I love Iceland ... have I mentioned that? The landscapes are expansive and surreal, the seafood is delicious (fermented shark very definitely aside), and there is a real sense of adventure to exploring the whole country. One of my favorite things about Iceland is what a quirky country it is (at least to Americans)! So, for those of you considering a trip to Iceland, I thought I'd share five of my favorite quirky facts about the country!
Cash is rare
This may not seem particularly quirky, especially if you're mostly a credit or debit person at home, but Iceland takes their love of plastic to the next level. Small hut near a deserted beach serving fish stew? Of course they take cards. Bathrooms that charge a few cents to use the facilities? Swipe your card before you head to the stall. I don't think I found a single thing that couldn't be purchased with a credit or debit card while we were in Iceland. We did get some cash just to see what it looks like, but we could have easily done without.
Icelanders believe in elves ... sort of ...
Elves and elf-related lore definitely play a huge role in Icelandic culture. One survey in the late 90s even found that more than 50% of Icelanders claim to believe in the fairy tale creatures, and reports of elves being blamed for failed construction projects led the rest of the world to get the idea that Icelanders are a bit ... kooky. But Icelanders aren't dumb or illiterate (in fact, they have among the highest literacy rates in the world), so it's foolish and more than a little dismissive to suggest that more than half of a highly educated country literally believes in the existence of mythical creatures. Clearly, there's more to the story! For example, the tales and beliefs helped early Icelanders survive long, cold winters, and references to "hidden folk" eventually became woven into the fabric of the country. No matter the reality, elves are part of the culture and tradition in Iceland, and that doesn't hinge on belief.
Their water is a point of pride
I imagine if my crystal clear tap water came straight from melting glaciers filtered through lava rocks, I'd probably roll my eyes when I saw someone drinking a bottle of water, too. If you're SCARED of drinking tap water when you visit foreign countries, that's one fear you can set aside in Iceland. The water is not only clean and pure, but it also isn't chemically treated, so you'll avoid that chemical tap-water taste. However, even knowing this, sometimes in Iceland I did grab a bottle of water. I didn't have my reusable bottle with me (pro tip: don't forget yours), and sometimes it just wasn't convenient to lug around a cup of tap water. I did refill my plastic bottle several times, though, including once with glacier melt as we hiked on Vatnajökull. (If you're wondering: It was the most amazing water I've ever tasted.)
There's a lot of open road
One of my favorite things about Iceland (and, yes, I have a lot of favorite things) was the fact that we could drive for hours without seeing anyone. We were on an adventure all our own and blazing our own trails! But, erhm, after all that delicious glacier-born, lava-filtered water, where does a girl use the bathroom in the middle of nowhere? The answer for me was to go every chance I got and, otherwise, just hold it. Same idea with gas fill ups — it's best to fill up when you can, even if you don't think you need gas. Plus, most gas stations are only open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. (some close as early as 7 p.m.), so don't expect to pop out for a midnight snack, and don't rely on an early-morning fill-up on your way out of town. Of course, there are many gas stations and bathrooms in Reykjavík, but once you get off of main roads or out of a town, you can go miles with no buildings in sight, so just keep it in mind!
You have to get completely naked to shower before entering hot springs
You heard me. I'm not talking about a quick rinse with your bathing suit on. I'm talking full shower, no swimsuit, use soap. For shy visitors this could be uncomfortable, but at upscale spots like the Blue Lagoon you can at least take your shower in the privacy of a stall. This isn't a requirement because Icelanders are weird or nudists; they just want to keep their swimming spots and hot springs clean and unpolluted. So, just do it!