What No One Told Us About Iceland

Cliffs on Iceland coast for About Iceland hero

For some unknown reason, I’ve harbored an intense, multi-decade fascination with Iceland. Perhaps because we considered moving there instead of Belgium when I was seven years old and I was always curious about the place we didn’t move to. When the usual springtime travel itch came around, my husband and I decided to road-trip the length of its main highway, the Ring Road.

Iceland is indeed every bit as fantastic as the guidebooks tell you it is, but nothing can prepare you for everything you’ll encounter in a new destination. I pride myself on thoroughly researching every destination we check off the list, so imagine my surprise when we encountered a few unexpected and interesting things about this “geologic wonder on steroids.”


Yeah, About Iceland… It’s windy. Really windy.

Now, everyone assumes Iceland will be cold; hence, “Iceland.” However, the weather is actually fairly mild. Walk within the protective cover of downtown Reykjavik in April and you’ll probably find you’re okay with a jacket and gloves. What they don’t tell you is how incredibly windy it is. And those winds pick up something fierce across the rural plains in places like Southern Iceland.

My husband and I left thinking we were headed into 30-40 degree temperatures. Well, it was 30 degrees… with 52 mile-per-hour winds coming straight off the North Atlantic Ocean. Depending on which wind chill chart you reference, that drops the temperature to between -7 and 11 degrees. Bitter cold notwithstanding, Icelandic winds can hamper your plans quite a bit.

The Wind Signs Are Important

It was only after we retreated from a northeastern road closure with a cracked windshield that a local schooled us on the significance of these digital road signs we saw all along the way (something Lonely Planet failed to mention). Yeah… they’re wind warnings. Big black digital signs in the middle of nowhere along Ring Road with a bunch of numbers—the current temperature (in Celsius), the wind speed (meters per second) and direction (N, S, E, W, etc.), and the wind gust speed. The gusts just so happen to be highlighted in green, yellow, and red indicating road safety. You should know they’re really helpful when you’re driving in Iceland.

Evidently, anything over 20 meters per second is considered severe by Frommer’s standards, though locals will tell you it’s 25 (30, if you’re really wondering how to be Icelandic). I’m not sure we ever saw anything under 20 meters per second during our trip. As a result, driving hazards included white-knuckle driving with steering difficulties, powerful gusts of gravel cracking windshields and chipping paint on rental vehicles, and zero visibility in “sand blizzards” on Iceland’s southern sandur (the largest glacial desert in the world). On the upside, Frommer’s reads that these wind hazards are rare in the summers.

Icelandic ponies in field

Iceland’s Ring Road is Not All Paved

It’s not uncommon for car rental agencies to have restrictions regarding the use of their vehicles, and in Iceland one of the major restrictions with a basic two-wheel drive is driving on gravel roads, specifically the 4×4 “F roads.” The honest and concerned traveler that I am, I made it my mission to find out ahead of time which roads these were so I could adjust where we’d be driving in Iceland accordingly.

Determining the F roads were easy; they’re basically all the roads in Iceland’s highlands and they’re not open at all in the shoulder season.

Now, determining the same for the Ring Road proved a little more difficult. I came across all different reports on this site or that site: Iceland’s main highway is paved; parts of it aren’t paved. I was so confused I logged my question onto a travel forum and awaited response. Paved all the way around.

Where It’s Not Paved

Well, I guess if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself… because it wasn’t paved all the way around.

Yes, the vast majority of it is indeed paved, but lengths of it in eastern Iceland have yet to be addressed. Fortunately, you can drive a two-wheel drive on all of Iceland’s Ring Road—paved or otherwise. (Maybe they’ve completed this portion of the road since.)

Country road in Iceland

Beware of the Vestmannaeyjar ferry schedule. Question everything.

Because we got the boot from the center portion of our itinerary, we attempted to improvise for a few days and catch the tail end of our original schedule. The improv didn’t go so well: Can’t get to Akureyri and Myvatn? Okay, we’ll catch the ferry to Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands for a night.

Er, not so fast… The April/May ferry schedule online reported ferries out of Iceland’s newer ferry terminal at Landeyjahofn every two hours (unless they’ve updated it since).

Honestly, Just Call.

When my husband and I pulled up to the terminal to see a ferry departing the dock, we weren’t too concerned. Milling around the terminal station, however, we learned that they only depart every six hours. Alright then, we’ll drive to Porlakshofn to waste some time and catch it from there; after all, it says right on the ferry flyers at the terminal that Porlakshofn is running!

Ahem: Porlakshofn no longer houses a regularly operating terminal. Periodically, in bad weather, the ferry will detour and dock there. And it smells like fish sh*t. But we only learned that after we drove all the way there. My best advice? Call for accurate times and departure terminals.

Icelanders Like To Have a Good Time

Aside from the citizens having a strange affinity for trampolines the size of their entire yards (which are seemingly everywhere in residential Reykjavik), I did notice one thing that no one mentioned—Icelanders are probably the nicest people I’ve ever come across in my travels.

And they love talking American politics. (Beware Republicans: They’re Socialist and proud of it!)

We made friends everywhere, and even went out on the town for a night with some locals we befriended. And we were invited out again the next night! (Much too hungover.)

Street in downtown Reykjavik

The Food is Expensive

Now, before you get really excited to go, a heads up: the food’s extraordinarily expensive. Unless you’re satisfied eating pub burgers everyday, the average entree in Reykjavik will cost you a whopping $50 pretty much anywhere you go.

Add that to your travel expenses and you might be spending every penny you’d saved on transportation. But you have to do it like the locals do. Or at least try.

There are some cheaper restaurant options in Reykjavik and other ways to do Iceland on a budget, but you have to be in the know.

The Nightlife is Bumpin’

Which officially brings me to Reykjavik nightlife. If you’ve ever heard that Icelanders like a good party, it’s true. There’s a party for everything. And they all last until six in the morning. Guess they’re doing double-duty to make up for the alcohol ban lifted in 1989. They even celebrate the day alcohol was legalized—”Beer Day.”

Downtown is relatively lifeless until the sun starts to set. (Trouble in the winters!) Most businesses don’t even open until ten or eleven, which is not awesome if you’re a coffee drinker like myself. I’d be waking up and starting my day only to see drunks still stumbling home and falling asleep in town squares.

Lots of Reasons to Celebrate

When we visited, there were four different reasons to party, apparently. In one week.

During that time was the Icelandic election, Eve Fest (a gaming convention), college graduation where all the graduates dress up in costumes and run the streets wasted, and May Day (Iceland’s Labor Day). I suppose I might drink excessively if I lived on a remote island in a city of 300,000… Gotta pass the time somehow.

For everything we didn’t expect in Iceland, we got way more out of the trip than we’d ever expected. Of 35 countries visited, it’s still one of my favorite pins on the map. I think we’ll be heading back to take care of some unfinished business on the north side of the island.

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Cheers, Jordan