Landing in Iceland can feel like you've arrived on another planet. With its ethereal beauty (hello, aurora borealis), Scandinavian legends, fresh air and even fresher seafood, this Nordic island nation of just under 330,000 is full of gems waiting to be discovered.

Wild like Alaska, Trendy like Europe

Love the idea of experiencing incredible landscapes coupled with the northern lights, but not so interested in bars that smell like crude oil and fried pub food? Then get yourself to Iceland. There are European standards of cuisine, fashion and design, but in a place that couldn’t be more wild — or cold. Walter Mitty might have been longboarding in the sun on his Icelandic adventure, but we recommend you let go of that image and bring a winter coat (even in the summer). If your winter gear can’t stand up to Iceland’s temps, stock up at local shops like Zo-on and 66° North. Because if anyone appreciates a good jacket, it’s the people who literally named their country after ice.   

66° North flagship store, Bankastræti 9, 101 Reykjavík

Breathe the Air and Sink into the Springs

You can’t avoid the outdoors here. And why would you ever want to? The whole country is a giant collection of volcanoes and epic scenery that seem to be lifted from a fantasy novel. Have lots of time? Rent a car and hike through the countryside. Just a day or two to check things out? Book a Golden Circle tour. And while they can feel touristy, don’t pass up the hot springs. The locals may not want to hear about your trip to Blue Lagoon, but everyone else will. 

Eat a Shark 

Café Loki. Photo by Sharon Bautista

Don’t just eat at Taco Bell (yes, Iceland has a Taco Bell). Break out of your fast-food comfort zone and experiment with some intensely Icelandic stuff, too. Fermented shark is a must, and you can easily sample it alongside less daring entrees at restaurants like Café Loki, in downtown Reykjavík. Sure, fermented shark tastes like really old cheese, but when else are you going to be able to put a piece of Jaws in your jaws?

Café Loki, Lokastígur, 101 Reykjavík
Taco Bell (because sometimes you need a Doritos Locos in your life), Hjallahraun, 220 Hafnarfjörður


Rock Hard

Harpa Concert Hall. Photo by Jay Sterling Austin

Iceland’s population may be well under the half-million mark, but you wouldn’t know it from the nightlife in Reykjavík. Going out is a blast, from restaurants to bars to the music scene. Ever jam out to Of Monsters and Men? They’re from Iceland. Björk? Iceland. Kiasmos? Iceland. That mostly unknown indie band you found on Spotify with a fresh sound you’ve never heard before? Probably also Iceland. Start your night with a strong drink at Dillon’s Whiskey Bar downtown. From there you have more options than could fit into a lifetime, let alone a night. Some of our favorites: Bar 11 is always cranking out good rock music, and is known for its unexpected free concerts. If you’re a little more old school, or just a sucker for the strings or an opera, check out Harpa Concert Hall. 

Dillon’s Whiskey Bar, Laugavegur 30, Reykjavík
Bar 11, Hverfisgata 18, Reykjavík
Harpa Concert Hall, Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavík

Watch Out for Elves

Hafnarfjörður. Photo by Mild Delirium

Not even kidding. Elves, trolls, magic: Turns out it’s all real here, and taken very seriously. Keep your eyes open; this is not a hoax. They’re hiding in Hafnarfjörður, on the edge of town. I saw one. They wear little green hats and are about a foot tall. They will steal your iPhone. DON’T MESS WITH THEM. RESPECT THE ELVES.

By Jesse Van Mouwerik

Berlin-based illustrator and columnist Jesse Van Mouwerik is an avid fan of art, whisky sours and being alive. When the aliens land, he will draw them a picture.