The Best New Bonus Vacation: Your Ultimate Stopover in the Land of Fire and Ice
Let’s be clear: Any stopover in Iceland is a good thing. Even if all you do between flights is dash to the Blue Lagoon for a dip in the ethereal, hundred-degree water, that’s time well spent—and Insta hearts well deserved. But with one airline now allowing extended stays in Iceland on your way to or from 23 European cities—with nothing additional tacked onto your airfare—the possibilities are epic. So start thinking in terms of a week, versus a day or two (though you can still do the latter, of course).
That there’s so much going on here right now doesn’t hurt, of course: Even early-adopter travelers who’ve already experienced Icelandic stopovers will be amazed by what’s new (and what you can see if you have just a few more days to play with).
To get ideas for your own vacation-within-a-vacation, read on. You’ll find our top picks—some classics, some new—for every type of traveler. And if you’re a multiple-personality explorer, you can easily mix and match…
Though Iceland hasn’t always been known as a foodie mecca (fermented shark is definitely an acquired taste), the last few years have changed that rep both at home and abroad: In 2016, Icelandic celebrity chef Gunnar Gíslason scored a Michelin star in NYC for the Nordic fare at Agern, and by 2019 no fewer than nine Icelandic restaurants have landed mentions in the hallowed Michelin Guide. Skál, for one, received the guide’s Bib Gourmand award for the chefs’ delicious twists on tradition (charred char tartare, anyone?). And in other Michelin news, Reykjavík is featured for the first time in The Michelin Guide to the Main Cities of Europe (due out March 27).
To get a taste of this burgeoning food scene for yourself, head to Grandi Mathöll, a new food hall in Reykjavík’s old harbor, where a refurbished fish market houses such artisanal food stands as Fjárhúsið (try the local lamb) and Fusion Fish & Chips (if you’ve never experienced the nexus of Japanese and Nordic culinary influences, here’s your chance). For more structured exploration, book the Reykjavik Food Walk, a two-mile circuit with stops for everything from pylsur (the fabled Icelandic hot dog) to Turkish pepper ice cream.
Serious foodies should tack on at least one day to their stopover to head to Slippurinn—Skál’s sister restaurant, which reopens in May on the volcanic Westman Islands off the south coast. Set in an old fishing village workshop, this sustainability-minded restaurant—like so many at the forefront of modern Icelandic cuisine—focuses on local seasonal ingredients (think steak with beach herbs and skyr and sorrel with toasted oats).
Beer—banned nationwide for nearly 80 years until 1989—is celebrating its 30th (re)birthday all year, with craft breweries doing a brisk and tasty business. Head to Reykjavík's Brewdog or Bastard—two of the best new breweries on the scene—to get a taste. Just south of the capital in Hafnarfjörður, look out for Og Natura's new blueberry beer—and if you're up in Akureyri (see the Culture Vulture entry), head to the Brewer's Lounge at Einstök Beer for glacier-fed brews.
If you like your beer with a chaser of wellness, tack two days onto your stay and head up north to the fishing village of Árskógssandur (345 miles from Reykjavík) for a visit to Kaldi Beer Spa, by the owners of Iceland’s first microbrewery, Kaldi, and a popular namesake bar in Reykjavík. What does one do at a beer spa, you ask? Bathe in tubs of skin-nourishing yeast, hops, beer salt, and beer oil, naturally.
For Game of Thrones fanatics—which, as the series finale approaches, describes pretty much everyone we know—Iceland is a dream. Some of the nation’s most jaw-dropping landscapes have doubled as territory North of the Wall. Depending on the depths of your devotion, carve out at least three days for your pilgrimage to the lands where Wildlings, White Walkers and Crows roam.
One, um, hot spot is the Grjótagjá cave near the Mývatn nature reserve in the north. This is where Jon and Ygritt’s most famous scene (yes, that one) takes place. And though the geothermal water is actually too steamy for a dip, it’s worth visiting anyway for the sheer gorgeousness (and Season 3 flashbacks), but note that you’ll need at least two days for the trip to Mývatn from Reykjavík.
Another great GOT side trip—this one to the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west—will land you at Kirkjufell mountain, a geological star of Seasons 6 and 7 (remember Arrowhead Mountain, the backdrop as Jon Snow and his men venture north?). Though you could tackle this on a very ambitious day trip from Reykjavík, consider a 2-day self-guided jeep tour instead.
Closer to Reykjavík, loyalists can visit Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the three main attractions that make up the legendary Golden Circle route (which takes about five hours and includes Haukadalur Geothermal Valley and the majestic Gullfoss waterfall). With its fierce cliffs and barren plains, the national park features repeatedly in GOT—but is best known as the White Walkers’ stomping grounds.
Another easy day trip from Reykjavík takes you to Reynisfjara, the black-sand beach fringed by basalt columns near the town of Vik—a.k.a. Eastwatch-by-the-sea, where Jon Snow and his team land their boat before venturing north in Season 7.
The culture vulture
With creativity written into its DNA, Iceland is a culture lover’s dream, with a jam-packed 2019 lineup. If you act fast, you can catch the famed DesignMarch (March 28–31), when more than a hundred events transform Reykjavík into one sprawling venue for design (from fashion to furniture to food).
If fine arts are more your thing, the Reykjavík Art Museum is exhibiting works by some of the nation’s most renowned artists at three buildings across the city: Recent black & white paintings by Erró are on view through April 25; The Most Supreme Being on Earth by Kjarval is on til April 28; while Under the Same Sky displays Ásmundur Sveinsson’s work in the sculpture garden at Sigtún through February 2020. And to see what the nation’s emerging artists are up to, visit The Living Art Museum, where—for example—you can catch Arna Óttarsdóttir elaborate tapestries from March 23–April 28). Just outside Reykjavík, visit the Gerðarsafn Art Museum, a harbinger of equality on the local arts scene. The museum was built in honor of the 20th century icon Gerður Helgadóttir (hint: any Icelandic last name that ends in “dóttir” belongs to a woman), whose pioneering abstract and glass art fills much of the gallery space here.
Not that the capital has a lock on the Icelandic arts scene: Consider tacking on a couple of days and heading to the northern and newly expanded Art Museum in Akureyri, for example, where you can catch the eye-popping oeuvre of renowned local artists Hjördís Frímann and Magnús Helgason through August.
The performing arts pack female power, too—and if there’s any way to catch a show by Reykjavíkurdætur when you’re here, do. You’ll immediately get why this women’s rap collective just nabbed the coveted Music Moves Europe Talent Award in January.
The choice of crazy day trips from Reykjavík is as wild and varied as Iceland’s landscapes. The short list includes snorkeling in lava fissures, soaking in geothermal hot springs, riding endemic horses along lava fields, and hiking on glaciers (the most accessible is Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier of the mighty Mýrdalsjökull icecap).
But if you’ve got a few days to spare, travel to the seeming edge of the world—the remote Hornstrandir nature reserve in the Westfjords, a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle and accessible only May through August. Covering 220 square miles of tundra, ice, cliffs, and flowering fields, the reserve has no human population nor motorized traffic so strap on your hiking boots and keep your eyes peeled for the elusive arctic fox, Iceland’s only native mammal. One option is to fly from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður, the capital of the Westfjords, and do a day tour of the reserve from there. But while you’re in the neighborhood, you wouldn’t want to skip a boat trip through the fjords (a daily option from May through September) nor the full-day sea kayaking tour to Vigur island, home to puffins, eider ducks, guillemoths, arctic terns—and Iceland’s smallest post office.
Are seals more your thing? Go watch them play among the icebergs of the Jökulsárlon glacier lagoon just south of Vatnajökull, Europe's largest ice cap. And while you could squeeze this experience into a long day trip from Reykjavík, try to give yourself at least two days (the drive takes 5-6 hours). And note that the seal-spotting boats operate only between May and October.
Or—who knows?—maybe you’d rather go elf-spotting. So take a couple of days and head to the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi in the northeast. Surrounded by cliffs—with a plateau rising from its center—the canyon is filled with fir, birch, willow, larch and pine and magical Hidden People (Icelandic elves).
If you love a good trek, visit between mid-June and September, when you can tackle one of the world’s most naturally endowed walks: the Laugavegur trail. This hike in Iceland’s southern highlands takes you past multicolored rhyolite mountains, bubbling hot springs, black-sand deserts, twin craters, moss-covered lava fields and shimmering glaciers. Set aside at least two days if you want to do a portion of the 48-mile hike—or six for the whole gorgeous thing (you’ll hike hut to hut). Buses run daily from Reykjavík to the hut at Landmannalaugar.
The Northern Lights chaser
Get here by mid-April—or wait until September—to chase this otherworldly phenomenon across the Icelandic skies. While the Aurora likes to play hard to get, you may luck out and see it on your first night in Reykjavík—particularly if you head to the not-so-population-dense Klambratún or Laugardalur park areas, or the Grótta lighthouse on the capital’s Seltjarnarnes Peninsula. Still, if you’re determined to see these colorful collisions of solar winds and the earth’s magnetic field, allow yourself a week to maximize sightings.
But you’ll up your odds if you can spare even a few hours outside the city for a jeep, bus or boat tour. Locations change according to visibility, geomagnetic forecast and weather—and the tours (roundtrip from Reykjavík) last between three to five hours.
To blend your Northern Lights chase with a touch of wellness, take two days and head to the cool new GeoSea, a state-of-the-art geothermal bath just north of Húsavík (a short flight from Reykjavík). You’ll find that lying back in a steaming, mineral-rich pool that overlooks Skjálfandi Bay and the North Atlantic does not strain your patience while you wait for the aurora to show.
For an even wilder Northern Lights expedition, give yourself three days and head to the remote Troll Peninsula, where you’ll stay at Deplar Farm—a former outpost turned luxe boutique lodge with an outdoor Viking sauna and sustainably-sourced Icelandic fare. The activities on offer vary widely—from fat biking to snowshoeing—but what steals the show, naturally, is the aurora. With any luck, you’ll have front-row seats from the Farm’s geothermal-heated pool. (Pro tip: Order up birch-grain cocktails while you wait.)
And if you end up missing the Northern Lights live, hit the next best thing on your way out of Iceland: Aurora Reykjavík, a multimedia center at the old harbor, where—if we’re being honest—the out-of-this-world ice cream at Valdis is just as good a consolation prize.