Destinations / Experiences / Iceland / Travel

What Surprised Me About Iceland

What Surprised Me About Iceland

Have you ever traveled somewhere and, while still on your trip, looked up airfare prices to get back there again in the near future? Or maybe just thought about rescheduling your flight home to a later date? Or maybe you prayed to Zeus for some stormy weather so your flight would get cancelled completely?

Welp, that’s exactly what I did my last 24 hours in Iceland. Seriously, all three.

To say that I enjoyed Iceland is a gross understatement. I freaking loved it. By the time my second day there rolled around I’d already decided that I needed to get back there as soon as humanly possible. It’s a beautiful, wonderful country that exceeded any thoughts or expectations I had in my head. It was absolute perfection.

I have so many fantastic things to tell you about my trip — totally vital pieces of clothing I packed, what it’s like to snorkel in freezing cold waters in a drysuit, what you can really expect from mineral baths and hot springs there, how to best utilize the limited winter daylight, what little city in the north I basically fell in love with, what I’ll do differently when I return, and so so much more.

I’m still in a bit of shock as I return to everyday life (and I suppose I’m a bit jet-lagged still, too), but I want to share with you some of my initial impressions about Iceland, particularly the things that took me by surprise. As I mentioned, I went to Iceland with no real expectations other than thinking I’d have a good time in a new country, which I did. But it was more than that — it completely blew me away. Every place was more lovely and wonderful than I could have imagined that it definitely threw me for a few loops.

I was surprised…

* how many fireworks people shoot off on New Year’s Eve.

I mean seriously, those Icelanders know how to party. It was insane! From the time it was dark (around 4pm or so) to well after midnight, everyone and their grandmas were out lighting fireworks. There was no official fireworks show, that I could tell,  just basically everyone in Iceland unleashing their inner pyro for the night. I have never seen so many fireworks in my entire life, either at once or in my life all combined, and it was absolutely the coolest way to ring in 2015. I took the video above right after midnight.

* that it wasn’t as expensive as I’d been warned.

When I was reading about Iceland and getting advice from friends, one thing every resource mentioned was that Iceland is expensive. I stressed out when I heard this consistently because I suddenly felt like I should have just booked a vacation to Hawaii in June, amirite? But, as it turns out, prices weren’t really that crazy.

Behold, the joys of living in the most expensive city in the United States! Going to other expensive cities doesn’t seem nearly as bad. 🙂

For reference, the cost of eating out and drinking in San Francisco is pretty comparable to Iceland. Is it still a little pricey, by normal standards? Yes. But because it’s basically the same as what I’m used to, it definitely didn’t shock me the way I’d originally thought it might.

To put it in perspective, a pretty basic meal costs about 1,500 ISK, or $11.50. One of my favorite meals was at an all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar, and that cost about 1,900 ISK, or approximately $14.50. Of course, that doesn’t include a drink. While I didn’t pay close attention — since there was lots of driving there was not lots of drinking at restaurants — I think a usual price for a pint of beer or a glass of wine was around 1,100 ISK, or $8.50. For a San Francisco resident, that’s actually pretty standard.

Sunrise in Iceland

* with the amount of daylight there actually was.

In the winters, the sunrises and sunsets in Iceland happen around 11:15am and 3:15pm, respectively. During my research phase, I knew that this would affect how I’d be traveling through the country and sight-seeing. My dude and I had decided that sleeping in late was not really an option. Most days we planned to wake up early and get in lot of driving in the dark.

As it turns out, Iceland has a bit of a perpetual sunrise and sunset thing goin’ on. From about 9am you could start to see things and until 4pm or so there was still a bit of unofficial daylight happening. This not only meant that yay! we had more time each day to sightsee than we’d originally thought, but we also got to witness some lovely colors painted in the skies for a few hours each morning and afternoon.

* that it didn’t feel that cold.

I mean, sure it got kind of chilly, but with a toasty base layer, some snow bibs (#fashion), and a nice warm coat I managed just fine.

If you weren’t already aware, I’m not a big fan of winter or cold. Why did I choose to go to Iceland in winter? I don’t know, my thoughts don’t always fully form, I suppose. But it all worked out because I had the right gear to keep me warm. I’m glad that I decided to forgo looking incredibly trendy and instead went for warmth and comfort (although I totally rock the bibs, if I do say so myself). Having the right gear made my trip much more enjoyable!

Kryddlegin Hjortu, soup and salad in Reykjavik

* how delicious the food tasted.

As a vegetarian, I was pretty sure I’d be stuck eating soggy lettuce and stale bread or something like that. Icelanders eat a lot of smoked meats and fish — I mean, they are surrounded by water and their climate isn’t exactly the best for vegetation. Worst case scenario, I figured that I’d stock up on granola bars and snacks at a grocery store my first day there and it would just have to do. Much to my surprise, I was never completely without a vegetarian option and most of my meals were quite amazing. I mean, I usually microwave my meals so that might not be saying much, but seriously, I ate like a queen!

My first night there, the hosts at the Airbnb offered for me and my boyfriend to join them for New Year’s Eve dinner. Not wanting to seem demanding or fussy, I didn’t mention I was a vegetarian while they prepared food. Instead I just politely mentioned it as we were sitting down to eat. “Oh, I wish you’d said so sooner! Both of my daughters are vegetarian, I cook for them all the time!” Durrr. Lesson learned.

My meals out were awesome, too. I got to try skyr (AKA a cheese lover’s heaven), I pigged out at a soup and salad buffet, and I had a weep-tears-of-joy-worthy breakfast a few of the days, too.

Seljavallalaug, the oldest mineral pool in Iceland

* how crazy I’d go over hot springs and mineral pools.

My obsession with the warm waters that Iceland has to offer is comparable to the way I used to freak out over bunny rabbits when I was like 5. Anything related to/resembling/featuring bunnies was THE BEST. Same thing for the natural pools and hot springs now. I got into one in south Iceland that was a little too chilly and it still was the highlight of my day. Another afternoon I dipped my feet into one in the northern part of the country that, no joke, could have boiled me to death. Whatevs, totally worth it and I still loved every too-damn-hot second.

I did make it to a few baths that were just right, and oh my stars it felt like heaven. Not even joking, I could spend all day in those blue waters, it was so blissful. I’d never gotten to experience hot springs before this trip, and it was everything I’d ever dreamed of!

* how cheery and nice everyone was

If you do a little searching on the interwebz you’ll find that Iceland is home to some of the happiest people in the world. I was a bit skeptical before going (I mean really, how can you be happy when it’s that dern cold?) but it’s true: people there are genuinely kind, happy souls. The employees I encountered at the grocery stores, the hosts that I stayed with, the random people I met in shops or restaurants, the guides leading me on the snorkeling tour, and every Icelander in between was a joy to interact with.

I was even surprised by how content I felt there, considering I’m anti-winter and all. There was just something magical about Iceland that it made me so happy, and so ready to return soon!

Have you ever visited someplace with low (or no) expectations and ended up completely surprised? Would you rather return to a place you fell in love with or travel somewhere completely new? Do you think you’d ever want to visit Iceland, and if so, what would you be most interested in seeing there?

Photo credits:
Matt Christensen

41 thoughts on “What Surprised Me About Iceland

    • I loved the northern part of Iceland around Akureyri and the Diamond Circle. It was so beautiful just driving around! One of the days I saw the waterfall Dettifoss, went to the Myvatn Baths, and then got dinner in Akureyri at a hostel and it was such an amazing day. Do you have any favorites in Iceland?

  1. I’m going to Iceland in July and I was scared because of the cost of everything! Glad to hear it isn’t as expensive as expected. This post makes me really excited to go!

    • It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be! Finding nice hotels or airbnbs for under $100 was pretty easy, and filling up a gas tank didn’t completely destroy my wallet. And, like I said, use San Francisco as a good comparison for food and drink.

      I’d look out for hotels/BNBs that offer complimentary breakfast or a European-style all-you-can-eat breakfast for 1500 ISK. Those were delicious, worth every penny, and filled me up until the evenings. 🙂

      Also — Iceland in July!! I’m starry-eyed just thinking about it!

  2. It’s funny – Iceland has never really appealed to me as a travel destination (maybe something to do with the weather)…but your post may have changed my mind! Thanks for sharing! And AWESOME hair by the way!

    • Aw, thank you! Yeah, I don’t think Iceland was necessarily my top choice on my bucket list or anything, but I am so so happy I went! And the weather wasn’t that bad 😉

  3. I’ve just returned from a trip to Iceland and I’d agree with so many of these- we found everyone so so friendly and willing to help us, we were surprised at how long the days actually seemed (and did enjoy our candlelit breakfasts) and it wasn’t too expensive!! Although we were frozen on our first day (-7 degrees centigrade!) and unfortunately we missed all the crazy fireworks as we were there earlier in December- sounds incredible though! I have also looked at flights to go back there in the summer… it was a magical place!

    • I’m glad you had such a wonderful trip! It really is a delightful winter destination so I can only imagine what it’s like in the summer.

      Oh, and I did bring a few of those hand-warmers that you open and they stay warm for 8 hours. I didn’t need them every day but they sure were nice to have 🙂

      Thanks for reading!!

  4. Yes, Iceland!!! ❤ This post made me a little placesick (because, somewhat sadly, Iceland is not my home).

    So, a few comments! When I went by myself, somewhat randomly (in August 2010), I got a lot of the "oh, but it's expensive!" thing too. Not only did I find it not THAT bad as far as restaurants and such go, but I had no problem whatsoever finding free couches to sleep on (or tents to sleep in) and, more importantly, very warm and welcoming people who made everything easier for me.

    And yes, skyr!!! Fellow vegetarian here. I saved a lot of restaurant money by just going to the grocery store and loading up on skyr and then adding wild blueberries! The best!

    When I first flew into Seattle (I moved here in November), I was so excited to see an Icelandair plane. I'm definitely, definitely going back sooner now that I live near one of their airports and don't have to connect.

    This post makes me want to see the country in winter. So funny about the fireworks!

    Anyway, clearly this post got me all excited because Iceland is great. Thanks!

    • So glad you’re excited! I literally came back thinking, “Hey, I could live in Iceland,” so I totally understand you there!

      If you do fly from Seattle, just a fun thing to note — my dude flew through there from Keflavik and saw amazing Northern Lights out the plane window. Pretty cool!

      Thanks for sharing some of your Iceland adventures 🙂

      • Oh wow, seeing the Northern Lights coming from Iceland would be like a dream! A girl I met in Akureyri was telling me how much she loved winter because she sees them a lot. I’m waiting for that day!

  5. I literally just bought a ticket to Europe and decided to take advantage of the IcelandAir stopover. I only have 48 hours there but after reading your post, I’m so excited and already know I’ll want to go back.

  6. I went to Iceland in September, and totally fell in love with it as well. The natural beauty of everything makes me want to go back so badly! I was thinking I would go in summer to try to make it further north, but your post has made a winter trip sound appealing as well!

    • Yes, it is a wonderful winter destination! I’m not too crazy about snow or wintertime, but I feel like I started to like the season just a bit by experiencing it in Iceland.

      Also — definitely get up north. It was my favorite part of the country that I saw. The Diamond Circle has such an amazing landscape. 🙂

  7. Awesome! Look at those fireworks oh GOD. How do you decide on which one to watch, with so many options from one horizon end to another?!!
    Ah, happy people! The people factor is important in a journey, right? I mean, you could go to a place so similar to your hometown but if the people act differently then it’ll definitely leave a deeper memory 😀

    Thanks for sharing! Hello, I’m a new follower, by the way… ahahaha~

  8. Ive heard so many wonderful things about Iceland its definitely a to-go trip for me next year! Im hoping it will not become extremely touristy and there are still remote landscapes and wilderness to explore and admire 🙂

  9. Fantastic blog. I have always wanted to go to Iceland in the winter. Thanks for this! And I am a vegetarian too so knowing you were ok is good to know. I had such a difficult time in spain.

    • Yes, plenty of veggie options! Especially in Reykjavik and Akureyri since they’re slightly larger cities. I did have one or two moments of “No, I don’t eat any meat. No, not even fish. Nope, that’s fish.” but I was never stuck with just a salad or something. 🙂 Thanks for reading!!

  10. Hello! Popping over from Travel Tuesday 🙂 I love your thoughts on Iceland – my first trip there, I went in with no expectations. I was a little hesitant because I’m not the super outdoorsy/sporty type. But just like you said, before the trip was done I was scheming on ways to return – and was able to go back last October. What a gorgeous and lovely country!

    And I loved your fireworks video – I’ve heard that Reykjavik is quite the place to be to experience NYE! Sounds so fun!

  11. I really enjoyed reading about your Icelandic experience because… well… I experienced almost just the opposite! I had such high expectations for this place, but it just didn’t live up to what I thought it would be like from the tourism campaigns. However, I this experience won’t stop me from returning…. Iceland’s still been stuck in my craw since I visited and I can’t wait to go back and really do it right! (aka: Get out of Reykjavik!)

    • I think with any travel, when something doesn’t align with our expectations it can feel a bit unsatisfying. I’m happy that your experience isn’t going to stop you from ever returning! I’ll be writing more about my adventures in Iceland each week, so hopefully that can inspire a bit 🙂

  12. Your post just reminded me of how awesome Iceland is. The people that we met in Reykjavik were super friendly and we loved going to the public hot springs (it was like a water park for the winter!).

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