About the destination
A country of sharp contrasts, Iceland is not easily defined.
Iceland – A land of great extremes
Home to the largest glacier in Europe as well as some of the world’s most active volcanoes, it is widely known as “The Land of Fire and Ice.”
But Iceland is also the land of darkness and light. Its location just below the Arctic Circle makes for long summer days with near 24-hours of sunlight, offset by short winter days with little sunlight at all. Fortunately, while winters are dark, they are relatively mild and play host to one of nature’s most spectacular exhibitions of beauty: the Aurora Borealis. On a dark and clear night, the Northern Lights can often be seen dancing across the sky overhead in all their green glory. You should move fast to catch them though, as they often disappear just as quickly as they appear, behaving much like Iceland’s weather which shifts in mysterious ways.
If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. Or, at least, that is what the locals will tell you. While the average temperature is favourable, the conditions can alternate quickly from sunshine, to rain, to sunshine again. This complicates the selection of the correct attire, but Iceland’s dramatic weather adds to the already great diversity of landscape and lighting, which changes with every turn in the road and every changing season.
Given how unpredictable the elements are, it’s not strange that Icelanders have a rich tradition for folklore rife with sorcerers, ghosts, elves, trolls, hidden people, and other mystical beings. Many stories are influenced by the long dark nights of winter, while others are related to the long summer nights.
Iceland is a curious mix of old traditions in new settings. Iceland is both, the youngest landmass in Europe; and home to the continent’s oldest parliament, formed in 930 AD. The parliament’s original location, Thingvellir, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at the juncture between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which are drifting apart by a few centimetres every year. In Thingvellir, it is possible to walk or even dive between the two continents.
From the moss covered lava fields in the southwest through the barren highlands in the centre, to the soaring fjords in the northwest, Iceland will attest to the great diversity of landscape and lighting. It’s also often said that parts of Iceland, such as its barren highlands, are so otherworldly that people feel like they have arrived to planet Mars. Images captured by the Mars rover Curiosity certainly attest to their similarity. Not only that but a lava field in North Iceland served as training ground for NASA astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, before their first expedition to the moon.
If Iceland weren’t astounding enough above the ground, there’s more to see beneath the surface. Iceland is home to hundreds of underground caves and many of them can be explored in all their wonder. It is even possible, during the summer, to go into a volcano for a closer look at one of Iceland’s bigger claims to fame.
Passport and visa regulations
Iceland is an associate member of the Schengen Agreement, which exempts travellers from personal border controls between 26 EU countries. For residents outside the Schengen area, a valid passport is required for at least three months beyond date of entry. For information on passport and visa requirements as well as the Schengen area regulations, visit the website of the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration: utl.is
Arrival in Iceland
Bus services are operated between Reykjavík and Keflavík International Airport in connection with all arriving and departing flights, and seats are guaranteed. Buses depart to and from Keflavík every 45-60 minutes. The drive between the airport and Reykjavík takes about 45 minutes. For departing flights, it is recommended that you take a bus leaving at least 2.5 hours before your scheduled departure. It is possible to arrange hotel pickup. Taxi services are available to and from the airport. The car-ferry MS Nörrona sails weekly between Denmark, and Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland giving visitors the option of bringing their own vehicle.
LANGUAGE Icelandic is the national language. English is spoken widely and Danish is the third language taught in schools in Iceland.
Pharmacies are called “Apótek” and are open during normal business hours. Only a few are open at night. Medical Care can be obtained by visiting a Health Care Centre, called “Heilsugæslustöð” in Icelandic, during opening hours. For information, call +354-585-1300 or see heilsugaeslan.is Medical help: There is a medical centre or hospital in all major cities and towns in Iceland. The emergency phone number (24 hours) in Iceland is 112. Health insurance: Citizens of EEA countries must bring their EHIC card (European Health Insurance Card), otherwise they will be charged in full. Non-EEA citizens are not covered by the EEA regulations and will be charged in full. For further information, contact the Icelandic Health Insurance. Tel.: +354-515-0100. Office hours: 10:00–15:00. sjukra.is Special vaccinations are not required to enter Iceland.
Banks and post offices
Opening hours are Mon–Fri, 9:00–16:00. 24-hour cash dispensers are found in cities and villages around the country. Look for the Hraðbanki sign. All major credit and debit cards are accepted, especially by hotels, restaurants, shops and petrol stations in Iceland. Traveller’s cheques are accepted at many hotels and tourist information centers. The major cards in Iceland are MasterCard and VISA. Currency exchange: The Icelandic monetary unit is the króna (ISK). All Icelandic banks provide foreign exchange. Post offices: General hours are Mon–Fri 09:00–18:00. More on postur.is/en.
Climate and clothing
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Iceland enjoys a cool, temperate maritime climate; cool in summer and fairly mild in winter. However, the weather is very changeable and tourists should be prepared for the unexpected. For weather information in English, tel.: 902-0600. http://en.vedur.is. When traveling in Iceland you should bring along lightweight woollens, a sweater or cardigan, a rainproof (weatherproof) coat and sturdy walking shoes. Travellers who are camping or heading into the interior will need warm underwear and socks, rubber boots and a warm sleeping bag.
Shops in Iceland are of international standard and carry a wide variety of merchandise. Local specialties include woollen knitwear (sweaters, hats and mittens, for example), ceramics, glassware and silver jewellery. General opening hours are 10–18. Saturdays 10/11–14/18.
Tax free shopping
VAT in Iceland is 24% or 11% on special goods. To get a refund you must have a permanent address outside of Iceland. Minimum amount spent on a single receipt in order to be eligible for tax-free shopping is ISK 4.000. Goods must be exported within three months from date of purchase. Maximum refund is 15% of the retail price.
Useful phone numbers
Emergency number: 112
Police: 444 1000
Medical assistance: 1770
Flag: Blue with a red cross outlined in white. The colors are symbolic for Iceland: red is for the volcanic fires, white recalls the snow and glaciers, and blue is for the skies above.
Size: 103.000 km2 (40.00 sq. miles), slightly bigger than Hungary and Portugal, and slightly smaller than Cuba.
Population: 325,000 (January 2014). Median age is 35.6 years.
Capital city: Reykjavik. The largest municipalities are Reykjavik* (118,000); Kópavogur* (30,000); Hafnarfjörður* (25,000); Akureyri (17,000); Reykjanesbær (14,000). *Cities in the capital region.
Government: Parliamentary constitutional republic.
Language: Icelandic. English is widely spoken and understood.
Religion: Predominantly Christian
Currency: The Icelandic króna (plural krónur) – ISK.
Time: Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) throughout the year.
Glaciers: Glaciers cover 11,922 km2 (4,600 sq. miles) of the island’s surface.
Vatnajokull National Park is the largest national park in Europe.
Highest point: Hvannadalshnjúkur peak 2,110 m.
Natural resources: Fish, hydropower, geothermal energy.
Natural hazards: Volcanic activity, earthquakes, avalanches, glacial outburst floods.