Iceland versus Norway

These two Nordic countries share some characteristics including dramatic landscapes, Viking history, and beautiful trails. But once you scratch the surface, each is distinctively unique. Iceland is wildly popular (for good reason), while Norway—still a bit under the radar—is more recently becoming the regional darling. Can’t decide which trip is for you? Maybe you’re intrigued by both countries and simply want to know what to expect. Perhaps this comparison will help you. No matter which destination you choose, we know you’ll have an amazing time exploring a new place and meeting friendly locals!

The landscape

Iceland’s landscape has been shaped by volcanic and seismic activity. Vast lava fields, black sand beaches, and dark, craggy cliff-faces contrast with moss-carpeted valleys, powerful cascading waterfalls, floating icebergs, impressive glaciers, deep ravines, and hot springs. It’s not called the “Land of Fire and Ice” for nothing. Norway’s landscape, on the other hand, has been carved by glacial activity and water. It is well-known for its fjords, where steep slopes covered in pine forests descend into narrow waterways. Higher up, the vegetation thins out to low-scrub and exposed rock. You’ll see glaciers here, as well as rocky shorelines and soaring, misty waterfalls.

Hiking difficulty

Hiking in Norway is a rugged with steep trails. However, Norway’s trails are well-maintained and many have built-in stone steps. Elevation gains can be up to 1,700′, and there are many long distance trails for multi-day hikes or long day hikes. Generally, hiking in Iceland is not difficult. It’s mostly flat or with rolling hills, although the terrain can be rough, especially when hiking in lava fields, much of it is on dirt or mossy trails. Elevation gains are usually between 200 and 400 feet, although if you want to climb to the top of Skogafoss Waterfall, that’s 700 feet.

Other activities

In both Iceland and Norway, you can enjoy a 1/2-day glacier walk. This is weather permitting and all necessary equipment is provided, including crampons and ice axes (although in reality, the ice axes are more for show!). Hike with experienced mountaineers who have a great deal of knowledge about glaciers and safety procedures. Kayak excursions are available in both countries, as are RIB-boat cruises—in Iceland, you’ll get up-close to icebergs, while in Norway, you’ll glide through the fjords, past ski-high waterfalls and villages at the water’s edge.

Weather

Summer is the driest time in Iceland and Norway, although weather is still quite variable. You are unlikely to have sunshine every day, but it is also unlikely for it to be cloudy for long. Summer also bring near round-the-clock daylight. Average temperatures in Iceland range from about 45F/7C to 55F/12C, while Norway can get near 65F/17C. The shoulder months of April, May, September, and October are a bit cooler and have a higher likelihood of precipitation. Trails may be a bit muddy but hikeable in Norway, and you might see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Winter is also a gorgeous time to visit when the Northern Lights in Iceland are more visible and Norway’s ski slopes and nordic trails are open.

Matt Holmes is the Founder & President of Boundless Journeys. Boundless Journeys is an award-winning tour operator that goes off the beaten path for immersive and authentic travel experiences.

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Comments (7)

  1. Ben says:

    A very interesting piece, nicely balanced, it allows the reader to make up their own mind.

  2. Dan Swan says:

    Iceland v Norway?

    I thought it was advertising a European Championship football match.

    Though on current form I would put my money on an easy home win for Iceland.

  3. Elizabeth Knowling says:

    If you want to dig deeper still with this comparison and draw in other Nordic countries too then I would recommend reading “Thr Almost Nearly Perfect People”. It’s sub-titled “The Truth About the Nordic Miracle”. It was written by Michael Booth, a British journalist and focuses on both Iceland and Norway as well as Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

    I found it both enlightening and entertaining when I read it back in 2014 when it first came out. I expect that it is beginning to look a little dated know but it would still make for a good read.

  4. Stephen says:

    So it looks like a head-to-head finish if you are looking at being out and about in these two countries.

    How would the two capitals fare if Oslo were pitched against Reykjavik? I get the impression that Reykjavik might be a bit more edgy and a little more contemporary on the music and night life scene. Then again, Oslo has a great theatre tradition.

    Another post on that issue would make for interesting reading.

  5. Delia M. says:

    Despite their differences, Norway and Iceland are two very fascinating countries. Their jaw-dropping sceneries which include waterfalls, glaciers, and many other landforms will always leave you in awe. I wouldn’t mind visiting either of the two countries. Although, I’d rather prefer visiting Iceland first because of the Northern Lights.

  6. Ted says:

    An interesting way of looking at things. It would be good to see some other Scandinavian countries going head to head.

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