Visiting Iceland

Iceland has been discovered by visitors. The ease and relatively low cost of air travel, and the country's marvelous physical and cultural environments, have placed the island country on the map of tourist destinations. In this chapter, you will view Iceland through the eyes of a guest traveler.


Almost everyone who travels to Iceland will fly into Keflavik International Airport, which is located about 18 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of Reykjavik. This airport facility is actually a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) site maintained on Iceland. It also is home to Icelandair, the country's international airline.

Travelers to the country who expect to see only ice are in for a surprise. During a typical summer, more than 85 percent of the island is free of ice and snow.Most of the outer ring of Iceland, in fact, is lush green during summer months. Natural vegetation thrives because of the island's high amounts of rain and cool, but not frigidly cold, summer temperatures. A raincoat and a sweater, however, are essential items to pack for a visit to Iceland!


The Icelandic monetary unit is the krona, made up of 100 aurar. The coins and notes in use are: 5, 10 and 50 aurar, and 1, 10, and 50 kronur coins. In late 2002, the conversion rate was approximately 88 Icelandic krona to 1 U.S. dollar.Credit cards are accepted by most major businesses in the larger communities.


While Icelanders speak a Scandinavian language called Icelandic, some knowledge of English is almost universal and most Icelanders also speak Danish, or some other Scandinavian language. French and German are also quite commonly spoken. Some of the older people do not converse in English as easily as the younger generation. Even in the small fishing villages far from Reykjavik, however, you will have very little difficulty communicating with the people.


Nearly everyone traveling to Iceland will begin their visit in Reykjavik, the country's capital and largest city. Together with six surrounding municipalities, it forms what is commonly called the Greater Reykjavik Area. More than half of the country's population of 288,000 resides here. It is the home of the Althing—the Icelandic parliament—the Supreme Court, the National Theatre, the University of Iceland, the National Museum, and almost all major government agencies.

Reykjavik is the world's northernmost capital city. With only about 100,000 inhabitants (nearly 170,000 in the metropolitan area), it also ranks among the world's smallest capital cities. On the other hand, if you consider what Reykjavik has to offer in services, cultural life, and entertainment, it compares favorably with capital cities many times its size. Because of what Reykjavik has to offer, it has become known as “The Surprise City.”

During the winter season, 25 to 30 concerts are given every month. Five to ten plays may be running simultaneously in theatres. The popular opera and the frequent art exhibitions add to the list of entertainment offerings. There are scores of restaurants to choose from that serve a variety of local, mainland European, and other international foods. Nightlife is very lively and numerous pubs, bars, coffee houses, discos, and ballrooms cater to different tastes and age groups.


Organized tours of Iceland are available, but traveling by rental car is the best way to see the country. Driving your own vehicle gives you the freedom to travel places that organized tours do not visit. You also have the option of staying longer in an area if you choose. Car rental costs are high compared to those in the United States. Some savings can be had by renting a vehicle through a tour operator who offers a package that includes air travel, car rental, and even housing accommodations.

Petrol (gasoline) is expensive, since it must all be imported. The 2002 price is over $1 per liter, or about $4.50 per gallon. For those planning to venture away from the capital, a four-wheel drive vehicle is essential. Icelanders drive on the right side of the road and with headlights on at all times. An excellent bus service links most communities, and larger towns and cities are reached by regularly scheduled commercial flights (Air Iceland and Icelandsflug) that are relatively inexpensive.

During the late spring, summer, and early autumn months, roads usually are clear (snow can fall during any month, however). The “Ring Road,”Highway 1, was completed in 1974 and completely rings the island. Until 1974, it was not possible to drive from the southwest portion of the island to the southeast portion except by taking the north loop. The reason no road ran east-west along the south edge of the island was the enormous amount of meltwater from the snowfields and glaciers that drains southward along the coastal plain. To construct a road here involved the building of tens of miles of bridges under which the meltwater could pass on its journey to the Atlantic. This was an enormous engineering feat and the construction costs were enormous. The majority of Highway 1 remains unpaved. It is more like a country gravel road on which one might travel in the United States. Erosion by rain and melting snow and ice has made this road surface very rough in places, and an occasional rock will protrude above the road bed. Rocks are constantly being exposed by erosion and frost action which pushes the stones toward the surface.

Following the 1996 earthquake within the Vatnajokull icecap in southeast Iceland, flights over the icecap discovered a subsidence bowl in the glacier surface at a location where a volcanic eruption had occurred in 1938. The size and depth of the subsidence bowl continued to increase. In addition, three more bowls formed, indicating intense melting at the base of the glacier. Searing hot lava was flowing upward under the ice causing the ice to melt and the glacier to subside. At the same time, the ice cover to the south started to rise. This indicated that meltwater from the eruption was flowing into the caldera depression and lifting the glacier. Huge quantities of meltwater continued to accumulate in the bowl-shaped caldera, causing the ice to rise even more.

The pressure of the meltwater eventually was sufficient to lift the glacier ice off the ground, causing the water to burst free in sudden torrential runoff. In the huge resulting flood, great volumes of water swept across the coastal plains, carrying with it 100 millions of tons of volcanic material and clay, and giant masses of ice weighing up to 1,000 tons. This sudden influx of water, ice, volcanic materials, and clay washed out many of the bridges on Highway 1. The highway remained closed for several months as the rebuilding of the bridges took place.


Lodging is easily accessible in Iceland.Modern hotels provide comfortable accommodations in all of the larger communities. Winter rates are reasonable by U.S. standards; during the short summer tourist season, however, rates can be quite expensive. Information about facilities, rates, and availability is readily available on the Internet. As discussed earlier, many summer travelers to Iceland prefer to stay in schools.


The traveler to Iceland will find many restaurants, but he or she no doubt will be shocked at the cost of meals. Food prices are much higher than what we are used to in America, because most products must be imported. The typical hamburger, fries, and soda are available, as are more typical Icelandic foods like fish and lamb. Tipping is not expected in Iceland and, in fact, until several decades ago it was considered an insult to tip someone for services.


Crime is not a large problem in Iceland (where could one hide?). It is common to see parents park their children in prams (strollers) on the street while they shop inside the store. This certainly would not be done in most large American cities. Homes and vehicles are often left unlocked. The lack of crime is just one of many reasons why Iceland ranks among the top few countries in the world in nearly all indices of human well-being.


Iceland has many interesting and often unique attractions. In chapter 2, mention was made of the country's many spectacular natural features. The island's rugged coasts, volcanoes, and glaciers are a “must” on the visitor's agenda. One will also find hot springs and hot tubs, the old fish-drying racks, Icelandic horses, and beautiful waterfalls.

One feature (or lack thereof) that surprises many visitors is that virtually all physical formations, even those that are potentially dangerous, are unfenced. There is an openness of these attractions that is foreign to Americans. You will not find protective fencing around the boiling hot springs, cascading waterfalls, steaming geysers, and other features. The people of Iceland are willing and able to take responsibility for their own actions. They do not need the protection of rails and fences to keep them away from potential dangers. Signs may be posted indicating the danger if you get too close, but no restraint is in place.

The Rettir

Iceland has more than half a million sheep—about two sheep for every person living on the island. The animals raised today are descendants of those brought to Iceland in open longboats by Norsemen (Vikings) more than a thousand years ago. During the summer season, the sheep graze on common lands. These common lands are natural pastures shared by groups of farmers; sheepherders are not needed. Every sheep has an ear tag, which identifies the farmer to whom it belongs. In the winter, the sheep are herded back to their respective farms, where they are fed hay and housed in barns.

Each fall, all the farmers who have sheep on this common grazing ground join together to gather in the sheep. The sheep are driven into an immense, wheellike stone sorting pen. This custom is referred to as the Rettir. The spokes of the wheel divide the pens into narrow, triangle-shaped areas. A large circular pen forms hub of the wheel.

This gathering of the sheep, or roundup, as we might call it, can take from one day to a full week. The time required depends on the distance that the sheep must be moved. Herding is done on horseback. Even though they are small, Icelandic horses are strong, and well-adapted to the rugged terrain and harsh climate. The common grazing land must be carefully scoured, because no sheep can survive the winter outside.

A lot of festivity accompanies the Rettir, which is an important social, as well as economic, event. Travel and tourist information can be obtained from numerous Internet sources, either by topic, or by search under Website headings such as Iceland travel information.