The 90% Munz Guide to Iceland.
January 22, 2016
I’ve had so many friends and friends of friends come to me with some advice on how to travel to Iceland, what to do, where to go, how expensive things are and if I had any other tips and tricks about navigating this little island in the North Atlantic. And each time I’ve offered some unique advice depending on what kind of adventure that person was looking for. There are so many resources on the internet and in guidebook form that it can be a little overwhelming.
So I’ve decided that I would offer up my own personal guide, 90% Munz style. That means I’m not going to tell you anything boring like how to rent a car or how to find the best deals for hostels. That kind of stuff shifts depend on the seasons and the years, and I don’t want to have to update this every month (not because I’m lazy…okay, yes, because I’m super lazy). Instead of telling you the perfect places to go, I will help you piece together an adventure from the ground up. All I ask of you is to say “yes” to everything, and let Iceland open itself up to you as it did to me.
Note: If I planned extensively for my first Iceland visit and kept to a schedule, I would not have loved it as much as I do now. I love Iceland because I allowed myself to get lost in its majesty, to be completely open and willing to do whatever I was presented with.
The Top Three Things to Pack Before You Visit Iceland
- Optimism: Iceland is one of the easiest places in the world to travel because the country has completely transformed itself to accommodate the massive influx of visitors. Don’t stress about anything (I know this might be hard for some of you) and keep yourself open to possibilities. Even if your hotel is fully booked or your car rental falls through or a massive rock storm stands between you and the main road (it happens), know that Iceland is virtually idiot-proof. Please don’t prove me wrong.
- A Loose Tongue: As an English speaker, it’s ridiculously easy to navigate your way around Iceland. Everyone speaks at least some English and you’ll find plenty of tourist resources in even the smallest village. Because of the tourism boom, Icelanders expect that you won’t be able to pronounce Icelandic towns or other words. But if you attempt, they will love you for it. It’s a great way to integrate yourself into the culture without seeming like a clueless tourist. Practice your rolled-r’s now, because every single r in Icelandic is rolled. Good? You’ll be pronouncing Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur in no time!
- Patience: I know these things aren’t necessarily packable, but they’re incredibly important and this last one might be the most important when coming to Iceland. Because things move at a much slower pace here. Sometimes buses don’t come on time and sometimes the hotel front desk isn’t open when they say they are. Restaurants might be able to seat you in 20 minutes or an hour depending on how things go. An Icelandic acquaintance will tell you they’ll meet you at 11:00, but they might show up around 10:45 or 11:30, depending on how the day is going. This isn’t true for every Icelander, but it’s just how things go here. The more you can separate yourself from the timetables you might be used to, the more you’ll be able to enjoy the present and not waste a single moment on being worried or stressed out.
I point out these things directly because Iceland is a country of +/- 320,000 people in a country roughly the size of Kentucky. It takes time to get anywhere, weather is always a factor and you have to be okay with road closures, wind storms and the occasional volcanic eruption. It happens and the Icelanders have built their culture around unpredictability.
Now that you have your three most important things packed, let’s talk about your adventure. If you’ve been on Icelandic tourist websites, you’ve probably seen a map like this:
The black line depicts the Ring Road, or Highway 1, which circumnavigates the entire island. If you stick to the Ring Road, yes you will just about everything Iceland has to offer. You will take these same photos and your adventure will be exactly like thousands of other tourists before you.
Yes, these are beautiful pictures. But at each of these places during the summer season you will no doubt have sometimes hundreds of other tourists standing next to you or nearby. If you’re cool with that, then by all means, head to these spots and see Iceland’s best tourist landmarks. I definitely did that on my first trip to Iceland, but there’s so much to see and if you only photograph the big grandiose recognizable landmarks, then you’re setting the bar too high for the rest of the country.
The best thing you can do is rent a car and make your own path. Yes you’ll learn a lot from the bus tours and the guides, but the tourism industry will now say just about anything to get money out of you. I’m sure you’ve heard about the scuba trip in which you can dive between the North American and European tectonic plates and touch both?
Yeah, it’s total bullshit. The Þingvellir valley is massive and while Iceland did emerge out of a crack resulting of the two tectonic plates pulling apart, the area is so huge (as are the plates) that it’s impossible to pinpoint where the separation is. The Silfra fissure where the diving takes place is just one of many cracks in Iceland’s crust, and there’s really no way to prove that the crack is in North America or Europe. In reality, the person in the above picture spent too much money to touch some underwater rocks…
The best thing you can do is to talk to real Icelanders who are not involved with the tourism industry. Fishermen, farmers, grocery store clerks, cafe baristas, and just about anyone you meet at the bar. Icelanders appear to be very cold on the outside–they value privacy and don’t like small talk–but are always willing to help out, so long as it doesn’t require too much of them. Follow the Ring Road, but make your own path, whether it’s clockwise or counter clockwise. The Icelanders are the best people to tell you about secret hikes, hidden hot springs, amazing vistas and the best place to watch the sunset (if it sets at all).
I recommend a car over hitchhiking because, again, the Icelanders will always pick you up (other tourists will speed past you in a terrified panic), but don’t ask them to take you too far. Icelanders have a history of getting taken advantage of (especially by their own government), so the more you can show your gratitude without being too needy, the better you’ll look in their eyes.
Important Travel Tip: no matter where you travel to in the world, you are an ambassador of your homeland. I’ve been told repeatedly that I don’t “seem American,” which is both a compliment and a curse. Just remember, the more polite, open and understanding you are, the better light you’ll cast over your whole country. Eliminate your expectations and go with the flow.
You’ll notice I haven’t really recommended anywhere to go. That’s because it’s SO important to keep your destinations up in the air. If you’re traveling during peak season worried about finding accommodation in time, rent a camper van or just bundle up and sleep in your car. That’s part of the adventure! Remember what I said about being optimistic and patient.
You absolutely can travel like a tourist in Iceland. You can stay at hotels, have buses take you on day trips, eat only safe recognizable foods, take the same photos as everyone else, and never venture off the beaten path. There are tourists who come to Iceland who never have a conversation with a real Icelander! And if that’s the way you want to travel, by all means have at it. But that ain’t the Munz way of life, and it really shouldn’t be yours. When you travel you have to take risks. There’s no other way to feel alive.
The more risks you take, the more Iceland will take care of you. I’m encouraging you to budget a good amount of money and have the ability to go whale watching if the opportunity presents itself. I want you to go to the grocery store and ask the clerks about things you don’t recognize, don’t just buy the brands you recognize. The more you can challenge your comfort zone, the better your memories will be.
Yes, millions of people are traveling to Iceland every year. But because of its size and remoteness, it’s possible to have your own unique adventure that is completely different than anyone else’s. Obviously, I want you to be a conscientious traveler and not act like an idiot. Please read this. It’s absolutely required reading for anyone traveling to Iceland.
Ultimately, I want you to have the best time and am completely open to giving you specific suggestions if you want them. Just leave a comment below and I’ll respond to whatever questions you may have.
Iceland is my new home and I want everyone to have the best time when they come here. Now, start planning your trip and get your ass over here.