Ancestry-Inspired Travel Guide to Iceland

(Last Updated On: 17. April 2020)

Iceland, the land in the far North of Europe, was first inhabited by Vikings from Norway, who sailed from here to Greenland and were allegedly the first Europeans before Columbus ever to reach and settle on the North American continent. Today, Iceland is the least populated country in Europe and has some stunning landscapes to offer, which thanks to the island’s size can be explored within short amount of time. So here is all you all you need to know if you’re planning a trip to Iceland…

Why go to Iceland

Iceland was first permanently settled by Vikings from Norway and Sweden, who came here around 870 AD. They also sailed from here to Greenland. Plus, the viking Leifur Eriksson, also called “Leif the Lucky”, allegedly was the first European to ever to reach and settle on the North American continent – 400 years before Columbus! He landed in Newfoundland, Canada and named the area Vínland because of the good conditions for growing grapes. Today, you can see his statue, which was donated to Iceland by the United States, in front of the Hallgrímskirkja church in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik.

Today, Iceland is the least populated country in Europe. The capital Reykjavik only has a population of around 130,000 people and Iceland as a whole counts just around 360,000 people. Icelandic is the one modern language that is closest to Old Norse – the language that the Vikings spoke. In fact, much about what we know about the Vikings today we know from the Icelandic Sagas – a collection of stories and myths about the lives of the Vikings in Iceland. The Sagas are also the reason why many modern Icelanders can actually trace back their ancestry through to the original Viking settlers.

Horses on Iceland South Coast and Glacier Lagoon Tour

Furthermore, Iceland today is the only country in Europe where surnames are still given according to the old Nordic way of naming, which was once common in all of Scandinavia. This means that a son born to a man called Erik will be called Eriksson and a daughter born to a man called Erik will be called Eriksdottir. And yes, if there is one father, one mother, one son and one daughter in an Icelandic family, all of these family members will have different surnames!

My tip: If you’re travelling to another country in Europe, you can make a brief stopover here, for example with Icelandair as the island is conveniently located in-between America and Europe. The many bus services make it easy to get from the airport to Reykjavik and then to the rest of the island in just a few days. Plus, what better place is there to stretch your legs than this beautiful ancestral country of the original Vikings? 😉

April touchdown with Icelandair

April touchdown with Icelandair

When to go

Iceland is a destination to visit all year round. Thanks to the gulf stream, the Icelandic winters are actually pretty mild and don’t get as cold as you might think. Although there can be quite an icy wind on an island located that far north, even in April or June, the two times I was there.

If you’re planning on seeing the Northern Lights, make sure you visit Iceland between November and April. And for the long and bright summer nights, come between May and August. In June, the sun never really sets and it stays bright as daylight almost all night long.

Sunglasses at night

This picture was taken around 10 pm at night in early June!

Where to go

1. The Capital Reykjavik: If it’s your first time in Iceland, start by staying in the capital Reykjavik. Europe’s northernmost capital has a lot to offer. Plus, from here, you can easily get to most places around the island by bus or by car.

2. The South and West Coast: From Reykjavik, you can either rent a car or hop on one of the many tour busses, which conveniently pick you up from your hotel or hostel. The South Coast, the West Coast and the so-called Golden Circle route are all within easy reach for a day trip. If you want to do “the full Walter Mitty”, you could even go to Greenland and back to Reykjavik within a day (that one has to be done by plane of course).

3. The East and North Coast: These regions are probably a little too far for a day trip. So rent a car or get a flexible bus pass to explore these regions over several days.

Iceland South Coast and Glacier Lagoon Tour

Me at the famous Skógafoss waterfall in the South of the country

How to get around

There are regular bus services from the international airport Keflavik to the city centre of Reykjavik, which I would recommend to book in advance. Because the famous Blue Lagoon is located half-way between Reykjavik and the airport, many travellers choose to combine a visit with their transport to or from the airport. 

Most visitors in Iceland either rent a car and then explore on their own or book guided day tours by bus from the capital Reykjavik

The town centre of Reykjavik is not very big. Thus, you can easily walk almost anywhere.

The bus system is very good, too. With a Reykjavik City Card you will get unlimited travel on all of Reykjavik’s busses.

At the Glacier Lagoon

At the Glacier Lagoon

What to do: 10 Things to do in Iceland

1. Go on a Golden Circle Tour

Known as the must-do introduction tour to Iceland, you can check off several of Iceland’s most iconic sights in just a few hours. 

Highlights include the famous Strokkur Geyser, which reliably erupts every six to ten minutes, the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall (seen on the feature image at the top of this post), as well as the oldest existing parliament in the world – Þingvellir National Park. You might also recognize this place as a recurring film location from the TV hit series Game of Thrones.

You can also stand with one foot in America and one foot in Europe by checking out the spot where the American and European (called Eurasian) tectonic plates meet!

For more info and to book your tour, check out this overview of all Golden Circle Tours from Reykjavik.

Þingvellir National Park is the birthplace of the oldest existing parliament in the world, the meeting place of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates and filming location for "Game of Thrones".

2. Ride the unique Icelandic horse 

Read all about why I booked a horseback riding tour in Iceland after 15 years of horse riding absence in my post Exploring Iceland on Horseback: My Lava Tour with Íshestar Horse Riding on my other travel blog FilmFanTravel.com.

3. Watch whales and puffins up and close!

Puffin and Whale Watching Tours are popular natural attractions in Iceland, especially during the summer months. And you don’t even have to go far! There are several tour providers conveniently offering Whale Watching and Puffin Watching Tours from Reykjavik’s harbour.

Puffing watching

Puffin watching in Iceland!

Whales in Iceland

Whale watching in Iceland

4. Have a soak in the Blue Lagoon or a public thermal bath

The Blue Lagoon is of course a must-do. You can easily combine a visit with your transport to or from the airport  as the Lagoon is located close to the Iceland’s international airport Keflavík.

Alternatively, do as the locals do and chillax in an outdoor hot tub after a busy day of sightseeing. There are three public baths in Reykjavik, which are a cheap (and just as nice) alternative to the Blue Lagoon.

5. Join a free walking tour in Reykjavik

Great to get a first overview about what’s located where in the capital as well as to learn EVERYTHING about Icelandic history and culture. I took the free walking tour with City Walk Reykjavik, which I can highly recommend!

Geyser Church and Viking Memorial in Reykjavík

The so-called Geyser Church and Viking Memorial in Reykjavík

6. Come face to face with the Vikings

The first permanent settlers in Iceland were vikings from Norway, who came to the secluded island in the North Atlantic Ocean from about 870 AD – allegedly because they had some problems with the other vikings back in Norway and were thus shunned from the community. The journey of the first vikings discovering and settling in Iceland is also portrayed in the TVseries Vikings (2013-ongoing).

At the Saga Museum in Reykjavik you will learn everything about the famous tales of the vikings, which were written down in the so-called Icelandic sagas. Plus, you can even get your own souvenir pic with one of the many (incredibly realistic looking) viking wax figures.

Me meeting a viking!

Me meeting a viking!

7. See the Big Picture of Reykjavík for little money

You don’t have to pay much to have all of Reykjavik at your feet. It’s free to explore the centrally located, Geyser-shaped church Hallgrímskirkja from the outside and inside. If you want to go up the tower, adults pay 1000 ISK (about 7 USD), which I think is a reasonable price.

There is no need to fear having to climb up lots of stairs either. With a super fast elevator, you get driven up in a heartbeat. And on a clear and sunny day, the view is stunning! See these photos for evidence:

View of Reykjavik, Iceland
View of Reykjavik, Iceland

8. Stroll the harbour Front for FREE

Talking about the harbour front, it is of course free to just stroll around and enjoy the views. On a sunny day these are most beautiful if you start at the historically important Höfði House on Borgartún.

Harbour front near the Höfði House in Reykjavik, Iceland

It was here at the Höfði House where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbatsjov met in 1986 to discuss the beginning of the end to the Cold War period.

The Höfði House

The Höfði House

A little bit further down the harbour (after you’ve passed the impressive Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre), several boat companies will offer whale watching, puffin watching or sea angling tours.

9. Travel back in time

Planning a museum day in Reykjavik? The Reykjavik City Card will save you money. You can either get one for 24, 48 or 72 hours at many tourist information points, hotels or at supermarkets. The prices starting at 4000 ISK (ca. 26 Euros) for a 24-hour adult card and also include unlimited travel on all of Reykjavik’s busses as well as several special discounts.

Due to their close proximity, museums such as National Museum of Iceland, The Settlement Exhibition and the Museum of Photography can easily be visited in one day.

Trip to the past at Reykjavik's Open Air Museum

Trip to the past at Reykjavik’s Open Air Museum

Reykjavik’s Open Air Museum Árbær (open in the summertime only) is a little further out, but well worth a visit if you’re interested to see how Icelanders lived back in the day. The houses on display are fully furnished and tell lots of intriguing stories about the past. There are daily guided tours at 1 pm. If you planning on going, set aside some time because it will take at least 30 minutes to arrive there by bus (number 5, 12 or 16) from Reykjavik’s city centre.

10. Go on an organised day tour

It may not be that cheap, but it will definitely be worth it because you can just sit back and relax while everything is being organised for you! Also, if you only have limited time in Iceland, you can be sure to get the most out of your precious few days. All you are left to do then is to check off the sights on your bucket list.

Iceland's South Coast

Iceland’s South Coast

If you like to book a tour from Reykjavik in a few simple clicks, visit the booking website TourDesk.com

Good to know before you go

Five Travel Tips for Iceland

1. Credit cars are accepted everywhere. However, it is still advisable to get some cash in Icelandic kronors, for example for tipping your guide on a “free” walking tour (see next point).

2. Tipping is generally not expected, not even in restaurants. The only exception are the “free” walking tours in Reykjavik, for which you should of course tip your tour guide at the end if he or she did a good job.

3. Swimming pool rules: Because there is no chlorine in the water, naked showering is required before entering a public thermal bath

4. Cost: Be prepared that Iceland is very expensive, especially for food and accommodation. Although I have found that in 2020, the value of the Icelandic currency has dropped in favour of the Euro/Dollar when compared to when I was there last in 2017. That may change again in the future though.

A tip for the Blue Lagoon: Take your own towel and slippers to avoid having to pay for them and ideally combine your trip with a transfer to or from the airport because it is on the way anyway. You can conveniently store your luggage at the lagoon and that’s not too expensive.

5. Drink tap water: The smell of the tap water in Iceland may seem a bit strange at first. But, as every Icelander will tell you, it’s way better for you than to drink water from a bottle because the smell is actually due to all the sulphur, lava and other minerals in the ground. Thus, drinking tap water in Iceland is a good way to save money AND stay healthy!

It was love at first sight! Me and the Icelandic horses!

It was love at first sight! Me and the Icelandic horses!

Unless otherwise credited, all photos by © Sonja Irani | RevisitEurope.com

Disclaimer: If you’ve never booked with AirBnB before, I will receive a small affiliate fee if you click on the AirBnB link in the post, register on the site and make your first booking through this link. This blog post also includes affiliate links to my dedicated Iceland tour booking website on TourDesk. If you click on any of these links and make a booking through this link, I will receive a small affiliate fee. 

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