Backpacking in Iceland
Iceland has been an absolute trend destination for some years now. Especially for nature lovers, artists and photographers this country is a true paradise because there is so much to discover. Hot springs, spitting geysers, countless waterfalls, volcanoes and glaciers attract more and more people to the island in the North Atlantic every year. Rounded off with a sighting of the famous northern lights or the midnight sun, Iceland becomes a very special holiday destination.
With 103,000 km², Iceland is the second largest island state in Europe after Great Britain. At the same time, however, it is also the most sparsely populated European country, as only about 332,000 inhabitants live on the whole island, of which more than half live in the capital Reykjavík. Iceland is also one of the places with the highest volcanic activity in the world, with an average eruption every 5 years. You may remember the ash cloud of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which paralyzed all European air traffic for several days in 2010. Such events are not uncommon there. But it is precisely these facts that make the country all the more interesting and charming.
One reason why Iceland is still very sparsely populated is certainly the fact that the interior is hardly inhabitable. The Icelandic highlands offer a breathtaking landscape of volcanoes, hot springs, rock deserts and ice caps, which is almost untouched. A fascinating destination for anyone who wants to immerse themselves completely in nature and enjoy the peace and quiet. Note, however, that the two roads (Kjölur and Sprengisandur routes) that run through the highlands are only passable in summer after the snow has melted. And even then a jeep with all-wheel drive is recommended.
On the other hand, the coastal stretches are passable all year round and the whole towns and settlements are located here. The capital Reykjavík is often referred to as “the gateway to Iceland”, because this is where most people start their Icelandic journey and this is also where most of the life can be found. The city captivates with a mix of futuristic glass buildings and small corrugated iron houses, surrounded by the beautiful Icelandic nature. But also cities like Kópavogur, Hafnarfjörður and Akureyri have their charm.
For travelling in Iceland, a rental car is clearly recommended. There is also a public bus network, but they drive quite irregularly, especially in winter. Moreover, the buses only run between the cities and many attractions are only accessible via unpaved roads that no bus can pass. You can reach the island by plane all year round with Icelandair from Frankfurt or with WOW Air from Berlin. Those who fly in summer have more choices. Then there are flights to other German cities and also other airlines like Lufthansa, Germania and Germanwings offer some connections.
The official language is Icelandic. But you don’t have to speak Icelandic if you want to travel the country. The compulsory foreign languages English and Danish are taught in the schools, so you should be on the safe side with English. But you won’t get very far with German.
Culture in Iceland
Cultural life in Iceland is traditional and creative, but at the same time open to new influences. Iceland was originally settled in the 9th century by Norwegian Vikings who brought art and traditions to the island. Due to the remoteness of the island, however, an independent culture developed over the years. Especially the medieval literature consisting of royal sagas and the two Eddas play an important role here.
Two literary works from the 13th century are called Edda (Snorra- and Lieder-Edda), which deal with Scandinavian legends of gods and heroes. In contrast to literature, art only really developed in modern times. One of the first professional painters was Sigurdur Gudmundsson, who founded the Icelandic National Museum in 1863. In the Reykjavík area there are many cultural institutions, such as the Harpa Concert Hall.
Backpacker information about Iceland
Iceland is not a typical backpacker country. Not because it has nothing to offer, on the contrary. The only thing that speaks against a backpacking trip in Iceland is the incredibly high prices. Not only the flights are relatively expensive, also for accommodations, rental cars and catering you have to dig deep into your pockets. If you are looking for a low budget holiday, you are definitely wrong.
In general, it is important to note: In summer, there are most tourists on the island, so the prices are also the highest here. But for the fact that the costs for the trip itself and the food are so high, one can marvel at most of the main attractions of the island completely free of charge. Many natural spectacles can certainly be explored on one’s own and for free. Of course, you can also book guided tours, but they are also very expensive.
As already mentioned, Iceland is an extremely expensive travel destination. Accordingly, you should set your budget significantly higher than for a trip to other European countries. Even high-priced Scandinavian countries like Sweden or Norway are still relatively affordable compared to Iceland. Not only the accommodations are a big hole in your wallet, but also the food costs are comparatively high. The best thing is to look for accommodation like hostels or holiday flats where you can cook yourself. Food in the supermarket is also not cheap (up to 30% more expensive than in Germany), but in any case cheaper than a visit to a restaurant.
An overnight stay in a hostel with several beds can cost you between 30 and 40 €. On Airbnb, for example, you get holiday apartments from 70-80 € a night, private rooms in a host’s house from 50-60 €. If you are not travelling alone, a private accommodation is probably worthwhile even opposite a hostel bed. Only camping is cheaper, but for this, one needs a professional equipment so that one does not freeze.
The prices for flights vary strongly depending on the time of travel and booking. Usually they are between 200 and 500 € (return flight). Here it is necessary to book as early as possible.
By the way, Iceland is paid with the Icelandic Crown (ISK). 100 ISK currently correspond to approx. 0.82 € (November 2016). In circulation are coins of 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 crowns as well as banknotes of 500, 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10000 crowns. German credit and EC cards are generally accepted everywhere.
Costs for a rental car
If you want to travel Iceland independently and flexibly, you have to get a rental car. Because of the partly unpaved roads and ice in winter, it is advisable to rent an all-terrain vehicle with all-wheel drive (4×4). It is best to pick it up directly at the airport and keep it during your entire stay. The page Guide to Iceland (click here) is a good place to go if you want to book a rental car. But also here the prices are very different depending on the season.
- SUV 4×4, in winter: from 700 €/14 days, in summer: from 1.400 €/14 days
- Small car, in winter: from 400 €/14 days (not recommended!), in summer: from 800 €/14 days (not suitable for the highlands)
Costs for the bus
As there is no rail network on Iceland, bus connections are the only notable alternative to hiring a car. Beside the city traffic in Reykjavík, there are also intercity buses that drive to the inhabited parts of Iceland as well as some stops in the highlands (only in summer). The frequency and reliability, however, decreases considerably in the low season. In addition, bus companies such as Sterna (http://icelandbybus.is/) offer various bus passes according to the Hop on – Hop off model:
- Full Circle approx. 315 € once around the whole island (ring road), valid 28.06.-31.08.
- Highland Hikers approx. 104 € brings you to the popular hiking trails Laugavegur or Fimmvörðuháls and back, valid 20.06.-09.09.
- East Circle approx. 382 € once around the island, instead of along the west coast the route leads through the highlands, valid 28.06.-31.08.
- Ultimate approx. 500 €, once around the whole island + Golden Circle and other attractions, valid 28.06.-31.08.
You have to decide for yourself whether you prefer to be flexible with a rental car or whether you prefer to be bound to timetables and stops, but have to pay less. If you’re travelling in winter, there’s almost no choice but to hire a car, as even the Hop on – Hop off buses don’t run here.
On Iceland there is in principle a travel route, which almost all backpackers take and modify individually on their needs – once around the complete island. The main road no. 1, which is also affectionately called “ring road”, leads once in the circle around the whole island and has a total length of 1332 km. From it smaller roads branch off, which lead to the fjords, cities, to the plateau and to many well-known objects of interest.
Thus, one can arrange one’s route very individually. For a circumnavigation of the island you should plan at least 10 days. If you want to make more detours and visit some places for more than one day, you should plan at least 2-3 weeks for your trip.
This is what your two-week rental car tour might look like:
- 1-2 Days Reykjavik
- 1 day Golden Circle (Pinghvellir – Geysire – Gullfoss)
- 1 day Borgarnes
- 1 day Snæfellsnes (Arnarstapi – Grundarfjörður – Stykkishólmur)
- 1 day Varmahlíð
- 1 day Húsavík (whale tour)
- 1-2 days Akureyri
- 1 day hot springs in Myvatn
- 1 day Seyðisfjörður (stopover: Egilsstaðir)
- 1 day Höfn
- 1 day ice bay Jökulsárlón
- 1 day Dyrhólaey, aircraft wreck in Sólheimasandur, Seljavallalaug, Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss
- 1 day Hvolsvöllur
Or you can go the other way around and take a little more time for the individual stations:
- 3 Days Golden Circle
- 2 days glacier hike at Sólheimajökull, ice bay Jökulsárlon, Höfn
- 1 day hot springs in Myvatn
- 1-2 days Akureyri
- 1 day Hùsavik (whale tour)
- 1-2 days Osár, Siglufjörður
- 1-2 days Reykjavík
Travel times in Iceland
Most people travel to Iceland in summer (June-August). However, here the already expensive prices are raised again due to the many tourists. Thus, those who want to save some money can also consider a visit outside the main season. In any case, the landscape is unbelievably magnificent at any time of the year.
One is spoilt for choice – enjoy endless summer days and marvel at the not setting sun or watch the sparkling polar lights in a deep black winter night. You have to keep in mind, however, that the roads to the interior of the country are closed most of the time in winter and you can therefore unfortunately not marvel at all the sights.
Accommodation in Iceland is one of the most expensive items for your travel budget. If you are travelling alone, a bed in a hostel is the cheapest option. Unfortunately there are not hundreds of hostels to choose from because Iceland is really sparsely populated. You will find most hostels in the capital Reykjavík. Otherwise you will also find a handful of hostels in smaller cities.
Only in the rural areas, it gets a little more difficult to find something. If you are travelling in pairs (or more), a private rental accommodation e.g. via Airbnb is clearly recommended. Here you will find private rooms, holiday flats or even small houses in the middle of nowhere. What you have to say about this is that you should book as early as possible.
The accommodation possibilities on the island are very limited and especially in summer, when the tourist rush is unbelievable, many accommodations are booked months in advance. Thus, it is recommended to book here as soon as the travel decision has been made. By the way, the same also applies to flights. A spontaneous trip to Iceland will therefore be somewhat difficult.
Average prices in Iceland for a bed in a dorm:
- Reykjavík – winter ca. 35 €, summer ca. 47 €
- Akureyri – winter n.a., summer approx. 42 €
- Keflavik – winter ca. 35 €, summer ca. 55 €
Camping in Iceland
At first glance, Iceland doesn’t seem like the perfect country for a camping holiday. This is due to the climatic and weather conditions. At night it can get very cold, it rains comparatively often and is very windy. It is nevertheless possible and it is also by far the cheapest way of spending the night on the island.
In almost every small village there is at least one camping site, altogether there are about 170 of them. The equipment of the respective place is thereby quite different, sometimes there is only a large meadow with toilet houses, but often also a fully equipped camping site with lounge and sufficient sanitary facilities. It is possible to stay overnight from approximately 5 € per person, which is an incredible bargain compared to other types of accommodation.
Unfortunately, like so much else, the campsites are only open during the summer months. But this is simply because it is so cold in winter that hardly anyone wants to camp anymore. Under certain conditions, wild camping is also tolerated. In undeveloped residential areas and in the highlands you can pitch your tent up to 24 hours in one place. For a motorhome, however, the permission of the landowner is required.
It must be said, however, that camping on Iceland is really only for real adventurers. You shouldn’t go without professional equipment, a warm sleeping bag and a weatherproof tent are the minimum. However, if you embark on this adventure, you will be able to spend the night in the middle of the breathtaking Icelandic nature and this is certainly an experience in itself.
Restaurant visits are, like so much on Iceland, not cheap and therefore self-catering accommodations are always recommended. But of course you shouldn’t fly home without having tried typical local dishes at least once. The offer of fresh food is very large. Of course it is obvious that a lot of local fish is eaten here, but Iceland has a lot more to offer culinarily.
Everything to do with food
Lamb – Wild mountain lambs live in the Icelandic highlands. They feed on fresh grass and mountain herbs, which gives the lean meat a special taste.
Rúgbraud – This is the Icelandic version of rye bread. It is traditionally steamed in a wooden barrel in the bottom of a hot spring or baked in a pot. It is dense, dark and comparatively sweet.
Plokkfiskur – potatoes, onions and cooked fish together with a white sauce make this fish stew. An Icelandic national dish that was originally intended to be used as a leftover.
Skyr – Skyr is an acidified milk product that is now even conquering our German supermarkets. Taste and consistency are reminiscent of a mixture of yoghurt and low-fat quark. However, it is a special soft cheese with a particularly high protein content and a very low fat content.
Hardfiskur – This popular snack is nothing else than dried fish, which is usually served with butter. Mostly haddock, cod or striped catfish is used for this. This food also contains a lot of protein and is considered power food.
Kjötsúpa – This hearty meat soup consists of fresh vegetables and lamb. You can get it in almost every restaurant, this dish is especially popular in winter.
What to drink there
Beer is a relatively new drink for Icelanders. Beer has only been officially brewed on the island since 1989 and since then there has been a real hype about the golden broth. Meanwhile there are many beer bars and pubs offering Icelandic beer.
The favourite drink of the Icelanders, however, is and remains coffee. You drink it almost all day long. A special form is the Molakaffi, where sugar cubes are served with the black coffee. The piece of sugar is then put into the mouth and the coffee is tilted afterwards.
The highlight in Iceland is simply the island itself and its breathtaking and diverse nature. You will find three large national parks to explore. The Vatnajökull National Park is with 12.000 m² the largest in Europe and offers a grandiose mixture of glaciers, geothermal energy and volcanic activities.
But also the other two national parks Thinvellir and Snaefellsjökull are absolutely worth seeing and should definitely be visited. There are also other nature reserves where you can find volcanoes, fossils, minerals and waterfalls.
Two extraordinarily fascinating natural spectacles can be admired in Iceland, which are considered absolute highlights not only among backpackers. In the summer months, one can marvel at the midnight sun. This means that the nights are extremely bright and the sun sets very late or sometimes not completely. To fall asleep this may be unusual and difficult at first, but the sight compensates everything. It is certainly an experience to see the sun in the middle of the night.
Those who travel to Iceland in winter unfortunately have no chance to see the midnight sun, as here it often gets dark already at 4 pm. The winter nights on Iceland are very dark and therefore offer the perfect conditions for the second natural spectacle – the northern lights. With a little luck you can see the colourful veils in the sky on clear winter nights between September and April.
There are even specially organised tours, where the tour guide leads you to the best places for a sighting. Since the perfect place changes again and again, you really “chase” the lights. Outside the populated areas, the chance of seeing them is greatest. On Vedur (vedur.is) the Icelandic Meteorological Board always says the probability with which the northern lights can be seen on that evening.
Backpacker insider tips
Iceland is known for its beautiful, strong horses (Icelandic horses/ponys). Therefore a lot of riding tours through the beautiful landscapes are offered. An absolute must for every horse lover. But also for all other animal lovers this is certainly a great experience. In addition one finds many different kinds of whales around the island. Even if whale watching is not exactly on a low budget, one should definitely take part in it. Here you can see humpback whales, fin whales and even blue whales, if you are lucky.
For Germans the entry to Iceland is usually unproblematic. You only need a valid identity card or passport and off you go. However, please make sure that your travel documents are valid for at least three months after the trip. It is important that children also have a valid identity document; a child entry in the passport of a parent is not valid.
In addition, you should always keep an eye on the entry requirements for Iceland, as sometimes there may be changes here. It is best to check these again before your trip on the website of the Foreign Office auswaertiges-amt.de.
Entry is possible for German citizens with the following entry documents:
- Passport: Yes
- Provisional passport: Yes
- Identity card: Yes
- Temporary identity card: Yes
- Children’s passport: Yes (with photo)
No visa is required for travel in Iceland of less than 3 months.
Medical Advice & Vaccinations
There are no special vaccination requirements for Iceland. It is sufficient if you have all the standard vaccinations and your vaccination pass is up to date. However, you should be aware that outside the major cities of Reykjavík and Akureyri, comprehensive emergency medical care is not always available.
Due to the low population density of the country, you may have to drive to the nearest town to find a doctor. As emergency care is concentrated in a few cities, there may also be long waiting times during the summer months.