What are the best options for your stopover in Iceland? What sites are within close proximity to the airport? Will you need a rental car and how will time restraints shape the nature of your stay? Read on to find out all you need to know about what to do during your stopover in Iceland.
Iceland has long been utilised as a stopover destination for passengers travelling between North America and Europe. Its advantageous position has directly benefited both the country’s economy and transatlantic passengers who relish in the opportunity to get a little taste of Iceland’s magic.
Iceland’s major airlines both offer stopover schemes to encourage visitors to maximise their time here, providing a stopover in Iceland at little to no additional cost. It is even possible to partake in a ‘Stopover Buddy’ scheme, pairing you up with a local of your specification—one can choose local experts in food, culture, adventure, etc—to show you around Iceland’s arresting capital city, Reykjavík.
So let’s face it, you’re short on time from the outset, but who wants to spend their layover sitting around in some airport lounge? With four to six hours, there are only two options that grant you enough time to experience a little of the country and get back in time for check-in; visiting the Blue Lagoon Spa or sightseeing on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
Luckily, both the Blue Lagoon and Keflavík International Airport are located on the Reykjanes Peninsula, meaning your commute time is almost zero. The region is a UNESCO Global Geopark, characterised by its stark and haunting coastlines, dark volcanic fields and the distant Blue Mountains, Bláfjöll, forever watching from the horizon.
It is the only place in the world where it is possible to see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge above sea level, at an attraction known as ‘the bridge between the continents’.
A short time on the peninsula will tell you a lot about the Icelandic psyche; almost immediately, visitors are struck by the sheer lack of development, the wide-open spaces and the manner in which the region’s towns and villages integrate symbiotically with the environment. Reflecting over this immense landscape, your mind can’t help but imagine the harsh lives of this island’s earliest inhabitants; the tales of bravery, death and faith so entrenched in the Icelandic Sagas.
For a deeper insight into Iceland’s history and culture, one should pay a visit to Viking World, a museum on the outskirts of Reykjanesbær. Boasting five exhibitions, a settlement zoo and an enormous replica of a 9th Century Viking ship, there is no better place in the country to absorb yourself in this country’s fascinating story.
Most visitors to Iceland come for nature rather than its culture, however, which is fortuitous given Reykjanes’ abundance of natural attractions.
Those looking for interesting rock formations need to look no further than Brimketill Pool (aka; Oddnýjarlaug), a natural rock pool right on the edge of the Atlantic, or alternatively, Hafnarberg Cliffs, known as much for their dynamic, weatherbeaten shape as they are for the eclectic birdlife.
If instead, you’d like to see the area’s geothermal underbelly, there can be no better recommendation than visiting Gunnuhver, an area of impressive, steaming fumaroles and bubbling mud pools. Gunnuhver is, without doubt, the premier location for gaining a deeper insight into the elemental forces that have sculpted Iceland throughout the preceding centuries.
Other areas that may be of interest include the lake, Kleifarvatn, known to have dramatically shrunk in size after an earthquake early this millennia, and the beautiful cone-shaped mountain, Keilir. If in this brief time in Iceland you want to breathe in that fresh ocean air, Reykjanesviti lighthouse is the place; beloved by photographers and nature lovers alike, the beach beside the lighthouse is, perhaps, the most stunning stretch of shoreline on the whole Reykjanes Peninsula.
The vastly popular choice for a stopover is to spend some time luxuriating in the world-famous Blue Lagoon spa. The Blue Lagoon draws visitors from across the world with its vivid azure waters, healing silica mud and gnarled, rocky surroundings.
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most important attractions, yet has limited space, with bookings needing to be made many weeks in advance. To reiterate; if you turn up on the day without having pre-booked your time slot, you will sadly be turned away. This is a common disappointment amongst holiday-makers, one that can be easily avoided with a little preemptive knowledge.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Open year-round, the standard entrance fee to the Blue Lagoon is 6100 ISK for adults, with kids aged 2-13 getting in for free (be aware that prices may fluctuate according to availability). Any younger than two years old is sadly not permitted for health concerns.
On that subject, the spa is known for the rejuvenating properties of its seawater, boasting minerals such as silica that are known to be beneficial for skin disorders. Due to this, the Blue Lagoon Spa also offers a variety of treatments for those suffering from Psoriasis.
Stopover visitors with 4-6 hours to spare—and depending on the season, opening hours and time of their arrival—may be in for one of two of Iceland’s greatest treats, both of which are best enjoyed bathing in the lagoon; the Midnight Sun (Summer) or the Northern Lights (Winter).
Though it might seem unlikely, these two naturally occurring phenomena have as much a chance bestowing their ethereal light on a stopover as they do a week-long visit. Nature, after all, is full of surprises. The Midnight Sun can be guaranteed in June and July, but the Northern Lights are down to your luck.
If you are one of the lucky ones who manage to catch these at the Blue Lagoon, then you can count yourself as having already experienced a handful of Iceland’s best attractions. Sadly, however, given time restraints, this will have to be goodbye to Iceland for now, as you make the fifteen-minute return journey from the Blue Lagoon to Keflavik International.
But WHAT IF you had a little longer in the country? What might the options be then?
So, you’ve managed some extra time, extending your stopover in the country by two hours. Now is the perfect amount of time to get a short, bite-sized experience of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík (“Smoky Bay”). Reykjavík is Iceland's only city, with a population of approximately 123,000, with 216,940 living in the Capital Region.
Reykjavík is the northernmost capital in the world, founded by the island’s earliest settler, Ingólfur Arnarson, around 870 AD. As such, the city to this day maintains its Scandinavian heritage in its architecture, art and culture.
Requiring only a 45-minute drive from the airport to reach the city’s central downtown strip, Reykjavík boasts all that one could ask of a modern metropolitan city; museums, art galleries, botanical garden, lively shopping, fine cuisine and a vibrant nightlife.
At the same time, Reykjavík feels in many ways more like a village than the capital it is, with a widespread basin of homes and businesses built against the Atlantic Ocean. Overlooking this quintessentially Icelandic settlement is the great table-top mountain, Esja.
6 to 8 hours in Iceland allows you to see the majority of Reykjavík’s major cultural landmarks. This includes the likes of Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, instantly recognisable for its post-modern architecture and abundance of uniquely shaped glass windows. Another is Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic Lutheran Church whom’s architecture was directly inspired by the basaltic lava columns found across Iceland’s cliff faces and waterfalls.
Perhaps the most inspiring location, however, may be Perlan Museum and Observation Deck. From this vantage point, you will have a full panoramic view over Iceland’s capital, as well as its nearby towns, distant mountains, and surrounding countryside and shorelines.
Whilst in the city, it would be remiss to skip out on trying authentic Icelandic cuisine, despite what you may have heard. Of course, Hákarl (aka; fermented shark) and a shot of Brennivín (aka; Black Death) is the go-to food for strange expressions and retching, but there are numerous other examples of Icelandic dishes that are destined to make the tastebuds water.
Naturally, the Icelanders are expert at preparing delicious fish and seafood recipes, having relied on the food source since their arrival, but are now experimenting with a range of cultural, culinary fusions, prepping their ingredients and flavours in new and exciting ways. You should also try the cultural staple here, too; I speak of the Icelandic hot dog, the perfect snack food for your time in the city.
Another option on this day, if you feel you have the time, is to take a whale watching tour from Reykjavík Old Harbour. Drifting out onto Faxaflói Bay on a modern and comfortable vessel, you’ll have a first-hand experience of some of Iceland’s most majestic natives; whales, dolphins, porpoises and a wide variety of birdlife.
Over twenty different species of cetacean call Icelandic coastal waters their abode, including the likes of Orcas, Blue Whales and Harbour Porpoises. The most common sightings on whale watching tours are of Minke Whales and Humpbacks. Whale watching tours will usually take 2-3 hours, leaving ample room to leave from Keflavík, partake in the experience, and return for check-in.
Once again, time restraints are a concern, given the time already used up on logistics and waiting in the airport. Yet, with a little longer on the clock, there's the opportunity to explore further afield away from the ceiling, getting right out amidst the very best of Iceland's natural environment.
The Golden Circle is comprised of three main sites; Þingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Valley and the waterfall Gullfoss. Even if you don't manage to fit in all of them, each site is worthy of your focus based on its own merits.
The reason why you will need your own vehicle is that guided tours of the Golden Circle route will often take up to eight hours, especially when dealing with the cheaper tours which accommodate larger groups. A rental car ensures that you are on top of your own time management, leaving you no reason to miss your upcoming flight onward.
The first stop of the day is Þingvellir National Park, approximately one hour and twenty minutes away from the airport. Þingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a title granted unto it for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, this is one of the only locations on the planet where it is possible to see both the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates standing exposed from the earth. These plates are separating little by little (about 1mm) each year, creating a continental no man’s land between them.
Thus, the park can be characterised by its moss-blanketed, volcanic rock formations, surrounding mountains and numerous glacial springs, the most famous of which is Silfra Fissure.
Silfra is known to be among the top 10 scuba diving and snorkelling spots in the world. Glacial water runs approximately 50 kilometres from the glacier, Langjökull, through underground tunnels, finally making its way into the open fissure.
Silfra Fissure is split into three different segments; ‘The Toilet’ (the moment the glacial spring opens), Silfra Hall (the fissures’ widest point) and Silfra Cathedral, which holds the spots deepest point at 25 metres.
Snorkelling or scuba diving in Silfra Fissure both manage to balance unmatched aesthetics with a sense of awe, fun and exhilaration. No doubt, the water in Silfra Fissure is cold, but your guide will be sure to provide you with all of the necessary thermal protection. This includes a thick and cosy under-suit, a pair of neoprene gloves and hood and a thick drysuit.
The second major reason for its UNESCO status is its relevance to Icelandic history and culture. Þingvellir was the original founding spot of the Alþingi, having been established there in 930 AD, making it one of the oldest elected parliaments in the world.
Haukadalur Geothermal Valley is best known for the hot springs Geysir and Strokkur. Whilst Geysir is no longer active, it is still remembered for having lent its name to geysers across the world.
Strokkur, on the other hand, will reliably erupt every five to ten minutes, often shooting jets of water as high as 25 metres into the air. This is perfect for photographers and nature lovers alike who crowd around this hot spring, waiting for that Kodak moment!
The final stop of your day is at the mighty waterfall, Gullfoss, found on the Hvítá river. Gullfoss is known as the “Golden Falls” and has long been the majority favourite among Icelanders, not only due to its sheer aesthetic, but because Gullfoss is, arguably, the site where Iceland’s first environmental movement began, and won.
Visitors to the falls will see 32 metres of cascading white froth dropping dramatically into the glistening canyon, Gullfossgljúfur, below.
With a 10-12 hour stopover time in Iceland, it is possible to see all three major attractions of the Golden Circle sightseeing route, plus some added extras. For instance, one of the most beautiful crater lakes in the country, Kerið, is found approximately twenty-five minutes drive from Þingvellir National Park.
Located within Iceland’s Grímsnes region, Kerið is instantly recognisable thanks to a number of irrefutable features; the crater has steep sides, blanketed with vegetation, with a vibrant aquamarine lake (7-14 metres deep) at its bottom.
Kerið is just one of the many craters found in Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone, though it is, without doubt, the most beautiful. Visitors to the crater are invited to walk around its outer rim, or can descend the gentlest embankment down to the lake. There is a 400 ISK entrance fee, with parking on site.
Whilst in the general area, another option could be making a stop at the Secret Lagoon, Iceland’s oldest outdoor swimming pool and a known, cheaper alternative to the Blue Lagoon Spa. Just like its more expensive cousin, however, the Secret Lagoon appreciates pre-booking, though this is not as stringent; pre-booking simply allows you to secure the time you would like at the lagoon.
It is advised to bring your own towel and swimwear, though these can also be rented from the establishment itself. Snacks and drinks are also available for those feeling a touch peckish after bathing.
Visitors to the Secret Lagoon will have the chance to bathe surrounded by all kinds of natural geothermal features; from gurgling hot springs to steaming cauldrons of mud, the Secret Lagoon is as authentic as outdoor bathing can come in Iceland.
During the winter months, the Secret Lagoon closes at 8 pm, allowing guests to experience the aurora borealis whilst surrounded by this soothing geothermal area. Naturally, entering the pool after opening hours is strictly prohibited for safety reasons.
Depending on the time of your arrival and departure from Iceland, you may fit within the timeframe to partake in a day tour with a guided operator.
Day tours in Iceland allow you to see and experience the very best tours and activities under the tutelage of an experienced and knowledgeable adventure guide, someone who can provide a level of insight otherwise unobtainable to the lone traveller.
One of the most popular day tours available is exploring the inner depths of a volcanic magma chamber (...don’t worry, we’re talking a dormant volcano here!) Hiking 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) to Þríhnúkagígur volcano, you will enter into an elevator, then descend 198 metres into a rocky abyss of fascinating magma formations and lava emblazoned inner-walls. Your descent will last an incredible six minutes in total!
Once you are at the bottom of the volcano, you’ll have half an hour to roam, during which time you will want to keep your camera handy; the immense size of the volcano’s caldera, the explosion of colours, the distant opening, so high and far away, are all sure to awe-inspire a wealth of fantastic photographs.
Your guide will also make sure to teach you all about Iceland’s geothermal underbelly, as well as the devastating impact that volcanoes have made on Iceland’s history.
Another popular option for a day tour, though a little on the pricier side of the market, is taking a helicopter tour. There really can be no better way of experiencing as much Icelandic beauty in such a short time frame, soaring over the country’s volcanic fields, its snow-peaked mountain ranges, its eclectic coastlines and lush grazing meadows.
All the while, you’ll be overcome with a wild sense of exhilaration, a slave to the speed, drama and action that comes hand in hand with helicopter flight-seeing.
Helicopter tours not only allow you to see some of the country’s most beautiful sites within the shortest time, they also present the opportunity to land and explore otherwise inaccessible regions. One of the best examples of this is the Reykjavík Summit Tour, taking you from base camp at the city’s domestic airport to one of the highest caps of the Blue Mountains, providing staggering panoramic views of the island’s capital region.
One of the great benefits of a helicopter tour is how time effective it is. This allows you to spend the remainder of your stopover sightseeing, or partaking in the second half of a combo tour. One popular choice is to combine the likes of a helicopter tour with an ATV or Buggy tour, allowing you to explore and discover Iceland by both land and air.
If one has a full day in Iceland, that will leave approximately 10 hours of free time to explore and discover; if one considers the day minus 8 hours of sleep, a 90 minute round trip from Keflavík Airport to Reykjavík, a two-hour check-in and boarding process. Still, a lot can be achieved in this timeframe, especially if one is careful to maximise their time in the country.
One of the options only available to those with the time to spare is exploring elements of Iceland’s gorgeous South Coast. Reaching the first attraction of real interest, Seljalandsfoss will take approximately one and a half hours from Reykjavík, whilst the South Coast’s final attraction, Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, will take approximately four and a half hours, without stops.
With a full 24 hours stopover, there will be enough time to reach this final attraction on the South, and make it back to the hotel for a quick cat nap, or directly to the airport.
Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss are two of the best-known waterfalls on the South Coast. Both stand at 60 metres/197 feet high, though the former is a far narrower cascade and also boasts an accessible cave behind the falls, thus ensuring your chance to get some truly unique landscape photographs.
Skógafoss, on the other hand, is much wider (25 meters/82 feet), thus creates an enormous plume of mist at its base that, on sunny days, is sure to form rainbows, complimenting your photography further. It is possible to view Skógafoss from the bottom, or ascend the staircase adjoined to the ancient sea cliff from which it falls, allowing you the chance to view the feature from above.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach is one of the most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world, as voted for by National Geographic magazine. The area is renown for its jet-black pebbles, strange basalt lava columns and the iconic Reynisdrangar rock stack, one of the great sights of the Icelandic South Coast.
Those with the time to spare might also make a quick stop at the small peninsula of Dyrhólaey which, from its high vantage point, grants a fantastic view over this picturesque region.
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon is often regarded as "the Crown Jewel of Iceland" thanks to sheer aesthetic appeal and popularity as a visitor's attraction, despite its distance from the Capital Region. Those who make the stop will be privy to enormous icebergs breaking away from the glacial outlet tongue, Breiðamerkurjökull, a part of the much larger Vatnajökull glacier, before drifting idly on the lagoon's flat, azure surface.
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon is as far as one can get safely on a 24-hour stopover; if one is planning to visit the lagoon, make sure to keep a constant eye on both the weather—climatic surprises may cause countless delays—and on your timekeeping at each attraction. Travelling around Iceland is both mesmerising and addictive, and it is surprisingly easy to get distracted and let time slip away with you.
Make sure to travel within your limits whilst on a stopover in Iceland, and ensure that you have some pre-knowledge on airport transfers, what you will be doing, and whether you will need to book any activities in advance of your arrival.
What did you get up to during your stopover here, and did you feel like you had enough time? How often do you stopover in Iceland? Make sure to leave your thoughts and comments in the Facebook comments box below.