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When you tell people you’re going to Iceland, it’s one of those locations that makes them say ‘wow – tell me more!’. And Iceland certainly is a unique nation. A chilly Nordic island nation way out in the North Atlantic, it’s Europe’s least populated country – but what it lacks in people, it more than makes up with jaw-dropping scenery and rousing national spirit. 65% of its population of 326,000 live in and around capital city Reykjavik and the signature features of its otherworldly, volcanic terrain are mountains, lava fields and glaciers. Its lively subterranean activity also means it’s one of the few places in the world you can sit feeling perfectly warm in natural geothermal pools, surrounded by powder snow and azure skies.
Despite its small size and sparse population, there’s lots to keep you busy in Iceland. Like rousing pub crawls, whale-watching, and the magical Northern Lights. It has its own distinctive culture too – much of it centred around the epic sagas (legendary tales based on events in the early middle ages) as well as its admirable literary heritage – this country has produced a disproportionate number of excellent writers. Scenic highlights include the West and East Fjords, the second-largest town Akureyi is always worth exploring, and it’s ideal for exploring by car, with a road network that can take you all across the island (even in the depths of winter, authorities move heaven and earth to keep everything open). Rent a car in Iceland with Enjoy Travel and you’ll have the adventure of a lifetime.
Guide of Iceland
Formed over 1000 years ago during the Viking era, Iceland’s first settlers were of Norse and Celtic extraction – early Norwegian sailors who settled there epitomized the nation’s adventurous outlook by launching expeditions to Greenland and even North America. Although its nearest European neighbor Scotland is some 800km away, Iceland has always been a proudly European nation and this continental outlook is woven through its traditions and folklore from the earliest days. Reykjavik’s status as capital and largest settlement stemmed from it hosting the country’s first farmstead and as the world’s oldest democracy, it’s an early exponent of people power. Around 90% of the country’s population is descended from a host of Nordic settlers who started arriving in 874AD – the start of a mass migration that lasted for the next half a century and in terms of faith, the majority religion is Lutheran, although there are also Roman Catholics and several other minor Christian denominations.
The Viking influence in Icelandic culture is still very strong and the language is still very close to the Old Norse that early settlers arriving on their longboats spoke. And locals are also passionate about literature (as mentioned), art and cuisine (typically locally sourced fish, lamb and seafood dishes). The cultural calendar is also packed with special national days, like Bondadagur (husband) and Konudagur (wife) day, and Thorrablot (celebrating the ancient month Thorri, which overlaps January and February. Furthermore, magic is always in the air here because mysterious beings like elves and trolls feature heavily in the national folklore and a significant portion of the population still believe it’s possible that they actually exist – please snap a picture if you see any.
If you’re a keen sports fan, you’ll probably know a little about Iceland’s sports achievements. The men’s national football team has performed exceptionally well in recent international competitions and the women’s team is ranked in the world top 10 by FIFA. However, the national sport is actually team handball and the national team actually won Olympic silver in Beijing 2008. On the participation sports side, golf is popular, as are walking, hiking, and cycling. Icelandic kids are encouraged to take sports seriously from a young age in order to stay mentally and physically healthy.
Things To Do in Iceland
If you’re a fan of history, there are lots of sites in Iceland to choose from – and you’ll often drive through awe-inspiring scenery to get there. One great place to visit is Gasir, which is 11 miles outside Akureyri. An important trading hub until the 16th century, it holds a fascinating festival each July, when talented tradesmen construct an authentic medieval market and sell unique craft products. Meanwhile, another significant historical site is Orlygsstadir, the site of a gargantuan battle between Iceland’s most powerful clans in the 12th century. Located in the west of the country, this site is permanently seared in the national collective conscious. And if you’re interested in fishing heritage, visit Gufuskalar – one of Scandinavia’s most ancient fishing hubs, it’s now a ghost town that the last inhabitants left in 1948, but you can still see the ruins of fisherman’s huts that are 700 years old, as well as the 9th century ‘Irish Camps’.
If you’re in Iceland for a more limited time, it’s definitely wise to prioritize the locations you’d like to see most. For lots of visitors based in Reykjavik, whale watching is definitely a highlight. Boat trips operate all year round, but summer is usually best because you can sail in the middle of the night – it never gets dark in the height of summer here. Another hotspot (literally) is the Blue Lagoon in Grindavik – located a 45 minute drive from the capital, this blue geothermal spa reaches 39 degrees, and you can buy apply spa treatments like mud masks to make your dip even more therapeutic. And you can’t leave Iceland without witnessing a dramatic geyser – the Strokkur Geysir (under one hour’s drive from Reykjavik) is a good pick, and it attracts visitors worldwide. However, if you were forced to choose one activity in Iceland, it has to be the Northern Lights. Also known as the Aurora Borealis, these chameleonic natural lights dancing across the sky are connected to the solar wind.
Big nights out
Want to have a wild night out that even Viking warriors would be proud of? There are plenty of places to get seriously refreshed in this idyllic island domain. Kaffibarinn in Reykjavik is as good a place as any to start. A chilled-out café complex during the day, by night it transforms into a legendary nightspot where cocktails and shots flow freely. And Vedur is another highlight in the capital. A swish, bijou cocktail joint a short stroll from bustling shopping streets, this refined oasis just oozes class – from the lush, rich décor to the candlelit ambience. Meanwhile, Einstock Bar is another must-visit – this Reykjavik pub brews its own beer and is the heart of the action on Friday and Saturday nights.
Eating Out in Iceland
Looking for a brilliant brunch spot where the dishes are actually good for you? Try Bergsson Mathus in Reykjavik. Their fresh avocado and smoked salmon served on rye bread is divine and they also do homemade baking – delicious. Alternatively, the Bryggjan Café is just a 10 minute drive from the Blue Lagoon and serves a beautiful lobster broth.
Yearning for a good old American-style steak dinner? Head to Reykjavik’s Steikhusid (Steak House) for a sumptuous ribeye served with Bearnaise sauce – cooked to perfection in a charcoal oven. Alternatively, Café Paris is perpetually popular with Reykjavik locals, and it serves everything from hamburgers to sandwiches and kid’s healthy snacks to coffee, wine and draught beer.
Another top choice for high-end dining is Kolabrautin in the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre at the city’s harbor. Located on the 4th floor, it’s the discerning diner’s choice for cocktails and delicate seafood dishes.
There are a number of airports in Iceland and you can arrange airport car rental for the main hubs right here at Enjoy Travel. Icelandic airports include Reykjavik (RKV), Keflavik (KEF), and Akureyri (AEY).
The Icelandic public transport system is called Straeto, and the network takes you across the capital and beyond – to the eastern and western points of the Island. There are also several ferry routes that take you to Iceland’s inspirational islands and fjords.
You always drive on the right-hand side of the road in Iceland and overtake on the left. The regular speed limit is 30km/h-50km/h in built-up areas, 80km/h on gravel roads in the countryside and 90km/h on paved roads. Observe the speed limits, don’t drink and drive and wear your seatbelt.
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