Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday Traditions from around the world – Day 1: Iceland Yule Cat

At Marco Polo, we think that the best thing about travelling is learning about different cultures, and that is why from today until December 24th we will be featuring different holiday traditions from all over the world. And as it is the season of giving, we will also be hosting a giveaway on our social media each Friday before Christmas… and there may be a surprise on Christmas morning too! But without any further ado, here is today’s holiday tradition… the Yule Cat from Iceland!


Iceland has many fascinating traditions and stories, from trolls and aquatic monsters to elves, also known as the ‘hidden people.’ However, there is a particularly curious tale of a terrifying Yule cat who will stalk the vast snowy landscapes of Iceland during Christmas. To avoid getting eaten by this fearsome feline, Icelandic families make a point of gifting each family member some warm clothes, as this is believed to deter the monstrous Yule Cat.

So if you are spending Christmas in Iceland, make sure to stay safe and give each other some nice warm clothes, or the Yule Cat will get you!


Buy the Iceland Marco Polo Spiral Guide.

Marco Polo Iceland Spiral Guide

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Low Budget Iceland

Iceland has a reputation of being an expensive travel destination, but there is plenty to explore without going overboard. With Marco Polo’s tips you are sure to have a great time on a dime! From puffins to geothermics, see what Iceland has to offer for the budget-conscious traveller:

Iceland by Sophie Boisvert

Picture credit: Sophie Boisvert, used with permission


The ruins of the 11th-century longhouse Stöng, which can be visited for free, give a vivid impression of the size and layout of farms back then. Route 32 is worth a detour on the way to the highlands.


The Botanical Garden in Akureyri is a freely accessible, rambling site and home to all of Iceland’s native plants – plus a great many more from elsewhere. From Greenland to the Mediterranean, if it’s green and/or bears flowers, it’s here.


Einar Jónsson was the country’s first sculptor of note, and consequently many of his works are to be found all over Iceland. You can also admire an interesting selection of them in the garden adjoining his studio, which is permanently open to visitors.


To see puffins really close up, you usually have to take an organised boat trip. On the steep coast at Látrabjarg the comical cliff-dwellers come up close enough for you to count the rings on their bills – for free.


Get an answer to this question during a free visit to the geothermal power plant Hellisheiðarvirkjun. At the visitor centre, various information points with touch screens take you through the energy-generating process, and you can learn a lot about the region at the same time.


The little pool at Selárdalur, which you can visit for free, has a charm all of its own. It lies on an idyllic river, and in autumn is lit up by the Northern Lights as well as candles.


Buy the Iceland Marco Polo Pocket Guide.

Iceland Marco Polo Pocket Guide

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Top 10 Things to Do in Iceland

Volcanoes and glaciers – Marco Polo’s list of the top 10 things not to be missed in Iceland! Our best recommendations – from the top down – help you to plan your tour of Iceland’s most important sights.

Iceland by Sophie Boisvert

Picture credit: Sophie Boisvert, used with permission


This day trip takes in the most beautiful sights in the vicinity of Reykjavík. The route includes Þingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss and Skálholt.


Milky blue, delightfully warm, mineral-rich water set in the midst of a bizarre volcanic landscape; a dip in the Blue Lagoon is a must on any visit to Iceland.


The shores of the Mývatn (meaning “midge lake”) are covered with lush green vegetation but the surrounding area is an otherworldly volcanic landscape.


Ride an open elevator cable lift down 120m (395ft) into the magma chamber of Iceland’s dormant Þríhnúkagígur volcano.


The small village on the north coast of Iceland is one of the best places to whale watch in Europe. Sperm whales, humpback whales and finbacks are just three of the species you may be lucky enough to spot.


In summer, hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest on the North Atlantic’s largest bird cliffs, producing a deafening wildlife spectacle.


The magical glacier, which inspired authors such as Jules Verne and Halldór Laxness, is the culmination of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula that juts out far into the sea.


Reykjavík’s Old Harbour has developed into a vibrant new tourist area. It is the starting point for whale watching excursions and city tours, there are restaurants offering culinary delights and several museums to explore.


The National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavík provides a modern overview of the country’s cultural history – from the Vikings to the present day.


A volcanic eruption in 1973 made the Westman Islands off the south coast world famous. Traces of this natural catastrophe can still be seen in the main town of Heimaey.


Buy the Iceland Marco Polo Spiral Guide.

Iceland Marco Polo Spiral Guide

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That Iceland Feeling

Iceland – a truly magical place if there ever was one! This Northern island has it all: glaciers, volcanoes, hot springs and one of the most progressive and liberal cultures in the world. Experience Iceland’s unique flair and find out what makes it tick – the Marco Polo way!

Iceland by Sophie Boisvert

Picture credit: Sophie Boisvert, used with permission

Weekends in Reykjavík

In Reykjavík, daily life follows a leisurely pace from Monday to Friday, just as you would expect from the world’s most northerly capital city. But the picture changes late on Saturday evening when the streets of Reykjavík are abuzz with nightlife revelry. The Laugavegur becomes the site of a motorcade, the restaurants are transformed into bars and discos – and the alcohol level increases as the night progresses.

Beach holiday

Iceland has beautiful sandy beaches that stretch for miles. They are dazzlingly white on the Westfjords and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and impressively black on the south coast around Vík. The water temperature will probably not tempt you to take a swim –only the bravest risk the waves for a few moments – but if you are looking for peace and quiet you will not be disappointed. A long stroll quickly turns into an atmospheric nature experience.

Iceland by Sophie Boisvert

Picture credit: Sophie Boisvert, used with permission

Midnight sun

To truly experience the midnight sun you need to visit the small island of Grímsey north of Akureyri; it lies right on the Arctic Circle. But summer nights on the main island are also bathed in warm, soft hues and as the sun slowly sinks towards the horizon, and the hands of the clocks move towards midnight, a unique – almost magical – silence envelopes the landscape.

A world of elves and trolls

A remarkable number of Icelanders believe in elves, fairies, dwarves and trolls. Some even claim that they are able to communicate with the Huldufólk (the “hidden people”). If you want to test your second sight then you can take part in an elves tour in Hafnarfjörður or make a detour to the tiny village of Bakkagerði in the east of the island where it is said that the Queen of the Elves has her residence in a rather non-descript hill.

Island of fire and ice

Iceland is famous for its volcanoes and glaciers. Both have a destructive power but also offer the opportunity to experience marvels of nature in their purest form. A quiet spot on the shore of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, which is fed by the mighty Vatnajökull, or an excursion to the man-made ice cave in the Langjökull are just as fascinating as the bubbling mud pots in the high-temperature area of Hverarönd, or the descent into the magma chamber of Þríhnúkagígur.

Iceland by Sophie Boisvert

Picture credit: Sophie Boisvert, used with permission

Dine with the locals

You can enjoy a meal with an Icelandic family in their own home via the Meet the Locals website. Expect either lamb or fish to be served for dinner, they are both top ­quality products that can be enjoyed without any reservations. It’s a unique opportunity to engage with locals about life in Iceland (Tanni Travel, Eskifjörður, Strandgata 14, tel: 476 13 99;, ISK13,500).

Iceland by Sophie Boisvert

Picture credit: Sophie Boisvert, used with permission

Cascades of water

Iceland is not only an island of dramatic volcanoes and glaciers but also one of impressive waterfalls. The superlatives “highest” and “the most powerful” can be­ determined objectively but you can decide for yourself which one impresses you the most. Here are a few candidates: the Gullfoss (meaning “golden falls”), the Dynjandi in the Westfjords, the mighty Dettifoss, the mystical Goðafoss or the Seljanlandsfoss on the Ring Road near the Eyjafjöll Glacier, which has a path behind its veil of water.

Experience solitude

As soon as you leave Reykjavík, you will discover just how sparsely populated the island is. This creates an unusual sensation for many tourists: a feeling of solitude and silence. This feeling is especially acute on an excursion into the uninhabited highlands. A deserted beach, a lava field covered with moss, or the view of the gigantic Vatnajökull will make you relish the solitude in wonder and awe.

Buy the Iceland Marco Polo Spiral Guide.

Iceland Marco Polo Spiral Guide

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