I was finally doing it; the exit sign was in front of me shining brightly like a beacon. I was going to step out of the airport into Iceland—I was overjoyed at the prospect of finally making it out that door. Granted, it’s not that hard to leave the Iceland airport, however for some reason I had already flown through the airport four times before, but not once had I made it out the door until now. I had always connected to somewhere else in Europe; Iceland was just a layover. However, this time my ticket read Iceland as my final destination! Even though I was tired from the flight from Denver to Reykjavik, the cold air immediately woke me up as I set foot outside onto this magnificent island. I had arrived in Iceland!
In just the last decade, this little island has become a major airport stop on the way from North America to Europe. It woos people with low fairs, but it also has a secret weapon—a free stopover. I had thought about doing the free stopover on previous trips, but I never had the extra time on those journeys. However, a stopover is a brilliant way for you to get a taste of Iceland’s hot landscape.
What is an Iceland Stopover?
A stopover is a way the airlines allow you to split up your long haul flight for no extra cost and see another country. This means you can explore Iceland, both country and culture, without adding to your ticket price on your way to or from Europe! You must choose the stopover when you book your roundtrip plane ticket.
Short Iceland Stopover Itinerary Ideas
Stopovers are normally from one to seven nights. However, due to my crazy trip schedule, I only had two days there before going to the Faroe Islands, but then I would return there for another two-day stop. This schedule allowed me to get a good idea of what people can do with a short time in Iceland. You don’t have to be tethered to Reykjavik, or the popular Golden Circle drive; you can go to more unknown communities and still find plenty of cool adventures in a short time. Yes, I know the Golden Circle drive is popular, but I like to spread the love around when I travel and explore some new gems in a region.
During my two stops, I spent two days in Reykjanes and a bit of the south region and then I took another two day trip more inland up north toward the Langjokull Glacier in the West Region. Each was filled with adventures and sightseeing—and even a little relaxing/spa time! These are all great experiences to add to a short Iceland stopover itinerary.
Sightseeing on your Iceland Stopover
You’ll get two for one when you go to Garðskagi; two lighthouses on one stop. This is a short drive from the airport and very worth it. It’s a great area to watch sea birds on a nice day and on a stormy day it’s a wonderful place to watch the wild sea crash up against the old lighthouse. According to our guide it’s also a great place to fish, and if you are a teenager, a great place to make out.
The older, shorter lighthouse has turned into a little café in the summer months. However, you can also enjoy a lunch at the little lighthouse keeper’s restaurant near the newer lighthouse. There’s even a museum there. If you are brave, you can try the rotten shark like I did, but make sure you chase it with Black Death, the local schnapps!
The sunset is also pretty spectacular from this vantage point as well as possible northern lights September to April.
Steam, mud, and springs—this park is ALIVE! It’s only a short distance from the lighthouse and it’s home of Iceland´s largest mud pool; 20 meters wide across a rim of mud, boiling vigorously. Not only does it have pools of boiling mud, it also has witches! Yes, this area is full of Iceland folklore that you’ll be enticed by. You can’t miss the geological park as you drive by on the main road; big plumes of steam rise from the landscape. Plus, you certainly can’t miss the sulfur smell! Park and walk over the boardwalks to get close to the action.
The Mid-Atlantic ridge—a major tectonic plate boundary that sits between the North American and Eurasian plates—runs right through the middle of Iceland. And it happens to be pulling apart at a rate of 2.5 centimeters per year! Even though this happens on the ocean floor where we can’t really see it, there is a deep fissure on land that splits rock formations in the middle! That’s where you’ll find the Bridge Between Continents connecting the North American and Eurasian plates!
Even though the border is symbolic, it’s still fun to cross from North America to Europe in a single step!
Even Iceland has some weird roadside attractions—like the Husafel Stone. A 409-pound stone sits on the farmland of Artist Pall Gudmundsson. Over 200 years ago the triangle-shaped stone was used as part of the farmer’s goat pen. However somehow a tradition was formed where people try to pick up and walk the stone around the goat pen. Carrying the Husafel stone is now a regular event in the World’s Strong Man competition! You can stop and see it for yourself…and even try to lift it if you dare.
This waterfall has a strange origin—the water appears to be coming from nowhere. That’s because this is a lava fall where clear, cold springs of subterranean water seep through the lava and run as tiny waterfalls over a wall and into the Hvitá River below. It’s a waterfall wall—or a waterwall I suppose. You can walk along the pathway and marvel at the turquoise water. And it’s a must stop sight only an hour from Reykjavik!
Iceland Stopover Adventures
Why just go on top of a glacier when you can go INSIDE of it! This was my first trip inside a glacier and I was pretty excited about it. The ice tunnel is located inside Iceland‘s second largest glacier, Langjökull and was an engineering miracle! It took four years of planning/research and 14 months of digging to create this tunnel inside the glacier.
You can actually visit inside the glacier year around, as the temperature inside is a constant 32 degrees fahrenheit. However the ride out to the tunnel beginning is quite wild in the colder winter months. We rode in heavy-duty vehicles over the uneven glacier terrain and the wind howled outside. But the moment we went inside you were protected. It was one of the most unusual tours I’ve ever done. The tunnel goes 40 to 90 feet below the surface of the glacier and has five man-made chambers with some incredible acoustics. But the part I was most amazed at is the tunnel actually moves with the glacier each year and that was a surreal feeling. It’s one thing to see or climb on a glacier—but to go inside gives you an incredible appreciation for this natural wonder.
This isn’t quite as tropical as Brook Shield’s blue lagoon, but it is beautiful. What started as a natural disaster, turned into a medical facility, and then transformed into one of the biggest tourist attractions in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon was formed on accident and people started swimming in it and found that their cirrhosis was improving. Soon everyone started coming for medical reasons.
However today people come to relax, soak, do a face mask, have a drink…it’s the ultimate in relaxation after a long flight. Be warned though—this is a really popular stop, probably because of it’s proximity to the airport. There is a big changing room complete with instructions…yes instructions on how to use a spa in Iceland.
Once you can figure out how to get out of the changing room and shower, you are finally ready to get to the Blue Lagoon. April outside temperatures were really chilly, so the process of going outside and getting in was not something I was looking forward to. However, the best part was that you could get in the lagoon inside in the warm temps and then go under a window and suddenly you are outside in the cold! The Blue Lagoon is a well-oiled machine—it has to be to accommodate that many people every day!
Most people don’t even know there is a black sand beach in Þorlákshöfn, and most people don’t even know how to pronounce the town name either! There are other black sand beaches along Iceland’s southern coast, but this is the closest to the airport. The town of Þorlákshöfn has just started to get into the tourism game so it’s a bit undiscovered yet and that’s what made it so special. Plus—who wouldn’t want to drive 55 mph along a black sand beach in Iceland!
After some quick instruction and a few test starts/stops/turns on the main street in town (it’s a pretty quiet town) we were off to trails! We road all the way along the beach close to the water at low tide. It gave me this big dose of freedom and power! Then we drove up into the sand dunes and did some more complicated driving. It was a great way to cover a lot of ground and not see another tourist!
I looked down at my horse’s mane as I bounced up and down on the saddle. Its mane was blowing in the wind and looked stunning; I had complete hair envy. Don’t be fooled by the Icelandic horses. They may look small, but they are mighty. These horses are special on many levels. Their breed can only be found in Iceland. They reminded me a bit of Mongolian horses (small and mighty), but the Iceland horses had much longer bushy, hair; it was quite beautiful…hence the hair envy.
Thanks to their small size, they are easy to get on and off of them. However, once they get moving, it can be a bit of a challenge to stay on them! Iceland horses have two special gaits that are unique just to them. In addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop that most horses have, they have a tölt (four-beat lateral ambling gait) and skeið (fast and smooth race speed). When my horse took off in a tölt, it was startling…and bumpy. It took a bit for me to get the hang of the rhythm, but eventually I got the hang of it. It was quite a feeling to be riding through the rough, barren landscape; an Iceland experience everyone should try.
I took a deep breath and ran from the hot bath and plunged into the freezing cold water. My whole body was stinging like pins and needles. I let out a little scream and drug myself out of the freezing water and went straight into the dry sauna where it felt like I wrapped myself in a blanket. I know people rave about the Blue Lagoon, but this is my kind of water therapy – I LOVE these Nordic spas with hot/cold treatment.
Krauma’s geothermal baths are an essential stop when traveling north to Langiokull Glacier. The hot water originates in Europe’s most powerful hot spring Deildartunguhver, at a temperature of 212 degrees fahrenheit. To achieve the perfect bathing temperature they mix the hot water with cold water from Rauðsgil, which originates in the glacier. And the best part was that we practically had the whole place to ourself; it’s a completely different feel than the Blue Lagoon.
Walk inside a volcanic eruption that occurred 5,200 years ago! Raufarhólshelli is one of the longest lava tubes in Iceland only about 30 to 45 minutes from the airport! You walk inside with a guide along the metal walkways and marvel at the colors and textures as they provide some history and geology of the tunnel. However the part that was other-worldly to me were the incredible ice formations at the beginning of the tunnel. I was there in April so the tunnel still had ice inside from the dripping water. It was incredibly to see and a picture really couldn’t even do it justice.
Where to Stay on Your Stopover
I suggest that you stay in these areas (Keflavik and the West/Husafell) while you explore there.
This is a perfect place to stay if you want to stay near the airport (it’s only 10 minutes away), but out along the water. Hotel Berg is new and modern and has a charming little location on the water in the small town of Keflavik.
A luxury boutique hotel in this small town is a breath of fresh air. It’s a great location to visit the glacier and to do other outdoor hiking or biking. Plus, it’s far enough away from any big cities that you’ll likely see some Northern Lights.
Want more ideas for stopovers adventures and sights? Check out my Trover list where I keep ideas of travel spots. I created this list of the places I went and added other people’s suggestions to it. These are all stops that you can get to within an hour or two of the airport in Iceland and are perfect for an Iceland stopover!
Disclosure: This post was done in partnership with Trover.com and my trip was hosted by Inspired By Iceland, however all opinions expressed here are my own.
Follow Sherry Ott @ottsworld