Make the most of your layover in Reykjavik, Iceland

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There is an amazing opportunity hidden in your next flight from North America to Europe, folks. Most of IcelandAir customer’s final destination may not be the arctic island in the northern Atlantic Ocean, but if you buy a relatively affordable ticket through them, you’ll be stopping over on this otherworldly piece of land, probably for at least several hours.

And that is by design. Not only does IcelandAir want you to get out of the airport and see a little bit of the island, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to do so and how rewarding it will be. IcelandAir will help to facilitate you visiting Iceland in lots of unexpected ways, I learned. I bought a ticket from Minneapolis to Amsterdam with a Reykjavik stopover for July 2014, originally with a 10 hour layover. I was later telling a friend that I hoped to get out and do a quick tour of the city, as I’d done in Mexico City on my way to Peru the summer before, and she said that she heard IcelandAir would extend layovers for free – as long as the new flight out didn’t cost any more than the previous one purchased – and they more than willingly did!

So whether you have 10 hours to kill, or decide to make your stopover a little more interesting, it’s not hard to get a taste of this remote, beautiful country en-route to your final destination.

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The Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most famous (and relaxing) attraction, and it is set up to be super accessible during your layover in Reykjavik.

The most famous attraction, and probably easiest thing to do during your Iceland layover, is the Blue Lagoon, a natural, geo-thermal spa which breaks suddenly through rough, dark rocks covering the barren landscape. There is an entire spa available, including massages, facials, etc etc, but the main attraction is the 100° F, light blue colored pool. Not only is the water delightfully warm, it is also filled with minerals like Silica (which is also available in a mud form to rub onto your face and skin, let dry and wash off), which makes your skin soft and clean. The most simple package for the day (which includes a locker and access to the pool and saunas, note: not a towel, though those can be rented at higher levels or on site) is a little more than $40 in the winter and $50 in the summer. So, no, it’s not the cheapest experience in the world, but nothing is really cheap in Iceland and it’s super memorable.

If you want to just go to the Blue Lagoon on your layover, it so easy it’s silly. The Lagoon is closer to the airport than Reykjavik itself, and there are tons of buses going straight there from the airport. The first place you check in is a luggage storage facility, and buses run back to the airport every few minutes. (I went on my last day there on my way to the airport, actually).

If you only have time for one thing in Iceland, most people chose this, and you wouldn’t be disappointed.

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Gullfloss waterfall is one of the spectacular highlights of the Golden Circle Tour.

In my 2.5 days in Iceland, I really just got a taste of the country, and now all I want to do is go back for a longer, more intensive trip (after I complete a few other adventures on my list, though). A great way to see the highlights of Western Iceland in just a few hours (though you probably need at least a full day layover for this) is a Golden Circle Tour, a very popular (read: very crowded) day trip to 3 Icelandic highlights within 100 km of Reykjavik: Gullfloss Waterfall, Geysir – the spouting hot spring Yellowstone’s geysers are named after – and Thingvellir National Park – where tectonic plates meet and the Ancient Icelandic Parliament was formed and would annually gather. We also got to see a glacier, a little church built in the place Christianity was adopted by the Icelanders and plenty of incredible landscapes. Just driving through the cool, green hills, puckered by oddly-shaped black rocks, hiking along vast, cold lakes touching two continents and looking over lonely valleys spotted with tiny churches and the steam of geo-thermal activity is worth it. You really feel like you are on another planet here.

One can find many good groups offering this tour, at variety of prices leaving from Reykjavik daily.

Golden Circle Tour Highlights

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The capital city of Reykjavik (45 minutes to an hour by easy bus ride from the airport) is manageable to take in in just a day or two as well. It felt more like my hometown, the port city of Duluth on Lake Superior, than any other European city I’ve been in, in a sleepy city of hardworking fishermen who don’t complain about the weather sort of way. Maybe I’m reading too much into the fact that Leif Erikson, the Viking who is said to be the first European in North America, is famed and honored in both cities, but there was something familiar to me about the city. The architecture isn’t exactly stunning (I believe the most ugly cathedral in Europe can be found here, though it is Lutheran and as a woman from the land of Garrison Keillor, I can’t say I’m surprised) and the language of the street signs is completely impenetrable, but it’s a walkable and interesting place.

I really enjoyed the Reykjavik 871 Settlement Museum, a well-executed mix of technology and archaeology, build around the remains of one of the first pole houses in the area. The Saga Museum was shockingly cool, with wax figures acting out ancient sagas you hear on headsets. There’s some other unique museums (like the Icelandic Phallological Museum) and I heard the night life is pretty intense too, but I was there during the 2014 World Cup Finals, so we mostly did that in the hostel. If you’re into being a food daredevil, you can pick up horse, whale or fermented shark meat at the grocery store, too.

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Reykjavik City is still alive with the history of it’s Viking Heritage.

Things to Note:

  • Prices: Things are expensive in Iceland. I paid $45 a night for a hostel dorm room with 12 other people in it, far and away more than anywhere else I’ve seen in the world, including San Francisco. Most museums were around $10 per entry, food was at least $10, even for simple breakfasts, Beer was $5 at happy hour and up from there, and coffee was $3-4.
  • Weather: It was July 8th when I arrived, and it was 50° F and cloudy, colder than I anticipated. So bring fleece (and maybe a base layer or two!). And if you’re staying at least a night, be ready for some kooky jet-lag when the sun is either always or never up.
  • Everyone speaks English. Though Icelandic is the language of street signs and local’s conversations, everyone around speaks English and speaks it well, making this a relatively easy place to explore a bit.
  • I know some people don’t like leaving the airport during their layovers for fear of missing the next flight, but seriously, be brave! The infrastructure is there to support you and if you’ve got to sit in Iceland for 10 hours, why not take a quick bus ride into the city and walk around? You’re here, and it’ll make that cheaper plane ticket with a ridiculous layover even more worth it.