In 2017, Iceland attracted just under 2.2 million visitors — more than six times the total population. It’s not difficult to see why the country's popularity has exploded in the past few years: its remote location, stunning natural vistas, English-speaking locals, and captivating culture make the Land of Fire and Ice a fascinating yet approachable destination. That statistic is only going to grow.
Of course, with such fame comes a few downfalls — it’s easy to fall into the trap of only visiting the spots popular among tourists, like the ones you see on Instagram or read about in magazines. If you'd rather get a taste of the real, authentic Iceland, follow the footsteps of its residents. Spend however much time you have here seeing the country through their lens...whether it’s through the food you try, the places you visit, or your accommodation.
Here are five local experiences you can enjoy away from the hordes of tourists — just like an Icelander would.
Stay at a “Summerhouse”
There may be countless hotel options all across the country, but chances are you won't find locals relaxing there — even on vacation. Most Icelanders rent sumarbústadur, or summerhouses, remote family-style cottages that usually have a sauna or a hot tub. They're generally located in picturesque and fairly isolated spots where visitors can enjoy everything nature has to offer in peace. Think fishing, hiking, kayaking, or watching the Northern Lights without a single tourist in sight.
And despite what the name suggests, these cabins aren't just available in summer; you can rent one all year long. Of course, make sure road conditions are passable in winter. More isolated ones are on back roads that aren't maintained.
If you’d like to read more about other unique lodging options in Iceland, see this article.
Dip into a Hot Spring
While the steamy, pearlescent waters of the Blue Lagoon are indeed a pleasure to look at and bathe in, the ultra-popular tourist stop is far from being the only place in Iceland where you can take a dip in a geothermal pool. In fact, in a country that literally runs on geothermal energy, natural and man-made swimming pools are not hard to find — especially those that aren't packed with visitors.
A go-to getaway for many Reykjavik residents is to spend the day on the golden sands of Nauthólsvík, a geothermal beach right in the capital. If you’re not adventurous enough to swim in the sea’s cold water (Icelanders tend to have a lower bar for "cold water"), there are a couple of hot tubs — as well as a seawater pool — heated with geothermal energy.
You'll find at least one public pool with facilities in most towns across the country (perfect for people traveling with kids), and natural hot springs are often hidden in between the lava formations, some as small as a hot tub that only fits a couple of people. In other words, don't forget to pack your bathing suit, even if you’re visiting Iceland in the winter. There's nothing quite like taking a dip in a pool heated by the Earth on a cold starry night.
Relish the Food
Just like with any other country, food is an important part of Icelandic lifestyle and culture. While Reykjavik has a booming dining scene where you can pretty much find everything — from pizza to sushi — skip the international buffet and indulge in some local delicacies.
Icelandic cuisine has been largely influenced by the country’s remote location and harsh climate. It is rich in meat and seafood — fishing was the country’s largest industry until a few years ago when tourism took over. Fermenting, smoking, and curing are some of the common techniques that locals have used for centuries to preserve and flavor their dishes.
One of the oldest seafood dishes in the country — to this day a favorite of Icelanders — is Plokkfiskur, or "plucked fish." It's a hearty fish stew prepared with potatoes, white fish (cod, halibut, or haddock), milk, butter, and spices. Another is Kæstur hákarl, or fermented shark. While this appetizer is definitely part of the country's culinary landscape, it's mostly served on special occasions. Burying the meat and hanging it to dry is quite the process!
Icelanders also raise a lot of sheep, both for their wool (think of the famous Icelandic sweater) and for their meat. Kjötsúpa, or lamb soup, is a local favorite. It's prepared with lamb shanks and plenty of vegetables like leeks, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots, all boiled together and served with sour milk. Smoked lamb, or hangikjöt, is a popular appetizer around Christmas time or as a snack on a piece of traditional Icelandic rye bread.
Other traditional Icelandic dishes include smoked "leaf bread,” also served on Christmas, boiled blood sausage made from the innards of sheep (slátur), dried fish (harðfiskur), and, of course, that delicious Icelandic yogurt, or skyr.
Go Searching for Wildlife
The beautiful sights along South Iceland and the Golden Circle (a guide to which you can read here) are undoubtedly worth seeing, but there's so much more to the country than where the tour buses go.
If you’d like to avoid the crowds of selfie-snapping tourists, head to less-visited (but equally gorgeous) areas like the Snaefellsnes peninsula in West Iceland. It's located about an hour from Reykjavik and offers the same diversity of sights you’d see in the South — endless moss-covered lava fields, black sand beaches, quaint and charming fishing villages, mysterious underground caves, beautiful waterfalls, and plenty of hiking options. The peninsula is also home to a national park of the same name, home to a 700,000-year-old active volcano with a glacier-topped peak. To learn more information about sights on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, check out this article.
Another remote area popular for relaxation — with locals, not tourists — is the Westfjords. It's the very definition of isolated: Many areas here are only accessible on foot or by boat. Once here, check out the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, located on the northernmost point of the Westfjords. There are no roads or permanent residents here, unless you count the Arctic foxes, puffins, and the rest of the reserve's diverse wildlife, and even low-flying airplanes are banned from operating here in order not to disturb the fauna. To get the most out of this stunning piece of land, hire a local guide to accompany you on a multi-day trek. Otherwise, for six great day-hike ideas on the Westfjords, click here.
Another region that gets almost no attention from tourists is the East Fjords. Seydisfjordur, a small town located inside a deep bay, offers beautiful views, perfect Aurora Borealis conditions in the winter, great diving and water sports opportunities in the summer, and even has a couple of fascinating cultural attractions, like the Tvisongur Sound Sculpture and the Skaftfell Center for Visual Art. You may also recognize Seydisfjordur as the setting for the Icelandic TV show Trapped. And that's just one example!
Hit the Slopes
It may not come as a surprise that winter sports are popular in Iceland, but tourists have, for some reason, stayed away from the mountains — resorts are still mostly visited by locals.
In the winter, Reykjavik residents flock to Bláfjöll Ski Resort, located only a half-hour drive southeast of the capital. It has 16 lifts that lead to slopes of different difficulty levels, so beginners are hardly left behind. Stay for an evening run and, if you're lucky enough, you may be hitting the slopes while the Northern Lights illuminate the sky above you.
If you're a serious skier or snowboarder, head to the north side of the island. Dalvík, a small seaside village north of Akureyri, is famous for its alpine skiing facilities — so famous it's home to some of Iceland’s professional winter athletes. The resort is within walking distance from the village and has two lifts, and there are cross-country tracks nearby if you’d like to venture out on your own, too.
Most resorts in the country are open from November until May, depending on weather and snowfall. Regardless of your skill level or age, you're sure to have some serious fun here rubbing elbows with the locals.