It's no secret that Iceland has broken into the travel scene. With deals like WOW’s $99 flights from Boston to Reykjavik, flocks of tourists explored the small island last year, often outnumbering the locals. So, what can you do to see Iceland like a local? Here are some tips:
1. Don't stay in Reykjavik the whole time. Reykjavik is a beautiful city with much to offer, but what makes Iceland incredible lies in the untamed countryside. However, when you do stay in Reykjavik, stay on a Friday or Saturday night, because if anyone knows how to party, it's Icelandic people. Since alcohol is quite expensive, most locals only go out one or two nights and rarely do so during the middle of the week. Pregame before you hit the bars and you won’t need to venture out until at least midnight. Most places don't even consider closing until 4 AM, and I found myself out until 6am more than once. Skip the American Bar, which basically serves the worst American beers, plays country music, and has huge TVs. Instead, check out some local scenes like Kaffibarinn, where you’ll learn the true meaning of “skál í botn” (bottom’s up). Get there early or you'll find yourself in a huge line. There is also Kiki, the gay bar, where you can dance the night away. Whatever you do, visit the capital, grab a rental car, and head on out to tackle the rest of the island. Better yet, if you are looking for something more budget-friendly and adventurous, http://www.samferda.net/ is an Icelandic ride-share website which does not disappoint. Whether you need a few road trip buddies or you find a local nature photographer to help you explore like a native (I admit, that was pretty lucky!), this site helps you get around efficiently, cheaply, and is a great way to meet locals and other travelers.
2. Pay attention to local events and calendars. When I went, it was the final weekend of the island-wide sheep round-up. Every autumn, townspeople from neighboring farms work together to herd sheep, which range freely. Each sheep is tagged with the farm that it belongs to and sorted into the segments of a pen. It is an incredible sight to see, especially when you are in the middle of a hike and find yourself surrounded by sheep, sheep dogs, and horses. The towns make a big deal of this, and many people come to watch. This is not the only local event, and there is actually a decent music scene in Iceland.
3. Skip the Blue Lagoon. I know, I said it. I'm sorry, the Blue Lagoon is not what Iceland thermal baths are about. It's over-crowded with foreigners who do not follow the etiquette required for Icelandic pools, and results, in my opinion, in gross water. Instead, go to a local pool. The Icelandic local pool is to Iceland what the coffee shop is to America: locals spend their free time relaxing and socializing among multiple hot tubs of varying temperatures, saunas, ice baths, and regular-sized pools. There are 5 spots in Reykjavik and small towns sometimes have their own pools as well. It's usually about 5 euro to enter, and you can spend hours playing and relaxing there. However, if you attend a pool, you must understand the culture and follow the rules. Rules require that you strip down and bathe before and after entering the pool. In some locations, attendants will make sure you comply and stop you if you have not washed, with soap, prior to indulging in a thermal paradise. The reason for this is because many of the pools have a lower amount of chlorine in the water than American pools, which is why it is so refreshing and feels so good. However, you now understand why it makes me cringe to think about the water in the Blue Lagoon being a public bathtub for travelers around the world. In short, shower. It's not a big deal. You will feel the cleanest you ever have once you leave the pools and long for the luxury of naturally heated water. I highly recommend doing this before going to the airport, if you have time. If you MUST have that lagoon experience, the Secret Lagoon (Gamla Laugin) is an alternative. It used to be free but now has an admission charge.. We enjoyed the Warm River (Reykjadalur), near Hveragerdi, but it is approximately a mile hike in and out. It's a nice path, but you will not be alone at this spot. Regardless, sprawling in the warm mixture created from hot springs and a flowing river is worth sharing with a few others.
4. The Northern Lights are visible year-round, but you have to get away from the city! Check the Aurora forecast and pay attention to the Kp index, which helps you predict the likelihood of a good show. Anything with Kp 6 should be visible, but you may see lights at lower numbers if you are surrounded by darkness. It is truly an inexplicable sight to see the greens and pinks dance across the sky. Fair warning: all of the photos you have seen of the lights will be a bit different than the real thing. This is due to the nature of photography and the necessary shutter speeds/aperture settings to capture the dancing colors. However, photographs cannot portray the fluidity of their movement and the wonder of our world. Head out to the hills when the Kp index is high and you will not be disappointed.
This list could go on to include spelunking through lava caves, seal watching at the Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón), and exploring a military plane crash site. But, being the good counselor that I am, my best advice is to book a trip and discover it for yourself!