By Kate Voehl, Product Manager at AirTreks
In February, my husband Mason received a call that he had been accepted to graduate school. Knowing that school would dominate his time starting in September, we decided to take 2.5 weeks in August to travel to Europe, visit friends, and celebrate our wedding anniversary.
Anyone reading this blog who has been to graduate school, or knows someone who has, understands that it’s not a time you get to act like Scrooge McDuck- diving into your water tower of gold coins. As a couple who loves outdoor adventure and getting lost, we decided to use the few gold coins we had to explore beautiful natural places.
Thankfully, I learned about the Icelandair free stopover option from a colleague at Airtreks who understood our love of the outdoors. Because Iceland naturally falls between North America and Europe, and Icelandair allows for a free stopover up to 7 days long, it was the perfect place to stop on our way to Europe at no extra cost.
So, how can you make the most of your time in Iceland? Read ahead to check out a few of our favorite spots and recommendations!
First, some logistics
To rent a car, or take bus tours, that is the question!
One of the first things to decide on your Iceland stopover is renting a car vs. taking public transportation. If you plan to stay in Reykjavik a majority of the time or would prefer a tour bus to meet other travelers, then public transportation is the way to go.
If you prefer flexibility, and you plan to spend time exploring places outside of Reykjavik, I’d recommend renting a car. Car rentals can be quite expensive, so the earlier you can reserve your car online, the better! Plan to pick up your car at the KEF airport, as it costs about $25 one-way to take the 45 minute bus into Reykjavik. One more tip- it is much cheaper to rent a car between September 1 – May 31!
So, where to?
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle tour takes you to some of Iceland’s most stunning sights; the Kerið crater, Geysir and Strokkur geothermal area, the huge Gullfoss waterfall, and Þingvellir National Park. Consider it the world’s most epic road trip. We took close to 10 hours to do the entire loop, but we heard of others who drove the loop in 6 hours. It all depends on how long you have to explore, and if you’re looking to get away from the crowds.
In fact, here’s a tip you won’t find in the guidebooks- As you approach the Geysir geothermal area, you’ll notice a campground. Between the main geyser area and the campground, you’ll find a gravel trail. If you hike up that trail for even 10-15 minutes, you’ll get amazing aerial views of the eruptions!
Become friends with Icelandic Horses
This one seems self-explanatory. I mean, how beautiful are these horses?
If you have a short stopover, you can combine this with your Golden Circle tour. As you drive, you’ll see these majestic horses in fields off the side of the road. After only a quick hike off the road, these horses walked right up to us! If you have a longer stopover and are interested in horse riding, check out these tours.
Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall is one of the most photographed places in all of Iceland, and not a far drive from Reykjavik. There are well maintained trails to follow, and if you hike all the way to the top, you’ll be rewarded by more Icelandic horses and panoramic views.
If you’re traveling over winter months and you’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights- Iceland is the perfect destination for it! When the skies are really dark, you can adventure outside of the city to see this stunning phenomenon. There are also many companies who will take you out on a Northern Lights hunt!
Feeling particularly adventurous? Check an item off your bucket list by climbing a glacier! There are treks open to climbers of all skills. Whatever your interest, you’ll find excursions offered for hikes, ice climbs, exploring ice caves, and even glacier kayaking!
Don’t worry if TSA took your ice axe – experts, such as Glacier Guides, will lead and rent you equipment for this one-in-a-lifetime trek. Solheimajökull – a popular glacier for tours is about a two hour drive time from Reykjavik.
Glymur Falls and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
If you haven’t had your waterfall fix yet, head north of Reykjavik about an hour and hike to Glymur Falls – Iceland’s tallest waterfall! Make sure you have your camera ready, and follow the narrow canyon trail. Extra time? Two more amazing waterfalls are close by: Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. These waterfalls are unique due to water seeping through the lava fields.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula has a bit of everything. Sharp cliffs, lava formations, quaint fishing towns, museums, Basalt columns, and black sand beaches like the one pictured above. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find shipwreck debris on the Djúpalónssandur black sand beach.
Have a geothermal soak
The Blue Lagoon geothermal pool is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. It’s located between Reykjavik and the airport, so it’s the perfect place to unwind as your first stop, or to relax before you get back on the plane. If you decide to visit, especially during summer months, learn from our mistake and be sure to reserve your tickets online first!
Major honesty time here: we completely forgot about booking tickets and Blue Lagoon was full on the day we arrived. Not ready to give up, we did some research on other hot springs in the area and got lucky. If you’d prefer to take advantage of the hot springs in a more private location away from the huge crowds and high price tags, I highly recommend Hveragerdi and Reykjadalur. This area is known as the “valley of the hot springs” and is a short 40 minute drive from Reykjavik.
About a 45 minute drive from the airport, Reykjavik is a charming city to spend a day in. We loved walking through the downtown area past the Sun Voyager sculpture and down to the harbor. From here you can join a whale watching tour, or a grab a locally brewed pint and talk to the locals.
For a birds-eye view of the city, head to Hallsgrimkirkja and take the elevator to the top of the bell tower. Having just watched the television series “Vikings”, we then walked to the 871 Settlement Museum and saw a house structure made by the first Viking settlers in Iceland. While we didn’t make it to the National Museum of Iceland, I’ve heard that it’s also worth the stop.
According to our Travel Planner Daniel, “Visiting Iceland in the long summer days are fantastic, however, if you time a visit just right you might be able to see more then just the Aurora Borealis. The annual Iceland Airwaves Music Festival is held in Reykjavik every November. Showcasing a variety of musicians from Iceland and around-the-world, the festival takes place in a variety of venues from prestigious concert halls, local museums, small bars and sometimes a laundromat. Music fans and nomads alike will enjoy this special event.”
Oh, and foodies rejoice! Make time to savor fresh fish from one of the many delicious local restaurants, enjoy a famous hot dog from Baejarins beztu pylsur, or try the fermented shark if you’re feeling brave. If you’re a coffee fanatic like me, don’t miss out on Reykjavik Roasters!
Whether it’s a round trip to Iceland, or you get the opportunity to do a stopover, just go. You won’t regret it.
Are there any reasons not to take an Iceland stopover? Well, it can be exhausting. What I mean by that is, every three minutes you’re bound to encounter yet another breath-taking view. You can’t drive more than a mile without gasping and taking out your camera. Truly exhausting 😉
Lasting effects from taking an Iceland stopover? You’ll be filled with an intense soul longing to return. Oh, and a full memory card.
If you would like to make Iceland a part of a round-the-world or multi-stop journey, be sure to check our Airtreks Tripplanner for ideas and prices.
More articles on Iceland by Airtreks:
Around The World In 40 Days – A RTW40 Retrospective