How to make the most of a short stopover in Iceland

Dips in the Blue Lagoon & fish feasts to make you swoon

By Corinne Whiting,

The newest Vatnajokull addition beautifies the Icelandair fleet — Photo courtesy of Icelandair

These days, Iceland seems to be on every traveler's radar – and for great reason. Here you'll find the culture rich, the locals friendly and the landscape jaw-droppingly stunning. Think gushing geysers, cascading waterfalls, bubbling hot springs and more rainbows than you ever imagined possible.

Perhaps you're heading to the charming Nordic island for its music and art (like during November's Iceland Airwaves festival), maybe you're attending the ultimate test of endurance (December's Spartan Ultra World Championship), or likely you're pausing en route to other European destinations like Norway or the fascinating Faroe Islands

Thanks to Icelandair's generous stopover program, travelers can visit the country for up to seven days at no extra cost – while on the way to 37 European cities. If the layover's brief, relax in style at the decadent Icelandair Saga Lounge at Keflavík Airport, reserved for passengers of Saga Class and Economy Comfort. (Believe us, it's worth it.)

The Saga Lounge at KEF offers indulgences that go above and beyond — Photo courtesy of Icelandair

Snuggle up in a recliner by the cozy fireplace, take a revitalizing shower, soak in panoramic views of the Reykjanes Peninsula and Faxaflói Bay, or help yourself to a delicious buffet of fresh, seasonal fare and fridges full of refreshing beverages.

Reykjavik

KEX Hostel is a great place to unwind and charge up, perhaps while enjoying a beer, some tasty snacks and chats with new friends — Photo courtesy of Ariana Gillrie/KEX Hostel

If you can tear yourself away from the Saga Lounge, it's easy to get to Reykjavik via the 45-minute Flybus shuttle. Designated a UNESCO City of Literature, Reykjavik (literally "Smoky Bay") is a vibrant capital city on the southwest coast that's home to more than half the country's population.

Once in this hub of culinary and cultural treasures, wander the city's streets and sites, with refueling sessions at welcoming cafes (C is for Cookie, Fish & More on the main walking street, Gló for vegetarian options).

Cult film fanatics stop for burgers and White Russians at the uber-friendly Lebowski Bar, soup lovers queue up at no-nonsense Svarta Kaffid and social travelers schmooze – and sometimes catch live music – in the bustling bar-restaurant-sitting area of KEX Hostel. 

For a pre-theatre drink among neighborhood locals, try the cozy, art-filled lounge at Hotel Holt, a central base during your capital stay. 

Reykjanes Peninsula

Soak in lighthouse beauty on the Rekyjanes Peninsula — Photo courtesy of Snorri Thor Tryggvason/Visit Reykjanes

If you only have 24 or 48 hours to explore, Gunnar Hörður Garðarsson, Digitial Communications Manager at Visit Reykjanes, recommends the Reykjanes Peninsula, where you'll find Keflavík International Airport. This region's easily accessible from Reykjavik, too, and roadways are rarely blocked by snow or other weather conditions.

"You can travel the peninsula by car yourself," he recommends, "visiting the Bridge Between Continents, Gunnuhver geothermal area, the Reykjanes Lighthouse and Brimketill troll pool. Or you can book a guided sightseeing tour of the area (various options available here)." 

He adds that a perfect day for adventurous types might involve exploring the peninsula by ATV and then stopping to unwind in the Blue Lagoon.

"For a chance to see the Northern Lights," he says, "visiting the Garðskagi lighthouse is perfect. There they turn off all the surrounding lights for optimal aurora photography and there is a big viewing deck where you can also hop in for a cup of coffee and warmth in the coldest hours."

The Northern Lights dance above the Bridge Between Continents — Photo courtesy of OZZO/Visit Reykjanes

When asked what makes this section of his country so special, Gunnar H. G. comments, "The Reykjanes Peninsula is a highly geologically active area. You can see the effects of the continental glide all over the peninsula. The Bridge Between Continents shows how the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are moving further apart. Close by you can see the Gunnuhver hot mud spring that spews out boiling mud and water in a Mars-like landscape ... with all these otherworldly landscapes, it’s not hard to understand the [region's] rich troll and ghost lore." 

Nature-fueled adventures wait around every bend — Photo courtesy of Snorri Thor Tryggvason/Visit Reykjanes

Blue Lagoon

Gunnar H. G. has dipped into the Blue Lagoon, a dreamy geothermal spa that's located about 20 minutes from the international airport and 40 from downtown Reykjavik, more times than he can recall.

"A hundred times? Maybe more," he guesses. "The breathtaking awe a visitor gets when getting into the Blue Lagoon for the first time is a one-time experience (that’s why I bring all my friends there)."

No matter how long your stopover, make time for the Blue Lagoon — Photo courtesy of Visit Reykjanes

He continues, "However, becoming familiar with the Blue Lagoon isn’t a bad thing at all. I still love experiencing the Blue Lagoon in the early mornings when the first people of the day are getting in and stirring the water. The nights are my favorite, though; for some reason people start to whisper when it gets dark and everything just gets a whole lot cozier. This doesn’t get old, even though the magic feels more familiar."

Note that pre-booking is required before your arrival; tickets range from traditional dips with mud masks (and visits to the swim-up bar) to sensational spa services like in-water massages. On the premises, enjoy a delicious meal at Lava Restaurant or a quick bite at Blue Cafe. A new resort will open here in Spring 2018.

Near Iceland, Arctic waters feature a bounty of cod, haddock, monkfish, herring, skate, lobster and salmon — Photo courtesy of Ariana Gillrie/KEX Hostel

One final piece of wisdom: "I think nobody should leave Iceland without having cod," advises Gunnar H. G., "Around the Reykjanes Peninsula coastline are some of the richest fishing grounds in Iceland, so you know that what you are eating in the restaurants is as fresh as it gets. For those who want to try something else, the Vitinn in Sandgerði offers an amazing crab feast that's to die for."

Your Iceland stopover may be brief, but that doesn't mean it can't be chock-full of beautiful, delicious and inspiring highlights.