13 Things I Learned in Iceland

I'm always fascinated by the unexpected things I learn while visiting a foreign country. In Dublin, I learned that restaurants serve mayo instead of ranch, and there are more sheep than people in Ireland. Iceland was an incredible country. The views were awe-inspiring and the locals were extremely friendly. Five days was just enough time to explore the Southern Coast and soak in the Nordic culture of the island. Along the way, I learned some interesting things about the Icelandic way of life, along with several traveling tips that proved useful. Random snippets about money, food, transportation, weather, wild animals, traffic laws and nightlife are below.

1. Iceland is expensive. Before leaving the states, I knew Iceland was going to cost a pretty penny. I was wrong, however, to assume it would be similar to the rest of Europe. Iceland is significantly more expensive. As in, a bowl of soup and a soda cost about 20+ USD. When we visited Haukadalur Valley, I really wanted to buy a stuffed puffin in the gift shop. It was adorable and tiny and I had to have it! Until I noticed the price tag: 30 USD. Nope.

The stores I browsed in Downtown Reykjavik had some really awesome items (the hats and scarves were beautiful), but everything was way out of my price range. When I visited Ireland last year, it was very easy to buy a few souvenirs and stay within my budget. In Iceland, however, the only thing I left with was a keychain.

2. The seafood is phenomenal. On our first day in Reykjavik, we ate fresh halibut skewers and lobster soup at Sea Baron. It was delicious. The fish was seasoned to perfection and flaked dreamily from the kebob. The soup was rich and creamy with large chunks of tender lobster floating near the bottom. 

3. The hot dogs are heaven on earth. Oh, pylsurs. My love affair with those glorious lamb dogs will never end. At only 3 USD, they were a cheap and delicious meal when we found ourselves getting hungry on the road. On a similar note, gas stations in Iceland have great food options. They're always fully stocked with freshly made sandwiches - curry chicken and barbecue chicken with sweet potato were our favorites.

4. The weather is totally unpredictable. Our trip was filled with rain, snow, fog and sunshine - usually, all in one day! It was impossible to tell what the weather was going to do within the next five minutes. Dark skies made way for random bits of sunshine, and clear weather sometimes morphed into thick fog.

5. Don't plan your trip around the Northern Lights because you might not see them. Iceland is a cloudy little country. The skies were overcast each day of our trip, which prevented us from seeing the Northern Lights. We were slightly disappointed, but the beauty of Iceland made up for it. There are so many incredible things to see while visiting. The Northern Lights shouldn't be your first priority. Just think of it as an extra bonus if the aurora borealis comes out of hiding.

6. Renting a car is the best way to get around. We loved renting a car because it gave us plenty of freedom to make our own plans instead of operating on a tour bus schedule. The only downside was gas. It was very expensive.

7. Icelandic is a beautiful (and extremely challenging) language. I could listen to someone speak Icelandic all day long. It's a lovely, gentle language. My efforts to learn various words and phrases, however, were fruitless. The only thing I successfully learned to say was "takk", which means "thank you".

8. Wild horses are everywhere, and they're really friendly. They may look like ponies, but they're actually horses. Icelandic horses are adorable and have great personalities. Their colors range from chocolate brown to creamy white, and their manes are soft and thick. We pulled over to the side of the road to take some pictures and ended up befriending an entire pack. They even tried to munch on my scarf and steal Michael's beanie. 

9. It's a wee bit chilly. This might be obvious, but it somehow escaped me that visiting Iceland in March would be a frosty endeavor. Fortunately, I packed appropriately and was fairly comfortable during our trip.

10. Bars get REALLY busy REALLY fast. In Iceland, people leave work at 5pm, head home to nap for a few hours, wake up for dinner later in the evening, and hit the bars afterwards. It's completely normal to get home at 7am from a night on the town. Michael and I were jet-lagged and exhausted for most of our trip, so we didn't partake in the bar scene. We did, however, try to grab a few drinks around 11pm one night. Every bar we visited was totally packed. We gave up and got some Icelandic candy and a few beers from a gas station instead. 

11. Icelandair is an awesome airline. I was really impressed by Icelandair. They filled the plane from back to front, which made the boarding process super speedy. They also handed out free Icelandic glacial water, which was oh so appropriate.

12. Traffic cameras are everywhere. When we started driving our rental car, the GPS beeped like mad every time we approached a stoplight. We couldn't figure out what it was trying to tell us. "Warning!" would shoot across the screen, which made us worry something was wrong with the car. As it turns out, the GPS was trying to warn us about upcoming traffic cameras. They're all over Reykjavik, hidden above stoplights when you'd least expect it. Most speeding tickets are handed out this way, so we had to be careful while driving in the city.

13. Hakarl might sound unappetizing, but you have to try it. We sat next to an American couple at Cafe Loki, and they offered the rest of their hakarl to us because they were done with their meal. We happily obliged, excited to complete our tourist obligation of sampling rotten shark. Our excitement lasted all of two minutes. The putrid odor was unbearable. The sample made Michael gag (and I may have spit mine into a napkin, yikes). Don't let that scare you, though! Try hakarl yourself. It's basically mandatory in Reykjavik.