out on the North American plate and walk through a canyon to get to the Eurasian plate.
  • The youngest island in the world is found off Iceland’s southern coast; formed by a volcanic eruption in 1963, Surtséy is still cooling down and has four types of plants.
  • There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the island and no mosquitoes.
  • Almost all of the island’s energy comes from geothermal springs, making for some of the cheapest electric bills anywhere in the world (our guide told us his comes to less than $1,000 a year).
  • Thanks to geothermal energy, Iceland grows nearly all of its produce, most of it organic, in greenhouses that dot the island.
  • The country has a 100 percent literacy rate.
  • Iceland does not have an army, and its small police force doesn’t carry guns. Crime is rare, and the sole jail, on the southern shore, has just thirty rooms (all of which have sea views).
  • The country has one of world’s highest life expectancies (78 years for men, 83 for women).

Getting There

Icelandair ( flies direct from various North American and European destinations, including New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Orlando, Toronto, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and all the Scandinavian capitals. The flight from New York takes less than five hours, making Reykjavik closer to the East Coast than, say, San Francisco or Seattle.

In addition to regular flights from Europe (3 ½ hours from Paris; 3 from London) on Icelandair, several low-cost airlines including Wow Air and Easy Jet ( serve the country’s main international airport in Keflavik (KEF), which is less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavik.

Getting Around

Self-sufficient travelers can easily do the Golden Circle route by themselves as long as they rent a car or van with four-wheel drive. However, exploring the rugged interior on your own is not recommended, as there are treacherous mountain paths and glaciers that require local savvy. Keflavik airport is about a forty-five-minute drive from the city, and most travelers pick up a rental car there. Flybus ( times it’s schedule to accommodate all incoming flights to KEF, providing coaches that will drop you at your hotel or at Reykjavik’s main bus terminal (one way bus ticket is about $18 per person). You can also arrange pickups through hotels like the Borg and 101 or Indagare’s preferred partners.

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