If you follow travel fads at all, then you might know that the Icelandic stopover has become the hot new trend in trans-Atlantic sightseeing. Thanks to moderately priced cross-continental flights on Reykjavik-based airlines like Icelandair and WOW, this previously isolated north Atlantic nation has seen a massive uptick in tourism over the past two years.
For those who aren’t familiar, a stopover refers to a brief, pre-planned sojourn in an airline’s mainstay city for at least one overnight before continuing on the primary destination. Reykjavik is rapidly dominating the market for travelers planning to fly between Europe and North America, and I’ve determined that two nights spent in the Reykjavik area is all explorers need to get a taste of this quirky, elf-loving country. Of course, you can always stay longer, but the beauty of a stopover is that travelers can discover a new place without adding any additional cost to the airfare.
On my first-ever flight to Europe in April 2015, Kevin and I selected Icelandair simply because it was our cheapest option. We didn’t know anything about Reykjavik when we booked a two night’s stay in the capital city. Would the city feel more like a provincial outpost than the thriving, up-and-coming metropolis my guidebook promised? Was the landscape flat like the American Midwest or mountainous like the Alps? These are just some of the questions I’m sure all first-time visitors to Iceland have – and I’m here to tell you not to worry.
If you’re not completely sold on the idea of an Icelandic stopover, allow me to share with you some of the remarkable experiences you can have in the greater Reykjavik area. Once you plan your first stopover, you won’t want to fly between North America and Europe again without stopping first in Iceland, if only to help your body adjust to the changes in time zone! All of the following sights and experiences are within a two hour’s drive of Reykjavik, ensuring you won’t waste a moment of your precious time in the world’s northernmost capital city.
1. Discover Iceland’s geothermal prowess at Krýsuvík Geothermal Area, just a quick forty-minute drive from Keflavik International Airport.
This unique geothermal spot near the famed Blue Lagoon is often overshadowed by its famous cousin, Haukadalur, which is home to Strokkur geysir. Even if you plan on catching one of Strokkur’s beloved eruptions on your Icelandic stopover, I still cannot recommend Krýsuvík Geothermal Area enough. There’s never a crowd at this hidden gem, ensuring visitors will find the solitude they crave when traveling to Iceland.
2. Stand among the wreckage of a crashed DC-3 airplane on a black sand beach.
Depending on the conditions of the road (if you want to call it that) leading out to the iconic DC-3 airplane, visitors can either take their four-wheel drive out for a spin or walk forty minutes each way into the wind. Rumor has it the road has been closed indefinitely, but even so, a trek to the DC-3 plane is well worth the effort. Standing alongside the wreckage will make travelers feel as though they’ve stepped into a black and white movie (or a Justin Bieber music video, as the Canadian pop singer featured the plane in his video for “I’ll Show You”).
3. Go for a swim in an all-natural, outdoor geothermal pool – even in wintertime.
No Icelandic stopover is complete without a dip into a geothermal pool. The Blue Lagoon, located near Keflavik International Airport, is the nation’s most popular, but it’s also out of many travelers’ price range. Opt instead for something like the Secret Lagoon, an easy addition to any Golden Circle itinerary.
4. Climb to the top of the iconic Hallgrimskirkja for a birds-eye view of Reykjavik.
There’s a reason this charming view is so beloved by visitors and locals alike. Even on grey-sky days in the dead of winter, those who brave the bracing winds and ride the elevator to the top of Reykjavik’s major landmark are rewarding with a view of a city that appears to have sprung from the pages of a cherished fairy tale. Colorful roofs draw inspiration from mainland Europe while the grid layout and size is reminiscent of a coastal town in Massachusetts or Novia Scotia, demonstrating Iceland’s cultural ties with both continents.
5. Stumble upon the secret Gljufrabui Waterfall on South Iceland’s remarkable coast.
Discovering a hidden waterfall is something so quintessentially Icelandic; this is, after all, a country obsessed with its landscape and natural beauty. Sure, Reykjavik is modern and vibrant, but “Iceland” remains synonymous with “waterfalls.” You’d be wrong if you’re thinking Gljufrabui requires hours of hiking to access – visitors to the popular Seljalandsfoss waterfall only need to walk roughly five minutes to catch a glimpse of this memorable sight.
6. Marvel at the expansive Kerid Crater.
During winter months, this massive crater appears to be of another planet and ought to appeal to the imaginations of science fiction film lovers everywhere. During the summer, the snow melts to reveal an abundance of vibrant colors and paths allowing visitors to hike down to the bottom. Whenever your stopover happens to fall, you’ll be thankful you decided to visit this remarkable natural wonder.
7. Venture out to Reykjavik’s Grotta Lighthouse during the day for a plethora of impressive photo opportunities, or try your luck at nighttime for the Northern Lights.
If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought Grotta Lighthouse helped guide sailors lost at sea in the middle of nowhere, not a five minute drive from bustling downtown Reykjavik. The landmark’s seemingly remote location makes for prime Northern Lights viewing during peak season (roughly November to early April), but strolling out to Grotta during the day will leave you with a number of Instagram-worthy travel photos.
8. Look out over Iceland’s most important historical site, Thingvellir National Park, which also holds UNESCO World Heritage Status.
No fancy adjectives are needed: Thingvellir National Park is beautiful. On my first visit to Iceland in April 2015, Thingvellir was my favorite part of the entire two-day stopover. The park, which is free to the public, showcases Icelandic nature in all its splendor while also protecting the nation’s important history. Did you know Iceland has enjoyed the longest-running in-tact democracy in human history? The nation’s infamous liberalism has its Viking roots on this sacred ground.
9. Stand at the base of one of the most impressive waterfalls in the entire world, Skogafoss, which is a mere two hour drive from Reykjavik.
Remarkable, right? At a whopping two hundred feet tall, Skogafoss will surely stun any visitor who looks up at its thundering prowess. Those who are able should climb up the stairs to the right of the falls in order to gain a birds-eye view of this magnificent feat of nature and, on a clear day, enjoy a stellar panorama of the surrounding area.
10. Shiver in the cold while waiting for Earth’s most reliable geyser, Strokkur, to erupt – don’t worry, Strokkur shows its might every five to seven minutes.
Join other impatient tourists as you eagerly hold your camera or cell phone up to the geyser, hoping to catch Strokkur right at the impressive moment it shoots boiling hot water into the air. Once you’ve watched Strokkur erupt one or two or even three times, do stroll around the surrounding geothermal area known as Haukadalur. Turquoise waters and the stench of sulfur awaits.
Convinced yet? I’ve had the good fortune to experience not one but two separate Icelandic stopovers, and each time, I’ve uncovered spectacular wonders in this weird, ever-changing, and devastatingly beautiful country.
Not sure what to bring to Iceland? Check out my recommended Icelandic stopover packing list here.
I did not receive any incentives, payments, or freebies from any of the airlines or attractions mentioned in this article. As always, this is a sponsor-free website – there’s nothing more misleading than reading an article only to find out you’ve been tricked into an advertisement. Your trust is important to me.