Iceland 101: All the Basic Facts You Need to Know

Photo: Golli. Akureyri sign post.

Planning a trip to Iceland? Here are some interesting facts and essential information to read before you arrive.

How big is Iceland, and who lives there?

The surface area of Iceland is 103,001 square kilometres [39,769 square miles], and the total population is just under 400,000, with most people living in and around Reykjavík. For the longest time, most people living in Iceland were natives, but in the past two decades, the foreign-born population has grown immensely and is now about 18% of the total. The language spoken is Icelandic, but most people speak English relatively well. 

The Icelandic climate

The climate in Iceland is temperate, meaning that, for the most part, swings in temperature are not huge. In fact, the most reliable thing about the weather here is the cool temperatures. The lowest temperature in Reykjavík during winter is usually -10°C [14°F], and only on rare occasions does it go higher than 20°C [68°F] during summer. For other parts of the country, the average temperature is slightly lower.

In terms of other weather factors, Iceland has it all. If you’re lucky, you might even get the whole spectrum in the span of 24 hours. The weather patterns can be unpredictable, but you can expect to encounter strong winds and storms in fall and winter, along with any form of precipitation. From April and throughout August, storms are considerably less likely to occur, but rain is common. That’s not to say the sun never comes out or the wind never stops, but be prepared by bringing the right clothes!

The power of Icelandic water

Iceland is known for its exceptional quality of water, which you can drink from the tap everywhere you go. In most places, it’s even safe to drink straight from the country’s many springs and rivers. Bring your refillable bottle to avoid spending money on overly expensive bottled water. 

The vast amount of running water has also enabled us to generate significant amounts of electricity, powering the country with green energy all year round. There’s plenty of hot water going around as well, so much so that 90% of Icelandic houses are heated with geothermal energy. The energy is both cheap and renewable, which is why most Icelanders have their radiators on full blast when it’s cold.

The Icelandic currency

Iceland is one of the world’s smallest countries with its own currency: The Icelandic Króna, ISK. Businesses do not accept cash from other countries, but most accept card payments if you don’t want to carry cash. You could almost call that the Icelandic way, as many Icelanders pay solely with their cards, phones or smartwatches. 

Weather warnings and road conditions 

One of the most incredible things about Iceland is its marvellous nature, and we highly recommend exploring it. Whether it’s a trip to the Highland, a short hike, or a tour of one of our glaciers, be sure to bring all the essentials, such as good walking shoes, food, and fluids, as well as warm layers of clothing that you can take off or put on according to the situation. Circumstances, especially the weather, might not be what you’re used to. If travelling outside the capital area, check for weather warnings at the Icelandic Met Office, and the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (vegagerðin) for road conditions.

Medical assistance for tourists in Iceland

You can seek medical attention at the nearest health care centre (heilsugæsla). You can also call 1700, a 24/7 medical advice line, or use the Heilsuvera online chat, open 8am-10pm. In case of emergencies, the number to call is 112. Those with the European Health Insurance Card will be charged the same fee as persons insured in Iceland, but necessary documents must be presented. Others will be charged in full. 

A Guide to Iceland’s Most Popular Waterfalls

dynjandi waterfall in iceland

Skógafoss Waterfall

This 60-metre [200 ft] waterfall is immersed in legend. The tallest waterfall in Iceland, Skógafoss is fed by two glaciers. Its icy waters plummet down to a pool below, where visitors can walk close to the falls, likely getting drenched in the process. 

The waterfall itself can be seen from two different viewpoints: at its base and from above. Visitors can climb a metal staircase to reach the top of the falls, where they are often greeted by the song of birds and a carpet of luscious greenery. A double rainbow typically accompanies this view, a result of the sunlight striking the water. 

skógafoss waterfall in south iceland

The legend surrounding Skógafoss details how the viking Þrasi Þórólfsson buried a chest full of treasures behind the falls:

“The chest of Þrasi is filled with treasures, 

located beneath Skógafoss waterfall,

the first man who goes there will find great richness.” 

Years later, three men set out to find this chest. They were successful. Yet upon trying to remove it from its watery hiding place, one of the golden rings, which served as a handle, broke off and plunged the chest deep beneath the waterfall, never to be found again. Travellers can find this infamous golden ring at the Skógar Museum. 

Traveling to Skógafoss

Located in the South of Iceland, Skógafoss is an ideal destination for anyone travelling on the Ring Road. Only a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, visitors who choose to drive to this destination can take advantage of free parking and the nearby campsite in the village of Skógar. Skógafoss is also accessible by bus line 51. 

Activities Near Skógafoss

Adventure enthusiasts who are eager to savour the natural beauty of their surroundings can hike in the area. A hiking trail can be found at the top of Skógafoss. It leads to the Fimmvörðuháls Trailhead, which many consider to be one of the best hikes in Iceland. This challenging trail spans 24.5 km [15.2 mi] with a 1300 metre [4265 ft] ascent and typically takes seven to twelve hours to complete.

For those who prefer a less strenuous activity, the Skógar museum is close to a five-minute drive from Skógafoss. The museum was opened in 1949 and is located beside a school building from 1901, an old magistrate’s house, a farmhouse, and a turf storehouse. Visitors can find national costumes, a tapestry, other artifacts, and the golden ring from the legend inside the museum. 

 

Dettifoss Waterfall

Dettifoss, a waterfall which boasts of nature’s strength, is known by many as “the beast”. The most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, this natural wonder is a spectacular vision.  Fed by the largest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajokull, Dettifoss is 100 metres [328 ft] wide with a 44 metre [144 ft] drop. Some say by placing one’s hand on top of nearby rocks, you can feel the power of Dettifoss reverberate through the landscape. 

Dettifoss offers two different vantage points. The upper view is accessible via a path along the river, where travellers may experience a chilling spray from the waterfall. For the lower viewpoint, visitors can embark on a steep downhill walk, which is also likely to result in being drenched in the waterfall’s mist.

dettifoss waterfall in north iceland

Travelling to Dettifoss 

Located in Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland’s northeast, this waterfall is a seven-hour drive from Reykjavik. However, it is only a 35-minute drive off of the Ring Road. Travellers can access Dettifoss from either the east or west side. Road 864 will take travellers to the west side of the waterfall, while Road 862 will lead to the east. There is free parking on both the east and west sides of Dettifoss. Some travellers may also prefer discovering Dettifoss from the comfort of a guided tour.

Activities Near Dettifoss

Dettifoss is not the only waterfall in the area. Explorers can hike a rocky 1 km [0.62 mi] trail to Selfoss. This waterfall is found in Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and is 100 [328 ft] metres wide. Often dwarfed by the magnificence of its neighbour, Dettifoss, Selfoss is worth the 30-minute trek. Travellers are often mesmerised by its horseshoe-like shape and the gentle spray of mist which compliments the Icelandic landscape. The Mývatn nature baths are also nearby, making a great stop on a tour of the area.

Hafragilsfoss waterfall is located downstream from Dettifoss and is only a five-minute drive north. Hafragilsfoss is fed by the same glacier as Dettifoss and stands at 27 metres [89 ft]. Nestled within rocky terrain, this waterfall can be viewed from the east or west. 

 

Gullfoss Waterfall

A popular Hollywood destination, Gullfoss waterfall has made an appearance in a myriad of films. Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Lost in Space, Vikings, and Twice Upon a Time, have all taken advantage of the stunning landscape and thundering falls. 

Called the Golden Falls, Gullfoss lives up to its name. Rather than a single cascade, this waterfall flows over two rocky plateaus, carrying water from the Langjokull glacier to the pool below. In the summer months, the sunlight shines upon Gullfoss, causing the water to take on a spectacular golden hue. 

To travellers who are visiting Gullfoss in the winter months, it is prudent to take caution as the terrain can often by icy and slippery and requires caution when exploring. 

gullfoss waterfall golden circle
Golli – Gullfoss Waterfall

Travelling to Gullfoss 

The Gullfoss waterfall is in Iceland’s southwest in Haukadalur valley. It is a popular stop for those who are travelling along the Golden Circle. It can be reached from Reykjavik in only two hours by car. There is a visitor center and parking lot near Gullfoss and parking is free.  There are no city buses available from Reykjavik to Gullfoss, but many guided tours are available. 

Activities Near Gullfoss

Gullfoss Café is located next to the main parking lot where customers can purchase tasty delicacies. A nearby shop is also available, selling Icelandic souvenirs. 

Gullfoss also has a couple different walking paths that visitors can travel for a truly immersive experience. Different views of the waterfall and canyon are available, mostly looking from the waterfall above as it tumbles into the canyon below. A truly breathtaking view.  

Check out even more ways to see the Golden Circle.

 

Dynjandi Waterfall

For travellers with an inclination for waterfalls, Dynjandi is the place to be. Known as the “jewel of the Westfjords”, Dynjandi shimmers amidst the landscape. It stands at 100 metres [328 ft] tall with a width of 60 metres [197 ft]. However, it is not the only waterfall nearby. Rather, Dynjandi is one of seven other waterfalls in the area. In order to access Dynjandi, travellers must hike past these six other waterfalls. They are called: Strompgljúfrafoss, Göngumannafoss, Hrísvaðsfoss, Kvíslarfoss, Hundafoss and Bæjarfoss. However, most agree that Dynjandi, which has often been equated to a bridal veil, is the most spectacular in the area. 

dynjandi waterfall westfjords
Berglind – Dynjandi Waterfall

Travelling to Dynjandi 

A six-hour drive away from the nation’s capital, Dynjandi is not easily accessible from Reykjavik. This means the waterfall is not often crowded by tourist and is worth the trek for travellers who wish to avoid large crowds. For those travelling by car, there is free parking. 

It is also possible to reach the waterfall from the comfort of an organised tour. 

Activities Near Dynjandi 

In order to reach Dynjandi waterfall, travellers must make a fifteen-minute hike uphill on a well-maintained pathway. This hike is steep and may not be accessible to everybody. This journey will take travellers past six other smaller waterfalls along the path and serves to be a quick but beautiful hike. 

 

Whales of Iceland: Which whales can you find around Iceland?

Whales of Iceland

Iceland is a fantastic place to observe whales. Due to its prime location in the North Atlantic Ocean, many whales migrate to Icelandic waters to feed during the warmer summer months. More than 20 whale species call the Icelandic waters their home. Venturing out on one of the many whale-watching tours is usually one of the easiest ways to spot the cetaceans, but some lucky devils might also catch a glimpse of a whale from Iceland’s shores! 

If you’re interested in finding the best whale-watching tours in Iceland, make sure also to check out our whale-watching guide and find the best spots to observe these large ocean mammals!

Here’s a guide to all the whale species around Iceland and their favourite spots.

Whales of Iceland

Whale species in Iceland

Whales are warm-blooded mammals which nurse their offspring and need to come up to the surface to breathe air. Interestingly enough, all whales have hair in some way or another. Most whales have their hair follicles, whereas land mammals have their whiskers today. Humpback whales, for instance, have bumps on their head, each containing a follicle with a single hair! The existence of hair might be a remnant of their land-mammal ancestors. Whales and cows (and other hoofed animals) actually share a common ancestor about 50 million years ago!

Whales belong to the cetacea category, also including dolphins and porpoises. Whale species can generally be distinguished into toothed and baleen whales. While baleen whales, like blue whales and humpback whales, have – well – baleens to filter their food, toothed whales like orcas (also commonly known as “killer whales”), beluga whales and pilot whales use their teeth to hunt and eat larger prey items.

Due to their proximity to the Arctic, Icelandic waters are rich in nutrients, such as krill, small fish, and other small crustaceans. That is why many whales spend their summers in colder waters off the shores of Iceland, Canada and Greenland. They stay in these waters for 4 to 6 months, eating and bulking up in blubber as a food reserve for the winter months when they migrate back to tropical areas for breeding and calving season, where food is scarce.

Whales of Iceland
Whale-Watching in Faxaflói, Reykjavík (credit: Golli)

Baleen whales around Iceland

Baleen whales are among the biggest species on our planet and are generally larger than toothed whales. In contrast to toothed whales, they have two blowholes on the top of their head, whereas toothed whales only have one. With their baleen plates, they mostly feed on plankton, especially krill, which are tiny crustaceans that can be found in all the world’s oceans. Baleen whales also have wide ranges and usually migrate thousands of kilometres to reach their destination. Generally, baleen whales tend to be slower than their toothed peers, with a few exceptions: one of them is the fin whale, also called the Greyhound of the sea.

Blue whale
Blue Whale
Swimming blue whale (credit: NOAA)

Famously known as the biggest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale also visits Iceland during summer. Female animals can reach a length of up to 32 metres (104 ft), while their male counterparts reach about 27 metres (88 ft). In Iceland, we have the northern blue whale, mostly found in the north of Iceland. Húsavík is the whale-watching capital of Iceland, and even though it is quite rare, there have been sightings of blue whales nearly every year! 

In a single mouthful of water, a blue whale can engulf over 100 tonnes of water and eat up between 10 and 22 tonnes of krill per day (22,000-48,000 pounds). As blue whales produce very tall blows (about 10m/32ft), they are easily spotted. Usually, they can dive for more than 30 minutes, making it quite possible to observe one on a whale-watching tour! “Icelandic” blue whales usually migrate here from places like the Azores and the northwest coast of Africa, though not all migration routes are known.

During the peak of commercial whaling, thousands of animals were killed, leading to repercussions in blue whale populations today. The species is on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red Endangered Species list. In Iceland, blue whales have been protected from whaling since 1960.

Fin whale
hvalur whaling in iceland
Dead fin whale at the whaling station on Hvalfjörður (credit: Golli)

Fin whales are the second largest animal on earth after blue whales. In contrast to their blue whale peers, they are also called the greyhounds of the sea, as they can reach a very fast speed (for their size) of a maximum of 47 km/h (15mi/h) in small outbursts. Females can reach a length of about 18-20 metres (65ft). Fin whales tend to favour offshore waters between Iceland and Greenland as their summer feeding grounds and are usually quite far out – further than whale-watching observation grounds. As blue whales and fin whales share their feeding areas within Icelandic water, there are cases where the two species have produced offspring together, so-called hybrids.

The worldwide population of fin whales is considered vulnerable, with about 40,000 individuals in the entire North Atlantic. Unfortunately, Iceland is still one of the only countries to commercially whale – and the only nation left that hunts fin whales. After a short hiatus, whaling in Iceland resumed in the last few years, killing hundreds of fin whales and small numbers of hybrid whales for meat export to Japan. If you’re interested in reading more about whale hunting in Iceland, you can check out our recent feature article here and listen to our Deep North podcast episode here.

Humpback whale
Whales of Iceland
Humpback whale munching on some food in Faxaflói, Reykjavík (credit: Golli)

Humpback whales are one of the kinds that are most commonly observed from the shores or on whale-watching tours in Iceland. Female humpbacks reach an average length of about 15 metres (50ft), while males are up to 14 metres in size. Due to their agility, they often breach, making it easy to spot them! In the summer of 2019, humpbacks were seen on 28 out of 31 days from whale watching tours in Reykjavík!

Usually, humpback whales like to stay in solitude but occasionally stay in small groups and pairs. Interestingly enough, they have various hunting techniques, like bubble-net feeding, where they swim beneath a school of fish and release air bubbles, which trap the fish in the bubble net, making it easy and clever for them to catch their prey!

Minke whale
Minke whale Iceland
Minke whale swimming about (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Waielbi)

While the previous baleen whales have all been massive in size, the minke whale is the smallest species of baleen whales found around Iceland. The North Atlantic minke whale is dark grey with a white belly and distinctive white bands on their pectoral fins. 

They usually surface quite often before venturing on a deeper dive that lasts approximately 20 minutes. They are, therefore, quite commonly spotted from whale watching boatsMinke whales are the most common whales in the coastal Icelandic waters, with approximately 13,000 individuals. Iceland stopped hunting the species in 2019.

Sei whale
A mother Sei Whale and it's calf.
A sei whale mother and her calf (credit: Christin Khan, NOAA)

Sei whales are the third-largest baleen whales. Just like fin whales, they are very fast and prefer offshore waters. They are, therefore, not very likely to be spotted either from land or on a whale-watching tour. According to observations, there are about 10,000 individuals in the North Atlantic, with the most animals between Iceland and Greenland. During the height of modern whaling in the 20th century, the population of sei whales also decreased drastically after stocks of prior “popular” hunted whales were nearly depleted. Since the late 70s, the population size has slowly been recovering.

Grey whale
A grey whale breaching in Alaska (credit: Merrill Gosho, NOAA)

These large species can reach a maximum length of about 15 metres (50ft) and cannot be found in the North Atlantic, and therefore Iceland, anymore. You might wonder why they are then mentioned on the list of whales around Iceland. Well, a long time ago, grey whales were abundant around Europe. However, due to extensive whaling dating back as early as AD 500, the species was driven to extinction in that region. In Iceland, grey whales have been wiped out since the early 1700s. Nowadays, grey whales can only be found in the Pacific Ocean.

Toothed whales around Iceland

Toothed whales generally feed on fish and squid. They utilise their teeth for capturing and tearing their prey into smaller pieces, but they don’t chew them as we humans would. Most toothed whales use echolocation to communicate and hunt.

Orca / Killer whale
Orca, Whales of Iceland
An orca in the wild (credit: Felix Rottmann)

This apex predator can kill great white sharks without trouble and is also part of Iceland’s flourishing ocean wildlife! Orcas are highly intelligent, and they usually hunt in groups. They have quite a diverse diet, eating everything from fish, and sharks, to seals and other whales. The best place to see orcas in Iceland is on the Snæfellsnes peninsula with Láki tours from Ólafsvík. If herring is in the fjord, orcas can also often be spotted in the winter months – but the best time for observing them is from March until June. Check out orca whale-watching tours here

Pilot whale
Pilot whales
Pilot whale pod (credit: Bill Thompson/USFWS)

Long-finned pilot whales can be found in the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere. The animals are very sociable, forming large groups of 20 to 150 individuals, but the pods can reach up to thousands of individuals. They form very strong bonds within their matrilineal group, with other adult animals often “babysitting” calves, even when they’re not closely related. 

Pilot whales frequently beach themselves, and often, the whole pod follows one leading animal, leading to hundreds dying. In 2019, around 50 pilot whales beached on the Snæfellsness peninsula, which was Iceland’s second-largest mass stranding of the past 40 years. It is not too usual to see pilot whales on whale-watching tours, but with some luck, you could definitely catch sight of a pod offshore the Snæfellsness peninsula!

Beluga whale
Beluga whales Little White & Little Grey take their first swim in their Beluga Whale Sanctuary home in Iceland
Little White & Little Grey in Klettsvík bay on Heimaey (credit: Sea Life Trust)

The “Canaries of the Sea” – as the species is often called due to their high vocality and use of various songs, clicks and whistles. Belugas have a distinct melon-shaped head with the melon – as it’s called – consisting of oil, which helps echolocation. Their vertebrae in the neck are not fused, so they can turn their heads without moving their white bodies, making their movement seem quite human-like. 

Belugas are not commonly seen in Iceland, but two rescued beluga whales are in the Sea Life sanctuary on Heimaey in the Westman Islands. Little White and Little Grey were rescued from an aquarium in Shanghai, and it is planned for them to move into a bay on the island for more freedom.

Narwhal
Narwhal Iceland
A narwhal and its great tusk near the Karl Alexander and Jackson Islands (northern part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago), June 2019 (credit: Wikimedia Commons, press service of Gazprom Neft PJSC)

Narwhals (Yes, they are spelled like that), also commonly referred to as the unicorns of the sea due to their unique ivory tusk, are excellent deep divers, reaching depths up to 800 metres (2,600ft). They travel in pods of about 20-30 animals. Their tusk grows out of their mouths into a spiral and possesses millions of nerve endings, helping them sense their surroundings. The tusk can reach a size of up to 3 metres (10ft). Interestingly enough, the tusk is the animals’ only tooth – so they swallow their prey whole! 

Generally, narwhal sightings in Iceland are pretty rare, with their natural habitat being in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Rarely they can be spotted in the far north of Iceland. 

Sperm whale
Sperm whale Iceland
A sperm whale mother with her calf (credit: Gabriel Barathieu, Wikimedia Commons)

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales, reaching lengths between 11-16 metres (36-50ft). The species regularly dives to depths of 500-1000 metres (1640-3280ft) and can remain underwater for up to 40 minutes. They are quite known for their strong echolocation clicks, which they use to search for prey and communicate with their peers. Their top prey are medium-large squid and fish, with some sperm whales even carrying battle scars with giant squid! Interestingly enough, sperm whales around Iceland tend to hunt bony fish rather than squid. 

They are not often observed around the shores of Iceland, as they spend very little time at the surface, but they can be found off Iceland’s west coast and occasionally in the north of Iceland in late spring and summer.

The Whales of Iceland Museum

If you want to see all the mentioned whales above and even more in life-size, we highly recommend checking out the Whales of Iceland museum in Reykjavík. You can learn more about these fantastic animals inhabiting Icelandic waters in their exhibition. It’s also a great choice, in case the weather should be bad and your whale-watching tour has been cancelled! The museum is located in Grandi, right by the ocean, next to the big supermarket chain Krónan. 

Check out their website here.

You can book a whale-watching tour here.

Kerið: A Volcanic Crater Lake in South Iceland

iceland tourism private land

Kerið is a volcanic caldera in the Grímsnes volcano system in southern Iceland, formed as a result of an inward collapse of a volcano about 6,500 years ago. The caldera is about 270 m [886 ft] long and 170 m [558 ft] wide, with a depth of 55 m [180 ft]. Its lake’s depth varies between 7-14 m [23-46 ft]. Kerið is known for its visually attractive palette. The lake has a distinct teal colour due to the soil’s minerals. Its surrounding hills are composed of low bushes, moss and red lava; the red colour is due to the oxidation of the magma’s iron (hematite). 

Visiting Kerið

Kerið is located on a private property owned and managed by Arctic Adventures. As of 2024, the entry fee is ISK 450 [$3.25, €3], and it is open all year. Swimming or drinking the water is not allowed. It is one of the destinations on the famous Golden Circle route, which includes stops such as Gullfoss waterfall, Haukadalur geothermal area and Þingvellir National Park. 

How to get to Kerið

Via Route 1 and Route 35, Kerið is a 67 km [42 mi] drive from Reykjavík city centre. From the capital, drive south on Route 1 for about 55 km [34 mi] before turning left on Route 35 towards Laugarvatn lake. Drive for about 13 km [8 mi], and you will see the parking area on your right. Kerið is right by the parking lot, so hiking is not required; however, there is a 1.4 km [0.9 mi] trail around the caldera for added vantage points.