MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR SHORT TIME IN THE LAND OF FIRE AND ICE.
You did it. You bought one of those ridiculously low-priced flights to Europe on WOW air or Icelandair.
The kicker? An 18-hour layover in Iceland.
Now, you’re attempting to plan your itinerary for your brief stay in the Land of Fire and Ice, and you’re overwhelmed with the sheer number of natural wonders that you absolutely can’t miss.
Don’t worry. I’ve been in your shoes. Here’s my guide to Iceland power tourism: what to see and where to go when time is of the essence. A disclaimer: if a leisurely stroll around Reykjavik or simply drinking your life away in an airport bar appeals more to you than cramming as many sights as you possibly can into a calendar day, read no further. This agenda is not for the faint of heart.
For starters, there is only one way to see Iceland in a hurry: by car. Rent one. Yes, rental cars in Iceland are expensive, but so is everything else in this remote, sparsely populated Arctic island country. Get used to it. You’ll land at Keflavik International Airport, about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. Reserve and rent a car here, hop in, and get going.
Depending on what time of year you go, you will have anywhere from 5 to 21 hours of daylight, so do your homework before you arrive and make sure you know how much time you will actually have to sightsee. My friend Brad and I visited Iceland in the middle of September, which gave us about 13 hours of usable daylight. Unfortunately, our flight didn’t land till just before noon, which cramped our itinerary even further.
If you’ve done any research on Iceland, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Golden Circle, the most popular tourist route in southern Iceland. It’s popular for a reason: in just a few short hours, you can see rift valleys, erupting geysers, ocean shores, and spectacular waterfalls.
Start by heading straight for Þingvellir National Park, Iceland’s first national park, the first stop on the Golden Circle, and an area of geological, historical and cultural importance. Þingvellir was once the cultural center of Iceland as well as the first home of its parliament. It’s also the home of the Almannagjá Gorge, a faultline in the rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates converge. Go here. Don’t ask questions, and don’t forget to pet the wild horses along the way.
A short hike will lead you through the fault itself, with spectacular views of cliffs, lakes, and rolling mountains. Take a side trail up to Öxarárfoss, a small yet gorgeous waterfall spilling over a rift cliff into the valley below. Plan on 1–2 hours here, and approximately 2–3 km of hiking on well-maintained paths.
Next, hop back in your car and head for Haukadalur, a geothermal area home to several geysers, including Geysir itself, the granddaddy of them all, from which we derive the eponymous English word. Park and walk a few short meters to the geothermal area, remembering to blame the strong smell of sulfur on your companions. Stand in awe of the beautifully colored hot springs, geysers, mud pools, and fumaroles all around you.
Geysir itself is unfortunately dormant, but nearby Strokkur Geyser erupts every ten minutes or so. Wait around for it to blow: it’s well worth it. Strokkur’s eruptions shoot as high as 40 meters, although the ones we saw were in the 15–20 meter range.
After snapping some photos here, drive to Gullfoss, only 10 km away and one of the most spectacular, complex waterfalls on the planet. Here, the mighty Hvítá River rushes down a series of steps before plunging into an almost perpendicularly-angled canyon. As you walk towards the waterfall from the parking lot, only part of Gullfoss is visible, and it’s not until you get to the viewpoint at the end of the short trail that the immense power and complexity of the waterfall before you will become fully apparent. Pictures simply don’t do this place justice. Don’t miss it.
Hurry! Hop back in your car and make the two-hour drive to Skógafoss, a much more traditional-looking, yet equally impressive, waterfall on the southern Icelandic coast. It’s one of the largest waterfalls in the country, with a width of 20 meters and a drop of over 60 meters. Its thunderous power will drench you, awe you, and render you speechless. You can walk right up to the base, and/or climb some 527 steps to an observation platform above the falls, if time allows. On a sunny day, you’ll probably catch a gorgeous rainbow extending across this spectacular cascade.
Next, drive 2.5 hours back to what is arguably Iceland’s most famous tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon. Touristy yet incredible, this geothermal spa situated in the midst of a lava field lives up to its lofty billing. There’s no bad time of day to visit: during the day, you’ll be awed by the pool’s turquoise colors and stark surroundings. At night, you might catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. We opted for a night visit, since neither Brad nor I had ever seen the Northern Lights despite spending quite a bit of time near or above the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to witness any visible electromagnetic activity, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time soaking in the Blue Lagoon’s steaming mineral-laden waters. The Blue Lagoon features a world-class spa, swim-up bars, mud rooms, and more.
Still have time left before your flight? Dry off and make the short drive back to Reykjavik. Enjoy the city’s vibrant restaurant scene and nightlife. We opted to explore Iceland’s burgeoning craft beer scene, so we checked out a couple of craft taprooms, Skúli Craft Bar and MicroBar, and highly recommend both of them. Hungry? Reykjavik’s meat-heavy culinary scene has garnered international attention. As a vegetarian, I opted out of trying horse, puffin, or shark. Thankfully for me, Reykjavik features great vegetarian restaurant options as well, including Garðurinn, where we ended up.
At this point, if your itinerary looks anything like ours, you’re probably running out of time. Head back to the airport in Keflavik and drop off your car. Buy some souvenirs, enjoy a ridiculously overpriced shot of Brennivín, Iceland’s spirit of choice, and board your plane, on your merry way to your next European destination.
While you’re sitting on the plane, waiting to take off, thinking about all of the incredible wonders you didn’t have time to see, go ahead and book your next trip to Iceland.