How to Make the Most of a 24-Hour Stopover in Iceland
Since the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano in Iceland, tourism has also erupted. As I planned a solo trip to attend Pink Pangea’s writing retreat in Italy and needed to keep my budget to a minimum (as I always do), I discovered various low-cost airlines (including WOW Air) that stop through Iceland. Knowing that a ninety minute layover in Iceland would drive me insane, as I’d be itching to escape the airport and go on an adventure, I decided to take advantage of the stopover option offered by the airline.
Unfortunately, due to the total length of my trip and other destinations on the itinerary, I was only able to stay in the country for 24 hours. But, after a bit of research, I discovered that it is possible to see a significant number of Iceland’s natural attractions in 24 hours.
Originally, I wasn’t going to book lodging in Reykjavik since everything can be pricey in Iceland. But after finding Hlemmur Square I decided that the (reasonable) cost would be worth it: US$50 was a small price to pay for a shower and place to store my luggage, as the Keflavik Airport does not offer locker services.
As this was a short solo adventure, I decided that a tour was a better option than renting a car. There are several tour companies, but Hlemmur Square booked mine, as well as my airport transport, making planning that much easier. I chose Your Day Tours, specifically the South Coast Tour, which included stops at the Sólheimajökull Glacier, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, and two waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss.
Lasma was charming and what I would describe as quintessentially Icelandic: blonde, lively, full of pride and very knowledgeable about her home country.
It was finally adventure time! After many hours of traveling through the sunny, northern night sky, barely sleeping a wink, I landed at Keflavik Airport. The airport is very modern and continues to be updated, indicating how well the tourism industry is doing in Iceland. While making my way through Passport Control (where I was only asked “How long are you staying?”), I easily found the airport pickup I’d before arrival. You can also purchase tickets at the airport, but I’d imagine that depending on the time of your arrival, the line could be lengthy.
Arriving at Hlemmur Square, I was warmly greeted by the front desk attendant who graciously placed my bag into their locked storage closet until check in opened. Fortunately there was free coffee in the bar area, as the black circles under my eyes told the story of my long, sleepless travels. Since the tour company would be picking me up around 8 am, I had to keep going.
The tour company’s Mercedes-Benz Sprinter pulled up, and I boarded the modern vehicle (which also provided free wi-fi). Our tour guide for the day, Lasma, was charming and what I would describe as quintessentially Icelandic: blonde, lively, full of pride and very knowledgeable about her home country.
As we maneuvered through the streets of Reykjavik on this unusually sunny day, Lasma told us a few fun facts about Iceland. Apparently, there are more sheep inhabiting the country than humans (500K to 330K); electro-energy is fueled by the many natural geothermal water plants, resulting in very low heating costs; and the country is very close to being fossil-fuel free.
We reached our first destination, the Skógafoss Waterfall, which is one of the biggest in the country. Beside the waterfall are over 400 stairs, which you can ascend to reach the trails that lead up to a pass between glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Sólheimajökull.
After plenty of time to marvel at the views from atop and below the falls, we hopped back onto the Ring Road, towards Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Although the weather was very sunny, Lasma warned us that the weather could change instantly. It did. As we approached Reynisfjara, the sun hid behind a huge rain cloud, accompanied by a cold windstorm. I was only sporting a thin rain jacket and a sweater since it was a short stay, so I snapped a few photos and took cover in the restaurant at the beach.
After an expensive croissant and hot tea, we headed to the Sólheimajökull Glacier, and the sun reappeared. Several of the Game of Thrones fans in our group recognized the site from the show, and Lasma explained that the production company literally paved the way for filming, so tourists now have access to the glacier.
We watched several professionally guided glacier walking tours walking on the glacier with crampons (spiked climbing shoes) and ice climbing axes. The glacier hike is now one of the many activities that are on my list of things to do when I return to Iceland. There are strict rules for where un-guided visitors must stop on the trail, and for good reason. There are many sinkholes, and proper gear is required to tackle the glacier. Also, Sólheimajökull grows and shrinks daily, changing the ice formations; it is also full of ice ridges and lines of ash that reveal the many eruptions Iceland has experienced through the years, so safety is the priority.
My 24 hours in this magnificent country, seeing several of the sites, tasting the food, and meeting the local people, only left me with the need to return and see more.
Finally, we made our way to the last stop on our tour, the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. My body was telling me to stay in the vehicle and close my eyes, but after pulling up to the site and learning that I could walk behind the waterfall, I conjured up the energy. The trail to get behind the falling water was slippery with heavy spray, drenching any last bit of dry clothing I had, but it was probably my favorite part of the tour.
After a well-deserved and much-needed nap on the way back, I woke to find myself in Reykjavik approaching Hlemmur Square. There are some great restaurants and bars in the area, including cafes, wine bars, breweries, fine dining and casual bistros. There’s something for everyone, but to eat like a local you must try either a lamb or seafood dish.
My 24 hours in this magnificent country, seeing several of the sites, tasting the food, and meeting the local people, only left me with the need to return and see more. However, I now have more insight, such as understanding of how to get around, knowledge of where to stay, the exchange rates and unpredictable weather, so will be prepared when that day comes.
If you are considering a long-haul flight with the option of spending time in Iceland, I’d recommend adding at least one extra day to your trip to experience a little (or a lot) of the land of fire and ice.