5 Things About Iceland That Weren’t in the Guidebooks

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Every time I travel, I learn something new about the place I’m visiting that I’m not expecting.  With Iceland, there were a bunch of things that surprised me…

1. It’s weird flying into Iceland.

Still awfully dark at 8:30am
Still awfully dark at 8:30am

My entire flight to Iceland was in total darkness.  With limited daylight hours, my red-eye simply flew over a dark ocean for the entire trip, but it was also dark when we landed.  Our approach to Keflavik airport was strange because you’re coming in from over the ocean without a city light in sight until you’re practically right on top of the airport, and even then, the Reyjkanes Peninsula is so sparsely populated that it was pretty dark upon landing.  It was also a little weird to only see IcelandAir airplanes at the terminal (only a few other carriers fly there, and apparently not early morning).

2. Greenland may be a misnomer, but Iceland is not.

Does Iceland look nice to you? (Spectacular, yes, but covered in ice and snow!)
Does Iceland look nice to you? (Spectacular, yes, but covered in ice and snow!)

Do you remember in grade school when you learned that Greenland is actually quite icy and Iceland was green?  That is NOT true in the winter time!  Iceland is lucky to have the ocean and Gulf Stream keeping the weather “relatively” mild, but it can still be cold, snowy, windy, and especially icy.  Although the summers may be pleasant, don’t be fooled by anyone who tells you Iceland isn’t covered in ice.

3. It’s a small country but Reykjavik is not centrally located.

Map Credit
Map Credit

Sure, Iceland isn’t nearly as large as the United States, but what looks close on a map may still be a fair distance away.  The country’s best known attractions are spread out, and it’s easy to spend a lot of your trip in the car.  Measure distances ahead of time so you realize a day trip to the Golden Circle from Reykjavik covers 180km — and that speed limits are often as low as 50km/hour.

4. They decorate their cemeteries differently.

Visiting a Keflavík cemetery
Visiting a Keflavík cemetery

At home, you may lay flowers on the grave of a loved one, but in Iceland, electricity is cheap (due to geothermal power) so you’ll find lights adorning headstones.  That’s one way to remember your family around the holiday season!

5. Everyone speaks English but not everyone is helpful.

I owe a thank you to all the Icelanders who didn’t require me to learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull.  Every person we met spoke English fluently, so getting around is easy.  However, degrees of helpfulness and friendliness covered the entire spectrum from a few wonderful Icelanders to several who seemed like grouches.  Maybe I had bad luck, but I wasn’t feeling overwhelmingly welcomed (who can blame them with all these tourists?)

As always, there were a few things about Iceland that I found unexpected, but those little surprises are one of the biggest delights of traveling.

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17 thoughts on “5 Things About Iceland That Weren’t in the Guidebooks”

  1. Iceland has long been on my bucket list. I almost went this year when Icelandic Air had a November special but life got in the way. I’m living my dream vicariously through your blog.

    1. @Jane, I purchased one of IcelandAir’s specials (for December travel). It ended up working out perfectly for a short trip and I’ll share more on the package later.

  2. Fun stuff, Becky. I visited Iceland for four days at the beginning of November last year and loved it. I did find the people to be incredibly friendly and helpful .. sorry to hear that your experience wasn’t the same. Did you get to the Bæjarins beztu pylsur hot dog stand?

    1. @Barb, On a trip of just four days, I just may have bad luck with the people I encountered. I do hope to return someday (in the summer, though!) and hope I’ll meet up with many more of those friendly Icelanders.

      Yes, I did try the famous hot dogs. I loved the mustard and fried onions, but thought the hot dog itself was otherwise quite ordinary.

      1. I agree about the hot dog itself, but, then again, with all the toppings, the hot dog almost was the least of it!

  3. We must’ve just missed each other! I was in Iceland for two weeks just recently, from the last week of December into the first week of January 🙂

  4. Thanks for your helpful page, Becky! My 15 year old daughter and I are going for 4 days in 8 days!! It’s been a dream of mine for years. I don’t know why I’m so fascinated with Iceland but I’m finally going!!

    1. @Robin, I understand the feeling! Iceland is fascinating and I know you’re going to love it. Have fun with your daughter and enjoy Iceland 🙂

  5. I spent a week in Iceland and did not run into one unhelpful or rude person, even when we showed up in a small town looking for a place to eat. Restaurants were closed but local police stopped to talk to us and got the owner of a small restaurant to open 3 hours early for us. I can’t wait to return.

  6. Becky,we’re going this coming February. And we want to see the Seltun geothermal area on our way to Vik where we will have a cottage to stay in. Can you tell me if it was easily accessible in the snow. And overall, how were the the road conditions in general.


    1. @Mike, Seltun was easy to drive to. I’m not sure where you’re from, but if you’re used to winter driving, Iceland is no different. Expect plowed roads (except maybe some minor streets) but with the possibility of icy patches or white-outs if it’s windy. Have a great time!

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