Or the Dos and Don’ts of Travelling in Iceland

Each country has their customs and etiquette, which are good to know when travelling abroad. You wouldn’t want to offend any of the locals accidentally.

It’ll be pretty hard to offend Icelanders, but we’re not without feelings, and we could become annoyed. Thus, we’ve put together a list of things on how to behave in Iceland – dos and don’ts.

We Don’t Say Please

Firstly, we have to mention this. Icelandic politeness is different from many other nations. We generally don’t say please. In fact, we don’t even have a word for it in Icelandic.  

So, if we ask you to do something and don’t say please, please don’t take it the wrong way. We’re just not used to it.

Our politeness and manners are different. When we’re handed something, we say thank you; we also thank for our meals with “takk fyrir matinn” or “takk fyrir mig”, which translates to thanks for the food or thank you I enjoyed that. However, “takk fyrir mig” can also be used when you, for example, have had great fun at a concert and you meet the band. Then you can say “takk fyrir mig”.

We also say “takk fyrir síðast” (thank you for last time) when we meet people again after spending time with them.

Don’t Walk on the Moss

Iceland’s ecosystem is fragile, and many of the plants here can’t handle trampling. One of those plants is the moss you see on the lava fields around the country.

The moss can easily be damaged and potentially irreparably. It is susceptible to footprints and tire tracks, and it can take decades to heal.

Why does it take so long? The moss grows about 1cm (0.4″) in a good year. That growth drops to just a few millimetres a year in the highlands.

Icelandic comedian sang a song for Inspired by Iceland a few years back called the Hardest Karaoke Song in the World – where he, among other things, reminds people to not “traðka” (trample) on the moss.

Only Drive on the Roads

This is connected to the moss and fragility of Icelandic nature. It is, in fact, illegal to drive off-road in Iceland, and you could get huge fines for doing so. Please, don’t do it, even if it is tempting. 

Take Off Your Shoes

When you visit someone’s home, the custom is to take the shoes off. Our houses are warm, so there isn’t much chance of your feet getting cold. If you do, most people have extra woollen socks for you.

Shower Naked

We take cleanliness seriously in our swimming pools. By showering completely naked and washing every nook and cranny, we can lower the chlorine in the water in return.

Most swimming pools have private booths for those who are shy, but we’re all in the same boat, and no one is paying attention to you 😊

Don’t Feed the Horses

The Icelandic horse is famous for its friendliness and curiosity. It also likes to eat. But please refrain from giving them anything to eat.

Most horses are bred for a specific purpose, and their owners have them on a special diet (outside of hay).

But feel free to pet them if they come up to you.

They’re NOT Ponies

You will probably hear that a lot! We seem very sensitive about this fact because the horses are tiny. It is mostly in jest, but Icelanders are also known to be a bit pedantic; the Icelandic horse is a horse, not a pony!

Stop at Rest Stops

Icelandic highways are narrow, probably much narrower than you are used to. Even the Ring Road, the main road around the island, is more like a country road in other countries.

There are generally no shoulders or only very small ones on Icelandic roads, and the unbroken painted line means you cannot stop on the road. However, the line isn’t always painted on the road, but you shouldn’t stop. There are regularly rest areas or places you can stop.

We understand that our country is wonderful, and you want to take pictures and take it all in. But you are still driving on the road, and there are traffic laws you need to follow. And we want everyone to be safe!

Know the Single-lane Bridge Etiquette

Photo by: Dickelbers, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many single lane bridges in Iceland, even on the Ring Road! Some are very short and others long. The rule of thumb is whoever is closest to the bridge has the right of way. There’s no way of passing a car on those bridges, so if you meet someone in the middle, one car needs to reverse off the bridge.

Be on the Lookout for Sheep

There are more sheep in Iceland than people. Well, people who live here. Forty years ago, there were almost a million sheep, but today there are about 100.000 more sheep than Icelanders. The sheep roam free during the summer months and are supposed to stay inside fences that run along the road.

However, sometimes they get through, and they have a weird habit of stopping in the middle of the road. Be on the lookout for those fluffy animals because it does happen that people run them over.

If you are that unlucky, please don’t drive off. Call 112 and let them know. You will not be in any trouble. Farmers are insured for this kind of thing.  

Be Aware of the Sneaker Waves in Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach is one of the most beautiful places in Iceland. It is possible to sit there, listening to the waves and birds singing for hours.

It is tempting to play with the waves on the beach, but please, refrain from doing it. The waves are hazardous sneaker waves; it doesn’t take much for them to pull you under, and sadly, a few tourists have lost their lives that way in Iceland.

Use Common Sense

Icelanders are raised being told to respect nature and that it is dangerous. We know not to play in the waves, keep on the paths and do not take anything for granted. Living on an island with frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, avalanches and perpetual darkness during the winter months, safety has been ingrained into our DNA.

You won’t find many warning signs or marked pathways in Iceland. We use common sense to keep safe.

If there is a Sign, Take it Seriously

how to behave in Iceland, don't fall off
Sign at Látrabjarg Bird Cliff, letting people know they can fall off – Photo: Scott Ableman

However, if you see a warning sign or an area closed off: Obey it! We don’t put up signs for the fun of it. We’ve already mentioned Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. There is a large warning sign; read it and obey.

Signs are not always large, as in Geysir Geothermal Area. It is common sense not to wander off the paths there, but you will see small signs with temperatures and then “do not walk”.

Use the Safe Travel App

We highly recommend and ask you sincerely to use the Safe Travel app (ICE-SAR app) if you go on a hike in Iceland. If something happens, they will know and can come and rescue you.

And finally, Take the Icelandic Pledge and Have Fun!

We are really an easy-going nation, but we can be protective of our tiny island. Even if our motto is “Þetta reddast” (It will all work out in the end), we would still want you to be respectful of our fragile land. We ask you to take the Icelandic Pledge before your travels in Iceland!

If you treat our small volatile island with respect, you will not be in any danger. Most people aren’t. It is just good to be respectful!

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