The first time a friend mentioned the idea of stopping over in Iceland on the way to Europe, I was a senior in college and had barely ever given Iceland a thought.
France conjured images of baguettes and a sparkly Eiffel Tower, Belgium brought to mind beer, frites and waffles, and Italy the cliff-defying villages of Cinque Terre and the weathered streets of impossibly romantic cities like Rome and Venice. But Iceland left me coming up blank. I vaguely remembered an old adage about Iceland being mostly green and Greenland being mostly ice, but that was about it.
The idea of going somewhere that I knew so little about was simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. At the time, I largely felt that travel involved visiting places you’d always dreamed of visiting, likely as a result of learning about them through various forms of pop culture while growing up. (In this case, Madeline, Babar, and Peter Pan, to name a few.) It hadn’t necessarily occurred to me that I could truly go anywhere, and that journeying to a place without already having a host of preconceived notions in my head might be pretty wonderful. So what if Iceland wasn’t on my “list”? What was stopping me?
As it turns out, nothing – least of all complicated logistics. Thanks to the folks at Icelandair, arranging a stopover there is easier than deciding on your morning coffee order. When you head to their website, you’ll see right away that in addition to the standard options of one-way and return flights, they offer a stopover option as well. That means you can work in a few days’ visit without cobbling together a series of expensive one-way tickets. In fact, adding a stopover on to your flight won’t cost you a thing. (Did I type that clearly? There’s seriously no extra cost for you.)
And the ease of arranging my stopover was just the beginning.
One of the first things I noticed about Iceland was its impressively solid tourism infrastructure. I’ve visited twice and have been traveling solo both times, so it’s been an even more appreciated bonus that it’s so darn easy to get around.
And while it caters so well to travelers, it’s managed to retain its personality and is clearly still a place where actual people live, work and play. I always find it kind of eerie to visit a place that caters almost exclusively to tourists; where every storefront is just another souvenir shop, overpriced restaurant, or travel agency. Luckily, that’s not the case in Iceland.
What’s that you say? You’re convinced already and are booking your stopover in Iceland right now?! Perfect! While we’re on the subject, here are a few ideas for a proper introduction to this dreamy island nation. I’m fairly certain that, like me, you’ll be crushing majorly in no time.
First things first: You’ll land at Keflavík Airport, about 30 miles southwest of Iceland’s capital of Reykjavík. It’s not often I get to say this, but take a moment to appreciate this beautiful airport! It reminds me of an oversized ski lodge and brings to mind a variety of adjectives I rarely associate with airports: Cozy. Airy. Easy to navigate. Enjoyable to spend time in. If you’re not picking up a rental car, just follow signs for the Flybus, which will drop you off right in downtown Reykjavík at the BSÍ Bus Terminal. If you pay a little extra, you can arrange for the bus to take you directly to wherever you’re staying, but chances are your lodging will be a relatively easy walk from the bus terminal.
I stayed at the Reykjavík City Hostel during my first visit and KEX Hostel during my second visit. I thought they were both great, but KEX is much closer to the downtown area which made getting around easier, especially at night.
Reykjavík is my kind of city for so many reasons: it’s charming as hell, full of interesting shops, cafés and museums, and compact enough that you won’t need to rely on public transportation to get around. This is not a city where you’ll be wasting any time trying to decipher a subway map.
For a view from above, head to Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic Lutheran church that serves as the city’s main landmark. For ISK 900 (about $8) you can take an elevator to its top for sweeping 360-degree views over the city’s colorful buildings.
For a break from the traditional Icelandic architecture that you’ll see throughout the country (not that you’ll want one…), head to HARPA, Reykjavík’s concert hall and conference center. HARPA opened in 2011 and is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Iceland Opera among other groups. Made predominantly of colored panes of glass, this beautiful building is worth a peek inside even if you don’t have tickets to an event.
Because no exploration of a new city is complete without some good old-fashioned café hopping (my personal preference over club hopping), be sure to make time to relax and people watch over coffee and pastries.
I settled in with my book at Café Babalú (Skólavörðustígur 22) one afternoon, a cozy and colorful spot with a small rooftop area perfect for nice weather, and my favorite breakfast was at Grái Kötturinn (Hverfisgata 16a). This quiet, six-tabled restaurant is apparently a favorite of Björk’s – and who am I to argue with Björk?
If you’re looking for something to take with you as you explore, head to Kaffitár. Kaffitár is basically the country’s version of Starbucks, which in Icelandic terms means a roastery with less than ten commercial outposts. They focus on buying the majority of their beans directly from farmers and are renowned for their sustainable and responsible business practices.
With a delicious coffee in tow, head to Tjörnin, a beautiful downtown lake serving as the favored haunt of 40+ species of birds as well as handfuls of Icelandic families enjoying some down time together. The National Gallery of Iceland is just a short walk away and Reykjavík’s City Hall, which houses a giant relief map of Iceland, sits on the Northern end of the lake.
Hungry? You’re in luck. Since everything in Reykjavík is walkable, chances are you aren’t too far from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (actual translation: the best hot dogs in town).
I’ll leave the details to the experts, but suffice it to say that these dogs are delicious. While a stop at Bæjarins Beztu is a must, you’ll find plenty of other hot dog stands around the country and also see them on offer at restaurants, gas stations and at Keflavík airport. While I prefer mine with raw white onion, crispy fried onion and the sweet brown mustard pylsusinnep, two other common toppings are ketchup and remoulade (made with mayo, capers, mustard and herbs).
Whether you’re navigating the streets with a hot dog or a coffee in hand (or maybe both, I’m not judging) make sure you’re keeping an eye out for the city’s impressive amount of interesting street art.
Golden Circle Day Tour: The Golden Circle is a collection of sights surrounding Reykjavík that form the perfect itinerary for an easy day trip from the capital city. It’s become the classic go-to tour for travelers in Iceland and is a great intro to the country’s unique and legendary scenery. The itinerary will vary slightly depending on which company you go with, but the main sights are Gullfoss (an epic, thundering waterfall), the Geysir geothermal field, and Þingvellir National Park.
The Geysir geothermal field is home to the Great Geyser, or Stori-Geysir, long one of the most prominent geysers in the world. While it’s now largely dormant, the area where it’s located is full of hot springs, brightly colored sulfurous mud pools, and other geysers; most notably one called Strokkur, which erupts roughly every ten minutes. The English word “geyser” actually derives from the Icelandic word geysir, meaning “gusher.”
Þingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the world’s oldest Parliament was first assembled in 930 and continued to meet until 1798. Þingvellir National Park is also a notable location because it’s home to a break between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, where a canyon has formed and you can visibly see the break between the two continents.
We also visited Kerið, a brightly-colored volcanic crater lake, and pulled over to spend some Q time with these cuties.
As I was traveling solo and didn’t feel comfortable renting a car by myself, the Golden Circle tour was perfect for me. If you’re looking for more flexibility, consider renting a car and visiting the sites on your own.
Public baths: Swimming pools have long played an important role in Iceland’s culture and identity. While spas and public baths are a more modern development, the Icelandic people have been enjoying the benefits of thermal baths since the country’s settlement. Heading to the local pool to swim laps, sweat it out in saunas and soak in thermal pools is popular for both health-related and social reasons, being the perfect way to spend time with friends or treat yourself to some relaxation and rejuvenation after a long day.
A note on nudity: During my first trip to Iceland, I visited Laugardalslaug, one of Reykjavík’s seventeen public pool complexes. I was unaware of the strict hygiene rules associated with the baths, and realized as I entered the locker room area that everyone is required to shower naked before being allowed to enter the baths. I’m not sure how it works at other baths in the city, but at Laugardalslaug, there was actually a locker room attendant monitoring the shower area – a large, open room with no curtains or stalls – to make sure everyone was adhering to this rule.
I didn’t want to miss out on experiencing the baths, but I was caught off guard by this and felt completely uncomfortable stripping down to shower, nervously clutching my bathing suit in one hand and trying to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. My discomfort left as soon as it arrived, however, when I noticed the completely chilled out, business-as-usual attitude of the other women in the room. I remembered somewhat sheepishly that many other countries have a much more relaxed attitude toward nudity than Americans tend to. No one was looking at me or critiquing me. After all, this was standard practice, and everyone in the room was in the same boat. I finished showering, put on my suit and proceeded on to the baths.
All this to say that while I wasn’t expecting to have to bare it all, I’m glad I didn’t let that deter me from experiencing the baths altogether. They really are worth the temporary embarrassment. (And again, while it’s easy to convince yourself you’re being critiqued, no one is looking and no one cares. For real.)
The Blue Lagoon: Undoubtedly Iceland’s most famous thermal bath, the Blue Lagoon is another great option for visitors to Iceland. While I had a great time there and definitely recommend it, it’s good to note that it’s a very popular spot for tourism. If you’re looking for something quieter, or full of more Icelandic people than tourists, this isn’t your best bet. (For this reason, I’m glad I spent some time at Laugardalslaug.)
Situated between Reykjavík and Keflavík airport, it’s actually possible to work in a visit to the Blue Lagoon as you arrive in or leave the country, which is pretty great. During my first visit to Iceland, I arranged my visit right from my hostel’s front desk. On the morning of my flight back to the States, a bus picked me up and took me right to the Blue Lagoon. I checked my luggage, enjoyed a few hours at the baths, showered, retrieved my luggage, and then hopped on a bus heading the rest of the way to the airport with plenty of time to catch my flight. Easy peasy!
Because of its location and the ease of getting there from the airport, many travelers visit the Blue Lagoon during a long layover at Keflavík, even if they’re not staying overnight in Iceland. (Remember that amazing tourism infrastructure I mentioned?)
Another side note on nudity: It’s still a rule that you’re supposed to bathe before entering the pools here; however, presumably because its frequented by so many tourists, there are stalls in the locker room here that allow for more privacy. (But by that point, I was almost disappointed to not have another chance to prove to everyone how totally chill and laid-back I had recently become regarding public nudity.)
I fell hard for Iceland during my first visit, and when I went back for a second time, my excitement didn’t wane a bit. I’ve only been there on my own, and I’m determined to go back with at least one other person so that I can explore more of the island outside of the confines of an organized tour, as well as more properly enjoy the nightlife (always trickier as a solo female traveler).
And I hope it goes without saying that your visit here doesn’t need to be just a stopover. While it does fit seamlessly into a flight to/from continental Europe from the States, that doesn’t mean Iceland itself can’t be your main destination.
Seriously, the possibilities are endless. After all, the cozy airport is just the beginning.