As beautiful as Iceland is, you’d think adventurous travelers would have been flocking there since the dawn of commercial airlines. But nope. Until 2014, few people had Iceland on their travel list. Even when airlines offered crazy-awesome travel deals—like Iceland Air’s free stopover in Iceland for up to a week (that offer that still exists, by the way)—the country generally maintained a low profile. But that’s changing fast.
In recent years, travel to Iceland has more than tripled, and the country is expected to see an additional 30 percent increase this year alone. That doesn’t put the country anywhere close to overcrowding, but it does mean that you need a smarter strategy to traveling cheaply and avoiding tourist traps. So if you’re heading to the Spartan Ultra World Championship in Reykjavik this December (or even if you’re just traveling to Iceland climb a few glaciers), here’s everything you need to know.
Where to Stay
*You don’t have to drop a fortune to enjoy a stay in the land of fire and ice. Here’s how to save on transportation and accommodations, so you can splurge on the things that matter. *
Grab a bus
Taxi fares add up fast, and Uber and Lyft don’t operate in Iceland. Fortunately, the Flybus shuttle ($23 to $28 a ticket) will pick you up at the airport and drop you off at either a hotel or the Reykjavik bus terminal, which will carry you anywhere else you plan to visit. Some bus terminals can be more trouble than they’re worth, but Reykjavik’s is easy to navigate: The local lines are simple to figure out, and while the stops are all written in Icelandic (read: hard to pronounce), the locals are more than willing to help if you ask. Iceland, after all, is known for being one of the friendliest countries on Earth.
Save on housing
Hostels are one option, but if you don’t love the idea of uncomfortable mattresses and sharing space with rowdy backpackers, then book a room through Airbnb. The options are many, and you’ll save a nice chunk of cash over similarly comfortable hotels: Whole homes can be found for less than $100 a night, and single rooms for under $50. With the former option, you’ll have your own kitchen to cook in (so you can save cash buying your own groceries), and with the latter, you’ll have a local to chat with (so you an score recommendations for things to do right where you’re staying.)
While you’re scouting housing options, look for something that’s close to downtown. Reykjavik itself isn’t huge—it’s less than a fifth the size of London—and if you start at the epicenter, most of what you’re interested in will be within walking distance. That’ll save you cash on a rental car, and you’ll have the added bonus of shaking your legs out before or after race day. Plus, you’ll want to explore the side streets. That’s where you’ll find the best little under-the-radar cafes and bars.
What to Do
*Your adventure doesn’t have to end when the race is over. Here are the activities worth making time for. *
Skip the Aurora Borealis tour
This is the most touristy thing you can do in Iceland, and you’ll be tempted. But don’t: The Ultra World Championship takes place in December, which means you’re only getting about four hours of daylight. So there’s no need to pay for a traditional tour of Aurora Borealis (eh hem, the Northern Lights). You’ll probably see them without the tour. There’s even a strong chance you’ll see them while racing.
Climb a glacier instead
This one is worth the money. Iceland is known for both its volcanoes and their glaciers (hence, the land of fire and ice), but here’s a not-so-fun fact: The glaciers really are melting (thanks, global warming), and if trends continue, they’ll be gone in 200 years. So visit them now. Arctic Adventures offers an excellent tour. For less than $200, the guides will meet you in the heart of Reykjavik and drive you to Sólheimajökull glacier to climb. You’ll hike across it, drink fresh water straight from the blue ice, and pull yourself to the top using an ice pick and crampons. Just be sure to pack hiking boots with a stiff ankle—that makes it easier to dig into the side of the glacier without slipping.
Indulge your Game of Thrones obsession
If you’re a GOT fan, you may want to see where the show was filmed in Iceland. So book a tour through Iceland Travel and ask for guide Jon Thor Benediktsson. He worked with the Game of Thrones team to showcase Iceland’s best scenery for season three.
Plan an epic recovery day
There’s no better way to soothe your muscles after race day than to soak in the natural hot springs. Landmannalaugar is the one to visit. Between its spaciousness, jaw-dropping landscape and warm temps (it averages 96 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s like soaking in the world’s most epic hot tub. Winter is the best time to go if you want to avoid crowds, and since Landmannalaugar is completely free, it’s better than the tourist-heavy and overpriced Blue Lagoon.
Where to Eat
*Seafood and Mediterranean cuisine reign supreme in Iceland. If you’re as adventurous with food as you are with racing, the try a local delicacy: shark, whale, or even reindeer. (But maybe wait until after the race—it’s not good to introduce new foods before a big athletic event.) Iceland is also known for producing excellent hot dogs, andfor something fancier, the lamb at Grillmarkadurinn is ridiculous. After that, here are the best ways to keep your belly filled. *
Cook at home
Sit-down meals in Iceland are comparably priced to those in New York City, so if you’re traveling on a budget, consider preparing some of the meals yourself. (Remember: You can score your own kitchen if you book through Airbnb.)
Slurp some ramen
Reykjavik ramen is easy to overlook when you’re focused on Mediterranean fare. But do yourself a favor and order a bowl. With weather that can get bone-chillingly cold, Icelanders have perfected the warm, brothy dish. One of the best local spots? Ramen Momo, which has both meat-lover and vegan-friendly options.
Pull double-duty at brunch
If you like traveling light, then you’ll appreciate the Laundromat Cafe. It’s where locals go for brunch, a coffee, and pints of beer (there are 40 available, and Iceland has a budding craft-beer scene). But there’s one other major selling point for this awesome brunch spot: You can actually do your laundry while you’re there. It’ll cost you about $10 to wash and dry, but then you can re-wear the clothes you packed. Plus, you’ll be able to get the dirt and mud out of your race-day clothes before you travel home.
Haven’t signed up for the Iceland Ultra World Championship event yet? You’d better get on that. Click here for more info.