Sometime in December of last year, right before my heart was about to really be broken for the first time in my life and I was already feeling the decline, a post popped up in my facebook timeline offering an apartment swap in Reykjavík for the whole of May 2017. I literally forced the guy: Iceland! YES! Me! – because I knew this would be a chance to finally get out of this mess called my life (it’s really not that bad now, but it felt very different a couple of months ago…). Be inspired, take pictures, travel, think and scream at a landscape (I did this more than once and I really recommend it!).
So half a year later I am sitting in an airplane with no clue what to expect, not much money in my bank account and a whole month to spend. I am not a planner when it comes to traveling, so I went without plans.
I have been back in Berlin for a week now and want to share some experiences and advice with you. Because people keep asking me. And because there are a few things I want to be out there and remind people of when they travel to Iceland. You might not be aware, but you should be! All of these advices are also a bit of opinions of mine – so beware that what I think might not be what you think. Ready? Go!
I didn’t get to see frozen waterfalls, but snow topped mountains because I went right before the summer season started. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#1 Go off-season.
Iceland is one of the most popular travel destinations at the moment. Sometimes, when standing next to a waterfall or when rushing through the main street in Reykjavík to get to the supermarket before it closed, I literally felt like I was in the middle of Disneyland.
Iceland is never really a nice weather country (and if it’s sunny and nice, it’s most likely to change within the next five minutes), so there really isn’t a reason to go in the high summer. Think of frozen waterfalls and book off-season. You might actually have a natural wonder all to yourself if you follow this advice. Even though I can’t promise even that.
After soaking in the hot river, take your trash back home with you. And never even think of throwing coins into rivers, waterfalls or lakes. Ok? // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#2 Aaaaaaalways carry a trash bag.
Iceland is very sparsely populated and even though Icelanders are rapidly trying to adjust the infrastructure to the masses of tourist floating the country, you will very rarely find a trashcan anywhere close when you need it, especially when you are on a hiking trail in the middle of nowhere or even by a very popular waterfall, like – let’s say Gulfoss. There might be a trash bin in the far away parking lot, but definitely not on the platform where you are getting soaked taking selfies.
Don’t throw cigarette butts in the waterfall, or Coke bottles, or plastic bags. Even banana peels, no. Dont poop into nature and leave feces and paper behind. And don’t throw coins into waterfalls to make wishes. Really, please don’t do that. I hope that for most people all this has been clear before I said it. But believe me, I have a lot of reason to say this out loud.
It’s a country of natural wonder and it is already struggling hard under the influx of people breaking the moss and driving the streets and flying in over Reykjavík every night. Let’s just not trash nature, please. This is true for everywhere in the world, but especially here, because a hot spring full of cigarette butts and a waterfall full of beer cans just isn’t as pretty, and it makes me incredibly sad that people are actually that stupid. And they are. Just don’t be one of them, and call them out if you see them littering nature. And if not, just pick up the trash that you see and put it in the wonderful trash bag you will always, always carry in your backpack. It’s good for your Karma, too.
This definitely isn’t a very great picture of a rainbow (it’s actually two rainbows when you look very close…) over a glacier, but damn am I glad I had my camera with me and my phone charged when this happened. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#3 Bring a camera.
This sounds like a no-brainer but I actually met people who left their camera at home when they went to Iceland (Christian?). If you aren’t flying to the moon any time soon, you are most likely to never see anything as breathtaking again, so you might just want to take pictures. Yes, smart phone cameras are great these days, but if you have a decent camera, bring that as well – just in case. And a power bank for your phone, and an extra battery for your camera, and all the required cords. And make enough space in your memory so you can take a lot of pictures.
Because it just really sucks when you stand in front of a glacier and it’s sunny but also raining somehow at the same time, and there are suddenly two rainbows on top of you and your phone is full, or your battery is dead, or whatever. Then you might not only cry out of joy, like I did.
That’s a beautiful Icelandic horse by the black beach in Vík in Southern Iceland. Vík means bay and is one of the words you should remember when traveling here. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#4 Learn basic Icelandic.
Icelandic is hard, even for me and I speak a bit of the very similar Norwegian language and German which is much closer related to Icelandic than, for example, English. You don’t need to actually learn how to speak, but you are much more likely to find great things off the beaten track if you can at least make a little bit of sense of the names on the street signs or on the map. Icelandic signs are very basic with the name and a symbol that tells you it’s something worth seeing, but it doesn’t tell you what it is. Well, that’s unless you can make sense of the name. Because names are telling in Iceland.
So here’s the trick: Everything that has a “-foss” at the end is a waterfall in Iceland. Because guess what, foss means waterfall! Same for “-jökull”, which means glacier. Some volcanos are called glaciers (think of the infamous “Eyjafjallajökull” which is a volcano, but it’s literally called island-mountain-glacier), that’s because often times volcanos in Iceland are also topped by a glacier, and that’s beautiful. Everything ending on “-vík” is a bay. Reykjavík literally means steaming bay because it is a bay between two peninsulas and there are a lot of steaming geothermal springs in the area. Get it? It helps so much to understand these telling names and it also makes it easier to remember the long complicated words the Icelandic language confronts us with.
You don’t want to cross this in heels! // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#5 Be prepared for a lot of walking.
Bring decent, ankle-hugging hiking boots. You really don’t need any other shoes in Iceland, unless you want to look pretty during a night out in Reykjavík. The actual things to see are often a lot further away from the road than you might think or it might appear from sight, and the roads or trails aren’t always that even. I saw people struggling in heels (yes, really!) on rocks and gravel, or ripping their cheap hiking “sneakers” on the sharp edges of volcanic rocks when hiking.
If you only invest in one thing, invest in good hiking boots that support your ankles, keep your feet dry and don’t give you blisters. Also, bring quality blister band aids just in case (not an ad, I just really believe in these). Blisters will always appear when you least need them and these will help you out. Also bring well fitting socks. My cheap wool socks from the drugstore served me better than thick cotton ones that were actually meant for hiking.
Being nice makes locals smile! // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#6 Be nice and mindful.
Have I mentioned that there are a lot of tourists in Iceland? I am sure these can be quite annoying to the locals, especially when they don’t behave. Learn these two expressions in Icelandic: “Hæ!” and “Takk fyrir!”. It means “hi” and “thank you” and it makes people smile when you make that much of an effort. Really, because most people don’t.
Don’t touch Icelandic kids or pets (even when it’s husky puppies, really!) without asking. Also, don’t stop your car on the road to take pictures unless there is room to actually pull off of the road, because cars parked in the middle of the road cause accidents. Don’t speed. When walking, don’t break the moss. When there is a trail, stay on the trail, if there isn’t a trail, don’t go there. If you have to go, take mindful steps and walk slow and careful. The moss grows back very very slowly, often never. And if you break it, people will think there is a trail and then it’s that devil’s circle where it will never be untouched again. Get it?
Always book top cover insurance for your rental car, no matter what. If you can’t afford it, consider not renting a car. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#7 Always book full coverage insurance.
I was told to do this by many and I have heard of a number of people getting into big trouble or considerable dept because they didn’t: get the full coverage insurance in Iceland when renting a car. I always did, except of that one time and of course that was the one time when a big Jeep passed me faaast on a gravel road and a rock flew onto the windshield of my lovely sparkly car. It only left a tiiiiiiny little scratch there and the rental agent didn’t complain about it (I covered the car in dirt so he wouldn’t see it!), but it stressed me out all day and caused me panic attacks, so I couldn’t enjoy all the beautiful landscapes and people I saw that day.
Because when the car is fucked up, it will cost a fortune in Iceland. So just pay more right away and don’t stress about. Icelandic weather and nature are hyper unpredictable, even in the summer time. You just don’t want to risk it.
Fish is cheaper than chips in Iceland. Can you guess why? // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#8 Buy at the discount supermarket.
Unless you have an unlimited budget or you are traveling with your generous parents, consider a place to sleep with the opportunity to cook instead of going out for dinner. Restaurants are expensive, portions are often small and overpriced (especially in downtown Reykjavík where all the tourists hang out). Bónus and Krónan are discount supermarkets, similar to Aldi or Lidl in mainland Europe, and they fulfill basic shopping needs in a spartanic shopping environment. The prices are certainly higher than in Germany or many other countries I have been to, but they are really budget compared to anything that isn’t a discount supermarket in Iceland (similar to a non-discount supermarket in France maybe?).
I feel when I travel in countries like the US or France that cooking is often more expensive than getting a decent meal at a recommended deli or in a simple restaurant. In Iceland that is definitely not true. You will save a lot (!!!) of money if you buy stuff and cook for yourself. Keep this in mind and stock up on drinks, snacks and make sandwiches when you go on trips.
You might also think about bringing your favourite spices in small quantities from home, plus everything lightweight that may not be available at the kitchen where you cook. 24/7 markets like 10/11 are a lot more expensive (think of gas station prices), so beware of the (often early) closing hours of your local budget supermarket. If you decide to eat at restaurants often, steal some salt packages from a fast food restaurant back at home before you leave and bring them with you when you go out. Some of the food I had in restaurants was quite unseasoned but they couldn’t find me any salt (just pink rocks of salt one time!), which is even more disappointing when that meal cost as much as a weekly grocery run back at home.
Drinking is so expensive in Iceland that you might consider to get your thrill through something else. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#9 Skip the beer.
Beer and alcohol and cigarettes are very, very expensive in Iceland. Bring whatever you can from your home airport or in your luggage if you can’t live without it, but beware that having a beer or two or getting a pack of cigarettes will considerably mess up your budget. A beer costs around 1400 ISK (about 13€ or $15) in a bar or restaurant and at least 500 ISK when bought at the liquor store (they are called “Vínbúðin” and are the only place to stock up on booze after you have left the airport, and they close at 6pm). Some supermarkets sell light beer (with around 2.5% of alcohol instead of 5% or more), but otherwise you will be left with the expensive alternative of going to the bar.
There are happy hours and there is an app for that (I’m sure you read this on all the other blogs, right?), but I am not the kind of person to sit in a bar full of tourists in the afternoon just to drink as many beers as possible for half the price. I actually went through an accidental body detox in Iceland and drank almost no alcohol and I highly recommend this strategy.
I found this amazing travel companion on Tinder and I recommend you to do the same if you come to Iceland all by yourself. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#10 Swipe on Tinder.
The two greatest people I met in Iceland had both read the same blog post that I had read before coming. We all updated our Tinder profiles while being there, stating that we weren’t looking for romantic encounters, but rather for people to travel with while in Iceland. This actually worked like a charm!
After two days, I was set with a wonderful American guy originally from Seattle, who turned out to be the most compatible travel companion that I had ever met. A lot of common interest, same balance of talking vs. silence, willing to drive, so I had my hands free for photos, great taste in music for road trip mixtapes and definitely a friend for a lifetime to come. We pretty much did everything together after we met, whenever our schedules allowed us to.
The other friend I made was an Icelandic local who went hiking almost every day after work and was willing to share his passion and expertise with others. I really had no idea how valuable and charming this guy would be until I climbed my first no-trail mountain with him on my third night in Iceland. And there were many more to come. He introduced me to local customs and food, taught me some basic Icelandic and took me to many of his favourite places. Went troll hunting in the mountains with my four year old and even carried him down the mountains when he got tired. Showed us hidden places and stuffed us with deliciousies from his and his family’s kitchen. He and his vaporizer also became my very favourite photo subject in Iceland. Both of these people made my trip 1000% more enjoyable and valuable and I couldn’t thank I heart Reykjavík more for this amazing advice.
Now, which colour looks better in front of that scenery? Just saying. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#11 Layer up (and make that top layer red).
I spent a considerable amount of time before my trip trying to figure out what clothes to bring and where to find a good value rain-proof jacket. If you only have little room, this is what to bring (and bring all of this, no exceptions): A rain proof jacket as a top layer that’s lose enough to wear a lot underneath, a fleece jacket that fits under the top layer, a good wool sweater that fits under the fleece, long underwear (top and bottom), two pairs of comfortable Jeans that will fit over the long johns, rain pants (Important if you want to get anywhere close to a waterfall in Iceland and also for hiking, because the weather changes all the time. Get a pair that has buttons or zippers on the bottom so you don’t need to take off your hiking boots to get out of them when on the run.), warm, comfortable, well-fitting socks (wool socks worked better for me than cotton hiking socks), scarf and hat and finally a pair of good hiking boots that go up to your ankles (because rocks, snow and all). Also bring a comfortable and preferably waterproof backpack and a light reusable water bottle to fill up in waterfalls and streams. Also add a bathing suit and a light towel that you will always carry on you, just in case you stumble over a well-tempered pool in the middle of nowhere.
If you plan to go out to bars and/or clubs in Reykjavík, bring one nice outfit (Icelanders are usually dressed in colourful vintage – just saying in case you would like to blend in, which is hard here because of a very specific yet beautiful style) and a lot of cash, because that night out will be quite expensive. ;) A bonus advice is to get your top layer in yellow or red. These two colours compliment those of Icelandic landscapes and will look amazing in pictures, I swear.
A glacier walk is only recommended with a professional guide, however, don’t say no to things because they might seem scary at first. You might miss out big time. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#12 Say yes to things.
Iceland is crime-wise one of the safest places on earth and I highly recommend to say YES to things along the way. If people (locals or tourists) invite you to do something exciting that might sound scary at first, do it anyway. Because you only live once and some of the most amazing things in Iceland won’t be found in a travel guide or on the internet, because they are well-kept secrets. If you overhear that there is a puffin behind that rock over there, a rainbow behind that other mountain, or that there is an even better and not overcrowded natural hot pool just a ten minute hike away, go check it out.
Never think that you might be able to do this elsewhere, or later, or whatever, because you might as well not. Just do it. I also told myself many times that I wouldn’t mind dying here because it would be the most beautiful death I could dream of. That said, stay safe (beware of sudden gigantic waves at beaches, for example…) but don’t be too afraid to just do things. Be adventurous even on your own and be open-minded to anything that might come your way.
That’s my beautiful sweater and I showed it all around. I won’t tell you what it cost though. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#13 Buy it at the airport.
Unless you find a gem in one of Reykjavík’s many amazing vintage shops or if you need something specific for your trip, consider buying things or souvenirs not downtown, but at the airport. I found better prices and better size availability there and they literally have the same stuff. The sweater I had bought in Reykjavík was cheaper at the airport and there were shorter lines and less of a hassle.
A good place to get rid of your leftover ISK’s before your flight back home is Rammagerðin. They have beautiful, well crafted stuff that is ridiculously expensive (like everything in Iceland) but at least the stuff is good quality and well curated. I bought my sweater there for an insane amount of money but didn’t regret it for a split of a second.
Icelandic cream cheese isn’t cream cheese. Sorry I didn’t find a better picture to illustrate that fact. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
I love cream cheese and I made the mistake to buy something that I thought to be cream cheese multiple times in Iceland and always regretted it. What looks like it is actually cheese spread (or what we call “Schmelzkäse” in German) and I hated that stuff. It’s cheaper than the overpriced Philadelphia you’ll find in the supermarket, but not worth to buy. Go for the expensive stuff just here.
I would have loved to break into this cabin and never come back to Germany but I decided to stay sane and stick to the rules so I wouldn’t get in trouble or become poor after fines. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#15 Don’t break the rules.
Icelanders are nice and friendly people, but hey, like most people in Northern or Central Europe, they like things to go by their rules and aren’t so quick to turn a blind eye. You don’t want to break the law here or get in trouble, because that might become uncomfortable and/or expensive. We didn’t exactly have a proper child’s seat when driving in the car one time with my Icelandic friend and that got quite expensive when a cop pulled us over. Just saying.
I am forever grateful for the 10 days I had with my four year old in Iceland, but with the knowledge I have now, I would never do it again. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
#16 Leave your small kids at home.
This might sound cruel and I don’t mean it, but let me explain. Iceland is not the place you want to go for your paid parental leave, or with preschool twins who want to see a geyser in real-life. Or to pamper your kids and try to relax. It’s too expensive to relax here with little kids and little kids don’t understand what expensive means. They don’t like walking far, especially when it’s walking back from something they thought was super exciting. Walking can take loooong and be exhausting even for adults when they need to drag (… or carry…) a kid along. It’s just not fun to drive that beautiful mountain road when your kid is vomiting in the backseat. Or yelling “wheeeeen are we finaaaally theeeere” while you try to find your way back to Reykjavík through thick fog.
I am very happy now that little A. got to see so many amazing places, but while we were there I often thought to myself: WHAT did I think? I recommend Iceland to solo travelers, head-over-heels in love couples, to best friends and to (adult) kids showing their parents the world (or the other way around). But not to families (or even worse, single parents) with small kids. A newborn? Maybe. But nothing that gets heavy or can articulate dislike or boredom. Another mountain? Three more hours of driving? Duh. Get it? Ok. Send them a postcard and leave them somewhere safe.
A lot of amazing stuff in Iceland is quite hard to come across if you are not already looking for it. But there is a genius function in an otherwise crappy app that helps with that. // © Carolin Weinkopf 2017
There’s an app called “Be Iceland“, and I actually think it sucks, because the login through facebook doesn’t work and the pictures are terrible and it just doesn’t work very well in general. But there’s this one function that’s actually genius and you need to use it, especially when driving by yourself without a set itinerary to follow. It’s called discover and it’s hidden somewhere in the middle of the menu on the left. When you check it while driving around it will pop up all things to see close by (think of a hot spring, a not so touristy waterfall and an amazing restaurant along your way), with pictures and descriptions and a map and more things that are close by. This was a life changer for me and I hope there is an app with this function in every country I will ever travel to, honestly. Get this, just for that function, it’s great!
If I think of further advice I will add it to the list, so make sure to check back. You can also just post any remaining questions into the comments and I will try to answer them. Another post with things to do and places to see in Iceland will be up soon!
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I’m on INSTAGRAM and FACEBOOK and I’ve been to many other places in the world, too. Click here if you want to learn more about me and my work.
All pictures in this post were taken by me (except of the picture of me and my sweater, that was taken by Guðmundur Óli Gunnarsson) and may not be used without my written permission.
© Carolin Weinkopf 2017
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