5 DOs and DON’Ts in Reykjavik

Words by:

Nyssa P. Chopra
Better weight than wisdom a traveller cannot carry. Thank you to the Vikings for the reminder that experiential learning taken out of the stale confines of a classroom often reigns supreme.
Before you ignite a passionate affair with the Icelandic Capital of Cool, there are some things to take note of to maximize your Reykjavik experience.


1) Drink the tap water.
Don’t bother with bottled water when some of the most pristine and freshest water supply can be found flowing through your faucet — gratis. And besides, as many Icelanders will tell you, the water that you’re drinking in the bottles is straight up tap water and if you buy bottled water, you’ll be falling victim to corporate marketing ploys and setting yourself up to be the brunt of jokes from your Icelandic friends. The quality of tap water in Iceland is exceptional due to a wealth of fresh water rivers that stream down from the mountains and glaciers.  The only thing that might instill a few drops of doubt is the initial smell and look of the water — because it’s so pure, you may smell and see traces of sulfur. But rest assured, it’s completely safe and very refreshing.
2) Adopt the beloved local motto of Það reddast…sooner rather than later.
In general, Icelanders have a certain fluidity in their idea of time, ranking punctuality not very high on their priority list and enjoying a cool nonchalance towards most situations in life. A phrase that captures this philosophy VERY well is one of their most common phrases: Það reddast, which roughly translates to “It’ll all work out in the end!” or “It’ll fix itself!” But an Icelandic friend also told me that it literally translates to “You’ll be saved before it’s too late!” — and that says it all! Learn this phrase and the essence behind it, and you’ll have a much smoother adventure through the country and a deeper appreciation for the people.

dos and donts in reykjavik iceland

3) Read up on Icelandic history and current events beforehand to get a better sense of its cuisine, society, and culture.
Iceland is one of the most fascinating countries — it’s the magical land of fire and ice. TEN things to know about Iceland, Icelanders, and Icelandic society:
1) By almost every metric, it’s the most feminist country in the world.
2) There are many people who still believe in elves — don’t knock their cultural beliefs.
3) According to the Global Peace Index for 2015, Iceland is the safest and most peaceful country in the world.
4) The island nation is known as the second happiest country in the world, trailing behind Switzerland.
5) Iceland is not part of the EU and there is a great ongoing debate in the country on whether it should join — the viewpoints are mixed. Though it officially dropped its bid this past year. 
6) The Icelandic naming system is interesting, to say the least. To start with, Icelanders don’t have family names. Secondly, one cannot take up the spouse’s last name upon marriage. Thirdly, when naming a child, one has to stick to a limited list of names. The purpose of this seemingly strict naming policy is to protect Iceland’s cultural heritage. 
7) It’s still common for parents to leave their infants napping outside in their carriage. No need to call CPS — it’s been a tradition for generations.
8) Iceland’s economy has seen unprecedented growth since it let its banks fail in 2008. Economists all over the world see the comeback of the Icelandic economy as nothing short of a miracle. 
9) With relaxed attitudes toward sexual morality, single motherhood in Iceland is not a topic that’s shunned or ostracized by society — two-thirds of the country’s babies are born to unwed mothers (the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births in the world) with couples often having children together and then getting married, or deciding not to.
10) As much as Icelanders love their beer and alcohol in general, the alcohol laws are very strict. You can only purchase alcohol from wine shops called Vínbúðin.
Behind every statistical index lies a complex social reality for every individual, so take these stats with a grain of salt, but the underlying message is clear: though not perfect, there is a lot that Iceland gets right. It may be small, but it’s a great nation.
4) Pack layers for all seasons.
Icelandic summers may not experience the brutal arctic temperatures of winter, but they are by no means warm. You can also expect many rainy days and strong gusty winds that Iceland is notoriously known for. The best way to prepare for all kinds of weather is to pack and dress in layers. It’s helpful to know what you want your itinerary to look like, so you know if you should pack your heavy-duty hiking boots, backpack, etc. But, rain-proof gear will take you far no matter what. Also, given the endless geothermal pools all over the place, always have your bathing suit handy, too.
5) Use credit cards everywhere.
In my entire two months, I never exchanged any currency, not even once. Every business from the taxis to hot dog stands take credit cards, so there is really no need to carry any cash in the city. The countryside might be a different story, but I never had any encounters where I needed actual Icelandic króna (ISK) there either. However, I would recommend using a card with no foreign transaction fees and one that uses chip technology (already used in other parts of Europe and the world, but is slowly catching on in the U.S.).


1) Don’t confine your trip to Reykjavik; venture out into the countryside and beyond.
The Icelandic capital city is merely the gateway to one of the most underrated, but overwhelmingly magical countries. I absolutely love Reykjavik, but to truly soak up the splendor of Iceland’s natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes, make your way to other parts of the island. My recommendation is to hire/rent a private guide and super jeep to explore lesser-known gems and to venture off the beaten path — this option allows for the most flexibility and a personalized itinerary, so you can stop whenever and wherever you want. The private guide I used was Gestur Þór Guðmundsson of Wild Tracks — he was excellent, super knowledgable, and passionate about his country. Having grown up and lived all over the country, his familiarity with the different remote locales and knowledge of all the quaint hidden gems along the way made for an exclusive, enriching, and authentic Icelandic adventure. The rest of my activities I booked through GoDo Iceland, another fantastic resource and activity-booking portal. A few ideas for exploration: chase the waterfalls at Gullfoss, admire the endless depths of natural beauty at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, take a dip at one of the many geothermal pools and spas dotted throughout the country (look beyond the Blue Lagoon for better and less touristy options), pick up emblems of fine Icelandic craftsmanship at Álafoss, ride one of the gorgeous Icelandic horses in the countryside, and much, much more.
2) Don’t be too quick to write off the Icelandic cuisine.
Much of Icelandic cuisine came about as a matter of survival — for centuries, Icelanders had to smoke, pickle, or dry their food in order to preserve it through the harsh winters, and as a result, traditional Icelandic food mainly consists of seafood and lamb that has undergone some preservation method. However, world-class chefs are consistently pushing culinary boundaries of the Nordic cuisine and combining local ingredients with innovative cooking techniques, redefining modern Icelandic cuisine. I tried almost every traditional dish at least once, and by that I mean, I tried puffin, whale, fermented shark, dried fish, reindeer, and much more than I can remember. While there were many things I don’t care to taste again, I found my absolute favorites  — langoustine, arctic char, and skyr.
3) Don’t take cabs everywhere; walk whenever possible.
Blending the casualness of a village with big-city know-how, Reykjavik is one of those cities you must stroll through to soak up its splendor. There are no Uber/Lyft services in the country and Icelandic cabs are not inexpensive by any means. I’m sure you can find many other ways to blow that precious cash in the city. In my personal experience, given the frequency of windy, wet days, don’t bother with umbrellas (the winds will annihilate them!) and just dress accordingly. The city’s shimmering waterfront, lined with brightly colored houses, beckons those who want to stroll and rewards those who brave the often inclement weather. Do one of the many free walking tours to get a quick history lesson on the city and its architecture — don’t miss the Harpa Concert Hall, especially at sunset. It’s SPECTACULAR.
4) Don’t act surprised that Icelanders can speak English.
I was shocked by how many people asked me how I got around without knowing Icelandic. The Icelandic education system requires students to know at least four languages by the time they graduate — Icelandic, English, Danish, and a fourth language of their choice, so don’t be surprised if everyone (especially in the younger generation) you come into contact with in Iceland can pull off better English than some native English speakers. You should not have any language barriers or communication issues with English, with the rare exception of a few people from the older generation in the countryside. But still, I’d recommend learning basic phrases and the proper pronunciation of the Icelandic alphabet to navigate your way properly through the street signs and sites. My proudest moment: learning how to pronounce the infamous volcano — Eyjafjallajökull.
5) Don’t take 24 hours of daylight lightly.
Before going, I was stoked about experiencing my first Icelandic summer, which meant I would see the glory of daylight for 24 continuous hours. While this sounds fabulous in theory, in reality, it plays out a little differently — at least for me. The first few days were beautiful and awe-inspiring, especially on summer solstice, but as someone who is a very light sleeper, the inability to get a restful night’s sleep because of the piercing sunlight got old really quickly. The midnight sun is certainly a sight to behold, but it’s very easy to lose track of time when the sun is still out at 2am. Use an eye mask or two (I had two!) and/or make sure your accommodations have black-out curtains.
iceland dos and donts in reykjavik