Do's and Don'ts When Visiting Iceland Skip to content
A man walking down a rainbow-painted road in Iceland
Photo: Golli. What are some do’s and don’ts in Iceland? .

Do’s and Don’ts When Visiting Iceland

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Regarding Do’s and Don’ts, what helpful advice can Iceland Review offer travellers heading to Iceland? What are some of the most essential things to do here, and in contrast, what are the social taboos? Read on for tips during your time in the land of ice and fire. 

All told, Icelanders are friendly and welcoming people. Be they tour guides, service staff, or the average person on the street, most are happy to offer advice, a helping hand, and share the passion they hold for their homeland with international visitors. 

Akureyri party-goers
Photo: Golli. Party time in Akureyri!

With that said, the rise of tourism over the last fifteen years has come with its drawbacks. And while the majority of those who arrive to these subarctic shores treat their time in Iceland with respect and reverence, a few bad apples have fed into the misconception that visitors are more hassle than they’re worth.

And so, with that in mind, it can be helpful to know a little of what is expected of new arrivals in terms of manners. However, this article is not intended merely as a means to police behaviour, but also as an invitation to take part in experiences and activities that the Icelanders are sure to appreciate. 

DO try the local cuisine

A delicious dish of Icelandic cuisine
Photo: The Reykjavík Food Walk

Icelandic food has come on leaps and bounds since the early days where sourcing and sustenance was the main priority. Looking at traditional dishes like Svið (a roasted sheep’s head cut unceremoniously down the middle), one might not think so, but trust us when we say that Iceland has more to offer peckish foodies than they might at first realise. 

As you would expect from a Nordic island, seafood is internationally known to be the Icelanders’ speciality. At the same time, Icelandic lamb has such a stellar reputation that it’s impossible to decide which they cook better. Ultimately, you’ll have to take a look at the menu and decide what you fancy on the night! 

Experience global cuisine in Iceland

And it’s not just lamb and seafood! Reykjavík in particular is host to a countless array of restaurants that focus on dishes from all around the world. Nowhere is this more obvious than the myriad of popular food halls that now dot the city, with Hlemmur Mathöll and Pósthús Food Hall & Bar being two of the most sought-after canteens to grab a quick bite to eat. 

Enjoying Icelandic hot dogs
Photo: The Reykjavík Food Walk

If you fancy Pakistani food, for instance, then Shalimar is your go-to eatery. If you’re in the mood for delicacies from the far east, then Ban-Thai has you covered. What about the all-American burger and fries? Nothing is a better fit than Lebowski Bar’s Burger of the Month. Better yet, stop by the famous hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, to try this delicious Icelandic take on an American classic. 

Taste-testing certain delicacies has become something of a trend over recent years. Fermented Greenland shark, known locally as Hákarl, is one we would suggest avoiding… unless your desire to taste concentrated ammonia is something you simply cannot resist. For those that refuse to stray towards culinary cowardice, there are a plethora of other local options, from harðfisk (dried fish), Icelandic cheese, and even horse. 

DON’T stop to take photos on the road 

A wide open road in Iceland.

We all know that Iceland is one of the most stunning countries on the planet, be it its dramatic mountain ranges, picturesque farmlands, glistening glacier tongues, or jet black deserts. While it’s more than understandable that guests want to snap pictures left and right, some places are better than others. 

One location that has become of particular issue is the middle of the road

It doesn’t matter what road – by default, it’s often the Ring Road – but many tourists are in the bad habit of pulling over whenever it suits them, getting out of their car, and shooting the surrounding landscape as if they haven’t just created a dangerous obstacle of themselves on a major highway. 

There are plenty of places in Iceland where it is safe and encouraged to take photographs, but the nation’s most well-driven routes is not one of them.

DO experience the local nightlife

Dancing in an Icelandic nightclub
Photo: Golli. People enjoying Iceland’s nightlife.

Given the words that are often used to describe Reykjavík – quaint, charming, quirky, old-fashioned – it does come as a surprise to some that the capital city can be quite boisterous in terms of its nightlife, especially on a Friday and Saturday night.

With its often freezing temperatures and long winter nights, it should be obvious that many Icelanders enjoy a drink, finding community and comfort in the city’s eclectic bars and public houses. 

There are many styles of drinking establishments on offer, ranging from the dive-bar style at Dillon Whiskey Bar or Lemmy, to the more refined presentation of Cernin Wine Bar or Apótek Restaurant.

A nighttime pool party in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Not all parties happen at the bar!

To the shock of no-one, drinking in Iceland can quickly become expensive, so do make use of the Happy-Hour deals you’ll find across Reykjavík.     

And while we understand that it’s easy to get into the spirit of things – and, let’s face it, sometimes get carried away – it should be stressed that drinking responsibly would do you well here. By and large, Reykjavík is a safe city for partygoers, but unsavoury incidents do still occur from time to time.

DON’T walk on the moss

A woman takes a photographer at a waterfall.
Photo: Golli. Iceland’s moss is very fragile, so tread carefully!

There are a number of reasons why walking atop this iconic flora is forbidden. 

Many travellers are quick to compare Iceland’s landscape to the lunar surface of the moon. In fact, it is more like it than they know. For one, footsteps trodden into the fragile moss leave a lasting impression, forever altering its natural state. 

Another reason is that there are many places where blankets of moss have covered large cracks and natural holes in the ground. It might be hard to believe, but there have been several cases where unsuspecting hikers have fallen through moss into some dark and inhospitable crevasse. Not only does this put unwarranted strain on Iceland’s Search & Rescue teams, but such falls can deal a nasty injury… and, sometimes, worse. 

Try to think of Icelandic moss as something akin to an icy lake, where those trotting atop it are unaware of which parts are too thin to support their weight. 

DO learn some Icelandic phrases

Icelandic kids wearing 3d glasses
Photo: Golli. Some basic phrases will help you meet locals!

Icelandic, a North Germanic language, is remarkably unchanged from Old Norse; the very same tongue that the ancient settlers spoke when they first arrived to this strange and mysterious land. 

Given that fact, it should come as little surprise that the Icelandic language is notoriously difficult to pick up. Fortunately, most Icelanders speak excellent English, meaning that communication between them and their overseas guests is usually a simple affair. 

Still, the Icelanders are rightfully proud of their unique and poetic mother-tongue, and it is filled with gems that linguaphiles will, no doubt, find deeply fascinating. 

As one example, the Icelandic word for computer is ‘Tölva,’ derived from the words ‘tala’ and ‘völva’, which makes up the direct translation ‘number witch.’ Unsurprisingly, this term was invented by a scholar of the Icelandic sagas, Sigurður Nordal. 

Skating in Reykjavík
Photo: Golli. Skateboarders in downtown Reykjavík

But the basics will always be helpful, even if it’s sometimes easier to speak in English. Here are a few very simple phrases to get you started:

Hello – Halló / Hæ

Good morning – Góðan daginn

Good evening – Gott kvöld

Goodbye – Bless / Bæ

How are you – Hvernig hefur þú það?

I’m doing well – Ég hef það gott 

Thank you – Taokk / Takk fyrir / Þakka þér

Once again, no one is expecting guests to have any real knowledge of Icelandic, but the locals do appreciate those who have taken an interest in learning more about it. 

DON’T get close to the waves at Reynisfjara Beach 

Reynisfjara - Vík - suðurland
Photo: Golli. Tourists at the popular Reynisfjara beach, South Iceland

Nestled beside the picturesque village of Vík í Mýrdal on the South Coast, Reynisfjara is celebrated as one of Iceland’s more beautiful black sand beaches. This in large part thanks to its enormous basalt sea stacks, Reynisdrangar, that rise from the ocean like the hardened tentacles of a petrified kraken. 

While this stretch of shoreline is certainly dramatic in terms of aesthetic, the danger that comes hand-in-hand with it is important to realise before arriving.

 

There are a number of signposts on the beach that tell of Reynisfjara’s unpredictable waves, and it would do any traveller well to pay attention to them. One minute, the shore looks calm and distant; the next, its sullen grey waters are gushing ferociously over the sand, pulling back anyone and anything unlucky enough to be there. 

This is not mere hyperbole – there have been many incidents of observers being swept into the seas here, including a number of fatalities. While it is not pleasant dwelling on such things during your time at Reynisfjara, it is certainly better than finding yourself a victim to Iceland’s temperamental nature.     

DO make a budget 

Shoppers in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Shoppers in downtown Reykjavík

Over the last year, a joke has been circulating among residents in Iceland – “Buying a bell pepper is a sign of extortionate wealth.” This may be exaggerated for comedic effect, but there is some truth to its implication.  

If there’s a common thread regarding what people say about Iceland, it’s that the country is expensive. Unfortunately, this is the reality of island life given that so many products must be imported. Even so, having a thorough rundown of what you’re likely to spend during your time here can help you mitigate unnecessary expenses. 

In other words – prepare your budget! 

Shopping in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Make sure to plan your budget for shopping!

Make sure to consider how much you’ll spend, be it on food, transportation, accommodation, and any tours or activities you’re interested in. 

While travelling here is sure to make more of a financial dent than you’re comfortable with, there are still opportunities to lessen the payload. For one, be sure to cook at home, shopping at the cheaper supermarkets like Bonus or Kronan, rather than the local convenience store, 10/11. 

Then there is the matter of purchasing tours and activities. Instead of opting for private tours, instead choose to travel within a larger group on multi-day tours, forgoing any need to purchase gas or a rental car. 

By making adaptations like this, you may be pleasantly surprised that your trip to Iceland ends up costing less than you first imagined. So, do your bank-balance and favour by keeping your expenditure in the black with a ready-made budget!  

DON’T drive off-road 

Cars trapped on the road
Photo: From archives

There are many reasons why driving off-road is prohibited in Iceland. Aside from the safety concerns associated with taking a vehicle off-road, there are a plethora of environmental issues to take into account. 

Iceland has a very fragile ecosystem, and thus protecting the native flora and fauna is of paramount importance. Driving off-road not only damages plantlife to such an extreme that it is never able to repair itself, but whirling tyres are a grave threat to nesting birds, as well as the habitat of other species. 

On that note, Iceland is a volcanic island, meaning that soil erosion can be a huge problem. Vehicles are easily capable of scraping away the top-soil. This leaves the land beneath exposed to water and wind, which can further hamper the earth’s ability to foster life. 

As they should be, Iceland’s government is zealous when it comes to enforcing their rules regarding protecting Iceland’s natural landscape. As such, off-road driving is completely illegal in Iceland. Anyone who chooses to flounce this law can expect hefty fines, or even more serious legal consequences.

In Summary 

Öskudagur celebrations
Photo: Golli. Icelandic kids enjoying Öskudagur

As expected from a lighthearted travel article such as this, our list of do’s and don’ts is not definitive. There are many more things that one certainly should DO when in Iceland. For example, experience the Golden Circle tour, hunt for the Northern Lights, or chat with the locals. 

On the flipside, the various things that should be avoided are also extensive. But, more often than not,  these fall into the category of following your common sense. A couple of examples might be discarding your litter in the proper fashion. Or, demonstrating an air of patience should tour schedules divert from what you, at first, expected. 

Of course, we have no urge to patronise our guests. By default, we trust one’s ability to act according to their manners. The simple fact that you’ve read this far proves how seriously you take the matter of respecting others cultures. So, well done, you! 

Those who have shelled out for a trip to Iceland are rarely looking to misbehave for the sake of it. On the contrary, people relish the chance to show this unique and culturally-rich location the respect that it deserves.

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